LUKE 2:1-2: Was the Gospel Author Luke in Error When Referring to Quirinius the Governor of Syria?

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BIBLE DIFFICULTIES
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 140 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

All who know anything about Jesus, know that he lived almost his entire life in Nazareth, and was known as the Nazarene. Yet, he was born some 90 miles [150 km] away in Bethlehem? Why, late in her pregnancy would Joseph and Mary make such an arduous journey? It is the Gospel writer Luke who explains: “Now in those days [before Jesus was born] a decree went out from Caesar Augustus for all the inhabited earth to be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius[13] was governor of Syria. And everyone went to be registered, each one to his own town. – Luke 1:1; 2:1-3.

The term used by Luke, and usually translated as “governor,” is (ἡγεμονεύω hēgemoneuō). This Greek term is used to describe one who is the head of a provincial government, such as Roman legates, procurators, and proconsuls, which has the basic sense of a “leader” or “high executive officer.”[1]

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The full name of the man who was the Roman governor of Syria at the time of the “registration” that had been ordered by Caesar Augustus, which resulted in Jesus’ birth taking place in Bethlehem was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. (Lu 2:1-2) 

Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, a distinguished Roman senator, is mentioned only once in the Bible. Quirinius served as governor (or, legate) in Syria for two distinct terms.

In the Chronographus Anni CCCLIIII, a list of Roman consuls, the name of Quirinius appears in 12 B.C.E. along with that of Messala. (Chronica Minora, edited by T. Mommsen, Munich, 1981, Vol. I, p. 56) Briefly describing Quirinius, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote in his Annals Book III that when Quirinius died in 21 AD, “[Quirinius] sprang from the municipality of Lanuvium—had no connection; but as an intrepid soldier and an active servant he won a consulate under the deified Augustus, and, a little later, by capturing the Homonadensian strongholds beyond the Cilician frontier, earned the insignia of triumph . . . , adviser to Gaius Caesar during his command in Armenia.” (The Annals, III, XLVIII) Quirinius (c. 51 BC – AD 21)

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What Tacitus failed to mention was is Quirinius’ relationship with Syria. The Jewish historian Josephus in greater detail describes Quirinius’ appointment to Syria as governor in conjunction with the rulership of Coponius of Judea, which took place at the same time. Josephus states: “Quirinius, a Roman senator who had proceeded through all the magistracies to the consulship and a man who was extremely distinguished in other respects, arrived in Syria, dispatched by Caesar to be governor of the nation and to make an assessment of their property. Coponius, a man of equestrian rank, was sent along with him to rule over the Jews with full authority.”[2] Josephus relates to the readers that Quirinius came into Judea, wherein he was given authority there as well, ordering taxation there. This resulted in much bitterness and an ineffective effort at revolt, which had been led by “Judas, a Gaulanite.” (Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, 1, 2, 3, 4 [i, 1]) This is obviously the uprising referred to by Luke at Acts 5:37. According to Josephus’ record, this revolt took place in “the thirty-seventh year after Caesar’s defeat of Antony at Actium.” (Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, 26 [ii, 1]) Therefore, this places Quirinius as governor of Syria in 6 A.D.

Acts 5:37 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
37 After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who obeyed him were scattered.

For centuries, history was only aware of this one governorship of Syria by Quirinius for which had confirmation.

The inscription, found near Tivoli in 1764, probably belonged to the tomb of Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, “proconsul” (governor) of Asia and “legate divi Augusti” (imperial official) of Syria and Phoenicia in the time of the Emperor Augustus (27 BC -14 AD).

Nevertheless, near Tivoli about 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) east-north-east of Rome, in 1764, there was discovered an inscription known as the Lapis Tiburtinus, which, though not naming Quirinius, but mentioning a person who was legate of Syria twice. This man is described as having been victorious in war. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote in his Annals Book III that when Quirinius died in 21 AD, Tiberius Caesar “requested that the Senate pay tribute…with a public funeral,” and described him as a “tireless soldier, who had by his faithful services become consul during the reign of Augustus, … [and] later was appointed to be an adviser to Caius Caesar in the government of Armenia…”[3]

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Therefore, as is true of most scholars, we can believe that the inscription, found near Tivoli in 1764 could apply only to Quirinius. (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, edited by H. Dessau, Berlin, 1887, Vol. 14, p. 397, No. 3613) Again, it includes the comment that when going to Syria this unnamed man became governor (or, legate) for ‘the second time.’ Based on inscriptions that have been discovered in Antioch that contain Quirinius’ name, many historians recognize that Quirinius was also governor of Syria in the B.C. period.

At the time of what Luke refers to as the “first registration,” Quirinius served in Syria as a special legate of the emperor having considerable powers. Josephus gives us a clear reference to the dual rulership of Syria. Therein he speaks of two persons, Saturninus and Volumnius, serving together as “governors of Syria.” (Jewish Antiquities, XVI, 277, 280 [ix, 1]; XVI, 344 [x, 8]) Thus, if Josephus is correct, it is possible that Quirinius served together either with Saturninus or with Varus prior to Herod’s death (Herod died c. 1 B.C.E.). The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge gives us this view: “Quirinius stood in exactly the same relation to Varus, the governor of Syria, as at a later time Vespasian did to Mucianus. Vespasian conducted the war in Palestine while Mucianus was governor of Syria; and Vespasian was legatus Augusti, holding precisely the same title and technical rank as Mucianus.”—1957, Vol. IX, pp. 375, 376.

