Michael Wolter on Luke’s Correct Placement of the Quirinius Census

As I press towards the completion of my translation of Christoph Markschies’ book Kaiserzeitliche christliche Theologie und ihre Institutionen / Christian Theology and its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire, I am already looking forward to starting my next translation project, namely Michael Wolter’s commentary Das Lukasevangelium / The Gospel According to Luke. With this in mind, today’s key quotation will be excerpted from his comments on Luke 2:1-3.

As usual I will begin with the English translation so that the (selective) grammatical commentary directly follows the German text.

Translation and German Original


English Translation (wmc):

1. ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις refers back not to 1.5 but takes up 1.80 and thereby dates the narrated event in the time of the growing up of the Baptist … Thus, the temporal distance between the events narrated in chapter 1 and the newly opened narrative collecting bowl remains unspecified…

2… This information  has the function of clearly distancing the following nexus of episodes chronologically from the time of the reign of Herod the Great. Between his death and the provincial census carried out under Quirinius lay a period of time of about 10 years in which Herod’s son Archelaus reigned as ethnarch over Judea, Samaria, and Idumea (cf. Josephus, Ant. 17.342; see also at 19.11-27). A contradiction to the relative chronology of the Lukan presentation does not thereby arise (see on v. 1). The longstanding debate over this problem … started, to this extent, from false presuppositions. There is admittedly an irreconcilable contradiction to the dating of the birth of Jesus in the time of the reign of Herod the Great by Matthew.

Das Lukasevangelium (pp. 121-122):

1. ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις bezieht sich nicht auf 1,5 zurück, sondern knüpft an 1,80 an und datiert damit das erzählte Geschehen in die Zeit des Heranwachsens des Täufers … Der zeitliche Abstand zwischen den in Kap. 1 erzählten Ereignissen und dem neu eröffneten erzählerischen Sammelbecken bleibt also unbestimmt…

2… Dieser Information kommt die Funktion zu, den folgenden Episodenzusammenhang von der Zeit der Herrschaft Herodes’ d.Gr. chronologisch eindeutig zu distanzieren: Zwischen dessen Tod und dem unter Quirinius durchgeführten Provinzialzensus lag ein Zeitraum von ca. 10 Jahren, in dem der Herodessohn Archelaus als Ethnarch über Judäa, Samaria und Idumäa herrschte (vgl. Josephus, Ant. 17,342; s. Auch bei 19,11-27). Ein Widerspruch zur relativen Chronologie der lk Darstellung entsteht dadurch nicht (s. Zu V. 1). Die langjährige Debatte über diese Problematik … ging insofern von falschen Voraussetzungen aus. Einen unausgleichbaren Widerspruch gibt es freilich zur Datierung der Geburt Jesu in die Regierungszeit Herodes’ d.Gr. durch Matthäus.

Selective Grammatical Analysis

1. knüpft an (anknüpfen) is often challenging: here I chose “takes up”, but “links to” or “picks up on”, or “follows on from” would also work. damit is often best left untranslated, but I sometimes translate it as “thereby”, “here”, or even “thus”, depending on the context. I usually translate both Ereignis and Geschehen as “event” instead of translating Geschehen as “happening” or the like (but cf. Translator’s Notes 1: Eugene Boring [378n2]). Sammelbecken could be translated as “collecting bowl”, “collecting basin”, “collecting tank”, “reservoir”, etc. I wanted to retain the word “collecting” and felt that “bowl” provided the most helpful image. I initially translated as “unbestimmt” as “undetermined”, but then decided that “unspecified” conveyed the sense more clearly.

