Quirinius and the Census

Jesus census

For many years, critics of those who believe the Bible to be 100% accurate, used a passage found in the Bible to point out an apparent historical error.

Luke 2:1-2 states: "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria."

Since the Bible states that Jesus was born before the death of Herod, who died somewhere between 4 and 1 B.C., critics claimed that the Bible was in error, since history records Quirinius wasnt governor of Syria until around 6 A.D. or later.

But recently, confirmation that Quirinius was governing in Syria, around this time, has been found.

First of all, let's look at a few early census accounts taken from history and see how they match up with the Bible.

The following is a record of a census taken in the year 104 A.D. which contains similar wording to that found in the Gospel:

"From the Prefect of Egypt, Gaius Vibius Maximus. Being that the time has come for the house to house census, it is mandatory that all men who are living outside of their districts return to their own homelands in order that the census may be carried out."

Another census was uncovered from 48 A.D. which also records a return of the people to their native land for the census. It reads as follows:

"I Thermoutharion along with Apollonius, my guardian, pledge an oath to Tiberius Claudius Caesar that the preceding document gives an accurate account of those returning, who live in my household, and that there is no one else living with me, neither a foreigner, nor an Alexandrian, nor a freedman, nor a Roman citizen, nor an Egyptian. If I am telling the truth, may it be well with me, but if falsely, the reverse. In the ninth year of the reign of Tiberius Claudius Augustus Germanicus Emperor."

It is interesting to note that these two census accounts required a person to return to their homeland to be registered. The same is true of the Gospel account.

Two well-respected leaders from the early church, Justin and Tertullian, also believed that a record of the census, along with the registration of Joseph and Mary, could be found in official documents from the reign of Augustus Caesar. In their writings, they mention that if anyone were to question the Lords virgin birth they should go and check out the Roman state records for themselves.

And as for Quirinius being the governor of Syria during this census, it is worth noting that the Bible never calls him the governor, at least the New King James Version doesn't. It says he was governing in Syria. And we know that Quirinius was indeed governing in some capacity in this region at this time.

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.

After Caesars young son Caius was sent to administer Syria as an Imperial Legate in 1 B.C., the Roman historian Tacitus mentions that Quirinius was then sent by Augustus to be an advisor to Caius while in Armenia around 1 A.D.

Evidently, Augustus wanted someone who was experienced in previously administering the region to advise his son. Who better than Quirinius?

The Biblical census was probably implemented by Herod at the command of Rome to coincide with their decree that all peoples should take an oath of allegiance to Augustus, which took place in history around 2 B.C.

This oath, forced upon everyone in Israel, is recorded by the first-century historian Josephus.

Josephus also mentions that Quirinius became governor of Syria many years later after Herod the Greats son, Archelaus, was dethroned. He wrote:

Quirinius, a Roman senator who had gone through other magistracies and had passed through them all until he had become consul, was appointed governor of Syria by Caesar and was given the task of assessing property there and in Judea."             

So who was in charge as the assessor of property in Judea during the Biblical census? Just as the Bible had said all along, Quirinius.


"And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins."

So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which is translated, "GOD with us. Matthew 1:21

bible archaeology books

This article on Quirinius in history is taken from our 4 volume book series "Bible Believer's Archaeology" which can be downloaded for your ebook reader by visiting our resource download page by Clicking Here.

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Links to Artifacts

census 48 A.D.   Census from 48 A.D. Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 255

csnsus 104 A.D. Census from104 A.D. British Museum Papyrus 904

Res Gestae Res Gestae The Deeds of Augustus Caesar

Sources used in compiling data and illustrations for this article:

The Holy Bible, Author: The Lord God. Scripture is taken from the New King James Version unless noted.

Artwork: The Nativity, Illustrated in Dore Bible Illustrations (1891) Artist: Gustave Dore, Publisher: Bedford Clarke Publishers.

Antiquities of the Jews - The Historian Flavius Josephus.

Book 17 Chapter 2: Account of pharisees refusing to take an oath of good will to Caesar and to that of Herods government which was required of all Israel.

Book 17 Chapters 6-8: Account of Herods last days and death.

Book 17 Chapter 13: Cyrenius sent by Caesar to confiscate the property of Archelaus and to take account of peoples belongings in Syria.

Book 18 Chapter 1: Quirinius came into Syria with a few others to administer that nation, Cyrenius also came into Judea to take account of their substance as well of to dispose of the estate of Archelaus. Archelaus (Matthew 2:22) ruled for 10 years according to Josephus in Antiquities Book 17, So if Herod died in 1 B.C. this would be 9 A.D., If he died in 4 B.C. this would have been 6 A.D.

Book 18 Chapter 2: The Jewish revolt against the taxation by Quirinius. This taxation is dated between 6-9 A.D. as Josephus states this taxation was held 37 years since Octavians victory over Antony at Actium believed to be in the fall of 31 B.C., but the war with Antony didnt end until 30 B.C. Also Quirinius appoints Annas as High Priest at the end of this taxation. Coponius, who was sent along with Cyrenius, was exercising the office of procurator of Judea at this time.

Josephus The Essential Writings, Author: Paul L. Maier. ISBN 0-8254-2964-1. Pg.260,262 (Quirinius governor of Syria).

