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)
THIS WAS A TAX ASSESSMENT. Joseph didn’t need to travel to his home to “pay his tax bill.” (remember: Joseph was from Bethlehem, not Nazareth) Not at all!
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.
45 Comments Add yours
I really enjoyed your article but in this article about the solving the quirinus censuses and that fact that he was not there for the first one because he was leading a legion how does that help luke are you saying the correct translation in luke 2: 2 should be when he .was governing out of syria I am just very confused
That’s a good point, but I think we can solve it by remembering the difference between the text of scripture and the names we have put on the things that happen in scripture.
“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.” (Luke 2:1-3)
There is nothing in this text that says that Quirinius was the one doing the registration.
In contrast, the text from Josephus is this:
“Now Cyrenius [that is: Quirinius], 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.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.1.1)
That one obviously DOES say that Quirinius was doing the taxing.
In the traditional historic understanding, people believe that what was mentioned in Josephus is THE SAME EVENT as what was mentioned in Luke. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think the first event in Luke was a tax ASSESSMENT while the event in Josephus is the actual payment of the taxes, which is when the tax-man actually TAKES a percentage of the wealth of a place: (“take an account of their substance”).
I think that Luke is differentiating the one from the other when he says that “this first census took place while Quirinius was [commanding] Syria” to make it different from what Josephus says, which is that Quirinius was PHYSICALLY PRESENT in Judea.
We have really good evidence that the second taxation (the one mentioned by Josephus) happened in 6 AD, which is far, FAR too late for it to be what Luke mentions. But on the other hand, we have pretty good evidence that Quirinius was commanding legions in Syria in 3 BC, which is the perfect time for the registration the Luke talks about to take place.
Does that mean he wasn’t there in luke 2: 2 but instead was commanding legions out of Syria into what is now turkey so shouldn’t the correct translation in luke 2: 2 quinnius was governing out of syria because you said he had to been commanding or governing out of Syria into modern day Turkey and if he wasn’t there to the tax assement you seem to think it was king herod
Yes. The Greek phrase isn’t “was the governor of Syria.” It is actually a little bit more complicated, and it’s hard to translate it because English doesn’t have the same mechanics as Greek. The Greek word is a participle: a verb that works like a noun. It is the word ἡγεμονεύοντος (hēgemoneuontos), which is where we get the English words “hegemon” and “hegemony.” It means “to command” or “to govern.” So, another way to translate Luke 2:2 is that “This was the first census when Quirinius was commanding Syria.”
The thing to remember at the time of King Herod is that Judea wasn’t technically a “province” of Rome at this point. Syria was, but Judea was not. It was a “client kingdom.” It had a king (King Herod), who was put in power by the Romans, but did not have a “governor.” However, when Caesar said “jump,” the Rome-installed King Herod said “How high?”
This all changed in 6 A.D., when Archelaus did such a bad job with the whole taxation thing that Judea that he was banished to Vienna and Judea was just added to the province of Syria. The small bit of independence they had evaporated, and they just got a regular governor. The first of these governors was Quirinius (who was experienced in the region), and in 6 A.D., Josephus tells us he was physically present in Judea to make sure the taxation worked.
In this case, Quirinius wouldn’t be “hēgemoneuontos” in Syria (like it says in Luke 2). He would be “hēgemoneuontos” in Judea.
In the second cenuses how could he be governor of Syria and governing from.syria who did the tax assessment while he was commanding a legion the reason I am asking these questions is people are saying that that luke made an error in luke 2:2 they are saying how could he conduct a censuses when he was commanding .a legion against the homonadesians out of Syria I have been trying so hard to explain but they criticized how I tried to explain it
In the second census, he was governor of Syria because of what Josephus says. It quite explicitly says that Quirinius was named by Caesar to be the “supreme judge” of Syria. And that office of “supreme judge” can only mean “the governor,” which was a Roman office. This happened after Archelaus was banished, which we know to be in 6 AD. You can read about that in the Antiquities in book 18.1.1.
