When Was Jesus Born?

First Census, Quirinius and Archaelogy


The matter of Luke's Census is resolved with archeology [The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (1996) by Gary Habermas, pp. 171-173]...

Luke's Census

In Luke 2.1-5 we read that Caesar Augustus decreed that the Roman Empire should be taxed and that everyone had to return to his own city to pay taxes. So Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem and there Jesus was born.

Several questions have been raised in the context of this  taxation [1. See Bruce, Christian Origins, p. 192, for example]. Even if such a taxation actually did occur, would every person have to return to his home? Was Quirinius really the governor of Syria at this time (as in v.2)? Archeology has had a bearing on the answers to these questions.

It has been established that the taking of a census was quite common at about the time of Christ. An ancient Latin inscription called the Titulus Venetus indicates that a census took place in Syria and Judea about AD 5-6 and that this was typical of those held throughout the Roman Empire from the time of Augustus (23 BC-AD 14) until at least the third century AD. Indications are that this census took place every fourteen years. Other such evidence indicates that these procedures were widespread [2. Ibid., pp. 193-194]. Concerning persons returning to their home city for the taxation-census, an Egyptian papyrus dating from AD 104 reports just such a practice. This rule was enforced, as well [3. Ibid. p. 194].

The question concerning Quirinius also involves the date of the census described in Luke 2. It is known that Quirinius was made governor of Syria by Augustus in AD 6. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay discovered several inscriptions that indicated that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two occasions, the first time several years prior to this date [4. Robert Boyd, Tells, Tombs, and Treasure (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 175]. Within the cycle of taxation-censuses mentioned above, an earlier taxation would be dated from 10-4 BC [5. Cf. Bruce, Christian Origins, pp. 193-194 with Boyd, Tells, p. 175. Bruce prefers the date 10-9 BC for the empire-wide census, with that which took place in Judea occurring a few years later. Boyd places the date of the earlier census 6-5 BC, which coincides closely with the accepted dates for Jesus' birth]. Another possibility is Bruce's suggestion that the Greek in Luke 2.2 is equally translatable as "This enrollment (census) was before that made when Quirinius was governor of Syria" [6. Bruce, Christian Origins, p. 192]. This would mean that Luke was dating the taxation-census before Quirinius took over the governorship of Syria. Either possibility answers the question raised above [7. While ruling out the two-date approach to the governorship of Quirinius, Sherwin-White basically vindicates Luke's account, while still finding more problems that does Bruce (pp. 162-171)].

Therefore, while some questions have been raised concerning the events recorded in Luke 2.1-5, archaeology has provided some unexpected and supportive answers. Additionally, while supplying the background behind these events, archaeology also assists us in establishing several facts. (1) A taxation-census was a fairly common procedure in the Roman Empire and it did occur in Judea, in particular. (2) Persons were required to return to their home city in order to fulfill the requirements of the process. (3) These procedures were apparently employed during the reign of Augustus (37 BC-AD 14), placing it well within the general time frame of Jesus' birth. (4) The date of the specific taxation recounted by Luke could very possibly have been 6-5 BC, which would also be of service in attempting to find a more exact date for Jesus' birth.


Astronomical records show that there were conjunctions of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in the years 7-6 BC. In 7 BC, the world saw a triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in an event occurring only once every 125 years. Then early in 6 BC, Jupiter and Saturn grouped close to the planet Mars, a configuration repeated only once every 805 years. Later in the spring of 6 BC Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn also formed an unusually close grouping. Ancient astrologers believed that the area of the sky named Pisces where these conjunctions occurred contained signs pertinent to the Hebrew nation, so it is possible that the "Magi", blending a knowledge of Old Testament prophecies about a Messiah with heavenly observations (Numbers 24.17), were led to seek the predicted king in the Land of Israel.

Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. and Jesus was born before then (Matt. 2.19). Luke was a very reliable historian, proven trustworthy over and over again. (And in Acts 5, Luke shows that he was well aware of the census under Quirinius in 6 AD which makes it very doubtful that he would have been confused about the census he describes in Luke 2.)

Josephus and Jewish Antiquities

An argument made by many opponents of the accuracy of the Bible is that Rome was not taxing or conducting a census in Israel before becoming a province in 6 A.D. But Josephus records that the Jews were being taxed by the Romans with commands coming from Syria as early as 44 BC. And the task of raising the funds fell upon the Jewish rulers in power at the time. For example Josephus records: "Cassius rode into Syria in order to take command of the army stationed there, and on the Jews he placed a tax of 700 silver talents. Antipater gave the job of collecting this tax to his sons . . ." (Jewish Antiquities XIV 271).

