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The Date of the Nativity in Luke (6th ed., 2011)

Richard Carrier

It is beyond reasonable dispute that Luke dates the birth of Jesus to 6 A.D. It is equally indisputable that Matthew dates the birth of Jesus to 6 B.C. (or some year before 4 B.C.). This becomes an irreconcilable contradiction after an examination of all the relevant facts.

The following essay surveys all the evidence both to this effect and against all known attempts to reconcile these authors. It was originally written in 1999 and was revised in 2000 to make it more readable and complete, and to take into account new claims and scholarship; two more revisions of the text were made in 2001, and another in 2006, in conjunction with a much shorter summary being built by the editors of the new Errancy Wiki. Some small additions were then made in 2011 to keep pace with recent publications. Each section of this essay begins with a summary of conclusions in bold type, followed by a sometimes lengthy discussion of the evidence leading to those conclusions. As a result, it is not necessary to read the whole essay if you are looking for quick answers, or only want to read about a particular argument. It is my intention to make this essay absolutely comprehensive. If you are aware of any arguments or evidence bearing on this topic that are not addressed here, please contact me through Secular Web Feedback and I will do the necessary research and expand this essay accordingly.

I. The Basic Problem

Luke
The Date of John the Baptist's Ministry
Luke's Description of the Census
Matthew
Josephus

II. Was Quirinius Twice Governor?

The Lapis Tiburtinus
The Lapis Venetus
The Antioch Stones
The Date of Quirinius' Duumvirate in Pisidian Antioch
Vardaman's Magic "Coin"

III. Was There a Census in Judaea Before 6 A.D.?

Did Luke Mean "Before" Quirinius?
Was Apamea a Free City?
How Often Was the Census Held?
Was Quirinius a Special Legate in B.C. Syria?
Was Quirinius Sharing Command with a Previous Governor?
Was "Quirinius" a Mistake for Someone Else?
Can it be a Mere Type-o?
Was it a Census Conducted by Herod the Great?
Was Herod Alive in 2 B.C.?

Conclusion


I. The Basic Problem

The Gospel of Luke claims (2.1-2) that Jesus was born during a census that we know from the historian Josephus took place after Herod the Great died, and after his successor, Archelaus, was deposed. But Matthew claims (2.1-3) that Jesus was born when Herod the Great was still alive--possibly two years before he died (2:7-16). Other elements of their stories also contradict each other. Since Josephus precisely dates the census to 6 A.D. and Herod's death to 4 B.C., and the sequence is indisputable, Luke and Matthew contradict each other.

Luke

Luke 2.1-2 says that "It happened in those days that a decree was issued by Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of all that was inhabited. This census first came to pass when Quirinius was governing Syria."[1.1] During this census, which we know occurred in 6 A.D. (see below), Jesus is born (2.3-7). Then, eight days later, he is circumcised (2:21), and after the 40th day (2:22; cf. Leviticus 12:2-4) he is publicly presented at the temple in Jerusalem (2.21-38), where two different people publicly proclaim him the messiah (Simon and Anna: 2:25-38), one of whom even continues telling everyone about him in the temple afterward.  Then his family returns to Galilee (2.39-40), where Jesus grows up, and his family returns to Jerusalem every year thereafter (2.41) for twelve straight years (2:42).

It is often claimed that Luke has John the Baptist and Jesus born around the same time, but, first, this is not necessarily true and, second, this still would not entail a corroboration of Matthew. The second point is more forceful than the first: namely, that Luke is referring to Herod Archelaus, not Herod the Great, and I think this most likely (see 1.1.3 below).

Though I think Luke is certainly only referring to Archelaus, the other possibility deserves further discussion. Three months before John is born, Gabriel announces to Mary only that she will conceive (1:31, 36), not that she already has. In fact, Luke never says when Mary conceives. Instead, John appears to have already passed most of his childhood by the time Jesus is born (1:80). Given Jewish law at the time (Mishnah, Abot 5.21), which held that a man becomes subject to religious duties on his thirteenth birthday (which would be John's "day of public appearance to Israel"; we see that day for Jesus in 2:42ff.) and other parallels between Jesus and John (cf. 1:80 and 2:40), it would be reasonable to assume that Luke has in mind that John was nearly twelve when Jesus was born (since "in those days" from vv. 2:1 picks up the "day" of the previous vv. 1:80).[1.1.2] This would easily rescue Luke from charges of chronological error, since he reports that John's birth was foretold in a vision "in the days of Herod king of Judaea" (1.5), and if John was born around then, it would be an error to have Jesus born around the same time if Herod the Great were meant, since he was long dead by the time the census occurs. Of course, this is moot, since this Herod the King may well be Herod Archelaus, not Herod the Great, so if Luke did mean John was born only six months before Jesus, then Luke clearly meant Archelaus, who in that case would have been deposed between the two births, explaining why the census suddenly became an issue exactly then.[1.1.3] Still, we are not told how much time intervened between the annunciation and John's birth (1.22-24), but if we interpret Luke as describing a twelve-year interval, it is notable that he places the birth of John in exactly the same year that Matthew seems to place the birth of Jesus (6 B.C.).

There are two peripheral matters regarding Luke that require brief digression for those who are concerned about them. The first is the date of John the Baptist's ministry, and the second consists of the alleged "errors" of Luke in his description of the census. Each will be addressed here in a separate box, which can be skipped if desired since they aren't essential to the issue of when Jesus was born.


The Date of John the Baptist's Ministry

Luke gives us another precise date when he sets the beginning of John's ministry to 28 A.D. (3.1), and this has caused some confusion, though for no good reason. Luke later says that when Jesus began his own ministry he was "about thirty years old" (3.23), and it is often supposed that this was the same year that John began his ministry. That would make Jesus born around 2 B.C. and maybe as early as 4 B.C. This is so attractive to those who want to reconcile Luke and Matthew that its implausibility is overlooked. Such an interpretation does not solve the many problems created by Luke 2:2 anyway--for it essentially trades a contradiction between Luke and Matthew for a contradiction within Luke. It is more likely that Luke had in mind the passing of some years between the two inaugurations, than that he got major public facts wrong. And since Luke clearly doesn't know when Jesus began his ministry, he cannot have thought his precise date for the ministry of John also applied to Jesus. For Luke knows the precise year of Jesus's birth, but can't say exactly how old he was when he began his ministry, yet he knows the precise year that John began his ministry. It follows that Luke would only have said "about thirty" if Jesus didn't begin his ministry in the same year as John.

It also seems unlikely that Jesus would start his ministry in the same year as John: surely John was preaching some years before, preparing the way. It is hard to imagine how he could otherwise have won such widespread and lasting repute (even Josephus sings his praises in Antiquities of the Jews 18.116-19). And we are told Jesus began his own ministry only after John was arrested: Mark 1:14; Matthew 4:12; Luke 3:20 (Luke 3:21-2 refers back in time, while John contradicts all the others by having Jesus start preaching before John is imprisoned). Josephus allows that this may have happened after 32 or even as late as 35 A.D. Moreover, all the descriptions of John's ministry imply an extended period, and since we are not told how long John ministered before he baptized Jesus, we cannot assume it happened in the same year. Certainly, Luke 3:21 does not entail a single event of mass baptism (the other narratives of John's ministry also indicate otherwise), but most likely refers to the whole period of the ministry, especially considering the liberal use of the imperfect tense throughout this part of the narrative (3.7, 3.10, 3.14, 3.18), which describes continuous action, and not a single event (Matthew's narrative does this also, cf. 3.1-13).

Of course, Luke could always have his chronology wrong, but I believe in the principle of interpretive charity: since he clearly allows an interval of some years, it is unnecessary to assume Luke contradicts himself by dating Jesus' birth first to 6 A.D. and then to several years previous. It is more reasonable to read Luke as dating the beginning of Jesus' ministry between 33 and 36 A.D. (the last years of Pontius Pilate's tenure), which dovetails nicely with Josephus' report that John could have been killed around then. This also fits the narrative of John the Baptist in Josephus, who reports that a military victory against Herod between 35 and 36 A.D.[1.1.4] was at the time hailed as God's revenge for executing John, and since people would be calling up the most recent crime of Herod as the cause of his military defeat, John's execution must not have been long before this, certainly some years after 28 A.D.

In Ancient Literacy (1989, p. 269) William Harris observes that it was common in inscriptions to round someone's age off to the nearest multiple of 5, and even then this often indicated an illiterate lack of any real knowledge of one's age to begin with. So when Luke says Jesus was "about" thirty, he could mean any age between 27.5 and 32.5, although, from ignorance of the actual year the ministry started, Luke could be in error by an even wider margin. But if Jesus was born during the census of 6 A.D. he would pass the middle of his 27th year in 33 A.D., which agrees with most attempts at dating his ministry. So if Luke only knew the ministry began at some uncertain time in or near 33 A.D. he would be warranted in saying Jesus was "about" thirty at the time. On the other hand, if Jesus began his ministry shortly after John's death, and John was killed within a year of the military defeat that was thought to have avenged his execution (which is a more reasonable conjecture than any greater span of time between the war and John's death), then Jesus would have begun his ministry in 34 or 35 A.D. at the age of 28 or 29.


Luke's Description of the Census

Some have pounced on Luke's description of the census as being inauthentic and therefore false. There are two problems with such an argument: first, an author who knew Jesus was born during a particular census could still err in describing that census, so such errors would not discredit the entire account.[1.1.5] Second, Luke's errors are not that grievous to begin with.

The first "mistake" lies in claiming that the census was of "all that was inhabited," when we know in fact that it was only of Syria and Judaea (and there was no such thing as a universal census at all until many decades after Jesus died, see below). A.N. Sherwin-White has suggested that the fact that there was never in that period a single census of the whole Roman Empire actually confirms rather than refutes the reliability of Luke, since it would betray Luke's or his source's (imperfect) acquaintance with imperial decrees: for it was the standard of the day to preface specific decrees with the general idea behind them, and thus Luke (or his source) could have mistaken a preface for the decree itself, a mistake that one imagines could only be made by someone who had at least glanced at an actual census decree.[1.2] But such an error could simply reflect a common belief among many Jews, due to the usual course of erroneous transmission of popular news, or could have been made, for all we know, by someone a hundred times removed from Luke's immediate source, based on entirely different censuses.

Another possible source of such an error could be the assumption that the first universal census, conducted by Vespasian and Titus in 74 A.D. (which would be fresh in everyone's memory for the remainder of that century), was "typical" when in fact it was not. However, the mistake could also have arisen from Luke himself, for an entirely different reason: by reading Josephus and not realizing that he meant only Judaea. For Luke appears to have drawn on Josephus, and frequently made mistakes when he did so (see my essay Luke and Josephus). On the other hand, there might be no mistake at all: the phrase is pasan tên oikoumenên, "all of the inhabited," where the adjective "inhabited" implies some noun in the feminine, such as "land" or "region," but usually referring to "the whole world." However, this idiom was used not only to refer to the whole Roman Empire, but to regions like "the whole Greek world," and thus may have been meant here as simply the whole Jewish world, or, even more likely, to the whole of Syria (which then included Judaea)--for "Syria" is also a feminine noun.

Another reasonable possibility is that Augustus did issue a decree that all provinces be assessed, but without ordering that it all happen at once. The second paragraph of the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy expands Luke 2:2 by saying "in the 309th year of the Era of Alexander, Augustus put forth an edict." The Era of Alexander began in 336/335 B.C., so the 309th year would be 28/27 B.C., exactly the time when provincial censuses begin (though not in all provinces: see How Often Was the Census Held? below). Luke could not have meant Jesus was born in 28 or 27 B.C. (for all the reasons given throughout this survey below, and because this early date doesn't work in Matthew's narrative, either). But if Luke meant an Augustan decree issued in 28 B.C. first applied to Judaea when Quirinius was in office, then Luke 2:2 becomes completely intelligible: this is the first Augustan census of Judaea--in other words, the first time the Augustan decree affected Judaea, which happened to be when Quirinius was governing Syria (a chronological marker no author would use unless Quirinius only governed Syria once).

The second "mistake" lies in supposing that people would be called back to ancestral towns to be counted, rather than be counted in the actual towns they were in. This charge has been formulated a dozen ways, but none of them really carry much force. Though Jesus' family appears to have resided outside Judaea in Nazareth, there could easily be any number of reasons why an ancestral connection with Bethlehem would require them to journey there for a census of Judaea (so much as a tiny plot of ancestral land would be enough, and Judaic law made it unusually difficult to get rid of such properties), though it does seem oddly unnecessary to take a woman on the verge of labor on such a dangerous trip (as all journeys were in such regions). We do know that censuses could have such requirements for travel, not only from papyri [1.3] but also from common sense: it is a well known fact that even Roman citizens had to enroll in one of several tribes to be counted, and getting provincials to organize according to locally-established tribal associations would be practical (see also Endnote 8 in my essay Luke and Josephus; and also [1.3.5]). Finally, even if Luke were making this up, he would sooner make something up that sounded plausible: in other words, such procedures were probably followed in at least one census within the author's memory, and we have no way to disprove the use of such a practice in previous provincial assessments.[1.4] Nevertheless, it's possible Luke deliberately added both of these features to the story for apologetic reasons (see [1.1.5]).


The above two defenses of Luke do not mean that Luke is correct. I think using a census in the story to explain both of Jesus' reputed ancestral homes (the village of Nazareth and the town the messiah had to come from, Bethlehem) is rather convenient and looks more clever than genuine. And Luke's probable use of Josephus suggests a deliberate attempt to paint a veneer of genuine history around an otherwise questionable hagiography. For Luke's accuracy is only provable in details such as these, which were already painstakingly researched by other men and published in Luke's own day. When we get to the question of whether Jesus was actually born during this census or any other, or even to the question of how Luke could possibly know this (and Matthew apparently not know it), we are talking about an entirely different problem. Nevertheless, though Matthew's account looks and smells like a fantastical legend (see below), I do not see Luke's account as historically impossible, as some have tried to argue. To the contrary, I think Luke strained to force his story to seem more plausible than it already was when it got to him. But if one of the two authors must be correct, then Matthew is far more likely the one who has it wrong.

Matthew

Matthew 2.1 begins by reporting that "after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in days of Herod the king" [2.1] the magi reported to Herod that a King of the Jews had been born, stirring Herod and "all Jerusalem" to be troubled (2.3). Herod then seeks to kill the baby by killing all the children in Bethlehem and surrounding areas who would have been born around the right time, i.e. two years earlier (cf. 2.7, 2.16). This would constitute the murder of 10% of the population of that territory [2.2], possibly several hundred children. This is an unimaginable atrocity which probably never happened. A clear and reprehensible crime, it would have almost certainly started a war, and at least been mentioned among the many evil deeds of Herod catalogued by Josephus. Moreover, the myth of the evil tyrant trying to keep his reign by seeking to kill one or more babies (often as a result of an oracle of an usurper's birth), but being thwarted somehow, was a common legendary motif in the period, from Oedipus and Cypselos of Corinth, to Krishna, Moses, Sargon, Cyrus, even Romulus and Remus, just to name the most famous examples. The author of Matthew also gives us some internal evidence that this is mythical: for if so public an event had really occurred (2:3, 2:4, 2:16), it is curious that no one remembers it later (13:54-56), not even Herod's own son and heir (14:1-2). And Matthew is more prone than any other New Testament author to contrive the fantastical--his account of the crucifixion strains credulity, with its rock-splitting earthquakes and hordes of undead descending on the city (27:51-3), and his account of the empty tomb is as fabulous as legends can get (28:2-5).[2.3] Nevertheless, if we believe Matthew at least has the date right, if not the real events, he is placing the birth of Jesus around 6 B.C., since Jesus was supposedly about two years old when Herod was still alive, and though we do not know how much time passed between this supposed "mass murder" and Herod's death, the narrative implies that it was not long. We might also imagine Herod to have been playing it safe, and thus the date might be 5 or even (though rather unlikely) 4 B.C., or some time could have passed before his death, and thus the date implied could be many years before 6, though the coincidence of Luke's effectively dating the birth of John to 6 B.C. may hint at a possible source of confusion (if there is any true story at all being preserved in these accounts, which is not very likely).

This discrepancy is not the only one. Matthew contradicts Luke (above) on other points of detail. Luke describes Jesus being presented in the temple to repeated public pronouncements of his status, which would not have escaped Herod's supposedly murderous eye (or memory). Matthew, in contrast, has Herod only finding out roughly two years later, from foreigners. The family of Jesus, according to Matthew, flees to Egypt and stays there until Herod's death (2.15, 2.21-23). In fact they stayed away from Jerusalem, not only for as many as two intervening years or more, but for the entire ten-year reign of Herod's successor Archelaus (2.22) as well. This flatly contradicts Luke's claim that they stayed in Nazareth the whole time, from the very beginning, and went to Jerusalem every year without fail. The two accounts thus contradict each other in the most fundamental way: if Matthew is right, Luke's account fails to make any plausible sense at all, and vice versa. For the one story entails that Jerusalem was dangerous for the child Jesus, while the other entails that it could not have been. One story has the family start in Nazareth, then journey to Bethlehem and back again, while the other story has the family start in Bethlehem, then flee to Egypt, then find a new home in Nazareth only to avoid the wrath of Archelaus. Other details could be reconciled, but it is strange the authors themselves did not do this. For example, one mentions a visit by magi but not shepherds, the other shepherds but not magi. But these can be reconciled only by supposing that each author by some queer chance failed to mention the other's similar detail, though one wonders how they could know so much and so little at the same time. But the other details are inescapably at odds. They are telling different stories.

