Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ancient History, Archaeology and the Birth of Jesus Christ

Ancient History, archaeology, and the Birth of Jesus Christ

By Daryn Graham

Even though the countless Christians throughout the ages have differed significantly from person to person, all have but one true test of faith and that is the belief in Jesus Christ being none other than the Son of God, and indeed, God himself. According to the Bible which contains the earliest surviving accounts of Jesus life, Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem in the Roman province of Judaea, during which time a census was being taken. Of course, once we determine exactly which census that was we can also discover the precise date for Jesus’ birth. But as to which census that was has left many an accomplished modern historian without an answer. However, doubting the accuracy of the Bible on these grounds is literally jumping hastily to unnecessary conclusions. As with so many things ancient, a little investigative work can help to fill in the picture. As I will now explain, the birth of Jesus Christ as told of in the Bible is firmly rooted in solid historical facts, and this is true also of the census during that humble, yet historically momentous and epoch-making birth.

The Census

The problem many historians in the past have faced is that the most common English translations of Luke’s gospel’s description of the census can be translated several ways. But, of course, considering millennia have passed since Luke wrote it, it is forgivable that some things have been lost in translation. The common NIV translation reads: “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria) And everyone went to his own town to register.”[1] The problem for past historians is that the particular detail regarding Quirinius in this NIV translation can not have been the intended meaning by Luke. True, there was a census in Judaea during Quirinius’ governorship which began in 6AD,[2] but it was certainly not of the entire Roman Empire. The 1st century AD Jewish historian Josephus made that crystal clear by writing Quirinius’ census was confined only to Syria to determine the local inhabitants’ tax payments.[3] Of course, it is unlikely that Luke, who was a meticulous historian, was incorrect – it is rather that case that the translation itself is incorrect. But considering that even the influential, though at times unreliable, 4th century AD Christian historian Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History maintained this reading[4] it is understandable that it has gained so much credibility.

We can be sure of Luke’s true meaning when we consider the following. There are two other translation possibilities raised by experts, the second of which discussed here is perfectly consistent with archaeological and historical records and is, I firmly believe, Luke’s intended translation. But for the sake of interest, we will look at both. The first possibility some say should read: “This first census was taken when Quirinius was governor”.[5] But this is on very shaky ground. For one thing it is known by historians that it was not the first census decreed. The Res Gestae Divi Augusti, (The Accomplishments of the Divine Augustus) written by the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar himself, shows that Augustus carried out previous censuses in 28BC and again in 8BC[6] – years before Quirinius’ governorship of Syria. The Res Gestae was written by Augustus in his final years in the early 1st century AD and was inscribed on the walls of temples around the empire. It has been preserved for us today in the temple of Rome and Augustus at Ancyra (Ankara in modern Turkey). Fragments from Pisidia (also in modern Turkey) have also survived. It is doubtful Luke, who wrote his Gospel only about 50 years later, was not aware of such facts as the ones recorded in Augustus’ Res Gestae. But the second alternative translation held by some experts and very much so myself to be Luke’s intended one, however, makes all of the ancient evidence fall into place with Luke’s original meaning, showing that his Gospel is historically precise and grounded in solid fact. According to this translation the census described by Luke originally in ancient Greek was not taken ‘while Quirinius was governor’ but ‘before Quirinius was governor’.[7]

In regard to which of Augustus’ censuses before Quirinius’ governorship Luke could have referred to, the solution is crystal clear. The 28BC census was taken of Roman citizens alone, so that one is ruled out. However the 8BC census, which was not only for Roman citizens, but also for the whole empire’s population, is exactly like the one Luke referred to. Inscriptions discovered in Spain, Cyrene and Turkey show that the purpose of it was for everyone in the empire to register their allegiance to Augustus – an effort that resulted in a large measure of peace throughout the Roman world. An inscription from Turkey reads, “I will be loyal to Caesar Augustus and to his children and descendants all my life in word, in deed, and in thought.”[8] Another from Spain says, “Of my own volition I express my regard for the safety, honor and victory of the Emperor Caesar Augustus…”[9] The wording of the oath of allegiance in Judaea was probably somewhat similar to these. Incidentally, in later years the Romans conducted such censuses to determine taxes, but that was not yet the case of the actual one we are looking at. So, the translation that the census Luke referred to was the one before Quirinius’ term holds up to scrutiny, and that it involved ‘entire Roman world’ is verified by the archaeological findings.