Records also indicate that Quirinius was no minor figure in Roman politics. His name is mentioned in Res Gestae - The Deeds of Augustus by Augustus placing him as consul as early as 12 B.C.

Excerpt from: Kenneh F. Doig, New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990).

Chapter 5

Luke recorded that before the birth of Jesus, "a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria." (Luke 2:1-2) In response to this census Joseph and Mary proceeded to Bethlehem to be counted.1 and there Jesus was born.

Added note: The word "first" in this context is from "protos" (prwtoV), defined in Strong's Greek Dictionary as: contracted superlative of pro - pro 4253; foremost (in time, place, order or importance):--before, beginning, best, chief(-est), first (of all), former. If the early translators of the New Testament had been aware of the historical conflict posed by "first" we would long have read "This was the census before the one taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria." Then there would have been no perceived difference between history and scripture.

The latest possible date for the birth of Jesus was before the death of Herod the Great on November 27, 4 BCE. It also would be desirable to establish the earliest possible date, and thus set the limits for Jesus' birth. Augustus' decree for a worldwide census for taxation has often been used to try to establish this earliest limit. However, the gaps in our knowledge of the taxations of the period and the details of the career of Quirinius have led to no firm conclusions. Based on this lack of information, some have denied the historical validity of Luke's statement.2 Or, it has been stated the census of the world was only a generalization of Augustus' ongoing drive to classify the empire, as evidenced by the many local censuses conducted at different times.3 However, it can be historically established that Augustus did decree such a specific census. To use this approach it is necessary to establish which decree of Augustus would have required a worldwide census, when he decreed it, and when Quirinius (Cyrenius) put it into effect in Judea. The words of the Roman historian, Dio Cassius, provide a starting point.

I. Augustus' Decree for Taxation

Caesar Augustus ruled from 44 BCE to 14 CE. An edict of Caesar Augustus decreeing a census for purposes of taxation for all the inhabited earth, or essentially the Roman Empire, is recorded by Dio Cassius.4 By 5 CE the military expenditures for the widespread Roman legions exceeded income, and "Augustus lacked funds for all these troops." (Dio Cassius, Roman History LV 24:9) No tax plan was accepted at that time. In 6 CE Augustus established a "military treasury. . . . Now Augustus made a contribution himself toward the fund and promised to do so annually, and he also accepted voluntary contributions from kings and certain communities; but he took nothing from private citizens, . . . but this proved very slight in comparison with the amount being spent." (Roman History LV 25:3-4) To overcome this deficit, Augustus "established the tax of 5%, on the inheritances and bequests which should be left by people at their death to any except very near relatives or very poor persons, representing that he had found this tax set down in Caesar's memoranda. It was, in fact, a method which had been introduced once before, but had been abolished later, and was now revived. In this way, then, he increased the revenues." (Roman History LV 25:5-6) In 6 CE Caesar Augustus issued a worldwide decree that for a second time there would be a 5% inheritance tax on estates, something beyond the normal taxation. Such a taxation would require a census to register transferable assets, such as land, and to record genealogies to establish "very near relatives." As the benefactor, this taxation would have had the full support of the Roman military.

Josephus noted the effects on non-citizens of this decree in Judea in 6 CE: "Now Cyrenius, a Roman senator, and one who had gone through other magistracies, and had passed through them till he had been consul, and one who, on other accounts, was of great dignity, came at this time into Syria, with a few others, being sent by Caesar to be a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance. Coponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent together with him, to have the supreme power over the Jews. Moreover, Cyrenius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus' money; but the Jews, although at the beginning they took the report of a taxation heinously, yet did they leave off any further opposition to it." (Ant. XVIII 1:1) However, to the north, "a certain Galilean, whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt; and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans, and would, after God, submit to mortal men as their lords." (Wars II 8:1) And, later he wrote of "Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews." (Ant. XX 5:2) Caesar's 5% tax was to be on the estates, as noted by Josephus. The census attached to this taxation was also noted by Luke: "Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away some people after him, he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered." (Acts 5:37) The peoples of Judea and Galilee were already being taxed, and yet they protested this taxation. What was different this time?

When Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE, Judea came under Roman tribute. (Ant. XIV 4:4; Wars I 7:6) Although Herod later collected his own heavy taxes, some portion would have gone to Rome. It has been contended that Rome had no ability for direct taxation in Herod's territory,5 but, Augustus could interfere in local taxation. When Samaria remained loyal to Caesar after the death of Herod the Great, he "eased of one quarter of its taxes, out of regard to their not having revolted." (Wars II 6:3; also Ant. XVII 11:4) Normally, any tax money due was likely collected by Herod or his successors and paid directly to Rome by them. To the taxpayer, their money would have been seen as going primarily to their local government, and not to Rome. At the time of Jesus' birth the Romans may have required the taxation, but the money was collected by Herod's government. The military purpose of that taxation may not have been general public knowledge, but only seen as another burdensome tax collected by Herod.

The census for taxation in 6 CE was different. The Romans and their troops would have directly conducted that census. It was specifically to support the military, who were not welcomed by most of the Jews. The first Roman governor, Coponius, had just replaced Archelaus, and the Jews were suddenly under direct Roman control. This tax was on their land, which was their inheritance from God. The fanatical Judas took the opportunity to revolt against the further demands of mortal men and their military might.

There had been ongoing taxation throughout the Roman provinces. Augustus' worldwide decree in 6 CE established an additional tax to support his troops. As noted by Dio, this was the second attempt at such a taxation, as it "had been introduced once before, but had been abolished later, and was now revived." There had only been one prior 5% taxing specifically for the military, and it was probably that decree referenced by Luke, that "went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth." The decree for taxation and a census at the time of Jesus' birth was likely that first unsuccessful attempt to support the military treasury.

Since there is no specific record of the first decree for taxation for the military, but only the reference by Dio, no dating is presently available. There are, however, several related early sources. Tertullian (ca. 155-245 CE), a Christian theologian at Carthage, noted that a census in Judea took place under Sentius Saturninus, 9-6 BCE. He wrote, "But there is historical proof that at this very time there were censuses that had been taken in Judea by Sentius Saturninus, which might have satisfied their inquiry respecting the family and descent of Christ." (Against Marcion IV:19) The year, or years, of taxation is not specified. It is also not known if that census was for normal taxation of everyone, or if it was specifically related to the inheritance tax to support the military. It should be noted that `censuses' is in the plural,6 which suggests normal taxations. Tertullian may only have presumed such a census based on Luke, Josephus and his knowledge of the history of the period. He appears to have known that Quirinius was not governor of Syria at that time, or, it has been suggested, had access to an early version of Luke that described the census as conducted by Saturninus, not Quirinius. The words of Tertullian do not confirm or establish a specific date for the census.7

Justin Martyr, who was born in about 105 CE, wrote to defend the Christians against persecution, and appealed, "Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registries of the taxing under Quirinius your first procurator in Judea." (First Apology, 34) Here is an appeal to the public registries, which have, unfortunately, been lost. Whether his comments are derived only from the writings of Luke, or he had independent verification of the earlier "taxing under Quirinius" is not known. He also refers to Quirinius as the "first procurator in Judea," as opposed to governor of Syria. Again, there is no specific dating.

II. Quirinius Was Governor of Syria

Since there is not yet sufficient information to establish the year of the first inheritance taxation, perhaps it is possible to identify when Quirinius became "governor of Syria" and could have conducted such a census. The problem is that it does not seem possible to establish that Quirinius was governor of Syria before 6 CE. The governors of Syria during the period, with their approximate dates, were:8

Chart XII
Governors of Syria
BCE 10-9 M. Titius
BCE 9-6 Gaius Sentius Saturninus
BCE 6-3 P. Quinctilius Varus
BCE 3-1 L. Calpurnius Piso (?)
BCE 1-4 CE Gaius Julius Caesar
4-6 CE L. Volusius Saturninus
6-7 CE P. Sulpicius Quirinius

Varus succeeded Saturninus as governor of Syria in about 6 BCE (Ant. XVII 5:2). In the chapter on "Herodian Chronology" it was determined that Varus was still governor after the death of Herod, at least until Summer of 3 BCE, and perhaps for another year or so. Jesus was born before Herod died, while Varus was governor of Syria. Quirinius was governor after Herod died. Quirinius does not appear to have been governor of Syria during the reign of Herod, at least in the usual sense.