2 Dieser Information kommt die Funktion zu [verb: zukommen] could be rendered more woodenly as “the function is given to this information of…” but I think “This information has the function” conveys the meaning more clearly.  Episodenzusammenhang: I often translate Zusammenhang with “context” or “connection”, but decided here to change my initial translation “connection of episodes” to “nexus of episodes”. zu distanzieren depends on Funktion (the function of distancing). I translated herrschte as “reigned”, though “ruled” would also have been possible. I chose to write Herod’s son Archelaus rather than the Herod son Archelaus, choosing readability over precision in this case. I often translate entstehen as “emerge” but “arise” seemed better here.  ging … aus [verb: ausgehen] can usually be rendered as started from. Insofern is often difficult: Depending on the context, I have adopted a range of solutions, such as “to this extent”, “in this respect”, “from this perspective”, “insofar”. I couldn’t find a way to capture the precise sense of unausgleichbaren/uncompensatable, so it seemed best to adopt the phrase “unreconciliable contradiction”, which seemed to capture the basic thrust. Gibt es [es gibt] can often be translated as “exist” but “there is” sometimes works better. The sense of “freilich” is sometimes best captured with “of course”, sometimes with “however” or “though”, and sometimes with “admittedly”.

Substantive Analysis:

For me at least, Wolter’s argument added a new option to a classic interpretative crux, so that I now see five possible options before me: 1) Luke dated the Quirinius census to the time of Herod the Great, which  stands in contradiction to the testimony of Josephus who correctly dates the Quirinius census to the time of Archelaus. 2) Luke correctly placed the Quirinius census at the time of Archelaus, while previously placing Jesus birth during the reign of Herod the Great, so that there is a chronological contradiction within his Gospel, 3) Luke correctly dated the Quirinius census to the time of Herod the Great in contrast to Josephus’ incorrect dating of the Quirinius census to the time of Archelaus. 4) This passage of Luke can be translated and interpreted in such a way that no contradiction emerges in relation to other ancient sources, including Josephus and Matthew, 5) Luke has correctly dated the Quirinius passage to the time of Archelaus (in agreement with Josephus), which does not result in a contradiction to Luke’s chronological statements elsewhere, though it does stand in contradiction to Matthew’s placement of Jesus’ birth in the time of Herod the Great. At present I think option 1 is the most convincing view, while regarding the arguments for 4) and 5) as worthy of continued study and debate. Perhaps options 2 and 3 should also be considered further, but from my present perspective they seem less likely.

Other Resources on the Quirinius Census

For Michael Wolter’s position, see further M. Wolter. “Erstmals unter Quirinius! Zum Verständnis von Lk 2,2.” Biblische Notizen 102 (2000), 35-41 and M. Wolter. “Wann wurde Maria schwanger?” Pages 405-422 in Von Jesus zum Christus. Christologische Studien. FS Paul Hoffman. BZNW 93. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1998 (also published in Theologie und Ethos in Frühem Christentum. Tübingen: Mohr, 2009. here).

For an overview of some of the key texts from Josephus and Luke and various translations of Luke 2:1-3, see Bruce Fisk PDF.

For some of the many other discussions of this topic on the web (listed in alphabetical order), see Paul Barnett, Darrell BockJohn Byron )cf. here), Stephen C. CarlsonRichard Carrier, Jared Compton (cf. here), N. F. GierMark Goodacre (cf. here), Bill HeromanBrian LePortJames McGrath, Ian Paul, Jason Staples, Daniel B. WallaceWikipedia.

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4 thoughts on “Michael Wolter on Luke’s Correct Placement of the Quirinius Census

  1. for Sammelbecken, I wonder if “catch basin” is an English idiom closer to what is suggested by the German (?)

  2. Very Interesting suggestion Scott. I think you may well be correct. Unfortunately, I don’t have a precise enough grasp of the connotations of Sammelbecken to know if the connotations of “catch basin” are the same as those of Sammelbecken. But I’ll definitely keep this suggestion in mind and plan on investigating further to see if this solution works, since Wolter uses this term a lot!

  3. Pingback: Jens Schröter on Luke as an Ancient Historian and the Need for Differentiation in Assessing the Historical Value of Acts | German for Neutestamentler

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