“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.) And everyone went to his own town to register.” (Luke 2:1-3)
Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (or Cyrenius in the Greek) was a well-known Roman official who lived ca. 51 BC – AD 21. He is mentioned by numerous ancient authors, including Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny the Elder, Cassius Dio, Tacitus, Strabo, and Caesar Augustus himself. Quirinius is described as a man “of great dignity,”1 who was “extremely rich”2 and who held a variety of roles in the Roman empire including those of senator3, duumvir4, consul5, and legate6. He rose to fame through his skill as a military commander when he conquered the Pisidian tribes of the Homonadenses during the reign of Caesar Augustus.7 Quirinius was married twice, first to Appia Claudia, and later to Aemilia Lepida, both of whom he divorced. The latter he accused of having tried to poison him8 and of claiming that he was her son’s father, which he said was impossible.9 Perhaps the most succinct biography of Quirinius comes from Tacitus:
“About the same time he [Tiberius] requested the Senate to let the death of Sulpicius Quirinus be celebrated with a public funeral. With the old patrician family of the Sulpicii this Quirinus, who was born in the town of Lanuvium, was quite unconnected. An indefatigable soldier, he had by his zealous services won the consulship under the Divine Augustus, and subsequently the honours of a triumph for having stormed some fortresses of the Homonadenses in Cilicia. He was also appointed adviser to Caius Cæsar in the government of Armenia, and had likewise paid court to Tiberius, who was then at Rhodes. The emperor now made all this known to the Senate, and extolled the good offices of Quirinus to himself, while he censured Marcus Lollius, whom he charged with encouraging Caius Cæsar in his perverse and quarrelsome behaviour. But people generally had no pleasure in the memory of Quirinus, because of the perils he had brought, as I have related, on Lepida, and the meanness and dangerous power of his last years.”10
Luke’s mention of Quirinius in connection with the census, and his role in Syria at that time, have caused no shortage of difficulty for those who hold to the historical reliability of Scripture. Some critics have declared that there is no known Roman census around the time of Christ’s birth11, and thus Luke is in error. This, however, is the logical fallacy, argumentum ex silentio (argument from silence). Others have pointed out that Quirinus was the governor of Syria in 6 AD, and that he oversaw a census at that time, not at the time of Christ’s birth up to a decade earlier. For example, in his book, The History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Emil Schürer concludes, “There is no alternative but to recognize that the evangelist based his statement on uncertain historical information.”12 Is this true? Is there no alternative but to conclude that Luke was mistaken?
Various proposals to this supposed problem have been proposed. Some have suggested that it is Josephus, not Luke, who has made the error in dating Quirinius’ role as governor of Syria.13 Others have proposed that, since the Greek word for “first” (proto) can be translated “before,” the verse in question could be translated, “This was the census that took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” However, this would be such an awkward wording that Greek scholar, Daniel Wallace, has concluded, “such a view is almost impossible.“14 Still others believe Quirinius served as governor of Syria twice, suggesting that his tombstone has been discovered near Tivoli, which declares that he was “twice Legate” of Augustus in Syria.15 However, this tombstone inscription is fragmentary and the owner’s name is missing, making any connection with Quirinius speculative at best. The only thing one can really conclude from this inscription is that a person could serve as Legate of Caesar twice. Yet another theory proposes there were two Legates of Syria at the same time, Quirinius being one of them. Some of these proposals have more validity than others, and it is beyond the scope of this blog to analyze each individually.
However, I would suggest that a better alternative is to take a general approach to this problem. If we step back and analyze what is known from history and what Scripture does and does not say, we will see that Luke’s comments about Quirinius are consistent with the type of roles this famous Roman official was given by Caesar. He was a man whose “zealous services” had benefited Rome in various ways, including conducting a census in 6 AD, and may well have overseen some sort of “registration” (ESV) at an earlier date.
In his book, Was Christ Born At Bethlehem, Sir William Ramsay noted, “The only certain dates in the life of Quirinius are his consulship in B.C. 12, his second government of Syria beginning in A.D. 6, and his prosecution of his former wife, Domitia Lepida in A.D. 20 and his death and public funeral in A.D. 21.”16 In the years since he penned those words, no significant discovery has been made that positively dates other events in Quirinius’s life. The only other major event that is know is his role in Syria leading the war against the Homonadenses sometime between 12 BC and 6 AD. Beyond various theories, we cannot even say with certainty the exact year this took place. The fact is, that much of what is known about Quirinius’s life around the time of Christ’s birth is unknown.
