Sunday, 9 April 2017

Arguments for Luke’s Gospel being written after 70AD: how do they rate?

In another post, I set out clear arguments for why Luke’s Gospel and his Book of Acts would have been written by about 62AD. However, most biblical scholars today take the view that Luke’s Gospel must have been written after 70AD. This post puts that opinion, and its best arguments, to the test. (NB: I am not trying to argue about all the gospels here. This post is only about Luke’s Gospel.) The boundary set by ce70AD is simple: this is the year when the Roman army overran Jerusalem’s defences and destroyed the city and the temple. That is an undisputed historical fact. Which side of that line does Luke’s Gospel fall? Before or after? Does Luke show that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen, rather than its fall being something that Luke was waiting to happen?

A few words about method. Secular historians will look at an issue like this and seek naturalistic explanations for why a book was written and why it says what it does, an explanation that works in purely human terms. Their given task is to explain the world as if God didn’t exist. That is how their job is done in the modern era. This makes their work of little interest to many Christians, who don’t see the point of such work. But what I’m interested in is to ask whether the majority secular reading is even the best naturalistic reading.

(In another post, I reflect on why academics don't usually re-open debates that they think are settled unless a valid reason is found for doing so, and I argue why that applies here.)

The texts themselves are of course common ground to all sides of the debate. First, for ease of reference, here are five key passages in Luke which are at the heart of scholars' arguments for a late date:

Luke 13:1-9 suggests the Jews still had time to repent:

‘Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (emphasis added)

Luke 13:33-35 is full of foreboding for Jerusalem, because it has rejected Jesus, without saying what will actually happen: ’”In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.”’ (This should not be assumed to be a reference to the temple, since it says 'your' house, not 'God's house' or 'my Father's house'. 'Your house' could just mean the nation of Israel, and the saying may mean that the spiritual state of Israel is hopeless.)

Luke 19:41-44 suggests time was running out: ‘As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.’ (emphasis added)

‘Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”’

‘“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.’ (emphasis added - note the mountains here are a positive image and in the next passage they are a negative image)

Luke 23:27-31: ‘A large crowd of people was following Jesus, including some women who were sad and crying for him. But Jesus turned and said to them, Women of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves and for your children. The time is coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the women who cannot have children and who have no babies to nurse.’ Then people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ And they will say to the hills, ‘Cover us!’” For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”’ (emphasis added)

Clearly, the fall of Jerusalem was a big deal for Luke, more so than for the other gospels. But all the biblical gospels show a keen interest in the Jerusalem temple, repeatedly mention it, never forget it. This is unlike most apocryphal Christian literature of the following centuries which for most part show little or no interest in it.

Here are seven arguments assessed for a post-70AD dating of Luke’s Gospel. The first is the default position of most secular scholars, prior to any deeper examination of the texts.

1) Post-70AD arguments: stories of predictions coming true should be assumed to be fictional and after-the-fact (ex eventu)

So the argument goes, the balance of probabilities is that people get predictions wrong most of the time, and so stories of people getting predictions right are suspect, especially if they have religious meaning. (Even more so if some people hold this to be so-called ‘prophecy’.) Therefore, in this case, the default naturalistic position, prior to the commencement of evidence analysis, would be that Jesus didn’t predict the fall of Jerusalem. That’s the argument. Therefore when Luke tells the story of Jesus predicting the fall of the temple, it should be assumed that this was made up after the temple fell, after 70AD. And so, Luke wrote about it after 70AD. That’s the case in brief. 

That's not all. It's not unusual for a scholar (in virtually any field!) to have a further default position, which is not to entertain anything which disputes a default position! The default position is therefore in a double-lock. That tends to be the status quo until another scholar whom they respect has a go and has recently published something questioning the default with a new line of evidence analysis.  Scholars might then be persuaded that there is evidence that merits re-opening the case. 

Of course, if everyone in the field tried to cling onto a default position without any of them ever being willing to entertain new evidence analysis, then they could be forfeiting the claim to being scientific in their approach. Because it's not just that they are not inclined to change their minds; it can be that they are also inclined to think that there is nothing to research, nothing to consider. And closed minds limit the advancement of science. 

It would be like saying that as we have Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, there is no value in measuring the earth’s gravitational ‘pull’ on the moon, because scholars agree that gravity is there, and it's not worth doing anything specifically new. That is unscientific. It would not do to say a consensus about gravity will suffice instead of testing earth's ‘pull’ on the moon, if that is the issue under investigation. If you care to know what’s there, you test on a case by case basis. 

When one analyses evidence, the position can shift dramatically for or against the default.

Counter-argument 1: evidence that we must consider

I'll be saying a bit more about this, but any analysis has to be in light of the fact of the radical Christian reappraisal of its theology of the temple, which secular scholars usually agree was recorded two decades before the temple fell in 70AD. A certain Christian in the 50s of that century had written to fellow Christians these things, which contain an implicit criticism of singular devotion to the Jerusalem temple:

  • Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple [ναὸς] and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone corrupts God’s temple, God will corrupt that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 NIV adapted) 
  • Do you not know that your bodies are temples [ναὸς] of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God. (1 Corinthians 6:19 NIV)

  • For we know that if the earthly tent [σκήνους] we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands [ἀχειροποίητον]. (2 Cor 5:1)

What is really remarkable about that last one is that, even though Paul is talking about what it will be like to be human in one's own future resurrection body, Paul is invoking Old Testament words that were precisely about putting a question mark in one's mind about whether the Jerusalem temple could contain God's presence. In fact, he is invoking exactly the same Old Testament theology (2 Chronicles 6:18, Septuagint 3 Kings 8:27) that features in early Christian rhetoric that upset the temple authorities, where Christians were saying that God really wanted a temple that was not 'made with human hands':

  • the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands [χειροποιήτοις] (Acts 7:48)

How is possible that a radical appraisal of the temple was happening two decades before the Jerusalem temple fell? I will be saying more about this documentary evidence which indirectly speaks to our understanding of what Christians thought about the fall of the Jerusalem temple. It certainly means that we cannot blithely assume that only after 70AD were Christians speaking as if the Jerusalem temple was already losing its place in the hearts of some Christians. Something had already dislodged it.

