Wednesday, 03 December 2014 11:45

Quirinius and Christmas

Written by  Matthew Jordan
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“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria…”

This passage from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke is a familiar one. It’s not unusual for it to be included as part of the narrative of a Christmas pageant or to be read from church pulpits during the Advent season. Luke here gives us the time frame for Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem, where Jesus would be born. At first glance, it seems pretty mundane. Does it really matter who the governor of Syria was when Mary gave birth? The truly important thing is that Jesus—Immanuel, “God with us”—was, in fact, born. That’s a big deal. The time and place are immaterial… or are they?


Certainly, it is true that the event of the Incarnation is more important than the date of the Incarnation. But the fact that we can specify the time and place of Jesus’s birth is really quite extraordinary. It reflects one of the principal respects in which orthodox Christianity is fundamentally different from all of the other great religions of the world: our faith is tied to actual, historical events in ways that make it possible to assess some of its most important claims in light of objective evidence. No other religion says anything so bold about its foundations. Whether the Buddha really lived, for example, is irrelevant to the wisdom of Buddhist thought and contemporary Buddhist practice. The claim that Allah revealed the Qu’ran to Muhammad is not, by its very nature, the sort of claim that could be supported by evidence. Likewise for assertions made by Hindus, Wiccans, and others.


When it comes to the New Testament, however, it’s a different story. The central claim of Christianity is that God came to Earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and the stories we have about Jesus are embedded in narratives that contain geographical, sociological, and historical details that can be verified. In spite of popular reports to the contrary, those narratives hold up remarkably well when evaluated according to reasonable standards of evidence. It is not possible in this limited space to explain many of the details, so instead I will quote biblical scholar Dr. Peter Williams, the warden of Tyndale House and an affiliated lecturer at Cambridge University. In an excellent talk titled “New Evidences the Gospels Were Based on Eyewitness Accounts” (which can be found on YouTube), Williams assesses the New Testament narratives in light of archaeological discoveries about the ancient near east, and says this about the authors of the Gospels:



“They’re not just getting it right on place names and [personal] names and plants; they’re getting the shape of house right, they’re getting the shape of the temple right, they’re getting the coinage right, they’re getting the social stratification right, they’re getting the religious setting right… After a while you think, ‘There are so many opportunities for them to go wrong if they are making it up.’ So many opportunities… [yet] they don’t seem to go wrong like that.” 



All those apparently mundane details are precisely the kinds of things we would expect to find if the authors who wrote them down were aiming, first and foremost, to tell us the truth about what really happened two thousand years ago. What’s more, in places where we can check to see whether the authors get it right, they do—over and over and over again.


When you hear the name “Quirinius” spoken this Christmas season, pause to consider its significance. The man himself may not be terribly important. Luke’s reference to him, however, is. It is a powerful reminder that the Christmas story is not merely wonderful, but also true.






Last modified on Saturday, 03 January 2015 11:46
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