Josephus

Josephus writes that when Archelaus, the successor of Herod the Great, was exiled:

Archelaus's country was assigned to Syria for purposes of paying tribute, and Quirinius, a man of highest rank, was sent by Caesar to take a census of things in Syria and to make an account of Archelaus's estate. [3.1]

And:

Quirinius was a man of the Senate, who had held other offices, and after going through them all achieved the highest rank. He had a great reputation for other reasons, too. He arrived in Syria with some others, for he was sent by Caesar as a governor, and to be an assessor of their worth. Coponius, who held the rank of knight, was sent along with him to take total command over the Jews. And Quirinius also went to Judaea, since it became part of Syria, to take a census of their worth and to make an account of the possessions of Archelaus. [3.2]

The primary function of a census in antiquity was to assess not merely property, but the total manpower for the purpose of direct taxation, and that is why it was routine to conduct a census upon assuming control of a province, and obviously why Josephus describes it in just such terms. What is clear here is that Quirinius did not take control of Judaea until after the removal of Archelaus, and Archelaus followed Herod the Great (even Matthew 2.22 confirms this). This entails that some years necessarily had to follow between the death of Herod the Great and the arrival of Quirinius, so on this evidence there is a clear contradiction between the Gospels: Luke places the birth after the death of Herod, Matthew before.

How great is the discrepancy? Josephus writes:

In the tenth year of Archelaus's government the leading men in Judaea and Samaria could not endure his cruelty and tyranny and accused him before Caesar...and when Caesar heard this, he went into a rage...and sent Archelaus into exile...to Vienna, and took away his property.[3.3]

So roughly ten years separate the death of Herod and the arrival of Quirinius. When was the census held in Judaea? Josephus says quite unequivocally that:

Quirinius made an account of Archelaus' property and finished conducting the census, which happened in the thirty-seventh year after Caesar's defeat of Antony at Actium. [3.4]

The victory at Actium is universally agreed to have happened in 31 B.C. The evidence for this is truly insurmountable, confirmed in countless histories, and inscriptions, papyri and other physical evidence. So the census occurred in 6 A.D., which is the 37th year (beginning with 31 B.C., since the ancients reckoned inclusively). This is independently confirmed by Cassius Dio and corroborated by Roman coins.[3.5] It also fits what we know about Quirinius from an inscription (the Lapis Venetus). It is also notable that Josephus attributes the rebellion of Judas the Galilean to this census,[3.6] a detail which Acts 5:37 confirms.[3.7] This then puts the death of Herod at 4 B.C. reckoning from the ten years of the reign of Archelaus, and fittingly, in his account of Herod's reign, Josephus places his death in that very year. But even if we could fudge the year of Herod's death,[3.8] we cannot escape the fact that some years must separate his death and the census, since we have to account for the reign of Archelaus in between, so a historical contradiction between Matthew and Luke persists.


II. Was Quirinius Twice Governor?

Some have tried to reconcile Matthew and Luke by inventing a second governorship of Quirinius, placing it in the reign of Herod the Great. However, we have no evidence at all that Quirinius served as governor of Syria twice, much less that he did so when Herod was king of Judaea. Moreover, no one ever governed the same province twice in the whole of Roman history, making the very proposal implausible. Three inscriptions and a coin have been used to imply otherwise, but none of these items contain any of the information claimed by those who want Quirinius to have been twice governor, and they offer no support to the theory. We also know who was governing Syria between 12 and 3 B.C. and therefore Quirinius could not have been governor then (or before, since he was not qualified before the year 12). Also, in section 3 it will be shown that there was never any such thing as a dual governorship, nor could there have been, given the nature of Roman political and social organization, and even if Quirinius had been governor or co-governor of Syria at an earlier date, no census could have been conducted in Judaea while Herod or his successor Archelaus were alive.

Some Christian apologists, following extremely outdated scholarship, have tried to argue (or have even stated as if it were a fact) that Quirinius was actually governor of Syria on two different occasions--the first time, conveniently, while Herod was alive. Therefore, this argument goes, the census Luke is talking about happened in the days of Herod the Great. Unfortunately, this fails to solve the other contradictions between Luke's and Matthew's accounts. It is also both groundless and implausible.  Nevertheless, every single piece of evidence we have about Quirinius has been twisted into "evidence" of a second or earlier governorship of Syria, and evidence has even been invented wholesale--once by an innocent mistake, and once by pseudoscientific insanity. This "evidence" consists of three inscriptions and one coin, which I will examine in detail.

But first I will mention the several preliminary reasons why this "theory" is absurd. First, we know that Quintilius Varus, not Sulpicius Quirinius, was governor of Syria from 7 B.C. to just after Herod's death in 4 B.C. (and Calpurnius Piso came after him), while before him Sentius Saturninus held the post from 10 B.C. to 7 B.C., and he took the post immediately after Marcus Titius, who probably had been appointed in 13 B.C. (as three years was the typical length of a governorship).[4.1] In other words:

13-10 B.C.Marcus Titius
10-7 B.C.Sentius Saturninus
7-4 B.C.Quintilius Varus
4-1 B.C.Calpurnius Piso

There is no room here in which to fit Quirinius. And since we know he first attained the consulship in 12 B.C.,[4.1.5] and only ex-consuls held the governorship of Syria in the time of Augustus, he could not have governed before that year. This means one would have to propose that Jesus was born between 12 and 10 B.C. even for this theory to be remotely possible, but that still would be ad hoc, involving a truly maverick position regarding the chronology of Jesus, presuming an unusually short tenure for Titius, inventing a spot for Quirinius nowhere attested, and still not solving the problem of the census (below). Second, we do not even have any evidence that anyone ever served as governor of the same consular province twice in the whole of Roman history, so it would have been extremely unusual and quite remarkable--so much so that it would be odd that no one mentions it, not even Josephus, or Tacitus who gives us the obituary of Quirinius in Annals 3.48, a prime place to mention such a peculiar accomplishment. It is certainly unheard of.[4.2] Now for the reputed evidence to the contrary.

The Lapis Tiburtinus

Some have tried to appeal to a headless (and thus nameless) inscription as proving that Quirinius held the governorship of Syria twice, but the inscription neither says that, nor can it belong to Quirinius. The inscription in question is a fragment of a funeral stone discovered in Tivoli (near Rome) in 1764, and is now displayed (complete with an inventive reconstruction of the missing parts) in the Vatican Museum.[5.1] We know only that it was set up after the death of Augustus in 14 A.D., since it refers to him as "divine." The actual content of the inscription is as follows:

Drawing of the Lapis Tiburtinus (Syme)

... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...
...KING BROUGHT INTO THE POWER OF...
AUGUSTUS AND THE ROMAN PEOPLE AND SENATE...
FOR THIS HONORED WITH TWO VICTORY CELEBRATIONS...
FOR THE SAME THING THE TRIUMPHAL DECORATION...
OBTAINED THE PROCONSULATE OF THE PROVINCE OF ASIA...
AGAIN OF THE DEIFIED AUGUSTUS SYRIA AND PH[OENICIA]...
... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

The most obvious problem with this piece of "evidence" is that it doesn't even mention Quirinius! No one knows who this is. Numerous possible candidates have been proposed and debated, but the notion that it could be Quirinius was only supported by the wishful thinking of a few 18th and 19th century scholars (esp. Sanclemente, Mommsen, and Ramsay). But it is unlikely to be his. We know of no second defeat of a king in the career of Quirinius, though Tacitus writes his obituary in Annals 3.48, where surely such a double honor would have been mentioned, especially since a "victory celebration" was a big deal--involving several festal days of public thanksgiving at the command of the emperor. We also have no evidence that Quirinius governed Asia. Though that isn't improbable, we do know of another man, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, who did govern Asia and who defeated the kings of Thrace twice, and received at least one "victory celebration" for doing so, as well as the Triumphal Decoration, and who may also have governed Syria.[5.2] Though it cannot be proved that this is Piso's epitaph, it is clear that it would sooner belong to him than Quirinius. Thus, to ignore him and choose Quirinius would go against probability. Yet even if we lacked such a candidate as Piso, to declare this an epitaph of Quirinius is still pure speculation.

Even more importantly, this inscription does not really say that the governorship of Syria was held twice, only that a second legateship was held, and that the second post happened to be in Syria.[5.3] From what remains of the stone, it seems fairly obvious that the first post was the proconsulate of Asia. This means that even if this is the career of Quirinius, all it proves is that he was once the governor of Syria.

The Lapis Venetus

Another inscription, actually mentioning Quirinius, often called the "Aemilius Secundus" (after the name of the man whose epitaph it is), is quite shamelessly abused by numerous people attempting to reconcile Matthew and Luke. The funeral stone of Aemilius Secundus was acquired in Beirut by merchants from Venice sometime before 1674, and it may have been set up there originally.[6.1] It records, among other things, that Secundus was a decorated officer serving under Publius Sulpicius Quirinius when the latter was governor of Syria, some time during the reign of Augustus, and when in this command Secundus helped conduct a census--taking care of assessing a Syrian city (Apamea)--and took out a bandit fortress in the Lebanese mountains. This confirms only that Quirinius was governor of and conducted a census in Syria. That really does no more than confirm that Quirinius conducted a census in 6 A.D. as governor of Syria. But since no date is given, nor any datable details at all, apologists have tried to invent dates that suit them, and then claimed this epitaph as a bogus source of "confirmation." The inscription, found broken in two but reassembled, reads as follows (small letters in the sketch represent missing or damaged letters):

The epitaph of Aemilius Secundus (CIL 3 Suppl. 6687) QUINTUS AEMILIUS (SON OF QUINTUS)
SECUNDUS OF THE PALATINE TRIBE, IN
THE SERVICE OF THE DIVINE AUGUSTUS, UNDER
PUBLIUS SULPICIUS QUIRINIUS THE LEGATE
OF CAESAR IN SYRIA, WAS DECORATED
WITH [THESE] HONORS: PREFECT
OF A COHORT FROM THE FIRST AUGUST LEGION;
PREFECT OF THE SECOND FLEET; ALSO
CONDUCTED A CENSUS BY ORDER OF QUIRINIUS
IN THE APAMENE COMMUNITY OF
117,000 CITIZENS;
ALSO, WHEN HE WAS SENT BY QUIRINIUS AGAINST
THE ITURAEANS ON MOUNT LEBANON
HE CAPTURED THEIR CITADEL; AND BEFORE
HE WAS IN THE ARMY AS OFFICER IN CHARGE OF WORKS,
HE WAS DELEGATED BY THE TWO CONSULS TO RUN
THE TREASURY; AND WHEN HE WAS LIVING IN A COLONY
HE SERVED AS QUAESTOR, AEDILE TWICE, DUUMVIR TWICE,
AND PONTIFEX.
QUINTUS AEMILIUS SECUNDUS, SON OF QUINTUS,
OF THE PALATINE TRIBE, HAVING PASSED ON,
AND AEMILIA CHIA, [HIS] FREEDWOMAN,
HAVE BEEN LAID TO REST HERE. 
THIS MONUMENT NO LONGER BELONGS TO [HIS] HEIRS.

As one can see, the inscription does not say and gives no clues when the census occurred. The latest scholar to examine the issue, Fergus Millar, has good reason to think that this was actually the very same census of 6 A.D.,[6.2] and this is the most logical conclusion: Josephus says that Quirinius was conducting a census in Syria at the time Judaea was annexed, and the Apamea that this inscription refers to (see below) was part of the Roman province of Syria. Nevertheless, I will give one typical example of how apologists abuse this evidence, and how the story gets distorted in transmission by careless authors.

David Allen Rivera reports:

Dr. Jerry Vardaman, an archaeologist at the Cobb Institute of Archaeology, at the Mississippi State University, deciphered a stone tablet known as the "Amelius Secundus," which had been discovered in Beirut, Lebanon, over 300 years ago, and is now at the Venice Museum. Written in 10 BC, Vardaman says it refers to a census ordered by Quirinius, the governor of Syria, which took place before that, and seemed to be the one referred to by Luke.

Rivera's source for this information is an undated article in the The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, PA) written by John Goodrich and entitled " 'Comet Sunday' to Draw Attention to Heavens." It does not say where Vardaman argues any of this, but I subsequently traced the claim to its source (see below). Of course, it is called the Aemilius Secundus, not Amelius Secundus, but this error is Rivera's. Everything else Rivera says is entirely correct, except for the date. We do not in fact know the date of its composition, much less that it was 10 B.C., and this is actually unlikely given all the probabilities surrounding Quirinius examined in this essay. It should also be apparent from an examination of the microletters fiasco (see below) that Vardaman's scholarship is not to be trusted, yet Rivera repeats his claims as if they were matters of established fact. The moral of the story is that readers should be very wary of "facts" touted in defense of Biblical inerrancy.

The Antioch Stones

The only other real material evidence mentioning Quirinius to date is a pair of stones found in two different Muslim villages outside Pisidian Antioch in 1912 and 1913. The stones had been removed from wherever they originally lay and then were reused as wallstones. Both are commemorative inscriptions, originally parts of the bases of statues of a certain Gaius Caristanius Sergius (possibly later named Julius Caesianus Fronto, unless these are the names of two different men). Both stones happen to mention as one of his offices the deputy management of a duumvirate held by Quirinius. Once again, the first inscription mentions no date and itself can only be dated by conjecture to sometime between 11 and 1 B.C. The second inscription offers no clues at all, though it was most likely set up after the first, since it mentions additional posts, apparently gained in the interim. Though even earlier dates are remotely possible, later dates are much less likely. Only a sketch exists of one of them, but a photo survives of the other.[7.1] They read as follows:

First Antiochene inscription, JRS 3 p. 255 GAIUS CARISTA[NIUS...]
SON OF GAIUS, SERGIUS FRONTO
CAESIANUS JUL[IUS...]
OFFICER IN CHARGE OF WORKS, PONTIFEX,
PRIEST, PREFECT OF
PUBLIUS SULPICIUS QUIRINIUS THE DUUMVIR,
PREFECT OF MARCUS SERVILIUS.
BY THIS MAN, THE FIRST OF ALL [WITH A]
PUBLIC DECREE OF THE DECEMVIRATE COUNCIL, THE STATUE
WAS SET UP.
Second Antiochene inscription, JRS 3 p. 254 BY GAIUS CARISTANIUS ...
FRONTO CAESIANUS
JULIUS, OFFICER IN CHARGE OF WORKS, COMMANDING OFFICER
OF THE TWELFTH LIGHTNING LEGION, PREFECT OF THE BOSPORAN COHORT,
PONTIFEX, PREFECT OF PUBLIUS SULPICIUS QUIRINIUS THE DUUMVIR,
PREFECT OF MARCUS SERVILIUS, PREFECT...

The only item here that allows any guess at the date the first statue was erected is the fact that it mentions that this was the first man to set up a statue by public decree (in other words, the city legislature voted to pay for it). Since this presumably would not be long after the city was founded (no more than five or ten years), if we can figure out when Pisidian Antioch was established, we will have some idea of when it was set up, though nothing like an exact date. This is not the most famous Antioch (in Syria), founded in 300 B.C. and one of the largest cities in the world at the turn of the era, but "Antioch near Pisidia," possibly as old but refounded sometime after 25 B.C. under the new name "Colonia Caesareia" (Caesarean Colony), for Roman veterans, definitely in the reign of Augustus, but we actually don't know for sure when. Only after this date would "decemvirs" be issuing public decrees, since these were the officials comprising the city council under a Roman colonial charter. When all things are considered, we can speculate Quirinius' duumvirate was held between 6 and 1 B.C. (see box below).

But even with other dates, the inscription offers no proof of a second governorship of Syria. First, there is no particular connection between being governor and being the Duumvir of a city. The one does not entail or even imply the other. Second, this city is well outside of the Roman province of Syria, on the border between Lycia-Pamphylia and Galatia (near modern day Egridir lake in Turkey). Indeed, it is even Northwest of Cilicia, on the other side of the Taurus Mountains. This makes any connection between this office and a governorship of Syria impossible. No one would range so far from his province or have any major connection with a city so thoroughly separated from his area of control.

Even so, this has not stopped some Christians from telling tall tales about what these inscriptions prove. For example, one Christian periodical reports to its readers, as if it were a simple fact:

Luke had stated that Quirinius was the Governor of Syria at the time of Jesus' birth, however secular records showed that Saturninus was the governor at that time. An inscription was later found in Antioch which showed that Quirinius indeed was governor of Syria at the time.[7.2]

This short statement doesn't even address the possibility that, if Matthew's date is correct, either Saturninus or Varus could have been governor at the time (as mentioned above). But what it really gets wrong is the claim that the Antioch inscription proves Quirinius "was governor of Syria at the time." Every single thing in italics here is false. As we've seen, the stones (and there are two, not one) only report that Quirinius was a Duumvir, not a governor, and not in Syria, but well outside that province. And they give hardly any reliable clues as to the date. Only pure speculation can set the date between 9 and 4 B.C., and what little argument could be advanced for a date between 6 and 1 B.C. actually goes to prove that Quirinius was fighting a war in Galatia at the time (see box below) and that refutes the possibility that he was governing Syria (see below), so there is in the end no evidence in these stones regarding any Syrian governorship of any date.

Yet essentially the same claim regarding these stones, with the addition of a false appearance of precision ("Quirinius was indeed governor of Syria in 7 BC as well"), is made by Doug Raymer in his 1999 online essay "The Accuracy of the Bible." I have traced this particular claim to its source, since it also appears in Kirk R. MacGregor's online essay "Is the New Testament Historically Accurate?" MacGregor at least tells us where he heard this: he cites page 160 of John Elder's book Prophets, Idols, and Diggers: Scientific Proof of Bible History (New York: Bobbs Merrill Co., 1960). Elder's credibility is certainly in question. He reports that the Antioch stone (he, too, only seems aware of one) says that Quirinius was Prefect as well as Duumvir. Obviously, Elder never actually read the stones, for they are about the Prefecture of Caristanius, not Quirinius. He also asserts as if it were a fact that the stone "records his election to the post of honorary duumvir...in recognition of his victory over the Homanadenses" yet I have placed in italics precisely what the stones do not say. Scholars only propose these as possible interpretations, yet Elder seems blithely unaware of the difference. Furthermore, Elder thinks this inscription "proves that Quirinius was in the area as a commander" but he does not seem to understand that it places him well outside the province of Syria, where no governor of that province would have been. Thus, when Elder asserts, again without any qualification, that the date of the inscription "can be fixed as somewhere between 10 and 7 B.C." we know he is not to be trusted. He claims that the names on the inscription set that date, yet does not explain how. In fact, the names fix no date at all (see box below). It is clear that Elder did not actually read or study the inscription himself--he must be relying on some other scholar, yet he cites no one.

