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Luke states that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because of a census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria (2:1-5).

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town.

Josephus, the first-century historian, records Quirinius conducting a census in A.D. 6. You can find it in book 18 of the Antiquities.

Now Cyrenius, a Roman senator, and one who had gone through other magistracies, and had passed through them till he had been consul, and one who, on other accounts, was of great dignity, came at this time into Syria, with a few others, being sent by Caesar to he a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance. Coponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent together with him, to have the supreme power over the Jews. Moreover, Cyrenius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus's money; but the Jews, although at the beginning they took the report of a taxation heinously, yet did they leave off any further opposition to it, by the persuasion of Joazar, who was the son of Beethus, and high priest; so they, being over-persuaded by Joazar's words, gave an account of their estates, without any dispute about it.

But that leads to a problem. Both Luke and Matthew place Jesus' birth before the death of King Herod in 4 B.C (Matt. 2:1, Luke 1:5). An unmistakable difference of 9 years.

Has Luke simply made a historical error? And if not, what hermeneutical reason could he have for creating a link between Jesus birth and census of A.D. 6?

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How are you sure it's in 6 A.D. based on that passage in the Antiquities? – Simply a Christian May 9 '13 at 8:07
Good question. I don't know exactly how scholars have arrived at the date but everyone, even Christian scholars, agree that this census mentioned by Josephus occurred in A.D. 6. – Matthew Miller May 9 '13 at 15:26
The date of King Herod's death is in question. Wikipedia records Some conservative scholars have continued to support the traditional date of 1 BCE.. This study points to a copyist error in Josephus in the year 1544, which introduced errors into his text. Every single Josephus manuscript in these libraries dating from before 1544 supports the inference that Herod passed in 1 BC. Strong recent scholarship confirms that date. It appears 'history' may be wrong. – user6152 Nov 19 '14 at 15:58
That still points to a potential discrepancy in Luke's account. Instead of a 9 year difference you've closed the gap to 5 or 6 years. Still a problem. – Matthew Miller Dec 6 '14 at 21:41

You might find this discussion at the "Christian Think Tank" interesting. As I understand it, the writer and some of the sources he quotes find it possible that Quirinius was a "de facto" governor before he was officially so:

I assume you mean contemporaries in office--they were certainly contemporaries in life...Quirinius, at the time of King Herod's death was doing military expeditions in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire (Tacitus , Annals 3:48; Florus, Roman History 2:31), with some evidence indicating that he either was a co-ruler with the governor of Syria (the somewhat inept Quintilius Varus) or at least placed in charge of the 14-year census in Palestine. Varus was famous for the later fiasco at the Teutoburger forest in Germany (9 ad) and at his appointment as Gov.. of Syria in 7 BC was largely 'untested'. The census was due in 8-7 BC, and Augustus could easily have ordered his trusted Quirinius (fresh from subduing the Pisidian highlanders) to assist in this volatile project. Herod I had recently lost favor of the emperor and was probably dragging his feet on taking the census--a process with always enraged the difficult Jews! This would have pushed the timeframe into the 5 BC mark, which fits the general data.

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

Whatever the solution to this problem, and there are good solutions, It appears to me that Luke mentions Quirinius at least in part to connect Jesus’ birth in the mind of his original readers with the census of A.D. 6. Here’s why

The census that year sparked a major Jewish revolt. Luke knows of this event because he refers to it in Acts 5:37.

After this Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered.

Because this is the only other reference to a census in Luke-Acts its natural to connect it with the one already mentioned.

Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews provides more on Judas.

Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty; as if they could procure them happiness and security for what they possessed, and an assured enjoyment of a still greater good, which was that of the honor and glory they would thereby acquire for magnanimity.

The result, however, was vastly different than Judas intended. Rome quickly crushed the rebellion. But the repercussions, Josephus finds, extended long after.

the sedition at last increased so high, that the very temple of God was burnt down by their enemies’ fire. (A.D. 70)

It appears Luke wanted his readers to compare and contrast the well known actions of Judas with the actions of Mary and Joseph. Like Judas, Mary and Joseph are from Galilee. And yet unlike the revolutionary they don’t rebel when commanded to register. They humbly obey.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

If anyone had a reason to rebel, they did. Mary with child, a long distance to travel and no room for them when they arrive. But suffering the insults, they conducted themselves as Rome, the oppressor state, required.