Counter-argument 2: assessing the odds

So evidence analysis of Luke's Gospel commences, and we will see how the arguments rate for it being written after 70AD. First of all, since we are looking for a naturalistic reading, I will adopt the word 'prediction' rather than 'prophecy', preferring a word commonly used in a naturalistic sense. 

Firstly, the odds of a prediction being made need to be assessed in a more balanced way when you weigh them as words of someone playing a part that did exist in Jewish literature at the time, as an up-and-coming Jewish prophet during a time of political unrest with strong views about the temple leadership, and a role-model in the apocalyptic Jewish prophets Jeremiah. Apocalyptic sayings tend to focus on the worst case scenario. It's a genre thing. For such a figure as Jesus to do as Jeremiah did centuries before, who had predicted the sixth century fall of Jerusalem according to Jewish literature, is not out of character if Jesus had such a role-model. To erase the possibility of a prediction is also effectively to erase the role-model status of the likes of Jeremiah - because once you accept that Jeremiah could be a role-model to an upcoming apocalyptic Jewish prophet, predicting the temple's fall comes with it, and if therefore if you can't allow the latter, then you can't allow the former.  

Related to that, an a priori ruling out of such a prediction has the inadvertent side-effect of virtually hollowing out pre-70AD Jewish life of any reflection on the single most traumatic event of Israel's history - the 6th century BC destruction of the temple. Suddenly, reflection on this history is virtually erased from Jewish life until after 70AD. This is a thoroughly odd scenario for the academy to bequest to us.  

Thirdly, that such a prediction should come true is hardly miraculous or entirely unpredictable in the circumstances. The odds of Jesus predicting disaster can’t be assessed solely on the general principle that most predictions don’t come true, religious or otherwise. The balance of probabilities shifts appreciably when the specific first century context of periodic unrest comes into view.

Fourthly, the odds of an author writing such a thing also have to be assessed differently if the author has animus, and reason to have animus, against the Jerusalem temple as he found it in his day. I mean Luke, and I mean that the prospect of the fall of the temple could have appealed to him. I will come back to that. 

For those reasons, it is reasonable to think that a prediction about the temple falling could easily have been made before 70AD. Such warnings more clearly evoked Israel’s past rather than the future anyway. Narratives of the 6th century BC fall of Jerusalem and its temple were hardwired into the Jewish psyche. Scars from the disastrous fall of centuries previous haunted the Jewish imagination. They were just the sort of dark memories you would invoke, as if modelling oneself on a Jeremiah, if you were to speak woes upon the country’s elite. And it’s not unlikely Jesus did exactly that.  

The fortunes of the temple were a big deal, of national interest, and some Jews took particular interest in it. And Jesus in the gospels is clearly one of them. I go further into the reasonableness of this prediction in another post here.

Counter-argument 3: doing history better

Expanding on that, I have two particular points to make here.

 i) Is it 'prophecy'?

As mentioned, I want straight away to dispense with the idea that Jesus’ words are meant to be some kind of supernatural 'prophecy'. There's nothing innately supernatural about a political prediction of a not unlikely military defeat. Such predictions are commonplace even today. Luke never claims it's a 'supernaturally' made prediction or that defeat would be a 'supernatural' event either. A political prediction is not intrinsically supernatural. Ironically both conservatives and liberals err into judging the text on the flawed basis of a supposed ‘supernatural’ theme. This creates a huge distraction. Viewing readings here as a contest between naturalism versus supernaturalism is a mistake. It simply distorts readings of what the issues in this text are: highly political warnings. There is nothing obviously supernatural in Jesus’ words, which are simply warnings wrapped in Old Testament language. After all, one hears dire predictions in mainstream media every day, some quite explicit, currently about the likely consequences of Brexit or the Trump Presidency; but I don’t need to interpret these media predictions as supernatural prophecies, and I won’t, even if some of them might come true. Ditto for Jesus’ warnings in this case. Set that distorting issue of supernatural prophecy aside, and the text is easier to read.

ii) Are we projecting our knowledge onto Luke?

Another distorting problem is that we can look at the text through our historically aware post-70AD viewpoint. We know that Jerusalem fell. But we shouldn’t rush to project that onto Luke as if we know that Luke was aware as we are.

To be fair, scholars sometimes go further than merely assuming the default position. When pressed, they bolster it, although largely we find the default position reiterated one way or another.

2) Post-70AD arguments: Luke writes things that must have been written after 70AD, doesn’t he?

The cornerstone of this argument is to say that the default position wins because Luke shows his hand and gives away that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen already when he was writing. Those arguing this, to justify their position, cite the scriptures above, but of course those scriptures are common ground, and what matters is how they are used. e.g. Some take Luke 23:27-31, interpreting it as something that would have been written only after 70AD when Jerusalem was destroyed, made up by the author, not spoken by Jesus.

In it, Jesus speaks on his way to die upon the cross. All scholars make a reasonable inference that these words comprise a warning of trouble and strife for Jerusalem especially: “Women of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves and for your children”. This shows us a Jesus (and a Luke) who took a personal interest in the waning fortunes of Israel and Jerusalem.

