Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem – PART 1

bethlehem 2

LUKE 2:1-7

“JESUS’ BIRTH TOOK PLACE IN BETHLEHEM”… This blog will take a close look at some of the fascinating details of that birth. The Christmas Story from Luke.… We are going to go through these most familiar verses – verses even most unbelievers would probably recognize – and we are going to look closely at a couple of the details of the Christmas Story, some points of the story that are often attacked by critics of the Bible.

I WILL BE USING THE OLD KING JAMES TEXT FOR THIS MESSAGE, as we are all familiar with the beautiful terminology and expressions used in this great old translation…

KJV Luke 2:1-7 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

NOW LET’S LOOK CLOSELY AT THESE 7 VERSES…(the first three verses this week, the next four next week in Part 2)…

KJV Luke 2:1-2 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

“IN THOSE DAYS” – WHAT DAYS? Probably what is meant by Luke is in the days of Caesar Augustus.

ALLOW ME TO GIVE YOU SOME HISTORICAL BACKGROUND… Again, let me to remind you that Christianity is a historical faith, unlike, for example, say Mormonism, which does not have a shred of historical basis for its spiritual claims. Caesar Augustus was Caius Octavius Augustus, to be precise. He was the grandnephew and later the adopted son and primary heir of Julius Caesar. After the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., young Octavius Augustus ruled with Mark Anthony and a man named Lepidus in a triumvirate; in other words, all three men ruled together. By 31 B.C., after defeating Anthony in a major military battle at Actium, Augustus ascended to undisputed supremacy and two years later was declared “Augustus” by the Roman senate. “Augustus” meant “exalted one.” Ancient leaders were not at all bashful about assuming titles of divine proportions. Historian John Buchan records that when Caesar Augustus died, men actually comforted themselves with the reflection that Augustus was a god, and that gods do not die. Luke, the historian and theologian, wants us to see this as the tableau for understanding the coming of the real Savior. The contrast could not be greater. Then for more than 40 years, from 29 B.C. (other sources say 27 B.C.) to A.D. 14, Augustus served by himself as the first emperor of the Roman Empire. Under his rule, the Roman Empire dominated the Mediterranean region, ushering in a period of immense prosperity and relative peace. It was during this reign of Caesar Octavius Augustus the Lord Jesus Christ was born. (From MacArthur Bible Commentary, Liberty Commentary of the N.T., and Luke Volume I by R. Kent Hughes).

NO SUCH DECREE WAS GIVEN BY GREEK OR ROMAN HISTORIANS AND IT WAS FOR LONG ASSUMED BY MANY SCHOLARS THAT LUKE WAS IN ERROR. But ancient papyri and inscriptions in stone monuments have confirmed Luke on every point in these crucial verses 2:1-7.  Papyrus was a reedlike plant from which the ancients made paper. Papyri copies of the N.T. are the oldest copies we have. Properly made, papyri paper is almost indestructible. These ancient historical documents and inscriptions in ancient monuments attest to the accuracy of Luke’s account.

“LONG TIME AGO IN BETHLEHEM, SO THE HOLY BIBLE SAY, Mary’s Boy Child Jesus Christ was born on Christmas day.” That’s a line from a beautiful Christmas song that you don’t hear much of in shopping malls today. It was written in 1957 by a man named Jester Harrison and recorded by Harry Belefonte. It is a beautiful song…

“Long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible say, Mary’s Boy Child Jesus Christ was born on Christmas Day. Hark now hear the angels sing, a new King born today, And man will live forever more because of Christmas day. Trumpets sound and angels sing, listen what they say, Man will live forever more because of Christmas day.”

I QUOTE FROM THIS CHRISTMAS SONG TO STRESS THE WORDS, “SO THE HOLY BIBLE SAY.” That used to be good enough for most people to believe the rest of the words. As you sadly know, that is no longer the case. We live in a world that for the most part doubts the Christmas story. “Thus saith the Lord” should settle all issues about this text or any other text in the Bible. If there are some problems with minor details that we cannot reconcile to everyone’s satisfaction, “Thus saith the Lord.” “He said it; I believe it; that’s good enough for me!” is a statement the world ridicules, but I for one would much rather stand upon that statement than I would place my trust in scientific or historic speculation by liberals or unbelievers.