The moral of this story is: always be suspicious of an unsourced "fact" that goes against the common consensus. From an online archive I came across a likely source for Elder's claims: the hopelessly outdated early 20th century work of G. L. Cheesman.[7.3] Cheesman dates the Duumvirate on the conjunction of two speculations: that the Dummvirate coincided in some way with Quirinius' war against the Homanadenses--a likely possibility, but hardly a known fact--and that the war happened between 10 and 7 B.C.--a very unlikely possibility in light of more recent archaeological evidence (see box below), but at any rate nothing like a known fact. This teaches us another lesson: in the arguments of Christian apologists, the speculations and inferences of other scholars suddenly and inexplicably become definite facts. For example, on Franke J. Zollman's online "Dustface Chart" of "Biblical Characters Whose Existence has been Confirmed from Archaeological or Secular Historical Sources" he declares matter-of-factly: "Inscription found in Antioch of Pisidia names Quirinius as legatus." The position of Legatus (a title that implied, but did not entail, being the governor of a consular province) is nowhere mentioned or implied in the Antioch stones.

Arguing for the date of these inscriptions as between 6 and 2 B.C. is a long and tedious task and is included next only for those who want to explore the issue in depth. Others can skip it.


The Date of Quirinius' Duumvirate in Pisidian Antioch

G. L. Cheesman, whose own work is already almost a century obsolete, cites the speculations of other scholars that this Antioch was established either when the province of Galatia was created in 25 B.C. or when Augustus visited the region in 19 B.C., but this is pure guesswork, based on no actual evidence.[7.91] The only physical evidence is an inscription that ensures the colony existed as early as 11 B.C.[7.92] This inscription also implies that very date for its founding, which would also make the most sense of the following data.

The most reasonable circumstances in which Quirinius would hold a Duumvirate in Pisidian Antioch is as commander of the forces we know he led against the Homanadenses, bandits who plagued the large lake regions in south-central Galatia, very near Pisidian Antioch. We know of no other occasion when Quirinius would be in such a remote area. Certainly, no governor of Syria would have any cause to range so far from his province--especially with a massive mountain range in the way. Besides being illogical and impractical, such a move would also illegally violate the province of the governor of Galatia. Instead, such a war would be the responsibility of the governor of Galatia, hence during the war Quirinius was most likely governing Galatia, not Syria. Either way, the Duumvirate at Antioch could have been awarded to Quirinius in an emergency--like during a war nearby--or as an honor--something likely to be awarded after a great favor, like leading the local veterans in a successful war against a nearby bandit king.

The most likely date for this war, however, is 6-3 B.C. (see next). Therefore, if Caristanius' statue was erected during or shortly after that war, then the city of Antioch could not have been founded more than five or ten years previously (as explained in the main text above), and 11 B.C. fits perfectly in that range. This fit argues for a date of 6-1 B.C. for Quirinius' post of Duumvir. In fact, since we know Quirinius was sent to Armenia to be the caretaker of the Imperial hopeful Gaius around the turn of the era, this would be an ideal circumstance in which he would need a deputy ("prefect") conducting his office of Duumvir in Antioch (if that is what the inscription means), in which case the post could date to 2 B.C. or later. Unfortunately, the other man named does not much help to establish the date. We know the Marcus Servilius to whom Caristanius was also a deputy was consul in 3 A.D. (Quirinius was consul in 12 B.C.) and was a close friend of Quirinius, having helped him out in a major trial in 20 A.D., as Tacitus reports (Annals 3.22). His late consulship shows that Servilius was probably much younger than Quirinius and thus held the Duumvirate later, as the stones imply, but this is inconclusive as to the date of either Duumvirate.

Everything rests, then, on the date of the Homanadensian war. Of course, this already requires the unproven albeit reasonable assumption that the Duumvirate was held during or shortly after that war. But allowing that assumption, the most likely date for the war is after the period of 12-7 B.C. that Cheesman suggests. Three facts work together to set the most probable date of 6-3 B.C., and thus set the likely date of the Duumvirate to 6-1 B.C., coinciding with all previous suggestions above:

• Cassius Dio is renowned for mentioning numerous minor wars that are otherwise unattested, yet he fails to note this one. However, due to missing pages from a key manuscript, we lack Dio's account of the years 6-2 B.C. Since we expect Dio to mention wars such as this, it is likely he did, and that would put the war in those missing years.[7.93]

• Varus is noted as having three legions at his disposal in Syria in 4 B.C., yet the usual complement was four, and at least around 2 B.C. it appears that another legion was absent from its usual post in Egypt. There is no known military operation that would explain these missing legions, making the Homanadensian War a likely candidate. The war was likely to have taken several years and more than one legion, since Quirinius won by surrounding the entire region and starving the bandits out of their mountain fortresses.[7.94]

• A Roman road around the region, the Via Sabaste, was completed in 6 B.C., as stated on its milestones recovered in recent years. The course of the road takes it in a hemicircle right around the outside of the very region under attack by the Homanadenses, at the same time linking almost every key military colony that would have been associated with the war (including the Asian Apamea, Antioch, and Caesarea), and connecting to available supply routes in three directions along the open plains. This perfectly matches the circumstances of the war and the manner in which Quirinius fought it (above). Since this particular war was won by investment more than open conflict, and supply lines and access to the region from the key colonies had to be set up before the war began, the construction of this road would be the first thing begun by Quirinius and would likely have occupied his men for the first year or two of any actual conflict.[7.95]

The above observations converge to strongly suggest a date for the war of around 6-3 B.C. The most likely date of the Duumvirate of Quirinius would be in or very shortly after that war. Finally, the fact that a deputy was exercising the office implies Quirinius had already left Galatia or hadn't time to attend to the office himself, which fits the periods both during or after the war.


Vardaman's Magic "Coin"

The late Dr. Jerry Vardaman, an archaeologist at the Cobb Institute of Archaeology at Mississippi State University, claimed to have discovered microscopic letters covering ancient coins and inscriptions conveying all sorts of strange data that he then uses matter-of-factly to assert the wildest chronology I have ever heard for Jesus. He claims these "microletters" confirm that Jesus was born in 12 B.C., Pilate actually governed Judaea between 15 and 26 A.D., Jesus was crucified in 21 and Paul was converted on the road to Damascus in 25 A.D. This is certainly the strangest claim I have ever personally encountered in the entire field of ancient Roman history. His evidence is so incredibly bizarre that the only conclusion one can draw after examining it is that he has gone insane. Certainly, his "evidence" is unaccepted by any other scholar to my knowledge. It has never been presented in any peer reviewed venue,[8.1] and was totally unknown to members of the America Numismatic Society until I brought it to their attention, and several experts there concurred with me that it was patently ridiculous.

Nevertheless, his "conclusions" are cited without a single sign of skepticism by Biblical apologist John McRay, who says "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."[8.2] This actual claim has never been published in any form, but I will address a related published claim by Vardaman, for which some background is necessary. I will devote considerable space to this since, as far as I know, I am the only one who has taken the trouble to debunk this obscure and bizarre claim.

What Vardaman means by "micrographic letters" (he usually calls them "microletters") are tiny letters so small that they cannot be seen or made without a magnifying glass and could only have been written with some sort of special diamond-tipped inscribers. He finds enormous amounts of this writing on various coins supporting numerous theses of his. Vardaman claims that he and Oxford scholar Nikos Kokkinos discovered microletters on coins in 1984 at the British Museum, but Kokkinos has not published anything on the matter. Nevertheless, Vardaman tells us that some coins "are literally covered with microletters...through the Hellenistic and Roman periods"[8.3] and that "whatever their original purpose(s), the use of microletters was spread over so many civilizations for so many centuries that their presence cannot be denied or ignored."[8.4] Such fanatical assertions for an extremely radical and controversial theory that only he advocates, and that has not been proven to the satisfaction of anyone else in the academic community, gives the impression of a serious loss of objectivity. Supporting this conclusion is the fact that he cites one authority in support of his thesis that does not in fact support him, yet he does not qualify this citation for his readers but acts as if this makes his theory mainstream.[8.5]

Apart from the fact that it is totally unattested as a practice in any ancient source and none of the relevant tools have been recovered or ever heard of as existing in ancient times, and it has never been subjected to a professional peer review much less accepted by any expert but Vardaman himself, there are several other reasons to regard this as insanity. First, it is extremely rare to find any specimen of ancient coin that is not heavily worn from use and the passage of literally thousands of years, in which time the loss of surface from oxidation is inevitable and significant. Even if such microscopic lettering were added to these coins as Vardaman says, hardly any of it could have survived or remained legible, yet Vardaman has no trouble finding hundreds of perfectly legible words on every coin he examines. Second, to prove his thesis, Vardaman would at the very least be expected to publish enlarged photographs of the reputed microscopic etchings. Yet he has never done this. Instead, all he offers are his own drawings. Both of these facts are extremely suspicious to say the least. Finally, the sorts of things Vardaman finds are profoundly absurd, and rank right up there with Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods.

Here is a typical example:

Jerry Vardaman, Chronos, Kairos, Christos, 1989, pp.70-1.

Notice that this is merely a drawing, not a photograph, and that he gives no indication of scale.[8.6] He never even properly identifies the coin type, and though he quotes the British Museum catalogue regarding it, he gives no catalogue number or citation, so I was originally unable to hunt down a photograph of it or to estimate its size. But even if among the largest of coins it would not be more than an inch in diameter. Most coins were much smaller. Yet his drawing (left) has a diameter of 4.75" for a scale of at least 5:1 or more, and his blow-up (right) is a little over three-times that, for at least 15:1. That means that his letters, drawn at around a quarter inch in size, represent marks on the original coin smaller than 1/50th an inch, less than half a millimeter.[8.6.5] It would be nearly impossible to have made these marks, much less hundreds of them, and on numerous coins, at minting or afterward (indeed, even the number of men and hours this would require would be vast beyond reckoning), and it would be entirely impossible for them to have survived the wear of time. Yet Vardaman sees them clear as day.

But this is merely the beginning of the madness. Vardaman's quotation of the coin catalogue establishes this as minted by the city of Damascus in the reign of Tiberius, and the coin itself says "LHKT DAMASKWN" or "328th [year] of the Damascenes," referring to its re-establishment as a Greek city by the first Seleucus, in the last years of the 4th century B.C. However, coins minted in Eastern Greek cities did not use Latin letters or words, they used Greek--one can see even from his drawing that the real letters on this coin are Greek, spelling Greek words--yet almost all of Vardaman's "microletters" for some strange reason appear in Latin. Second, and most humorously, all the Latin letters for "J" appear, as Vardaman reproduces them, as modern J's, yet that letter was not even invented until the Middle Ages! If his J's were genuine, they should be the letter I. This alone makes it clear his claims are bogus.

But in case there is any doubt: Vardaman claims to find in these tiny letters the clear statement that the coin was minted in the first year of king Aretas IV in 16 A.D. But Damascus was not a part of the kingdom of Aretas until after the death of Tiberius in 37 A.D. when it was briefly granted to him by Caligula, so Vardaman uses the microletters as evidence that refutes the accepted history. Yet it is a plain contradiction for the minters to boldly date this coin according to their independent Seleucid heritage, and then microscopically reverse that fact and date it by the reign of a recent king. Yet Vardaman doesn't stop there. The microletters tell him all sorts of new facts about the ancient world, like that the full name of the king was Gaius Julius Aretas, and so on. But even more bizarre still:

The most important references on this coin are to "Jesus of Nazareth." He is mentioned frequently, often in titles and phrases found in the New Testament, for example, "Jesus, King of the Jews," "King," "the Righteous One," and "Messiah." Reference to the first year of his "reign" is repeated often...for example, "Year one of Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee [sic]." [8.7]

The absurdity of all this, officially and microscopically inscribed on every coin by the royal mint of the King of the Nabataeans in 16 A.D., stands without need of comment.

Vardaman also "sees" microscopic letters on inscriptions, even though stone, by its roughness and its exposure to weathering, would be even less likely to preserve such markings, even if they had ever been made. Indeed, stones of the day were not polished, making it literally impossible for microscopic letters to be inscribed on them in any visible way. Yet he finds these tiny letters on the very Lapis Venetus inscription (above) showing "that the text dates to 10 B.C., that the fortress Secundus took on Mount Lebanon was Baitokiki, and that the colony mentioned was Beirut."[8.8] All but the last point would be a valuable addition to our historical knowledge, yet he has never published any papers on these claims. More bizarre still, despite several pages of confused text in his later work on how he arrives at this date, he never even says how he gets the date from the microletters. He merely asserts it over and over again,[8.9] and then appends an unnumbered page with some rough remarks about how his microletters date every office of Secundus by the years from the founding of the Beirut colony in 15 B.C. One could write volumes on the weirdness he finds in his microletters (like the name of the Jewish rebel Theudas on the Lapis Venetus, calling him the king of the Scythians![8.95]). But I think it is clear enough that this is all nonsense on stilts.

Now for the punch line. There is no Quirinius coin. McRay's reference is to an unpublished paper that no doubt comes up with more complete nonsense about Quirinius in the reading of random scratches on some coin or other, twisted into letters by what must be a chronic mental illness. But Vardaman hasn't even published this claim. Instead, almost a decade later, when he did present a lecture on the matter, his paper on the date of Quirinius, though over 20 pages in length, never mentions this coin that apparently McRay was told about. Instead, a date of 12 B.C. is arrived at using nonexistent microletters on an inscription. So we can dismiss this claim of Vardaman's and McRay's without hesitation.


III. Was There a Roman Census in Judaea Before Quirinius?

Even if Quirinius had been governor a previous time, conveniently during the reign of Herod the Great, and conducted a census, that census could not have included Judaea, for Judaea was not under direct Roman control at that time, and not being directly taxed. There is no example of, or rationale for, a census of an independent kingdom ever being conducted in Roman history. Therefore, the census Luke describes could only have been taken after the death of Herod, when Judaea was annexed to the Roman province of Syria, just as Josephus describes. All attempts to argue otherwise have no merit: Luke did not mean a census before Quirinius, could not have imagined Quirinius holding some other position besides governor, and could not have mistook him for someone else.

Whether conducted by Quirinius or anyone else, there could not have been a census in Judaea before 6 A.D., since the province had not entered direct Roman control before then. But since Quirinius is the first Roman governor to take control of Judaea, we expect a census to occur at that time. This was the nature of Roman imperialism. The whole point of a client kingdom, as Judaea was in the time of Herod the Great and Archelaus, was that the kingdom retain its independence while paying a set and agreed annual tribute. Rome held many rights by treaty, such as the ability to confirm or veto kings, but formal interference ended there. Many territories received this special status for cooperating with Rome in important wars, or when Rome did not want to trouble itself with running the province directly, and typically these client states surrounded and protected the borders of the Empire, providing a kind of buffer zone against invasions.[9.1]

To conduct a census in contravention of such an alliance would have been a notable event indeed, mentioned in many other places as the peculiar event it would have been--and that's even if it didn't start an outright war, as almost happened when the Romans finally did conduct a census in Judaea in 6 A.D.[9.2] Why, after all, would Rome want a census of a territory it was not taxing directly? Not only was such a thing never done at any time in the history of Rome, it would have served no practical purpose. According to A.N. Sherwin-White, Horst Braunert's study of the subject "disproves conclusively the notion of a Roman census before the creation of the province" while also demonstrating that a census was "a necessary consequence of the establishment of direct provincial government."[9.3] And as we saw above, Josephus confirms a census at the beginning of Quirinius' reign, just when we would expect it.[9.35]

Not only is a census before the annexation of a Judaean province against all probability and sense, it lacks all evidence of any kind. It is a purely groundless and ad hoc conjecture. Nevertheless, some attempts to "create" evidence for it remain and I will address them here.

 

Did Luke Mean "Before" Quirinius?

Some have tried to argue that the Greek of Luke actually might mean a census "before" the reign of Quirinius rather than the "first" census in his reign. As to this, even Sherwin-White remarks that he has "no space to bother with the more fantastic theories...such as that of W. Heichelheim's (and others') suggestion (Roman Syria, 161) that prôtê in Luke iii.2 means proteron, [which] could only be accepted if supported by a parallel in Luke himself."[10.1]  He would no doubt have elaborated if he thought it worthwhile to refute such a "fantastic" conjecture. For in fact this argument is completely disallowed by the rules of Greek grammar. First of all, the basic meaning is clear and unambiguous, so there is no reason even to look for another meaning. The passage says hautê apographê prôtê egeneto hêgemoneuontos tês Syrias Kyrêniou, or with interlinear translation, hautê(this) apographê(census) prôtê[the] (first) egeneto(happened to be) hêgemoneuontos[while] (governing) tês Syrias(Syria) Kyrêniou[was] (Quirinius). The correct word order, in English, is "this happened to be the first census while Quirinius was governing Syria." This is very straightforward, and all translations render it in such a manner.

It does not matter if Luke meant that he knew of a second census under Quirinius, since we have already shown that if there were one it would have occurred some time after 6 A.D. Nevertheless, the passage implies nothing about a second census under Quirinius. We have no reason to believe Quirinius served as governor again, or long enough to conduct another census, and the Greek does not require such a reading. The use of the genitive absolute (see below) means one can legitimately put a comma between the main clause and the Quirinius clause (since an absolute construction is by definition grammatically independent): thus, this was the first census ever, which just happened to occur when Quirinius was governor. The fact that Luke refers to the census from the start as the outcome of a decree of Augustus clearly supports this reading: this was the first Augustan census in Judaea since the decree. Another observation is made by Klaus Rosen, who compares Luke's passage with an actual census return from Roman Arabia in 127 A.D. and finds that he gets the order of key features of such a document correct: first the name of the Caesar (Augustus), then the year since the province's creation (first), and then the name of the provincial governor (Quirinius). Luke even uses the same word as the census return does for "governed" (hêgemoneuein), and the real census return also states this in the genitive absolute exactly as Luke does.[10.2] This would seem an unlikely coincidence, making it reasonable that Luke is dating the census the way he knows censuses are dated. Luke's passage lacks a lot of other typical features of a census return (e.g. the year of the emperor), but brevity can account for that, and while Rosen assumes Luke's prôtê refers to a year, since every province begins with a census and extant census returns indicate the year in that way, we needn't assume that's what Luke is doing, though he may have his inspiration from it. In Luke's context, what he intends to convey is that this is the first Augustan census of Judaea (as opposed to later ones) and that this happened under Quirinius.