Luke alone sees fit to include these words, unlike the other gospel writers. For that reason, sceptical scholars are apt to say that Luke was thinking about the fall of Jerusalem in a way that sets him apart from the other writers. Luke seems to make a bigger deal of the fate of Jerusalem that the other gospels do. From this, scholars infer that the author had something in mind more than was in the basic story he had received of the death of Jesus, the extra thing being that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen. But does this rather mysterious sounding and ambiguous passage really warrant dating the book post-70AD? There are counter arguments.

Counter-argument 1: “what will happen …?”

One problem for those who opt for later dating is Jesus’ question in it: “What will happen…?” Translated differently, you could put it, “what will become of the dry branch?”

What will cause the women’s sorrow? Jesus falls short of saying anything specific. It literally works as an open question. “What will happen…?” means “What will happen…?” It sounds like, “Be warned, be ready, wait and see.”

It shows no cleverness about events, and does not, on the face of it, mean “Look what happened!” It relies for meaning on its ambiguous ‘dry’ metaphor, not resembling factual reporting: “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will become of the dry branch?” It is deliberately ambiguous and open-ended about specifics. If “what will happen…?” alone were all we had to go on, we would lean towards it dating to before 70AD, not after 70AD.

Counter-argument 2: “what will happen …?” is typical of the vagueness

This stands or falls on whether you think the references are so descriptive of the fall of Jerusalem that they cannot have been written before 70AD. But the case for that is not overwhelming. Of the five passages, three are so vague that they could be about anything, if we were not projecting a particular perspective onto them. They are Luke 13:1-9, 13:33-35, and Luke 23:27-31 with its ‘dry branch’. The vague descriptions in Jesus’ words are insufficient evidence for supposing that Luke was writing with historical awareness of 70AD. Typically of these three passages, the “what will happen?” passage does not stipulate whether it refers to one particular event, or just more broadly a time of trouble and strife, in the shadow of the rejection of Jesus. Jesus is here talking in Old Testament language (e.g. Hosea 10:8), not describing some scene like a reporter might.  

The signs in the passages are that Jesus’ grim fate will bear grim consequences for Jerusalem. If issued pre-70AD, they serve as a shrill warning to Jerusalem (more on this later). Jesus’ words also give meaning to suffering. That is so, whether it is a suffering anticipated, or one that has happened by the time Luke was writing, or is unfolding at the time the Gospel was being written. Whichever it is, the words link trouble in Jerusalem with the rejection of Jesus. It is left ambiguous as to precisely what suffering Jesus’ words refer to in “what will happen?” but it is natural to associate it with the other passages. But trying to find particulars in this vagueness is not scientific. It is like trying to read tea leaves.

Conclusion: at best, you can say that this “what will happen?” passage could be argued either way, but it is insufficient to be determinative for early or late dating of Luke’s Gospel.

3) Post-70AD arguments: a siege is mentioned

The default position therefore has to do something more with the passages that both sides examine. Given the above, this boils down to examining two of the five passages: Luke 19:41-44 and Luke 21:5-6, 20-24. Late-daters think they have a smoking gun in that Luke’s outline bears some resemblance to what Titus did to Jerusalem in his siege of 70AD. That is, the description fits the facts. Again, there are counter arguments.

Counter-argument: there’s nothing unique about the siege in Luke

Consider this from the description of the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in Old Testament times. It is a story that would have been familiar in Jesus' day. From 2 Kings 24 and 25:

[the Jewish king] had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood... Babylon advanced on Jerusalem and laid siege to it... because of the Lord’s anger… in the end he thrust them from his presence…. king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army. He encamped outside the city and built siege works all around it…. the city wall was broken through, and the whole [Jewish] army fled… Babylonians were surrounding the city… [Jewish] soldiers… scattered… Babylon… set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem… the commander of the guard carried into exile the people who remained in the city, along with the rest of the populace… The whole Babylonian army… broke down the walls around Jerusalem… people fled to Egypt for fear of the Babylonians.

Now compare that with Jesus’ words:

Luke 19:41-44

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he [Jesus] wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.... They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.

Luke 21:5-6, 20-24:

‘Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down… When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written… There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They... will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on…”

The similarities are obvious. It is not difficult to say that Jesus’ words have a lot to do with the words in 1 Kings, and nothing in them needed to wait till after 70AD to be spoken or written.
These passages depict that Jesus has now gone into a mode of waiting for the temple to fall, and imagining it.  But again, much of this is vague, a warning rather than factual reporting. Did the Judeans go to the mountains as Jesus advised? We don’t know. It is more Old Testament than newsflash. In any case:

  • 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 implicitly 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?

Quite what kind of imagined defeat of a walled city by the Romans would of necessity exclude those elements is never explained by late-daters, and as such this does not meet any reasonable test for dating the Gospel post-70AD. The skimpy outline detail in Luke is applicable to almost any conquest of a walled city in the near east in antiquity. As said, Jesus is simply depicted as waiting for the temple to fall, and putting his imagination to it, which would appeal to the author Luke as we shall see. If it were ex eventu, it is strangely vague.

The description is surrounded by much that has no specific context post-70AD at all. that is, Luke’s description is also coated in the sort of religious language you find in the Old Testament, which did in fact influence how Luke wrote generally, rather than relevant detail.

Have sceptics really done comprehensive evidence analysis of Luke 21:5-36? Luke’s work shows no actual detailed knowledge of the who what when of 70AD and its preceding siege whatsoever. Luke seems blissfully unaware that the siege of 70AD began during the Jewish festival of Passover, which would have been replete with meaning for him. He seems unaware that during the siege, Jews committed atrocities against each other, which would have fitted the apocalyptic tone of judgment. It appears no-one told Luke that his description should be adjusted to reflect the fact that the temple was destroyed by fire. He seems clueless about the detail that it was preceded by a ruthless purge by the Romans of Jesus’ beloved Galilee. 

