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?

  • How are you sure it's in 6 A.D. based on that passage in the Antiquities?
    – user862
    May 9, 2013 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. May 9, 2013 at 15:26
  • 2
    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, 2014 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. Dec 6, 2014 at 21:41

12 Answers 12


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.

  • 1
    How does this address the discrepancy of time and that there was such a census in the first place? (Of the whole Roman “world”) Aug 7, 2019 at 13:52

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?


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.


A correct interpretation of Luke 2:2 requires taking into account a key item of historical information of a most practical nature: any census of subjects (as opposed to citizens) of the Roman Empire was carried out for tax purposes, to determine the taxable base of each subject. In such a census, people to be registered were not expected to travel but to do exactly the opposite: stay in their homes and wait for the census officer, who was above all a tax assessor. Josephus, in his description of precisely the census ordered by Quirinius in 6 AD, explicitely states that the registered people had their possessions assessed (AJ 18.1 and 18.2). And it is evident that Joseph did not have properties in Bethlehem, otherwise he and Mary would not have had to seek shelter in a manger for Mary to give birth.

  1. 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-pesuaded by Joazar's words, gave an account of their estates, without any dispute about it. Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite, (1) of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, (2) 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; [...]

  2. WHEN Cyrenius had now disposed of Archelaus's money, and when the taxings were come to a conclusion, which were made in the thirty-seventh year of Caesar's victory over Antony at Actium, he deprived Joazar of the high priesthood, which dignity had been conferred on him by the multitude, and he appointed Ananus, the son of Seth, to be high priest;


Therefore, the historically informed translation of Luke 2:2: "hautē apographē prōtē egeneto hēgemoneuontos tēs Syrias Kyrēniou" is "this registration took place before Quirinius was governing Syria". Note that rendering "prōtē" as "before" is consistent with the established translation of the end of Jn 1:15: "hoti prōtos mou ēn" = "because He was before me".

Thus, noting from Acts 5:37 that Luke was fully aware of the event of Quirinius' census, its nature and its consequence, namely the uprising of Judas the Galilean, the reason of his mentioning the event in Luke 2:2 becomes crystal clear: state for the record that he was not talking about that census. I.e., Luke is saying: "Given that in a Roman census of imperial subjects people remain at their homes, I state for the record that the census that prompted Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem was before Quirinius ordered his infamous one."

How then could it come to pass that Luke's statement was interpreted for centuries in exactly the opposite way as he meant it? Because of complete unawareness of historical context. I imagine that anyone living in the Roman Empire at that time would find this discussion hilarious to the point of ridiculous, and think: "How can these guys not understand that a census of subjects of the Empire (as opposed to Roman citizens) is for tax purposes, and that people must wait for the census officer at their homes? How else could the census officer reckon the taxable base of each person other than by having a look at his property?"

On the other hand, the census that prompted the travel of Joseph and Mary was ordered by Herod and obviously restricted to the territory ruled by him. It approximately coincided in time with a global census ordered by Augustus in 8 bC, but was of different nature. Whereas Augustus' 8 bC global census was restricted to Roman citizens and for statistics, not tax, purposes [1], the motive of the Census ordered by Herod in 7/6 bC was that all his subjects should swear fidelity to Caesar and King (AJ 17.42) [2]. Together with the record of the oath, people were registered for an egalitarian contribution per capita in the way ordered by Ex 30:11-16, in which the possessions of each person were not taken into account.

In the context of a registration ordered by Herod, and knowing his profile, the order that all descendants of King David should register in one place was wholly plausible and logical, as it allowed Herod to know all potential claimers to the throne of Israel (and hence potential threats to his position). Furthermore, it is highly likely that the duty to travel to the city of their ancestors was in force only to King David's descendants, because of the people in general Luke says that "all went to be registered, each to his own town" (Lk 2:3), not "each to the town of his ancestors".

[1] Res Gestae Divi Avgvsti Chapter 22 (The Deeds of Divine Augustus) translated by Thomas Bushnell, BSG. Available online at: http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html#71

[2] Armand Puig i Tàrrech, "Jesus: An Uncommon Journey : Studies on the Historical Jesus", Mohr Siebeck, 2010. Chapter 2 "The Birth of Jesus", Section 4 "A More Judaico Census Decreed by Herod", pp 74-84. Partially available online at: http://books.google.com/books?id=elFp5tRSUH0C

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics SE, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other SEs. Our community looks for answers to reflect a good degree of research and references. Typically, we like answers that cite scholarly references. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. This seems to be a reasonable interpretation since prote can be used in some rare cases as "before", Jul 3, 2016 at 23:11
  • but if you aware of any scholars that also take this position that you can cite any other references that you might be able to add if you have some time, or if you just want to tweak your formatting to follow recommendations for quotes, this would be appreciated. All in all though, this is an excellent observation and great work. Jul 3, 2016 at 23:19

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.

