The Quirinius Issue
On 30 August Bruce Bennie provided a presentation on the reliability of the New Testament. During this discussion the Quirinius issue was raised and so it was agreed that we would have a follow up session to discuss this issue, which took place on 11 October. This article is a summary of Bruce’s presentation.
2 What is the Quirinius Issue?
Just before Jesus was born, Luke2 : 1-2 records, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)”
Two issues have been raised regarding these 2 verses:
- Both Luke and Matthew record that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Herod died in 4 BC. However, Josephus records that Quirinius was governor of Syria from 6 AD to 9 AD, which is 10 years later.
- It is alleged that there was a census in 6 AD, but not in 4 BC at the time of Jesus’ birth.
3 When was Quirinius Governor of Syria?
Luke states that the census decreed by Augustus was the first one taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. However, Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until after the death of Herod in about 6 AD. Is this an error in Luke’s historical record? Why does Luke say the census was during Quirinius’ governorship since Quirinius was not governor until 6 AD?
There are at least 2 possible solutions to this difficulty.
1) Quintilius Varus was governor of Syria from about 7 BC to about 4 BC. Varus was not a trustworthy leader, a fact that was disastrously demonstrated in 9 AD when he lost three legions of soldiers in the Teutoburger forest in Germany. To the contrary, Quirinius was a notable military leader who was responsible for squelching the rebellion of the Homonadensians in Asia Minor. When it came time to begin the census, in about 8 or 7 BC, Augustus entrusted Quirinius with the delicate problem in the volatile area of Palestine, effectively superseding the authority and governorship of Varus by appointing Quirinius to a place of special authority in this matter. It has also been proposed that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two separate occasions, once while prosecuting the military action against the Homonadensians between 12 and 2 BC, and later beginning about AD 6. A Latin inscription discovered in 1764 has been interpreted to refer to Quirinius as having served as governor of Syria on two occasions.
2) It is possible that Luke 2:2 reads, “This census took place before Quirinius was governing Syria.” In this case, the Greek word translated “first” ( pr?tos ) is translated as a comparative, “before.” Because of the awkward construction of the sentence, this is not an unlikely reading.
Regardless of which solution is accepted, it is not necessary to conclude that Luke has made an error in recording the historical events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Luke has proven himself to be a reliable historian even in the details. Sir William Ramsey has shown that in making reference to 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands he made no mistakes!
4 The Roman Census
Luke refers to a Roman wide census under Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. However, according to the annals of ancient history, no such census took place. Did Luke make a mistake when he mentioned a worldwide census under Caesar Augustus?
Until recently, it has been widely held by critics that Luke made an error in his assertion about a registration under Caesar Augustus, and that the census actually took place in 6 or 7 AD, (that is mentioned by Luke in Gamaliel’s speech recorded in Acts 5:37 ). The lack of any extra-biblical support has led some to claim this is an error. However, recent scholarship has reversed this trend, and it is now widely admitted that there was in fact an earlier registration as Luke records. This has been asserted on the basis of several factors.
First of all, since the people of a subjugated land were compelled to take an oath of allegiance to the emperor, it was not unusual for the emperor to require an imperial census as an expression of this allegiance and as a means of enlisting men for military service, or, as was probably true in this case, in preparation to levy taxes. Because of the strained relations between Herod and Augustus in the later years of Herod’s reign, as the Jewish historian Josephus reports, it is understandable that Augustus would begin to treat Herod’s domain as a subject land, and consequently would impose such a census to maintain control of Herod and the people.
Second, periodic registrations of this sort took place on a regular basis every 14 years. According to the very papers that recorded the censuses, (see W.M. Ramsay, Was Christ Born in Bethlehem? 1898), there was in fact a census taken in about 8 or 7 BC. Because of this regular pattern of census taking, any such action would naturally be regarded as a result of the general policy of Augustus, even though a local census may have been instigated by a local governor. Therefore, Luke recognizes the census as stemming from the decree of Augustus.
Third, a census was a massive project which probably took several years to complete. Such a census for the purpose of taxation was begun in Gaul between 10–9 BC that took a period of 40 years to complete. It is quite likely that the decree to begin the census, in about 8 or 7 BC, may not have actually begun in Palestine until some time later. Problems of organization and preparation may have delayed the actual census until 5 BC or even later.
Fourth, it was not an unusual requirement that people return to the place of their origin, or to the place where they owned property. A decree of C. Vibius Mazimus in A.D. 104 required all those who were away from their home towns to return there for the purpose of the census. For the Jews, such travel would not have been unusual at all since they were quite used to the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There is simply no reason to suspect Luke’s statement regarding the census at the time of Jesus’ birth. Luke’s account fits the regular pattern of census taking, and its date would not be an unreasonable one. Also, this may have been simply a local census that was taken as a result of the general policy of Augustus. Luke simply provides us with a reliable historical record of an event not otherwise recorded. Since Dr. Luke has proven himself to be a reliable historian in other matters (see Sir William Ramsey, St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen , 1896), there is no reason to doubt him here (see also comments on Luke 2:2 ).