As for the census that Luke refers to, notice something VERY important: LUKE NEVER CALLS IT THE “CENSUS OF QUIRINIUS.”:
“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 [or: “was commanding”] Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
From the text, it might as well be “the census of Augustus.” It is modern people who call it the “census of Quirinius.” The Bible does no such thing. Luke differentiates this “first” census by saying that it is a DIFFERENT EVENT than the thing that Josephus mentions in Antiquities 18.1.1. In fact, Luke himself mentions that second census himself in Acts 5:37.
You’re asking how Quirinius could conduct a census in 3 BC when he was commanding legions in Syria at that time. The answer is simple. Quirinius didn’t conduct that census!!!! It was Herod the Great who would have done that, because Herod still ran a “client kingdom” for Rome. Judea hadn’t been added to the province of Syria yet. That happened 8 years later in 6 AD.
That was the SECOND census when Quirinius WASN’T commanding Syria.
He was taxing Judea!
That’s how we can show how the Bible doesn’t make a mistake. Luke makes distinctions that avoid the entire “contradiction.”
The reason I am asking these questions is that on this website people were saying how luke was wrong and I was trying to explaining to them but I got all mixed up because it’s so confusing
How do we know king herod conducted the tax assessment
Because we know that Jesus was born “in the days of Herod the king” (Matthew 2) and that the assessment happened before Jesus was born (Luke 2).
“Personally, I think he was born in the spring of 2 BC, but that’s a discussion for a different time.”
That’s quite the cliffhanger to me. maybe you could elaborate more in a post soon or perhaps email me, or both? (:
Love your layout on your site too (for the most part), no way to contact you directly though i see hahaha. I run a site called BuddhaU (under construction atm), because i’m not the buddha, it’s you! lol. but i’ll still drop a link to my current site (WIP) at the bottom. There’s too much for me to write in a comment, but when Revelation “I will be his God, he will be My son.” and “i will give to him the morningstar,” i felt that. then learning how Isaiah said God would not let anything happen to his seed here either..
Not to be completely absurd but…
this might sound a crazy, but what if Jesus actually survived?
But the real criticism about Luke’s claim that Quirinius was governing Syria is that Quirinius wasn’t the governor at all. Luke has made a huge historical claim regarding who the governor of Syria was at the time of this census. David. Please reply also to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In that case, the “real criticism” of Luke as a historian is even worse than we thought.
The language Luke actually uses is: “ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου” That ἡγεμονεύοντος is “commanding” or “governing” and it is a participle. It’s a verb that is used as an adjective. Not even Luke said that Quirinius was “the governor” of Syria. He just said that the thing that he is talking about is happening when Quirinius was commanding Syria.
In fact, one way of reading it is that he was commanding FROM Syria, because whenever he became the official governor of Syria in 6 AD when Archelaus was deposed by Rome, Josephus explicitly mentions that Quirinius was the governor OF Syria and he did it FROM Judea.
“Personally, I think he was born in the spring of 2 BC, but that’s a discussion for a different time.”
That’s quite the cliffhanger for someone like me. maybe you could elaborate more in a post soon, or perhaps email me, or both? :3
Love your layout on your site too (for the most part), no way to contact you directly though i see hahaha. I run a site called BuddhaU (under construction atm), because i’m not the buddha, our buddha is you! lol. but i’ll still drop a link to my current site (WIP) at the bottom. There’s too much for me to write in a comment, but when Revelation said “I will be his God, he will be My son.” and “i will give to him the morningstar,” i felt that. then learning how Isaiah said God would not let anything happen to his seed here either: “But it was the LORD’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. He will enjoy a long life, and the LORD’s good plan will prosper in his hands.” (Isaiah 53:10 NLT)
Not to be completely absurd *but*…
now this might sound a little crazy,
but what if Jesus actually survived?
Very well done. I think the Governor of Syria FROM Judea is interesting but not necessary once we remember what Josephus wrote.
“So Archelaus’s country was laid to the province of Syria; (added to Syria, it was one big happy family that Cyrenius was governing)
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. (both the people’s effects IN SYRIA and Archelaus’ house IN JUDEA are considered part of the SYRIAN jurisdiction, right?)
