Luke 2:2 and the ‘first enrolment’

There is a well known problem in Luke 2:2, usually translated as, ‘This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria’.

The problem is that Luke locates the birth of Jesus ‘in the days of Herod’ who died in 4 BC (Luke 2:5, 26) whereas Josephus plainly tells us that the census occurred under Quirinius.  That census was conducted in AD 6-7 when the Romans annexed Judea as a province and which provoked the uprising led by Judas the Galilean.  Quirinius was a famous Roman general who does not appear to have been the governor of Syria before AD 6[1].  It seems Luke has made a significant error by locating Jesus birth about ten years too late!

There are four possible explanations.

The first is that Luke has innocently replicated an error in the written or oral information that he received.  Against this, however, is Luke’s clear understanding that Herod’s realm had been divided after his death (Luke 3:1-2) and that Joseph from Galilee would have paid his taxes in Galilee to the incumbent tetrarch so there would have been no need for him to travel to Bethlehem in Judea to be registered for paying taxes in that jurisdiction.

The second is that Luke deliberately introduced the error to make the theological point that he favoured the uprising led by Judas.  This is unsustainable since the only point Luke makes is to contrast the humble godliness of little, defenceless people like Joseph, Mary and the shepherds with the distant, uncaring figure of Caesar Augustus whose decree brought such suffering.

A third explanation is that the error lies with Josephus.  Whilst there are some discrepancies between Josephus’ Jewish War and his Jewish Antiquities any theory of error in this matter is unlikely.  Quirinius’ census was a momentous event marking the transition from Judea as a Jewish ethnarchy under Archelaus to a Roman province under its first prefect, Coponius.  The imposition of direct Roman rule in Judea meant the imposition of tax that was now payable directly to Caesar, symbolising that he, not God was the ‘master’ of the people.  It was this ‘numbering’ of the people that drove Judas to lead his rebellion (Acts 5:37; cf. Num. 1:2).  Twenty seven years later this was still a burning issue, inspiring the loaded question to Jesus, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?’ (Mark 12:14).

The fourth is that there was an earlier census but that Luke’s very brief sentence (9 words) is open to several interpretations.  The critical word is ‘first’ (pro|tos).  Grammar experts argue that ‘first’ in Luke 2:2 is an adjective meaning ‘first’ in a superlative sense (first of at least three)[2].

There are unsurmountable historical problems insisting that ‘first’ must be understood as a superlative sense.  It implies that there were at least two other censuses in Judea after Quirinius’ famous census in AD 6.  Quirinius’ census was a momentous event which provoked a rebellion, which Luke rightly called the census (Acts 5:37).  Had there been other subsequent censuses in Palestine after Quirinius we would know about them from Josephus, so controversial were they.

We note, therefore, that the word ‘first’ can also mean ‘foremost’, ‘most prominent’[3], that is, in an absolute sense, for example in the Prodigal father’s command, ‘bring…the best robe’ (Luke 15:22) or the question, ‘which commandment is the greatest of all?’ (Mark 12:28).  This use of ‘first’ meaning ‘foremost’ in an absolute sense is a genuine alternative to understanding ‘first’ in a superlativesense (first of at least three).  Understood in this way, Luke 2:2 would read as:  ‘This enrolment became most prominent when Quirinius was governor of Syria’.  (See Stephen Carlson, Luke 2:2 and the Census -

Luke’s words, then, are distinguishing the enrolment during Herod’s reign involving Joseph and Mary from the ‘most prominent’ enrolment under Quirinius in AD 6.  Thus it is possible that Luke 2:2 is alluding to some otherwise unknown enrolment during Herod’s time, when his kingdom was undivided and when Joseph of the line of David, was required to enrol in Bethlehem, his ancestral city.

Some argue against the historical possibility of a census earlier than Quirinius’ census.  We know that Augustus conducted an imperial census beginning in 18 BC (Res Gestae 8) and that such a census could have occurred within the domain of a client king like Herod (Tacitus, Annals vi.41)[4].  Furthermore, there is evidence of a Roman registration in Egypt in 104 BC requiring registrants to return to their ancestral homes[5].  We also know that Augustus Caesar required the ‘whole Jewish people’ in Israel to make an oath of allegiance to him in about 7 BC (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities xvii.42) though there is no information about a necessity for Jews to return to their ancestral cities[6].

