Luke 2:1 had claimed that it was a world-wide census. Yet there was never any world-wide (or “empire-wide”) census under Caesar Augustus. Hays admits that “Luke‘s statement is imprecise” about the census being world-wide. Refusing to admit that this “imprecision” is a mistake and calling it a “hyperbole” for rhetorical effect, he then claimed that “Luke‘s original audience would appreciate that fact.” My question to him is simple – how does he know that ““Luke‘s original audience would appreciate that fact.” My question is rhetorical, of course; Hays does not, and could not know, what Luke’s original audience would have “appreciated.” He is just using this to save his beloved doctrine of biblical inerrancy – rather unconvincingly....
This is, of course, standard modus operandi of evangelicals, when the clear sense of a passage reveals the Bible is wrong, mistaken or inaccurate - invoke poetry! He has done this earlier of course, when Luke’s claim that the census was “worldwide” is pointed out to be mistaken, Hays says it’s “hyperbole!”
On the other hand, there might be no mistake at all [in Luke 2:1]: the phrase is pasan tên oikoumenên, "all of the inhabited," where the adjective "inhabited" implies some noun in the feminine, such as "land" or "region," but usually referring to "the whole world." However, this idiom was used not only to refer to the whole Roman Empire, but to regions like "the whole Greek world," and thus may have been meant here as simply the whole Jewish world, or, even more likely, to the whole of Syria (which then included Judaea)--for "Syria" is also a feminine noun.
Another reasonable possibility is that Augustus did issue a decree that all provinces be assessed, but without ordering that it all happen at once. The second paragraph of the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy expands Luke 2:2 by saying "in the 309th year of the Era of Alexander, Augustus put forth an edict." The Era of Alexander began in 336/335 B.C., so the 309th year would be 28/27 B.C., exactly the time when provincial censuses begin (though not in all provinces: see How Often Was the Census Held? below). Luke could not have meant Jesus was born in 28 or 27 B.C. (for all the reasons given throughout this survey below, and because this early date doesn't work in Matthew's narrative, either). But if Luke meant an Augustan decree issued in 28 B.C. first applied to Judaea when Quirinius was in office, then Luke 2:2 becomes completely intelligible: this is the first Augustan census of Judaea--in other words, the first time the Augustan decree affected Judaea, which happened to be when Quirinius was governing Syria (a chronological marker no author would use unless Quirinius only governed Syria once).
But unfortunately, the problems begin to pile up the moment we consider the whole story [of Luke's census] in more detail....
Apart from being a logistical nightmare, this method of going to one's ancestral hometown to register for the census is unheard of in other historical sources. (in John Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion [Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010], p. 160)
The second "mistake" lies in supposing that people would be called back to ancestral towns to be counted, rather than be counted in the actual towns they were in. This charge has been formulated a dozen ways, but none of them really carry much force. Though Jesus' family appears to have resided outside Judaea in Nazareth, there could easily be any number of reasons why an ancestral connection with Bethlehem would require them to journey there for a census of Judaea (so much as a tiny plot of ancestral land would be enough, and Judaic law made it unusually difficult to get rid of such properties), though it does seem oddly unnecessary to take a woman on the verge of labor on such a dangerous trip (as all journeys were in such regions). We do know that censuses could have such requirements for travel, not only from papyri [1.3] but also from common sense: it is a well known fact that even Roman citizens had to enroll in one of several tribes to be counted, and getting provincials to organize according to locally-established tribal associations would be practical (see also Endnote 8 in my essay Luke and Josephus; and also [1.3.5]). Finally, even if Luke were making this up, he would sooner make something up that sounded plausible: in other words, such procedures were probably followed in at least one census within the author's memory, and we have no way to disprove the use of such a practice in previous provincial assessments.
Finally, the clincher. Both Matthew and Luke said Jesus was born during the time of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1, Luke 1:5). (in John Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion [Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010], p. 161)
The second point is more forceful than the first: namely, that Luke is referring to Herod Archelaus [in Luke 1:5], not Herod the Great, and I think this most likely (see 1.1.3 below).
I showed in detail why the evangelical “stock reply” of an earlier census under the same Quirinius is impossible.
Nevertheless, though Matthew's account looks and smells like a fantastical legend (see below), I do not see Luke's account as historically impossible, as some have tried to argue.