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Luke 2:1-20

This bible study focuses on one of the most well known passages in the whole bible - the story of Jesus' birth, and the angels appearing to the shepherds.

  • Imagine someone asked you this week, "what is the meaning of this story - of the manger, and the angels, and the shepherds, etc.?" How would you respond?

Read Luke 2:1-3

Theologians, historians and sceptics have all pointed out that there is no record (outside of Luke) that Caesar Augustus held a census like this around 6-4BCE. But rather seeking historical evidence to prove (or disprove) the bible [1], the question really worth asking is this:

  • Why did Luke include this detail in his Gospel at all? Why do you think Luke thought this was a significant detail to include when introducing Jesus to the story? What might he want his readers to be thinking about Jesus?

Read Luke 2:4-7

  • What do each of these details signify about who Jesus is?

    • Born in the town of David (and descended from King David).

    • Wrapped in cloths by his mother.

    • Slept in an animal feed trough.

    • No guest room was available for them.

Read Luke 2:8-12

  • Why do you think God chose to send his angel to announce the birth of His Son to some shepherds? What does this fact say about who Jesus is?

  • Examine the description the angels give for who Jesus is. How do these details add to the picture Luke is building up of who Jesus is?

    • Saviour

    • Messiah

    • Lord

    • A baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger

Read Luke 2:13-20

  • How did the shepherds respond to meeting Jesus?

  • Do we respond this way - why/why not?

  • How did Mary respond to the shepherds' visit?

  • What experiences of God do you have 'treasured up' in your heart?

[1] But if you are really interested, Leon Morris explains the intricacies of the debate at length!

There are difficulties posed by the facts that our knowledge of the times is imperfect and that what Luke says is not easy to fit in to what we do know. Thus there is no record of any law of Augustus that a universal census be held. But he did reorganize Roman administration, and there are records of censuses held in a number of places. In Egypt, where the custom is unlikely to have differed significantly from neighbouring Syria (of which province Judea was a part), a census was held every fourteen years. Actual documents survive for every census from AD 20 to 270 (Barclay). When Augustus died he left in his own handwriting a summary of information, such as statistics on direct and indirect taxation, which would most naturally have been derived from censuses. The evidence seems best satisfied if we understand the decree of which Luke writes, not as a formal law, but as an administrative direction which set the whole process in motion and had its effect in distant Judea...

There is a further difficulty about the part Quirinius played. As governor of Syria he carried out a census in AD 6 (Josephus, Antiquities xviii.26; this is mentioned in Acts 5:37). This aroused violent opposition and Judas of Gamala led a rebellion (Antiquities xviii.3ff.). That census is too late for the present passage but certain inscriptions show that between 10 and 7 BC Quirinius performed military functions in the Roman province of Syria. If the interval between censuses was fourteen years, this brings him into the area in an official capacity at the right time. There is no record outside Luke for a census at this time, but there is nothing improbable about it. Josephus tells us that at about this time ‘the whole Jewish people’ swore an oath of loyalty to Caesar (Antiquities xvii.42), which possibly reflects a census. It is also worth noting that Tertullian says that the census was carried out under Saturninus, who was governor of Syria 9–6 BC (Adversus Marcionem iv.19). This is not in the Bible, so, if the statement can be relied on (which many scholars doubt), Tertullian must be relying on other evidence. Justin, in the middle of the second century, assures the Romans that they can see the registers of Quirinius’s census (I Apology 34). Some hold that the census of AD 6 must have been the first, for people rebel at the unfamiliar, whereas once a census had been held a second would be accepted. But it is fairly contended that at the time of which Luke writes Herod would have arranged the details and ‘it would be quite like Herod’s skill in governing Jews to disguise the foreign nature of the command by an appeal to tribal patriotism’ (Easton, cited in Manson). This is supported by the fact that in Luke’s census people returned to their family homes, whereas a Roman registration would have been at the place of residence.

Leon Morris, The Gospel of Luke, Tyndale Commentary, pp99-100


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