Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S., responds to claims made by journalist Andrew Bolt regarding supposed contradictions in the Bible.
Andrew Bolt is a popular columnist whose articles appear in Australia’s best-known newspapers. He also runs the most-read political blog in Australia and hosts a weekly television show called The Bolt Report. Recently, Mr. Bolt wrote a post in which he cited several alleged contradictions in Genesis as well as the events surrounding Christ’s birth recorded in Matthew and Luke.1 He based these claims on a book by historian (and atheist) Robin Lane Fox titled The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible.
Rather than giving biblical writers the benefit of the doubt, as is typically done with other works, critics and skeptics assume the Bible is guilty until proven innocent—even occasionally alleging that the writer was so inept that he couldn’t keep his story straight in successive verses.
Answers in Genesis has published numerous articles dealing with alleged contradictions in the Bible, and the second volume of Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions was just published earlier this month. Many of these charges are simply the result of the critics’ refusal to examine the context or check the original languages. Rather than giving biblical writers the benefit of the doubt, as is typically done with other works, critics and skeptics assume the Bible is guilty until proven innocent—even occasionally alleging that the writer was so inept that he couldn’t keep his story straight in successive verses. Also, these same critics rarely consult the wealth of resources from Bible-believing scholars that deal with these so-called contradictions to see if there are good explanations for the apparent discrepancies.
Bolt opened his post by writing, “It’s long struck me how odd it is that the foundation story of the New Testament starts with an account of Jesus’ birth that cannot be right.” He proceeded to describe what he found to be so “odd.”
For a start, the Gospels have Christ being born in the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4BC, but also during the governorship in Syria of Quirinius, whick [sic] occurred a decade later, in the years 6–7 AD. Moreover, one Gospel has the parents of Jesus living befre [sic] his birth in Nazareth, in Galilee, but another in Bethlehem, in Judea. If in Nazareth, there would have been no reason at all for Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem for a tax census decreed by the emperor—first, because Galilee would not have been bound by such a decree by the emperor, being under its own Tetrarch, and, second, because it would have made no sense for the Romans to want Joseph to go all the way to Bethlehem (allegedly the home of his ancestors) for a tax census when his property and goods were all back in Nazareth.
It is true that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1), and based on strong historical evidence, it is generally agreed upon that Herod died in 4 BC. How could Jesus have been born in the period designated as “BC” (i.e., “Before Christ”)? While there are many intricacies to explain every alteration to the calendar during the past two millennia, the short answer is that the basis for our modern calendar began in AD 525 when Dionysius Exiguus the Little was commissioned to develop a standard calendar for the Western Church. He decided to start the calendar in AD 1, but his calculations were off by approximately four years.2 Given that Herod ordered the slaughter of all the children two years old and younger in Bethlehem, it is possible that Jesus was about two years old at that time, thus the year of His birth may have been 6 or 5 BC. Bolt is correct on this point, yet nearly every other statement he made in the above paragraph is disputed.
Did Luke accurately describe the census along with the people and events associated with it? Luke wrote, “
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria” (Luke 2:1–2).
Critics cite several difficulties in this passage. Was there even a decree for a census around the time of Christ’s birth? Would Galilee have been bound by a decree of the emperor? Would Joseph and Mary have been required to return to Bethlehem to register? Did Matthew and Luke contradict each other concerning the order of events surrounding the birth of Christ? How could Quirinius be the governor of Syria when Jesus was born (prior to 4 BC), which was before Quirinius became governor of Syria around AD 6? There are excellent answers for each of these objections.
First, the Romans at the time conducted a census roughly every 14 years, and they often took years to complete.3 For example, one census in Gaul took 40 years to complete. As a matter of fact, a census was ordered in 8 or 7 BC, which explains why Joseph and Mary were required to register around the time she was due to give birth (c. 6 or 5 BC).
Second, Galilee would certainly have been bound by a decree of the emperor. Bolt claims that they were under the rule of a tetrarch at the time. Even if that were true, they would have still been bound by the decree, because the tetrarch was under the emperor’s authority. However, it isn’t true that Galilee was under a tetrarch at the time of Christ’s birth, because Herod the Great ruled Galilee, in addition to Batanea, Perea, Idumea, and Judea. It wasn’t until his death in 4 BC that his territory was divided among three of his sons (Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip), thus making them tetrarchs.