  • 1
    there was no reason for the heavily pregnant Mary to undertake this arduous journey - Was he then supposed to leave his heavily pregnant spouse all alone at home, unattended and unprotected ? Also, Joseph was a carpenter residing in Nazareth, less than four miles away from the ancient and blooming city of Sepphoris. Well-paid work would therefore have been readily available to him. The taxable property he probably owned in his native Bethlehem may have been an ancestral piece of land (rather than a house), which would explain why he tried to register at the inn.
    – Lucian
    Aug 4, 2017 at 6:27
  • There is some evidence that a Roman census could mandate the return to your place of origin, see Papyrus London 904 from ~104 AD that does exactly that for an Roman Egyptian census ...it is necessary to notify all who for any cause soever are outside their nomes to return to their domestic hearths... It is possible that this could have been more prevalent in Judaea as well, due to the extreme importance placed on genealogy and ancestry among Jews.
    – mwolfe 11
    Nov 23, 2023 at 1:52

Quirinius, proconsul of Syria taken from follwing article

Related to this, for a long while scholars have questioned the accuracy of Luke’s account of the census under the reign of Quirinius (Lk 2:2, cf. Ac 5:37). The reason for this skepticism is that the ancient evidence suggests that Quirinius was not governor of Syria until AD 6. The problem, of course, is that Jesus was born at least ten to twelve years before this time. Hence many scholars have concluded that Luke simply got his facts wrong.

There is a plausible way of resolving this apparent discrepancy even apart from archeology. Though Luke 2:2 is usually translated something like, “This was the first (protos) census that took place while Quirinius was governor,” it’s possible to translate protos not as “first” but as “before.” So it’s possible Luke is saying that the census that led Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem took place before the census taken under Quirinius in 6 BC – the better known one that caused an uprising.

Fragment of the sepulchral inscription of Quirinius now at the Vatican Museum

The inscription, found near Tivoli in 1764, probably belonged to the tomb of Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, "proconsul" (governor) of Asia and "legate divi Augusti" (imperial official) of Syria and Phoenicia in the time of the Emperor Augustus (27 BC -14 AD). This figure is mentioned in the Gospel in relation to the census at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem "when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (Lk 2, 1-7): indeed, this census has been the focus of intense historical debate, as it would appear that it took place twelve years after the birth of Jesus. In fact, the inscription in question, with the term "leg (atus) iterum ..." ("... twice legate") attests to the possibility of that Quirinius held an earlier post in Syria: on that occasion he could have overseen a more approximate estimate of the population, thus limiting the presumed discrepancy between historical sources and the passage from the Gospel according to Luke.

  • I noticed the linked article doesn't have a supporting reference regarding this discovered coin. It would be really helpful if one was provided. Apr 19, 2020 at 23:44
  • @elikakohen - Thanks for bringing this up. As supporting reference for the coin is very thin, I decided to make an edit.
    – veritas
    Apr 21, 2020 at 12:43

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."

  • Just one piece of it. Worth while to read. And old good stuff too.
    – hannes
    Aug 1, 2013 at 19:15

I think Stephen C. Carlson has a good explanation: http://hypotyposeis.org/weblog/2004/12/luke-22-and-the-census.html.


Josephus dated the census incorrectly.

This answer is a summary of the YouTube videos The Census of Quirinius - Biblical Error #1 and Did Luke Misdate the Census of Quirinius?.

The two references that are made historically to the census of Quirinius are Luke's and Josephus'. As far as I know, these are the only two existing references to Quirinius. Luke dates the census to either before or somewhere right around the time of the death of King Herod the Great.

However, Josephus never directly mentions that the census happened in 6 AD. He says in Jewish Wars that it happened when Coponius was proconsul of Judaea. We know this was in 6 AD because that is when Judaea became a Roman province.

But, Josephus links together the Quirinius census with a story about a revolt. In fact, there are three very similar stories, detailed below:

  1. Before Herod's death: Judas son of the Sepphorean, and teacher Matthias, teaching death for the Mosaic law, start a revolt. It is crushed, and, as a result, Herod deposes the high priest and replaces him with Joazar. (Antiquities of the Jews 17.148-67)
  2. After Herod's death: Judas the Galilean, active around the town of Sepphoris in Galilee, starts a revolt. It is crushed, and, as a result, Archaleus (successor of Herod after his death) deposes high priest Joazar. Josephus says Archaleus deposed Joazar two different times for two different reasons but never mentions him being reinstated in between. (Antiquities of the Jews 17.269-65)
  3. 6 AD: Judas the Galilean, and teacher Sadducand, teaching death for the Mosaic law start a revolt partially against Quirinius' census tax (this is where Josephus' dating comes from). High priest Joazar persuades the people to go along with the census but is then deposed by Quirinius. (Jewish Wars 2.117-18; Antiquities of the Jews 18.4-23)

Obviously, something is already wrong with Josephus' story because he has Joazar deposed three times by two different people for three different reasons. #3 makes even less sense, because why would Quirinius depose the high priest that was on his side?

