Something that any reader of the gospels knows is that Rome taxed Judea, and Judea did not like it. Something that scholarly readers know about Roman taxation of Judea is that there is a great deal of debate about when and how the taxation happened.
After looking into it thoroughly, I’ve found that it is far simpler than we’ve been led to believe. This post solves the Census of Quirinius “problem” in the Bible.
The Census of Quirinius in the Bible
Here’s where we get the whole “Census of Quirinius” question in the gospel of Luke:
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. 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.(Luke 2:1-6, ESV)
However, this passage will look different depending on what translation you use. That was the ESV. The following are other translations, which change a particular key word:
- Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled. (Luke 2:1, ASV)
- And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (Luke 2:1, KJV)
- Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. (Luke 2:1, NASB)
- In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (Luke 2:1, NIV)
- In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole empire should be registered. (Luke 2:1, CSB)
This lack of consistency demands a second look. The Greek word here is a verb – ἀπογράφεσθαι (apographesthai) – present infinitive (middle or passive). The word means to “enroll, to inscribe in a register, or to give a name for a registration.” The noun form is used in Luke 2:2 — ἀπογραφὴ (apographē).
Therefore, the meaning spans all of the translations above. But for some reason, the translators can’t seem to fall down on any particular English word.
The Problem of the Census of Quirinius
So now, the problem of the “ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) of Quirinius” is at the very least a messy translation issue.
But it’s not only translation confusion. There is also a historical conundrum.
Part 1: “The Days of Herod the King”
The first part of the conundrum comes from Matthew 2, which clearly states that Jesus was born in the days of “Herod the King,” (who is Herod the Great).
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2, ESV)
So yes, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and it happened in the days of Herod the king. That means the Census of Quirinius happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria and when Herod the Great was king of Judea.
But that’s where the problem starts. The chronology of Herod the Great is WILDLY controversial, with Wikipedia and “consensus” history stating that Herod the Great died in 4 BC.
But there is another strong argument that he died in 1 BC. The discussion and evidence involves astronomy, eclipses, archeological coins, ancient calendars, and lots of complicated issues. To make a long story short, I believe he died in 1 BC (See W.E. Filmer, “The Reign and Chronology of Herod the Great,” The Journal of Theological Studies, NEW SERIES, Vol. 17, No. 2 (OCTOBER 1966) and Andrew E. Steinmann, “When Did Herod the Great Reign?” Novum Testamentum, Vol. 51, Fasc. 1 (2009) for further reading on this subject), but at the end of the day, no matter what day you pick, there is still a problem in this discussion of the ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) of Quirinius.
Part 2: The Birth of Jesus
Here is the issue. The early church was almost universal in saying that Jesus was born in a Roman year that corresponds to either 3 BC or 2 BC (See Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Hendrickson Publishers, (2015)). Using the “consensus” Herod the Great death date, most people believe Jesus was born sometime around 6 BC or 5 BC. Personally, I think he was born in the spring of 2 BC, but that’s a discussion for a different time.
The main issue is that we have a clear window of when Jesus could have been born, and it is BEFORE 1 AD.
Part 3: The Famous Census of Quirinius
Here is an even stickier issue.While Luke 2:1-2 tells us that an ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) happened before Jesus was born, we have a problem.
We have VERY solid evidence that an ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) of Judea happened in 6 AD. Even worse, it happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
This evidence is based in large part on this following passage from Josephus:
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 Cæsar to be 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. 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. (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.1)
The word that Josephus uses is ἀποτίμησιν (apotímesin) which means “pledging of a property, mortgaging” or “a census; valuation” or “tax.”
It is clear from Josephus that this “pledge/census/mortgaging/tax” happened after Herod Archelaus was banished to Vienna, and therefore AFTER the “days of Herod the King”:
But in the tenth year of Archelaus’s government, both his brethren, and the principal men of Judea and Samaria, not being able to bear his barbarous and tyrannical usage of them, accused him before Cæsar, and that especially because they knew he had broken the commands of Cæsar, which obliged him to behave himself with moderation among them. Whereupon Cæsar, when he heard it, was very angry, and called for Archelaus’s steward, who took care of his affairs at Rome, and whose name was Archelaus also; and thinking it beneath him to write to Archelaus, he bid him sail away as soon as possible, and bring him to us: so the man made haste in his voyage, and when he came into Judea, he found Archelaus feasting with his friends; so he told him what Cæsar had sent him about, and hastened him away. And when he was come [to Rome], Cæsar, upon hearing what certain accusers of his had to say, and what reply he could make, both banished him, and appointed Vienna, a city of Gaul, to be the place of his habitation, and took his money away from him.