Luke in both his gospel and Acts is insistent on the peaceful behavior of Christ and his followers. Despite Jesus being executed as an enemy of Rome, and His followers being the source of numerous riots, Luke stresses over and over again that the seditious overthrow of the government is not the way of those who follow Christ.

Instead Jesus comes, as Zachariah says,

to guide our feet in the way of peace (Luke 1:79).

And it is because of His birth the angels sing,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! (Luke 2:14)

By implicitly comparing and contrasting Mary and Joseph’s behavior with the infamous actions of Judas the Galilean, Luke offers them as examples of peace for all Christians to follow.

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According to wikipedia, there is no name of the person who was the Roman Governor of Syria listed for the time specific period in question (4-1 BC). Is it possible that an individual with the cognomen of "Quirinius" was governor for the time in question?

Please note that...

Gaius Sentius Saturninus was governor between 9-7/6 AD
Lucius Volusius Saturninus was governor between 4-5 AD
Gnaeus Sentius Saturninus was governor between 19-21 AD

If Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was governor between 6-12 AD, then why could not another person with the same "cognomen" of Quirinius (or maybe even the same guy perhaps) have been governor from 4-1 BC?

In other words, Luke does NOT state that the census was taken while "Publius Sulpicius" was governor (Publius = praenomen and Sulpicius = nomen), which are roughly equivalent to ones first and last name. Instead, Luke indicates that is was "Quirinius," which is the COGNOMEN that refers to the family name within the wider clan (or to some distinguishing feat or personal trait of the particular person). For example, the three Saturnini mentioned above shared the same cognomen, but they were in fact three different people.

Why could not the missing governor (for the period of 4-1 BC) therefore not have had the cognomen of Quirinius -- be it Publius Sulpicius, or someone else?

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Great discussion of the question @bob.sacamento - quote Christian thinktank about Quirinius quoting Martin:" A sixth reason for placing the nativity of Jesus in 3 or 2 B.C. isthe coincidence of this date with the New Testament account that Jesus was born at the time when a Roman census was being conducted: "There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the IRoman] world should be registered" (Luke 2:1). Historians have not been able to find any empire-wide census or registration in the years 7-5 B.C., but there is a reference to such a registration of all the Roman people not long before 5 February 2 B.C. written by Caesar Augustus himself: "While I was administering my thirteenth consulship [2 B.C.] the senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title Father of my Country" (Res Gestae 35, italics added). This award was given to Augustus on 5 February 2 B.C., therefore the registration of citizen approval must have taken place in 3 B.C. Orosius, in the fifth century, also said that Roman records of his time revealed that a census was indeed held when Augustus was made "the first of men"--an apt description of his award "Father of the Country"--at a time when all the great nations gave an oath of obedience to Augustus (6:22, 7:2). Orosius dated the census to 3 B.C. And besides that, Josephus substantiates that an oath of obedience to Augustus was required in Judea not long before the death of Herod (Antiquities I7:4I-45). This agrees nicely in a chronological sense with what Luke records. But more than that, an inscription found in Paphlagonia (eastern Turkey), also dated to 3 B.C., mentions an "oath sworn by all the people in the land at the altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts." And dovetailing precisely with this inscription, the early (fifth century) Armenian historian, Moses of Khoren, said the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was conducted by Roman agents in Armenia where they set up "the image of Augustus Caesar in every temple.''. The similarity of this language is strikingly akin to the wording on the Paphlagonian inscription describing the oath taken in 3 B.C. These indications can allow us to reasonably conclude that the oath (of Josephus, the Paphlagonian inscription, and Orosius) and the census (mentioned by Luke, Orosius, and Moses of Khoren) were one and the same. All of these things happened in 3 B.C."

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Just one piece of it. Worth while to read. And old good stuff too. – hannes Aug 1 '13 at 19:15

There are two issues that need to be addressed in answering this question. They are whether there was a Roman census in Judea during the reign of King Herod, and if not, why Luke associates the birth of Jesus with the census of Quirinius.

Was a Roman census in Judea during the reign of King Herod?

