Was Luke wrong about the census of Quirinius?

by Luke Wayne

A common argument among critics of the New Testament is that Luke commits a historical error regarding the census connected with a Roman official named Quirinius. In both gospel accounts of Jesus' birth, it is agreed that Jesus was born in the time of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5, Matthew 2:1). Most scholars today would place Herod's death in the year 4 BC. This, critics tell us, present a problem with what is said in Luke 2:

"Now in those days 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).

The problem here is that, according to the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, Quirinius did not become governor of Syria and conduct the census until 6 AD, placing these events far too late to be the date of Jesus' birth. Thus, the critic claims, Luke is obviously in error here and the gospels cannot be considered inerrant. The reality, however, is a little more complicated than the critic generally realizes, and there is actually no reason to doubt Luke's accuracy.

Inadequate Historical Data

The critic shows up with a quote from Josephus in hand and immediately assumes that he has proven Luke wrong, but is that really the case? Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the critic was rightly interpreting both Luke and Josephus, at worst what would they be proving? Only that Luke and Josephus disagree. But I'm not aware of anyone who thinks that Josephus is an infallible, inerrant source. Neither Christians nor skeptics think so. So why assume that Josephus must automatically be the one who got it right? Sure, Josephus is generally a fairly reliable ancient historian (at least in the big picture, if not always in the details), but he certainly made his share of errors. And Luke is an extraordinarily accurate ancient historian as well. As one modern scholar explained:

"For accuracy of detail, and for evocation of atmosphere, Luke stands, in fact, with Thucydides. The Acts of the Apostles is not shoddy product of pious imagining, but a trustworthy record."1

Thus, even for someone who does not accept the inspiration of the Holy Spirit behind the words of Scripture, there is simply no reason to assume that if Luke and Josephus disagree, Josephus must be right and Luke must be wrong. The fact of the matter is, even on a cursory reading, we have just two sources that seem to disagree with each other, and very little additional historical data to fill in the blanks. As Historian Darrel Bock explains:

"The fragmentary nature of our sources also reveal the care with which we should reconstruct history from our sources. The biblical materials are often prematurely judged to be erroneous, when we really cannot be sure because of the fragmentary nature of the evidence we possess. Our historical pursuit of Jesus, in terms of setting him into the larger frame of history, involves judgments about how the evidence is to be put together. Where the evidence is not complete, we should be circumspect about declaring that there is an error in the biblical source, even if the exact solution to the problem surrounding the text is not entirely clear."2

Thus, even without further consideration of the sources, there is simply no reason to assume that Luke is wrong based on the data we have. Perhaps Josephus is wrong. Or perhaps they are both accurately describing similar but different events. Or perhaps there is further information yet to be discovered which could reconcile the seemingly conflicting dates. The point is, there is presently inadequate historical data to make the claim that Luke is wrong on this matter.

Possible Explanations

Because of the fragmentary data on Quirinius' census surviving today, it is impossible to say with certainty how or if Luke and Josephus can be reconciled on this matter, but several possibilities exist:

  1. The first and most obvious possibility is that Josephus got the date of the census wrong and Luke got it right. This is not mere wishful thinking on the part of Christians wanting to believe Luke. As we have noted, Luke is a first-rate ancient historian. Further, a minority of scholars, using the modern discipline of "source criticism" (attempting to reconstruct and evaluate the earlier sources used by ancient writers) have presented an intriguing albeit somewhat speculative case that Josephus mistakenly (or intentionally for literary reasons) projected an earlier event (the tax rebellion of Judas the Galilean) into this slightly later period (after Herod's death) where it better fit the flow and purpose of his narrative.3
  2. Conversely, some scholars have suggested that translators of Luke have rendered the passage wrong. For example, some argue that the word translated as "first" in Luke 2:2 should actually be translated as "before" in this context. If this is correct, Luke would actually be saying that Jesus was born before the famous census conducted under Quirinius.4 Thus, there would be no conflict between Luke and Josephus. This theory is not without its difficulties and as yet no reputable translators have sided with it, but it is not impossible.
  3. Others suggest the Quirinius may have been governor of Syria on more than one occasion. There is a famous inscription in honor of a man who was "twice governor of Syria." The portion of the inscription that bore the man's name has been lost, but some scholars have suggested that it may refer to Quirinius.5 This can hardly be proven and, since the inscription was found in the hometown of another known governor of Syria, Quinctilius Varus, he seems the more likely candidate.6 Still, it does demonstrate that officials did at least sometimes serve the same post more than once. If it is true that Quirinius served more than once, he may have overseen more than one census. In fact, Luke's terminology of referring to the "first" census under Quirinius can be taken to imply that there was a second. Thus, again, there would be no conflict between Luke and Josephus. Both could be right.
  4. Still another possibility is that the census of Judea was begun during Herod's reign, when Jesus was born, but was not completed until Quirinius' reign in 6 AD. The census thus became tied to Quirinius' name, which is why Luke would reference it the way he does.7 The political complexities in Judah during that time and Jewish resistance to Roman taxation provide us plenty of reasons why the census might have been stalled, interrupted, or otherwise delayed so as to stretch out over this period. It would also make sense out of why the early Christian writer, Tertullian, attributed the census to an earlier governor of Syria, Sentius Saturninus.8 Perhaps Luke, Josephus, and Tertullian are all describing the same complicated census in three different ways.

At this point in time, we lack the necessary data to say for sure which (if any) of these explanations is correct. Further archaeological discoveries may one day help us resolve the issue more precisely. The point here is simply that the data, as we now have it, can be explained a number of plausible ways that don't require the knee-jerk assumption that any difficulty must mean that Luke is wrong. Indeed, it is worth noting that the earliest Christian writers, who were closest to the time of the events and had access to documents that have since been lost, turned to the census as positive evidence of the Bible's accuracy! Justin Martyr, for example, wrote in the mid-second century:

"And hear what part of earth He was to be born in, as another prophet, Micah, foretold. He spoke thus: 'And thou, Bethlehem, the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come forth a Governor, who shall feed My people.' Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judea," (Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 34).

In other words, if you want proof that Jesus is from Bethlehem in fulfillment of prophecy, just go look at the census records! You will find his family right there in the register! Thus, while it is difficult to look at the limited surviving records and reconstruct a precise timeline that fits them all, there is little reason to assume that Luke is the one in error here.

  • 1. E. M. Blaiklock, The Archaeology of the New Testament, (Thomas Nelson, 1984) 96
  • 2. Darrell Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus (Baker Academic, 2002) 70
  • 3. For a good example of this argument, see John H. Rhoads, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (March, 2011) 65-87  https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/54/54-1/JETS_54-1_65-87_Rhoads.pdf (accessed 12/20/18)
  • 4. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus, 70
  • 5. Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton University Press, 1964) 304
  • 6. ibid
  • 7. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus, 70
  • 8. Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 19