I especially appreciate your thoroughness. Some may not appreciate it because they want Luke to be wrong. But the section in Acts you quote is very convincing. Herod the Great was dead then and Luke knew it. So two different events. Very well done indeed.
My interest extends to the Magi and the Star and the prophecy of Daniel. In my mind they become inseparable with regard to the arrival of the Messiah. So Star, prophecy and census must all align and they can only in 3-2 BC. Many have speculated that Jesus birth was around 7-6 BC some in 5 BC but it can’t be if you believe the census occurred in conjunction with the heavenly manifestation.
Again thank you for your excellent work. Most thorough and the best I have seen on the topic. CL
If you’d like to see what the Star of Bethlehem is, I can literally show you. Send me an email, and I’ll show you via Zoom.
You have performed a very good, detailed search. Thank you!
However, I think there is a very important issue missed by the majority of the historians and Gospel scholars, who base their research on the Luke’s account of the Birth of Jesus. In essence, it is as follows: Luke does not give a good reason for Joseph’s family dwelling in Nazareth. Why should he live in Nazareth if his real estate was located in Bethlehem? Doesn’t this fact show a FORCED change of the dwelling place due to certain fateful event that happened in the past? Matthew gives the account for this event. In addition, Luke’s narration presents the birth of Jesus as an event known to a number of people. I don’t think that this would be good for a just born baby, Who is the King-Messiah (or any important one born at the time of a paranoic tyrant in power). Matthew’s account implying a birth in deep secret seems to me more reazonable.
I have written an article on the subject back in 2016. If you are interested, I will send it to you.
The answer to your question is that Joseph did not “live” in Nazareth. He just WAS in Nazareth. The reason he was in Nazareth is quite simple. He had a wedding to attend.
Joseph was married in Nazareth to Mary, which is why he went there. As I know from having a non-western wedding myself, the bridegroom (Joseph) always goes TO the bride (Mary). This fact is reflected in the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), the Song of Solomon (Chapter 3), and the fact that Christ comes to his bride, the church, at the last day (Revelation 22:6-21).
So, Joseph lived in Bethlehem, but went to wed Mary who was at the very least three months pregnant (See Luke 1:56) before Joseph went to marry her. That’s the setting of when we read “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)
The reason Joseph went “up from” Nazareth to Bethlehem is because Nazareth is near the Sea of Galilee, which is below sea level, and Bethlehem is high above sea level. This is a common thing in the New Testament books where people go “up from” or “down to” a place based on its elevation (See “Can We Trust the Gospels” by Peter J. Williams on this point). Joseph did not stay in Nazareth after his wedding, but instead went back to his home, because as Luke 2 makes clear, he needed to register in the census with all of his property.
You’re right that Luke’s narration presents the birth of Jesus as an event known to a number of people, but only AFTER he was born. The people who made it known were the shepherds, who were told this by an angel. In this sense, Matthew’s account implying a birth in secret doesn’t actually disagree.
Look at my post on the Shepherds for more info on that.
Joseph’s going down to Nazareth to marry Mary is an ad hoc argument, which poses more problems for solving. If this was the case, it is hardly believable that the marriage had taken place shortly before Mary’s term. Therefore, what has had MARY to do with Joseph’s properties far away from Nazareth? Moreover, this trip reveals Joseph as an irresponsible husband putting his wife in danger of miscarriage. Finally, Luke definitely states that Joseph is FROM Nazareth, because in 2:39 he writes that they returned to their OWN TOWN OF NAZARETH.
Pre-1 BC sensus is another ad hoc argument, which raises the questoin why such a sensus, registration or whatever word you may invent to correspond to the original Greek word is to be carried out while Herod the Great was in power.
As for Luke 2:39, Nazareth was always Mary’s town, and it became Jesus, Joseph, and Mary’s town because Joseph “was afraid to return” to Bethlehem in Judea (Matthew 2:20). So he “withdrew” to Nazareth.
You other questions have been answered in my writing.