LET ME SAY SOMETHING MORE ABOUT THESE SO-CALLED PROBLEMS.” This is an important issue and I do not want to treat it casually. These so called “problems” with the Christmas Story have been my focus this week and will probably be next week as well. I am approaching the Christmas Story this year largely from that perspective. I have been re-studying every detail time will allow with the intention of paying special attention to the so called “problems.”

THERE ARE TO BE SURE A NUMBER OF DIFFICULTIES with the accurate interpretation of certain details in the Bible, details like dates and places mostly, difficulties which at times seem to put the Bible at odds with history; like Augustus’ decree, which I will talk about in a moment. For one thing, we must not forget that the Bible is ancient literature, thousands of years old. What we have is remarkably free of difficulties. God has preserved His Word. It is the critics of the Bible who emphasize these “problems” of Scripture. They seize upon these “problems” as proof that the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God. None of these “problems” – not one – distorts the truth of the Bible. And something that Bible critics are quick to overlook is the important fact that more than a few of these so-called “problems” have been erased by archaeological discoveries in the past decades. It is quite possible that many more of these “problems” will be erased by future archaeological discoveries.

ONE SUCH “PROBLEM” IS “DECREE.” The Greek word for “decree” is δογμα (dog-ma). Just as it sounds, that’s the word from which we get our English word “dogma.” The word can refer to doctrine, that is a principle or belief, but it is used here as a fixed and authoritative decision or requirement. This decree of Caesar Augustus was a command to meet a requirement. The requirement was a census.

CENSUSES WERE COMMON IN THE ANCIENT WORLD. Technically this census was not a taxation but certainly, as today, censuses are taken mainly for purposes of taxation; taxation is the result of the census.

I READ A LOT ABOUT THIS DECREE OF CAESAR AUGUSTUS THIS WEEK. While there are slight differences of opinion among scholars, the following is a good overview and probably as accurate as we can be historically.

“THIS WAS NOT MERELY A ONE-TIME CENSUS. The decree actually established a cycle of enrollments that were to occur every fourteen years. Palestine had previously been excluded from the Roman census because Jews were exempt from serving in the Roman army, and one of the primary purposes of the census, aside from accounting for all Roman citizens for taxation, was to register young men for military service. This new universal census was ostensibly to number each nation by family and tribe. Hence, Joseph, who was a Judean, had to return to his ancestral home to register.

“ALL THE WORLD” IS BETTER TRANSLATED “ALL THE INHABITED EARTH”; more specifically the world of the Roman Empire.

WHEN WAS JESUS BORN? WHAT YEAR? In order to fit the historical facts that we know, Jesus’ birth must be dated sometime shortly before the death of Herod the Great, which occurred in 4 B.C. After studying this question for years, it is my opinion, and the opinion of almost all scholars, that Jesus was born sometime between 6 and 4 B.C.

FINALLY, V. 2 SAYS THAT THIS CENSUS FIRST TOOK PLACE WHILE CYRENIUS WAS GOVERNOR OF SYRIA. Modern translations more correctly have the name “Quirinius,” though the Greek word from which the name is transliterated is actually κυρηνιος(ku-ray-nee-os). That’s the name I would use. But much more important than these slight differences over the name is the question of his governorship. “This is a very perplexing verse, inasmuch as Cyrenius or Quirinius or κυρηςιος (ku-ray-nee-os), does not appear from historical evidence to have been governor of Syria for about ten years after the birth of Christ, and the ‘taxing’ under his administration was what led to the insurrection mentioned in Acts 5:37.…” (J.F.B. Commentary on the Whole Bible)…

NET Acts 5:37 After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census, and incited people to follow him in revolt. He too was killed, and all who followed him were scattered.