You may be wondering, as have I in the past, why Luke bothered to describe the registration ‘before Quirinius’ at all – why not write who really was governor of Syria at the time of the 8BC census? There is a good answer for that. The ‘entire Roman world’ census Luke referred to was a huge undertaking that spanned years under many governors throughout the whole massive empire. Papyrus found in Egypt a century ago show it took place there in 9BC,[10] while inscriptions discovered more recently indicate it was conducted in Cyrene around 7BC,[11] Spain in 6BC[12] and Paphlagonia (in northern Turkey) in 3BC.[13] As to when it took place in Judaea, Josephus, is of help. He stated Judaea registered during Saturninus’ governorship of 8-6BC, adding that the census there was brought to a close nearly a year prior to the end of that governorship.[14] Given that in those times the period for registration lasted for a whole year, this means that Saturninus began conducting it soon after he entered office in 8BC. As you can appreciate, it must have been so much easier for Luke, then, to simply use the basic terms he did than go into such endless particulars his audience would have been quite familiar with anyway.

As to what was involved in that census, Luke summed it up well – “everyone went to his own town to register”.[15] By comparing this statement with the archaeological evidence, it is clear, thankfully, that in this case nothing at all is lost in translation. Papyri preserved in Egyptian sands are impressive in number and a few even show what was involved in a Roman census. In one papyrus, recording an edict for a census by a Roman governor of Egypt in 104AD, all Egyptians were required to return to their hometowns for registration. It even states “anyone found without a permit [to stay away from their hometown] thereafter will be severely punished”.[16]

In those days it was essential for the Romans to maintain ties between its empire’s population and their homelands in order to sustain the local economies. In that way landlords had a ready and constant supply of tenants. A census was one means of achieving that end. Although Joseph lived in Galilee when Augustus ordered his census, his lineage went back to King David, and hence he had to travel to Bethlehem, David’s hometown.[17] But of course, as always, there were some exceptions to the rule. In Alexandria, Egyptians needed to remain there to keep the city going could obtain permits to stay there to register.

Luke’s remark that ‘everyone went to his own town’ is also historical. In an actual census declaration preserved on papyrus from the Egyptian village of Bacchias dated to 91AD it is clear that the male head of the household took himself and his family to his own hometown where he registered himself firstly, then his house, and then his family. In the case of that particular declaration, it was written down by a village secretary because those registering were illiterate.[18] In Joseph’s case, though, he may have possessed the literary skills to write his own declaration. As a carpenter, Jew, and inhabitant of the Galilee during his time he could have been well-versed in geometry and the Jewish scriptures.[19] Jesus’ ability to read may also be a strong indication that the rest of their family, including Joseph, could also read and write.

This all means that Luke’s gospel is much more than a collection of stories. Its narrative is factual and reliable. As Luke wrote, Jesus must have been born sometime between early 8BC to early 7BC during the empire-wide registration conducted before Quirinius’ governorship of Syria. Of course, I would love to take the credit for determining this approximate date of Jesus’ birth, but I must confess I am not the first by a long stretch. The famous ancient Christian Tertullian, a legal expert from northern Africa, writing over a century earlier than Eusebius a few years after the turn of the 3rd century AD, recorded that indeed Jesus was born during Saturninus’ governorship of Judaea.[20] This is important because Tertullian had valuable access to official Roman records and was thus in a perfect position to know such a fact.