Luke 2:2 has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly books and articles but the problems remain unsolved.  It seems Luke has either replicated an error from the sources available to him, or – more probably – has expressed himself  too briefly.  There is a strong possibility of an enrolment during Herod’s years that could have affected Joseph and Mary.  Either way it would be unreasonable to accuse Luke of wilful error, for what would have been his reason for doing so?  I do not think the problems in Luke 2:2 are a basis for the wholesale rejection of this author, his integrity or competence.

[1]The governors of Syria during this period were M. Titius (10 BC); C. Sentius Saturninus (9 – 6 BC); Quinctilius Varus (6 – 4 BC); Calpurnius Piso (4 – 1 BC); C. Iulius Caesar (1 BC – AD 4);  L. Volusius Saturninus (AD 4 – 5); P. Sulpicius Quirinius (AD 6).  See further E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish people in the Age of Jesus Christ  I (rev. and ed. By G. Vermes and F. Millar; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1973), 257-259.

[2]Yet Luke uses the same Greek adjective in Acts 1:1 in a comparative (non-superlative) sense where the ‘first book’ clearly means the first of two books, that is, ‘the former book’ (= Luke’s Gospel).

[3]As in Luke 15:22 (‘the best robe’) and Eph. 6:2.

[4]For examples of censuses being conducted in ‘vassal kingdoms’ (e.g., Apamea, Cappadocia, Petra and Samaria) see (H. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 16.

[5]Hoehner, Chronological Aspects, 15.

[6]P.W. Barnett, ‘Enrolment in Luke 2:1-5’, ExpT lxxxv.12 (1974), 374-380.

Six Keys to Unlock Revelation

Six Keys to Unlock Revelation

Struggle for acceptance

From early times Revelation has been accepted as written by John the apostles and as part of the canon of the Bible. But it has struggled for practical acceptance in mainstream churches because

(a)  its unusual symbolism and sometimes extreme language; and

(b) has been the focus of marginal sects and source of weird interpretations.

In the Reformation period it was barely tolerated:

•Luther regarded as ‘dumb prophecy’ and did not regard it as inspired.

•Calvin, though prolific commentator, wrote no commentary on Revelation.

 Neglect in mainstream churches:

•Many in mainstream churches wary of the book; a reaction against extreme views that often surface in times of catastrophe.

•Does not feature in church lectionaries.

•Is often not taught in mainstream seminaries.

Yet Revelation is ‘trinitarian’ in theology and ‘catholic’ in application

Grace and peace to you

from him who is, and who was, and who is to come,             God

and from the seven spirits before his throne,                             the Spirit

and from Jesus Christ,                                                                        Christ

who is the faithful witness (martyr),                                                •his death

the firstborn from the dead,                                                                •his resurrection

and the ruler of the kings of the earth.                                            •his kingship

To him who loves us

and has freed us from our sins by his blood                                    •his atonement

(Rev. 1:4-5)


Write…send to the seven churches                                                = ‘all’ churches

(Rev. 1:11)                                                            (‘catholic’ = whole christendom)

Six Keys to Unlock its Message

1.            Discern its setting historically

John, its author, was a prisoner on Patmos who wrote to the seven churches of Roman Asia in the expectation of the outbreak of persecution.  John writes deeply concerned for the destructive pressure of Christians in these churches from

•state sponsored emperor worship (in the era of Domitian)

•seductive power of local temple worship

•false teaching within the churches

Revelation is primarily pastoral in intention, to encourage Christians to persevere.           

 2.            Classify it Correctly

Revelation is two things:

(a)            It is prophecy written in a book (1:3; 22:18, 19).

(b)            It is a letter written as an encyclical to 7 churches in (Roman) Asia.

Hence: a letter-book written in prophetic mode to a network of struggling churches.