. . .
So Archelaus’s country was laid to the province of Syria; and Cyrenius, one that had been consul, was sent by Cæsar to take account of people’s effects in Syria, and to sell the house of Archelaus. (Josephus, Antiquities, 17.13.2&5)
If there was a tax of Judaea while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and if this tax definitely happened after Archelaus was banished to Vienna, this is YEARS after the death of Herod the King.
Knowing this, then how can the Bible’s chronology match up? Isn’t there a serious error between Luke and Matthew?
Establishing the “Problem” of the Census of Quirinius
Many people say that Luke made an incredible error in the “census of Quirinius” in Luke 2. For instance, Emil Schürer in his 19th century treatise on the Chronology of the Jewish people in the time of Christ, gives a long discussion of the topic of the “Census of Quirinius” and then concludes the following:
“All ways of escape are closed, and there remains nothing else but to acknowledge that the evangelist has made his statement trusting to imperfect information, so that it is not in accordance with the facts of history.” (Emil Schürer A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, First Edition 1890)
Sounds like a problem, no?
Solving the “Problem” of the Census of Quirinius
The consistent claim is that Luke made a mistake in his chronology and made errors in his history. It claims he overlooked the details of the ἀποτίμησιν (apotímesin) of Quirinius in 6 AD when he wrote of the ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) in Luke 2.
Part 1 – Luke Knew His History
But while it may be easy to say that Luke was “confused” about general history before his time, it becomes more difficult to say that Luke was “confused” about his own writing. The fact of the matter is that Luke knew about the ἀποτίμησιν (apotímesin) mentioned by Josephus.
Luke uses the verb ἀπογράφεσθαι (apographesthai) and the noun ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) in Luke 2, but he uses the same noun ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) in the following passage in Acts:
When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him 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. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:33-39)
In this passage, the “census” is the same Greek noun in Luke 2: ἀπογραφὴ (apographē). But this word clearly refers to the same thing mentioned by Josephus with the word ἀποτίμησιν (apotímesin). We know this because both accounts explicitly mention “Judas the Galilean,” who revolted.
Luke is not confused. Instead, it seems we are.
Part 2 – Luke Told Us What He Meant
We can see that Luke is not confused when we re-examine the passage in the gospel of Luke:
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. (Luke 2:1-2)
Note that he says this was the FIRST registration, foreshadowing the mention of the second ἀποτίμησιν (apotímesin) mentioned in Acts 5.
Part 3 – Quirinius Was Governor of Syria On Two Separate Occasions
Earlier, we quoted Emil Schürer, who definitely believed that Luke made an error. He is the “consensus” scholar who believes that Herod the Great died in 4 BC and that Luke made an error.
However, we can use him again to rehabilitate Luke and prove a point that he overlooks (probably because he thought Herod the Great died in 4 BC). It involves the governor of Syria between 3 BC and 2 BC:
During the period B.C. 3-2, there is no direct evidence about any governor of Syria. But it may be concluded with a fair amount of probability from a passage in Tacitus, that about this time P. Sulpicius Quirinius, consul in B.C. 12, was appointed governor of Syria. Tacitus in the Annals, iii. 48, expressly records the death of Quirinius in A.D. 21 (coss. Tiber. iv., Drus. ii.) . . . Quirinius must therefore have been then governor of that province to which the Homonadensians belonged, or from which the war against them proceeded. Seeing that the Homonadensians occupied the Taurus Mountains, we might have to do with the provinces of Asia, Pamphylia, Galatia, Cilicia, Syria. But of these the first three must be at once set aside, because they had no legions, so that their governors could not carry on a war. And further, Cilicia was probably at that time only a part of the province of Syria . . The only conclusion then that remains is that Quirinius . . . was governor of Syria. (Emil Schürer A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, First Edition 1890)
Therefore, it is clear that while Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 AD, he was also governor of Syria in 3 BC – 2 BC as well.
