Luke 2:2, The Problem with Quirinius

This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

//Jesus, says the Gospel of Luke, was born while Quirinius was governor of Syria. But there’s a problem with this: Quirinius didn’t become governor until 6 AD, and Luke also claims that Herod the Great was still alive (see Luke 1:5). Herod died in 4 BC.

I got into a heated discussion about this on a forum, and though this sort of first-century history is a bit dry to most of you, I decided to set the record straight on my blog. Yes, Luke erred, pure and simple.

The facts as we know them, corroborated by no less a historian than Josephus, are these: In 6 AD, Judea passed from rule by Herod’s family to Rome. At that time, because of the transfer of rule, Quirinius, who had simultaneously been appointed legate of Syria, was instructed by Caesar Augustus to take a local census of Judea. All of this happened ten years after King Herod died, so Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is impossible as written.

The Christian Think Tank at takes several stabs at reconciling this problem. They propose that Quirinius performed a different census ten years earlier, while Herod still lived. They conjecture that:

1. Maybe Rome DID have a reason for taking a census of Judea before rule passed from Herod to Rome.

2. Maybe Herod DID cooperate with a Syrian governor for such a census, through some unlikely agreement, though he certainly wouldn’t have felt required to.

3. Therefore, maybe a census WAS ordered and completed by Augustus in the final years of Herod’s life, for which we have no record. Evidence is presented by the think tank for a similar census by Caesar Augustus in 2-3 BC, but if this census was of Judea, this just makes another census a year or two earlier (while Herod lived) even more unlikely.

4a. Maybe Quirinius was governer of Syria once earlier, and the appointment in 6 AD was his second governorship. This is remotely possible, and the think tank presents an obscure letter indicating that somebody served as governor of Syria twice. Maybe it was Quirinius, who knows. Thus, when Luke refers to the “first census” in today’s verse, he would be referring to one before the known census of 6 AD.

4b. Or, perhaps every common translation of the Bible is wrong, and when Luke says “while Quirinius was governor” he meant “before Quirinius was governor.” My grasp of Greek is not strong enough to argue one way or the other, but I tend to side with the majority against this idea. For one thing, if Luke is talking about a census in 4 BC or earlier, why include this trivia about the appointment of Quirinius over Syria ten years later? This one simply makes no sense.

What we have is a series of compounded unlikely maybe’s. 1, 2, 3 and 4a or 4b must all be true. There remains a very slim chance that Luke wasn’t in error, but responsible historians do not recognize this sort of speculation as legitimate scholarship.


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