Archaeology cannot do anything to prove the divine inspiration of Scripture, but it does help to affirm places, people, ordinances, and traditions in human history–including those recorded in the bible–and thus it reveals the trustworthiness of its authors.
Regarding Luke’s narrative of Christ’s birth, Dawkins makes the following claims (93-94):
- It is NONSENSE to order citizens to return to their homeland for a census. Luke added this so that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, in order that OT prophecy could be fulfilled.
- The census under governor Quirinius was a LOCAL census and was not mandated for the whole empire by Ceasar Augustus.
- The census happened in AD 6, long AFTER Jesus is born. Sequentially, the story is implausible.
Claim number 1 is worthless. We live in a totally different culture than biblical times. It is arrogant to judge their ancient practices against our practices today. And even more arrogant to say something didn’t happen just because we think it is nonsense. Enough nonsensical business happens today, we should no better than to think nonsense doesn’t ever happen.
Turning to Merrill F. Unger in his book Archaeology and the New Testament, we find that sub-kingdoms did submit to census procedures as ordained by the Roman Empire. Unger sites the witness of Tacitus who recorded that the sub-kingdom of Antiochus received such a mandate (63-64). It therefore is not unlikely that Rome would’ve required the same of Palestine, also a sub-kingdom. In addition, numerous papyri discoveries testify to an empire-wide census occurring every 14 years (64).
In biblical times, the mindset was much more tribunal. Families and tribes were regarded as whole units. In such a culture, a return to the ancestral homeland for a census is completely consistent. It is difficult for independent Americans to tolerate such binding ties. For us, it may seem like nonsense. Archaeology, however, will say otherwise. Unger provides a letter from the third century, in which a citizen, writing from outside of his own district, requests his sister to find out whether or not she can enroll him in the census and pay his tax in his absence. If she could not, she was to let him know and he would return to fulfill the obligations himself (64).
The question of the year in which the census took place, is a good question. In the account of Jesus’ birth, Luke mentions that Augustus Caesar issued a census, and that Quirinius was governor of Syria. Josephus, however, places Quirinius’ involvement with the census in AD 6 (Unger 65). As Dawkins points out, a census in AD 6 would be too late to effect Jesus’ birthplace–Jesus was already born by this time.
Archeology does reveal ancient inscriptions which may suggest that Quirinius served as governor in a term prior to the AD 6 date. This draws people to conclude either that the governor named in Luke and the one named by Josephus are the same man who served two terms in office, or that there may have been two different men, both named Quirinius and both who served as governor of Syria in different terms.
Looking closely at Luke 2:2niv, we read Luke’s clarification… “([the census] was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)” emphasis mine. We have here a suggestion of more than one census issued from the Roman emperor to take place during Qurinius’ service. And this particular one which Luke mentions is the first one. Conclusively, Josephus speaks of the second one. Granted this is heavily speculative, but I think it is difficult to rule out the possibility altogether. A total denial would require support.