This Judas revolt story is very important because story #3 is where Quirinius' census is mentioned. If Josephus misdated the Judas story, that means he also misdated Quirinius' census.

Luckily, story #3 is contained in both Jewish Wars and Antiquities of the Jews. Sometimes, in Antiquities, Josephus would rewrite stories to fix mistakes he had made in the earlier published Jewish Wars. In Jewish Wars, Coponius is mentioned (where 6 AD comes from). However, the Antiquities account of the same story has much more detail, talks more about Quirinius, and does not mention Coponius, suggesting that Josephus revised the story with new information and took Coponius (and 6 AD) out intentionally.

All of these Judas revolt stories are extremely similar. The idea is that Josephus accidentally duplicated the same Judas revolt story three times. The situation after Herod's death was very chaotic, and perhaps he had conflicting sources, which is shown clearly by his completely contradictory treatment of Joazar and others which I have not mentioned. Story #3 being at 6 AD is delegitimized by Josephus' changing it himself. Josephus also says Coponius was in Judaea as early as 5 BC (Antiquites of the Jews 17.134), and Quirinius may have been with him (Coponius had a traveling companion 'Sabinus.' This could be a corruption of 'Sabine.' Quirinius was born in an Italian town with a large Sabine population.) Coponius and Quirinius could have been in Judaea previous to Herod's death. Just as Luke uses the word 'hegemon' (ἡγεμονεύω), not necessarily governor, to refer to Quirinius, Josephus uses 'procurator.' The best date to unify these Judas revolt stories is the earliest one, before Herod's death, as it would be much more logical for Joazar, apparently unpopular with the people, to be deposed by the Romans to appease them in the chaos after the death of Herod.

Josephus misdated the Quirinius census by mistakenly replicating the same event three times, and associating Quirinius with the wrong one. It is probable that he himself changed his mind on the dating between the publication of Jewish Wars and Antiquities of the Jews. For myself, the most convincing way to remedy this is to combine these stories into the same event that occurred before or directly after the death of Herod, which also lines up perfectly with Luke.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others. I also recommend going through the Help Center's sections on both asking and answering questions.
    – agarza
    Nov 23, 2023 at 4:16
  • ....the Roman governor of Syria, Quirinius, presided over a census (taken once every 14 years), the first of his governorship (Luke 2:1,2) and whereupon Luke seems to suggest that this coincided with Jesus' birth, although the actual census was in 6 AD, thus confusing many an historian, as Jesus could not possibly have been born in 6 AD. However, while this was a "bona fide" census for the registration of all peoples, it was actually the second registration under Quirinius, as the first registration was in 2 BC, during his first governorship, but which was not a census as such...From Q.68419. Nov 24, 2023 at 16:23
  • See also my comment to @Ray Butterworth. Nov 24, 2023 at 16:48

Some translations have footnotes giving alternative translations.


  • NIV: "This census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria";
  • ESV: "This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria";
  • CSB: "This registration was before Quirinius was governor of Syria".

Luke was explaining that this census was not the famous one conducted by Quirinius a few years later.

But even the commonly translated version, "This was the first census that took place while Quirinius governor of Syria", can be read with Luke stressing that this was the first census under Quirinius, not the more famous second census under Quirinius. If not to distinguish it, why even mention Quirinius, or indicate it was first?
(And, as explained by @Joseph's answer, either Quirinius himself or another person with the same name could have been governor when the first census took place nine years earlier.)

It remains ambiguous which of the two explanations correctly describe why this census was not the one described by Josephus, but neither of them contradict the historical record.

  • I knew that I had commented on the (2) governorships of Quirinius at some time or other. See my comment to @mwolfe 11 below. Nov 24, 2023 at 16:33
  • 1
    Although Q.68419 centered on the "70 Weeks" prophecy (to which I have a better understanding of these days, particularly as to it's start), under Factor 3, I reference the 2 governorships of Quirinius but also, and possibly more importantly, the true year of Herod the Great's death. Nov 24, 2023 at 16:46

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

  • 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, 2013 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. Aug 21, 2013 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.


  • 2
    Please edit a summary of the link into your answer. Nov 19, 2014 at 10:45

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