Skeptics often claim the birth narratives of Jesus are in conflict with one another, noting that Matthew dates Jesus’ birth prior to the death of Herod the Great (which some have argued is in 4 B.C.) while Luke’s account places Jesus’ birth at the time when Quirinius governed Syria in 6 A.D. The intention of this article is to provide evidence that Quirinius was likely a governor in Syria when a census was taken around 2 B.C. and it’s more likely that Herod died in 1 B.C.
Luke 2:1 states “In those days Caesar Augustus [who reigned between 27 B.C. and 14 A.D.] 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.”
Matthew 2:1 states: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod [who reigned up until 1 B.C.], Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
Researchers have determined that other censuses were taken in the Roman Empire in 8 B.C. and 2 B.C. (Nollett, 2012). Nollett (2012) makes a powerful argument noting that Quirinius was likely the governor in 2 B.C. and that Herod didn’t die in 4 B.C., as some have posited. He pointed to several examples where Josephus’ dating conflicted itself to open the possibility of different dating. He argued that Josephus’ reference to a lunar eclipse shortly preceding Herod’s death wasn’t likely the very weak partial lunar eclipse that occurred in 4 B.C., but a much stronger eclipse of 1 B.C. There were no eclipses in 3 or 2 B.C.
Other scholars have analyzed Josephus’ writings in the context of other ancient writings. Steinmann (2009) stated: “The consensus about the reign of Herod that is built around Schürer’s interpretation of Josephus is fraught with difficulties. It fails to fit any of the verifiable chronological data external to Josephus and must resort to unlikely readings of Josephus’ chronological data and dismissal of other data as mistaken. A reexamination of the data demonstrates that Herod actually reigned from 39 BCE to his death in early 1 BCE. The only readjustment required by this revised chronology is that Josephus made mistakes in Antiquities 14.389, 487 when reporting the consular and Olympian dating of the beginning of Herod’s reign. (In the case of Antiquities 14.384, even the defenders of the Schürer consensus concede that there is a mistake in at least the Olympian date given by Josephus.) Apparently, Josephus calculated these dates one year too early and then assigned them to the wrong consular years. Since these two events were clearly three years apart, the mistake in the first passage (Ant. 14.389) lead to the parallel mistake in the second (Ant. 13.487). Once the correct dates for Herod’s reign are understood, all of the data external to Josephus as well as all the other data given by Josephus are in perfect harmony, and one can construct the chronology of his reign” (pp. 28-29).
Hoehner (1977) pointed out that it is unknown who was the governor of Syria between Varus and Gaius Caesar (4 B.C. to 1 B.C), opening the possibility for Quirinius. According to Tacitus (Annals 3:48), Quirinius had numerous important roles, so the suggestion that he had enough status in 2 B.C. to collect census data is not a stretch.
“About the same time he requested the Senate to let the death of Sulpicius Quirinus [in 22 A.D.] be celebrated with a public funeral. With the old patrician family of the Sulpicii this Quirinus, who was born in the town of Lanuvium, was quite unconnected. An indefatigable soldier, he had by his zealous services won the consulship under the Divine Augustus, and subsequently the honours of a triumph for having stormed some fortresses of the Homonadenses in Cilicia [prior to 6 B.C.]. He was also appointed adviser to Caius Cæsar in the government of Armenia, and had likewise paid court to Tiberius, who was then at Rhodes. The emperor now made all this known to the Senate, and extolled the good offices of Quirinus to himself, while he censured Marcus Lollius, whom he charged with encouraging Caius Cæsar in his perverse and quarrelsome behaviour. But people generally had no pleasure in the memory of Quirinus, because of the perils he had brought, as I have related, on Lepida, and the meanness and dangerous power of his last years.” – (Tacitus Annals book 3, chapter 48)
He further held an honorary municipal office as a duumvir in Pisidian Antioch (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 9502 and 2683). Quirinius’ name has been discovered on the base of a statue erected in Pisidian Antioch (Ramsay, 1914; Wallace, 2017).