Part 4 – The Greek Text of Luke 2:2 Is Not as Clear As You Think It Is
Above, we saw the difference in translation of ἀπογράφεσθαι (apographesthai) in Luke 2:1 among several different Bible translations.
You can see the same variety of the noun ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) in the translation of Luke 2:2:
- This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Luke 2:2, ESV)
- This was the first enrolment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Luke 2:2, ASV)
- This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Luke 2:2, NASB)
- This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. (Luke 2:2, CSB)
- (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) (Luke 2:2, KJV)
Just like before, the word and ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) continues to see variety in tranlsation, mirroring the translation of ἀπογράφεσθαι (apographesthai) in Luke 2:1.
But I’m here to make a separate point. The part of this verse that stays the same – “Quirinius was governor of Syria” is not as straightforward as it appears. This point is highly technical, so get ready.
Into the Weeds of Koine Greek
The Greek sentence in Luke 2:2 is as follows:
αὕτη ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου
This registration first took place [when] was commanding the Syria Quirinius
That verb ἡγεμονεύοντος (hēgemoneuontos) means “to command” or “to govern,” and it is conjugated as Present Participle Active – Genitive Masculine Singular.
A participle is basically a verbal adjective. In English, it would be something like “The running man was dressed in black.” The word “run” is a verb, even though here it modifies “man” like an adjective.
This Greek word is also in the Genitive case. The Genitive case indicates possession, among other things. In English, we indicate possession with words like your, my, his, and her, even with verbs. Consider the phrase: “My running was slower than I wanted.” The word “my” shows possession of the verb “running.” In Greek, this was accomplished with conjugation rather than an extra word.
The Ambiguity of Koine Greek
But here’s where things get complicated. Luke is written in Koine Greek. At this period of the Greek langauge, an entirely different case that existed in Attic Greek had disappeared. It was called the “ablative case.” As Wikipedia explains:
In Ancient Greek, there was an ablative case αφαιρετική afairetikē which was used in the Homeric, pre-Mycenaean, and Mycenean periods. It fell into disuse during the classical period and thereafter with some of its functions taken by the genitive and others by the dative; the genitive had functions belonging to the Proto-Indo-European genitive and ablative cases. The genitive case with the prepositions ἀπό apó “away from” and ἐκ/ἐξ ek/ex “out of” is an example.
That may be confusing, so let’s just compare it to English. The Ablative is used to denote the relations expressed in English by the prepositions from; in, at; with, and by. Similarly, it shows how Greek prepositions “away from” and “out of” can communicate an Ablative case from a Genitive verb in Koine Greek.
You can see why the ablative may not be used that much. For instance, what would be the difference between “shouting FROM me” [ablative] and “MY shouting” [genitive]? What is the difference between “running WITH my legs” [ablative] and “MY running” [genitive]? What is the difference between “the home OUT OF WHICH I live” [ablative] and “MY home” [genitive]?
Ninety-nine percent of the time, they mean exactly the same thing. So, just as the older English word “thou” got subsumed into the modern “you,” Greek speakers by the Koine Greek period decided that they just didn’t need the Ablative case. So it got subsumed into the Genitive.
The Unrecognized Accuracy of Luke 2:2
But this sentence in Luke 2:2 just might be that 1 % of the time where the difference between the Ablative and Genitive makes a difference. Here is the key:
“Quirinius was governor of Syria” is a Genitive translation of the Koine Greek phrase in Luke 2:2 mentioned above. But that is not the only possible translation. “Quirinius was governing FROM Syria” and “Quirinius was governing OUT OF Syria” are possible Ablative translations of the same Greek phrase.
Why does this matter? Well, look back up at Point 3: Quirinius between 3 BC and 2 BC was commanding legions against the Homonadensians, as we learned from Emil Schürer. He did it while he was “governor OF Syria.” To do so, he would have to go FROM Syria and TO the Taurus Mountains. Therefore, Quirinius must have been “governing” or “commanding” or “hēgemoneuontos-ing” OUT OF Syria and into modern-day Turkey. See below:
This necessarily implicates an ablative meaning of the Greek Verb ἡγεμονεύοντος (hēgemoneuontos), which English translations have consistently translated in a genitive way.