Third, Luke 2:3–4 states, “
So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.” Were they required by the Romans to return to an ancestral city? Andrew Bolt, based on Fox’s book, says that they would not be. This is a common claim among skeptics, yet they either ignore or are ignorant of the decree by Gaius Vibius Maximus in AD 104, which is recorded on a papyrus kept in the British Museum. This decree commanded residents to return to their own provinces to “carry out the regular order of the census.”4 Alfred Edersheim, a noted expert on first-century Judaism and Christianity, explained that, to quell Jewish anti-Roman sentiments, Herod caused the decree of Augustus to be carried out in the Jewish manner rather than according to Roman custom.
In consequence of ‘the decree of Cæsar Augustus,’ Herod directed a general registration to be made after the Jewish, rather than the Roman, manner. Practically the two would, indeed, in this instance, be very similar. According to the Roman law, all country-people were to be registered in their ‘own city’—meaning thereby the town to which the village or place, where they were born, was attached. In so doing, the ‘house and lineage’ (the nomen and cognomen) of each were marked. According to the Jewish mode of registration, the people would have been enrolled according to tribes (מטות), families or clans (משפחות), and the house of their fathers (בית אבוח). But as the ten tribes had not returned to Palestine, this could only take place to a very limited extent, while it would be easy for each to be registered in ‘his own city.’ In the case of Joseph and Mary, whose descent from David was not only known, but where, for the sake of the unborn Messiah, it was most important that this should be distinctly noted, it was natural that, in accordance with Jewish law, they should have gone to Bethlehem.5
Although it may not have been commanded in every case, it was not uncommon for people to return to their own provinces during a Roman census, particularly in Israel where anti-Roman feelings ran hot, so there is no good reason to doubt Luke’s accuracy at this point.
Furthermore, notice that Bolt stated Bethlehem was “allegedly the home of [Joseph’s] ancestors.” So this journalist automatically assumes that the Bible is in error here, even though Matthew 1 and Luke 3 include genealogies that connect Christ’s parents to David, meaning that Bethlehem was the home of their ancestors. Also, the Messiah’s birthplace of Bethlehem was prophesied in Micah 5:2. So these are not mere allegations but are biblical fact.
Fourth, the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke do not contradict each other at any point. They can be perfectly reconciled with a bit of research. Bodie Hodge and I recently wrote some articles dealing with these alleged contradictions. See Christmas Timeline of the Biblical Account, Timeline Twisting Texts, and More Timeline Twisting for an in-depth look at these issues.
Fifth, perhaps the most difficult challenge raised by Bolt is whether or not Quirinius was the governor of Syria at the time of Christ’s birth. The problem is that historians generally agree that the governor of Syria at that time was a man named Quintilius Varus, and that Quirinius didn’t become governor of that region until AD 6 or 7. How can this possibly be reconciled? Three solutions have been proposed, and each of them has some merit. If one of these is true, then Bolt’s objection is overruled.
The first proposal accepts that Varus was governor, but he was not a good leader, losing three legions of soldiers in a battle in Germany. However, Quirinius was a strong military leader who put down the Homonadensian rebellion in Asia Minor. So when it came time for the census to be conducted, Caesar Augustus sent Quirinius to deal with the explosive region governed by Varus, essentially elevating Quirinius to the position of a governing authority—even higher than Governor Varus during that time. While describing a census that took place during Christ’s childhood, Josephus explained just how unstable Israel became when Rome conducted censuses.
Now Cyrenius [Quirinius], a Roman senator and one who had gone through other magistracies, and had passed through them till he had been consul, and one who, on other accounts, was of great dignity, came at this time into Syria, with a few others, being sent by Caesar to be a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance … came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus’s money; (3) but the Jews, although at the beginning they took the report of a taxation heinously, yet did they leave off any farther opposition to it, by the persuasion of Joazar … yet there was one Judas, a Gaulonite … who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty … so men received what they said with pleasure, and this bold attempt proceeded to a great height. All sorts of misfortunes also sprang from these men, and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree; (7) one violent war came upon us after another, and we lost our friends, who used to alleviate our pains; there were also very great robberies and murders of our principal men. This was done in pretense indeed for the public welfare, but in reality for the hopes of gain to themselves; (8) whence arose seditions, and from them murders of men, which sometimes fell on those of their own people (by the madness of these men towards one another, while their desire was that none of the adverse party might be left).6
Since the Jewish people often revolted against aggressive actions of their oppressors, such as taxation, Caesar would have made sure to send a highly qualified person to handle a difficult situation. Josephus recorded that Quirinius was just such a person. Luke did not use an official title for Quirinius, but said that he “
was governing Syria” (Luke 2:2),7 meaning that Quirinius was in charge of that region during the time of the census. So this first explanation seems to work well.
