Census of Quirinius

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The Census of Quirinius was the enrollment of the Roman provinces of Syria and Judaea for tax purposes taken in 6/7 CE. The Census was taken during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE), when Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria, after the banishment of Herod Archelaus from the Tetrarchy of Judea and the imposition of direct Roman rule.[1] One account of the birth of Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, links it to the census.

The Census[edit]

The Jewish historian Josephus recorded that in the year 6–7,[2] after the exile of Herod Archelaus (one of the sons and successors of Herod the Great), Quirinius (in Greek, Κυρήνιος, sometimes transliterated Cyrenius), a Roman senator, became governor (Legatus) of Syria, while an equestrian assistant named Coponius was assigned as the first governor (Prefect) of the newly created Iudaea Province. These governors were assigned to conduct a tax census for the Emperor in Syria and Iudaea.[3]

Now Cyrenius, a Roman senator, and one who had gone through other magistracies, and had passed through them till he had been consul, and one who, on other accounts, was of great dignity, came at this time into Syria, with a few others, being sent by Caesar to be a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance. Coponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent together with him, to have the supreme power over the Jews. Moreover, Cyrenius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus's money;

Josephus links the census to an uprising led by Judas of Galilee. The most likely cause was the association between censuses and taxation, although there may have been religious objections stemming from a biblical account of Satan inciting King David to take a census.[4] Although Josephus implies the uprising had little immediate success, he regarded their actions as the beginning of a Zealot movement that encouraged armed resistance to the Roman empire, culminating eventually in the First Jewish-Roman War.[5]

The leaders of the uprising claimed that the census and taxation associated with it were tantamount to slavery.[6] It is unclear as to whether this was based on the fact that for the first time in many years they were to pay taxes to a foreign power, or simply that they feared the tax burden would be too high, although there has been debate about whether this was higher under the Romans than it had been under Herod.[7]

However, it was not unusual for the Roman census process to provoke resistance; a provincial census in the year 10 CE caused an uprising in Pannonia, and the revolt of Arminius may have been caused by Varus’ decision to start taxing the region in 9, even though the area had been under Roman rule since 12 BCE.[8] The earliest such census was taken in Gaul in 27 BCE; during the reign of Augustus, the imposition of the census provoked disturbances and resistance.[9] In 36, the tribe of the Clitae, subjects of Archelaus of Cappadocia, objected to attempts by him to impose a Roman-type census on them for the purpose of paying tribute, and the ensuing revolt had to be put down by a force sent by the governor of Syria.[10]

From regular censuses carried out in Egypt, something is known of how Roman provincial (as opposed to earlier, Empire-wide censuses of Roman citizens) censuses were carried out: the head of each household, usually the eldest male, had to provide details of his property and who lived on it, including family members, employees, lodgers and slaves. The name, age and relationship to the head of the household was provided.[11]

The Gospel of Luke[edit]

Mary and Joseph register for the census before Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic c. 1315.

The first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke say the birth of Jesus took place at the time of the census:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. (Luke 2:1–7)

The passage describes how Jesus' parents, Joseph and Mary, travel from their home in Nazareth, in Galilee, to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born; this explains how Jesus, a Galilean, could have been born in Bethlehem in Judea, the city of King David.

This passage has long been considered problematic by Biblical scholars, since it places the birth of Jesus around the time of the census in 6/7, whereas both this Gospel and the Gospel of Matthew, which makes no mention of the census, indicate a birth in the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE, at least ten years earlier.[12]

Traditionally, Biblical scholars suggested ways to reconcile the two accounts which involve assumptions such as that Luke or Josephus was wrong, or the text had been corrupted or misunderstood. Their suggestions included:

No historical sources mention a census of the Roman world which would cover the entire population. Those of Augustus covered Roman citizens only,[23] and it was not the practice in Roman censuses to require people to return to their ancestral homes.[24][25][26][27][28] James Dunn wrote: "the idea of a census requiring individuals to move to the native town of long dead ancestors is hard to credit".[29] E. P. Sanders points out that it would have been the practice for the census-takers, not the taxed, to travel, and that Joseph, resident in Galilee, would not have been covered by a census in Judaea.[30]

In 1886, the theologian Emil Schürer, in his study, Geschichte des judischen Volks im Zeitalter Jesu Christi (A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ), closely criticised the traditional view. He noted five points which showed, he argued, that the Luke account could not be historically accurate:

  1. Nothing is known in history of a general census by Augustus;
  2. In a Roman census Joseph would not have had to travel to Bethlehem, and Mary would not have had to travel at all;
  3. No Roman census would have been made in Judea during the reign of Herod;
  4. Josephus records no such census and it would have been a notable innovation;
  5. Quirinius was not governor of Syria until long after the reign of Herod.[31]

The suggested alternative translations have been described as "implausible" [32] and "almost impossible".[33]

Most modern scholars explain the disparity as an error on the part of the author of the Gospel,[34][35] concluding that he was more concerned with creating a symbolic narrative than a historical account,[36] and was either unaware of, or indifferent to,[37] the chronological difficulty. In The Birth of the Messiah (1977), a detailed study of the infancy narratives of Jesus, the American scholar Raymond E. Brown concluded that "this information is dubious on almost every score, despite the elaborate attempts by scholars to defend Lucan accuracy."[38] W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders ascribe this to simple error: "on many points, especially about Jesus’ early life, the evangelists were ignorant … they simply did not know, and, guided by rumour, hope or supposition, did the best they could".[39] Fergus Millar suggests that Luke's narrative was a construct designed to connect Jesus with the house of David.[40] Such disparity from the historical record reinforces the Messianic argument that no Gentile may be said to have divine inspiration due to a lack of any a priori scriptural authority, especially in the books of the prophets.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-674-39731-2, page 246: "When Archelaus was deposed from the ethnarchy in 6 CE, Judea proper, Samaria and Idumea were converted into a Roman province under the name Iudaea."; page 274: "Josephus connects the beginnings of the extremist movement with the census held under the supervision of Quirinius, the legate of Syria, soon after Judea had been converted into a Roman province (6 CE)."
  2. ^ Emil Schürer, Fergus Millar (editor), Geza Vermes (editor), The history of the Jewish people in the age of Jesus Christ Vol I, (Continuum, 1973), page 424: "It was started ... in the earliest in the summer of C.E. 6." and completed "at the latest in the autumn of C.E. 7"
  3. ^ Josephus, Antiquities 17.355 & 18.1–2; c.f. Matthew 2:22
  4. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia, page 653; Rivka Gonen, Contested Holiness, KTAV Publishing House (2003), pages 37–8.
  5. ^ Antiquities 18.3–10. See also Emil Schürer (1973). The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ: Volume I. revised and edited by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar and Matthew Black (revised English ed.). Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 381–382. ISBN 0-567-02242-0. 
  6. ^ James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (InterVarsity Press,1999), p. 129.
  7. ^ Martin Goodman, The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt Against Rome, A.D. 66-70 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), page 10.
  8. ^ Jack Pastor, Land and Economy in Ancient Palestine, Routledge (London 1997), page 139.
  9. ^ Fergus Millar (1993). The Roman Near East: 31 BC – AD 337. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 48, 250. 
  10. ^ Fergus Millar, Rome, the Greek World, and the East, UNC Press (2006), page 238
  11. ^ Sabine R. Hübner, The Family in Roman Egypt: A Comparative Approach to Intergenerational Solidarity and Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2013) page 26.
  12. ^ e.g. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday), p. 547.
  13. ^ Lardner 1730, pp. 392-3.
  14. ^ Georg Benedikt Winer, A Grammar of the New Testament Diction, Translated by Edward Masson, T. & T. Clark (1860), page 259.
  15. ^ Lardner 1730, pp. 393-5.
  16. ^ Suggested also by Paulus and William Hales: John Kitto, ed., A Cyclopædia of Biblical Literature
  17. ^ Lardner 1730, pp. 398-413.
  18. ^ Georg Philipp Eduard Huschke, Über den Zensus zur Zeit der Geburt Jesu Christi (Berlin 1840); Friedrich Wieseler in 1843 chronolog. Synopse der vier Evangelien, Hamburg, 1843. A view also held by Tholuck along with Storr, and Friedrich Süskind; F.M. Heichelheim, "Roman Syria," in An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome, ed. T. Frank (Baltimore, 1938), pp. 161; F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) p. 192; Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament, pp. 23–24; Harold Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), p. 21; L. H. Feldman in W. Brindle, "The Census and Quirinius: Luke 2:2" in JETS 27 (1984), pp. 48–49; P. W. Barnett, ‘Apographē and apographesthai in Luke 2:1–5’, Expository Times 85 (1973–1974), 337–380; Ben Witherington III, What Have They Done With Jesus? (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), p. 101.