But did you catch the second detail about the second ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) mentioned by Luke in Acts 5, which was the same the ἀποτίμησιν (apotímesin) mentioned by Josephus? Look what it said:
Moreover, Cyrenius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria (Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.1)
Contrary to the FIRST tax/census/registration/enrollment, in the SECOND tax/census/registration/enrollment, Quirinius was PHYSICALLY LOCATED IN JUDEA.That would have been a big deal at the time, and a clear historical marker in the mind of his readers.
This is the historical detail that Luke is showing his readers. We have been missing it the whole time.
Clarifying The Quirinius Conundrum
But this still leaves some questions:
- Why was there a big revolt in the second ἀπογραφὴ (apographē), but barely a historical blip in the first ἀπογραφὴ (apographē)?
- Also, why on Earth would Joseph need to travel to Bethlehem with Mary to participate in the first ἀπογραφὴ (apographē)?
- Did they not have mail or a courier?
- Do you have to show up in person to pay taxes?
- Isn’t that wildly impractical?
- How does any of this make sense?
How Roman Taxes Were Levied
Actually, it makes TOTAL sense, and this detail explains the whole discrepancy. But to understand, you will need to understand how Rome collected taxes. Take note of this excellent short video on the subject:
From the description of the video, it uses the following sources to make this summary, if you want to check the work:
- Peter Tremin. The Roman Market Economy. Princeton Press (2013)
- M.I. Finley. The Ancient Economy. University of California Press (1999)
- Keith Hopkins, “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 BC – 400 AD),” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 70, Nov. 1980 (pp.101 – 125).
But here’s the key quote if you can’t watch with audio:
The system worked as follows. Roman officials would estimate the approximate tax to be extracted from a region. Next, they would host an auction to give away the rights to collect this money on their behalf. This would be attended by publicani, or private contractors, . . . Here at the auction, let’s say that the government said they want to collect one million sestertii. What would happen is these publicani would come in and say “I would be able to collect 1.1 million sestertii.” Another would say “I would be able to collect 1.2 million sestertii.” And then, whoever basically had the highest bid, well, they would win the contract.
And now what would happen is that they would have the government backing to go ahead and collect those taxes.
That is basic Roman history from a non-Biblical-studies perspective, but the information makes TOTAL sense when you apply it to Luke 2:1-2, Acts 5:37 in the Bible, and Josephus.
Breakdown of the Luke 2 and Acts 5 ἀπογραφὴ (apographē)
The first ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) was when Roman officials (in this case, Herod the Great, whose throne was granted by Caesar Augustus himself) merely did some prep work to figure out how much wealth was in the region. Or as the video said “estimate the approximate tax to be extracted from a region.”
The second ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) was the actual collection of the tax after the publicani bid on the rights and were able to collect the tax with the backing of Rome.
The Reason for Joseph and Mary’s Trip to Bethlehem
This gives an easy answer to why Joseph took the following action:
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. (Luke 2:4-5)
But he did have to travel to his home with his betrothed, who was with child, to accurately reflect the value of his labor, to show the size of his growing family, to show his “dependents,” and to accurately reflect the size of his or his family’s house, laborers, etc. when the Roman officials or their agents were making their estimations of the approximate tax to be extracted from the region.
Caesar’s decree that the Roman world should have an ἀπογραφὴ (apographē) was not about making people travel to ancestral lands to pay a random tax bill. No! That’s ridiculous. It was about assessing the value of the entire Roman world so that the tax bills that come later are NOT “random.” Instead, they would correspond to reality, and make Rome ready to get some income.
Why General History Does Not Record Luke’s “Census of Quirinius”
And finally, why does history not record this event? That’s easy, too.
If you live in the United States, you know what happens on April 15, don’t you? That’s when you have to pay your taxes. But do you know when the local tax assessor updates the property values of real property in your county? I didn’t think so.
What was true for Judea in 6 AD is true for citizens of the United States today. It’s the PAYING that everyone cares about, not the ASSESSING.
The Census of Quirinius is not as hard as it seems. The problem comes from a modern view of an ancient taxing system. There was not a single meaning to the Greek word ἀπογράφεσθαι (apographesthai). This word can be any particular part of the taxation process in the Roman world, either assessing property values or actually levying a tax.
The first ἀπογράφεσθαι (apographesthai) happened when Quirinius was governor OF Syria and commanding legions FROM Syria. The second ἀπογράφεσθαι (apographesthai) happened when Quirinius was governor OF Syrian and governing FROM Judea.
And that’s how the Census of Quirinius works.