It has been suggested that Quirinius was an imperial procurator for Caesar, and may have been the "Sabinus, Caesar's procurator" mentioned by Josephus (Ant. XVII 10:1).9 However, this reference is after the death of Herod and not related to a census. Little is known of Quirinius. He was a consul in 12 BCE, and sometime thereafter conducted the Homanadensian war against that tribe in the Cilician Taurus country of Asia Minor. This action was complete about 6 BCE. The exact status of Quirinius during this period is not known.10 The inscriptions of the period are not conclusive.11 Without further information it is only a guess that he had some official status to direct a census in Judea during the period before the death of Herod the Great. The suggestion that he was governor of Syria shortly after the death of Herod is irrelevant, since Jesus was born before Herod died. In 6 CE Augustus appointed him governor of Syria. He was later a favorite of Tiberius and was buried with honors in 21 CE (Tacitus, Annals, 3:48).

Luke acknowledged the later "days of the census," in 6 CE, which were disrupted by Judas of Galilee. The records are clear that Quirinius was governor of Syria then, but Luke's gospel distinguishes that the census at the time of the birth of Jesus was the "first." Luke certainly knew the chronology and rulers of that period. However, it has been suggested that Luke's intent was to say that the enrollment at the time of Jesus was the first one, as distinguished from the later one when Quirinius was governor of Syria. That is, Luke was not saying that Quirinius was governor at the time of the first census. The Greek usage can be interpreted to say: "This census was before that [census] when Quirinius was governor of Syria."12 Perhaps a better translation would be: "This census was the first before that under the prefectureship of Quirinius in Syria."13 As such, the Scripture is historically satisfied, but this translation does not advance our knowledge of the chronology of Jesus.

[It would stand to reason the word "first" is uniquely used here as if to suggest an event preceding].

III. Joseph and Mary Register for the Census

Luke went on to say that, "all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city." (Luke 2:3) It has seemed a problem that the Jewish method of returning to one's own tribal headquarters to be "numbered" was used for a census under Herod.14 The Romans usually took a census in one's home town.15 However, in a census for inheritance taxation it would be expected that this would be conducted where the tribal records were kept, no matter who conducted the census. Joseph was a descendent of David of the tribe of Judah. David's ancestral home was in Bethlehem, and in that town the land records and genealogies required for such a census would have been located. Or, simply, Joseph was born in Bethlehem but then lived in Nazareth. Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to register for this census, and there Jesus was born.

As will be seen in the following chapters, the evidence suggests a winter birth for Jesus. But, why would Joseph and Mary journey to Bethlehem in the middle of winter to register for the census? There are several possibilities. Joseph may have recently inherited some land. Since the special taxation was related to inheritances, Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem to claim his estate and settle any taxes due. He would have there registered his property for the census. Or, perhaps Joseph had recently become eighteen years of age, and as an adult was required to then register as an independent household.16 Or, they had recently married, and the registration of the family was required. Or, Joseph and Mary thought that their child might be the promised Messiah and that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). They may have timed their trip to Bethlehem for the census to ensure that Jesus was born there. Also, registration may have been required before the end of the Roman year, that is, December 31, and they were late. However, there is no need to require that Joseph's registration occurred immediately after the census for taxation was decreed. There are other possibilities, but these are mostly speculation.

IV. Conclusion

In support of Luke's description of the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, it is confirmed that Augustus did decree a 5% world wide inheritance tax to support the military. This was sometime before the second taxing in 6 CE and likely before Herod's death in 4 BCE; it was at some point discontinued. When this census took place cannot yet be determined, and Quirinius' official status at that time is unknown.

An alternate translation suggests that Luke was actually saying that the census was only the one before that when Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 CE. Luke was not saying he was governor when the first census was taken.

It does not seem presently possible to establish an earliest limit for the birth of Jesus. As such the search must go elsewhere to establish the date of His birth. As will discussed in the following chapters, the conception of John the Baptist and Jesus offers a surprising answer.


1. R. Smith, "Caesar's Decree (Luke 2:1-2): Puzzle or Key?," CTM 7 (1980), looks at Luke's intent to establish Joseph and Mary as subject to the decrees of Caesar.

2. For example, G. Cornfield, The Historical Jesus - A Scholarly View of the Man and His World (New York: Macmillan, 1982), 90; T. P. Wiseman, "`There Went Out a Decree from Caesar Augustus...'," NTS 33 (1987), 479-480.