In style Revelation is quasi-apocalyptic (cf. 2 Baruch, Enoch, 2 Ezra)

(a)            It is apocalyptic in its use of symbolism (numbers, colours, animals);

(b)            It is non-apocalyptic   •the author (John) identifies himself directly

•its ‘secret’ is not hidden but revealed

•it has a direct pastoral message for now

 •it invites the saints’ participation in prayer

It is obvious that Revelation is prophetic, future oriented and deeply symbolic.

But the critical thing to remember is that it is a pastoral letter

•Written by a leader named John, a prophet in prison

•Addressed to real people in 7 widely scattered congregations.

Question:             What is its classification?

Answer:            A Pastoral Letter, written in prophetic, partially apocalyptic style.

Purpose:            To encourage perseverance and faithfulness in ‘following the Lamb’.

Important:            Apocalyptic literature uses symbolic language.

Do not interpret literalistically.

3.            Learn the Layout

Revelation is really two visions:

Vision 1 in 1:9-20 – Christ’s direction to John to write to the 7 churches      (chs 2-3).

Vision 2 in 4:1 – Christ about to show John what must take place after this (chs 4-22).

Vision 2 is complex

4            Heaven opened, vista of worship of the Enthroned One

5            The slain Lamb alone worthy to open the scroll

6-7            Sequence of 7 seals                     conquest

8-11            Sequence of 7 trumpets            assault on creation

12-14            Sequence of 7 signs                war on God and the saints

15-16            Sequence of 7 bowls                destruction

17-20            Destruction of Harlot, Babylon, Dragon, Beast and False-Prophet

21-22            The New Jerusalem

In the first 3 sequences after the 6th element there is an INTERLUDE, each pastoral in intent – 7:1-17 (hope); 10:1-11 (the call to prophesy); 14:6-13 (the eternal gospel).

In the first two sequences the 7th element is really a ‘bridge’ to the next sequence.  Hence the critical thing is that the sequences are CONCURRENT not consecutive.  Sequences are ‘overlaid’ (concurrent), not ‘back to back’ (consecutive), each focusing on one source of suffering.  The sequences in Revelation are not literal historical dispensations

|…………………………………1000 years (symbolic)……………………..|

C                                                                                                                               E

H            6-7            conquest and accompanying misery of war

R                                                                                                                                 N

I            8-11            degradation of universe and accompanying suffering

S                                                                                                                                  D

T            12-14            persecution of the saints and their afflictions

The followers of the lamb who was slain pass through these ordeals on their way to the Celestial City.  These ordeals are not encountered everywhere at the same time.  Their inspiration is the courage of the lamb who was slain, whom they ‘follow’.

 4.            Crack the Code

• Colour                                    (white = victory in varying contexts)

• eye                                          (insight)

• creatures – e.g., eagle (perspective)

•Numbers      4                        universal (4 corners of the earth)

7                                                   heaven/God

3.5 years/42 months/1260 days            half of 7 = long, but limited

6                                                   pretentious, evil (6 trying to be 7)

10/1000                                      very long (NB 1000 years)

5                                                      half of 10 [?]

12/144,000                                 redemption (12 tribes, 12 apostles)  (NB 144,000)

5.            Perceive the parallelism

The parallels are as follows, especially chapters 12-22:

a.            The imagery of the godly woman – persecuted in chapter 12, the wife of the Lamb in chapter 21 – is paralleled by the ‘great harlot’ in chapter 17.

b.             The New Jerusalem, the holy city in chapters 21-22 corresponds with but surpasses by far Babylon the great in chapter 18.

c.            ‘The Lamb…as though slain’ (5:6,12; 13:8) is paralleled by ‘the [sea] beast’ one of whose heads ‘seemed to have a mortal wound’ (13.3). The beast is taken to be the Roman Emperor, perhaps represented in the province of Asia in the persona of the Proconsul.

d.            The beast has an image and those who worship him have the mark of his name on their foreheads (13:15-17; 14:9,11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4).  In parallel but by contrast the servants of the Lamb who worship him, and who refuse to worship the beast, will bear the name of the Lamb on their foreheads (22:3-4).

e.             The community of Christ, the bride of the Lamb, characterized by chastity, truthfulness and endurance (14:4-5), is paralleled by the community of the beast, the great harlot, characterized by murder, fornication, sorcery and falsehood (21:8).           

