Census of Quirinius

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Mary and Joseph register for the census before Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic, c. 1315.

The Census of Quirinius was a census of Judea taken by Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, governor of Roman Syria, upon the imposition of direct Roman rule in 6 CE.[1] The Gospel of Luke uses it to date the birth of Jesus, which the Gospel of Matthew places in the time of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. Luke appears to have conflated Quirinius's census with the death of Herod,[2] and most critical scholars acknowledge a confusion and misdating by Luke.[3]


Herod I (Herod the Great), c. 72 – 4 BCE, was a Roman client king whose territory included Judea. Upon his death, his kingdom was divided into three, each section ruled by one of his sons. In 6 CE, Emperor Augustus deposed Herod Archelaus, who had ruled the largest section, and converted his territory into the Roman province of Judea. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, the legate (governor) of the province of Roman Syria starting in 6 CE,[4] was assigned to carry out a census of the new province of Judea for tax purposes.[1] This was a property tax, and required that the value of real property be registered along with the identity of the owners.[5] The census triggered a revolt of Jewish extremists (called Zealots) under the leadership of Judas of Galilee.[6] (Galilee itself was a separate territory under the rule of Herod Antipas.) Judas seems to have found the census objectionable because it ran counter to a biblical injunction (the traditional Jewish reading of Exodus 30:12) and because it would lead to taxes paid in heathen coins bearing an image of the emperor.[7]

In the gospels[edit]

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Census at Bethlehem (1566), oil on wood panel, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

While the Gospel of Mark (composed c. 68 CE) lacks a nativity story, the Gospel of Matthew (c. 88 CE) places Jesus's birth in the time of Herod I.[8] Contrarily, the Gospel of Luke (also c. 88 CE) correlates Christ's birth with the census:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

Luke's apparent conflation of the 6 CE census with the 4 BCE death of Herod I have led most biblical scholars to acknowledge that the gospel is incorrect.[9][10] Luke seems to have incorporated the census to move Joseph and Mary from Nazareth, "their own city" (Luke 2:39), to Bethlehem, where the birth was to occur. (The author of Matthew had the reverse problem; believing that Joseph, Mary and Jesus lived in a house in Bethlehem prior to their flight into Egypt, they move to Nazareth to avoid the recently appointed Herod Archelaus.)[3][11] Luke's author may also have wanted to contrast the rebellious Zealots with the peaceable Joseph and Mary, who had obeyed the Roman edict, and to find a prophetic fulfilment of Psalm 87:6: "In the census of the peoples, this one will be born there." (In the Greek or Septuagint version, it is "princes" who will be born.)[12] The Gospel of John (c. 100 CE) portrays Christ's birth in Bethlehem as fulfilling a prophecy of Micah.[13]

Scholars point out that there was no single census of the entire Roman Empire under Augustus and the Romans did not directly tax client kingdoms; further, no Roman census required that people travel from their own homes to those of their ancestors. A census of Judea would not have affected Joseph and his family, who lived in Galilee under a different ruler; the revolt of Judas of Galilee suggests that Rome's direct taxation of Judea was new at the time.[4][14][3] Catholic priest and biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown postulates that Judas's place of origin may have led the author of Luke to think that Galilee was subject to the census, although the region is clearly distinguished from Judea elsewhere in the gospel.[15][16] Brown also points out that in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke the Evangelist (the traditional author of both books) dates Judas's census-incited revolt as following Theudas's rebellion of four decades later.[15]

Some religious scholars have made attempts to reconcile Luke's dating disparity.[17] Some suggest that Quirinius might have served two terms as governor of Syria and conducted two censuses in Judea, but the career of Quirinius and the names and dates of the governors are well documented and there is no time before 6 CE when he could have served as governor of Syria.[4] Anglican bishop Paul Barnett theorizes that an earlier census unrelated to taxation took place, which Brown points out requires the scripture to be reinterpreted to mean that the census took place before Quirinius's tenure.[17] Géza Vermes describes attempts to defend the historicity of the biblical birth narratives as "exegetical acrobatics";[18] Ralph Martin Novak points out that such views spring from the belief that the Bible is without error.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Gruen 1996, pp. 156–157.
  2. ^ Edwards 2015, p. 71.
  3. ^ a b c Brown 1978, p. 17.
  4. ^ a b c Novak 2001, pp. 293–298.
  5. ^ Novak 2001, p. 290.
  6. ^ Stern 1976, p. 274.
  7. ^ Skarsaune 2008, p. 127.
  8. ^ Matthew 2:16–18
  9. ^ Novak 2001, p. 292.
  10. ^ Brown 1977, p. 17.
  11. ^ Matthew 2:23
  12. ^ Brown 1978, p. 19.
  13. ^ Muss-Arnolt 1897.
  14. ^ Brown 1977, pp. 552–553.
  15. ^ a b Brown 1977, p. 413.
  16. ^ Luke 3:1
  17. ^ a b Brown 1977, p. 552.
  18. ^ Vermes 2010.
  19. ^ Novak 2001, pp. 296–297.


External links[edit]