3. See R. E. Brown, "Gospel Infancy Narrative Research from 1976 to 1986: Part II (Luke)," CBQ 48, 4 (1986), 670.

4. E. W. Faulstich, "The Birth of Jesus," IAT (July 1986).

5. E. Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ Vol. 1 (London: Clark, Rev. 1973), 413-416.

6. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977), 553.

7. C. F. Evens, "Tertullian's Reference to Sentius Saturninus and the Lukan Census," JTS NS24, 1 (1973), 39, concludes that, in context, Tertullian's argument was not concerned with the census of Luke and "ought not be introduced into discussions of it."

8. Schurer, History Vol. 1, 257-259. His dates are here modified to extend Varus' term to 3 BCE.

9. Although Sabinus is called "procurator" by Josephus, Coponius is usually recognized as the first governor in Judea.

10. J. Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1981), 5, reported micrographic lettering on coins of the period that suggest that Quirinius was proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BCE until after the death of Herod. J. Vardaman, "Jesus' Life: A New Chronology," CKC, uses microlettering on coins to establish Jesus' birth in 12 BCE. However, the microletters are probably graffiti unrelated to the date of issue of the coins, and therefore undatable.

11. G. R. Habermas, Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus - Historical Records of His Death and Resurrection (Nashville: Nelson, 1984), 152-153.

12. H. W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 21.

13. L. H. Feldman in W. Brindle, "The Census and Quirinius: Luke 2:2," JETS 27 (1984), 48-49.

14. Schurer, History Vol. 1, 411-3.

15. J. Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964), 234-238.

16. There is no Scriptural basis for the claim that Joseph was an old widower, already with a family of children. Some require such an explanation to claim that Mary had no other child after Jesus, even to suggest that she remained a perpetual virgin.

Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, and the Census
By Dr. Richard P. Bucher, Pastor

"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register" (Luke 2:1-3).

All those even vaguely familiar with Luke's Christmas story have heard of Caesar Augustus and his famous decree. It was this decree that sent Mary in the ninth month of her pregnancy 80 miles south to Bethlehem, along with husband Joseph. But could such a thing have really happened? Do we have any proof from historical sources outside of the Bible that the Roman emperor ever authorized a census? Yes, we do.

"Caesar Augustus" reigned as emperor of the Roman empire from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. (Or 727 A.U.C. to 767 A.U.C.), 41 years in all. The grandnephew of Julius Caesar (100- 44 B.C.), his real name was Gaius Octavius and he lived from 63 B.C. to 14 A.D. Because Julius Caesar had legally adopted Octavius as his son, Octavius took the name "Caesar" from Julius, which in later years became a name almost equivalent to "emperor." "Augustus" is a Latin term that means "worthy of reverence."

Caesar Augustus's reign was marked by peace and security - the famous Pax Romana - as well as by lavish building projects throughout the empire. In addition, according to Paul Maier, Augustus had such an intense interest in religion within his realm that, if not for his other great achievements, he might have gone down in history as a religious reformer. In his day, belief in the traditional Greco-Roman pantheon had decreased dramatically as philosophical skepticism grew and a growing number joined the foreign mystery religions. Augustus was convinced that belief in the old gods had made Rome great so he set out to encourage his subjects to return to the worship of these gods. He restored eighty-two temples in Rome alone! He became the pontifex maximus (highest priest) in the state cult.1

What exactly was it that Caesar Augustus decreed, according to Luke 2:1? The King James Version of the Bible says, "that all the world should be taxed." Most other translations say something like "that all the world should be registered" (NRS) or "that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world" (NIV). The Greek verb is apographo, which literally means to "enroll" or "register" as in an official listing of citizens.2 What was it then, a census or a taxing? Both: It would have been a census taken in part for the purpose of assessing taxes. But only in part. Augustus was very interested in the number of citizens in his empire; he was especially interested in whether that number was growing. This probably was the primary reason for the census (see below).

But what of the census that Luke 2:1 speaks of? Is there any record outside of the Bible that Augustus ever issued such a decree? Yes. As a matter of fact he authorized three censuses during this reign. How do we know this? The three censuses are listed in the Acts of Augustus, a list of what Augustus thought were the 35 greatest achievements of his reign. He was so proud of the censuses that he ranked them eighth on the list. The Acts of Augustus were placed on two bronze plaques outside of Augustus's mausoleum after he died.