But even if one wanted to render it differently, the basic rules of Greek ensure that there is simply no way this can mean "before" Quirinius in this construction. What is usually argued is that prôtê can sometimes mean "before," even though it is actually the superlative of "before" (proteros), just as "most" is the superlative of "more." Of course, if "before" were really meant, Luke would have used the correct adjective (such as proterê or prin), as Sherwin-White implies, since we have no precedent in Luke for such a use. Instead, Luke uses prin (Luke 2:26, 22:61; Acts 2:20, 7:2, 25:16), so he would surely have used the same idiom here, had that been his intended meaning. But there is a deeper issue involved. The word prôtê can only be rendered as "before" in English when "first" would have the same meaning--in other words, the context must require such a meaning. For in reality the word never really means "before" in Greek. It always means "first," but sometimes in English (just as in Greek) the words "first" and "before" are interchangeable, when "before" means the same thing as "first." For example, "in the first books" can mean the same thing as "in the previous books" (Aristotle, Physics 263.a.11; so also Acts 1:1). Likewise, "the earth came first in relation to the sea" can mean the same thing as "the earth came before the sea" (Heraclitus 31).[10.3]

Nevertheless, what is usually offered in support of a "reinterpretation" of the word is the fact that when prôtos can be rendered "before" it is followed by a noun in the genitive (the genitive of comparison), and in this passage the entire clause hêgemoneuontos tês Syrias Kyrêniou is in the genitive. But this does not work grammatically. The word hêgemoneuontos is not a noun, but a present participle (e.g. "jogging," "saying," "filing," hence "ruling") in the genitive case with a subject (Kyrêniou) also in the genitive. Whenever we see that we know that it is a construction called a "genitive absolute," and thus it doesn't make sense to regard it as a genitive connected to the "census" clause. In fact, that is ruled out immediately by the fact that the verb (egeneto) stands between the census clause and the ruling clause--in order for the ruling clause to be in comparison with the census clause, it would have to immediately follow or precede the adjective "first," but since it doesn't, and the entire clause is separated from the rest of the sentence, it can only be an absolute construction. A genitive absolute does have many possible renderings, e.g. it can mean "while" or "although" or "after" or "because" or "since," but none allow the desired reinterpretation here.[10.4]

John 1:15 and 1:30 are a case in point: the context is clearly established by the point of contrast being made, "he who comes after me [opisô mou] is ahead of me [emprosthen mou] because he was before me [prôtê mou]." Again, the meaning is "because he was first [in relation] to me," especially since the subject is Jesus, who was just described as the first of all creation (1:1-14). So here we have an example of when prôtos means "before," yet all the grammatical requirements are met for such a meaning, which are not met in Luke 2:2: the genitive here is not a participle with subject, but a lone pronoun (thus in the genitive of comparison); the genitive follows immediately after the adjective; and the earlier prepositions (opisô and emprosthen) establish the required context. Since this is clearly not the same construction as appears in Luke 2:2, it provides no analogy.[10.5] And this is in John. Luke never uses prôtos as "before" in such a chronological sense.

As a genitive absolute, further separated from prôtê by a verb, the Quirinius clause cannot have any grammatical connection with prôtê. It therefore cannot mean "before" in this context. Nor does it make any sense to "retranslate" the phrase as "this census happened to be most important when Quirinius was governing Syria."[10.6] That requires a context in order for the word "first" to be read as modifying an actual or implied adjective of "importance," but no such adjective is present or implied. Instead, the narrative clearly intends to explain why Joseph is going to Bethlehem. A digression away from that point would require an explanation, simply to make the digression intelligible. Since Luke gives no such explanation, he cannot have intended this to be a digression, much less one so obscurely worded. Luke can only have meant this to be the reason for Joseph's journey, and that's how every ancient reader would have read it. Therefore, "this [Augustan] census first happened [in Judaea] when Quirinius was governing Syria" is the only contextually plausible reading of Luke's Greek. Any other interpretation convicts Luke of being a talentless and unintelligible author.

Besides making no sense grammatically, neither of these alternatives fits the fact that no census before Quirinius would have affected Joseph or Bethlehem, as shall be demonstrated below. Therefore, Luke cannot have meant "before" (either directly or indirectly) unless he was fabricating the whole story.

 

Was Apamea a Free City?

Ronald Marchant (in "The Census of Quirinius") proposed that the "census of an Apamenian state" mentioned in the Lapis Venetus (above) proves that independent states could be subject to a census.[11.1] But Marchant has his facts wrong. The state in question was not free at the time of the census, but Roman. The city is not precisely named, and we know of four cities named Apamea that were under Roman influence before the 2nd century A.D., but none were free after 12 B.C., and only two were large enough to have the numbers of citizens stated in the inscription. Of these two, the more famous Apamea on the Orontes is the only one in Syria, and it lost its freedom before the 20's B.C. for having sided with Pompey against Caesar (even though it did so under compulsion, having been captured by Pompey in 64 B.C.). The other, Apamea Celaenae (in Asia Minor), lost its freedom sometime in the 2nd century B.C.[11.2] I can only guess that Marchant mistook a reference to "free inhabitants" as a reference to a free state, but such a mistake would betray a profound ignorance of the basic vocabulary of Roman history. Equally so if Marchant thinks that Apamean coins indicate the city was free, for a great many cities subject to Rome were granted the right to mint their own coins. Likewise, Paul Barnett points to a census revolt that was put down by legions in Cappadocia in 36 A.D. (Tacitus, Annals 6.41), but Cappadocia had already been annexed as a Roman province in 17 A.D. (Annals 2.42, 2.56). So this was a tribal revolt against an ordinary Roman census, not a census conducted outside or independently of Rome.

 

How Often Was the Census Held?

This is not much of an argument really, but it is a claim that really needs correction since it is so frequently stated, betraying the ignorance of those who state it. Kirk R. MacGregor says in Is the New Testament Historically Accurate? that:

Archaeological discoveries show that the Romans had a regular enrollment of taxpayers and also held censuses every 14 years. This procedure was supposedly begun under Augustus and the first took place in either 23-22 B.C. or in 9-8 B.C. The latter would be the one to which Luke refers.

This essentially paraphrases John Elder (above). John McRay has made a similar claim, stating that "the sequence of known dates for the censuses clearly demonstrates that one was taken in the empire every fourteen years."[12.1] These two men and many other apologists use this claim as part of their argument that a census of Judaea could theoretically have happened in 8 B.C., fourteen years prior to the census in 6 A.D., perhaps in the very governorship of Saturninus as Tertullian allegedly claimed (below), or in the supposed "earlier" governorship of Quirinius.

Of course, everything covered above already makes this irrelevant with respect to Judaea, and thus of no help in reconciling Luke with Matthew, so there really is no need to debunk it. But it is such a glaring error that it must be corrected. First, all these claims take for granted the reality of an "empire-wide registration" (based on what Luke appears to say, cf. box above), but there never was such a thing until the massive enrollment made by Vespasian and Titus in 74 A.D.[12.15] Thus, since censuses were scattered and never uniform, no "cycle" could ever have been a uniform reality. We know of only two provinces which, owing to their peaceful nature and unusually well-organized infrastructure, were regularly assessed: Sicily and Egypt. But their cycles weren't the same. The constitutional census cycle for counting Roman citizens was actually five years, not fourteen, and this was actually maintained in Sicily in rare conjunction with a regular census of non-citizens in that province. This was only due to the fact that it had been placed under a special tax system by the kings that ruled the island before the Roman conquest, which the Romans simply continued.[12.2] But regular civil war and the unwieldy size of the empire in the 1st century B.C. resulted in this cycle being disrupted elsewhere. Even after the civil wars were ended, Augustus was only able to complete three of the general censuses in his long reign, which were only of Roman citizens, not provincial inhabitants. These were taken in 28 B.C., 8 B.C., and 14 A.D.[12.3] This flatly refutes any possibility of a fourteen year cycle for these censuses. One comes twenty years after another, then twenty two years after that. They were supposed to have been completed every five years, so if Augustus couldn't even accomplish that, it is wholly implausible that he was more successful among his non-citizen populations.

As far as provincial censuses go, we have our second best information from Gaul. Censuses under Augustus were performed there in 27 B.C., 12 B.C., and 14 A.D. (this last was completed only two years later due to local unrest). None of these fits a fourteen-year cycle. Other provinces also fit no pattern. For instance, we also know that a census was taken in Cyrenaica (North Africa) in 6 B.C.[12.4] Our best information comes from Egypt, since from that province alone we actually have countless papyrus census returns. Egyptian administration was unique, for like that of Sicily, it was simply the system employed by its previous ruler (Queen Cleopatra), which the Romans found convenient to continue. In Egypt there was a fourteen-year cycle, but this was the direct consequence of a particular capitation tax unique to Egypt in which everyone paid an annual tax after reaching the age of fourteen. This tax may have existed in Syria, but alongside a different capitation tax on women that began at age 12 (Ulpian, cf. Justinian's Digest 50.15.3), which would have entailed a 12-year census cycle, or less, if any. But we are unsure when these taxes began, whether they ever applied to Judaea, or whether Syria was as well-organized as Egypt in the first place. No matter how you look at it, a fourteen-year cycle would not apply to any census in which Quirinius was involved. That a census in 6 A.D. matches the Egyptian cycle could be a coincidence, or the result of a special reorganization of all the Eastern administrations in that year, but this does not entail the cycle was observed in Syria or Judaea either before or after that year.[12.5] It could have been, or any other cycle, or no consistent cycle at all.

 

Was Quirinius a Special Legate in B.C. Syria?

Another proposal is that hêgemoneuontos tês Syrias might mean simply "holding a command in Syria" and since Quirinius is known to have fought a war in Asia Minor between 6 B.C. and 1 B.C. (see above), perhaps Luke means to refer to the time when Quirinius was fighting this war, and not actually "legate of Syria." This doesn't actually solve any of the problems already discussed so far--no census of Judaea could have been held before 6 A.D.  But the argument is not even reasonable to begin with. First, it makes no sense to date an event in Judaea by referring to a special command in a war in Asia. Why not simply name the actual legate in Syria? There is no reason to pass over the most obvious man and name another who has absolutely nothing to do with Judaea, much less a census there.

Second, just because Quirinius was probably assigned a Syrian legion to fight bandits on the mountain border between Galatia and Cilicia, it does not follow that he had any kind of command in Syria.[13.1] To the contrary, he was in the province of Galatia, not Syria, and by special command of Augustus. It only makes sense that he was appointed legate of Galatia for this war, for otherwise the actual legate of Galatia would have been fighting it. A Syrian legate would have no business fighting a war in someone else's province, especially in a territory that would leave him cut off from his own province by a large mountain range: for the Homanadenses were active in the mountain-lake valley in Galatia, boxed in by the mountains of Pisidia, Lycaonia, and Isauria--the valley surrounding Egridir lake, Turkey, on a modern map. Every expert familiar with the facts agrees that "only an army coming from the north could subjugate mountain tribes" in that region, in other words an army led from the province of Galatia, not Syria.[13.2] So it would be quite nonsensical of Luke to refer to Quirinius' command and probable governorship in the province of Galatia as "holding a command in Syria," all the more so since "being a ruler of Syria" is what the phrase actually means anyway (since "Syria" appears in the genitive, not dative case).

 

Was Quirinius Sharing Command with a Previous Governor?

To get around the problem that all the governors of Syria between 12 and 3 B.C. are already known, some have tried to argue that Quirinius was actually holding a dual governorship with one of those other known governors. This is truly a desperate ad hoc argument, for there was never any such thing as a dual governorship under the Roman Empire, and it would be very strange if there were.[14.1] It also does not solve the problem of the census--for even if Luke was referring to an earlier date, there could not have been a census of Judaea then, as shown above. Nevertheless, it is argued that Roman provincial commands were ambiguous and thus could be held by multiple persons at the same time, though this is argued with no evidence whatsoever, and it is flatly contradicted by the evidence we do have.

I have seen only two examples offered as evidence to the contrary, but they do not make the case. The first comes from Josephus, where the casual remark "there was a hearing before Saturninus and Volumnius, who were in charge of Syria"[14.2] is taken to imply that there were two governors in Syria at the same time. But when we read Josephus' account of another hearing within a year or two of that one, we are given more specific information: it was held before "Saturninus and the senior colleagues of Pedanius, among whom was Volumnius the procurator."[14.3] The procuratorship was a post held by men of the equestrian class (sometimes even ex-slaves), who were ineligible for the position of governor, and always of inferior rank to the governor (the relationship is similar to that between Quirinius and Coponius, as described by Josephus above).  So Volumnius was not and could not have been a governor of Syria, much less co-governor. The second "example" makes essentially the same error.[14.4]

Could Luke mean that Quirinius was prefect of Syria under a superior official? Besides the fact that it is illogical to name the second in command rather than the actual governor, Quirinius had been a Senator of consular rank since 12 B.C. and thus could never have been a prefect, who had to be of equestrian rank (see Two Last Ditch Attempts below). It simply makes far more sense to read Luke as saying just what he says, rather than trying to lap on layers of undemonstrable and implausible hypotheses grounded in nothing but fantasy. The likely fact that Luke is borrowing from Josephus further undermines all such attempts at a solution (cf. Luke and Josephus)..

 

Was "Quirinius" a Mistake for Someone Else?

Some are tempted to propose the notion that Luke made a mistake: that he really meant Publius Quinctilius Varus rather than Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. Of course, this would entail that Luke is wrong, and thus would admit that the text as we have it (which reads "Quirinius") contradicts Matthew. And it fails to solve the census problem anyway (as discussed above). But it is also not a plausible conjecture. Around the turn of the 3rd century, it is believed that Tertullian claimed the Lukan census occurred during the tenure of Gaius Sentius Saturninus (who was governor of Syria from 9 to 6 B.C.).[15.1] Of course, Tertullian is not very reliable.[15.2] So the fact that he makes this claim in the context of antiheretical rhetoric is enough to cast doubt on its authority. Moreover, this would have been an easy mistake to make: the governor relieved by Quirinius was Volusius Saturninus, who governed Syria from 4 to 5 A.D.

But this is all moot. For in fact Tertullian does not link Sentius Saturninus with the census in Luke 2:1, as is commonly supposed by those who ignore the context of this passage. Rather, he says censuses (plural, not singular) prove that Jesus had brothers, in defense of Luke 8:19-21. Since Tertullian believed Jesus was the first born, just as Luke says he was, there could not be any record of his brothers in the census of the nativity. Therefore, Tertullian could not possibly have been thinking of the census during which Jesus was born. So he may well mean another Sentius Saturninus (an ancestor of the other), who was governor of Syria in A.D. 19-21 (Tacitus, Annals 2.76-81), a plausible time before which Jesus' siblings would have been born. For the sentence sed et census constat actos sub Augusto nunc in Iudaea per Sentium Saturninum, apud quos genus eius inquirere potuissent, can be translated "But it is also well known that censuses were conducted under the Augustus in that time in Judaea by Sentius Saturninus, consulting which they can investigate his family."[15.3] But even if Tertullian meant brothers by a previous marriage, and thus had in mind the previous Sentius Saturninus, this still would not be the census during which Jesus was born, since Jesus had to be born later to a subsequent wife of Joseph. And Tertullian in that case would simply be bluffing, since no census under the first Saturninus would have counted the inhabitants of Judaea (as shown above and below).

So there is no basis for imagining any scribal error in Luke. Certainly, if Luke borrowed his information from Josephus (cf. Luke and Josephus), then he clearly meant Quirinius. And it is not likely that Luke was mistaking the men, rather than making a mistake in writing the name: Quirinius is a cognomen, but Quinctilius is a nomen. In Roman nomenclature there were three names: praenomen (a "first name" or "casual name"), like Publius (the fact that the two men have the same first name cannot explain the mistake--that would be like confusing Kevin Klein with Kevin Sorbo); nomen ("family name," the equivalent of our last name), like Quinctilius or Sulpicius; and cognomen (like a "nick name" or a traditional name, similar to our middle name), like Varus or Quirinius. It would be odd for an author to confuse one man's cognomen for another man's nomen. This is all the more so since Varus was a notoriously famous general, the only one to have lost legions in the early Empire (his three legions were destroyed by Germans in 9 A.D.), a disaster echoing ominously across the Roman world and credited with scaring Augustus into a non-expansionist policy, and leading to the universal glory of Germanicus, beloved all over the empire, who recovered the lost legionary standards in the reign of Tiberius. Why someone like Luke would mistake a famous man for a relatively unknown one is hard to fathom. The reverse would have made more sense. Finally, a mere transcriptional "error" would not likely produce "by chance" the correct name of an actual governor under whom a census was known to be made. But for those die hards who want to argue that anyway, see next. Others can skip it.


Can it be a Mere Type-o?

Even if we suppose a remarkably coincidental transcription error, such a mistake is palaeographically unlikely. In Greek books of the time, which were written in uncial (all-capitals), Quirinius is written KURHNIOS and Quinctilius is written KUNTHLIOS. In order for a mistake to be made by Luke, or by a scribe very early in the tradition (since all manuscripts agree completely on the spelling), RHN would have to be seen in NTHL, which is all but impossible. Although it is common for LI to be mistaken as N, if this mistake were made here then the name would have ended up KURHNOS rather than KURHNIOS, since the I would be lost. But this letter is there, requiring a second mistake. And this would not be enough. Four more mistakes would have to be made as well in seeing the single letter R in the letters NT, which even a modern English reader can see is quite implausible: it requires missing two entire vertical strokes and then an entire grave, and then reading a T as a completed R. And the notion, actually said to me by someone desperate to defend this argument, that the N and T might overlap, and thus "look like" R is silly even in principle, and has no precedent in any known writing--those letters never overlapped in uncial Greek.

