Born in the neighborhood of Lanuvium, a Latin town near Rome, of an undistinguished family, Quirinius followed the normal pathway of service for an ambitious young man of his social class. According to the Roman historian Florus, Quirinius defeated the Marmaridae, a tribe of desert raiders from Cyrenaica, possibly while governor of Crete and Cyrene around 14 BC, declining however the honorific name Marmaricus. In 12 BC he was named consul, a sign that he enjoyed the favour of Augustus.
From 12 – 1 BC, he led a campaign against the Homonadenses, a tribe based in the mountainous region of Galatia and Cilicia, around 5 – 3 BC, probably as legate of Galatia. He won by reducing their strongholds and starving out the defenders. For this victory, he was awarded a triumph and elected as duumvir by the colony of Pisidian Antioch.
By 1 AD, Quirinius was appointed rector to Augustus' grandson Gaius Caesar, until the latter died from wounds suffered on campaign. When Augustus' support shifted to his stepson Tiberius, Quirinius entered the latter's camp of followers, serving with Tiberius in Armenia from 1–3 AD. Having been married to Claudia Appia, about whom little is known, he divorced her and around 3 AD married Aemilia Lepida, daughter of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and sister of Manius Aemilius Lepidus, who had originally been betrothed to Lucius Caesar. Within a few years they were divorced; in 20 AD he accused her of claiming that he was her son's father, and later of trying to poison him during their marriage; Tacitus claims that she was popular with the public, who regarded Quirinius as carrying on a prosecution out of spite.
The Jews already hated their pagan conquerors, and censuses were forbidden under Jewish law. The assessment was greatly resented by the Jews, and open revolt was prevented only by the efforts of the high priest Joazar. As it was, the census did trigger the revolt of Judas of Galilee and the formation of the party of the Zealots, according to Josephus.
The Gospel of Luke links the birth of Jesus to the census of 6CE. Most modern historians consider Luke's account mistaken, since he also seems to locate the birth during the reign of Herod the Great, who died a decade earlier.
Quirinius served as governor of Syria with nominal authority over Iudaea until 12 AD, when he returned to Rome as a close associate of Tiberius. Nine years later he died and was given a public funeral.
^Erich S. Gruen, "The Expansion of the Empire under Augustus" in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume X: The Augustan Empire, 43 BC – AD 69, (Cambridge University Press, 1996) page 168.
^Erich S. Gruen, "The Expansion of the Empire under Augustus" in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume X: The Augustan Empire, 43 BC – AD 69, (Cambridge University Press, 1996) pages 153–154; see also Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution, (Oxford University Press, 1939, reissued 2002), page 399. Justin K. Hardin, Galatians and the Imperial Cult, (Mohr Siebeck, 2008) page 56, suggests that it is uncertain whether Quirinius actually served as legate; he may have served only as a military general.
^Justin K. Hardin, Galatians and the Imperial Cult, (Mohr Siebeck, 2008) page 56.
^Robin Seager, Tiberius (Blackwell Publishing, 2005), page 129.
^Francesca Santoro L'Hoir, Tragedy, Rhetoric, and the Historiography of Tacitus' Annales (University of Michigan Press, 2006), page 177.
^Hayes, John Haralson; Mandell, Sara R. (1998). "Chapter 3: The Herodian Period.". The Jewish people in classical antiquity: from Alexander to Bar Kochba. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 153–154. ISBN978-0-664-25727-9. Retrieved June 13, 2010. "Thus in 6 or 7 AD, Augustus commissioned the newly appointed Legate of Syria, Quirinius, to carry out the census"
^Erich S. Gruen, "The Expansion of the Empire under Augustus" in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume X: The Augustan Empire, 43 BC – AD 69, (Cambridge University Press, 1996) pages 157
^Jewish Encyclopedia: QUIRINIUS, P. SULPICIUS: "The assessment caused great dissatisfaction among the Jews (ib.), and open revolt was prevented only by the efforts of the high priest Joazar (ib. 2, § 1). The levying of this assessment resulted, moreover, in the revolt of Judas the Galilean and in the formation of the party of the Zealots (Josephus, "B. J." vii. 8, § 1; Lucas, in Acts v. 37). Josephus mentions the assessment in another passage also ("Ant." xx. 5, § 2)."
^H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-674-39731-2, page 274: "Josephus connects the beginnings of the extremist movement [called the Zealots by Josephus] with the census held under the supervision of Quirinius, the legate of Syria, soon after Judea had been converted into a Roman province (6 AD)."
^Raymond 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, Fergus MillarMillar, Fergus (1990). "Reflections on the trials of Jesus". 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. 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. Gilbert Labbé, "De Varus à Quirinius...la Judée sous administration romaine directe dès la mort d'Hérode : une hypothèse exclue", Syria, 85, 2008, p. 229-247.