Was Luke just wrong about the census?
For many people, this apparent contradiction between Josephus and Luke is easily resolved: Josephus was right, and Luke was mistaken. Either Luke got the details of the census incorrect (perhaps naming the wrong official) or—more drastically—he created or reproduced from another source an episode that was essentially a fiction. There are, however, good reasons to be cautious about such negative judgements.
An important point in favour of taking Luke’s account seriously is the distinct likelihood that he had access to testimony from individuals closely connected to those involved in the relevant events. If Luke was (as is widely believed) the associate of Paul who travelled with him in the period described in the later chapters of Acts, this implies direct acquaintance with at least one member of Jesus’s family: his brother James, a notable leader amongst the believers in Jerusalem—see Acts 21:18. This provides a straightforward route by which Luke could have learned about events associated with the birth of Jesus, even if James’s mother Mary was herself no longer alive when Luke visited Jerusalem with Paul.
There is therefore a case—from a historical point of view—for at least reading Luke’s account with an open mind and not concluding too quickly that he must have been uninformed. Whilst it is sometimes claimed that the details of Jesus’s birth would have been lost to the early Christians, this is not very persuasive given the prominent role played by at least one member of his immediate family in the crucial first decades.
A second reason to be wary of playing off Luke against Josephus and declaring Luke to be in the wrong is that the accounts given by Josephus can themselves be problematic historically. For example, as Andrew Steinmann has made clear, the consensus position regarding the chronology of the end of Herod’s reign is far from certain. Of course, questions about the census cannot be resolved by arguing that Josephus just gave the wrong date for it, since the account in Antiquities 18 locates the census in a wider set of events associated with the exile of Archelaus, and not with the last years of Herod the Great. If Josephus was wrong about the timing of census of Quirinius, this would imply confusion of events on a larger scale. This might seem unlikely; Josephus himself was only one generation removed from the events in question. However, as shown by John Rhoads, Josephus’s use of his sources (even for relatively recent events) was on occasion erratic; there are indications that in juxtaposing information from different sources he sometimes misplaced or even duplicated events. Rhoads argues in detail that Josephus conflated events at the end of the reign of Herod the Great with events following the exile of Archelaus, and that in so doing he wrongly associated the census of Quirinius with the later event.
Any idea that Luke must necessarily be second-best to Josephus when it comes to comparing their accounts of the census should therefore be set aside. Rhoads himself acknowledges that the overall case he builds may not be persuasive to all, yet his article does establish clearly that Josephus’s account—no less than that of Luke—needs careful analysis and should certainly not be prioritised over Luke by default.