“THAT THERE WAS A TAXING, HOWEVER, OF THE WHOLE ROMAN EMPIRE under Augustus is now admitted by all; and candid critics, even of skeptical tendency, are ready to allow that there is not likely to be any real inaccuracy in Luke’s statement.” (J.F.B. Commentary)

“QUIRINIUS’ FULL NAME WAS PUBLIUS SULPICIUS QUIRINIUS. His name, ‘Quirinius’ means ‘warrior.’ He was consul in B.C. 12., and was made governor of Syria after the banishment of Archelaus in A.D. 6. He was probably twice governor of Syria; his first governorship extended from B.C. 4 (the year of Christ’s birth) to B.C. 1. It was during this time that he was sent to make enrolment which caused Joseph and Mary to visit Bethlehem. Luke 2:2. The second enrolment is mentioned in Acts 5:37.” – Strong’s Lexicon

“MANY SUPERIOR SCHOLARS WOULD RENDER THE WORDS THUS, ‘This registration was previous to Cyrenius being governor of Syria.’ The Greek word for ‘first’ (πρωτος [pro-tos]) allows this flexibility, as we see in such instances as John 1:15.” – J.F.B. Commentary

NAU John 1:15 John testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before (πρωτος [pro-tos]) me.'”

SO, THE TRANSLATION IN LUKE 2:2 MIGHT WELL BE – in complete keeping with the Greek text and therefore entirely accurate in every account – “This census was before that made when Quirinius was governor” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary)


“YET ANOTHER VALID EXPLANATION MIGHT BE THAT the registration may have been ordered with a view to the taxation, about the time of our Lord’s birth, though the taxing itself – an obnoxious measure in Palestine in Jesus’ day – was not carried out until the time of Quirinius.” – J.F.B. Commentary

SEE WHAT I’M SAYING ABOUT THESE “PROBLEMS”?… They are not really problems. Scholars today now believe that Quirinius was likely governor twice, once perhaps in a kind of unofficial capacity, as our government today appoints special prosecutors or special committees that are not a part of the formal government but act on its behalf. And if he was, that explains the seeming discrepancy. The Bible is historically accurate, but that does not mean it must explain every historical detail in order to be so.

LUKE WAS A CAREFUL RESEARCHER. Even secular historians will grudgingly admit this fact. In chapter 1 verses 1-4, especially when understood from the Greek text, his carefulness is clearly demonstrated, as are his historical and geographical references in the book of Acts, which of course he also wrote. It is inconceivable that the educated doctor he was would have stressed the census as he does in chapter 2 verse 2 if he were not entirely certain of his words…

KJV Luke 2:3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

“HIS OWN CITY” MEANS THE PLACE OF TRIBAL ORIGIN. “Journeying to one’s ancestral home is unprecedented, but fits nicely with Jewish custom. The census, which could be controversial, uses customs that would be the least offensive. For Jews, an ancestral registration would be a most natural way to sign up for taxes (2 Sam 24). So each one travels to his own city to register, and Joseph heads for the Davidic city of Bethlehem” (Bock). “This was also true in Egypt, as an edict of G. Vibius Maximus, governor of Egypt in A.D. 104, indicates” (Henriksen).

WHAT WE WANT TO NOTICE HERE IS THE PART GOD’S HAND HAD IN ALL THIS. Joseph and Mary appeared to be simply following governmental instructions that seemed to have nothing to do with fulfilling prophecy, but when seen theologically, it is evident that God orchestrated the historic events in order that prophecy would be fulfilled. What prophecy? The prophecy of Micah, written some 700 years before the event…

KJV Micah 5:2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

JESUS CHRIST HAD THE RIGHT HERITAGE TO BE THE MESSIAH. “He was born of pious Davidic parents in the city that the O.T. prophet promised would be the birthplace of a ruler. The ‘chance’ of a census had made it happen. Rome was an unconscious agent in God’s work. The profane decree of a census had yielded a divine event. A stable was to be the messiah’s first throne room.” (Bock [I have taken many facts from Bock’s excellent exegetical commentary on Luke])

– Professor Thomas A. Rohm