If you look at Josephus’ spectacular account of the burning of the temple, it is plain to see that Luke’s account has nothing of the kind:

“…the Jews … in order to prevent the distemper’s spreading farther… set the northwest cloister … on fire… and thereby made a beginning in burning the sanctuary.
…the soldiers … put fire to the gates; and the silver that was over them quickly carried the flames to the wood that was within it: whence it spread itself all on the sudden, and caught hold on the cloisters.
… those that guarded the holy house fought with those that quenched the fire that was burning the inner [court of the] temple.
… While the holy house was on fire… because this hill was high, and the works at the temple were very great, one would have thought the whole city had been on fire…”

What extraordinary detail to go unspoken by Luke. It is much more apocalyptic sounding than the tumbling of stones, and could have suited Luke’s telling of the story quite nicely. Anyone who thinks that it was after 70AD that Luke got his story about the destruction of the temple should have doubts about that, really shouldn’t be too sure at all. As for other interesting details, nothing in Luke would give you any clue that Caesar (Vespasian) was present when the temple was on fire (but Josephus tells us that he was). Luke only imagines armies.
Why isn’t there more of a good fit? Where is the proper consideration of all these issues when late-daters assert that Luke’s knowledge is what makes the Gospel post-date 70AD?

4) Post-70AD arguments: historical-critical view

Some readers may be unfamiliar with the historical-critical approach. This is particularly to do with looking for a human explanation for a text, as if God does not exist. It is common for scholars to take the view that one of the reasons for the inclusion of material in a gospel is that its content mirrored the current experiences of the Christians who heard and read that gospel, making it particularly relevant to them at that moment in time. In other words, if we can match the tenor of the passage with another historical moment, that could help date the book. I’m not saying that the historical-critical approach is an exact science. (See Eta Linneman’s critique of it.) But it is worth asking a question: if this method is used, does scholars’ usual reading stand up as the most convincing result of applying this method?

By way of expanding the question, why was it relevant to speak of the rejection of Jesus and his message, by his fellow Jews, in such anguished and apocalyptic terms, waiting for Jerusalem to fall or looking back on its fall? What author or audience felt that way, at the time of its composition, such that the drama would resonate?

What would occasion Luke to include in his Gospel something (so dramatic) that the other gospels don’t include (other than the possible reason of Luke being the only one who knew the material)? Why was it special to Luke to speak of fall-out from the rejection of Jesus by his fellow Jews in such highly-charged terms? In short, what fresh moment gave the author the impetus to write it down?

Scholars who date the Gospel post-70AD infer that these verses are indicative of a post-70AD Christian audience who are interested in the theme of rejection. Since in this view there is nothing sure to anchor the date, scholars arbitrarily date the gospel anywhere between 70AD and 100AD. Here, the occasion post-70AD becomes very speculative. We should note that, for such a rejection by Jews in this era, there is scant evidence. We don’t have any strong evidence of rejection by Jews after 62AD (the death of James), except for tensions that manifest in second century Christian texts and third century rabbinic texts.

Sceptical scholars conjecture that unknown Christians were experiencing unknown rejection by unknown Jews in some unknown moment. I know I’m harshly characterising this view, but that is the essence of it. And, of course, there are counter arguments.

Counter-argument: that is weak

That argument does not identify a concrete impetus for writing these verses at all. That, unfortunately, is what comes of a priori dating post-70AD. Layer upon layer of inferences can become a house of cards. Why was the fall of Jerusalem a big deal for this Gospel’s audience, say, 20 or 30 years after it fell? It’s an important question. After all, we don’t see explicit anxiety over the fate of Jerusalem in any other Christian literature of the first hundred years of Christianity, only In Matthew, Mark and Luke. There is no good evidence base for the historical-critical approach to hang a hat on post-70AD, so the sceptic has to conjecture one.  

Side-note: Dating the Gospel post-70AD of course drives further inferences. Either that Luke, the companion of Paul, was still alive post-70AD. Or that the Gospel was written by someone else who was not a companion of Paul and was living and writing post-70AD, and indeed some scholars really do make such an inference founded on the prior inferences, so that Luke and Paul are removed from any direct connection with the author of Acts (as well as the Gospel)! Actually, we know nothing at all of Luke’s life after the end of the narrative in Acts other than that he finished writing it up. We know so very little at all of church history post 62AD (where Acts breaks off) to the early second century – it is one of the least recorded in church history - that all assumptions about a post-70AD Gospel are awash with thinly grounded speculations, of which we should be cautious.  As thin as this is, it is attractive to some scholars who want the door of doubt pushed wider ajar so that they can march their own innovative historical narrative through it, with late dating and author-guessing and imagined situations: reconstructed histories are in vogue. But it is not wholly convincing as an occasion for the writing of the verses.

So the a priori post AD dating is not bolstered convincingly in any way. But of course, to go against the a priori position needs justification. A Christian might simply read off the text that the Gospel says that Jesus made his prediction pre-70AD and that is good enough for the believer. But secular scholars approach ancient texts with caution and with methods for testing the text. One such method is to ask what occasion pre-70AD could possibly explain a prediction being written down before anyone knew that the temple had fallen. Scholars call this a Sitz in Leben. There is a solid case to be made, and this is both a good counter-argument to the above and a good case for a pre-70AD date.

Argument for a pre-70AD date: a pre-70AD occasion for writing

It was possible to be agitated about the fate of Jerusalem before or after its destruction, but what is to be determinative for dating?  

What if there is a clearer occasion that could have existed for the writing of these words? Let’s return to the historical-critical approach. Given that the passage is about Jesus being rejected and its consequences for Jerusalem, could it have appealed to the gospel’s first audience because they too, or Christians whom they knew, were – like Jesus - being rejected by powers in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was deserving of consequences? Such an occasion would be a harsh lived experience of Christians there. Do we know of such an occasion?

