As pointed out […] historical methodology includes the use of non-written as well as written sources. Archaeology is able to provide much information about the past, in that it can both confirm and shed new light on known data, as well as establish evidence on its own.
In this chapter we will attempt to point out some archaeological evidence that either corroborates or helps establish historical facts in the life of Jesus. To be sure, the amount of material here is not as abundant as are the other avenues in studying the life of Jesus. Still, the examples we use will continue to build a case for what can be known of Jesus from extrabiblical sources.
In Luke 2:1–5 we read that Caesar Augustus decreed that the Roman Empire should be taxed and that everyone had to return to his own city to pay taxes. So Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem and there Jesus was born.
Several questions have been raised in the context of this taxation.^1 Even if such a taxation actually did occur, would every person have to return to his home? Was Quirinius really the governor of Syria at this time (as in v. 2)? Archaeology has had a bearing on the answers to these questions.
It has been established that the taking of a census was quite common at about the time of Christ. An ancient Latin inscription called the Titulus Venetusindicates that a census took place in Syria and Judea about AD 5–6 and that this was typical of those held throughout the Roman Empire from the time of Augustus (23 BC–AD 14) until at least the third century AD. Indications are that this census took place every fourteen years. Other such evidence indicates that these procedures were widespread.^2 Concerning persons returning to their home city for the taxation-census, an Egyptian papyrus dating from AD 104 reports just such a practice. This rule was enforced, as well.^3
The question concerning Quirinius also involves the date of the census described in Luke 2. It is known that Quirinius was made governor of Syria by Augustus in AD 6. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay discovered several inscriptions that indicated that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two occasions, the first time several years prior to this date.^4 Within the cycle of taxation-censuses mentioned above, an earlier taxation would be dated from 10–4 BC.^5 Another possibility is
1 See Bruce, Christian Origins, p. 192, for example.
2 Ibid., pp. 193–194.
3 Ibid., p. 194.
4 Robert Boyd, Tells, Tombs, and Treasure(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 175.
5 Cf. Bruce, Christian Origins, pp. 193–194 with Boyd, Tells, p. 175. Bruce prefers the date 10–9 BC for the empire-wide census, with that which took place in Judea occurring a few years later. Boyd places the date of the earlier census at 6–5 BC, which coincides closely with the accepted dates for Jesus’ birth.
From Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus – Ancient Evidence For The Life Of Christ (in print at Amazon)
Bruce’s suggestion that the Greek in Luke 2:2 is equally translatable as “This enrollment (census) was before that made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”^6 This would mean that Luke was dating the taxation-census before Quirinius took over the governorship of Syria. Either possibility answers the question raised above.