Can the Bible be in Error, Historically?


We often hear that the Bible is not a science book but can it have historical errors? In particular, I’m thinking of whether Quirinius was the one who issued the census just before Jesus was born or was he not governor just before Jesus birth?


The Bible is not meant to be a history book. It is more like a library with many different genres of writing.

It is 100% True and inerrant, but that doesn’t mean it is always 100% factual. Yes, details can be told differently or put in different order in order for the story to make it’s point about some greater Truth about God and our relationship to Him.

The greater Truth in the case you mention is that yes, absolutely, Jesus, the 2nd Person in the Holy Trinity, was born and lived among us.


It can, and it does. The bible has a lot of historical errors–hundreds, say some historians.

The example you give of the census is one of the most well-known ones; there is no record of any Roman Empire-wide census at that time.

We have good records kept for the reign of Caesar Augustus at that time, and there is no mention anywhere, in any of them, of a census like that where everyone had to go back to their ancestral home from a thousand years earlier to register. In fact, there has never been a census that required such a thing.

Imagine the pandemonium. And not a single reference to it in any ancient source except in the gospel named Luke.



Are you Christian?


I don’t claim any particular insight, but one could view the mistake as deliberate and that Quirinius is being used as an oblique reference by St. Luke to the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents (from the Latin Quiritatus/Quiritare “A plaintive cry, wail, scream, shriek”).

Or since Quirinius has been falsely related to Curia (or so my Latin dictionary says) perhaps St. Luke used the name to reinforce the idea of the Census (“Curia: a curia or court one of the thirty parts into which Romulus divided the Roman people”). So perhaps a census taker named Quirinius isn’t quite like a Blacksmith being named Smith, but might be similar to a Blacksmith named Smythe.

Someone who actually knows Latin might have more (or less) to say. The point being, historical accuracy is never the point of the Gospels, the point of the Gospels is passing to us Christ’s message.

Yours in Christ


Well since you ask, the purpose of the census, to the best of my understanding, and per Valentin Tomberg, in Luke is not to record a historical census or as Wikipedia would have it provide a narrative structure to bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem in time for the birth of Christ. The purpose of mentioning the census is two fold

Firstly, a call back to the sin of David’s census (II Samuel XXIV) and thus a condemnation of all such numbering of men, women and children.

Again, per Tomberg, to classify something, to number it, is to kill it. Think, if you will, of the millions of dead specimens in the Museum of Natural History. I quote from 2 Samuel XXIV:10 "But David’ s heart struck him, after the people were numbered: and David said to the Lord: I have sinned very much in what I have done: but I pray thee, O Lord, to take away the iniquity of thy servant, because I have done exceeding foolishly. " Our own government is guilty of this sin as we are all classified by our Social Security Number, Driver’s License, Credit Profile, and etc. We are reduced from living beings to numbers on paper or in a computer.

Secondly, as you have probably guessed from the foregoing, to indicate that the world was “dead” before the birth of Christ. The “whole world would be enrolled”, that is the whole world would be figuratively killed and reduced to a number on paper.

And that sense then, my suggestion above that St. Luke uses the name Quirinius as a callback to the Latin Quiritatus/Quiritare (“A plaintive cry, wail, scream, shriek”) might be applied to the figurative death of the census itself rather than the Holy Innocents. And in both cases (Matthew and Luke) we have right near the time of Christ’s Birth literal or figurative death.


It can and it does have historical errors as some have already said. Look at the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. They are different. One, or both, contain errors. I know biblical scholars who are convinced Jesus was born in Nazareth. Was Jesus’ public ministry a little closer to one year or three? We really don’t know.

It is inerrant in matters of faith.


The NT scholars at the school where I teach have told me had their been a census, only Joseph would have to go. Not Mary.


Joseph would never have left a heavily pregnant woman nor a newborn home alone.
Family would have travelled together, particularly if there was no other male in the family to stay with the mother and child.

There are so many distressing comments on this thread, :eek:

Perhaps a good book on Biblical Exegesis would be in order for the OP.
As one has stated, there are ways that these early writers put things on paper that were all about the Latin and Greek “sense” of expression, and not meant has historical in the sense that we write in the 21st century. We tend to read everything literally. That’s where so many get into trouble trying to “explain away” inconsistences.

The Bible contains the truth of our faith.
It’s lessons and writings come in all forms and reflect the culture of the day, which, of course, many of us find challenging.


Jimmy Akin has an excellent article that speaks directly to this topic.

