In the Fullness of Time
Many secular people mistakenly believe that, except for the story of Jesus in the Gospels, there is no historical record of the man Jesus Christ. This is not true. Jewish sources (Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.3) and Roman (Tacitus, Roman Annals, 15.44) not only record that Jesus existed but that He also was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
Of course, who Jesus really is and the significance of His death may be theological issues; but His existence as a person of history is not. And the Gospels place His birth historically and accurately in the Roman world.
The apostles Matthew and Luke placed Jesus’ birth during the reigns of Caesar Augustus in Rome and King Herod in Jerusalem (Mt. 1—2; Lk. 1—2). Both rulers are well known in history. Caesar Augustus (Octavian) was the great nephew of Julius Caesar.
After Caesar’s murder in 44 B.C., Octavian became part of the Second Triumvirate, along with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Mark Antony. After Lepidus fell from power, Octavian won the battle of Actium over Antony and Cleopatra (31 B.C.) and became Caesar Augustus, sole ruler of Rome. He ruled from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14 and ushered in the initial Pax Romana, a time of peace and stability under Roman rule.
Herod the Great took a different path. His father, Antipater, was an Idumean who ingratiated himself into power after General Pompey conquered Judea for Rome in 63 B.C. Antipater actually ruled Judea with the Hasmonean high priest Hyrcanus II for 20 years. The Hasmoneans were descended from the Jewish high-priestly family of Maccabee fame.
After a struggle for power with the Hasmonean Antigonus, Herod found favor with Mark Antony and was proclaimed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 B.C. Herod then solidified his hold on the Jewish throne by marrying Mariamne I, Hyrcanus’s granddaughter. He then ruled the Hasmonean kingdom until his death in 4 B.C.
It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus was born before Herod died. We must remember that the Western calendar of dating based on Christ’s birth was not instituted until the sixth century. (B.C. stands for “Before Christ”; A.D. stands for the Latin words Anno Domini, meaning “Year of our Lord.”) The calculations for Herod’s death at that time were then four years off, which gives us the present anomaly of Jesus Christ being born around 6–4 B.C.
The Quirinius Census
Luke’s Gospel records that Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a decree from Caesar Augustus that everyone in the empire be taxed. Scripture says, “This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria” (Lk. 2:2).
The verse has become a major historical problem for Luke’s veracity because Quirinius is recorded to have been governor of Syria from A.D. 6 to 11, and there is no record of a previous census, only one when Quirinius became governor in A.D. 6. Luke himself mentioned this census in Acts 5:37.
Luke also recorded (Lk. 3:1, 21, 23) that Jesus was about 30 when He began His ministry and was baptized sometime after the 15th year of Emperor Tiberius (A.D. 29). If the census in Luke 2:2 was in A.D. 6, Jesus would have been about 23 years old at His baptism. This seems too sloppy a mistake for a careful historian such as Luke to have made.
There are several possible solutions to this problem. The first is that Quirinius played some role in a census that was taken before the one in A.D. 6. This is historically possible.
It is also possible to understand the word first in Luke 2:2 in the adverbial sense of “before” so that the verse would read, “The census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”1
The Journey to Bethlehem
Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because tax registration had to take place in one’s ancestral home. Since Joseph was of the line of David and Bethlehem was where David’s family originated, they had to go there.
This fact, of course, fits well with the prophecy of Micah 5:2, cited in Matthew 2:6, that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem of Judea. Together these verses testify to the kingly role of Jesus, who fulfills the Messianic prophecies (cf. Lk. 1:46–55).
There were a number of routes Joseph and Mary could have taken on their journey. The shortest distance (75 miles) was due south along the mountain ridge that runs the length of Israel, often called the Way of the Patriarchs. It connects Shechem to Beersheba. But since this road runs through Samaria and is extremely mountainous, it probably was not the route taken.
Two other roads connected Galilee to Judea. One went through the pass at Megiddo, south through the Shephelah. It then turned up the mountain to Jerusalem and went a short seven miles southwest to Bethlehem.
The most likely road, however, was one that traveled south along the Jordan Valley to Jericho and then ascended to Jerusalem, making the trip about 90 miles. Today the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built in the fourth century, stands over the cave where a second-century tradition says Jesus was born.
Although skeptics today deny that the man Jesus ever existed, there is too much historical evidence for that view to be tenable. A more popular view among unbelievers is that a poor Jewish prophet named Jesus ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time and was crucified for political reasons. His disciples then fashioned Him into the Messiah and Son of God. This is the legendary Jesus. However, evidence from the first century militates against this view as well.
The apostle Paul, writing to the church in Galatia 16 years after Jesus’ death, explained things from God’s perspective: “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5).
- John A. Martin, “Luke,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament Edition, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 207–208.