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Luke 2:2 in the King James Version says,

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

However, the original Greek text says,

αὕτη ἡ ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου

Which is, being translated word for word,

This the taxing (or enrollment) first (or before) was made Cyrenius governor of Syria's.

The text of the King James Version interprets the text inordinately, I believe, by adding the word "when" before "Cyrenius" and "was" before "governor of Syria". Cyrenius' name is also in the genitive, not the nominative case.

Could the text perhaps be translated, "This taxng was made before Cyrenius, governor of Syria's"? I doubt this because πρώτη (which usually means first and not before) comes before ἐγένετο; however, this is the only translation that seems to make any sense.

Thank you.

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  • In Latin his name is in the ablative case(of time); 'when' is therefore accurate in this context. In Greek, the same genitive is used in Luke 3:1.
    – user21676
    Aug 2 '18 at 19:30
  • @user21676 Thank you for this informaton. I see what you mean about Luke 3:1. However, how can the addition of the extra "was" be ezplained?
    – CMK
    Aug 3 '18 at 2:03
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A more slavishly literal translation might be "this first taxing happened of the governing of Syria of Cyrenius." The translation "when Cyrenius was governor of Syria" is just better English with the same meaning. This is called absolute construction (in this case genitive absolute); you can look there for more examples.

The KJV translation is usually consistent in this translation for this kind of sentence. Looking through the chapter, I found these participles which the KJV translates in the same way: ἰδόντες and when they had seen (v. 17), καὶ τελειωσάντων and when they had fulfilled (v. 43), καὶ μὴ εὑρόντες and when they found him not (v. 45), καὶ ἰδόντες and when they saw (v. 48).

πρώτη here seems to mean "first," not "before" as you suggest, because it agrees with the gender of αὕτη ἡ ἀπογραφὴ, so it seems to be an adjective modifying ἀπογραφὴ.

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  • The examples from vvs. 17, 45, 48 are not genitive absolute.
    – fdb
    Aug 3 '18 at 22:25
  • Could πρώτη be modifying Συρίας, the next noun in the sentence? (also feminine singular). In other words, before...Syria of Quirinius or, more colloquially in English, "before Quirinius was running Syria". Mar 12 at 5:52
  • @HoldToTheRod No, because πρώτη is nominative and Συρίας is genitive
    – b a
    Mar 12 at 12:11
  • Yeah that's what I'm trying to make sense of. πρώτης would be expected for genitive, right, but in Acts 16:12 it's πρώτη, and it's listed as genitive here biblehub.com/interlinear/acts/16.htm and here laparola.net/greco/… ; compound that with this comment on the grammar by NT Wright answering-islam.org/BibleCom/lk2-2.html and I'm wondering if both interpretations are legit possibilities Mar 13 at 2:52
  • @HoldToTheRod 1) It's a mistake in tagging. In πρώτη τῆς μερίδος Μακεδονίας πόλις, the word πρώτη agrees with πόλις. There is a variant text in Acts with πρώτης which would be genitive, but if the text is πρώτη it's nominative. 2) Wright's comment is protos came sometimes to be used to mean 'before', when followed (as this is) by the genitive case" i.e. the first noun after πρώτη is genitive. He isn't saying that πρώτη itself is genitive
    – b a
    Mar 13 at 17:11
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I’ve recently spent a fair amount of time with Herodian chronology; this has led me back to this verse a few times to try to work out how it fits in. In reviewing a variety of perspectives on this passage, I find 4 interpretations I'd like to evaluate. I should point out that all of the proposed interpretations of this passage are awkward--there's no good way around the fact that the Greek here is an awkward way to say...anything.

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1. The King James rendering

The rendering of this passage by the King James translators (and most others), is explored by b a in a separate answer. In this sense, Luke is telling us that this was the first registration (implying there was another later) during Quirinius’ tenure.

πρώτη means first and modifies ἀπογραφὴ (registration).

Benefits of this rendering:

  • It allows πρῶτος to carry its commonplace meaning of “first”
  • πρώτη (genitive feminine singular) modifies a noun, ἀπογραφὴ, that is also genitive feminine singular

Downsides to this rendering:

  • It’s an awkward way to say it -- as Stephen Carlson points out, ἦν would be a better word choice than ἐγένετο in this sentence (English rendering “was”) if this was the intended meaning. Craig Evans notes that "most commentators agree that Luke's use of the word 'first' is grammatically awkward." (Luke, New Testament Series, page 43)
  • When was the next registration, to which this one was first?
  • It’s difficult to reconcile with Acts 5:37, which shows Luke--who took the trouble to learn people, rulers, and places thoroughly (e.g. Luke 3:1-2)--knew about the Quirinius census of AD 6, yet puts the birth of Jesus during (or just after) the lifetime of Herod the Great (it’s Matthew who explicitly tells us Herod was still alive when Jesus was born; Luke does not). Even allowing that the Schurer hypothesis for Herod’s death in 4 BC is off by a few years (my work on that subject here ), this is a significant chronological conundrum (there are numerous proposed resolutions, but they do require a little speculation)

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2. The “before” rendering

The view suggests that πρῶτος, when followed by the genitive case (as it is here), can be used to mean “before” rather than “first”, such as:

If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. (John 15:18)

Under this interpretation πρώτη means before and refers to the governing of Syria by Quirinius.