The three empire-wide censuses were in 28 B.C., 8 B.C., and 14 A.D. In all probability the one in 8 B.C. is the one the Luke mentions in the Christmas story. Even though scholarship normally dates Christ's birth between 4 and 7 B.C., the 8 B.C. census fits because in all likelihood it would have taken several years for the bureaucracy of the census to reach Palestine.

The only apparent difficulty with identifying the census that Luke mentions in the Christmas story with the one in 8 B.C. is, ironically, something Luke seemingly included to clarify the dating. He tells us in 2:2 that "this was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governing Syria." Seems simple. All we have to do is find out exactly when Quirinius was governing Syria and then we will know exactly when the census was given, right? Right. But the problem is, according to records available to us, Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6-7 A.D. -- eleven years too late!

We know this because ancient historians have quite a bit to say about our man Quirinius. Roman historians Tacitus, Seutonius, and Dio Cassius, as well as Jewish historian Josephus all wrote of him.3 His full name was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (d. 21 A.D.), who was what the Romans called a "new man." This means that he came to hold his political office on the basis of his own merits rather than by family tradition and inheritance. It was through his military conquests in Cilicia and elsewhere that Quirinius had been exalted by the emperor to the holding of governor in Syria in 6-7 A.D.

Does this mean that Luke is in error? Not at all, especially when he shows himself to be such a careful historian throughout both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, his other historical work. Besides, we believe Luke's Gospel to be inspired by the Holy Spirit!

The key to solving this alleged puzzle, is in the phrase "first census" in the sentence, "This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governing Syria." What does Luke mean by a first census? One theory offered is that the Greek word for "first" (prote) is sometimes translated "prior to" or "before." This is a viable solution because the Greek text of Luke 2:2 can indeed be translated, "This census was before Quirinius was governing Syria."

A second theory holds that by saying "first census" Luke is telling his readers that there was another census that Quirinius oversaw. Was there a second one? Yes, and Luke mentions it in the Acts 5:37! The second census mentioned in Acts would have taken place in 6 A.D. Since it is well known that the Romans often held provincial censuses every fourteen years, it would follow that the "first census," the one at the time of Christ's birth, would have been held in approximately 8 B.C. -- if the fourteen year census cycle was in place at this time. The problem with this second solution is that Luke is specifically saying that the first census (the 8 B.C. one) took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria; and from all available extrabiblical sources, he wasn't. According to E.M. Blaiklock, however, evidence has been found that shows that Quirinius was in Syria for an earlier tour of duty, right around the time that Christ was born. He wasn't there as governor but in some other leadership capacity.4 Therefore, it is possible that Luke is alluding to this in 2:2.

Of the two theories the first has more to commend it, in my opinion. Ultimately, however, Luke was much closer to the historical sources and claims to have "investigated everything carefully" (Luke 1:3) and he did this under the Holy Spirit's inspiration. The bottom line is that the evidence that we have points to 8 B.C. as the date when the "Christmas census" would have been authorized.

So much for dating the census. What about motivation to authorize it in the first place? Do we have any clues from the historical sources about what might have motivated Caesar Augustus to issue his censuses? Perhaps one. Roman historian Dio Cassius tells us that Augustus was so concerned about the declining marriage and birth rate in his empire, that he passed legislation that made promiscuity a crime, which penalized bachelors in their right to inherit, and which bestowed political advantages on fathers of three or more children.5 Because of his demonstrated concern about marriage and birth rate in his empire, it is likely that one of the reasons that Augustus authorized the censuses was to see whether his legislation was working, or, at the very least, to see how birth rates fared.

Some scholars have scoffed at the notion that people in faraway Palestine (such as Joseph and Mary) would have had to travel to their ancestral birth place for a census. But we have evidence to show that such traveling was indeed done with a Roman census, in Egypt at least. A Roman census document, dated 104 A.D., has been discovered in Egypt, in which citizens were specifically commanded to return to their original homes for the census.6 Another census document from 119 A.D. has been found in which an Egyptian man identifies himself by giving (1) his name and the names of his father, mother, and grandfather; (2) his original village; (3) his age and profession; (4) a scar above his left eyebrow; (5) his wife's name and age, his wife's father's name; (6) his son's name and age; (6) the names of other relatives living with him. The document is signed by the village registrar and three official witnesses.7 This latter document is of special interest, because it gives us an idea of the kind of information that Joseph and Mary would have had to provide for the census.