As to other matters of history, the authors of each of the books would certainly want to be as correct as they could in writing down the stories, but they weren’t historical experts. Imagine if you were writing a story about what happened during the presidency of President Carter. If you didn’t have a library or other books on the topic close to hand you’d have to rely on your own memory. How accurate would your memory be? The gospel writers weren’t writing a history book but they did want to give their audience a sense of time, so it wasn’t important to say “this happened on such and such a date” but they could say “this happened around this time”.

As for the “hundreds” of inaccuracies others have mentioned, I’d be curious about what they were.


It’s also a sign of accuracy that the Gospels differ in many details. The writers were eye witnesses. Everyone knows that getting a bunch of eyewitnesses to agree in every detail on a story is impossible. Everyone remembers things in light of his own experiences, which differ from person to person. Even historically, people that lived through Carter’s Presidency, will remember things differently depending on their party allegiance etc. I know the Evangelists were inspired, so wrote no error. But the incidental historical details, I believe, can be harmonized. After all, when they were initially published, had there been any historical mistakes, they would have been corrected right away. But I don’t believe there were. I think from our vantage point 2000 years later, we are unable to appreciate the circumstances of their historical texts.


The Church teaches that there are no errors in Sacred Scripture on any subject about which Scripture makes an assertion:

Pope Pius XII: “The sacred Council of Trent ordained by solemn decree that ‘the entire books with all their parts, as they have been wont to be read in the Catholic Church and are contained in the old vulgate Latin edition, are to be held sacred and canonical.’ In our own time the Vatican Council, with the object of condemning false doctrines regarding inspiration, declared that these same books were to be regarded by the Church as sacred and canonical ‘not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority, nor merely because they contain revelation without error, but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their author, and as such were handed down to the Church herself.’ When, subsequently, some Catholic writers, in spite of this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, by which such divine authority is claimed for the ‘entire books with all their parts’ as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever, ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals, and to regard other matters, whether in the domain of physical science or history, as ‘obiter dicta’ and - as they contended - in no wise connected with faith, Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Leo XIII in the Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus, published on November 18 in the year 1893, justly and rightly condemned these errors and safe-guarded the studies of the Divine Books by most wise precepts and rules.” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, n. 1).

Pope Leo XIII: “But it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred… For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican.” (Providentissimus Deus, n. 20).

Pope Pius XII: “they put forward again the opinion, already often condemned, which asserts that immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters.” (Humani Generis, n. 22).


There’s also this thing about human memory: memories are probably not as sure-fire ‘reliable’ as we often assume they are. They don’t really work like impersonal video records; instead, they’re pretty much like puzzle pieces that are put together every time you try to recall something. Memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time; it’s really a creative process rather than a mechanical one. Memories can even be unconsciously altered (some would even say ‘contaminated’) by information acquired after an event.

My personal idea of what divine inspiration entails - just my personal idea; I’m open to correction if there’s anything in error here - is that the evangelists were divinely protected from committing grave errors in the process of recalling - in other words, the distortions in the process were minimized - but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit made their brains act totally differently from when normal humans try to recall something. As you imply, each of them would have remembered something differently: their memories were putting together different puzzle pieces. In some cases, their past memories might have even been colored/altered by their subsequent experiences - the things that they came to know ‘after the event’. (That’s how I personally tend to view John’s gospel: its very developed theology, the role of “the Jews” in that gospel.)

IMHO the way our humans brains work that doesn’t make the content of the gospels - based on recollections - not ‘true’. (I mean, it may be just me and my non-Western thinking, but ‘truth’ does not necessarily equate to ‘fact’; something does not have to be ‘factual’ in order to be ‘true’ or to contain truth.) If anything, I’d say that the memories of the apostles and evangelists being ‘influenced’ actually brings out the truth more to the fore than a dispassionate video camera footage that recorded only the bare ‘fact’ could have ever done.

And of course, there’s also the thing about the evangelists being storytellers. They were not just chroniclers, chronicling the events of Jesus’ life in a dry, impersonal, objective way. They are also storytellers telling a story. As such they could adapt and change the story they tell from their original contexts and transplant it to new ones. (Just look at how the synoptic gospels arrange the different pericopes differently.)

I often like to bring up the story of the paralytic in Mark and Luke. Mark talks of the men bringing the paralytic “unroofing” and “[digging] through” the roof of the house, which corresponds more to what we know of actual Near Eastern houses and thus is more likely to be the ‘historically-accurate’ detail. Luke, however, has the men lowering the paralytic “through the tiles” - in other words, he is envisioning a Greco-Roman house (which do have tiled roofs). In this case, it’s probable that Luke was ‘adapting’ his story for his Greco-Roman audience, who would have found it easier to imagine a house with a tiled roof than a Jewish house with a clay/mud-covered flat roof.


