Luke, Christmas story and the question of Quirinius’ census?

Most people don’t really know the details of Jesus’ life. They are aware of the major aspects such as death and resurrection. Probably the most familiar aspect of his life is the story of his birth. Everybody knows the story of the pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph, their trip to Bethlehem, the star that guided wise men who visited baby Jesus. How many were there? You would probably say three! However, the Gospels don’t mention the number, just that they brought three gifts. Based on that, people assume there were three wise men. But maybe one of them didn’t bring anything – who knows! The point I’m making is that almost everybody knows the story of Jesus’ birth. However, historically speaking, there are numerous problems with the narratives themselves. The most famous is probably the question of the census of Quirinius. What do I mean by that? Before I begin, I like to emphasize that I’m not trying to theologically discredit the Bible or the Gospels. My only concern is (according to the vision of this blog) to convey the relevant information from the critical scholars who are dealing with these questions on a daily basis. Among them, there are faithful Christians, but also Jews, agnostics, and atheists. So, my only goal here is to approach the Gospels from a historical perspective. Let’s get going!

Our earliest evidence of Jesus’ life doesn’t mention anything about his birth. Paul’s epistles are silent about many of the aspects of Jesus’ life. So, we are not surprised that there isn’t any reference to his birth. To be exact, there is only one reference where Paul states that Jesus was “born of a woman” which isn’t a lot, but it’s enough to put to silence those mythicists who are convinced that the earliest followers of Jesus didn’t believe that he actually existed. The first Gospel was the Gospel of Mark and there you won’t find anything about Jesus’ earliest years. No mention of his birth or youth. It begins with his baptism (as an adult) which marked the beginning of his public career in the rural areas of Galilee. Then (cc. 70-80. A.D.) we get the first information. Both the Gospel of Luke and Matthew have the birth narratives we are all familiar with. And there we find our problem!

At the beginning of the 2nd chapter, Luke writes about the time of Jesus’ birth: 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 their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. According to Mat 2,1-2, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. From other sources, we know that Herod died 4 B.C. The third piece of information relevant to this discussion comes from a Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who claims that Quirinius conducted a census when he became the governor of Syria 6. C.E. So, the problem is obvious: How can Luke be right in claiming that Jesus was born when Quirinius was a governor of Syria while Matthew claims that Jesus was born during the time of Herod the Great who died 10 or so years before Quirinius became a governor. In other words, we have a discrepancy in our accounts. Jesus couldn’t be born while Herod was ruling in Judea and while Quirinius was a governor. Either he was born (as Matthew states explicitly) while Herod was in charge (cc. 4 B.C.) or he was born while Quirinius was a governor of Syria (after 6 C.E.).

Whoever knows anything about ancient history won’t be surprised by the difficulty of fixing a date and event. However, there is a fine line between grounded attempts at the reconciliation of the available date and ideologically motivated attempts that lead to quite unlikely scenarios. In the last hundred years or so, there were numerous attempts to harmonize these accounts and defend the accuracy of Luke’s report. We can divide those attempts into two categories:

  1. Theories about different translation of Lk 2,1-2.
  2. Theories relying on the idea that Quirinius conducted an earlier census – while Herod was in charge. This category can be divided in two additional sub-categories:
    1. Josephus was wrong when he stated that Quirinius became a governor of Syria and conducted a census in 6 C.E.
    1.  Quirinius conducted two censuses:
      1. An earlier one during the Herod’s reign
      1. The second – the one that Luke talks about!

Let’s start with the first theory and the question of translation. The Greek text reads as follows: αὕτη ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου. Proponents of the theory mentioned above claim that the right translation should be: This census was before the census which Quirinius, governor of Syria, made. In spite of everything, the basis for this translation is insufficient. It relies on the assumption that πρώτη is used in the comparative sense of “former” or “prior” which would then govern the following genitive ἡγεμονεύοντος. However, we are here dealing with a genitive absolute construction, and thus the comparative form of πρώτη can’t be a proper translation. Famous English classicist Robin L. Fox concludes: Nobody has ever entertained this translation for non-doctrinal reasons: it is not true to the Greek, let alone the clear Greek of the Third Gospel.

Another innovative attempt at harmonization was based on the thesis that Quirinius was the governor of Syria two times. This theory is based on the so-called “Tivoli inscription” which reads as follows:

  1. Publius Quirinius consul
  2. praetor proconsul obtained the Province Crete and Cyrene
  3. legate propraetor of the divine Augustus obtaining Syria and Phoenicia waged war with the nation of the Homonadenses which had killed Amyntas the King.   
  4. proconsul obtained the Province Asia, legate propraetor of the divine Augustus obtained again Syria and Phoenicia.

According to the proponents of this theory, Quirinius governed Syria on two different occasions. On this basis, they have concluded that either Quirinius conducted two censuses (the one in 6 C.E. described by Josephus and otherwise unknown census during the reign of Herod described by the Gospel of Luke), or that the census dated to 6 C.E. by Josephus was really conducted during Herod’s reign. However, this conclusion is problematic on all sorts of levels. Firstly, we actually don’t know which Quirinius “Tivoli inscription” is talking about. Even if we accept that this is “our” Quirinius and that he was in fact twice governor of Syria, such a fact does not represent a piece of evidence that Quirinius conducted two censuses of Judea. But, even if we grant that Quirinius was a governor of Syria on two different occasions, the question of chronology remains! When was he a governor for the first time? We have a pretty good list of the governors of Syria:

  1. M. Agrippa – 23-13. B.C.
  2. M. Titus – 13 – 10. B.C.
  3. S. Sentius Saturnius – 9 – 6. B.C.
  4. Quintilius Varus – 6 – 4. B.C.
  5. Gaius Caesar – 1. B.C. – 4. C.E.

If indeed Quirinius was the governor of Syria before 6. C.E. he could have been only between Varus and Caesar (between 4. and 1. B.C.). However, we have a lot of information about his political and military career, and it is highly unlikely that he could have been a governor during that time period. Finally, why would Quirinius conduct a census during the reign of Herod the Great? It doesn’t make much sense. Herod was a vassal king who paid his share directly to Rome. He had his own tax collectors. The precise reason for the census done in 6 C.E. was the fact that Herod Archelaus was deposed and Judea became a Roman province!

In conclusion, most historians still think that Luke made a mistake in connecting Jesus’ birth with the census done by Quirinius. But be aware, history isn’t a science in the sense that chemistry or biology is. We can only talk about probabilities! And also, we can still expect new theories and questions. Who knows, maybe archaeologists will dig up some new evidence that will shed a completely different light on this interesting question!

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