In the 25th year of Augustus’ reign in 2 B.C., the Roman Senate recognized him as a “Pater Patriae,” which means father of the Fatherland. The “Silver Jubilee” marked the date in 2 B.C., which was also Rome’s 750th anniversary. Augustus sent out a decree the year before to all in the Roman Empire, including Jews, which required them to register their approval of this honor (Lewin, 1865). According to Josephus, Augustus was sixty when he accepted the title and celebrated the dedication of the Augustan Forum. The Augustan Forum was a massive building of about 125 meters long and 90 meters wide, which housed a temple of Mars Ultor and numerous marble and bronze statues (Thorpe, 2012).
“For there was a certain sect of men that were Jews, who valued themselves highly upon the exact skill they had in the law of their fathers, and made men believe they were highly favored by God, by whom this set of women were inveigled. These are those that are called the sect of the Pharisees, who were in a capacity of greatly opposing kings. A cunning sect they were, and soon elevated to a pitch of open fighting and doing mischief. Accordingly, when all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good-will to Caesar, and to the king’s government, these very men did not swear, being above six thousand; and when the king imposed a fine upon them, Pheroras’s wife paid their fine for them. In order to requite which kindness of hers, since they were believed to have the foreknowledge of things to come by Divine inspiration, they foretold how God had decreed that Herod’s government should cease, and his posterity should be deprived of it; but that the kingdom should come to her and Pheroras, and to their children.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17:4).
“The Pater Patriae registration of all inhabitants of the Roman Empire initiated in 2 BC (and not the popularly believed census of Palestine taken in AD 6) is the census which Luke reported as having occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria; he was governor in 2 BC and again in AD 6. It should also be noted that Luke did not say that Quirinius was governor when Herod died; only that he was governor at the time the Pater Patriae registration was ordered (and Herod presumably was still alive). Furthermore, when Luke reported that the census was of the entire (Roman) world, we now see that he did not exaggerate, if we regard the Pater Patriae census of 2 BC and not Quirinius’s local census of AD 6 as the census he was talking about. The streams of evidence resolve: Jesus was probably born sometime in 2 BC.” (Nollett, 2012, p. 218).
One purpose for a census is to count the population for taxation. Some have argued that the Romans would not have taxed the Israelites or conducted a census in Israel before it became a province in 6 A.D., but Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, 10:2-7) records Roman taxation of Jews from as early as 44 B.C.
Based on these findings, it is likely that the census taken by Quirinius and described by Luke was the first census taken in 2 B.C. , while he conducted a second local census in 6 A.D., as recorded by Josephus and in Acts 5:37. Researchers have also estimated that Jesus was born between 3 and 1 B.C. In conclusion, we have no conflicts in the birth narratives.
Brown, M.L. (2000). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus.
Hoehner, H.W. (1977). Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Corporation.
Lewin, T. (1865). Fasti Sacri: A Key Chronology of the New Testament. London: Longmann Green and Company.
Nollett, J.A. (2012). Astronomical and historical evidence for dating the nativity in 2 B.C. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 64(4): 211-219.
Ramsay, W.M. (1914). The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. Hodder and Stoughton.
Ramsay, W.M. (unknown). Luke’s Narrative of the Birth of Christ. Accessed December 15, 2018 at https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/expositor/series8/04-385.pdf
Steinmann, A.E. (2009). When Did Herod the Great Reign? Novum Testamentum 51 (2009) 1-29
Thorpe, S. (2012). The Forum of Augustus. Accessed September 15, 2019 at creatinghistory.com
Wallace, J.W. (2017). Unbelievable? Is Luke’s Description of Quirinius Historically Inaccurate. Cold Case Christianity. Accessed December 15, 2018 at http://coldcasechristianity.com/2017/unbelievable-is-lukes-description-of-quirinius-historically-inaccurate/