Census of Quirinius

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The Census of Quirinius was a census of the Roman provinces of Syria and Judaea taken by Publius Sulpicius Quirinius after the imposition of direct Roman rule. It is one of two historical markers by which the author of the Gospel of Luke dates the birth of Jesus.[1]

As the census took place in 6 CE, and Luke's second marker is the reign of King Herod who died in 4 BCE, the gospel is inconsistent with the historical evidence.[2] Most modern scholars explain this as an error,[3] but the authors of the Gospels were ignorant on many points about the early life of Jesus, and both the Gospel of Luke and Gospel of Matthew put Jesus' birth in Bethlehem in order to match a prophecy in the Book of Micah that the messiah was to come from that place.[4]


The Roman general Pompey sacked Jerusalem in 63 BCE. In the closing years of the 1st century BCE the Romans placed Judaea under the control of Herod the Great, a client king who could be relied on to serve their interests. When Herod died in 4 BCE the kingdom was split among his three sons, but Archelaus, the son who received the Tetrarchy of Judea, proved a brutal and unpopular ruler. In 6 CE he was removed and Judea was declared a province of the Empire, and Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (51 BCE-21 CE), the governor of Roman Syria, was sent to carry out a census for tax purposes.[5] Quirinius is known from a number of sources, including Josephus, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Suetonius and Florus. As a soldier he distinguished himself in Roman North Africa and in 12 BCE was made Consul, the highest honour available. In 3 CE he married into the Imperial family, and from 6-9 CE he was Imperial Legate for the province of Syria-Cilicia.[6]

The Gospel of Luke[edit]

Mary and Joseph register for the census before Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic c. 1315.
Luke 2:1-7 in original King James edition showing verse 2 parenthetical.

The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles make up a two-volume work which scholars call Luke–Acts.[7] The traditional attribution to Luke the Evangelist, the companion of Paul, is now rarely put forward.[8] The actual author is not named,[9] but it can be deduced that he was an educated man of means, probably from an urban background.[10] Most experts date the composition of Luke-Acts to around 80-90 CE, although some suggest 90-110,[11] and there is evidence that it was still being substantially revised well into the 2nd century.[12] In chapter 2 the author describes the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus:

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 2:1–7)

This appears to give a precise date, but elsewhere Luke has placed the nativity "in the days of Herod" (Luke 1:5 - "In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah..."); as Herod died in 4 BCE and the census was in 6 CE, this means that the gospel is not consistent with the historical evidence.[13] The scenario of Luke 2:1-7 is unrealistic in other ways as well: almost all scholars agree that people would not be required to travel in order to register for tax purposes (it would be the taxation officials who would travel, as they had to link property to its owners), and Joseph, as a resident of Galilee rather than Judaea, would not have been affected by the census in any case.[14]

Various proposals have been made to resolve the problem - the Gospel text has been mistranslated, the census has been misdated, there were two censuses – but these are rejected by most scholars for reasons set out by Raymond E. Brown in The Birth of the Messiah (1977, pp.546-555) and in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, "Chronology".[15] The evangelists were ignorant on many points about the early life of Jesus, as can be seen in the contradictory accounts of Luke and Matthew (Matthew says that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem, fled to Egypt, returned to their home in Bethlehem, and finally fled again to Galilee; according to Luke they lived in Galilee, went to Bethlehem only because of the census, and returned immediately to Nazareth).[4] They both place Jesus' birth in Bethlehem because, according to a prophecy in Micah 5:2, the messiah was to come from that town (Matthew quotes Micah, and Luke refers to the birth of the messiah in the "city of David"): "theological needs here create biographical 'facts'."[4]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Vermes 2010, p. no pagination.
  2. ^ Novak 2001, p. 291-292.
  3. ^ Novak 2001, p. 293.
  4. ^ a b c Davies & Sanders 1984, p. 622.
  5. ^ Freeman 2009, p. 4.
  6. ^ Blomberg 1995, p. 12.
  7. ^ Burkett 2002, p. 195.
  8. ^ Theissen & Merz 1996 [tr. 1998], p. 32.
  9. ^ Burkett 2002, p. 196.
  10. ^ Green 1997, p. 35.
  11. ^ Charlesworth 2008, p. unpaginated.
  12. ^ Perkins 2009, p. 250-253.
  13. ^ Novak 2001, p. 292.
  14. ^ Sanders 1995, p. no pagination.
  15. ^ Novak 2001, p. 294.