  19. ^ Lardner 1730, pp. 413-434.
  20. ^ A view supported by Johann Leonhard Hug in 1808, and later August Wilhelm Zumpt, "De Syria Romanorum provincia ab Caesare Augusto ad T. Vespasianum", in Comment. Epigraph., Berol. 1854, vol. ii. 88–125, and Das Geburtsjahr Christi, Leipzig, 1869
  21. ^ Sir William Ramsay: see Ian Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1978, page 103.
  22. ^ T Corbishley, Journal of Roman Studies 24 (1934), 43–49
  23. ^ Emil Schürer (revised by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar and Matthew Black), The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Continuum International, 1973, Volume I page 401.
  24. ^ E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, Penguin, 1993, p86
  25. ^ Spong, John Shelby. Jesus for the non-religious. HarperCollins. 2007. ISBN 0-06-076207-1
  26. ^ Brown, R.E. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. Doubleday, NY. 1993. Page 549
  27. ^ Bromiley, Geoffrey W, ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. William B. Eerdmans Publishing. 1995. ISBN 0-8028-3785-9. Page 655
  28. ^ Ehrman, Bart D.. Jesus, Interrupted. HarperCollins. 2009. ISBN 0-06-117393-2
  29. ^ James Douglas Grant Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p. 344
  30. ^ E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, Penguin, 1993, p86; see also Bart Ehrman, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament, p103.
  31. ^ Emil Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the time of Jesus Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890)
  32. ^ A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963) p. 171, n. 1.
  33. ^ Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Zondervan (1996), page 304
  34. ^ Ralph Martin Novak, Christianity and the Roman Empire: background texts (Continuum International, 2001), page 293.
  35. ^ Raymond E. Brown, Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year, (Liturgical Press, 2008), page 114. See, for example, James Douglas Grant Dunn, Jesus Remembered, (Eerdmans, 2003) p344. Similarly, Erich S. Gruen, 'The expansion of the empire under Augustus', in The Cambridge ancient history Volume 10, p157, Geza Vermes, The Nativity, Penguin 2006, p.96, W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders, 'Jesus from the Jewish point of view', in The Cambridge History of Judaism ed William Horbury, vol 3: the Early Roman Period, 1984, Anthony Harvey, A Companion to the New Testament (Cambridge University Press 2004), p221, Meier, John P., A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Doubleday, 1991, v. 1, p. 213, Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. London: G. Chapman, 1977, p. 554, A. N. Sherwin-White, pp. 166, 167, Millar, Fergus (1990). "A Tribute to Geza Vermes: Essays on Jewish and Christian Literature and History (JSOT Suppl. 100) [eds. P.R. Davies and R.T. White]". Sheffield: JSOT Press. pp. 355–81.  |chapter= ignored (help) repr. in Millar, Fergus (2006). "The Greek World, the Jews, and the East". Rome, the Greek World and the East (University of North Carolina Press) 3: 139–163. 
  36. ^ Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, (HarperCollins, 1993), page 24.
  37. ^ Elias Joseph Bickerman, Studies in Jewish and Christian History, Page 104
  38. ^ Raymond E. Brown The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible; Updated edition (1999), page 413.
  39. ^ W.D Davies and E. P. Sanders, 'Jesus from the Jewish point of view', in The Cambridge History of Judaism ed William Horbury, vol 3: the Early Roman Period, 1984.
  40. ^ "Only Matthew and Luke take the story back to the birth of Jesus, and do so in wholly different and incompatible ways. . . Both birth narratives are constructs, one historically plausible [i.e. Matthew], the other wholly impossible [i.e. Luke], and both are designed to reach back to the infancy of Jesus, and to assert his connection to the house of David... and his birth in Bethlehem."Millar, Fergus (1990). "A Tribute to Geza Vermes: Essays on Jewish and Christian Literature and History (JSOT Suppl. 100) [eds. P.R. Davies and R.T. White]". Sheffield: JSOT Press. pp. 355–81.  |chapter= ignored (help) repr. in Millar, Fergus (2006). "The Greek World, the Jews, and the East". Rome, the Greek World and the East (University of North Carolina Press) 3: 139–163.