In case you were wondering, as for why the turning of our era takes place in our calendar 8 years later - it is actually a mishap. In the 6th century AD, the monk Dionysius, while reforming the calendar, wrongly dated some key historical events, and so his miscalculations are with us today.
But besides Luke’s gospel, another Biblical book also describes events surrounding Jesus’ birth – the Gospel of Matthew – and it is also very useful. This gospel provides us with valuable insight into the life of Jesus since Matthew was a disciple of Jesus himself. Like Luke, Matthew wrote that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He also wrote that he was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who ruled Judaea during Saturninus’ governorship during the census mentioned by Luke. So given Luke’s gospel’s trustworthiness, that Matthew’s one agrees with it places it too on solid historical ground.

The Magi and the Star

Of interest to Matthew were events that occurred a little after Jesus’ actual birth, particularly those bound up with the visit of the ‘magi’ from the east. In Christmas pantomimes you will no doubt see, usually three, such ‘wise men’ visiting Jesus in the stable on the very night he was born. Actually the Bible never gives their number – that may have been inferred and turned into later tradition from the three gifts in total that they presented to him: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Also, according to Matthew - and this may surprise the reader - their visit did not occur the actual night of the birth but up to 2 years later while Jesus was an infant.[21]This was made clear by Matthew who wrote that Herod’s ‘slaughter of the innocents’ of all boys, 2 years old and younger, in the area of Bethlehem to do away with Jesus who he saw as a political threat, was reckoned “in accordance with the time he had learned from the magi”[22] during the time of their visit to Palestine.

The magi’s visit as described by Matthew is based on fact. They were members of the larger magi body, from which we derive our word ‘magic’, as they performed specific rituals to meet certain ends. The magi were a revered priesthood in the Middle East from Babylonian times right through to Jesus’ own, when they were advisers to their Parthian rulers from northern Iran.[23] But not only were they holders of religious and ritual lore, they were also astrologers, and it was this which brought them west to Palestine to seek the infant Jesus.
It may have been the Jewish prophet Daniel who, after his removal to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BC, introduced the idea of a messiah to the magi. His mention of one certainly exists in the Bible.[24] But then again, many Jews lived throughout the Middle East from then up to Jesus’ time, so the religious magi would have been quite familiar with the idea from many contemporary Jewish sources. In any case there had long been a prophecy in Jewish scripture that “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”,[25] and the magi were probably familiar with it, considering the following events.

According to Matthew, when the magi saw a certain star rise in the sky which they associated with the Jewish messiah, they followed its path west towards Palestine to find him. After a journey that lasted two whole years, the star stopped moving over a certain house in Bethlehem, where, “they saw the child and his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him”, presenting him with their gifts.[26] Persian tradition, recorded by that famous 13th century Venetian traveler, Marco Polo, recalls how the magi’s hometown in Persia (modern Iran), called Saveh, commemorated the lives of these famous figures by erecting large sepulchers over their graves. But unfortunately, little else had survived from antiquity about these intriguing easterners other than this intriguing observation by Polo.[27]

As to the identification of that messianic star, numerous theories exist. It is known among modern astronomers, for instance, that in 7-6BC Jupiter, Saturn and Mars conjoined, and that in 5BC an impressive comet was seen over the Middle East. Some think the star may have been one of these phenomenons. Others believe the star was a divine and unexplainable occurrence, and it was that which caught the magi’s attention. Unfortunately for us today, the ones who would have known best of all about a special star stopping over the Roman province of Judaea, the Romans themselves, had for some time stopped recording the occurrences of such things, much to the regret of the Roman historian Livy,[28] who wrote around the time of Jesus’ birth and early years.