From NT Wright:

It depends on the meaning of the word protos, which usually means 'first'. Thus most translations of Luke 2.2 read 'this was the first [protos] census, when Quirinius was governor of Syria', or something like that. But in the Greek of the time, as the standard major Greek lexicons point out, the word protos came sometimes to be used to mean 'before', when followed (as this is) by the genitive case.

A good example is in John 1.15, where John the Baptist says of Jesus 'he was before me', with the Greek being again protos followed by the genitive of 'me'. I suggest, therefore, that actually the most natural reading of the verse is: 'This census took place before the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria.'

This solves an otherwise odd problem: why should Luke say that Quirinius' census was the first? Which later ones was he thinking of? (Who Was Jesus pp. 88-89)

Benefits of this rendering:

  • The historical context is clean and straightforward--the Quirinius census was well-known, Luke therefore needs to disambiguate this lesser-known registration

Downsides to this rendering:

  • It’s awkward
  • πρώτη is nominative, whereas ἡγεμονεύοντος & Συρίας are genitive. There are Greek scholars who think it’s acceptable, but if so, it’s certainly very atypical.
  • Similar to the critique by b a, Wayne Brindle (p. 50 here) has said of this theory: “But their example, John 15:18, uses the neuter proton (which often has an adverbial meaning), not prötos or proti as here”. This argument would work better with known Greek examples if Luke used a neuter, not a feminine, form of πρῶτος

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3.The compressed sentence rendering

Nigel Turner (a major scholar of ancient Greek and author of the textbook: Grammatical Insights into the New Testament) proposed a different avenue for a “before” rendering by comparison to John 5:36 & 1 Cor. 1:25:

'First census' must be taken in its Hellenistic connotation as the first of two, and then we must expand the clause a little. 'This census was before the census which Quirinius, governor of Syria, made.'...

The phrase is compressed, but it is no more so ungrammatical than the phrase in John 5:36, 'I have a testimony greater than (scil., the testimony of) John,' or the highly compressed 1 Cor. 1:25, 'the foolishness of God is wiser than (scil., the wisdom of) men.' The words in parenthesis are absent from the Greek and yet must be supplied. There is no grammatical reason for not as readily supplying the necessary words in the sentence of St. Luke. 'This census was prior to (the census) of Quirinius.' (see here pp. 23-24)

Benefits of this rendering:

  • No historical difficulties
  • The grammar, though unusual, works

Drawbacks to this rendering:

  • It’s awkward
  • This is not likely to be intuitively understood by the audience unless they are assumed to know there was only one census conducted by Quirinius (of course it’s possible that Theophilus did know this)

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4. The prominence rendering

Stephen Carlson favors the view that Luke is distinguishing the registration/census at the time of Jesus’ birth from the registration/census of Quirinius, pointing out that the one at the time of Quirinius was more important:

[πρῶτος can mean] being first in prominence or importance. Many examples...can be found in Luke’s writings, e.g. Luke 15:22 “[my] best robe”; Luke 13:30 (first vs. last); Acts 17:4 “quite a few prominent women” (NET); Acts 13:50 “the prominent men in the city”; Luke 19:47 “the prominent leaders of the people” etc.

This...sense gives full force to the γίνομαι as “become” (experience a change in nature) and Luke loves using adj. + γίνομαι (e.g. Luke 23:31, Acts 1:19, 9:42, 12:23, 16:27, 19:17, and 26:19 [exx. from BDAG]). Thus, πρώτη ἐγένετο would mean “became most prominent.” Using the sense of “most prominent” in Luke 2:2 αὕτη ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου, we get either, depending on whether ἀπογραφὴ goes into the subject or the predicate:

This registration became most prominent when Quirinius was governing Syria.

or

This [decree to get registered] became the/a most important registration when Quirinius was governing Syria.

How I would understand Luke 2:2 in its context?

