(Lk. 2:2) Is this passage about Quirinius a historical contradiction?

CLAIM: Critics charge that this census is anachronistic on Luke’s behalf. Luke writes, “Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Lk. 2:1-2). This census can be dated to AD 6, which is far too late to line up with Jesus’ birth, which dates closer to 4-5 BC, because he was born “in the days of Herod,” (Mt. 2:1; c.f. Lk. 1:5) who died in 4 BC. Thus, critics argue that Luke is a decade off in his dating of Jesus’ birth.

RESPONSE: This passage is difficult to harmonize. However, a number of points can be made in response to this apparent historical contradiction:

First, it’s possible that Luke originally wrote “Saturninus”—not Quirinius. Some scholars point to the words of Tertullian, who states: “There is historical proof that at this very time a census had been taken in Judea by Sentius Saturninus, which might have satisfied their inquiry respecting the family and descent of Christ.”[1] Because Tertullian mentions Saturninus, rather than Quirinius, advocates of this view argue that the original manuscript in Luke might have read this way. However, Saturninus reigned from 9-6 BC, which still wouldn’t fix the problem, and “there is also no real textual evidence for such a reading in Luke.”[2]

There is good evidence, however, that the Romans performed a census every 14 years. Since Acts 5:37 and Josephus both mention the census of AD 6, this would place an earlier census at 9 BC, as Tertullian claims. This census under Saturninus (Quirinius?) may have taken time to complete, depending on how big the census was. McRay writes,

It is clear that Jesus was born during an official imperial decree of Caesar Augustus (see Luke 2:1), and the fourteen year cycle for such censuses suggests a date around 9 B.C. What is not clear is whether the census noted by Luke was part of the cycle or was a special one. The archaeological data seems to indicate an ordinary imperial census.[3]

Second, perhaps Quirinius was governor in 5 BC, but this was not recorded. Critics point out that we have a list of the governors of Syria from 12 BC to 4 BC, and Quirinius is not among them. However, it’s possible that Quirinius simply wasn’t mentioned. Tertullian mentions Saturninus’ census (9-6 BC). By this, he might mean that Quirinius was reigning alongside of him. In other words, there could have been a coregency at this time.

Some scholars argue that this census was not recorded by Josephus, because nothing significant happened during it. However, later in AD 6, there was an uprising during this census, so it was recorded by both Luke (Acts 5:37) and Josephus (Antiquities 18:26). When Luke mentions the later census in Acts 5:37, he shows that he is aware of this second census in AD 6. That is, Luke was clearly aware of the second census (AD 6), but he is claiming that there was an earlier one, as well. If Luke was unaware of the second census in AD 6, then he wouldn’t have referred to it as the first census in Luke 2:2; instead, he would have called it the census.

Third, the grammar of Luke 2 has a broad range. Grammatically, the Greek could be translated as former rather than first. Barnett points out that this could be translated, “This was an earlier enrolment, before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” He says that this is “less attractive grammatically,” but it is still possible.[4] Leifeld writes, “The word prōtē can be construed to mean not ‘first,’ as usually translated, but ‘former’ or ‘prior.’”[5] If this is the case, then Luke is showing that this census was clearly before the one given in AD 6. Again, if Luke thought that there was just one census (in AD 6), then he wouldn’t have called it the first census; he would’ve called it the census.

Fourth, it is possible that there were two Quiriniuses—not one. Recent evidence has discovered the possibility of two Quiriniuses. McRay writes,

Jerry Vardaman has discovered the name of Quirinius on a coin in micrographic letters, placing him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 B.C. until after the death of Herod. The evidence contributed by Vardaman supports the view that there were two Quiriniuses.[6]

If this inscription is accurate, then perhaps Luke was referring to a second Quirinius altogether. This would single-handedly deal with this apparent contradiction.

Fifth, Luke was thought to be in error before, until he was vindicated by later archaeology. Critics used to argue that Luke’s mention of “Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene” (Lk. 3:1) was anachronistic, because King Lysanias reigned until 36 BC—not during Jesus’ time. However, Yamauchi writes, “Two Greek inscriptions from Abila, eighteen miles west, northwest of Damascus, have now proven that there was a ‘Lysanias the tetrach’ between the years A.D. 14-29.”[7] Arguments from silence do not hold much weight—especially when many have been overturned with subsequent history.

[1] Tertullian Adv. Marc. 4.19. Cited in Brindle, Wayne. “The Census and Quirinius: Luke 2:2.” JETS 27/1 (March 1984) 44.

[2] Brindle, Wayne. “The Census and Quirinius: Luke 2:2.” JETS 27/1 (March 1984) 44.

[3] McRay, John. Archaeology and the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991. 154.

[4] Barnett, Paul. Is the New Testament Reliable?: a Look at the Historical Evidence. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992. 150. Print.

[5] Leifeld, W. L. Luke. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1984. 843.

[6] McRay, John. Archaeology and the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991. 154.

[7] Yamauchi, Edwin M. The Stones and the Scriptures. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972. 99.