The second proposal claims that Quirinius was actually the governor of Syria on two occasions—once at the time of Christ’s birth, and then again about a decade later. Geisler and Howe stated, “A Latin inscription discovered in 1764 has been interpreted to refer to Quirinius as having served as governor of Syria on two occasions.”8
A third possibility is to reconsider the common translation of the passage in question. “
This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria” (Luke 2:2). This sentence could also be translated as “
This census took place before Quirinius was governing Syria.”9 This would require translating prōtos (“first”) as “before,” which is plausible. If this is the proper way to understand the Greek, then any hint of a contradiction on this point disappears.
Bolt then shifted his attention to the first two chapters of Genesis.
But I’m embarrassed to admit that I learned only for the first time from Fox’s book this week that the very first pages of Genesis are also internally contradictory—and about the most fundamental story of all. It opens with not one account of the creation of the world, but two—one contradicting the other, as if the man who compiled the Old Testament couldn’t or wouldn’t chose between them. The most significant differences lie in the timing of the creation of man, and in whether Adam and Eve were created simultaneously or one from the other.
Bolt could have saved himself from embarrassment if he would have taken a few minutes to carefully consider the text or read some of the books and articles dealing with these subjects. We have already written at length on these topics, so I will offer a few brief comments along with some links to articles that address these concerns.
Genesis 1:1–2:4 provides a broad overview of what God did during the six days of creation, while the remainder of the second chapter zooms in on Day Six of the Creation Week to show the creation of Adam and Eve.
Are there two separate and contradictory creation accounts in Genesis? No. Genesis 1:1–2:4 provides a broad overview of what God did during the six days of creation, while the remainder of the second chapter zooms in on Day Six of the Creation Week to show the creation of Adam and Eve. Understanding this truth resolves all of the alleged contradictions between these two chapters. For more information on this subject, see our overview article Two Creation Accounts? and our more in-depth article Do Genesis 1 and 2 Contradict Each Other?
Bolt concluded his article by stating, “All this will sound tiresomely familiar to Bible scholars. And there is much more of the same kind I have omitted … But when the Bible has internally inconsistent accounts of the creation of the earth, as well as of the birth of the Messiah, we already know enough to marvel at the fearlessness of those who have compiled this work with all this laid bare. And we marvel, too, that so many millions have treated this work as the literal truth, and even the dictated word of God.”
Bolt is right that this is tiresomely familiar to Bible scholars because we are quite familiar with these charges, and we know full well they have been satisfactorily addressed for centuries. The Bible does not have inconsistent accounts about creation and the birth of the Messiah, as we have demonstrated time and time again.
Finally, Bolt mischaracterizes the doctrine of inerrancy by claiming that we believe the Bible is “the dictated word of God.” That’s false. We don’t believe the Bible is the “dictated” Word of God. There are several views on how the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture, but the “dictation” view is seldom held by Christians because it has several flaws, such as not being able to explain why each writer utilized his own style. If they were simply taking dictation, then we would expect every book to use the same level of Greek or Hebrew and the same degree of sophistication.
The Bible is the Word of God. It was written by men who were inspired and moved by God to write what they did (2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:21). Since God cannot lie, then His Word, in its original manuscripts, cannot be in error.
Hundreds of millions of people have staked their eternal destiny on the claims of the Bible, and countless scholars have studied it throughout their lifetimes and come away believing it to be the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God. This should cause critics and journalists like Andrew Bolt to be more careful in their research rather than attacking the Bible’s truthfulness and flippantly charging it with error.
I would encourage Mr. Bolt and others who set out to ridicule the Bible to spend some time reading the Bible and checking to see if maybe, just maybe, some Christians in the past two thousand years have ever taken the time to address these so-called contradictions. The fact is that Christians have been successfully defending their faith and God’s Word for nearly two millennia. These supposed contradictions can be explained when one takes the time to actually study the Bible and see what it does or doesn’t say about these issues.
was governing Syria,” many translations (such as the KJV, NIV, NASB, ESV, and NET) do render the phrase as “
was governor of Syria.” This is not a necessarily a wrong translation, but it is a bit misleading, as the Greek text does not imply an official title. The NET Bible adds a footnote clarifying, “Or ‘was a minister of Syria.’ This term could simply refer to an administrative role Quirinius held as opposed to being governor (Josephus, Ant. 18.4.2 [18.88])” (Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition, (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Luke 2:2). Compare also Darby’s translation, “
when Cyrenius had the government of Syria,” and Green’s translation, “
under the governing of Syria by Cyrenius.”