Perhaps these theorists want to suppose Luke was half blind? Since he spells every other proper name correctly, even that desperate thesis fails to make sense. Moreover, due to popular and foreign usage the C tended to be dropped from Quinctilius, and if Luke had read the Greek or Latin of the proper spelling, then his mistake would be even more implausible, since KUNKTHLIOS is even farther from KURHNIOS. In Latin inscriptions these names would have appeared as QUINTILIUS (or QUINCTILIUS) and QUIRINIUS respectively. A mistake from the Latin would require the unbelievable reading of NTIL as RIN. The way these letters are always composed in stone or print would make a mistake of NT for R very unlikely: the grave stroke of the R is smaller and lower than it is on the N; likewise, the horizontal stroke on the T never crosses to the left of an N even when the letters are merged; and how the remaining right side of this stroke could be ignored is difficult to imagine. Moreover, the second vertical of the N is straight, so mistaking that as curved, as is the case in the loop of an R, is most unlikely. Finally, a mistake of L for N is obviously unlikely.

Was it a Census Conducted by Herod the Great?

One might try to argue that the census was actually not Roman at all, but conducted by Herod. Of course, this is prima facie implausible, for it is most strange that Luke would not simply say this, but instead associate it with a Roman governor and an Imperial decree: the plain language and obvious context leaves no reasonable interpretation but that Luke meant a Roman census (and again, the possibility that Luke is drawing on Josephus would support this). Even if some other nations held their own censuses, the Jews held a negative attitude toward taking a census in peacetime.[16.1] Had Herod conducted such a census on his own initiative, it would have been a truly remarkable event, and could not have escaped mention by historians such as Josephus. And Herod the Great enjoyed the greatest favor and freedom of any client king ever under Roman influence, so any Roman attempt to "force" Herod to run a census would have been even more inexplicable and unprecedented.

Nonetheless, Brook Pearson argues for this interpretation and his arguments will be addressed here.[16.2] First, Pearson traps himself in a false dichotomy: arguing that Luke can only be seen as "historically accurate" if Quirinius governed Syria in the reign of Herod or the census took place before Quirinius, he then argues for the latter. But he ignores the easiest solution of all: that Luke is right and Matthew is wrong. Of course, it is just as likely both are wrong, but if one's goal is to defend Luke, one need only reject the historical accuracy of Matthew. But having set up the goal of defending the only thesis he hasn't seen refuted, Pearson is left to try and build a case on poorly-researched conjectures. His relevant points are:

• 1 •  Pearson claims that "Josephus records a great deal of indirect evidence that a careful and detailed system of census and taxation existed under Herod" (p. 265). But he then presents evidence only of the latter: a careful and detailed system of taxation. He assumes that taxation entailed a census (p. 266). But it did not. Only capitation and corvee taxes (taxes paid per person) required a census. Most taxes had no need of census returns, which were very expensive to administer: land taxes were based on records of property ownership, which were maintained regularly throughout the year; tariffs and other taxes on transportation or sale were levied on the spot; rents of royal land or animals were collected by contractual agreement peculiar to every case; fixed tribute assessed on townships and metropoleis was due in full no matter who had to pay it, and the general point of such taxation was to leave the central power without the expense of having to worry how they came up with it; taxes on produce were based on annual outcomes or predictions, and even when the productivity of land was based on scheduled assessments, this had nothing to do with counting people (and so would not require Joseph to travel).[16.3] What Pearson needs to show is evidence that any sort of capitation or corvee tax was ever levied by Herod, but he doesn't give a single piece of even indirect evidence of this. Pearson fails to recognize that this is why Egypt had a 14-year census cycle: the only reason a census was taken there at all was that a tax levied on each person began when boys reached the age of 14 (cf. How Often Was the Census Held?, above). There is no evidence of any such cycle or capitation tax in Judaea in the time of Herod, and as noted above it is particularly improbable for a Jewish king, and even more improbable that Josephus should never once mention or allude to such a thing despite covering in detail every year of Herod's thirty-seven-year reign.

• 2 •  Pearson cites Heichelheim on the account books of Herod, claiming they "could not have been possible" without a census (p. 266).[16.4] Of course, Heichelheim's work is rather outdated, but this conjecture is plainly false from what we know of ancient taxation (as noted above, most taxes required no census) and from the fact that the reference in question is only to records of Herod's own estates and the annual income of the whole kingdom, which affords no evidence at all of any capitation or corvee taxes (or even land productivity assessments for that matter), and thus provides no evidence of census-taking.[16.5] In fact, one passage Pearson cites implies the opposite: Herod's kingdom was taxed by assigning fixed annual tribute to each territory, and thus not based on a census. This is clear when Augustus reduces by a quarter the annual tax owed by the whole "Samaritan territory," rather than, for instance, reducing by a quarter the tax each Samaritan had to pay. In fact, Josephus uses here the word for tribute, which was not capitation or corvee tax but a fixed annual amount levied on cities or groups of cities, who then had to figure out on their own how to come up with it.[16.6]

• 3 •  Pearson cites evidence that there were 'town scribes' (kômogrammateis) under Herod and therefore census records and therefore a census (p. 271). It never occurs to him to investigate what else such scribes did: for in fact, government-employed scribes kept property records and records of contracts, records pertaining to market taxes and tariffs and and legal cases, and so on, and thus had plenty to do and plenty reason to be in every town. Their existence does not in the least entail a census (indeed, one wonders just what Pearson thinks they did in the years of down-time between censuses). Moreover, not all town scribes were employed by the government: many were private businessmen who read and wrote documents for a fee, hired by the great majority of people, who were illiterate. Thus, once again, non-evidence is blown way out of proportion and turned into a phantom 'proof'.

• 4 •  Pearson tried to dismiss the obvious objection, that Luke refers the census to an Augustan decree and the governorship of Quirinius, by insisting that ancient people dated events by reference to the most memorable event near it, and thus Luke meant to refer to an earlier census by reference to a later 'more memorable' one (pp. 277-8). Here all evidence contradicts Pearson, and it is not surprising that he does not give a single analogous example to demonstrate his generalization. Not only would people not have any good idea eighty or so years later when 'the census of Quirinius' occurred without reference to some standard chronology, but it was routine to date all events by regnal years of important persons (or, in some places, from the foundation of important cities): coins, handled by everyone, routinely did this, and it would be second nature to understand such a dating scheme. And in fact this is just what Luke does in 3:1. If Luke is comfortable dating events by a precise and normal means there, why would he use an imprecise and abnormal means in 2:1-2? Thus Pearson's reasoning is entirely shot through. To the contrary, Luke associates the census not with a private action of Herod, but with a decree of Augustus: a Roman action, not a Herodian one. And Luke says it happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria, not before (as has been amply shown above). Indeed, if we follow Rosen, the passage may be taken to mean the first year of Quirinius' reign, making 2:2 just as precise as 3:1.

The bottom line is that there is no evidence of a Herodian census, and no reason to believe there ever was one. And even if there were, there is no way Luke's reference could be to such a census, and thus Pearson's argument is baseless. For the alternative claim that it wasn't a census but a national oath, see Two Last Ditch Attempts below.

 

Was Herod Alive in 2 B.C.?

For the sake of completeness I will address an argument some Christian apologists advocate out of desperation to preserve Biblical infallibility, drawing on a particular work by Jack Finegan (Handbook of Biblical Chronology, rev. ed., 1998). This is the assertion that in fact Herod the Great was still living in 2 B.C., and since we do not know who was governing Syria then, it was "obviously" Quirinius. Besides having no evidence whatsoever for either fact (and thus it is an entirely ad hoc theory), the evidence we do have stands against such a thesis. For example, Josephus says, point blank, that Varus, not Quirinius, was governor when Herod died (Jewish War 1.9-10). But the argument becomes the most convoluted and obscure we've yet seen, demanding a rather lengthy treatment.

When did Herod die?

First, Herod simply could not have been alive in 2 B.C. (see Note 3.8). Josephus' principal source for the reign of Herod in Jewish Antiquities books 14-17 (and presumably for the parallel material in the earlier Jewish War) is the Histories of Nicolaus of Damascus, a close friend of Herod, who in turn relied on first-hand knowledge and Herod's own Memoires.[17.1]  In fact, we know Josephus consulted Herod's Memoires directly, and "others" (tois allois) who wrote about Herod's reign (Jewish Antiquities 15.174). Thus, to propose that he erred in dating the king's death by a full two years (actually three, as Finegan places his death in 1 B.C.) is incredible. Josephus says in Jewish Antiquities 17.191 and Jewish War 1.665 that Herod died thirty-seven years after he was proclaimed king by Rome (40 B.C., a date confirmed by Appian, BC 5.75; and Josephus agrees, with a very precise date: Jewish Antiquities 14.389, so there is no room to move here), and thirty four years after he assumed the crown (37 B.C., as Josephus himself says: Jewish Antiquities 14.487), and since Josephus accurately proceeds through the years of his reign, including several that have independent corroboration (such as "the seventeenth year" of Herod's reign, securely placed by Josephus in 20 B.C., see 17.4), it is absurd to suggest he made any mistake greater than a single year.

Finally, we cannot trust the reported coincidence of a lunar eclipse near to Herod's death (Jewish Antiquities 17.167). Only a partial eclipse is astronomically confirmed for March 13, 4 B.C., which makes this an unlikely candidate, and it is unclear how much time followed the event and his actual death anyway. But that kind of claim was commonly made for great events (in this case a notorious murder) and thus is often not genuine, as I explain in my essay on Thallus. Even if accepted, the only total eclipses in this period fell on 23 March and 10 September of 5 B.C., either of which would allow his death to fall in 4 B.C. (or even at the end of 5 B.C., see, again, 3.8), and, in fact, all the events supposed to happen in the interim more easily fit this than the partial eclipse of 4 B.C. Of course, Finegan latches onto a total eclipse in 1 B.C. for his theory, but even to use this he is forced to go against evidence in Jewish literature for the actual day of Herod's death (7 Kislev, which falls in November or December, § 506) which preceded that eclipse (in January), whereas if we follow that date, Herod would more likely have died at the end of 5 B.C. (and his successors then coronated, as all the evidence shows, in early 4 B.C., thus matching all the evidence we have).[17.1.1] And that is roughly ninety days after a total eclipse, a perfect fit. Finegan also knows his alternative requires the assumption, without any evidence, of an unusually long governorship for Varus (from 7 to 1 B.C.), since we know Varus was still governor after Herod died. To the contrary, coins attesting the governorship of Varus end in 4 B.C., and the remaining evidence establishes that Piso, not Varus, was governing Syria in 1 B.C. (see 4.1). So the case for any date earlier than 5 B.C. or later than 4 B.C. for Herod's death is simply untenable in every respect.[17.1.2]

Besides this hand waving, Finegan's case is built largely in § 228, where he attempts to re-date Herod's coronation, against all evidence, to 35 B.C. He notes that Josephus reports Jerusalem was taken in the 185th Olympiad (Jewish Antiquities 14.487), which ended in 36 B.C., but this Olympiad also includes 37 B.C., and as Josephus also gives the precise consular year he can only mean that year, disallowing Finegan's hypothesis from the start. But Finegan then notes that Josephus says this was "after twenty seven years" from when Jerusalem was taken by Pompey in 63 B.C., which would refer to 36 B.C. Of course, he fails to admit that this could just as well mean Jerusalem was taken in 64 B.C., or that Josephus erred in his math, or that a scribe mistook eikosiex for eikosiepta, and since Josephus otherwise names the year exactly, the latter two errors would be more likely. But in actual fact, Josephus always counts the short portions of a Roman calendar year as complete years, as many scholars of Josephus have noted, and thus he reckons inclusively, so that "after twenty seven years" actually points to 37 B.C., not 36 as Finegan thinks.

This is obvious even on Finegan's own calculations: consular years began January 1 (§142, §172), but Jewish years began in March (§165, §513), and the Olympiads began in July (§185), and all three used calendars assigning different days to the months, so they often fell out of alignment even with our Julian reckoning (all the more so before the reforms of Julius Caesar in the 40's B.C.). Josephus uses all three schemes simultaneously, thus errors (or ambiguities) of some months are to be expected in any date he gives. Josephus says Pompey took Jerusalem in the third month (Jewish Antiquities 14.66) by Jewish reckoning, in the year 63 B.C. by Roman reckoning, and Herod took the city on the same calendar day in the third month by Jewish reckoning, in the year 37 B.C. by Roman reckoning, which on both occasions was a day of fasting (Jewish Antiquities 14.487). The only known fast in the third month (the month of Sivan, which crosses May and June) is that of the apostasy of Jeroboam "who made Israel to sin" (Sivan 22 or 23).[17.1.5] It cannot be the Day of Atonement as Finegan presumes (§227), which fell in the seventh month. This means that Herod was crowned after twenty seven Roman consular pairs held office, hence after twenty seven calendar years on the Roman system. This is also twenty seven years on the Olympiadic system, since the year 63 includes two Olympiadic calendar years for any event that happens before July. Finegan also argues that Herod might have dated his regnal years from the following new year (Nisan), but even if he reckoned this way he would sooner date his reign from the previous new year, so that there would be no year zero for any of his official acts as king, and so his coins could begin right away showing year 1 of his reign, without having to wait nine months to start counting his years of rule. Indeed, we have no evidence that any ruler in antiquity employed any other practice.

So, the fact of the matter is, Josephus reckoned Herod's reign as beginning in 40 B.C. with a coronation in 37 B.C. There is no way around this, and thus when he dates Herod's death, he can only mean 4 B.C. (or shortly before), since he relates it to both events precisely (and one is confirmed by another extant historian). That Josephus is wrong about something so central to his histories and for which he had such good, eyewitness sources is simply not credible. Finegan knows all scholars agree with this.[17.2] In fact, Finegan knows that all external and circumstantial evidence is against him. For example, it is a fact that all three regnal dates of Herod's successors match a coronation date of 4 B.C. (§ 516). This includes Archelaus, whose dates are also corroborated by Cassius Dio (55.27.6), and Josephus does not have Archelaus declared king until Herod dies (Jewish War 1.670), but has Archelaus deposed in 6 A.D. after 10 years rule (see above), which also puts Herod's death in 4 B.C. (or shortly before). And then there is Antipas, whose dates are confirmed in extant coinage, according to Finegan himself. Finegan tries to suggest against this evidence that all three of these kings were made co-regents with Herod in 4 B.C. until his death in 1 B.C., a claim that is groundless and prima facie absurd. With Antipater, that would make five kings ruling simultaneously! It is inconceivable that Josephus would not mention such a remarkable action. Indeed, the political atmosphere of heated tensions and indecision about who would inherit makes such a massive coregency profoundly unthinkable for Herod--his coregency with Antipater (the only one Josephus mentions) was already such a disaster that Herod had him executed a week before he himself died, and the other three were only assigned their territories by Herod's will and confirmed by Augustus after Herod's death. Josephus is absolutely clear on this. And it is the only logical way things could have happened.

Was Philip made king in 2 B.C.?

Apart from all this ad hoc assertion, Finegan's only 'case' for his hypothesized mass-coregency is an attempt to redate the reign of just one successor, Philip, according to an obscure textual variant (§ 218). He proposes that in Jewish Antiquities 18.106 "in the twentieth year of Tiberius" should be read as "in the twenty-second year of Tiberius," so that Philip's "thirty-seven year" reign would have begun in 2 B.C. (and thus, so the argument goes, Herod must have died then). The original basis for all this tinkering is the fact that Philip's obituary is indeed placed in Josephus' narrative seemingly around the year 35 or 36. But it is clear that Josephus wrote "twentieth" and not "twenty-second," and analysis shows that Josephus is either wrong about the dates of all the events he places in this year, or else he is compressing many years together, or both. It is therefore most likely that Josephus is correct about when Philip began his reign, just as he is with all the other tetrarchs, and simply misplaced (or loosely placed) his obituary among external Roman events he knew less well.

As evidence of Josephus' confusion about events, Cassius Dio dates the Vitellian parley, which Josephus places before Philip's death, to the reign of Caligula, several years after Philip's death (59.17.5, 59.27.2-3). And it appears that Tacitus may have, too: Vitellius, as a future emperor, is an important person, yet the event is not recorded by Tacitus for the reign of Tiberius, while Tacitus' account of Caligula's reign is lost. Likewise, Tacitus (Annals 6.31) and Cassius Dio (58.26) both date the other Parthian events to 34/35, which Josephus places after 36/37. Thus, while Josephus dates the death of Philip as having happened "about the same time" as all these Parthian affairs (Jewish Antiquities 18.96-105), they did not happen in the same year. Indeed, it appears that the Parthian king Artabanus established his son Arsaces as ruler of Armenia in 33 or 34 A.D., not 36 as Josephus' narrative implies (s.v. "Artabanus" and "Armenia," Oxford Classical Dictionary). Since Josephus clearly did not have a good idea of when the surrounding events actually happened, or else is not discussing a single year at all, he is certainly being too vague to pinpoint an exact year when he says Philip's death happened "around" then. Likewise, right after Philip's obituary, Josephus says "around the same time" Herod and Aretas began to have a falling out, but the narrative of this event spans several years in a matter of a few paragraphs. Thus, very little can be concluded about the date of Philip's death from where Josephus has placed it in his narrative.