It is also important to note what the verse does not say. Luke does not say that Quirinius was the Governor (Legate) of Syria. Despite the way it is translated in our English versions of the Bible, in the original Greek, it says he was governing in Syria. Luke uses the verb ἡγεμονεύω (hēgemoneuō), which means Quirinius was exercising authority in some capacity, but does not necessarily mean he was holding the specific office of governor.17 Most scholars agrees that he was the Legate of Syria in 6 AD, which is when Archelaus was deposed and Quirinius was sent into Syria to settle his estate. Josephus writes that Quirinius “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.”18 His position as the Governor (Legate) of Syria at this time is confirmed by the discovery of a tombstone in Beruit, known popularly as the Q. Aemilius Secundus inscription. In it, Quirinius is called the “legato Augusti Caesaris Syriae.”19 So we know that Quirinius was the Governor (Legate) of Syria around 6 AD, and it would appear he oversaw a census in conjunction with taxing the population. This is likely the census referred to in Acts 5:37; so, Luke is aware of the second census, which is likely why he notes that the one at Jesus’ birth was the “first” one.
Quirinius may well have been governing in some capacity in Syria around the time of Christ’s birth and conducted an earlier registration. There are two plausible options to consider:
- Some have suggested he may have been Legate of Syria twice. As we have seen, the Trivoli tombstone inscription is evidence this occurred. While critics have pointed out that Publius Quintus Varus was the Legate of Syria from 7-4 BC, there is some debate around who followed him as Legate in Syria. Holden and Geisler conclude, “The probability that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two different occasions also cannot be ignored – once while prosecuting military action against the Homonadensians between 12 and 2 BC, and then a second time beginning about 6 AD.”20
- Even if he wasn’t the Legate of Syria, he may have held a different role that would be considered governing, consistent with Luke’s description. Jared M. Compton summarizes: “Quirinius’s personal chronology is not fully known, particularly around the years of Jesus’ birth. Thus, it is not impossible that he held another office at the time which Luke appropriately describes with (h[gemoneuontoj thj Suriaj) hegmoneuontos tēs Surias, a description as we saw which could also appropriately describe the office from which he took his well-known census.”21
The second thing to note from Luke 2:2, is that the text does not say that it was a tax census. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding due to the way this verse is translated in the King James Version. In the Greek it uses the word ἀπογράφω (apographō), which is best translated as a “registration” or “census.” To be sure, the Romans did conduct censuses for the purposes of taxation, and several such ones are known from history.
Are there any registrations to which Luke might have referred? As mentioned in the previous bioarchaeography of Caesar Augustus, he himself records a census that was begun in 8 BC, and another event in 2 BC in which the “entire Roman people” gave him the title of “Father of My Country.” 22 Josephus likely makes note of this event and says that 6000 pharisees refused to swear loyalty to Caesar. Some modern scholars have theorized that there was an empire-wide registration associated with this event, which would explain how Josephus knew there were 6000 pharisees who refused to take the oath to Caesar. One ancient writer – Orosius – likely referred to this registration when he wrote that census Luke refers to was the one in which all great nations took an oath of loyalty to Caesar and were “made part of one society.”23
The point is, there are various registrations known from history around the time of Christ’s birth to which Luke may have been referring. Critics who dismiss these because they are off by a year or two, seem to be overly confident in the precision of their dating of ancient events, and often fail to consider how long an empire-wide census would take to complete. For comparison, David’s census of Israel alone took over nine months to complete (2 Sam. 24:9). It is also possible that the earlier census which Quirinius oversaw at the time of Christ is yet unknown to history. Kenneth Kitchen’s maxim holds true: the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, otherwise one is making an argument from silence. Stepping back and taking a general approach allows us to see that Luke’s description of census around the time of Christ is consistent with what is known about the type of roles that Quirinius held in ancient Rome.
Daniel Wallace has observed, “Evangelicals often have a tendency to find implausible solutions to difficulties in the Bible and to be satisfied that they have once again vindicated the Word of God. On the other hand, critical scholars tend to find errors in the Bible where none exist.”24 Rather than rely on speculative theories, I have chosen to analyze the historical data, and every known inscription relating to Quirinius (see Appendix A below), and have concluded that what is known about Quirinius from history consistent is with Luke’s statement. While some critics resort to arguments from silence and make bold declarations about there being “no alternative” but to accept that Luke was wrong, I believe that there are plausible alternatives, especially in light of our incomplete knowledge of both Quirinius’s life and the history of Judea at the time of Christ’s birth.
Quirinius in Ancient Writings and Inscriptions
(NOTE: My goal is to include all known, definitive references to Quirinius in ancient writings and inscriptions from the first and second centuries. If I have missed any, please let me know.)
