In Luke’s Gospel we read that…
“At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census.” Luke 2:1-3, NLT
Luke’s statement has caused problems for some people.
First of all – the historical evidence suggests that Quirinius did not begin to govern Syria until after the death of Herod in 4 BC. Now it is clear from the gospels that Herod was very much alive when Jesus was born. In that case – how can Quirinius be Governor BEFORE Jesus’ birth…if Herod was already dead when Quirinius was governor of Syria? That sounds like a circle that cannot be squared.
Second – there is internal and external Biblical evidence of a census called AFTER Quirinius took over Governorship… Luke records what might be this census that Quirinius conducted in the 6th century in Acts 5:37. But this census cannot be the same as the census mentioned in Luke chapter 2.
Does this confusion undermine the historical reliability of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth? Does this point to Luke being guilty of sloppy history?
Well – this would be strange given the high standing Luke enjoys as a 1st century historian, and the meticulous detail we find in his Gospel and his later work on the history of the early Christian Church – the Acts of the Apostles.
Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy…this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians. – William Mitchell Ramsay
Ancient Near Eastern historians have made the following responses to the Quirinius census problems.
FIRST – these censuses did happen in these cultures at that time.
Ancient census forms have been discovered by archaeologists. An order dated AD 104 says…
“Gaius Vibius Maximum, Prefect of Egypt: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to RETURN TO THEIR OWN HOMES, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census…”
This manner of counting people might seem odd to our advanced, IT enabled 21st century society. But the Biblical + extra-Biblical evidence points to the ancient practice of census calling.
SECOND – there is evidence that there may have been more than one Syrian Governor named Quirinius.
King Herod is believed to have died in 4 BC. So Luke’s claim in chapter 2 implies that a census was called by Ceasar Augustus well before 4 BC. If Quirinius didn’t begin ruling until AD 6…this seems like a big discrepancy on the dates recorded by Luke.
HOWEVER – John McRay, PHD and professor of New Testament and archaeology at Wheton College, says , “a coin [has been found ] with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing. This [coin] places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod….apparently there were two Quiriniuses.”
Names in the ancient world tended to be common…often lots of people shared the same name…so it is reasonable to assume that perhaps two separate people are being referred to here as Quirinius.
In this case, perhaps two censuses occurred – a 14 year gap was apparently typical. This would suggest that an earlier census took place under the earlier Quirinius. And this is the census that Luke refers to in his gospel.
Luke claims to have personally interviewed the eyewitnesses to the birth…and death of Jesus of Nazareth. He claimed to have carefully investigated everything so that he could produce an orderly account about the certainty of what occurred. Luke is claiming to record what actually happened – so the details count.
The details count – and the words of Jesus have the power to change our lives forever.
“…this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.” Luke 15:24, NLT