What about that obscure textual variant? Finegan's only source for this claim is a mysterious, unpublished speech given by David Beyer.[17.3] In Finegan's summary, he never identifies any actual manuscripts, and though Beyer names them he does not identify their relationship to other manuscripts or their known quality or origins. All Finegan (and Beyer) does is "count manuscripts" and argue that older manuscripts are the most reliable. But neither is true, as any palaeographer knows. We have no way of knowing which of the manuscripts Beyer counted were copies of other extant manuscripts (and thus completely irrelevant to the question), and we have no idea whether the manuscripts he looked at are known to be reliable or unreliable or to what degree or in what ways. Older manuscripts can sometimes be poorer than new manuscripts, since newer ones can be based on even older but more reliable archetypes (see "On Calvinist Scorn of Textual Criticism" for more about textual analysis), and older ones may stem from especially faulty textual traditions. Moreover, Beyer examined only manuscripts in the British Museum and the Library of Congress--yet the best manuscripts are in France and Italy--one of which is the oldest, Codex Ambrosianae F 128, inscribed in the 11th century (the oldest manuscript Beyer examined was 12th century); and another is the most reliable: Codex Vaticanus Graecus 984, transcribed in 1354; both confirming a reading of "twentieth," and thus invalidating all his conclusions from the start. Finegan and Beyer seem ignorant of all of these issues. Consequently, we cannot trust them here.

When, instead, we examine all existing critical editions of Josephus, composed by scholars (Niese, Naber, and Thackeray) who themselves looked at the manuscripts, and properly, identifying relationships among them and assessing their reliability, we find a very different story. First of all, little more than a handful of manuscripts are worth even examining for this passage--yet Beyer is counting dozens (none of which are even among the best), proving that his investigation is completely disregarding the proper criteria of textual analysis. Second, all scholarly editions agree: the word for "twentieth" (eikostô) exists in all extant Greek manuscripts worth considering. Where does the reading "twenty-second" come from? A single manuscript tradition of a Latin translation (which reads vicesimo secundo). Beyer's case completely falls apart here. The Latin translations of Josephus are notoriously inferior, and are never held to be more accurate than extant Greek manuscripts, much less all of them. Indeed, this is well proven here: whereas the Latin has 22 for the year of Tiberius, it also has 32, or even in some editions 35, as the year of Philip, not the 37 that Finegan's argument requires. Thus, clearly the Latin translator has botched all the numbers in this passage. Any manuscripts that Beyer examined were no doubt either from these inferior Latin manuscripts, or Greek translations from these Latin manuscripts. Therefore, there is no basis whatever for adopting "twenty second" as the correct reading. Philip was crowned in 4 B.C. exactly as Josephus says, and just as all the other tetrarchs were who inherited portions of Herod's kingdom. This means Herod died in or immediately before 4 B.C., exactly as Josephus claims.

Two Last Ditch Attempts

Even allowing such an inconceivable error on the part of Josephus, this whole theory runs afoul of the problem that Quirinius could not have been governor of Syria twice (see Section II above) nor could there have been a census in Judaea when Herod was still alive (see Section III above). But Finegan employs two ad hoc maneuvers in an attempt to bypass these facts:

(1) Finegan's response to the first conundrum is that Quirinius was actually prefect or procurator of Syria in 2 B.C. (§ 522), not an actual governor. But that is definitely impossible: those were offices held only by knights (men of the equestrian class), never by senators, much less senators of the most prestigious consular rank, and Quirinius had been of consular rank since 12 B.C. This mistake is similar to that made by those who want Quirinius to have been a co-governor. It just isn't possible or logical, and of course has no evidence of any kind in support of it.

(2) Finegan's response to the second conundrum is that Luke was referring to some sort of other 'counting' by Herod the Great. This could not be a census (see above). So Finegan argues it was when "the people of Rome" proclaimed Augustus Pater Patriae, "Father of his Country" (§ 525), but Finegan has badly erred here: this is a reference to a vote by Roman citizens, which would have nothing whatever to do with Judaeans. By confusing a vote with an oath-taking, Finegan conjures the false claim that Luke is referring to the registration of oaths of loyalty. Of course, this is already shot down by the fact that Herod was not alive in 2 B.C., as we've seen. And we have no record of such an oath in Judaea in that year or any year near it, despite the fact that Josephus usually records them: the last such oaths commanded by Herod were in 20 B.C.[17.4] and in 8 or 7 B.C.[17.5] Worse, this thesis is inherently implausible: Luke does not use the vocabulary of oath-swearing, nor does he describe such a process. For example, Joseph would not travel to Bethlehem if all he had to do was swear an oath of allegiance--that had to be done where he lived.[17.6]

Joseph's journey only makes sense in the context of a census, where family land could require his presence (see second part of Luke's Description of the Census above). Likewise, "that all that was inhabited be recorded," using apographô as the verb, repeated again as the noun apographê, can only refer to a census: a register made for taxing. Indeed, the word does not even mean "count," but "written up," which meant a detailed record-making, and this term is never used in reference to registering oaths. Rather, some form of eunoeô is the correct word (Jewish Antiquities 17.42; cf. e.g. epi eunoiai in Jewish Antiquities 18.124 and enômoton tên eunoian in Jewish Antiquities 15.368). Indeed, typically, oaths were not registered at all: one swore before a magistrate and received a diploma attesting to the fact that you swore, which you could present if anyone challenged the fact, as is shown in detail in the martyrologies of those who refused to swear for Decius in 249 A.D. (and in accounts of Christians avoiding martyrdom by buying forged diplomas). Certainly the burden is on those who claim otherwise to present evidence, and I have never seen any.

Conclusion

There is no way to rescue the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from contradicting each other on this one point of historical fact. The contradiction is plain and irrefutable, and stands as proof of the fallibility of the Bible, as well as the falsehood of at least one of the two New Testament accounts of the birth of Jesus.


[1.1] 2:1 egeneto de en tais hêmerais ekeinais exêlthen dogma para Kaisaros Augoustou apographesthai pasan tên oikoumenên 2:2 hautê apographê prôtê egeneto hêgemoneuontos tês Syrias Kyrêniou. I have attempted to render all Biblical translations as literally as possible without spoiling the genuine meaning in Greek.
      Jacques Winandy recently claimed that a connective de after hautê is required by the rules of Greek grammar (it fulfills the role of a period in English), and thus its absence here is peculiar, cf. "Le recensement dit de Quirinius (LC 2,2): une interpolation?" Revue Biblique July 1997 (104:3), pp. 373-7. He takes this as evidence that this entire line began as a marginal line note made by a scribe that was later accidentally assimilated into the text (for an example of this very thing, see my discussion of Phlegon in my article on Thallus).  But given the evidence of borrowing in Luke from Josephus, I find this unlikely (see my article on Luke and Josephus). It would be more probable that Luke simply made an error or the de was lost in transmission.
      But in fact, this is simply a Lukan affectation, for he often omits a connecting particle when beginning a sentence with a pronoun (cf. Luke 1:32, 7:27, and esp. 23:51 for a close parallel; Acts 1:14, 4:11, 6:6, and esp. 16:17 for a close parallel), and it is common in Koinê Greek for the nominative pronoun to mark transition. Winandy also regards the absence of an article in this phrase as indicative of an interpolation, but his argument (and suggested re-translation) are misguided: the absence of an article is perfectly acceptable for a predicate adjective construction with a form of "to be" in Koinê Greek. Moreover, the use of the reflexive hautos as houtos is not unusual for Luke but would be unusual for a scribal note. I must conclude that the phrase is genuine.

[1.1.2] One might suppose that Luke 1:42, Elizabeth's greeting to Mary, implies that Mary is already pregnant, but it does not entail that. She may merely be anticipating the future, as is the case in Deuteronomy 28:4, where the same present participle construction is used in the Septuagint clearly in reference to future generations and not to present conceptions. And this is likely, since there is no actual verb used in 1:42, while at 1:45 she actually uses the future tense: what the angel told Mary will be fulfilled. Likewise, in 1:48-49, Mary doesn't say she is blessed because she has conceived, but because God has chosen her to be the mother of the messiah.
      Some have noted that this entails a twelve year-long betrothal between Joseph and Mary, but there is nothing incredible about a long betrothal--anyone familiar with societies where marriages are arranged (even from birth) knows that well enough, especially when the would-be husband is not yet financially sound or the woman's parents can't yet come up with an adequate dowry, and as we have reason to presume Jesus' family very poor, we might expect such complications. Mary's age would also have been an issue, if she was still only a child at her betrothal. At any rate, we are never told when or even if Mary and Joseph marry--they are still unmarried when Jesus is born (Luke 2:5), which would have been nearly a year in and of itself.

[1.1.3] Mark Smith has composed a good article explaining in his own terms why attempts to reconcile Luke and Matthew fail, while concluding with strong support for the accuracy of Luke as against Matthew: Mark Smith, "Of Jesus and Quirinius," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 62:2 (April, 2000): pp. 278-93.
      Smith argues that Luke may have meant by "Herod the King" not "Herod the Great" but "Herod the Ethnarch," in other words Archelaus, Herod's successor (ibid. pp. 285-6). Smith makes a good case for this. I originally decided against it because I thought Luke was otherwise very precise with the titles of men in power throughout Luke and Acts (a fact that Smith himself documents), but Luke fails to be precise in naming the offices of Pilate and Quirinius, too. Archelaus only called himself Herod on his coins (Burnett, Roman Provincial Coinage 1992, nos. 4912-17) and the historian Cassius Dio also knows him only as such (55.27), while even Josephus, who otherwise refers to Archelaus as ethnarch, could still call him a king (Antiquities of the Jews 18.93), facts that slipped my notice before. Additionally, the title of "ethnarch" is never used by any Gospel author, and appears only once in the New Testament (2 Cor. 11:32), while at the only place in the New Testament where the name "Archelaus" is used (Matthew 2:22), he is said to have basileuei, "reigned," a term that does not entail but nevertheless implies a status of king (basileus), in contrast to other verbs of governing that could have been chosen. Likewise, though Archelaus was technically a tetrarch, this term is only used in the New Testament of later rulers.
      It has been suggested that the potential for confusion between the two Herods would call for precision, since Herod the Great is the more famous. But this requires assuming, at the very least, (1) that Luke thought of this (authors don't always anticipate every confusion they could be causing) and (2) that Luke expected his audience to know there was a technical difference in title between Herod the Great and his son Herod Archelaus (not everyone was a history major) and (3) that Luke actually knew which Herod it was (his sources may have been vague) and (4) Luke thought precision here mattered (even though he doesn't attempt to identify the year with the kind of precision he does in Luke 3:1) and (5) Luke thought the context (proximity to the census which came upon the removal of Herod Archelaus) didn't already make it clear which Herod he meant and (6) Luke knew what Herod Archelaus' formal title actually was (just because he had good sources on what the titles were of other men in 30 A.D. doesn't mean he had good sources on what Archelaus' title was fifteen years earlier) and (7) Luke wasn't bothered by contradicting himself (or confusing his readers by appearing to contradict himself) by incorrectly preceding a census in 6 A.D. with a king who had already been dead for ten years. Overall, that's a lot of assumptions to adopt simply to overcome Smith's analysis. A few of these assumptions could be granted, but to grant all of them is a bit much.
      Hence I believe Smith could be right, and thus Luke intended the year of John's birth to be 5 A.D.

[1.1.4] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.113-19; see also Bowersock's Roman Arabia, pp. 65-6, and Kasher's Jews, Idumaeans, and Ancient Arabs, pp. 177-80.

[1.1.5] Robert Smith, in "Caesar's Decree (Luke 2:1-2): Puzzle or Key?" (Currents in Theology and Mission 7:6; Dec. 1980, pp. 343-51), recapitulates a theory proposed by a few other scholars that Luke created (or emphasized, if they are true) these features in order to paint Jesus, via his family, as peaceful and obedient to Caesar, in contrast to rebels and radicals with whom Christianity was often in danger of being compared. Smith shows very clearly Luke's preoccupation with this theme, for Luke alone mentions numerous times census-related rebellions and the theme of disobeying Caesar, while never showing Romans committing an injustice (in all the trials related in Luke-Acts, the Romans come out as superlative judges), and repeatedly emphasizing the unrebellious and obedient nature of Christians, etc. Although I think it is clear that Luke has these apologetic concerns, I don't think he needed to emphasize, much less invent, a universal census or a journey of Joseph and Mary to convey them. Mark Smith and other scholars agree with me (op. cit. 1.1.3, p. 284).

[1.2] A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament 1963: p. 168.

[1.3] The famous P.Lond. 904, discussed in F. Kenyon and H. Bell Greek Papyri in the British Museum 3 (1907), p. 125 (with plate 30), and in George Milligan Greek Papyri (1910) pp. 72-3. Rostovtzeff cites other evidence proving that there was an idea of a return to the idia, "place of origin," employed in some censuses conducted in the east, cf. Studien zur Geschichte des römischen Kolonates, pp. 305 ff. Also, cf. Rosen, op. cit., in 10.2.

[1.3.5] Mark Smith (op. cit. 1.1.3, pp. 287-91) even proposes a possible "tax dodge" was at work, and otherwise explains how this migration is not as incredible as critics propose. Robin Lane Fox, on p. 31 of The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible argues that "Roman censuses cared nothing for remote genealogies, let alone false ones," but this isn't true. Membership in Roman tribes was certainly a fiction, yet essential for census taking. It is possible that tribal fictions were maintained in Judaea for similar purposes, and Romans would see an obvious utility in exploiting them to ease the counting of a highly itinerant population (a great many Jews were herdsmen or pilgrims). Likewise, it is very doubtful that Luke would use a system of census taking that his every reader would know didn't exist--certainly, his apologetic aims would fail if his "explanation" held no water. Therefore, there must have been something to it--for even if fiction, it had to play on some fact or else the lie would be obvious to everyone. At the very least, we can suppose many Jews believed they could trace a lineage to some ancestor in the town of their family land, so as to justify their belonging there and to secure their claim in perpetuity, not to mention the mere glory of tracing one's line to some tribal hero (many Greeks and Romans did just the same). We can suppose that Luke believed (or wanted his readers to believe) that Joseph had family land in Bethlehem, and that this was because it was a portion of David's land, and since Jewish Law required the return of sold land every fifty years (Lev. 25:10-28), it was impossible to ever be dispossessed of it--thus, it might have seemed obvious to every Jew that any family plot could be traced to an ancient owner, even if this really wasn't the case. And as noted in the text above, residing outside the taxed area would not exempt any landowner from taxation or the related census so long as he held any property or citizenship in the taxed region.

[1.4] This same position is well argued by Lily Ross Taylor, "Quirinius and the Census of Judaea," American Journal of Philology 1933, pp. 120-33, esp. pp. 129-31 and 133; and the evidence is gathered and analyzed by S.R. Llewelyn, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity 6 (1992) pp. 112-32, and addressed in the context of Egypt by Bagnall & Frier (cf. op. cit., pp. 14-6, in 12.5).

[2.1] 2:1 tou de Iêsou gennêthentos en Bêthleem tês Ioudaias en hêmerais Hêrôdou tou basileôs. On the reigns of the Herods, cf. A. Jones, The Herods of Judaea, 1967, esp. pp. 28-155ff.

[2.2] Based on "Frier's Life Table for the Roman Empire," p.144 of T.G. Parkin, Demography and Roman Society (1992), from Bruce Frier's Landlords and Tenants in Imperial Rome, 1980); cf. also Coale & Demeny, Regional Model Life Tables and Stable Populations, 2nd ed. (1983).

[2.3] Mark Smith (op. cit. 1.1.3, pp. 291-3) points out several reasons why Matthew could be inventing this story, noting poignantly "If Luke has as a minor theme the submission of Jesus' family to Roman authority, the central theme of the infancy narrative and early chapters of Matthew is a theological, typological parallel between Jesus and Moses acknowledged by virtually all interpreters...[and] the presence of a baby-killing tyrant is essential" to this comparison, a role only Herod would serve, thus giving Matthew a reason to "change" the date of the nativity to suit his theological purpose.

[3.1] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (completed in or shortly after 93 A.D.), 17.355

tês d' Archelaou chôras hupotelous prosnemêtheisês têi Surôn pempetai Kurinios hupo Kaisaros anêr hupatikos apotimêsomenos te ta en Suriai kai ton Archelaou apodôsomenos oikon.

[3.2] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.1-2:

Kurinios de tôn eis tên boulên sunagomenôn anêr tas te allas archas epitetelekôs kai dia pasôn hodeusas hupatos genesthai ta te alla axiômati megas sun oligois epi Surias parên, hupo Kaisaros dikaiodotês tou ethnous apestalmenos kai timêtês tôn ousiôn genêsomenos, Kôpônios te autôi sunkatapempetai tagmatos tôn hippeôn, hêgêsomenos Ioudaiôn têi epi pasin exousiai. parên de kai Kurinios eis tên Ioudaian prosthêkên tês Surias genomenên apotimêsomenos te autôn tas ousias kai apodôsomenos ta Archelaou chrêmata.

[3.3] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.342-4:

Dekatôi de etei tês archês Archelaou hoi prôtoi tôn andrôn en te Ioudaiois kai Samareusi mê pherontes tên ômotêta autou kai turannida katêgorousin autou epi Kaisaros...ho toinun Kaisar hôs êkousen, orgêi...hôrmêsen auton eis tên exodon...Biennan polin...ta de chrêmata apênenkato.

[3.4] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.26:

Kurinios de ta Archelaou chrêmata apodomenos êdê kai tôn apotimêseôn peras echousôn, hai egenonto triakostôi kai hebdomôi etei meta tên Antôniou en Aktiôi hêttan hupo Kaisaros

[3.5] Cassius Dio, Roman History 55.27 (begun in 202 and completed around 235 A.D.). Dio's history is annalistic (it covers events year by year), and for the year 6 he reports that Archelaus' brothers accused him before Augustus who then deposed him and annexed his territory to Syria. He clearly does not have his account from Josephus because Dio says he does not know why Archelaus was deposed (though he should if he had read Josephus), does not call him Archelaus but Herod the Palestinian (his political name; Josephus uses only his real name), and implicates his brothers as his accusers even though Josephus only mentions "leading men in Judaea and Samaria." For corroboration, coins minted in Judaea by Roman officials begin in A.D. 6 (Burnett, Roman Provincial Coinage, 1992, no. 4954: note that his supplemental volume corrects a typographical error: the coin in fact reads "Year 36 of Caesar," i.e. the 36th year after Actium or A.D. 5/6).