Matthew 2:1 BDC: When was Jesus born?

On this, the late Norman L. Geisler wrote,

It has also been proposed that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two separate occasions, once while prosecuting the military action against the Homonadensians between 12 and 2 B.c., and later beginning about A.D. 6. A Latin inscription discovered in 1764 has been interpreted to refer to Quirinius as having served as governor of Syria on two occasions.[4]

Gleason L. Archer wrote,

By way of solution, let it be noted first of all that Luke says this was a “first” enrollment that took place under Quirinius (hautē apographē prōtē egeneto). A “first” surely implies a second one sometime later. Luke was therefore well aware of that second census, taken by Quirinius again in A.D. 7, which Josephus alludes to in the passage cited above. We know this because Luke (who lived much closer to the time than Josephus did) also quotes Gamaliel as alluding to the insurrection of Judas of Galilee “in the days of the census taking” (Acts 5:37). …

As for the lack of secular reference to a general census for the entire Roman Empire at this time, this presents no serious difficulty. Kingsley Davis (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14th ed., 5:168) states: “Every five years the Romans enumerated citizens and their property to determine their liabilities. This practice was extended to include the entire Roman Empire in 5 B.C.”[5]

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In referring to Luke’s correct use of titles New Testament Textual scholar Bruce M. Metzger writes, “time after time such references in Acts prove to be just right for the place and time in question.” (The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content, 202) Archaeologist William Ramsay could therefore say: “Luke is a historian of the first rank: not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy, he is possessed of the true historic sense . . . This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” (The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 222)

Selective Skepticism When It Comes to God and the Bible

The skeptics in these latter part of the last days that Paul spoke of will always outweigh those who see the Bible as the absolute inerrant, inspired Word of God. “British scholarship has been relatively positive about Acts’ historicity, from Lightfoot and Ramsay to W. L. Knox and Bruce. German scholarship has, for the most part, evaluated negatively the historical worth of Acts, from Baur and his school to Dibelius, Conzelmann, and Haenchen. North American scholars show a range of opinion. Mattill and Gasque align with the British approach to Acts. Cadbury and Lake take a moderate line and to some degree sidestep the question of accurate historicity.”[6]

THEM DAMN GERMANS: The Decimation of the Word of God!

We will recall the German skeptics from the 19th century who doubted the existence of Belshazzar. Then, there were two archaeological finds that established this historicity of Belsharr beyond all doubt. Did the skeptics acknowledge anything? No, they acted as they had never said such doubtful statements and moved onto Shalmaneser as not being a true historical person. Then, once more archaeology established Shalmanesser as a true historical person. Luke has a track record between Luke and Acts as being extremely accurate, which gives us strong reasons for trusting his factual reference to Quirinius as the governor of Syria around the time of Jesus’ birth. Not only was Luke moved along by the Holy Spirit but he also lived very close to the time in question, so the record would be readily available. We need to take serious Luke when he says, “having followed all things accurately from the beginning, to write an orderly account.” Luke was a physician traveling throughout the Roman Empire with the apostle Paul by about 49 C.E. Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165), a Palestinian, also close to the period in question, cited the Roman records as evidence of Luke’s accuracy in relation to Quirinius’ governorship at the time of Jesus’ birth. Moreover, we have no evidence that early historians challenged Luke’s Gospel account or the book of Acts, even by early critics such as Celsus, an enemy of Christianity.

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Tiberius Caesar (14-37 C.E.)

Something else no critic can explain: The census itself fulfilled a prophecy! In the sixth century B.C.E., Daniel prophesied about a ruler who would be “causing an exactor to pass through the glory of his kingdom.” Did Daniel’s words apply to Caesar Augustus and the command for a census in Israel? Well, Daniel goes on to prophesy that the Messiah, or “the leader of the covenant,” would be “broken, though not in anger nor in warfare” during the reign of this ruler’s successor (Tiberius Caesar). Yes, Jesus was actually “broken,” that is, executed, during the reign of Augustus’ successor, Tiberius. – Daniel 11:20-22.

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[1] W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1996), 276.

[2] J. Daniel Hays, A Christian’s Guide to Evidence for the Bible: 101 Proofs from History and Archaeology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2020), 219.

[3] Argubright, John (2013). Bible Believer’s Archaeology – Volume 2: The Search for Truth. Bible Believer’s Archaeology. 2. John Argubright. pp. 6–7.

[4] Thomas Howe; Norman L. Geisler. Big Book of Bible Difficulties, The: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation.

[5] Gleason L. Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Zondervan’s Understand the Bible Reference Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 365–366.

[6] Setzer, Jewish Responses to Early Christians: History and Polemics, 30–150 C.E.”, p. 94 (1994). Fortress Press.

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