1. Paul L. Maier, In the Fullness of Time (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), 6.

2. Other than its occurrences in Luke 2, the only other occurrence of apographo in the New Testament is Hebrews 12:23 " to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect" (NAS).

3. See Tacitus, Annals, II, 30; III, 22, 23, 48. See Seutonius, Tiberius x1ix; See Dio Cassius 1iv, 48; See Josephus, Antiquities 17:355; 18:26; 20:102. See also Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, (Princeton, 1964), 234-238.

4. E. M. Blaiklock, "Quirinius," The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, gen. ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 6.

5. Dio Cassius, Roman History, 1vi, 1-10. Dio Cassius tells of one occasion when Augustus was so vexed by the declining marriage and birth rates that he strode into the Forum, separated the married men and bachelors he found there into two different groups and then let the bachelors have it: "What shall I call you? Men? But you aren't fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! . . . What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? . . . You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!" Quoted in Maier, In the Fulness of Time, 6.

6. This is cited in Maier, Fullness, 4, who is quoting from A. H. M. Jones, ed., A History of Rome through the Fifth Century (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), II, 256f.

7. Maier, Fullness, 4.

Was Luke Wrong About the Census Under Quirinius?
by Dr. John Ankerberg

For those who believe that the Gospels are accurate historical records of Jesusí life, one of the most difficult problems in the New Testament is the census mentioned in Luke 2:1-2:

Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was with child.

So, Luke tells us Augustus took a census before Jesus was born and this was the reason Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem. However, critics say there are five reasons why Lukeís account is historically incorrect.

1. There is no known evidence of an Empire-wide census in the reign of Augustus. If it occurred, wouldnít it be mentioned by one or another of the ancient historians who recorded this period?

2. Josephus records a lot about Herod but does not mention a Roman census in Palestine.

3. Quirinius was not appointed governor of Syria and Judea until A.D. 6, many years after Jesus was born.

4. In a Roman census, Joseph would not have been required to travel to Bethlehem and he would not have been required to take Mary with him.

5. A Roman census could not have been carried out in Herodís kingdom while Herod was still alive.

In light of these facts, did Luke make vast historical errors in his chronology of events? All of this was stated or implied in the Peter Jennings in his ABC Special "The Search for Jesus," and continues to be brought up by many critical scholars today. Historian Dr. Edwin Yamauchi told me:

Quirinius, we know, was governor leader in A.D. 6 when there was a census and there was a revolt led by a man called Judas of Galilee. And there are several proposed solutions to this well-known problem. One solution, of course, is that Luke was clearly in error here; that he didnít have correct information. Yet Luke is the most careful of all the Gospel writers to try to correlate events in Judea with Roman events. He knows that Jesus was born in the reign of Augustus; that Jesus began His ministry in the reign of Tiberius and so forth.

An Empire-wide census?

Letís answer some of these objections. When Luke states that a decree from Caesar Augustus went out that all the world should be taxed, was he talking about just one empire-wide census? No, according to Roman historian A. N. Sherwin White. The censuses were taken in different provinces over a period of time. But Caesar Augustus was the first one in history to order a census or tax assessment of the whole provincial empire. Luke uses the present tense to indicate that Augustus ordered censuses to be taken regularly throughout the empire rather than only one time.

Second, papyri collected in Egypt, have shown that the Romans undertook periodic censuses throughout their empire. In Roman Egypt, for example, from A.D. 33 until 257 A.D., 258 different censuses were taken at 14-year intervals. This evidence has been known for a number of years, and substantiates Lukeís reference to Augustusí census, but it seems to work against the Lucan account in terms of the year when Jesus was born. Why? Because the 14-year intervals do not intersect with the year of Jesusí birth in 4 B.C.

But concerning that problem, the Dictionary of New Testament Background [Craig Evans and Stanley Porter, eds., InterVarsity, 2000] states: "Evidence indicates that Egyptian censuses were taken at 7-year intervals during the reign of Augustus and can be established with indirect and direct evidence for the years of 11-10 B.C., 4-3 B.C., A.D. 4 and 5, and A.D. 11 and 12." This information is based on documentation presented in The Demography of Roman Egypt by Bagnell and Friar, a book published by Cambridge University Press in 1994.