[3.6] Antiquities of the Jews, 18.1-8, 20.102; Jewish War (completed between 75 and 79 A.D.), 2.433-4, 7.252-4.

[3.7] This isn't necessarily an independent confirmation, since Luke may in fact be borrowing this from Josephus, cf. my article Luke and Josephus. Some try to claim that Acts 5:37 refers to a different census, but this is illogical: it clearly says "in the days" of the census and Luke has only mentioned one census, the one that happened "in the days" (exactly the same words) of Augustus (Luke 2:1). Robert Jones in his web essay Historical Evidence for the Gospel Accounts of Jesus Christ attempts to argue for two censuses by claiming that in 2:2 Luke says only "a" census but in Acts 5:37 he says "the" census. Apart from the fact that this would not entail an implication of two different censuses, it is also wrong on the Greek, for Luke does not say "a" census but "this census" (hautê apographê). A pronomial adjective is even stronger than a definite article, not weaker. Indeed, the absence of the article is actually a common idiom in Koinê Greek, and does not carry the same weight as its absence in English (it is more like a Cockney dialect, where the article is often omitted even when normally necessary to the meaning).

[3.8] Many scholars have chewed over the facts and the consensus is that Herod may have died in 5 B.C. instead of 4 B.C., but whatever the case he had to have been dead before 3 B.C. For analysis, see pp. 372-3 in Nikos Kokkinos, The Herodian Dynasty: Origins, Role in Society and Eclipse (1998), and also, here, Was Herod Alive in 2 B.C.?.

[4.1] For Saturninus: Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 16.277-81, 16.344, 17.6-7, 17.24, 17.57, Jewish War 1.577. For Titius: Strabo 16.1.28, Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 16.270-77 (vs. 16.277-81). For Varus: Velleius 2.117.2; Tacitus, Historiae 5.9.2; Josephus, Jewish War 1.617-39 & 2.66-80 (i.e. Varus there before and still there after Herod's death), Jewish Antiquities 17.89-133, 17.221-23, 17.250-98. See Edward Dabrowa, The Governors of Roman Syria from Augustus to Septimius Severus (1998), pp. 17-35 for the evidence and names of all the governors of Syria from 25 B.C. to 25 A.D. (e.g. see pp. 22-26 on the evidence that Piso was governing Syria in the year 1 B.C., and that Varus had left by the end of the year 4).

[4.1.5] The date of the consulship of Quirinius is attested in consular lists found in stone throughout the Roman empire, and by Dio Cassius 54.28.2 (cf. the relevant entry in Pauly, Wissowa, & Kroll, Real-Encyclopädie d. klassischen Altertumwissenschaft). Tacitus Annals 3.48 and the Josephus passage cited above both paint a picture of Quirinius' consulship as the pinnacle of a career that arose from obscurity, so it is very unlikely that he had held any previous consulship that escaped mention in consular lists or other sources (e.g. as a suffect consul, for example).

[4.2] J. Anderson, Cambridge Ancient History 10, 1934, p. 878. Syme, op. cit., pp. 873-5 (590-2), in [5.1], reiterates the fact, but points out some hopelessly sketchy evidence that might make it a little more conceivable, though still unprecedented. Nevertheless, there is no evidence for, and no sense or reason, in any repeated consular command.

[5.1] For the most decisive treatment of this item, cf. Ronald Syme, "The Titulus Tiburtinus," Roman Papers, vol. 3, Anthony Birley, ed., 1984, pp. 869-884 (originally appeared in Akten des VI. Internationalen Kongresses für Griechische und Lateinische Epigraphik: Vestigia xvii, 1973, pp. 585-601). The primary sources are Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 14 § 3613 (= H. Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae § 918), with a photograph (pl. 33b) in J. and A.E. Gordon, Album of Latin Inscriptions 1, 1958 (cf. also p. 70). I will translate all inscriptions literally within standard epigraphic conventions, e.g. all abbreviations I expand fully, etc.

[5.2] Inscriptions suggest, but do not prove it. For the whole case for Piso, cf. Syme 5.1 pp. 878-81 (594-9). A.N. Sherwin-White concurs, and defends the same thesis further in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament 1963, pp. 162-6.

[5.3] E. Groag, Jahreshefte des österreichischen archäologischen Instituts in Wien 21/22 (1924) pp. 473f. Normally, for the use of iterum in this sentence to mean a second governorship of Syria, it would have to appear before the verb, yet it clearly does not. Since iterum does not appear before the verb, nor beside any adjective, the normal conventions governing adverbs do not apply, since they only relate to the modification of verbs or adjectives (Gildersleeve's Latin Grammar § 439-40); instead, the established routine in epigraphy is to place it as a modifier of the office, not the province. This has been challenged by Sherwin-White (op. cit. 1963, p. 164, in 5.2), but all of his supposedly "contrary" examples either prove Groag's rule instead or engage circular reasoning (and thus do not in fact prove what he thinks). At best his argument only allows the possibility of reading the sentence either way, which is insufficient to establish the sense needed here, especially given that we have no evidence of any second governorship of the same province in Roman history. Hence his conclusion has not been accepted (Syme, op. cit., p. 873, in 5.1).

[6.1] For details see H. Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae (1892-1916) § 2683 (in vol. 3), also in V. Ehrenberg and A. Jones, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, 2nd ed. (1976), § 231, and originally appearing in Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 3 Suppl. § 6687, from which I acquired the sketch.

[6.2] The Roman Near East (1993), pp. 48, 250.

[7.1] Sketch and photo, and all other details unless otherwise stated, from G. L. Cheesman, "The Family of the Caristanii at Antioch in Pisidia," Journal of Roman Studies 3 (1913), pp. 253ff. The text is also available in H. Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae § 9502-3.

[7.2] "Can We Trust Scripture?" Return to God Magazine 1:2 (1994) p. 16. No author is named. The text was available as of August 2006 at http://www.advancemeants.com/creation/rtgevd4.txt.

[7.3] My suspicion is based on an anonymous apologetic tirade in Comp-Software-International Digest 23:3 (Tuesday, 16 March 1999). This is hardly a source worth citing, but it exemplifies some of the trends I have been exhibiting. The author says some ridiculous things (like that Herod's son Archelaus was "governor of Syria in 1 B.C."), but he cites Sir William Ramsay specifically, reporting that "he discovered an inscription at Antioch of Pisidia establishing Quirinius in Syria 10-7 BC, while leading a campaign against the Homanadenses (in the Taurus Mountains), a fact confirmed by Tacitus." In actual fact, though Ramsay did discover both stones, his colleague G. L. Cheesman wrote the relevant article on them (see 7.91 below), and these details match somewhat the (entirely speculated) claims of Cheesman. Thus there is likely some intermediary source involved. But again, the speculations of Cheesman are here presented as if "proven" by the stone, and it is even suggested that Tacitus "confirms" all this, but he only confirms that Quirinius conducted a war on the Homanadenses, not when or in what command, nor where the Homanadenses were--the Taurus mountains is actually not the likely location (see box above).

[7.91] G. L. Cheesman, op. cit., in 7.1. Though drawing on communications and other work of Sir William Ramsay, the arguments in this article are Cheesman's.

[7.92] Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 2 § 6843.

[7.93] For details, cf. Syme, op. cit., p. 876 (592), in 5.1. The latest and most thorough analysis of the evidence for this war is provided by Barbara Levick, "The Homanadensian War," Roman Colonies in Southern Asia Minor, 1967, pp. 203-14. Cf. p. 213 on this point in particular.

[7.94] For details, cf. Syme, op. cit., p. 876 (592), in 5.1.

[7.95] Levick, op. cit., pp. 39-40 and 211, in 7.93. Cf. Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (2000), R. Talbert, ed., maps 62-6. Syme has also supported this entire position at some length, refuting outdated scholarship on Quirinius, in "Galatia and Pamphylia under Augustus: The Governorship of Piso, Quirinius and Silvanus," Klio 1934, pp. 122-148.

[8.1] His chronological arguments, and the use of this pseudo-evidence, only appear in print in two publications: "Jesus' Life: A New Chronology," Jerry Vardaman & Edwin Yamauchi, eds., Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan (1989), published by the small Biblical studies press Eisenbrauns (of Winona Lake, IN); Jerry Vardaman, Chronology and Early Church History in the New Testament, a series of typed and photocopied lectures delivered once, to the Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, in 1998 (only a few cheaply-bound copies of this exist; though I was based in New York city, I had to acquire mine on loan from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of Kentucky). Vardaman also presents his conclusions, though not his evidence or arguments, in another book he edited, Chronos, Kairos, Christos II.

[8.2] John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament (1991), p. 154. McRay cites a manuscript Vardaman sent him, which was never published, but a similar claim appeared in one of the lectures delivered in China in 1998 (cf. 8.1). That Vardaman had this theory since 1989, had a more detailed manuscript in 1990, and yet never published in any peer reviewed journal, but instead made a significantly different claim in an isolated foreign seminary lecture eight years later, demonstrates that Vardaman either realizes he cannot convince any real experts on the subject, or was told so by any independent reviewers he submitted it to. I am not surprised.

[8.3] Vardaman, op. cit. 1989, p. 66, in 8.1.

[8.4] Vardaman, op. cit. 1989, p. 67, in 8.1.

[8.5] Vardaman, op. cit. 1989, p. 67, in 8.1, citing "hand-scratched microletters" produced by E.T. Newell in the American Journal of Numismatics 46 (1912), p. 112. However, Newell only shows evidence there of graffitti on coins: one or two letters, roughly scratched by hand with an ordinary object, and quite visible to the naked eye. This phenomenon is in fact well known and not unusual. But these are not "microletters" in Vardaman's sense: they are neither microscopic nor do they literally cover coins with added information, but only a few letters at most. Moreover, their date cannot really be established, since the scratchings could have been made decades after the coins were minted. In contrast, central to Vardaman's thesis is the claim that most of these inscriptions were created by the minters and thus reflect official records.

[8.6] Vardaman, op. cit. 1989 8.1 p. 70 and 71.

[8.6.5] I subsequently found the coin on my own, and my estimates were almost exact: the scale for his blow-up section is approximately 14:1 and the letters he sees would be less than half a millimeter in size. The following is an enlarged reproduction of a plastercast of the coin available in A. M. Burnett, Roman Provincial Coinage, 1992, item 4797:

Photo of Coin of Damascenes, 16 AD, item 4797 in Burnett

This coin is only 26mm in diameter. Though a cast cannot preserve microscopic details, it is still obvious that the coin was so smooth that all the details of the goddess's face have rubbed off, yet Vardaman draws them in as if they are there; likewise the veins of the laurel leaves are almost rubbed into oblivion right where Vardaman sees his microletters. I examined the actual coin myself at the British Museum, with a digital microscope, and found pits and cracks but no microletters. See: Richard Carrier, "Pseudohistory in Jerry Vardaman's Magic Coins: The Nonsense of Micrographic Letters," Skeptical Inquirer 26.2 (Mar-Apr 2002): pp. 39-41, 61; and Richard Carrier, "More on Vardaman's Microletters," ibid. 26.4 (Jul/Aug 2002): pp. 60-61.

[8.7] Vardaman, op. cit. 1989, p. 72, in 8.1.

[8.8] Vardaman, op. cit. 1989, p. 62 (n. 5), in 8.1.

[8.9] Vardaman, op. cit. 1998, Lecture 1, pp. 8-11, in 8.1.

[8.95] Ibid., unnumbered appended page titled "The Problem of Theudas and Microletters on the Lapis Venutus."

[9.1] For the nature of Roman Imperialism during the formation of the Empire, which was nearly completed by the Republic, see William Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome: 327-70 BC (1979). Then, for Roman imperialism in early Imperial period, see Martin Goodman, The Roman World: 44 BC - AD 180 (1997).

[9.2] Led by Judas the Galilean: Acts 5:37 (cf. 3.7); Josephus, Jewish War 2.117-8, and Jewish Antiquities 18.1-8.

[9.3] A.N. Sherwin-White, "Quirinius: a Note" (op. cit. 5.2, 1963, p. 167), on Horst Braunert's study "Der römische Provinzialzensus und der Schätzungsbericht des Lukas-Evangeliums," Historia: Zeitschrift für alte Geschichte 6 (1957), pp. 192-214.

[9.35] Justin Martyr's Apology 1.34 and 1.46 also shows that this is exactly how Christians understood their own history: Quirinius was the first governor of Judaea, and Jesus was born during the census he took there, which happened 150 years earlier. It is believed that Justin wrote his first apology around 155 A.D., which produces a birth year of 6 A.D. (the 150th year before Justin wrote). Justin also claims that one can check the census records to confirm this, but this is certainly a bluff: it is extremely unlikely that Justin checked them himself. He does not say he did, and the information he gives is too vague to suggest he was drawing on an official record. Had he read the actual record, he should have been able to report at least one of the items the record would include: for Joseph there would be a full name, age, name of father or family, residence, occupation, and amount of property, as well as the character and extent of any land and the number of slaves owned. If a baby Jesus would be listed at all in the census records, it would only be as part of this entry. It is also unlikely that just anyone could access such important records--to prevent fraud, they must have been kept under very tight guard and accessible only to Roman magistrates. Cf. Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1996), s.v. "census." It's also very improbable such a record would survive that long (even apart from the common contingencies of accidental fire and inevitable decay, space considerations alone would prohibit any interest in the government maintaining the detailed census records of hundreds of millions of people for 150 years, especially since searching such a vast archive without a computerized database would be effectively impossible).

[10.1] Sherwin-White, op. cit. 1963, p. 171 (n. 1), in 5.2.

[10.2] Klaus Rosen, "Jesu Geburtsdatum, der Census des Quirinius une eine Jüdische Steuererklärung aus dem Jahr 127 n.C.," Jahrbuch für antike Christentum 38, 1995, pp. 5-15.

[10.3] cf. "proteros," Liddell & Scott Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. with suppl.: section B, esp. B.I.3.d. "prôtos is sometimes used where we should expect proteros," often with the genitive, but note how all examples that follow as proof of this can be rendered "first in relation to"; also B.III.2.c, and B.I.3.a., "frequently used predicatively of being the first to do something," thus "first in relation to" is the basic sense in all such contexts, as is demonstrated further above. This is confirmed by H.W. Smyth's analysis of the appearance of the superlative with the genitive plural (Greek Grammar, 1920, § 1434), and in genitives of comparison (§ 1431). Hence, for example, if Luke meant in Luke 2:2 what he meant in Acts 1:1, then Luke 2:2 would read "in the previous census when Quirinius was governing Syria," which means the same thing as "in the first census when Quirinius was governing Syria."
       Note: Since composing the above, another attempt to defend a reading of "before Quirinius" has been brought to my attention: Stanley Porter stops short of committing to it but suggests it's a viable possibility in "The Reasons for the Lukan Census," in Paul, Luke and the Graeco-Roman World, ed. by Alf Christophersen et al (2002): 165-88 (cf. pp. 173-76). Pearson had also made this argument (see Was it a Census Conducted by Herod the Great?). But Pearson and Porter ignore (or are ignorant of) all the grammatical points I make in the text and note above, especially the fact that you can't have a genitive of comparison that is separated from the comparative by a finite verb (and accordingly neither he nor Pearson adduce any parallels for this), and the fact that we have ample attestation of the way Luke prefers to say "before" and thus we have every reason to expect him to have written this sentence differently if he really meant what Porter and Pearson want. In addition, Porter too readily dismisses the fact that no ancient Christian ever understood Luke 2:2 to mean what Porter suggests, despite the fact that it was written in their native language (which is not Porter's).

[10.4] H.W. Smyth, Greek Grammar, 1920: genitive of comparison, § 1431, § 1434; genitive absolute: § 2070. Since the participle in the Quirinius clause is in the present 'tense' it possesses what is called a 'continuous aspect', meaning that the action of the main sentence must be happening at the same time as the action in the absolute clause, not before or after. A participle in the future tense would be required for Quirinius' rule to follow the census (just as the aorist or perfect tense would be needed for the census to follow the reign of Quirinius).
          In Yahoo Groups, some terribly inept arguments were made with the appearance of authority about the Greek of this passage, and as this is spreading around on the web, I will address them in this note, though anyone with any competence in Greek will see they are bogus. In [Synoptic-L] Interlocking verse method-3c John Lupia makes several claims already refuted in this essay (for instance, contrary to his claims, the word protos is not followed by hêgemoneus, since a finite verb stands between them), but some novel ones as well:
          (1) Contrary to Lupia, hêgemoneus cannot be a noun: the form -ontos exists only in the present participle construction. A participle is a verbal adjective. It can only stand in for a noun when it is used as a substantive, which requires at the very least that it stand alone, yet this would make it incompatible with a subject in the genitive (as Quirinius's name is). It is therefore an adjective modifying Quirinius.
           (2) As Lupia rightly says, hêgemoneuma is a feminine noun (it means "a leading") and hêgemoneus is a masculine noun (it means "a leader"), but hêgemoneus is not the genitive of either word. The genitive of hêgemoneuma is hgemoneumatos and the genitive of hêgemoneusis hêgemoneôs. This error being pointed out, he attempted to retract it with a claim that he did not mean what he said (in a later post: Re: [Synoptic-L] HGEMONEUONTOS).
           (3) Contrary to his claim, the Octavian census of "19-20 B.C." (actually, 28 B.C.: Mr. Lupia even has his dates wrong) was of Roman citizens only, not provincials, and thus could not have included Judaea. There certainly must have been provincial censuses of Syria before 6 AD, but we do not know their dates, and they would not have included Judaea, which was not a part of Syria (nor Roman in any sense) until A.D 6. These facts are demonstrated at length in other sections of the present work.
           (4) Contrary to Lupia's arguments, the construction is clearly a genitive absolute, as this is always the case when you have an independent subject in the genitive modified by a participle in the genitive. Lupia also seems confused as to why the word for "Syria" is in the genitive (syrias), though if he had any real knowledge of Greek he would know that this is because hêgemoneuein always takes a genitive object, not because hêgemoneus is a noun.

