Did the Holy Family really travel to Bethlehem for a census?

Atheist scholar Bart Ehrman recently engaged in a debate with Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin regarding the historical accuracy of the Gospels, citing what he considered to be contradictions between some of the books. However, what he failed to address were the identical points of reference between the books that documented the same events. Specifically, he questioned the historical truth of the slaughter of the innocents and the empire-wide census.

While the slaughter of the innocents was hardly an event big enough to make it to the ears of major historians around the region (unjust tragedies like that happened on a regular basis and this one wasn’t on a genocidal scale), Cale Clarke spent a segment of The Faith Explained responding to Ehrman’s census argument. It not only happened, but it was integral to the path of the Holy Family.

Cale admitted that there is some dispute about the censuses that took place around the time of Jesus’ birth. It’s worth noting that the monk who created the modern calendar actually made a mistake and Jesus was probably born closer to 5 B.C. than year 0. There is a record of a census that was called around 6 A.D. by a Roman aristocrat named Quirinius, but that couldn’t have been the one referenced in Luke’s Gospel.

However, as discussed in Pope Benedict XVI’s book on the Holy Family, documents show that Quirinius was actually employed by the emperor to conduct business in Syria around 9 B.C. So, well before the documented census in 6 A.D., Quirinius easily could have conducted other censuses around the birth of Jesus. Not only that, but if the census mentioned in the Gospels was on an empire-wide scale, there’s no logistical way it could have taken place in a year. It would have taken several years at least. 

The first phase would have been taking stock of all citizens, their property, their livestock, and possessions. The second phase would have been calculating the taxes for the empire. That’s no easy task, especially considering the fact that resources and technology are limited. They didn’t have digital communication, virtual documents, cars or planes, ways to instantly send information, or unlimited people. Using the limited resources that they had, they would employ census takers, somehow notify every citizen in the empire of their duty, and then gather the information as it came.

Many who hear about an empire-wide census scoff at its plausibility, especially considering how implausible that would be in modern times. Would you really tell everybody in the country that they have to return to their hometown, even with the existence of cars and planes? Now imagine making that journey on foot or on horseback or camelback. Imagine an entire nation getting up and moving at once. Surely, these records must have been bending the truth. 

Well, a government-ordered document from 104 A.D. was recovered by archaeologists that gives credence to the empire-wide census. It reads, “Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments.”

It should also be noted that while Bart Ehrman argues that no historian documented this census, St. Luke was himself a Greco-Roman based historian and doctor. Luke adheres to the standards of Greco-Roman biographers exactly, and while it may not read like a clinical report, it certainly matches the way documented events were covered during his time. No explicit record marking this census has yet been recovered, but Luke’s past writing suggests that he is not mistaken. Time and again, archaeological evidence has proven Luke to be correct and some of his writings have actually aided in the recovery of historical findings.

Listen to the full segment below:

Historical Reliability of the Gospels

Tune in to The Faith Explained weekdays at 12:30pm CT 

John Hanretty serves as a Digital Media Producer for Relevant Radio®. He is a graduate of the Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. Besides being passionate about writing, his hobbies include drawing and digital design. You can read more of his daily articles at relevantradio.com and on the Relevant Radio® app.