The Best of Josh McDowell, Author: Josh McDowell. ISBN 0-89840-281-6. Pg.109 (Inscription found with the name Quirinius placing him in Syria at 7 B.C.)

Archaeology and Bible History, Author: J.P. Free. ISBN 0-310-47961-4. Pg.242-243 (Quirinius background).

Halley's Bible Handbook, ISBN 0-310-25720-4. Pg.490 (Census information).

Radio Ministry: Hope for Today, Speaker: David Hocking. Cassette Luke 2:1-14 #2025 & #SP294 ("Quirinius was governing the affairs of Syria under Varus though he was not named officially as governor until later.")

Smiths Bible Dictionary, Author: William Smith. ISBN 0-8407-5542-2  Pg.132 (Quirinius full name: Publius Sulpicius Quirinius.) (Cyrenius was the Greek form of the name Quirinius).

The Deeds of Augustus: Res Gestae 10: Quirinius consul in 12 B.C., Res Gestae 8: Augustus held three census to count Roman citizens in 28 B.C., 8 B.C. and 14 B.C. It is important to note that in these census counts they were not counting non Romans as citizens, such as those in Judea. So these dates in all likelihood had nothing to do with the Biblical census.

Tacitus Annals: Book 3 Chapter 48: Account of Quirinius as advisor to Caius Caesar as well as a messenger of Rome to Tiberius who was exiled at Rhodes. Earlier was consul under Augustus and garnered fame by capturing the Homonadensian strongholds beyond the Cilician frontier earning the insignia of triumph. Also mentioned as being an active servant and intrepid soldier.

Book 2 Chapter 4: Account of Gaius Caesar appointment to Armenia.

Book 1 Chapter 3: Account of Gaius wounded in Armenia.

Notes and sources for the date of the Biblical registration:

Bible: Luke 3:1 States John the Baptist began his ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (27-28 A.D.). Luke 3:23 states that at this time Jesus began his ministry when he was about thirty, If He was 30 this would place the date of his birth in 2 B.C. and would mean that Herod would have died in the spring of 1 B.C. right before Passover in that year according to Josephus. But one must be cautious because the Bible uses the phrase about thirty which could mean that he could have been anywhere between his late twenties and early thirties.

Article: When was Jesus Born December 2006 Author: David Hocking. Evidence for Jesus born in 2 B.C.

DVD: The Star of Bethlehem - Rick Larson. States the earliest copies of Josephus before 1544 A.D. infer a date of 1 B.C. for the date of Herods death.

Josephus Re-Examined: Unraveling the Twenty-Second Year of Tiberius, in Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, Author: David W. Beyer, edited by E. Jerry Vardaman, Macon: Mercer University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-86554-582-0  pg. 85 Argument for 1 B.C. date of Herods Death as well as 2 B.C. date for Christs birth as held by the church historians Tertullian, Origen and Eusibius as well inferred by Josephus. According to his research, most Josephus manuscripts dated prior to 1544 A.D. in Jewish Antiquities chapter 18 Section 106, have Phillip (Herods son) dying in the 22nd year of Tiberius, which would be 35/36 A.D. and he ruled for 37 years. Thus giving a date of 1 B.C. or 2 B.C. as for when he was appointed Tetrarch right after Herods death.

The Star that Astonished the world, Author Ernest L. Martin.  Chapter 8 makes the case for a Lunar Eclipse account recorded in Josephus Antiquities Book 17 Chapter 6 that occurred some time before Herods death as most likely the total lunar Eclipse that occurred in mid January of 1 B.C. allowing time for the events of Herods illness, death and funeral before the Passover that year.

Josephus Book 17 chapter 9 also mentions that when a dispute over who should rule the deceased King Herods territories. One of the people he sought an opinion from was his adopted son Caius Caesar who would became legate in Syria in 1 B.C. or 1 A.D. If Herod died in 1 B.C. it would correspond with Caius being installed as legate to that region.

In 2 B.C. Caesar wrote that "while I was administering my thirteenth consulship the Senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title Father of my country and decreed that this title should be inscribed upon the vestibule of my house and in the senate-house and in the Forum Augustum beneath the quadriga erected in my honour by decree of the senate. (Res Gestae, VI.35)

Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 58, also mentions this title Father of thy country given to Augustus. In 59-60 it states: Many of the provinces, in addition to temples and altars, established quinquennial games (games every five years) in his honour in almost every one of their towns. His friends and allies among the kings each in his own realm founded a city called Caesarea. This event in 2 B.C. may have led Herod to place a large Roman Golden Eagle on a gate of the Temple in Jerusalem to honor Caesar right before his death which probably early in 1 B.C. This is recorded by Josephus in Antiquities Book 17 Chapter 6. It also goes hand in hand with Josephus stating that his allies, one being Phillip, who renamed the city of Panias to Caesarea Phillipi shortly after Herod Death. (Note: Herod the Great earlier built another Caesarea, Caesarea Maritime which would later become the Roman governing center of Judea.)

(Res Gestae. The deeds of the Divine Augustus,.22: Consul for the thirteenth time (2 B.C.), I (Augustus) celebrated the first games of Mas, which after that time thereafter in following years, by a senate decree and a law, the consuls were to celebrate. (Note: Herod the Great began celebrating games for the 192nd Olympiad in 9/10 B.C. at Caesarea Maritime. So there was probably games held there as to Caesars decree in 2 B.C. as well.)

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