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My response to a cynic on the chronology of Jesus' life

John Armstrong — Jesus’ doubter, cynic and Deist — posted a video response to The Real Jesus. Above is his video and here is my written response to him.

I’ve written on most of the points you bring up in your video on my blog and on my YouTube V-logs. I think maybe that’s why you linked to my v-log in the first place.

I don’t see any new objections here.

That being said, biblical chronology is interesting to me and I’ve come to the conclusion in the past two years that it’s a key issue in solving a lot of theological debates within the church as well as apologetic battles with skeptics and seekers.

I am a partial preterist, so I think that the 70 A.D. mark is important to help Christians understand not only the book of Revelation and the Mount Olivet Discourse, but also why the NT was written when it was written and why these dates are non-negotiable.

I presuppose that the NT is correct. I admit my bias. I also reason backward in time from the 70 A.D. mark to get certain dates.

Here is one time marker for example: The Mount Olivet Discourse can’t be correct unless it was given in or after 30 A.D. “This generation shall not pass away until all these things shall take place” — speaking of the destruction of the Temple.

A Hebrew generation is 40 years, so that gives the EARLIEST year for the Mount Olivet Discourse and the crucifixion which took place that same time.

30 A.D. plus 40 years = 70 A.D.

Since Jews never entered the rabbinical ministry before their 30th year (which is actually age 29 in Hebrew reckoning) then Jesus entered the ministry at age 29 or 30. If three Passovers are recorded in the Gospels, then that would give a date of 26 or 27 A.D. when Jesus reached age 30.

So when was Jesus born?

If you subtract 30 from 27 A.D. The birth of Jesus occurred around 4 B.C.

John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus (Luke 1:36). He entered the ministry in the days of Pontius Pilate (26 A.D; Luke 3:1).

Here I think Luke is giving really specific dates. Jesus could not have been younger than 33-years-old in 30 A.D. and John the Baptist could not have entered the ministry prior to 26 A.D.

John the Baptist was conceived in the days of Herod (Luke 1:5; 2:1). Here, Luke refers to King Herod the Great of Judea and NOT Herod Antipas, who he later names as Herod Tetrarch of Galilee (Luke 3:1).

Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.

So from this much alone, Luke’s account matches Matthew’s. John the Baptist was born in 5 B.C. (Luke 1:5; 2:1) and Jesus was born no later than 4 B.C. during the last months of the reign of Herod (Matthew 2:1).

This chronology matches other dates such as the beginning of Pilate’s administration coinciding with John the Baptist’s ministry (26 A.D.) and the administration of Herod’s sons (Luke 3:1).

Now let’s deal with Quirinius.

Your entire argument rests on the idea that Quirinius had NO ADMINISTRATION WHATSOEVER over Syria during Herod the Great’s reign. You don’t prove that he did NOT. You say you have contrary evidence, but you do NOT cite it.

However, I have in Justin at least one historical record to corroborate this.

Justin, Apology, Chapt 34: “And hear what part of earth He was to be born in, as another prophet, Micah, foretold. He spoke thus: ‘And thou, Bethlehem, the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come forth a Governor, who shall feed My people.’ Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius [Quirinius], your first procurator in Judaea.”

Quirinius was a ruler in the eastern Roman Empire from the time of 14 B.C. to 12 A.D. Quirinius, at the time of King Herod’s death was doing military expeditions in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire (Tacitus, Annals 3:48; Florus, Roman History 2:31). Justin’s “First Apology” indicaties that he either was a co-ruler with the governor of Syria (Quintilius Varus) over Judea or at least placed in charge of the census in Judea.

So Quirinius is hardly a problem if you believe Justin. He was not the “governor” of Syria, but simply a “procurator” in both Judea and Syria. In fact, the phrase “hegemoneuontos tes Syrias Kyreniou” (Luke 2:2) can be taken to mean any kind of ruler. The word “hegemonoi” in Greek can mean a variety of titles meaning ruler, governor, procurator, authority, etc.

For instance, Pilate is also called a “hegemonoi,” in the New Testament, but Herod of Judea (another of Herod the Great’s son) was the Tetrarch at the time of the crucifixion. Pilate was a prefect or a procurator, yet he had greater authority than Herod of Judea. It’s no problem since “hegemonoi” is translated variously as governor, procurator, prefect, in the New Testament.

Furthermore, Roman rulers often held more than one title in a province and sometimes held titles over several provinces.

Justin records that Quirinius was a “procurator of Judea.” Other histories record that this would have been while Varus and Saturnius served as governors.

Why would Luke then call him “governor of Syria” if he were simply a regional procurator? Why does he not name Varus or Saturnius? There is no contradiction here. He could have had more authority than Varus or Saturnius, just as Pilate had more authority than Herod.

It’s also interesting that Justin didn’t simply copy Luke and call him “governor of Syria” — he calls him “procurator of Judea.” Sometimes historical accounts that don’t match exactly just give MORE information not necessarily contradictory information. And more importantly, whether he was right or wrong, Justin obviously used another source than Luke — one that puts Quirinius in the right place at the right time.

Tertullian also does the same thing in his fourth book Against All Heresies: “But there is historical proof that at this very time a census had been taken in Judaea by Sentius Saturninus, which might have satisfied their inquiry respecting the family and descent of Christ.”

Note that Tertullian mentions Saturnius, and doesn’t simply copy Luke. He can’t be making it up because he states emphatically that proof of the census existed.

So if we try to reconcile the various sources, we have information that Jesus was born when Herod was governor of Judea, Saturnius had been governor of Syria and a ruler of Judea, and Varus had been governor of Syria, and Quirinus was procurator of both Syria and Judea.

If all the secular dates are correct that puts Jesus’ birth in an 18 month window from late 6 B.C. to early 4 B.C.

A lot of these questions about overlapping administrations are understood better if you see a map of Palestine and realize how small the area is. We are talking about an area 100 miles in length to travel from Judea, through Samaria, Galilee, Iturea, then to Syria and Abilene. Then Asia Minor begins about 200 miles north of that area.

As you stated correctly, Quirinius was in Asia Minor overseeing campaigns against the Homonadensians from 5 to 3 B.C. This campaign was waged in Cilicia in the southeastern part of Asia Minor. He would have been on the border of Syria. So it’s possible to place him in Syria sometime from 6 to 4 B.C. We know he was at the most 100 to 200 miles away.

I’ve given you a plausible time-line. But for the sake of argument, let’s say you are right and that Tacitus contradicts Luke about Quirinius. At the very most, all you’ve proven is that Tacitus and Luke disagree and so at last one of them is wrong. You must admit that secular historians often make mistakes!

You raise several other points too, but I think those are much weaker and fairly easy to refute. These concern the arrangement of materials in the Gospels but it is well know that Matthew and John don’t always arrange their materials chronologically, but are concerned with thematic arrangement. A good harmony of the Gospels is needed. I can point you to one if you want.

I think if the discussion were to be continued it ought to be on a forum such as TheologyWeb, or as a forum on our websites.

That being said, we are covering ground that has been covered thousands of times before.

Do you want to talk about the census next?

Your comments are welcome!

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