Exactly, or reporting events from witnesses as journalists do following their interviews with some of the eye witnesses.
It would have been harder for many to believe the gospels if the writers had related exactly the same identical details word for word, as in the case of those writers who weren’t present at the actual time of the stated event.


Just my two cents.

I do not disagree with the wisdom of the popes (well, I don’t dare to disagree), but at times I do think that a number of people - especially in the West (I’ll admit I have a sort of bias here) - have a rather narrow idea of what is ‘truth’ and what is ‘error’. I can see this among some anti-Christian atheists and even some Christians as well: they equate ‘truth’ with bare, objective, scientifically-verifiable or whatever ‘fact’ / ‘reality’. If something does not totally square up with this bare ‘fact’, the baby is thrown with the bathwater - it’s accused of being in ‘error’.

In other words, they seem to assume that the gospels are an exact transcript of ‘what happened’, and that for the gospels to be ‘true’ then it must mean that everything happened 100% exactly as it is written down: when say, a gospel says Jesus said this, then Jesus said it exactly as in the script, no word more, no word less.*

I’ll try to give an example. Let’s say a Mr. Smith is recorded on paper as saying the words: “I am thinking of going down to the basement. Do you want to come with me?” On the ‘fact’ level, let’s say what Mr. Smith actually said was something like: “So, I … I’m, uh, thinkin’ of goin’ down to, erm, to the basement - ya wanna come with me?” Of course, to be precise what he actually said, his choice of words, is not exactly the same as that on paper (non-lexical utterances like ‘uh’ or ‘erm’, for one ;)), so on the one level, what was recorded on paper isn’t 100% ‘factual’. But no one would argue that the text still captures the meaning and the spirit of what Mr. Smith said accurately (he was going to the basement and he was inviting the addressee to come with him), so in a way, what is written on the text is still ‘true’, even if not completely ‘accurate’ to the ‘fact’.

Of course, you run into a difficulty with this ‘gospels as scripts’ type of thinking when you see that the four gospels don’t exactly match up and have their differences from one another, when you find out that there are textual variants in the New Testament, when you realize that the gospels are written in a language likely different from the one Jesus actually spoke.

This I think is what really drives some people to accuse the gospels of being in ‘error’: they have this mental picture in their heads that the gospels must specifically be like this or that in order to be ‘true’, and they have an overly-simplistic, black-and-white worldview: if it’s not completely factual / historically accurate / whatever (as they define those terms), then it’s completely false, erratic, worthless. When they find out that the actual case isn’t as simplistic as they thought, they then accuse the gospels of falsehood. But, I wonder: what if it’s actually their definition of what constitutes ‘truth’ and ‘error’ that’s faulty here?

Some folks might think I’m splitting hairs here, my idea of the gospels is that while they may not be 100% ‘factual’ (in the sense that are not like dry transcripts or dispassionate video footage), they have complete ‘truth’. I do believe what the Church says: there is no error in the gospels.


The Bible is a history book, it is the history of salvation. However, it is not written in the modern style. Quotes in the Bible are not exact word quotes, as it expected today. This is clear from some OT passages, where the same events are recounted repeatedly in dialogue. It is also clear by a comparison of the four Gospels, where they overlap in content.

The Bible speaks in terms accessible and understandable to the people of every age. Some passages contain figurative elements, such as creation in 7 days. There is always a question of correct interpretation of the true statement. Jesus said Lazarus was asleep, and the disciples misunderstood, so the then stated more plainly that Lazarus was dead.

It seems to me that what motivates the claim that the Bible contains errors is a desire to find some way to undermine the authority of Sacred Scripture, so that any teaching on faith or morals which are disliked and be discounted.

The only problem with historical and scientific content in the Bible is the weakness of faith of the person reading the text.


Thank you,



A lot of these replies are over my head, but in answer to my question, can the Bible be in error, historically? Yes? No?


There was an empire wide census when Augustus became emperor. This was about 28 BC. Otherwise a census took place when Rome took control of an area and the census was limited to that area. Thus the census in Luke took place is 6 AD.


Two of the gospels also have him dying on two different days…two days apart from each other, I think. So assuming one of the dates is indeed correct, they both can’t be historically correct.

Most historians I’ve read believe the gospel written earlier–“Mark”-- would be the more correct one, having his death as the day *after Passover dinner…and that “John”–written about 30 yrs after Mark?–which has him dying on the day before *the Passover meal, is incorrect.

Do the biblical scholars you know say the same?

Yes, most of the scholars I know say he was born in Nazareth, too.


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