I think that it is a parenthetical digression to the effect that, though Joseph’s travel to Bethlehem was occasioned by Augustus’s decree (i.e. the registration of 8 BC), the most important registration from Augustus’s policies was the one that took place when Quirinius was governor (and that led to the revolts in Galilee). Thus Luke is distinguishing the registration that Joseph obeyed from that most prominent one in AD 6, not confounding it.

Benefits of this rendering:

  • There is no chronological difficulty

Downsides to this rendering:

  • It’s awkward
  • While grammatically possible, it’s not intuitive -- this looks like a really good way to confuse a reader

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My take on the passage

As discussed by Layman here, Luke is a very detail-conscious author:

Luke shows himself familiar with the political situation between Rome and Judea and Galilee -- more knowledgeable than any of the other gospel author. He correctly places the birth of John the Baptist "in the days of Herod, king of Judea." (Luke 1:5). He understands the rather complex issue of how Herod's kingdom was divided after his death in 3 BC (Luke 3:1-2). He is careful to distinguish King Herod from "Herod the Tetrarch," the ruler of Galilee (Luke 3:19; 9:7; Acts 13:1). It seems unlikely, therefore, that Luke made such a big blunder as to confuse the Quirinius census as having occurred during the reign of King Herod.

An honest historian cannot rule out the possibility that Luke made a mistake; a humble historian cannot ignore the fact that Luke had access to more data from his own era than we do, suggesting that if we are mistaken or Luke is mistaken, the good doctor is more likely the one who got it right.

If we treat Luke as we would any other ancient historian, then the historical virtue of charity (don’t immediately assume an error when something is unclear) suggests that an author who is very reliable elsewhere should at least initially be given the benefit of the doubt--we should seek for a plausible accurate rendering before prematurely assuming contradiction.

If Luke is correct, I understand the first few verses of chapter 2 to say something like this--I imagine this as Luke (ever the man for details) having a back and forth with his audience to make sure they understand:

Luke: And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be registered.

Audience: Augustus did lots of registrations, which one are you referring to?

Luke: This was the registration before the registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (You know, the infamous one after Herod Archelaus was deposed)

Luke: And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem

Audience: What--why? Rome doesn’t require people to make long journeys for registrations!

Luke: because he was of the house and lineage of David (as you know, Rome likes to keep special tabs on people who might make a claim to be a king as an heir of David).

--

On this latter point, years later Emperor Domitian actually did track down descendants of Joseph (husband of Mary) for this very concern--that they might try to claim right of kingship over the Jews (see Eusebius, HE 3.19 & 3.20).

--

Conclusion

I suggest that the grammar is awkward no matter how we slice it. Since Luke knew how to write excellent Greek (e.g. Luke 1:1-4), the grammatical oddity suggests to me that he’s being concise rather than deliberately vague (how often do you write a short sentence, only to find that it’s interpreted several ways you didn’t intend, all of which could have been prevented by writing a longer, explicit sentence).

This leads me to favor (though not unequivocally accept) option 3 above. Luke is writing, in compressed form, that this was the registration before the registration conducted by Quirinius. This produces the same overall conclusion as option 2, without the same grammatical vulnerabilities.

My literal rendering: This registration took place before (the registration) of the governing of Syria of Quirinius.

My colloquial rendering: This registration was prior to the registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

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I would say it should be rendered along these lines:

Luke 2:1-5 Now it happened in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled (this enrollment was first made when Quirinius was governor of Syria), and every one went to be enrolled, each to his own city. Now Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, into the city of David called Bethlehem (inasmuch as he was of the house and lineage of David) to be enrolled with Mary, his espoused wife who was with child.

What is being said is that the enrollment "was first made" (πρώτη ἐγένετο) "Quirinius being governor of Syria" (ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου), i.e., when he was. This gives us more precise information about the time period during which the decree was given. In other words, saying that the decree came from Augustus "in those days" is less precise than, or a greater range of time, the time during which "Quirinius was governor of Syria."

There is similar language used in Luke 3:

Luke 3:1-2 Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod tetrarch of Galilee, and Philip his brother tetrarch of Iturea and the province of Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abiline), under the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, a word from God came to John son of Zachariah in the wilderness.

Here, as above, the intention of Luke is to give a more specific time period during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, than simply the entire reign, and the grammar is the same. Using the participle to further specify the time period spoken of denotes a kind of parenthetical, but more specific, piece of information. Hence why (I think properly) I've rendered it with parentheses. This grammatical construction is called the "Genitive absolute." Since the governorship of Quirinius overlaps with the reign of Caesar Augustus, and this is intended to be more specific about the time when the decree "went out," the present participle is used. It's standard in this construction for the subject to be in the genitive (Κυρηνίου/Ποντιου Πειλατου).

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