That Joseph went to live in Nazareth due to fear from Archelaus we knw from Mtthew, not from Luke. And Matthew gives the REASON for this change of the residence town – with all his family, JESUS including!
That’s correct. Matthew gives the reason for the change of residence, proving there was a change of residence from Bethlehem to Nazareth. This does not disagree with the account in Luke where Mary goes with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Egypt and then to Nazareth.
That is my point.
Thanks for that analysis. You certainly make sense of why Luke chooses to make a point of saying it was the first census, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if he meant the well known 6 AD census. Let me suggest however, that rather than some mystery registry in 6 BC. Luke is referring to the Roman Census of 8 BC., which was, as Luke says, ordered by Caesar for the “whole world”. That allows plenty of time to flee to Egypt for several years with a 2 year old Jesus, regardless of when Herod died.
I don’t claim that there was a registry in 6 BC. I claim it happened in 3 BC, which is when Quirinius was the governor OF Syria IN Syria, as opposed to being the governor OF Syria in Judea.
As for the 8 BC census about Caesar Augustus, I don’t think Quirinius was governor of Syria at all at that that time. And the early church doesn’t believe Jesus was born then. That’s why I don like that idea.
You make an excellent point and thank you for your analysis. I am a Christian who has been struggling through the whole census thing for quite some time now. I have found many different explanations for Quirinius as well as the travel. Is another plausible explanation that Luke meant the census before the one where Quirinius was governor? This article sheds light on this: https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1072&context=sor_fac_pubs. Would another possibility be that Quirinius had some other non governing role around 12-2 BC where he was commanding the army in modern day Turkey? I am also very confused, since we do not have record of a census occurring around 2-3 AD. Which broader census is this registration for taxing a part of? Also, in regards to travel, do you think it is a possibility that Joseph and Mary had to go back to Bethlehem, since Joseph was from Bethlehem, and that was his home, and a 104 AD edict from Egypt has people return to their homes? Thank you for all you do, very appreciated as I try to understand this!
Thank you for your comment. There was no census in 2-3 AD. Instead, the thing Luke mentions was in 3-2 BC. (It’s confusing, I know).
As for the census “before” the one when Quirinius was governor, I suppose that’s technically a possibility. You’d have to talk to an expert in Greek grammar to get the full answer, but I’ve seen that explanation, too. Based on how Bibles are translated, it doesn’t seem like a very likely translation, but I suppose it is possible. The real issue though, is that what that unlikely-translation SOLVES is no longer a PROBLEM. So, that’s why I don’t go with that explanation. Too much mental gymnastics. I like to keep it simple, and just add context to solve the problem.
As for Quirinius having “some other non-governing role around 12-2 BC,” that’s a good question, and a highly complicated one. The real issue is how complicated the Roman system was. Technically, the Senate named governors of provinces, but at the same time, the Emperor (who was a new office when it came to Roman Politics around this time) could also appoint special “governors” to provinces to do VERY-GOVERNOR-LIKE-THINGS, even though the Romans would NOT have called him a governor. So…. the answer to your question is…. “Yes?” The Romans were weird. They DID NOT like kings. But Dictator for Life? Sure! So long as it’s not a king! Add to the fact that these very minute Roman legalese distinctions were made explicit in Latin, but the Bible and relevant historians write in Greek, and it is really difficult to parse what is a “governor” and what is “not a governor.” The best way to figure it out is to look at the actions of the relevant individuals in the story, and just figure out the FACTS, despite whatever words are used to describe those facts. That’s what I’ve tried to do.
As for the issue with Egypt, I don’t think that is very helpful, because Egypt was REALLY WEIRD compared to the rest of the Roman world. There’s a SUPER helpful video from an AMAZING content producer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DiG0LomEptE&t=17s It was very different than Judea. What’s funny about the stuff they’re describing in that video, it’s basically the system that JOSEPH set up way back in Genesis. Egypt is… …in other words… …WEIRD, and very unique.
