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Ian Paul offers an interesting line of defense of Luke’s general historicity with regard to the census in Luke’s birth narrative. Commenting on the historiographical tendencies of both Luke and Josephus, he suggests an alternative translation of Luke 2:2 that seems to account for the historical and linguistic peculiarities of the text:
Marshall notes that ‘the form of the sentence is in any case odd’ (p 104); why say something was ‘first’ when there is nothing to compare it with? Stephen Carlson has looked even more closely, and also noted that the verb egeneto also seems strange; why suggest the census ‘became’ something, rather than that it simply ‘was’? Carlson suggests that prote, rather than ‘first’ numerically, should be read as ‘of most importance’—much as we might say ‘so-and-so is Arsenal’s Number One player.’ This would then give the translation as:
This registration became most prominent when Quirinius was governing Syria.
This [decree to get registered] became the/a most important registration when Quirinius was governing Syria.
In the end, the mystery of the conflict between Luke and Josephus remains unsolved and (as Marshall puts it) ‘can hardly be solved without the discovery of fresh evidence.’ But these arguments at least offer a plausible explanation—and when considering questions of history, proof is rarely possible, but plausibility is an important measure. It certainly offers no grounds to write off Luke’s account, think it unhistorical or a fabrication, or see it as in conflict with Matthew.