Yes, we know of one (more than one, actually) in Luke’s text. However highly or lowly we rate the historicity of Acts, there is a clear parallel of the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of Christians who, like Jesus, felt their message, and they themselves, got rejected by fellow Jews in Jerusalem. No mistake: Christians unquestionably saw it that way. Parallels in persecutions within Luke-Acts are a key theme on page after page.

This is promising ground for understanding the text better, if the historical-critical approach is valid. Our author Luke describes in Acts a significant Christian – one especially significant to him - who equated his own suffering with Jesus’ suffering. That is to say, his message was rejected in Jerusalem and he personally suffered harm for it. This was Paul. We know that he felt acutely grieved that Jewish people were not listening to him. (See for example Paul’s words in Romans on the gospel not being heeded by Jews. See also the similar message from the closing paragraphs of Acts. In particular, Paul is rejected in Jerusalem at its most holy site, the temple.)

Luke is able to use this for his own agenda. There is a scholarly consensus that Luke was writing with sympathy for Paul. According to Luke, his friend has been almost brutally murdered in the temple. So it’s little wonder that his Gospel bears more negative sentiment about the temple, and predicts its future more gloomily than the other gospels do. Rejections of Jesus and Paul are major focal points in Luke’s Gospel and Acts. The parallel is striking. As evidence of this, see Acts 21:10-14, where Paul is leaving Miletus fearing death in Jerusalem:

“After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”

The story has clear echoes of Jesus being handed over by Jews to Gentiles for execution in Jerusalem, after ignoring the pleadings of his disciples not to go there, with people weeping over his apparent fate. So this is just like the gospel story of Jesus. Paul says he is ready “to die in Jerusalem”, believing that it might be God's will for him to be executed there. Like his hero, Jesus.

Clearly, Luke sees and draws out the parallel for all its worth. And the fate of Jerusalem hangs in the balance in such moments according to Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ dire warnings would have resonated strongly with Paul’s sympathisers, seeing their hero rejected like Jesus in Jerusalem.

So, if we form a view of the best historical-critical reading, was it the case that the occasion for the above verses being written was a time when the author’s ears were ringing from the sound of Paul’s anguish at the rejection of himself by his fellow Jews, and when the author was deeply affected by Paul being nearly murdered in the temple? Such an occasion fits all the facts. The implication here is that for rejection of Jesus and Paul, there will be bad consequences. Thus, we have a naturalistic explanation for the writing of the verses. That is, “Reject our man, who was sent by God, and see what will happen to you!”

Of course, the impact of that on dating Luke’s Gospel is that it tends it towards being an earlier Sitz im Leben – closer to the time of Paul’s anguish and pre-70AD - rather than later and further removed from Paul’s time.

Conclusion: at best, you can say that the historical-critical approach could be argued either way, but it is insufficient to be absolutely determinative for early or late dating of Luke’s Gospel. If anything, it is better provided with a literary context by a pre-70AD dating.

What is given too little attention by scholars is how the New Testament authors felt about the temple, not just what they thought about it. Sentiment, not just ideas, plays a huge part in the development of a movement. Sentiment about Israel's temple is a case in point. Jesus came to transform the nation, but once it had clearly rejected his message, how did sentiment in his movement change? One of the rising currents in sentiment was a bold demonstrative anger towards the temple elite. Once Jesus had done his very physical demonstration in the temple, turning over the tables of the money-changes, this surely released something in the disciples. All the gospels feature such a scene. It gave them licence to stop being respectful of the temple's elite, and to openly court conflict with it. We see that in Luke's Acts, where Peter and John wilfully ignore official instructions to stop preaching about Jesus within the temple. They stride around the temple as if they own it. We see similar courting of conflict when Stephen is killed for allegedly speaking out against the temple. Something had given them licence to speak and act disruptively against the temple's Jewish leaders, and the Gospels trace that attitude back to Jesus. His example authorised them to conduct a campaign  of dissent against the temple elite. Every report in Luke-Acts of a word against the temple is a manifestation of that licence, such that they could now give vent to negative attitudes towards it that had previously been kept in check by Jewish social order. (By way of a comparison, in Britain in 2018, one might consider how there has been more strident anti-EU sentiment after the Brexit vote than before it, as if the vote gave licence to attitudes which many people previously did not feel free to express.) Their sentiment had turned against the temple elite who nevertheless were hanging on to power, whereas Jesus had been executed. We may see Luke's animus towards the temple similarly released by the near-death of his friend Paul in the temple, and he gives vent to that by foregrounding Jesus issuing dire warnings about the temple in his Gospel, and by giving prominence to the stories of Peter and John defiantly preaching Jesus' name in the temple, and Stephen's execution.

It is thus easy to see how a pre-70AD situation for the writing of Luke-Acts is entirely in tune with sentiment displayed in the text.

Let's return to reasons given by secular scholars to bolster the a priori assumption of a post-70AD date.

5) Post-70AD arguments: lack of attestation of Luke’s Gospel being read by anyone for some decades after 70AD

From the fact that there is no clear unequivocable direct attestation of Luke's Gospel in other extant writings before the mid-second century, an argument from silence is made that the gospel was not written till then.

Counter-argument: tiny pool of witnesses

However, this is from a tiny pool of witnesses (basically fragments of Papias, one letter from each of Clement, Polycarp and Barnabas, and a few from Ignatius). It is nowhere near as powerful as the arguments from silence about what is not said within the text of Luke-Acts, regarding key events and details of persons of the 60s that are absent in Acts. What is not said in Acts particularly points to pre-70AD authorship.

6) Post-70AD arguments: writing after Josephus

An old argument for a later date is that Luke cribbed off Josephus’ Jewish War and his 93AD work Antiquities of the Jews, and thus can only have been writing much later than 70AD. Both of course were writing about events in first century Israel.

