Was Luke Wrong About the Census Under Quirinius?

By: Dr. John Ankerberg; ©2005
Critics say there is no historical evidence to support the census mentioned by Luke in Luke 2. Dr. Ankerberg disagrees, and presents his case in this article.

Was Luke Wrong About the Census Under Quirinius?

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 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 Luke’s account is historically incorrect.

  1. 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?
  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 Herod’s 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 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.

An Empire-wide census?

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 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 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. Edwin Yamauchi comments, “…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.”

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. 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 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?

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 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.


  1. Eric Hayman on December 29, 2022 at 11:47 am

    While we are used to census takers coming to near where we live, rather than having to go long distances to register, was it likely that a woman close to nine months pregnant would walk/ride some 90 miles with her husband just to have her name taken in the town of her husband’s birth? And then have to return the same distance shortly afterwards? Out of the four gospels, only Luke mentions the journey through what was rough territory with risk of attack from robbers and wild animals.

    Was what was attributed to Luke just an attempt at fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy? Since Judaism traces its ancestry through matriarchal lineage – which is provable – how certain was it that Joseph was a descendant of King David? Luke claims 42 generations, Matthew 27. Since women at the time could be married as soon as they began their menstrual periods (at about 13 years of age), a generation could be as short as 13 years. 13 times 42 equals 546 years; 13 times 27 equals 351 years. Even with all the records available today, I can only go back to my great-grandparents – to fewer than 200 years. What are the real chances of either of the list of ‘begats’ being factual? Who was keeping records of all of David’s descendants, and where? Since King David is recorded as having at least 20 children, by the time it got to Joseph’s generation there would have been thousands, even tens or hundreds of thousands of male descendants – or more – of King David. Did they all go to Bethlehem at the same time for the census? At the time Bethlehem had a population of around 25,000. It is no wonder that Joseph and Mary were supposed to have slept in a stable. What was so special about Joseph out of all those thousands or more going to Bethlehem? The roads and tracks must have been very busy. It is things such as this that destroy so much of what is claimed to have happened 2022 years ago.

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