[10.5] Acts 16:12 isn't even remotely relevant, since it only says "Philippi is the first city of its part of Macedonia," which is not chronological and plainly translates as "first" (in prominence), not "before."

[10.6] This is attempted by Stephen Carlson, "Luke 2:2 and the Census" (2004). Carlson incorrectly identifies the preposition en as an adverb in Ephesians 6:2, although that may simply have been a slip. More seriously, Carlson falsely claims Ephesians 6:2 shares the same structure as Luke 2:2, but they aren't even close: there is no prepositional clause following protê in Luke 2:2 but instead a verb followed by a genitive absolute. The prepositional phrase in Ephesians establishes the context of comparison as conceptual rather than chronological, whereas the genitive absolute in Luke establishes the context as chronological rather than conceptual (it reads as when Quirinius was governing Syria because of the preceding temporal marker "it happened in those days" and the immediately following phrase "and everyone was going," together linking the Quirinius clause with the temporal context and purpose of the story, not with any conceptual digression). Carlson is thus ignoring contextual markers. Carlson also seems unaware of the ubiquitous use of egeneto as a form of "be." He seems to think "was" is a "weak" translation of this verb when in fact it's a common one, especially when used in a chronological sense (e.g. Luke 1:5, 2:13, 4:25, etc.; or Luke 1:8, 1:23, 1:41, 2:1, 2:6, 2:15, etc.). In fact, this connotation of the verb appears over a hundred times in Luke-Acts alone, so I don't understand why he thinks it peculiar. Carlson also repeats the mistake of citing an example of the genitive of comparison (Mark 12:28) as a parallel for Luke 2:2, which cannot be a genitive of comparison, thus eliminating any relevant parallel.
       Carlson commits other gaffs in "Parsing Luke 2:2" (2004), incorrectly claiming that without a definite article the intensifier hautê becomes the subject and apographê prôtê becomes the predicate, but there is no such rule. In Greek, it could be read that way, or the reverse (hautê apographê the subject and prôtê the predicate), or neither (hautê apographê prôtê as subject with no predicate). Moreover, in Koine Greek, articles are often omitted, hence Carlson is incorrect to cite its absence as a reason to reject an attributive or predicate position for the intensifying pronoun (just see Luke 20:42, 24:15; or Acts 15:32, 20:34). In fact, such a usage could even serve as an intensified definite article (e.g. Luke 1:35). Carlson also incorrectly thinks he can cite an Attic author (Thucydides) to establish an idiom for a Koine author (Luke), even though these dialects often differ in their use of articles and intensifying pronouns.

[11.1] Marchant gives the wrong title for his source: Corpus Inscriptorum Latinum 3rd Supplement, doc. 6687. He really means Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (cf. 6.1 above).
     The source of Marchant's error is his reliance on Ethelbert Stauffer's Jesus and his Story (tr. by Richard and Clara Winston, 1960) which is so incredibly ignorant and incorrect about so many aspects of Roman history, and historical method, that it is an embarrassment to apologetic scholarship, at least in his treatment of the census (pp. 21-32). Since he is often cited nonetheless, I will give here a general list of the kind of damning problems present in his analysis that discredit him thoroughly:

  • Stauffer claims a census could take years to complete, even in Egypt, even though he cites no primary evidence, and in fact papyri demonstrate that there was a deadline of one year, and the census in Gaul, which he claims took forty years, in fact took only three, and that due only to exceptional circumstances
  • As evidence for the nature of a census in Syria under Augustus, Stauffer cites Lactantius describing census methods under the Tetrarchy in 300 A.D., yet that was a radically different situation. Roman government in 300 barely resembled any detail of government under Augustus, not the least of which being the fact that the entire population had the Roman citizenship at the time, the provinces had entirely different divisions and borders and officials, the world was in the midst of the most disastrous economic depression hitherto known, and barbarians were clamoring at every border posing a serious threat, requiring unprecedented levels of military requisitions and bureaucratic control.
  • Stauffer assumes that the presence of Roman procurators in a kingdom entailed the entire kingdom was regulated by a Roman taxation system, when in fact they merely collected tribute, and rarely cared how kings came up with it.
  • Stauffer claims, again without any evidence, that Apamea was a free city when taxed by Quirinius, when in fact that is false.
  • Stauffer offers no examples and no evidence of a client kingdom being subject to a Roman census, yet claims it was routine.
  • Stauffer assumes Quirinius was appointed to the level of authority of Agrippa after the latter's death, which is not only unsupported by any evidence, but is absurd on so many levels it is hardly worth the effort of refutation (not the least fact being that, had that been so, then it would entail Augustus was grooming Quirinius to be his successor, as had been the case with Agrippa, yet Quirinius did not succeed him nor is there any evidence he was ever even considered).

[11.2] See Warwick Ball, Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire (2000), p. 160; the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (2000), R. Talbert, ed., lists five Apameas, but one of those (map 92 grid B4) is deep in Persian territory and did not fall under Roman influence until the early 2nd century A.D. (and then only briefly). Apamea on the Orontes (map 1 grid K3) is the only city of that name both large enough and in Syria; Apamea Celaenae (map 65 grid D1) is large enough but not in Syria. The other two were very small communities and could not be the city in question: Apamea on the Propontis (aka Brylleion: map 52 grid D4) and Apamea on the Euphrates (map 67 grid F2).

[12.1] John McRay, op. cit., p. 154-5, in 8.2.

[12.15] E. Meyer, Ursprung und Anfänge des Christentums, I.51.

[12.2] Special locally-elected censors performed this duty there: Cicero, In Verrem 2.131. Cf. also Andrew Lintott, Imperium Romanum: Politics and Administration (1993), pp. 71, 75-6.

[12.3] This we know from the best possible evidence: The Res Gestae inscriptions, recording the words of Augustus himself. The censuses are described at § 8. They each record between 4 and 5 million "Roman citizens" only (the whole empire must have had more than fifty million inhabitants at the time), and the dates are precisely given by the identification of office holders. Cf. Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, eds., Roman Civilization: Selected Readings, 3rd ed. (1990), I § 195.

[12.4] Cassius Dio 53.22.15; Livy, Periochae 134 and 138; Desau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, 212.ii.36; Tacitus Annals 1.31-33, 2.6; on Cyrenaica we have papyri, cf. Braunert, op. cit., p. 194, in 9.3.

[12.5] Arnold Jones, The Roman Economy (1974) p. 165; Roger Bagnall and Bruce Frier, The Demography of Roman Egypt (1994), pp. 1-30; the fourteen year cycle in Egypt is firmly attested from A.D. 34 to A.D. 258. Bagnall and Frier show how the Egyptian census system probably had a seven year cycle before that (including a census in 3 B.C.), and that the census process was reorganized in the year 5 to conclude in the year 6 (pp. 4-6). In other words, completion of the census in Egypt was expected to occur in the year 5 (fourteen years after the year 10 B.C., since there is no year zero), but was in fact completed in the year 6, and this delay was perpetuated thereafter. Combined with the fact that Josephus reports that Augustus specifically sent Quirinius to take a census in Syria in 6 A.D., and simply added Judaea to it at that time, this suggests Augustus could have been reorganizing his Eastern government in that year.

[13.1] This was the Homanadensian War, cf. box above for date and other details. Note that the evidence suggests he also had an Egyptian legion in addition to a Syrian one, and he may have had others. Legions were often called away from their regular posts for special operations elsewhere, and when they were they were no longer under the command of their former provincial legate but of the legate conducting the war.

[13.2] Syme, concurring with Ramsay, cf. 5.1 p. 875 (592). The most accurate geographical scholarship on this issue is reflected in the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (2000), R. Talbert, ed., map 65 grid G3. Limited access was available from the port at Side, but the mountain pass was dangerous for supply lines to cross in a guerilla war. Coordination of a campaign by any competent general would have to have come from the open high plains north of the mountains. Cf. also Levick, op. cit., pp. 203-6, in 7.93 and Syme, op. cit., in 7.95.

[14.1] For the known details of how governorships actually worked, see Andrew Lintott, Imperium Romanum: Politics and Administration (1993), esp. pp. 43ff.

[14.2] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 16.280:

epi te Satorninou kai Ouolomniou tôn Surias epistatountôn eginonto logoi

The verb epistatountôn does mean "put in command" but Josephus also describes Quirinius as being put in charge of Syria-Judaea along with the knight Coponius, so the idea of a being put in charge does not entail a governorship but any command position, like that of prefect. And Josephus is elsewhere very clear about what position Volumnius actually held.

[14.3] Josephus, Jewish War 1.538:

Satorninos te kai hoi peri Pedanion presbeis, sun hois Ouoloumnios epitropos

The Greek term epitropos corresponds to the Latin "procurator" and sometimes stands for "prefect," but both are equestrians and never senators.

[14.4] "In A.D. 74 or 75, for example, there seem to have been two legati Augusti in Africa charged with the special duty of revising the frontiers," G. L. Cheesman, op. cit., p. 257, in 7.1. But the inscription proving this states very plainly per Rutilium Gallicum cos. pont. et Sentium Caecilianum praetorem legatos Aug., "by the consul and pontifex Rutilius Gallicus and the praetor Sentius Caecilianus, the legates of Augustus." Thus, these are not two governors, but a consular governor and a lower-ranking praetor, who is a senator but of lesser rank. Cheesman appears not to have even read the text, even though he troubled to print the whole thing in a footnote. Instead, he inexplicably assumed the term "legate" only ever referred to a governorship, when in fact it means simply "deputy" and was used even by a governor to refer to his own subordinate staff.

[15.1] Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.19.

[15.2] For instance, Tertullian claims that Emperor Tiberius asked the Senate at Rome to recognize Christianity as an official religion in Apology 1.5.

[15.3] See C.F. Evans, "Tertullian's References to Sentius Saturninus and the Lukan Census," Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. 24:1, April 1973, pp. 24-39.

[16.1] 2 Samuel 24:1-17 and 1 Chronicles 21:1-17 depicts taking a peacetime census as a foolish sin (even the work of Satan). After David, Solomon only counted foreigners (2 Chronicles 2:17), and later kings counted only soldiers prepared for war (2 Chronicles 25:5-11, 26:6-15; logically, because they had to pay them). The only preacetime census of Jews on record after David is the exceptional effort of Ezra, when Jews returned from exile and racial purity had to be confirmed (Ezra 2; Nehemiah 7:5-67). The only other passage suggested is 2 Kings 12:4, but that does not actually mention a census in any of the original languages, but money paid to the temple--there is no mention of any effort to keep track of who had to pay or who had paid.

[16.2] Brook Pearson, "The Lucan Censuses, Revisited," Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 61:2 (April, 1999), pp. 262-82. I deal here only with those arguments of Pearson not already addressed above (Did Luke Mean "Before" Quirinius?). For the same reason, the recent argument of John Rhoads, "Josephus Misdated the Census of Quirinius," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54.1 (March 2011): 65-87, is not worth addressing in the body of this article at all. He argues the bizarre thesis that Josephus's account of the procurator Sabinus (who commandeered a legion to try and seize the royal treasure after Herod's death, but was thwarted by governor Varus) was actually about an earlier special legateship of Quirinius, and that Josephus just confused who he was talking about (!?), and then also confused the "census" part of this supposed story (which appears nowhere in Josephus' account of Sabinus and would make no sense there) as occurring during Quirinius' later governorship of Syria, and thus a fantastical network of errors prodoced the account we now have, thereby misdating the census. Already implausible even on its face, Rhoads case is an elaborate fallacy of possibiliter ergo probabiliter ("possibly, therefore probably"), i.e. he argues that it's possible Josephus made a large number of conveniently specific errors, and then assumes that it's therefore probable he did, when the latter in no way follows from the former. In fact, all the other evidence corroborates Josephus in every relevant particular (as surveyed throughout this article), so the errors that Rhoads insists upon are actually very improbable. Rhoads also relies on a number of factual errors and implausible assumptions, which are already corrected by various sections of the present article, e.g. his claim that an account of Herod's estates and tribute obligations would involve a census of the Jewish people simply misunderstands what a census was for (the exact same error made by Pearson, as we'll soon see).

[16.3] For a discussion of the typical sorts of taxes and how they were levied, see S.L. Wallace, Taxation in Egypt from Augustus to Diocletian, 1938. Though this is somewhat outdated, it is as yet unrivalled, and the general details have been confirmed, e.g. cf. C.A. Nelson, ed., Financial and Administrative Documents From Roman Egypt (Ägyptische Urkunden aus den Staatlichen Museen Berlin, vol. 15), 1983; esp. § 2521 and 2525 with commentary. Egypt was unique in many respects, especially with regard to specific details (vocabulary, cycles, officials, rates, etc.), but the general sorts of taxes could more or less be found all over the empire.

[16.4] Cf. F.M. Heichelheim, "Roman Syria," An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome (T. Frank, ed.) vol. 4, 1936, pp. 160-2.

[16.5] Josephus, Jewish War 17.229: this says nothing more than epistolas hoposa te chrêmata ên kai ti ep' etos ephoita, "letters showing the amount of money there was and what regularly came in every year." There is nothing here that has anything to do with a census.

[16.6] Josephus, Jewish War, 17.319, the key words are to samareitikon ("the Samaritan [territory]") and phoros ("tribute"), which usually referred to fixed annual amounts that are due no matter how many people there are in the territory, and no matter who comes up with the money or how.

[17.1] Jewish Antiquities 16.183-7, 14.9; for a full list of all relevant passages and other sources confirming this, consult Jacoby's Fragmente der griechischen Historiker §90 and §236.

[17.1.1] On dating these lunar eclipses see the NASA Catalogue of Lunar Eclipses: -0099 to 0000. It's also still worth consulting the classic discussion of the evidence dating Herod's death (both the year and the day) in Emil Schürer (revised and edited by Millar, Fergus, and Vermes), The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C. - A.D. 135) (new english ed., 1973): pp. 326-29.

[17.1.2] All of this likewise refutes the more recent argument of Andrew Steinmann, "When Did Herod the Great Reign?" Novum Testamentum 51 (2009): 1-2, whose case rests on there not being enough time between the supposed lunar eclipse, Herod's death, and the following coronations (when in fact there was plenty of time after the year 5 eclipse, and Herod's death at the end of that year explains all the other evidence, so Steinmann's argument is simply dead at the gate, even if we believe the claim that a lunar eclipse actually foreshadowed any event, which as I've pointed out is not a reliable assumption to begin with), and also requires rejecting all the evidence regarding the tenure of Varus and the calendar day on which Herod was believed to have died, and all the other evidence regarding when Judea was annexed and thus subject to a census, and when and why Roman censuses were conducted, and when Quirinius governed Syria, and on and on (which collectively render his thesis too implausible to credit).

[17.1.5] Cf. A. P. Bloch, Day by Day in Jewish History: A Chronology and Calendar of Historic Events, 1983, p. 209 (n. 65).

[17.2] Cf. § 501 ff.; the few odd exceptions are fully rejected by contemporary scholarship, cf. § 512 (which is the source of all of Finegan's inept argument).

[17.3] David Beyer, "Josephus Reexamined: Unraveling the Twenty-second Year of Tiberius," delivered at the annual national meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (Finegan incorrectly calls this the Society for Biblical Literature), on November 19, 1995. But for some mysterious reason, this paper was not published in the Society of Biblical Literature 1995 Seminar Papers (ed. Eugene H. Lovering, Jr., Scholars Press: Atlanta, Georgia), which otherwise reproduces the speeches given at the same meeting. The editor's introductory note (p. ix) reveals a problem right away with using Beyer's presentation the way Finegan does: the papers given at the meeting are "experimental and initial research on a subject. Therefore they should not be considered finished works but works in progress." I subsequently found Beyer's paper in Vardaman, ed., Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, and Beyer says little more than Finegan does on this subject.

[17.4] Jewish Antiquities 15.368-370, w. 15.354 & 380, in the seventeenth year of his reign. As discussed already, Herod's reign officially began in 37 B.C., when his Parthian rival was finally defeated and Herod assumed the crown and control of Jerusalem, though he had been approved for kingship by the Roman Senate in 40 B.C. (cf. AJ 17.191). That this was 20 B.C. is confirmed by the fact that Herod places an important state visit by Augustus at the same time, and Augustus himself, in his Res Gestae, records this very visit (11), placing it in 20 B.C. (thus aligning perfectly with the fact that Josephus dates the beginning of Herod's reign correctly in 37 B.C.). Dio Cassius likewise confirms the very same detail (54.7.4-6, 54.9.3), and we can safely presume it was fully corroborated by the histories of Nicolaus and Herod's own memoires.

[17.5] Jewish Antiquities 17.34-43, w. 16.136 & 17.89. The fact that Josephus estimates a number of those refusing the oath here does not imply oaths were being counted, since he is only stating an estimate not an exact figure (that's why he gives only a nice round number), and he is referring to the whole sect of Pharisaic rabbis, whose number would have been roughly known anyway. Notice, also, how the two oaths recorded do not correspond with the quintennial "prayers of wellbeing" for the emperor: these two oaths are not separated by any arrangement of five-year periods. Thus Luke could not be referring to that, either; moreover, his choice of language and circumstance further eliminates such an option, as does the fact that this five-yearly oath was only made "by the consuls and priests" of Rome, not the people, who instead prayed, not gave oaths, and "continuously" at "shrines" all the time (Res Gestae 9). Though there may have been an annual oath-swearing by the people subject to Rome (made on the anniversary of the emperor's accession), Judaea was not yet subject to Rome. Besides, the whole population of the empire obviously did not have to return to their ancestral home towns every single year just to pledge allegiance to the flag.

[17.6] Oaths are attested to in inscriptions wherein it is said all the members of a certain municipality swore, and this means oath-swearers had to swear before a magistrate in the city to which their village or town was an official suburb, and Nazareth was not a suburb of Bethlehem--it is not even in the same territory. Cf. Lewis & Reinhold, Roman Civilization: Selected Readings, 3rd ed., 1990, § 1.201b-c & 2.3.


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