Counter-argument: it doesn’t look like Luke did

If Luke did copy Josephus, then why does he not get it ‘right’ when Luke tells of the same events as Josephus: his version of events has discrepancies compared to Josephus. The classic quote on this is from Emil Schurer back in 1876! “Either Luke had not read Josephus, or he had forgotten all about what he had read.” (Schurer, “Lucas und Josephus,” Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie 19, 582-83). It would be too much extra length for this post to be plunging deep into this pool of evidence and analysis, but, instead, relevant comments can be found here. A sceptical notion that Luke was a writer of later times merely cribbing off Josephus is patently false, as abundant evidence to the contrary exists - not least, Luke has a good deal of highly accurate information of first century life and times which is actually absent from Josephus' work, and examples can be seen here.

7) Post-70AD arguments: re-writing Marcion’s Gospel

Here’s another suggested argument for late dating. Second century church fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian understood that the heretic Marcion, in the first half of the second century, cut a copy of Luke’s Gospel into a shorter version for use in his church. (Marcion was a church leader whose heresy was that he rejected the Old Testament and its God.) The radical suggestion by revisionist scholars today is that the truth is the opposite of what the witnesses say, and that actually Luke’s Gospel is a rewrite of Marcion’s Gospel. And thus, Luke was written later, sometime in the second century. (A further implication of this is that the autobiographical first person ‘we’ passage in Acts would be fake, since Paul’s travelling companions could not feasibly be alive writing mid-second century.)

Counter-argument: proto-Luke

This is an interesting fringe view. It is one of those instances where scholars’ literary criticism is like the ‘art’ of reading tea-leaves and some of the conclusions that scholars try to draw are about as firm. Its primary problem is that it has no sound evidence base. Marcion’s gospel is lost to the ravages of time, and all we have is reconstructions of bits of it, and the reconstructions are based on quotes in Tertullian and Epiphanius which may have been done from memory inaccurately and from different versions of Marcion’s gospel. And it gets worse. With such an uncertain evidence base, scholars are unable to agree on just about anything. Some suggest that Marcion just cut bits from Luke’s Gospel (because Irenaeus and Tertullian say so and they lived in the same century as Marcion, so they should at least be given a hearing, and it’s an easy conclusion to jump to). Other scholars suggest that Luke’s Gospel is a second century expanded rewrite of Marcion’s (the fringe view stated above). Others suggest that both Luke and Marcion had common source(s).

Actually, this last suggestion seems to best fit the evidence, such as we have it. It is truthful to Luke’s statement (Luke 1:1-4) that other unfinished gospel materials were given to him and that he expanded/collated them (into our longest gospel), which allows us to say a couple of things: Luke says these versions were given to him but he never says they were destroyed – we might call part of this material ‘proto-Luke’. So proto-Luke was around as well as Luke’s Gospel, judging by Luke’s testimony. And it was proto-Luke that Marcion edited to be his own Gospel. This is not a million miles away from the witness of Irenaeus and Tertullian – i.e. Marcion edited more or less the same text that Luke had used before he did. It is easy to see why the church fathers looked at Marcion’s Gospel and thought “Ah! He’s used Luke!” So this is consistent with Luke’s witness and partly consistent with the church fathers’. It is also consistent with what some scholars today find. That is to say, some of Marcion’s Gospel happens to look like a deviation from Luke whereas sometimes Luke looks like a deviation from Marcion, but you can’t have it both ways, and a simpler solution is that both are probably deviations from proto-Luke. Again sometimes Luke’s differences seem unlike deviations from Marcion, and Marcion’s differences seem unlike deviations from Luke in all probability, but both could be deviations from proto-Luke. So, what is really happening is probably that both had been editing a version(s) of the first century text ‘proto-Luke’ which was still circulating, Luke in the first century according to his own witness and Marcion in the second century.

In this light, arguing a late date for Luke from this evidence is not robust.  

Side note: The earliest direct witness to the problem is Irenaeus who wrote that Marcion “mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke” (Irenaeus Against Heresies, I.27.2). And Tertullian: “Marcion seems to have singled out Luke for his mutilating process…” (Tertullian, Against Marcion, IV.2). Tertullian adds: “that Gospel of Luke which we are defending with all our might has stood its ground from its very first publication; whereas Marcion’s Gospel is not known to most people”.

In any case, problems with the theory of Marcion coming before Luke’s Gospel are myriad. Apart from the fact that it doesn’t really explain all the evidence, why on earth would Christians bother to rewrite Marcion’s gospel when they already had others of their own (e.g. Matthew, Mark and John)? If they wanted an anti-Marcion gospel (so some suggest), they had one in the form of Matthew (it is especially honouring of the Old Testament), so why not just use that? Why didn’t they just treat Marcion’s as an apocryphal gospel? Why not just dismiss it as they did other apocryphal gospels? If they rewrote this one, why didn’t they rewrite other apocryphal gospels too, if rewrites of them were a worthwhile cause? It’s a problematic base from which to argue for late dating of Luke.

Final reflections

Seven arguments for late dating have been assessed there. You might be forgiven if you got the impression that Luke’s Gospel has been subjected to sustained assaults to date it post-70AD. But none of these late-date arguments is determinative. None of them is able to bear the weight of late dating.

The most compelling data for dating, and this all points to a pre-70AD authorship, is that which provides dating for Luke’s Acts (the most compelling of this data is outlined in my post regarding dating of Acts). The majority of scholarship pays little attention to this data. Of course, dating Acts to pre-70AD entails a pre-70AD date for Luke’s Gospel too, since one author wrote both, Luke first, Acts second. (This sequence of authorship is more or less undisputed by scholars, but most are reluctant to ascribe pre-70AD dating to either.)