And, although it is hard to be picky with ancient sources, the edict you’re talking about is not quite concurrent. That’s why I don’t put much stock in it. That’s why I just go with the most likely story, which is that there was an assessment, and Joseph had to leave his wedding in Nazareth to go to his home in Bethlehem.
Thank you! That helps to clear some things up for me. My question was though, what is the census Luke is referring to in 2-3 BC? Obviously the registration has to be associated with a particular census. I know historians speak of one in 8 BC and one in 6 AD (the one Luke mentions in Acts)
Just so I am understanding correctly, the travel was basically since Joseph was from Bethlehem and would thus have to go back there to account for his property? Luke just emphasizes the piece about him being of the line of David to emphasize the fulfillment of prophecy?
One last question, when Luke mentions the “decree of Caesar Augustus,” is he just talking in a general sense of the regular requirement to register for a census (taxation), not that he actually issued a specific one time decree for the whole empire to be registered?
It is very interesting hearing your perspective! I have read a lot of sources online, and they all speak to that 104 AD Egyptian edict. I guess it is helpful to show that travel is not unprecedented but I also agree that we do not need to rely too much on this as Christians since it was of a time period and area nowhere close to where we are speaking. I have seen many MANY different theories on the Quirinius’ governorship, most of which translate the passage as “before the census of Quirinius” and some have defended it quite well, and I guess it is a possible explanation that would result in there being no problem at all and resolve it all, as you mentioned. It is helpful to hear a perspective that does not rely on a possible retranslation of the text!
Thanks for bearing with me! This has definitely been a tough topic to understand and study, just because there are so many different theories out there.
Another possible explanation I have seen is that there was a census in 7 BC, and Quirinius was over that one. Gleason Archer tends to support this view and shows how he was in the area at the time and could have been appointed to be in charge of the census between the end of Satirinus’ governorship and Varus’. Justin Martyr also calls Quirinius a “procurator,” not a governor, seeming to support this view. Do you agree this is another possible explanation?
I don’t know about that 7 BC census, so I won’t comment on it, but I will say that the thing I think actually happened is what I write about here. As such, who cares what “Gleason Archer” thinks. I’m not trying to win a popularity contest or play politics. I care about what ACTUALLY HAPPENED, not what people think. What “could have” happened isn’t a good way to solve that. The way to decide these questions is to build an entirely consistent understanding of ALL the facts, not just a here-and-there explanation of “this census” and “that census” and arguments from a lack of evidence.
Also, you say Justin Martyr calls Quirinius a “procurator” and not a governor. That may be true, but I don’t know what quote you’re talking about. Quirinius had MANY roles, and I’m sure there was a time he was a procurator and a time when he was NOT a procurator, as well as a time when he was a governor and a time when he was NOT a governor. But the thing you need to know is that LUKE DOESN’T CALL QUIRINIUS A GOVERNOR. The Greek word is “hegemontous.” It’s a participle. It’s a verb used like an adjective. The verb means BOTH “to command” and “to govern.” And therefore, Luke says that the census happened when Quirinius “was commanding and/or governing” Syria. That’s all the information we have.
Thank you! That makes sense. I have heard many theories and yours by far makes the most sense given the evidence! So just so I am understanding correctly, it was just a “registration,” and this 2-3 BC travel to Bethlehem was not connected to a particular census?
The 2-3 BC was a registration that was more like a modern tax assessment, where the value of your property is officially measured by the government.
Hey man! I have one more question on something that I came across. So Tertullian records Satirinius as the governor of Syria at Christ’s birth. Is it best to assume that Tertullian was just simply incorrect, or is it that both Quirinius and Satirinius governed at the same time? I know it is a bit confusing and thank you so much for clarifying these points.
I don’t think that Tertullian was incorrect.
Instead, I think that there is a Senate-appointed governor who is “the” governor as far as Rome officially keeps track.
On the other hand, the emperor, who has control of armies and legions, etc., can appoint special “commanders” (who have a good but legally complicated relationship with the “official” governor, who is named by the Senate). Since Quirinius was fighting in Turkey, he would have been the Emperor-appointed governor.
I can’t remember where I read those facts, but I’m pretty sure that’s how that can fix it.
