Questions Surrounding Jesus’ Birth/Part 12

By: Dr. John Ankerberg with various Scholars; ©{{{copyright}}}
Was there a census under Quirinius?

Ed. note: This article is based upon the transcript from programs produced by the John Ankerberg Show. Additional material has been added for this print version.

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Was there a census under Quirinius?

Dr. John Ankerberg: For those who believe that the Gospels are accurate historical records of Jesus’ life, one of the most difficult problems in the New Testament is the census Luke presents in Chapter 2, verses 1 and 2. Luke writes:

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 Luke’s account is historically incorrect.

First, there is no known evidence of an Empire-wide census in the reign of Augustus. If it occurred, wouldn’t it be mentioned by one or another of the ancient historians who recorded this period?

Second, 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.

Third, a Roman census could not have been carried out in Herod’s kingdom while Herod was still alive.

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

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

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 Special and continues to be brought up by many critical scholars today.

Dr. Edwin Yamauchi:[1] 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 didn’t 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.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Let’s 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 Luke’s reference to Augustus’ 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 Jesus’ birth in 4 B.C.

But concerning that problem, the newly published Dictionary of New Testament Background 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 Herod’s 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 Herod’s 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.

Dr. Edwin Yamauchi: So again, this is a case where we do have something recorded in the New Testament which is not directly correlated by extra-biblical evidence. This doesn’t 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.
Dr. Hillel Geva:[2] We know from the Roman history about laying taxes on population. At that time when they needed to collect taxes they used to put inscriptions in public buildings that: “This year each one had to collect tax and bring it to so and so.” They had to publish it. Maybe today they would use the TV for that but on those days they used to write on stone an inscription and put it in the public buildings, including the Temple. Now we know in a later time, Byzantine time, they used even to date and give dates of years according to the tax they used to collect in those days. Each cycle of 14 years they used to collect tax and that’s how we date the years. So no doubt there was collecting taxes and censuses. And we know that the Roman governor used to do it a lot. That’s why they reached a point where the Jews could not supply whatever they wanted, these governors, and one day it was all…boom! Erupted into a revolt against Rome. But no doubt there were people who had to pay two types of taxes “on the skull,” meaning for their family: wives, children and so on; and on the property, probably a house or mainly the field. The more field you have, the more property, cultivation, you have to pay more. Very simple.

Dr. John Ankerberg: But what about Luke’s 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 Luke’s 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 Great’s 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 Herod’s 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, Luke’s statement has a plausible foundation in history.

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.

Dr. Claire Pfann:[3] I think that we find a few basic presuppositions that are just our own modern skepticism and really don’t 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?

Dr. John Ankerberg: Next, what can be said to those who say a Roman census could not have been carried out in Herod’s 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 Herod’s. 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 Herod’s autonomy being taken away from him.

Third, historians have also discovered that the people of Herod’s 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 Herod’s realm.

Finally, Luke’s account points to a census taken before Herod the Great’s death and the division of his kingdom. Why? It would have been highly implausible to think that after Herod’s 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 Herod’s 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 emperor’s 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 Herod’s kingdom, while Herod was still alive. And this is exactly what Luke recorded.

Were the Gospels written so long afterwards that the Gospel writers could get away with bringing in something that was completely fictitious like a virgin birth and nobody else knew about it?

Dr. Claire Pfann: If anything, they wanted to protect against forgeries and falsehoods. Clearly, something was so extraordinary and unique about Jesus that, from the beginning, His disciples were willing to risk persecution, martyrdom and death in order to spread His message. There was something extraordinary about Him, and that extraordinary aspect extended all the way back to His conception.

Read Part 13


  1. Dr. Edwin Yamauchi: Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. One of the leading experts in the United States in Biblical archaeology and the history of the Christian religion. Ph.D. in Mediterranean studies, focusing primarily on the study of ancient languages. While studying in Israel he participated in the excavation in Jerusalem uncovering parts of the marble pavement of the ancient Herodian Temple which was destroyed during the days of Jesus. He is the author of Persia and the Bible, The Stones and the Scriptures and The Archaeology of the New Testament Cities in Western Asia Minor.
  2. Dr. Hillel Geva: Archaeologist on staff with the Israel Exploration Society and editor of leading Hebrew journal on Biblical Archaeology–Qadmoniot. Has worked with some of the most important archaeological excavations in Jerusalem since 1967 and was editor of scholarly book Ancient Jerusalem as well as author of many articles in leading journals. Works also as a guide for the State of Israel with Christian groups and is well-versed in archaeological backgrounds and connections with Christian sites.
  3. Mrs. Claire Pfann: Faculty member, Center for the Study of Early Christianity, 1988-present. Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs, University of the Holy Land, 1998-present. Contributor, The Comprehensive Concordance to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Production Editor, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XXVII . Contributor, The Illustrated Dictionary and Concordance of the Bible. Contributor, Hebrew University Bible Project: “The Alignment of the Aramaic and Greek Texts of Ezra and Daniel.” An expert on Jewish birth practices and culture of Bethlehem during the time of Jesus.

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