First and Foremost: The Quirinius Census

It matters quite a lot that Luke was likely from Antioch in Syria. It may well explain some of the apparent historical discrepancies in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, which he authored during the late 1st century AD.

For a start, there is a fair amount of controversy over when Luke appears to date the birth of Jesus. According to the familiar translation:

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.”

Luke 2:1-6

We learn from Josephus that there was only one registration whilst Quirinius was governor of Syria — the census he oversaw in 6AD. On the face of it Luke appears not only to contradict Matthew, who details that Jesus was born during the lifetime of Herod the Great (whose death was no later than 1BC), but to use unnecessary words when doing so — why say it was the first if there was only one?

A thorough analysis of the Gospel nativity accounts is beyond the scope of this book — it is not fundamental to resolve in answering Pilate’s question. Nevertheless, if Luke is shown to be inaccurate in this aspect, we should be hesitant to accept his assertions elsewhere.

Equally as dubious is his claim that Caesar Augustus decreed that all the world be registered; at least, the claim is dubious if it is interpreted to mean that a Republic wide census was taken across every district in Rome, at the same time. In none of the historical records found, of which there are many, is any reference made to a universal census.

One of the most famous hard copy texts we have describing the life and works of Caesar Augustus is the Res Gestae inscription carved in stone and located in three places, including in marble on the wall at the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, Turkey. Part of the inscription reads, “In my sixth consulship, with my colleague, Marcus Agrippa, I made a census of the People.


Res Gestae inscription at the Temple of Augustus in Ancient Antioch


We know a census of Roman citizens was taken at least three times during the reign of Augustus; however, this did not extend to districts like Judaea which had a different relationship with the Republic under the governance of Herod the Great.

In all likelihood, when Luke refers to a registration of all the world he is affirming the Augustinian that all districts within the Roman Empire should be registered from time to time, for the purpose of taxation. The mechanics as to when each district would actually undertake a census would depend on the status of relationship between each state and Rome at the given time.

To the best of our knowledge, there was only ever one census taken whilst Quirinius was governor in Syria, in 6AD. So why does Luke refer to this census as ‘the first’, if there was no other? It makes no sense. The short answer is, he probably didn’t.

When Luke’s Gospel was initially translated into English, the Greek texts referenced included a definite article in the sentence, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Since then, older texts have been found and these are used in translation because they are considered more accurate. These older texts do not include ‘’ – the Greek word for ‘the’ before ‘first’.

The Greek texts used now read “αυτη απογραφη πρωτη εγενετο ηγεμονευοντος της συριας κυρηνιου” which can be translated, “This registration was first when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Dropping ‘the’ from in front of ‘first’ makes little sense in English. In Greek, this can have quite an important effect, as it can change the word ‘first’ from meaning ‘first’ in time to meaning ‘first’ in prominence. It means the Greek word ‘πρωτη’ can alternatively be translated ‘foremost’.1

Luke 2:2 may well read, as a parenthetical remark for the benefit of his Syrian readers, “This registration was foremost when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

The translation of Luke 2:1-4 then becomes,

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered (this registration was foremost when Quirinius was governor of Syria). And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee…”

Given that Luke most likely hailed from Antioch in Syria, it would be natural for him to draw attention to the most prominent example of Rome’s general decree that registration of districts be made; namely the census undertaken in 6AD by Qurinius when he was governor of Syria, as this particular census would still be within the living memory of his local readers.

One of the much quoted apparent inconsistencies between the Gospel texts now falls away. There need be no contradiction between Matthew and Luke as to the year of the birth of Christ, in or around 4BC.

Which leads us to consider the accuracy of Luke’s statement as to the time and age that Jesus began in ministry, in proximity to the events that were occurring on the world stage. This, as we will find, may prove critical in attempting to test the veracity of the witness accounts in Mark and John Mark’s gospels.

1 I am grateful for the work done by Stephen C. Carlson in the parsing of Luke 2:2, which can be read in full here; together with the careful analysis concerning the Quirinius census by protagonist Glen Miller and antagonist Richard Carrier, as detailed here.