Some scholars get a kick out of debunking our traditional understanding of Christmas. While our portrait of Christmas could sometimes be more accurate, the traditional essentials are true. And any historical improvements to the traditional understanding are likely to increase our appreciation of Christ’s birth, not diminish it.
Many efforts have been made to undermine the historicity of some elements of the Christmas story. One target in particular is the empire-wide census for the purpose of taxation. (For further reading, see the scholarly summation in I. Howard Marshall’s New International Greek Text Commentary on Luke.)
First, skeptics like to point out the fact that no independent record exists of an Augustan census (Luke 2:1-2). However, we are aware of the fact that Augustus brought major reforms to empire administration, that a major census would be an on-going enterprise of many years, and that local authorities sometimes would take a local census under the all-encompassing imperial mandate and under the emperor’s name. For example, our census in Luke may have been initiated locally, but the local governor would have his authority grounded ultimately in no one less than Caesar, and could rightfully claim he was doing so in Caesar’s name.
Second, skeptics reject the notion that a census would be done by requiring people to report to their hometowns, as Luke 2 indicates. However, we are aware of some censuses which required landowners to return to their hometowns for registration. Perhaps we are to assume that Joseph owned land in Bethlehem.
Third, skeptics question the presence of Mary on the journey. Two possibilities seem evident. First, we know that women of Syria—the geo-political region in which Herod’s kingdom was located, required women 12 years and older to register. Further, the delicate situation between a righteous man and the untimely pregnancy of his betrothed may have made it unwise for Mary to be left behind.
Perhaps the most difficult issue which remains is the date of the census. According to the biblical record, Jesus was born during the reigns of the Roman emperor Augustus and the Judean king Herod, while Quirinius was governor. The problem is that Herod the Great’s death is dated to about 4 B.C., and Quirinius’ rule is dated after Herod’s death, from A.D. 6-9, twelve years later or more. Biblical historian W.M. Ramsay argued from a famous Latin inscription that Quirinius also served as a military governor in Syria, alongside the civil governor during the conquest against rebels in northern Syria, and that this earlier governorship was dated prior to Herod’s death. Another explanation is that the census was initiated by the previous governor of Syria in 4 B.C., but only completed years later under Quirinius’ governorship. At any rate, we do not have to conclude that Luke was mistaken.
If a person approaches accords the biblical record with a modicum of respect, then the aforementioned moments of skepticism will be fleeting.