Here are seven arguments assessed for a post-70AD dating of Luke’s Gospel.
- Yes, in Luke, we have mention of a siege of the city, but after all, what else would tackle a walled city but a siege?
- And Luke’s Gospel predicts the city’s destruction at the hands of the Romans, but after all, who else would be conducting such a campaign but the Romans?
- And Luke predicts the slaughter and capture of Jews, but really, what else would happen to those in a conquered walled city?
Footnote: Is Luke 2:1 an anachronism?
Here is another question that is pertinent for dating Luke’s Gospel. (I overlooked this one when originally writing this post.)
The NIV translation of the Bible, among some others, takes the liberty of translating Luke 2:1 to the effect that a “census” was conducted across the Roman Empire. But did that really happen? And are there any implications if it never happened?
If we think that Luke 2:1 is claiming a census took place, then there could be implications for dating Luke’s Gospel. Here’s why. While there is a historical record of an Empire-wide census in 74AD, there isn’t of one earlier (although that is not in itself conclusive). So where could Luke have got the idea of such a census from? Does it mean that the 74AD census gave him the idea of imagining a census in the year of Jesus’ birth? Well, if so, that means that Luke wrote his Gospel sometime after 73AD. But there is already a heap of ‘ifs’ here. Let’s step back and unpick the overlapping issues.
The devil is in the detail, and the assumptions of translators. In Luke 2:1, the specific Greek words matter. These words report a decree to REGISTER i.e. “apographesthai” (not literally “census”) ALL THE WORLD i.e. “pasan ten oikoumenen” (not literally “the Roman Empire”). That’s all we have to go on in the verse. Let’s break this down, because this could simply be a mistransation, and it wouldn't be the first time that an exegetical problem has been thrown up a mistranslation or a misunderstanding.
Following the traditions of translators, speculating on what “register” means, is problematic. Clearly, we can’t absolutely assume without evidence that “register” means “census” (NIV), or “pay taxes” (KJV), or “register loyalty to Augustus” (see this suggestion). The last suggestion seems to me the most consistent with the historical period. But perhaps the safest translation is to leave it ambiguous as “register”, admitting that we can’t confirm what was meant by Luke to have been registered.
• “ALL THE WORLD”
The Greek word for ‘world’ here is oikoumenen. We can’t absolutely assume it means “the whole geographic world”, and similarly we can’t absolutely assume the NIV’s interpretation that it means all of “the Roman Empire”, or that it just means “all Judea”. The question is, whose “oikoumenen” is it in Luke’s mind, given that the only illustrative example he gives merely takes a single couple to Bethlehem? The safest translation is perhaps just “world”, admitting that we can’t nail down whose “world” is intended. But clearly, at least, Luke would not intend the literal whole physical world because he will have known that that went beyond Caesar’s jurisdiction.
CONCLUSION: All we are strictly left with as an accurate translation is “register all the world”. That’s how I would translate it, with a footnote to say that we don’t know what that means; and mentioning the notable suggestions of translators and exegetes. The ESV translates it more or less the same way: "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered."
If there are three options, and we wanted for some reason to select something anachronistic (“census” being probably anachronistic), we need a good rationale for why we would select that in this specific case (NIV translators ought to take note!).
In short, if we were to start from the presumption that Luke has made a mistake, we would have to choose which mistake – a pre- or post-70AD mistake based on Luke misapplying an awareness of Imperial oaths or paying taxes, or a post-73AD mistake of Luke misapplying an awareness of an Empire-wide census.
My tentative conclusion is that this is about a registration to do with making an oath to Augustus, as the best fit with the text and the period (with people being registered for this purpose in Judea and probably wider afield). If it is about an oath to Augustus, then Luke may be correct about it having happened. We know that this was a practice in the era of Jesus' birth. On that basis, I lean towards that.
A sceptic might still think, even if it is about an oath, that it is a mistake made by Luke pre- or post-70AD, but there would be no certain way of knowing which. So that does not help to date this gospel anyway.
I don’t think we can date Luke’s gospel from Luke 2:1 – we might try to, but we shouldn’t press our conclusions about it too firmly into service, when we don't even know the correct translation and meaning of it.