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, 17.13.5)
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, (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.1)
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 Cæsar’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; while Herod and Philip had each of them received their own tetrarchy, and settled the affairs thereof. (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.2.1)
As Coponius, who we told you was sent along with Cyrenius, was exercising his office of procurator, and governing Judea, the following accidents happened. (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.2.2)
And besides this, the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean of that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews, as we have showed in a foregoing book. (Josephus, Antiquities, 20.5.2)
In the mean time, one Manahem, the son of Judas, that was called the Galilean, [who was a very cunning sophister, and had formerly reproached the Jews under Cyrenius, that after God they were subject to the Romans,] took some of the men of note with him, and retired to Masada, where he broke open king Herod’s armory, and gave arms not only to his own people, but to other robbers also. (Josephus, War, 2.17.8)
He was a descendant from that Judas who had persuaded abundance of the Jews, as we have formerly related, not to submit to the taxation when Cyrenius was sent into Judea to make one (Josephus, War, 7.8.1)
…This was the year in which Marcus Valerius and Publius Sulpicius were the consuls (Cassius Dio, 54.28)
Cyrinius overthrew the [of the country of the Homonadeis] by starving them, and captured alive four thousand men and settled them in the neighbouring cities, leaving the country destitute of all its men who were in the prime of life. (Strabo, Geography, Xii, 569)
A great crowd of people came together from all over Italy to my election, … when Publius Sulpicius [Quirinius] and Gaius Valgius were consuls. (Augustus, Res Gestae, 6)
Lepida, a lady of a very noble family, was condemned by him, in order to gratify Quirinus, a man of consular rank, extremely rich, and childless, who had divorced her twenty years before, and now charged her with an old design to poison him. (Suetonius, Tiberius, 49)
As a consequence, the defendant asked an adjournment till next day, and having gone home he charged his kinsman, Publius Quirinus, with his last prayer to the emperor. (Tacitus, Annals, 2.30)
At Rome meanwhile Lepida, who beside the glory of being one of the Æmilii was the great-granddaughter of Lucius Sulla and Cneius Pompeius, was accused of pretending to be a mother by Publius Quirinus, a rich and childless man. Then, too, there were charges of adulteries, of poisonings, and of inquiries made through astrologers concerning the imperial house. The accused was defended by her brother Manius Lepidus. Quirinus by his relentless enmity even after his divorce, had procured for her some sympathy, infamous and guilty as she was….On the days of the games which interrupted the trial, Lepida went into the theatre with some ladies of rank, and as she appealed with piteous wailings to her ancestors and to that very Pompey, the public buildings and statues of whom stood there before their eyes, she roused such sympathy that people burst into tears and shouted, without ceasing, savage curses on Quirinus, “to whose childless old-age and miserably obscure family, one once destined to be the wife of Lucius Cæsar and the daughter-in-law of the Divine Augustus was being sacrificed”…Then at last Tiberius declared that he had himself too ascertained from the slaves of Publius Quirinus that Lepida had attempted their master’s life by poison. (Tacitus, Annals, 3.22-23)
About the same time he requested the Senate to let the death of Sulpicius Quirinus be celebrated with a public funeral. With the old patrician family of the Sulpicii this Quirinus, who was born in the town of Lanuvium, was quite unconnected. An indefatigable soldier, he had by his zealous services won the consulship under the Divine Augustus, and subsequently the honours of a triumph for having stormed some fortresses of the Homonadenses in Cilicia. He was also appointed adviser to Caius Cæsar in the government of Armenia, and had likewise paid court to Tiberius, who was then at Rhodes. The emperor now made all this known to the Senate, and extolled the good offices of Quirinus to himself, while he censured Marcus Lollius, whom he charged with encouraging Caius Cæsar in his perverse and quarrelsome behaviour. But people generally had no pleasure in the memory of Quirinus, because of the perils he had brought, as I have related, on Lepida, and the meanness and dangerous power of his last years. (Tacitus, Annals, 3.48)
In Pisidia, at the southern extremity of Lake Caralitis. Tacitus, Annals, iii. 48, says that this people possessed forty-four fortresses: whereas Strabo speaks of them as the most barbarous of all the Pisidian tribes, dwelling only in caves. They were conquered by the consul Quirinius in the time of Augustus. (Pliny, The Natural History, 5.23.4)
Quintus Aemilius Secundus, from Palatine, with honors he was decorated in the camp of Divine Augustus under Publius Sulpicius Quirinius legate of Caesar in Syria, prefect of the first Augustan cohort, prefect of the navy’s second cohort. Commanded by Quirinius to conduct a census of the district of Apamea’s 117,000 citizens; He was also sent by Quirinius to capture the fortresses of the Itureans in the mountains of Lebanon. (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, 2683).