Nevertheless, we do have some hints in the Roman’s writings that something unusual happened during the magi’s visit. Livy wrote that when unexplainable phenomena took place in Roman territories, prayers and sacrifices were conducted by the priests to avert any potential future danger.[29] Intriguingly, another Roman historian, Cassius Dio, wrote that around the time of the visit, in 6BC, the emperor Augustus Caesar, who was the Roman’s chief priest (pontifex maximus), performed ceremonies and prayers to avert future danger.[30] It is tempting to link this with the unusual star, and to think that its appearance had left a mark on ancient historical writings outside the Bible. However, unfortunately, we can not be sure that Augustus’ behavior really was linked with the magi’s star.[31] Still, the astronomical data certainly compliments Matthew’s account by showing that a number of unusual heavenly phenomena took place around that time.

You may be thinking that 2 years is a long time to travel from Parthia to Palestine, and indeed it usually was. But the magi were not the usual case. In the 60’sAD Tiridates king of Armenia took over two years in traveling from his kingdom to visit the emperor at that time, Nero, in Rome. Tiridates was a magus too. Pliny the Elder, the famous victim of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, wrote that Tiridates took so long because magi took excessive care not to pollute any natural feature they traveled by, as they considered them all divine. Pliny wrote, Tiridates “refused to travel by sea, for the magi consider it sinful to spit into the sea or defile its nature by any other human function”.[32] Matthew’s account then, like Luke’s, is well supported by historical facts.

Slaughter of the Innocents

It was following the magi’s visit, however, that tragic events occurred, instigated by Herod. According to Matthew, Herod “was disturbed” by the idea that another could rule in the land,[33] so he ordered the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ as it is commonly called, whereby all infants, 2 years old and younger, found in or near Bethlehem were to be killed. Herod had discovered the whereabouts of Jesus, not by the magi who refused to tell him, but by approaching his Jewish priests who told him of the 8th century BC prophecy made by the Jew Micah that “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”[34] Fortunately for Jesus, however, his parents had fled for Egypt, taking him with them, just before Herod issued his command, and so he survived.

This may seem to us today an outrageous, smear-campaign-like story aimed at Herod, but actually any historian familiar with his behavior in his last years, particularly those written about by the Jewish historian Josephus in the last quarter of the 1st century AD, would know that this ‘slaughter’ was typical of his character at that time. Josephus wrote that when thousands of Pharisees voiced their opposition to Herod’s rule during the time of the empire-wide census, he “slew such of the Pharisees as were principally accused… He slew also all those of his family” who took their side.[35] And a little later, when in the final days of his life, he decreed that a large crowd of influential Jews were to assemble in a hippodrome and he then ordered his soldiers to kill them all so that when his own imminent death came, there would be nation-wide mourning. Fortunately for the crowd, when Herod soon died, his orders were ignored and they survived.[36]

True, Herod had to fight Parthian-backed rivals for his throne and so his paranoia of a threat from Jesus may have been partly due to the fact that magi, an important group from Parthia, had worshipped the child. But his reaction is also typical of his degeneration of character evident in his other actions at that time like those written about by Josephus.

The Shepherds

This is not the end of the story, however, for there is an account in Luke’s gospel about a number of shepherds who saw the baby Jesus on the very night of his birth in Bethlehem. According to Luke, those shepherds “living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” were visited by an angel who told them of the Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. They immediately raced into the town and after seeing the baby, went around telling all who would listen of their brush with divinity. According to Luke, his source was none other than Jesus’ mother, Mary, herself.[37] As to the trustworthiness of this story, the early Christians were certain – enough for Luke who was a friend of early Christian leaders like Paul, and a Christian himself, to set it down in the early 60’sAD when writing his narrative of the life of Jesus.

The fact that the shepherds were outdoors at all and that Jesus’ birth took place in a stable – virtually outdoors – may point to the weather being fair that night which could indicate a season warmer than winter when Christmas is traditionally celebrated in the northern hemisphere. But whatever season it took place in, the shepherds were overjoyed because of their experience of God’s love for mankind in the form of the gift of his own son.

Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of events, then, are like ancient snapshots of historical facts. They are as trustworthy as any sober historical work and the details they give about events surrounding Jesus’ birth are as colorful as they are factual. This leads us to the point, then, that the things those gospel writers (and as we shall see, all of the New Testament writers) wrote were not, as some may today assume, mere fairy-tales or made up stories. Rather, they are concretely factual, even if we today need to fill in the historical context a little to better appreciate those snapshots’ wider picture. It should be clear by now, then, that the early Christians lived with firm conviction in their beliefs because they were based on historical events and not myths What the early Christians believed was easy for them to believe because they knew it to be historical and the truth. That is something many of us today, who associate faith with being ‘blind’ or perhaps a ‘leap’, may wonder at. But, as can be gleaned from the words of one early Christian: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”[38] it is crystal clear that that really was the way it was. And such a conviction is of great encouragement to us today searching for life’s truths – if those in the time of Jesus were convinced of the importance of his birth for all mankind, so can we be. In this world of pain there is still real hope in God’s plans for our future, especially if we begin, like the ancient Christians did, to discover the real truth and history-making love of Jesus.

Daryn Graham is the holder of a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History as well as a Diploma of Education from Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. He has also received the Preliminary Theological Certificate from Moore Theological College, Sydney. Currently, Daryn is completing a Master of Arts Degree in Ancient World Studies at the University of Sydney, and he is also an author for Archaeological Diggings magazine, a bi-monthly publication on ancient topics including those Biblically related. If you would like to find out more about Archaeological Diggings, feel free to go to

[1] Gospel of Luke, 2. 1-3.
[2] Acts of the Apostles, 5. 37. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 17. 13. 5.
[3] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 17. 13. 5., 18. 1. 1.
[4] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 1. 5.
[5] Lewis, N., & Reinhold, M., (eds.) Roman Civilization: Selected Readings, vol 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990) p308.
[6] Res Gestae Divi Augusti, 8.
[7] Barnett, P., Is the New Testament History? (Sydney: Aquila Press, 2004) p111.
[8] Lewis, N., & Reinhold, M., (eds.) Roman Civilization: Selected Readings. Vol 1. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990) p589.
[9] Ibid., 590.
[10] Ramsay, W., The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915) p255f.
[11] Lewis, N., & Reinhold, M., op cit., p592.
[12] Ibid., p589-590.
[13] Ibid., p588-589.
[14] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 17. 2. 4. According to Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, 17. 4. 3.) Saturninus’ replacement by another governor, Varus, in 6BC, took place at least 7 months after the conclusion of the census conducted by Saturninus, meaning it must have been carried out between 8 and 7BC given that they took up a whole year in Roman times.
[15] Gospel of Luke, 2. 3.
[16] Lewis & Reinhold, op cit., Vol 2., p308-309.
[17] 1 Samuel, 16.
[18] Lewis & Reinhold, Vol 2., p309.
[19] Millard, A., ‘Literacy in the Time of Jesus’, in BAR July/August 2003, pp37-45.
[20] Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4. 19.
[21] Gospel of Matthew, 2. 16.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Colledge, M., The Parthians, (1967) p57-61.
[24] The Book of Daniel, 7. 13.
[25] Numbers, 24. 17.
[26] Gospel of Matthew, 2. 11.
[27] Marco Polo, The Travels, translated by Latham, R., (Penguin Books: 1958), p58.
[28] Livy, History of Rome, 43. 13.
[29] Livy, History of Rome, 24. 10., 27. 4, 11, 37., 30. 3.
[30] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 55. 9.
[31] Although Augustus announced publicly that the prayer was offered for the safety of his grandson Gaius, Cassius Dio wrote that Augustus kept many things hidden from the public and “were denied to common knowledge”. (53. 19.) So, his motive for the prayer may have actually been prompted by some other motive besides Gaius’ safety, like the occurrence of some strange phenomenon like a certain star. However, we cannot know for sure.
[32] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 30. 16-17.
[33] Gospel of Matthew, 2. 3.
[34] Micah, 5. 2.
[35] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 17. 2. 4.
[36] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 17. 6 -7.
[37] Gospel of Luke, 2. 8-19.
[38] Hebrews, 11. 1.

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