Ian Wilson says, in Jesus: The Evidence, page 47, the problem with Luke is that the first-ever census did take place during Quirinius’ governorship, in 6 CE, the first year that Judea came under direct Roman control. This is the essence of the first issue - while Judea remained nominally independent, under Kings Herod and Archelaus, Rome did not levy direct taxes in Judea and did not even need to know the population or wealth of the kingdom.

In 6 CE, Rome deposed Archelaus because of his incompetence and brought Judea under direct Roman rule. Quirinius was sent as Legate of Syria, with instructions to assess Judea for taxation purposes. We know enough about the career of Quirinius to know that he could not have served in Syria in any capacity from at least 14 BCE to 3 CE. Josephus reports (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, i, 1) Quirinius and his census:

“Quirinius, a Roman senator who had proceeded through all the magistracies to the consulship and a man who was extremely distinguished in other respects, arrived in Syria, dispatched by Caesar [Augustus] to be governor of the nation and to make an assessment of their property. Coponius, a man of equestrian rank was sent along with him to rule over the Jews with full authority. Quirinius also visited Judaea, which had been annexed to Syria, in order to make an assessment of the property of the Jews and to liquidate the estate of Archelaus.”

Wilson (ibid) says there is an unavoidable inference that the Luke gospel’s author may have been trying to make it appear that he knew more about Jesus’ birth than he actually did.

Why does Luke associate the birth of Jesus with the census of Quirinius.

Richard Carrier cites Steve Mason ("Josephus and Luke-Acts," Josephus and the New Testament):

Matthew does not mention anything about it in his account of the nativity, thus one is left to wonder where Luke learned of it ... the answer could be that Luke borrowed the idea from Josephus, and therefore it probably does not come from any genuine tradition about Jesus. Finally, it is most unlikely that Josephus got the information from Luke, for Josephus provides much more detailed, and more correct information (e.g. he knows exactly when and why the census happened, that the census was only of Judaea, not the whole world, etc.), such that it is far more likely that Luke was drawing upon and simplifying Josephus than that Josephus was expanding on Luke

Raymond E. Brown says in An Introduction to the New Testament, page 23, "The best explanation is that, although Luke likes to set his Christian drama in the context of well-known events from antiquity, sometimes he does so inaccurately."

Wikipedia tells us:

"Most modern scholars explain the disparity as an error on the part of the author of the Gospel, concluding that he was more concerned with creating a symbolic narrative than a historical account, and was either unaware of, or indifferent to, the chronological difficulty." [My emphasis]

Uta Ranke-Heinemann says in Putting Away Childish Things, page 11, that Luke wants to make the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem plausible by using the story of the census as a reason for the journey. But in page 8, she explains that according to Roman law, the tax declarations had to be made in the town where the taxpayer resided or, in the case of real estate, in the town where the property was. Joseph would not have travelled all the way from Galilee to Bethlehem unless he owned taxable property there, yet he is portrayed by Luke as exceedingly poor. She points out that even in this case, there was no reason for the heavily pregnant Mary to undertake this arduous journey, as women were not included in censuses.


Raymond E. Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament) and Wikipedia point to Luke making a historical error, being unaware of or indifferent to the actual course of events in history. Uta Ranke-Heinemann (Putting Away Childish Things) takes this a step further and says that the author of Luke's Gospel found the census useful in providing a reason for Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem, where Micah seems to suggest the Messiah must be born.

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Words have a surface meaning and a hidden one, sometimes linked with 'the subliminal' in advertising parlance. To the first readers of Luke's gospel the facts and theories bandied about by doubters and apologists concerned with the census during the governorship of Quininius would have meant little or nothing. To the Romans the name of Quirinius must have rung a bell for it is almost the same as that of the divinity Quirinus, after whom the Romans or Quirites named themselves. After all another very prestigious name falls within the opening lines of Luke's gospel, that of Augustus. T

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Welcome to BH.SE. Could you clarify your answer a bit more? Are you saying that Luke was essentially name dropping to build rapport with the Roman? – Soldarnal Aug 8 '13 at 2:45
If so, Luke simply took a leaf from Paul's (formerly Saul's) book and applied the principle of being all things to all men, including to the mighty Romans, the upholders of the powers that be. – Julian Scutts Aug 21 '13 at 23:08

Actually, if only people would compare the Greek texts more closely, they'd realize it's not actually a reference to Quirinus at all.

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Please edit a summary of the link into your answer. – Jack Douglas Nov 19 '14 at 10:45

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