Aan early date is bolstered by the Sitz im Leben that I have argued for above.

The state of affairs being as we have seen, you have to ask what else could be driving scholars to a late dating? Is it based on data, or is it that a preference for a naturalistic worldview – working for the cause of eschewing narratives about miracles as false - pushes scholars into trying to date the gospels as far away from the lifetime of Jesus (and the apostles) as they reasonably can? In other words, they don’t want the books written too close to the time of Jesus and the apostles because that would put the gospel miracles in a different light. Worldview has a good deal to do with it.

What strikes me is that it seems no Christian voices - no disciples or followers speaking in the texts were  portrayed by themselves or by others as being responsible for predicting the fall of Jerusalem. Only Jesus. No-one in the church seems to have stuck out their neck to say that, except by way of repeating Jesus. And only three biblical gospels highlight Jesus saying it (Matthew, Mark and Luke). It is virtually unique to the voice of Jesus in early Christian literature to agonise over the fate of Jerusalem specifically. You don’t see it in the epistles of Paul or other early Christian letters inside and outside the New Testament. This in itself suggests that it was of more concern to Jesus, pre-70AD, than to the broader church before or after 70AD.

This seems to make it all the more plausible to me that it is Jesus in particular we are hearing when we read predictions of the fall of Jerusalem.

It also seems to me that Luke, more than other gospel authors, is especially interested in waiting for Jerusalem to fall, making us imagine its deserved fate, calling out that the sky is going to fall in, so to speak. He seems to display some animus towards it. He links the crisis to the fatal rejection of Jesus which he clearly parallels to the near-fatal rejection of his friend Paul who was almost murdered in the temple. It is no surprise in that light that negative feeling towards the temple rises more to the surface in Luke’s Gospel than in other gospels. This all relates to pre-70AD situations. There is certainly nothing here to date Luke’s Gospel post-70AD unless we are a priori committed to that. 

Late-daters sometimes say that the gospels were actually written to explain why Jerusalem was destroyed. But why then is there an absence of any other literature trying to make such an explanation in the whole first hundred years of Christianity? One has to explain why no-one else was trying to make such an explanation if they thought a Christian explanation ought to be published. Why is it only in the gospels? Why does such a message not come in the name of anyone in the church? Why is it only in Jesus’ voice? A simpler explanation is that Jesus predicted the fall and the gospels merely highlight it.

What to make of Jesus’ shrill words? Do they just give meaning to suffering, or are they also warnings? It is in situations of mortal danger rather than post-mortem situations that shrill warnings resound with more meaning. It is not necessary to be quite so shrill after a house has burned down as it is before it burns down. So the tone of it could be suggestive of a pre-70AD date as much as, if not more than, a post-70AD date. The shrill tone would be relevant to the atmosphere during the war of 66-70AD or even of the pre-66AD tension leading towards the war, just as much as, if not more than, the atmosphere after the war was over.

It is simple enough to read the verses as a fraught warning recorded in the tense atmosphere of the 60s of the first century with Christians having experienced decades of rejection and difficulty, and Jerusalem’s elite being problematic, a warning with a shrill tone that asks its audience to listen before it is too late.

On that basis, a good argument can be made that this warning was published to be heard while Jerusalem and its temple were still standing and its leaders were deaf to apocalyptic warnings.

A point oft-made but worth reiterating is that Luke makes a big deal of waiting for the temple to fall, but then does not capitalise on it. Writing post-70AD, an author at least might try to score the point about Jesus being right about trouble for Jerusalem by saying “and this came to pass when…” or else at least describe it with some meaningful detail to an audience who would be in the know as to what happened in 70AD: e.g. that the siege began during Passover, or that Jews committed atrocities against each other during it, or that it was preceded by a purge in Galilee. But Luke doesn’t do that. He doesn’t score the point. This is difficult for late-daters to explain away. If a gospel were post-70AD, you would expect it to either capitalise on the point or more or less just avoid the issue or prediction/fulfilment altogether. Notably, the one biblical gospel almost universally agreed to be post-70AD by a couple of decades – John’s Gospel – more or less just avoids the issue altogether. It shows virtually no explicit interest at all in the fall of Jerusalem and the temple – no prediction. So talking about the fall of Jerusalem was not intrinsically a feature of gospel-writing post-70AD. It would however seem intrinsic to pre-70AD gospel writing to make the point that they were waiting for the fall of Jerusalem. Depicting Jesus as waiting for the temple to fall, and imagining it, conveys this.

Footnote: Is Luke 2:1 an anachronism?

Here is another question that is sometimes raised for dating Luke’s Gospel.

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 around the time of Jesus' birth. 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 - counting people and property - in 74AD, there isn’t one for the time Luke is talking about, unless you are basically talking about Quirinius' 6AD undertaking instead. (In the era of Luke 2:1, the Emperor Augustus was counting everything and anything he could get away with, but not necessarily an empire-wide census of people and property covering Judea.) Where could Luke have got the idea of such a "census" in Herod's reign from (if he meant that)? Would it mean (the sceptical view) that the 74AD Roman census gave Luke the idea of imagining a massive census in the year of Jesus’ birth? Well, if so, that means that Luke wrote his Gospel sometime post-74AD. That is a reason why some scholars use Luke 2:1 to date the gospel after 70AD. 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 especially the assumptions of translators. In Luke 2:1, the specific Greek words matter. Firstly, whichever way you choose to read it, Luke says there was more than one registration. There are two main options about that. Option A: Luke could be saying that 6AD was the "first" of more than one registration under Quirinius - which is odd because neither Luke nor Josephus ever claims that Quirinius had a second one after 6AD. Or option B: Luke is saying that the one around Jesus' birth was the one "before" the 6AD Qurinius one, but fewer scholars like the translation "before". Either way, we ought to have some sense of why Luke undoubtedly thought there was more than one registration, but I can't resolve that in this post. What would be interesting to develop further is that when Luke talks about the registration in the nativity story, it is here that we find the word translated "first"; whereas when Gamaliel refers to a registration, it is not claimed to be the first. This word "first" is plausibly how Luke distinguishes between the two. 

