I’ve enjoyed reading Robin Lane Fox’s Classical World where he takes the reader across five centuries of ancient history in about 600 pages. I take it however Fox is no friend of Christianity since he has another book sub-titled ‘Truth and Fiction in the Bible.’ In his book Classical World as he comes to consider the rise of Christianity he writes, Luke’s account of Jesus birth coinciding with ‘a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed’ means that the ‘first Christmas rests on a historical impossibility.’ He bases this contention upon the fact that there is no other evidence of this decree, that the gospel’s dating is contradictory and that Judea was responsible for its own taxation.
Fox’s statement is interesting for a number of reasons. The first is that he has no real reason for introducing the issue into his narrative- other than to have a swipe at Christians. Secondly, having introduced the problem he makes no attempt to explain it- is he constrained by space. Thirdly, as far as I can recall Luke is the only ancient source he subjects to criticism. Fourthly, and perhaps most extraordinary of all, he dismisses Luke’s account as ‘a historical impossibility.’ This is remarkable since Fox happily quotes the New Testament as a reliable historical source at other points in his book. Why all of a sudden has its historical detail become not only unreliable but impossible? It strikes me that Fox cannot resist having a go at Christianity.
Scholars have of course been aware of the difficulties surrounding this detail in Luke’s gospel for a long time. Indeed they have suggested several possible solutions, which in itself rules out the charge of ‘historical impossibility.’ Ben Witherington III offers what appears to me to be a good solution to the problem. He writes ‘it is more probable that Luke is referring to a census under Quirinius that took place prior to the famous one in A.D. 6–7. If so, we have no clear record outside Luke of such an action by Quirinius, though it is not impossible that it took place. Herod’s power was on the wane at the time of Jesus’ birth, and a census in preparation for the change of power could well have been forced on Herod since he had fallen into some disfavor with Augustus near the end of his life. We know also that Quirinius had been made consul in 12 B.C. and a person of his rank serving in the East frequently had far-reaching authority and duties. It is thus not improbable that, acting as Caesar’s agent, he had Herod take a census. It is also possible he was governor more than once in Syria, though the possibility also remains that Luke may be identifying him by his later and, to his audience, more familiar office. It is less likely that Luke means that Quirinius started a census in 6 B.C. and finished it in 6–7 A.D., for he says that this was the first census the governor took (distinguishing it from some later one). The upshot of all this is that Luke’s reference to the census does not suggest a different date for Jesus’ birth than does the Matthean evidence.’
Green, Joel G.; McKnight, Scot; Marshall, I. Howard; editors, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) 1998, c1992.
Sadly once again the pretence of scholarship, which is more polemical than scholarly, has been used to undermine the reliability of the Bible.