Luke’s Accuracy – Some “Unfinished Business”

By Wayne Jackson

The story came to me this way. In the fall of 1992, Notre Dame and Boston College contested one another in football. It was a one-sided rout as Notre Dame demolished its opponent. Even in the second half, well ahead in points, the Fighting Irish kept running up the score, contrary to that unspoken rule of good sportsmanship. Sometime later, it is said, the coach of Boston College was offered a position with the National Football League. The job would have meant more money, greater prestige, etc. Surprisingly, however, it was turned down. The coach wryly commented, “I have some unfinished business.” The next year Boston College defeated Number 1 ranked Notre Dame. Business finished!

When I heard that report, I thought of a similar circumstance of many years ago. Sir William M. Ramsay (1851-1939) had been educated at the universities of Aberdeen (Scotland) and at Oxford. In his theological pursuits, however, he had fallen victim to the radical theories of German critics like F.C. Baur. He came to question the historical accuracy of the New Testament. He thus decided that he would do on-site research in some of the Bible lands—where he fully expected to disprove the Scriptures in numerous particulars. Accordingly, in 1890 he set out on his adventure.

As he examined the historical references in the New Testament (especially the book of Acts), amazingly, he discovered that time after time the biblical writers were correct, and the modernistic criticisms that had been hurled against the sacred volume were baseless. And so, in 1895 he wrote a book titled, St. Paul the Traveller and Roman Citizen, in which he strongly defended the accuracy of the inspired historian Luke, relative to the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.

A liberal critic reviewed Professor Ramsay’s book, and concluded his discussion with this barb: “If Luke is a great historian, what would the author of this book [Ramsay] make of Luke 2:1-3?” Ramsay mused, “Nothing more was needed. This brief question was sufficient” (The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, p. 223). The learned scholar had some unfinished business! He would determine whether Luke 2:1ff was correct or not. After his investigation, he penned the volume just cited.

For many years, Luke 2:1-7 had been perceived as containing more error per square inch than almost any other section in the New Testament. Thanks to the work of Sir William Ramsay, those objections have vanished – every one of them.

  1. It was alleged that Luke erred in assigning Bethlehem of Judea as the birth place of Christ. There was a Bethlehem in Zebulon of Galilee; obviously Luke had confused the two cities. But the critics were wrong. The Old Testament had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judea (Mic. 5:2), and the Hebrew people entertained this expectation (Jn. 7:42). Furthermore, Matthew, as an independent writer, confirms that Jesus was born in the southern Bethlehem (2:1).
  2. It was charged that Luke had erred in suggesting that “all the world” was to be enrolled. But the Greek word for world is oikumene (not the kosmos of John 3:16), which merely signified the world of the Roman empire (cf. Acts 17:6; 19:27).
  3. The critics argued that since Herod the Great was “king” over Judea (Mt. 2:1,22) the Jews of that region would not have been subject to Roman taxation. However, Herod was only a vassal king—ultimately subject to Rome. When Archelaus (Mt. 2:22) was deposed from his throne in A.D. 6, Roman procurators were appointed to administer the affairs of the country.
  4. It was claimed that Augustus never ordered a general census of the Roman empire. But Luke actually never made such a claim. When he states that “all the world should be enrolled,” he employed a present tense verb, i.e., the ruler ordered the adoption of the practice of enrolment (rather than alluding to a specific enrolment). He says nothing about how the decree was implemented.
  5. Luke also contends that the census at the time of the Lord’s birth was the “first” one. Was he right? Ancient records reveal that there was a census conducted every 14 years. Acts 5:37 mentions another of these, but the one alluded to in Luke 2:2 was the first.
  6. It was alleged that Quirinius was not “governor of Syria” at the time of Christ’s birth. But the word “governor” (hegemoneuo) is a generic term and archaeological evidence has shown that in some sense Quirinius was twice a ruler in Syria, the first of which can be reconciled with Luke 2:2.
  7. It was claimed that the enrolment did not require everyone to return to “his own city.” A document from Egypt (A.D. 104) has shown that during that time “all who for any cause are outside their homes [must] return to their domestic hearths, that they may also accomplish the customary dispensation of enrolment.” Since there was a cultural parallelism between Egypt and Palestine, there is no reason to question Luke’s accuracy of this point.

The inspired writer has been vindicated in every particular. Business finished!

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.