Secondly, my focus here: these words report a decree to REGISTER i.e. “apographesthai” (not literally the word “census”, and there are alternative meanings - see below), to register ALL THE WORLD i.e. “pasan ten oikoumenen” (not literally “the Roman Empire”). That’s all we have to go on within the verse: "to register all the world". Everything else is interpretation. Let’s break this down, because there are reasons to think "census" is a mistranslation, and it wouldn't be the first time that an exegetical problem has been thrown up by a mistranslation or a misunderstanding.

Simply following the traditions of some translators, and their assumptions about what “register” means, is problematic. Clearly, we can’t absolutely assume without evidence that “register” here means “census” (NIV) - certainly not in the modern sense of a head count or in the ancient sense of mustering an army; nor can we absolutely assume it means “pay taxes” (KJV); or “register loyalty to Augustus” (see this suggestion which I think needs more attention). Census, taxation and loyalty oath are all within the range of activities covered by "register." 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 around the time of Jesus' birth. 

For the purpose of this post, it ultimately has little bearing as it is an inconclusive translation. Even if we were to suppose that Luke made an error in Luke 2:1, writing some decades later, nothing about dating Luke-Acts pre- or post-70AD is determined by it. That is, an error in dating the registration could be made by a writer before or after 70AD.

But, as said, a date after 70AD will be often be suggested by those who hold that "register" means "census," and this is because the best external explanation for anyone writing "census" is found post-74AD.

So, the issue of dating can be influenced by assumptions of what this "registration" actually was. 

There is another reason why some assume that Luke means "census". Luke uses the same word "register" when talking about the 6AD one (Acts 5:37), but this does not mean that Luke is using such a generic word to mean the exact same kind of thing with laser-sharp certainty. Here I need to expand on the suggestion of an error by Luke himself, as to his placing of Quirinius. In Acts 5:37, Luke a second time refers to a "registration" but which he now associates with Judas the Galilean's troubles (one which historian Josephus happens to uniquely connect with a tax-related registration in 6AD, when Quirinius held an office). Whereas in Luke 2:1, a "registration" is associated with an earlier time - Herod's era (which Luke uniquely connects with Quirinius having some kind of governing influence). Why be certain as to why he gives the same meaning to the generic word "registration" each time?

That's two registrations connected separately by the two authors with Quirinius, unless Luke has awkwardly messed about with a single one (but why then does he clearly say there were two?). As hinted above, anyone who tries to say that both Josephus and Luke are correct usually has to either translate the Luke 2:1 registration as the one "before" Quirinius' registration; either that or calculate that Luke's two registrations where in two periods with Qurinius having some kind of official role in Judea in both periods. If we don't want to leap to the conclusion that either Josephus or Luke is wrong. That is one of the reasons for not leaping to the conclusion that they are all one and the same 'registration', especially as Luke unquestionably indicates there was more than one registration, and he pins one of them to the era of Herod who died in 4BC, and the other to Judas the Galilean's antics which Josephus effectively dates to 6AD. You can see why some people think one of those authors made a mistake (usually pointing the finger at Luke, not Josephus, because they can see that Luke knows about the 6AD census and could muddle things). And this is why some factor this into their thinking about dating Luke's Gospel late (after 74AD). Bear with me here.

For my part, I don't think Luke is muddled, in light of two loose ends that leave some awkwardness for the argument that Luke is conflating together two different moments in time. Firstly, that he clearly says there were two registrations. Secondly, the loose end that his colourfully detailed story of the birth of Christ (Luke 2) does not have any trace of Judas the Galilean's revolt in the background, which it surely should do if Luke has the 6AD census revolt in his mind. It would add colour to the story of Joseph and Mary's journey to Bethlehem. For that reason, I don't see that Luke thought that these two events - the birth and the 6AD census revolt - coincide in time. In that light, he cannot be placing them under the same "registration," in his mind. If Luke had included any trace of Judas the Galilean's revolt in the nativity story, then yes, we could then say that we know he made the error. But he doesn't. Luke's terse mention of Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37) omitted mention of Quirinius and a registration, but he must have known that Judas' revolt was about that registration. So that does suggest that Luke is conscious of these being his two registrations: in separate moments in time, the story of the birth and the story of the revolt. He was probably conscious that he was referring, or alluding, to a registration in each of those separate stories. Thus, in his mind, two registrations are clearly on the table, so perhaps the first being a loyalty oath, and the second the 6AD tax-related census. Of course, even with a two-registration solution, there still has to be  a satisfactory explanation for what connects Quirinius' name in each case. The explanation for 6AD being under Quirinius is supplied directly by Josephus. The explanation for one under Herod is dependent on Luke and needs a bit of reasoning that is somewhat difficult as explained here.

Let's get back to the crucial issue of translation, and how that at least helps to see what the evidence is. We've seen a range of possible meanings for "registration." Now let's look at...

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 for what "registration" means, and "census” is probably an anachronistic one, 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, and there are different ways of cutting the cookie: e.g. a pre- or post-70AD mistake due to Luke misapplying an awareness of Imperial oaths or tax collection; or a post-74AD mistake of Luke misapplying an awareness of an Empire-wide census. 

Although it makes no real difference to the purpose of this post, if it is of interest to anyone my tentative conclusion would be that this registration is to do with making a loyalty oath to Augustus, as the best fit with the text and the historical 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, but I wouldn't press that too firmly. 

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 no-one can be sure of the correct translation and meaning of it. 

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