2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
1901 ASV Translation:
2 This was the first enrolment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
There is a textual variations between the Textus Receptus and the Nestle/Aland 26 in verse 2. It consists of the omission of the definite article "the" before the word "enrollment" by the Nestle/Aland 26. This omission is "meaning significant" as we shall see in our "Notes".
I. Luke's focus is upon "Rome's" place in the outworking of God's plan.
II. Since these kinds of "decrees" invariably have time constraints upon them (even Caesar cannot expect everyone to be able to be "enrolled" within a week or two; nor would Rome be willing to let the process drag out interminably), it is highly likely that the decree had a terminus several months from its inception.
A. No one could tell precisely how long it would take for the "decree" to reach those to whom was given the task of enforcement (from a few days, to a month or so for the furthest reaches of the empire).
B. Nor could anyone tell precisely how long it would take those in the enforcement branches of those local governments to get the word out to everyone in their particular locale.
C. Then, it would naturally take some time for everyone to be able to put compliance into their "schedules".
D. Then, it would take days and days of steady labor to get everyone through the lines that would naturally accrue to the actual task of "enrolling".
III. This would naturally lead to the people's individual decisions as to "when" they could get "enrolled".
A. Unless folks have changed a lot over the centuries, those folks would do like we would do -- given the same decree -- ... they would try to fit the trip to the place of enrollment into some other reason for that trip.
B. This suggests that, perhaps, those having to travel great distances would try to "kill two birds with one stone" and make the "enrollment" trip be at the same time as another mandated "trip"...such as, for Israel, one of the major feasts which called for Jews to be in Jerusalem.
1. This would, pretty much, leave "December" out of the loop.
2. This also, however, is all built upon "possibilities", not "textually derived facts".
I. Clearly, verse 2 is Luke's attempt to make sure that Theophilus knew when the decree was given.
A. There is no point in mentioning "this enrollment came to pass first when Quirinius was governor of Syria" unless it is an attempt to "time" the event at least in large brush strokes.
1. There is a problem with the translation. Hoehner, who suggests a different translation, also calls this "one of the thorny problems of the New Testament" (Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, p. 14).
2. The word translated "first" is variously translated in the New Testament so that we do not have a definitive meaning.
3. One of the ways that it is translated is "before" (see John the Baptizer's testimony as it was recorded in John 1:15 and 30, and Jesus' statement in John 15:18). If, as Hoehner suggests (ibid, p. 22), we take the word to mean "before", then Luke is telling Theophilus that this census was before Quirinius was governor of Syria.
a. One of the questions that we would have to ask is this: is there a reason to mention Quirinius as governor of Syria? One answer is that Luke is going to refer to an "enrollment" that took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria in Acts 5:37. That "enrollment" as distinct from this one, caused a major rebellion, led by one "Judas of Galilee". Because of the major upheaval that that enrollment created, it was the "best known" and it would have been easy for Theolphilus to misunderstand Luke's chronology if he had assumed it was that one (an assumption that would have been easy to make -- so Luke made sure he didn't). [Luke was writing some 60 years, give or take, after the events--and we have no idea how old Theophilus was when he got Luke's records that we know as Luke and Acts.]
b. A second, and more crucial, question that we have to ask is this: how do we know that Luke intended "before Quirinius was governor" instead of "when Quirinius was governor"? The answer has seems to be thus:
1) The structure of the sentence makes the textual variation between the Textus Receptus and the Nestle/Aland 26 rather critical.
a) The text of the Textus Receptus literally reads "This the enrollment first was/came to be being governor of Syria Quirinius", which raises a crucial question regarding the definite article "the". Does the "the" attach to the word translated "first" so that we should translate the words, "This, the first enrollment, came to be..." or does the "the" only attach to the word "enrollment" so that we should translated the words, "This, the enrollment, first came to be..."? Now, since the statement "This, the enrollment, first came to be..." introduces a nonsensical idea, we clearly need to opt for the use of the definite article as attached to the word "first". [The idea that a particular enrollment can occur more than once is nonsensical. Certainly Caesar could make more than one decree to have the world enrolled, but each of those decrees would be different decrees so that none of them could be said to "first come to be". Likewise, certainly Caesar could make a decree that the whole world should be enrolled every so often, so that the "first" of those enrollments could "come to be when a given person was governor of a given place", but that does not appear to be the nature of his decree, nor do the words of the text say that.] Thus, the text of the Textus Receptus can be translated "This, the first enrollment, came to be when Quirinius was governor of Syria".
b) The text of the Nestle/Aland 26, however, reads "This enrollment came to be before Quirinius was governor of Syria". The absence of the definite article "the" before "enrollment" makes the pronoun "this" definitively modify "enrollment". This, in turn, forces the word translated "first" to mean "before" or we are left with the nonsense of saying "This enrollment first came to be (implying that the same enrollment also came to be a second time, and maybe even a third time -- which is historically impossible in that each enrollment has its own identity). Thus, the text of the Nestle/Aland 26 should be translated "This enrollment came into being before Quirinius was governor of Syria".
c) The real question, then, is: which text is an accurate representative of Luke's original? It is a judgment call, but the fact that Rome did have previous "enrollments" of its territories makes the Textus Receptus suspect.
2) Another consideration: Why would Luke even address the issue of the governorship of Quirinius in Syria (what has Syria to do with Galilee and Judea, or the birth of Jesus)? He has told us that Caesar Augustus made a decree to have the entire empire "enrolled". He goes on to tell us that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because of that decree. If his point is that Mary birthed Jesus in Bethlehem because of Caesar's decree, what need have we of any information regarding Quirinius? The answer seems to be this: if Luke wanted Theophilus to understand the timing of the birth of Jesus as linked to a Roman "enrollment", he needed to be sure that Theophilus would not attach that event to the wrong "enrollment" because he wrote so that his reader might know "the exact truth" (Luke 1:4). Josephus tells us (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVII, Chapter 13, section 5; and Book XVIII, Chapter 1) that Quirinius was put over Syria after Archelaus was banished by Rome from being ruler of Judea, and that he took over Judea also because of that banishment. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born before Herod's death and the beginning of Archelaus' rule over Judea. Thus, if Theophilus misunderstood the birth of Jesus and assumed it was during an "enrollment" created by Rome because of Archelaus' treachery, he would have been misled and thought that Jesus was actually 10 years younger than He was, plus the chronology would have gotten really confused in his mind -- not a good thing for someone who needs to know "the exact truth". This consideration argues very strongly that the text of the Nestle/Aland 26 is the correct text because it is the text that makes it very clear to which enrollment Luke was referring when he penned his words to Theophilus.
B. At the very least, Luke was tying the events of the Gospel to actual history. For this to stand, the history has to be accurate.
C. At the most, Luke was tying the events of the Gospel to Rome's dominion over Judea and its environs. This fits his thesis that God's plans implement His enemies' "decrees" [Note: Acts 2:23].