Third, there are other reasons to believe a census was taken by Caesar Augustus in 4 or 5 B.C. Augustus knew of Herodís paranoia. Herod frequently changed his will and then would kill the family member he had put in charge if he were to die. Each time he changed his will and the one who would succeed him, he had to get permission from the Roman emperor to do so.

So, Emperor Augustus knew what was happening in Palestine. It is reasonable to assume that Augustus, anticipating the problems that would come about when Herod died, would want to take a census of Herodís territory and might well have extended the Egyptian census of 4-3 B.C. or performed something like it in Judea.

The mentioning of the census in Luke 2:1 is the only historical reference of this census from antiquity, yet it rests on a plausible reconstruction of events. Edwin Yamauchi comments, "Öthis is a case where we do have something recorded in the New Testament which is not directly correlated by extra-biblical evidence. This doesnít mean that it did not happen, however, because there are many things that occur only in a given text without corroborative evidence of other texts or inscriptions."

But what about Lukeís reference, "this was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria?" When Luke says this was the "first" census that took place under Quirinius, the Greek word prote, usually translated "first," according to some Greek scholars can also be translated "prior." If that is Lukeís meaning, then, he would be referring to a census taken prior to the one taken when Quirinius was governor in 6 A.D. Is it possible that a prior census was taken, or even taken by Quirinius himself?

Well, historians know that Quirinius had a government assignment in Syria between 12 B.C. to 2 B.C. He was responsible for reducing the number of rebellious mountaineers in the highlands of Pisidia. As such, he was a highly placed military figure in the Near East and highly trusted by Emperor Caesar Augustus. Augustus, knowing of the turmoil in Herod the Greatís territory, may well have put his trusted friend Quirinius in charge of a census enrollment in the region of Syria just before the end of Herodís life.

The time period from 7 to 6 B.C. also coincides with the transition period between the rule of the two legates of Syria: Saturninus from 9 to 6 B.C. and Varus from 7 to 4 B.C. The transition of power between these two men took place between 7 to 6 B.C., and Augustus again may have appointed his friend Quirinius to step in and conduct a census taxation when he could not trust anyone else.

Again, Lukeís statement has a plausible foundation in history.

Why did Joseph take Mary to Bethlehem?

Next, what about the criticism that in a Roman census Joseph would not have been required to travel to Bethlehem and he would not have been required to bring Mary with him? Well, now historians have found that in A.D. 104, Vivius Maximus issued an edict that states, "It is essential for all people to return to their homes for the census." This indicates it was plausible for Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem as Luke indicates. In fact, it is just one of the many reasons scholars have found why Mary would have needed to go with Joseph on his trip to Bethlehem. Claire Pfann suggests another.

I think that we find a few basic presuppositions that are just our own modern skepticism and really donít deal with the reality of the fact that, if Joseph and Mary had come to live together as a married couple at this point, why on earth would he leave her at home when he faced a prolonged absence, waiting for the census to be accomplished?

Could a census have taken place while Herod was alive?

Next, what can be said to those who say a Roman census could not have been carried out in Herodís kingdom while Herod was alive?

This is simply not true. Records have now been found that show the emperor did take censuses in vassal kingdoms like Herodís. In fact, when Herod died, his domain was divided among his three sons, and Augustus ordered that taxes be reduced in the territory of one of his sons. It proves the Roman emperor was not afraid to intervene in one of his vassal kingdoms.

Further, it is now known that in 8-7 B.C., Herod came into disfavor with Augustus and was thereafter treated as a subject rather than a friend. It resulted in Herodís autonomy being taken away from him.

Third, historians have also discovered that the people of Herodís domain took an oath of allegiance not just to Herod, but to both Augustus and Herod, which proves there was a greater involvement of Augustus in Herodís realm.

Finally, Lukeís account points to a census taken before Herod the Greatís death and the division of his kingdom. Why? It would have been highly implausible to think that after Herodís kingdom had been divided between his three sons in 4 B.C. that people in Nazareth under Herod Antipas would have traveled to Bethlehem, the territory belonging to Archelaus for purposes of taxation. It makes more sense that such traveling would have been done when all the territories were under Herodís rule himself and Augustus called for an overall census.

So, since it has been proved that Augustus had taken censuses in other vassal kingdoms, and since Herod had come into the emperorís disfavor, and since Herod was having troubles in his own realm with his sons, it is more than probable that Augustus would have wanted to conduct his own census, assessing Herodís kingdom, while Herod was still alive. And this is exactly what Luke recorded.