 6            Centre on Christ

Contrary to many futurist interpretations the present and future victory of God is controlled by the historic, past victory of Christ:

• He who conquers, I will grant to him to sit with me on my throne as I   myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne (3:21).

•…the lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered .  He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals (5:5).

•The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he will reign forever and ever….

• You have taken your great power and begun to reign (11:15, 17)

• Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ (12:10).

In other words, although the Revelation gives the appearance of being strongly about the future, the reality is that its future is controlled by what happened in the past, at the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ.

That great past event controls the future.

Like the rest of the New Testament the eschatology Revelation is Realized Eschatology, controlled by the tension between the ALREADY but the NOT YET.  Christ’s victory at crucifixion and resurrection is the ALREADY but the struggles of the saints as they follow the Lamb through the pain of wars, destruction and persecution are the NOT YET.  Hence we have the great tension between the ALREADY and the NOT YET.  To repeat, this is the tension of the rest of the New Testament.

The whole book is pastoral in intent, encouraging the saints to keep moving toward their promised destination despite sufferings on the way.

Perhaps no one will no one will ever understand everything in Revelation.But these six keys will help us make great progress:

•Discern its setting historically

•Classify the book correctly

•Learn the layout – especially that sequences are concurrent not consecutive

•Crack the codes

•Perceive the parallelisms

•Centre on Christ as the great ALREADY as the basis for persevering in the             NOT YET

Remember that Revelation is trinitarian in theology and universal in application.

Value of Revelation

1.            Pastoral

The pastoral intent of revelation can be seen at many points

•Exhortations to church members                         to conquer

•Encouragement throughout                                     to endurance and faith (13:10; 14:12-13)

•References to Christ who ‘shepherds’            2:27; 7:17; 12:5; 19:15

•The powerful interlude in 7:9-17 anticipating 14:1-5 and chapters 21-22.

•Great visions of Christ in

1:9-20                         (one like a Son of Man)

5:6-14                         (Lion/Messiah = slaughtered Lamb)

19:11-17             (King of kings and Lord of lords)

2.            Prophecy

Chapters 10-11 is powerful call to prophesy again (sweet-bitter) with great pain associated with prophetic witness.  Evident that the catastrophes (as in chapter 8-9) do not of themselves bring repentance (9:20-21).  Prophecy is needed; but it is painful.  The book of Revelation itself is an example of ‘prophecy’.

3.            Missional

Revelation is primarily a book for reading in church and therefore primarily pastoral. Yet there is an implicitly evangelistic element.  The book of Revelation implies that evangelism of the ‘rest of mankind’ is happening:   References to judgments on one quarter and one third within history point to    absolute and universal judgment at the end of history.

9:20-21 expects ‘the rest of mankind to repent’, even though they haven’t.

10:11 implies that the prophet must again prophesy about peoples, nations, etc

14:14-20 speaks of             (a) harvest by son of man (positive),

(b) harvest by an angel (negative)

4.            Worshipful

The Romans used ‘worship’ – ritual practices, hymns, oaths, etc.

To affirm the emperor and Rome

To disaffirm any alternative (e.g., Christ, as by Pliny)

John urges the worship of God and the Lamb:

Positive affirmations about Christ

Negative disaffirmations about the Beast

Worship is a recognition:

positively of God and

negatively of pretentious alternatives.

Accordingly, worship responds to prophecy.

Worship is not shallow but profound, from the heart and mind.

Worship confirms the convictions of the individual and encourages others.

Worship in Revelation is centred in God/the Lamb who are worshipped and  not centred in the worshipper.

5.            Comprehension of the world

•Stylistically Revelation is very visual, corresponding the TV ‘news’ footage.

•The sequences of seals, trumpets, signs and bowls

remind us that history is not evolving towards Utopia on earth;

help us understand why the world is the way it is – wars, calamities.

Should encourage us to get on with evangelism and prophecy.

Practice makes Perfect

The six keys will assist our understanding of most of the Revelation (but not all!).  I encourage us to take Bible Studies and on this book.  The more we work on it the more we are able to unlock its message of hope and its encouragement to ‘follow the Lamb wherever he goes’.