Thank you! That does help. Doing a quick Google search and reading on it, Satirinus was governor until 7 BC with Varus becoming governor after. Therefore, Tertullian would’ve had to refer to a census before 7 BC, right? I may be getting myself confused, but if Tertullian mentions Satirinius who wasn’t governor after 7 BC, then Tertullian must be giving a different date for the census?
Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know which quote you’re talking about regarding Tertullian. Got a link to it?
Here’s a source which shares the same view as you with Herod’s death in 1 BC. It actually uses Justin Martyr’s mention of Quirinius as procurator of Judea, and that he held this position alongside Varus during the time of the “registration” you refer to. But Tertullian recognizes Christ’s birth as 3/2 BC but just placed Satirinius as governor (which again may be an error in Tertullian). Regardless this is one explanation: that Quirinius was not governor of Syria but had a minor role that places him over Judea. Here is the relevant piece of the article: “Tertullian (Against Marcion 4.19) states that the enrollment at the time of the birth of Jesus was “taken in Judea by Sentius Saturninus,” and we remember that for Tertullian, as for many other early Christian scholars (§ 489), the date of the nativity was 3/2 B.C. Josephus (Ant. 17.89) refers to the time when Herod the Great had opportunity to speak about his son, Antipater, to Varus, and says: “At this time there happened to be in Jerusalem Quintilius Varus, who had been sent to succeed Saturninus as governor of Syria.” https://www.dec25th.info/The%20Enrollment%20of%20Cyrenius.html
Yeah, honestly I don’t think I agree with that source, because I can’t see them link to the underlying document. However, I will note that there are MANY people named “Saturinius,” and we need to make sure we’re talking about the right one. There was a Saturninus (C. Sentius Saturninus) who was consul in Rome in 19 BC, who may have come up with the idea of taxing the whole world, which would have been carried out at later times, and yet another Saturninus (L. Volusius Saturninus) in 12 BC.
So there’s a lot of work to do to figure out exactly what we’re talking about.
I was able to find a source that quoted Tertullian: “There is some support from the statement of Tertullian that “at this very time a census had been taken in Judea by Sentius Saturninus which might have
satisfied their inquiry respecting the family and descent of Christ.”
rather than being a mistake on Tertullian’s part, it may indicate that Quirinius and Sa- turninus were governing Syria at the same time.” On page 48 of this, and he cites the Tertullian source. I know he has a different view in that he translates it as the “before” Quirinius was governor (which may be a possibility). But regardless, Tertullian did think that the census was under Satirinius, so your theory that they both has some governor responsibilities seems valid. But I don’t know if I agree with this source either because Tertullian recognized Christ’s birth at 2-3 BC as most church fathers, and this source is talking about 7 BC. Thanks again man, and I would appreciate your input as always!
Thank you! I do see several articles that cite that Tertullian recognized Satirinus as governor around the time of Christ. So yes, two possibilities, either Tertullian was wrong or Quirinius had a minor position like procurator or Judea at the time?
Thank you so much for this detailed article.
I just watched an episode of QI where Stephen Fry mentions this incident and says that there is no evidence of anything and says that the whole thing was a publicity stunt to retcon Jesus’ birthplace to fit the prophecies.
It just stood out as something that did not sound right. It would be too big of a mistake for him to be right.
I very much appreciate all the work that was put into researching or explaining this.
I’ve done a TON of research into this over the past year, and the explanation on this blog is the one I’ve found most convincing. This is always gonna be a tough topic because the ancient world does not have mountains of evidence for everything, and Rome was a bit weird in terms of their government and positions, and there were SO many during the time.
People like Stephen Fry usually cannot be trusted to pay attention to the Biblical story long enough to be good judges on whether the biblical story is true.
For example, I would agree with Stephen Fry that what you see in the beginning of Ben Hur (which is where the photo on this post comes from) is a ridiculous story that should not be believed. Where I differ with Stephen Fry is that I think that Stephen Fry is so silly, he probably thinks that the Ben Hur depiction is what the Bible says.