Caristanius C F Sergius Fronto Caesiaus Iulius, perfect of civil engineers, priest, perfect of P. Sulpicius Quirinius the Duumvir, Perfect of M. Servilius, from this man and with a public edict, a statue was erected with the blessings of the council. (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, 9502)
By Gaius Caristanius…Fronto Caesianus Julius, officer in charge of works, commanding officer of the Twelfth Lightning Legion, Prefect of the Bosporan Cohort, Pontifiex, Prefect of Publius Sulpicius Quirinius the Duumvir, Prefect of Marcus Servilius, Prefect… (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, 9503)
Title Photo of the tombstone of Q. Aemilius Secundus: Jona Lendering / Livius.org / CC0 1.0 Universal
1 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.1. Online: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm#link182HCH0001 (Accessed Dec. 9, 2019).
2 Suetonius, Tiberius, 49.
3 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.1. Online: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm#link182HCH0001 (Accessed Dec. 9, 2019).
4 Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, 9502–9503.
5 Pliny, The Natural History, 5.23.4; Cassius Dio, 54.28; Res Gestae, 6; Tacitus, Annals, 3.48; Suetonius, Tiberius, 49.
6 Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, 2683.
7 Strabo, Geography, Xii, 569.
8 Suetonius, Tiberius, 49.
9 Jona Lendering, “P. Sulpicius Quirinius,” Livius.org. https://www.livius.org/articles/person/quirinius-p-sulpicius/ (Accessed November 5, 2019).
10 Tacitus, Annals, 3.48. Online: http://perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbname=LatinAugust2012&getid=1&query=Tac.%20Ann.%203.48 (Accessed Dec. 9, 2019).
11 Two dates are commonly suggested for Christ’s birth, both depending on when Herod the Great died. Since Jesus was born in the days of King Herod (Matt. 2:1), his birth is connected to his death (Matt. 2:19). The consensus view is that Herod died in 4 BC, meaning Jesus was born in 5-6 BC. This view is advocated by Harold Hoehner in Chronological Aspects on the Life of Christ. The minority view, based on discrepancies in Josephus’s works, is that Herod died in 1 BC, in which case Jesus would have been born in 2-3 BC. This view is supported by Jack Finegan the latest edition of his Handbook of Biblical Chronology.
12 Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1973), 426.
13 Andrew E. Steinmann, From Abraham To Paul: A Biblical Chronology. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011), 241-249.
14 Daniel B. Wallace, “The Problem of Luke 2:2 ‘This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.’” Bible.org. https://bible.org/article/problem-luke-22-ithis-was-first-census-taken-when-quirinius-was-governor-syriai (Accessed Dec. 10, 2019).
15 “Fragment of the sepulchral inscription of Quirinius,” The Vatican Museum. http://www.museivaticani.va/content/museivaticani/en/collezioni/musei/lapidario-cristiano/abercio/frammento-dell-iscrizione-sepolcrale-di-quirinius.html (Accessed Dec. 10, 2019).
16 William Mitchell Ramsay, Was Christ Born At Bethlehem. Online: https://books.google.ca/books?redir_esc=y&id=8EBvcYrqLVkC&q=Quirinius#v=snippet&q=Quirinius&f=false (Accessed Dec. 11, 2019).
17 Andrew E. Steinmann, From Abraham To Paul: A Biblical Chronology. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011), 239.
18 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.1. Online: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm#link182HCH0001 (Accessed Dec. 9, 2019).
19 Jona Lendering, “Beirut, Tombstone of Q. Aemilius Secundus,” Livius.org. https://www.livius.org/pictures/lebanon/beirut-berytus/beirut-tombstone-of-q-aemilius-secundus/ (Accessed Dec. 9, 2019). NOTE: The official designation of the Q. Aemilius Secundus Inscription, as it is popularly known is Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, 2683.
20 Joseph M. Holden and Norman Geisler, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible, (Eugene: Harvest House Publisher, 2013), 154.
21 Jared M. Compton, “Once More: Quirinius’s Census.” Associates for Biblical Research. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/new-testament-era/2839-once-more-quiriniuss-census (Acccessed Dec. 12, 2019).
22 Bryan Windle, “Caesar Augustus: An Archaological Biography.” Bible Archaeology Report. https://biblearchaeologyreport.com/2019/12/13/caesar-augustus-an-archaeological-biography/ (Accessed Dec. 12, 2019).
23 Andrew E. Steinmann, From Abraham To Paul: A Biblical Chronology. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011), 242.
24 Daniel B. Wallace, “The Problem of Luke 2:2 ‘This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.’” Bible.org. https://bible.org/article/problem-luke-22-ithis-was-first-census-taken-when-quirinius-was-governor-syriai (Accessed Dec. 10, 2019).