Census of Quirinius

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The Census of Quirinius was a census of Judea taken by Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, Roman governor of Syria, upon the imposition of direct Roman rule in 6 CE.[1] The Gospel of Luke uses it as the narrative means to establish the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Luke 2, Luke 2:1–5), but the Gospel of Matthew places the birth within the reign of Herod the Great, who had died 9 years earlier.[2][3][4] No satisfactory explanation of the contradiction seems possible,[5] and most critical scholars think that the Gospel of Luke was in error.[6]

The census[edit]

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

In 6 CE the Roman Empire deposed Herod Archelaus, who ruled the largest section of Judea as a Roman client king, and converted his territory into the Roman province of Judea, and Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, the legatus (governor) of the province of Roman Syria was assigned to carry out a census of the new province for tax purposes.[7] The gospel of Luke uses this census to establish the year in which Jesus was born.[5]

Mention in the Gospel of Luke[edit]

The Gospel of Luke chapter 2 correlates the date of the nativity of Jesus to a 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.

There are major difficulties in accepting Luke's account: the gospel links the birth of Jesus to the reign of Herod the Great, but the census took place in 6 CE, nine years after Herod's death in 4 BCE; there was no single census of the entire empire under Augustus; no Roman census required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors; and the census of Judea would not have affected Joseph and his family, living in Galilee.[6]

Some conservative scholars have argued that Quirinius may have had an earlier and historically unattested term as governor of Syria, or that he previously held other senior positions which may have led him to be involved in the affairs of Judea during Herod's reign, or that the passage should be interpreted in some other fashion;[8][9][10] the English Standard Version, for example, has a footnote which offers "This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria" as an alternate translation, but this is not in the text of any major English translation.[11] In particular, the Vatican Museums proffer this interpretation based on a tomb inscription found in Tivoli in 1764 and presumed to be the incription for the tomb of Quirinius that includes the Latin phrase leg[atus] iterum ("twice legate").[12]

These "exegetical acrobatics" (in the words of Géza Vermes)[13] spring from the assumption that the Bible is inerrant.[14] They have generally been rejected because there is no time in the career of Quirinius before 6 CE when he could have served as governor of Syria, the Romans did not directly tax client kingdoms, and the hostile reaction of the Jews in 6 CE suggests direct taxation by Rome was new at the time.[15][16] Most critical scholars have therefore concluded that Luke's account is in error.[6]

Some have tried to defend Luke's claim by defining the Greek word used for census (ἀπογράφεσθαι) as 'an act of giving name' rather than 'census' [17][18] and relating the event mentioned in Luke to an 'Oath of Loyalty' . Augustus Ceasar issued an edict calling for an oath of loyalty around 3 BC. Edicts in Paphlagonia, Turkey mentions this 'Oath of loyalty'.[19] Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in his book 'Jewish Antiquities', mentions about how 6000 Pharisees showed hesitance to assure their goodwill to Ceasar and his government when all other Jews did so.[20]Since Josephus gets an exact number of the Pharisees, some have tried to correlate the event with the above mentioned 'Oath of loyalty'. They also argue that the Jews belonging to the clan of David were compelled by Herod to accept the supremacy of Ceasar by giving their name in the oath at the city of David (Bethlehem), as the tribe of David was the royal tribe among the twelve.[21] They have, therefore jumped to a conclusion that the event mentioned by Luke is not a census but an 'Oath of loyalty' to Augustus Ceasar![21][22]

But most criticalcal scholars have concluded that Luke's account is in error.[6]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Gruen 1996, p. 157.
  2. ^ Edwards 2015, p. 68.
  3. ^ Sanders 1995, p. 111.
  4. ^ Gruen 1996, p. 156.
  5. ^ a b Edwards 2015, p. 71.
  6. ^ a b c d Brown 1978, p. 17.
  7. ^ Gruen 1996, p. 156–157.
  8. ^ Bruce 1974, pp. 193–194.
  9. ^ Habermas 1984, pp. 152–153.
  10. ^ Boyd & Eddy 2010, pp. 142–143.
  11. ^ "Luke 2:2". Bible Gateway. Retrieved 5 April 2021.
  12. ^ "Fragment of the sepulchral inscription of Quirinius". m.museivaticani.va. Retrieved 2021-04-22.
  13. ^ Vermes 2010, p. unpaginated.
  14. ^ Novak 2001, pp. 296–297.
  15. ^ Novak 2001, p. 293–298.
  16. ^ Brown 1977, pp. 552–553.
  17. ^ "GreekLexicon.org: Dictionary entry for Strong's number 583: ἀπογράφω, Verb: I enroll, inscribe in a register". greeklexicon.org. Retrieved 2021-04-23.
  18. ^ "Luke 2:1 Interlinear: And it came to pass in those days, there went forth a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world be enrolled --". biblehub.com. Retrieved 2021-04-23.
  19. ^ Pérez, Aitor Blanco (2017-01-01). "Oath of loyalty to Augustus in Paphlagonia". www.judaism-and-rome.org. Retrieved 2021-04-23.
  20. ^ Antiquities of Jews xvii: 2-4
  21. ^ a b "Part Two: Making Sense of the Census". The Divine Mercy. 2020-12-09. Retrieved 2021-04-23.
  22. ^ "Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to be "taxed." But, what was the real reason? – A Carpenter's View". Retrieved 2021-04-23.