Luke and Quirinius
An examination of Luke 2:1-3, and what McDowell says about it, and his sources. Other apologists mentioned. Answers from The Anchor Bible.
ETDAV 4A5B3C3D1E p.71
The Reliability and Trustworthiness of Scripture
Evidence from Archaeology
Luke 2:1-3 — archaeological support — the Roman Census under Quirinius (Cyrenius)
McDowell states that, “It was one time conceded that Luke had entirely missed the boat in the events he portrayed as surrounding the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-3). Critics argued that there was no census, that Quirinius was not governor of Syria at that time and that everyone did not have to return to his ancestral home.”
In fact, scholars at no time have asserted that there was no census in Palestine; at the time of incorporation of Judaea into the Roman Empire, there was a census for the purposes of taxation, in association with Publius Suplicius Quirinius. It took place in CE (AD) 6-7. The census and its date and Quirinius are documented in Josephus, _Antiquities_ 18.1.1.
Scholars have found no support for the following assertions of Luke: that there was a worldwide census initiated by Augustus; that a Roman census did, or could have, taken place in Judaea or Galilee before the incorporation into a Roman province, specifically before the death of Herod in 4 BCE; that Quirinius was governor of Syria at any time prior to 6 CE.
Josh McDowell is not the first to assert that archaeology has verified Luke’s version of the Roman census. He makes three points. “First of all,archaeological discoveries show that the Romans had a regular enrollment of taxpayers and also held censuses every 14 years.” Luke’s would have corresponded to that of 9-8 B.C.
“Second, we find evidence that Quirinius was governor of Syria around 7 B.C. This assumption is based on an inscription found in Antioch ascribing to Quirinius this post. As a result of this finding, it is now supposed that that he was governor twice — once in 7 B.C.” and in 6 CE.
“Last, in regard to the practices of enrollment, a papyrus found in Egypt gives directions for the conduct of a census.
“It reads: ‘Because of the approaching census it is necessary that all those residing for any cause away from their homes should at once prepare to return to their own governments in order that they may complete the family registration of the enrollment and that the tilled lands may retain those belonging to them.'”
McDowell refers to two sources.
(M1) John Elder.__Prophets, Idols and Diggers: Scientific Proof of Bible History_. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960. pp. 159-60.
This author has a major flaw as a source; he does not give footnotes, or otherwise document his assertions.
He asserts that regular enrollment of taxpayers was a feature of Roman rule,and that a census was taken every fourteen years. A large Egyptian papyrus tells of an enrollment A.D. (CE) 174-5, and refers to previous enrollments in 160-1 and 146-7. Other papyri show enrollments A.D. 20-21 and 62-3. By hypothesis, Augustus is supposed to have started regular enrollements of the empire every 14 years, beginning in either 23-22 B.C. (BCE) or 9-8 B.C.
It is Roman practice to assess taxes province by province. These undocumented papyri give the practice for Egypt. Egypt, at the time of the incorporation into the Roman world, was made an imperial province, whose revenue went to the Emperors, and not to the Senate. Any practices in Egypt would not apply elsewhere.
Taxes were collected on a province-by-province basis, either by a local tax collection franchise (the publicans), or by tribute (e.g., during Herod’s kingdom). There would be no Roman-administered census in areas controlled directly by Herod or his family, as was the case in both Judaea and Galilee during the years around the birth of Jesus.
There is absolutely no support to Luke’s implication of worldwide census or a empire-wide tax. In fact, it is quite contrary to well-documented practice.
(T1) J.P.V.D. Balsdon. _Rome: The Story of an Empire_. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.
Balsdon describes the organization of the Empire, in terms of Public provinces and Imperial provinces. Egypt is a special case. Judaea became an imperial equestrian province in 6 CE.
(T2) A. H. M. Jones. _The Roman Economy: Studies in Ancient Economic and Administrative History_. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974. Reference to Luke 2 on p. 165, n. 81.
Luke is taken as evidence of taxation-related censuses, ” … (though his date is wrong, and he is mistaken, if he implies that the census was taken everywhere at the same time; Suidas s.v. apographe is worthless).”
Jones emphasizes that the 14 year tax cycles in Egypt does not apply to other provinces. Each province had a separate tax administration, often taxing different things, or at different rates.
Similarly, Elder mentions to have been found in Antioch in Southern Galatia an inscription uncovered in 1912 (by who?) which bears the name of Quirinius, whose date is fixed between 10 and 7 B.C. He is referred to as Prefect, and has been elected to the honorary post of duumvir, or magistrate, in recognition of his victory over the Hamonades.
Southern Galatia is not in Syria, but in Asia Minor. The Roman province of Galatia is separated from that of Syria by the province of Cilicia (and Capadocia, which did not become a province until 17 CE). Syria, in turn, separated Cilicia from the (then) Kingdom of Judaea (map, Balsdon, p. 72-3).
It is not clear to which inscription Elder is referring. I will now turn to the Anchor Bible entry on Luke 2:1-3, which has more complete information on Quirinius.
(T3) Fitzmyer, Joseph A. _Anchor Bible: The Gospel According To Luke I-IX_, (vol. 6 of N.T. series). Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981, p. 393, 399-407.
“Publius Suplicius Quirinius’ career is fairly well known and defies all attempts either to attribute to him two censuses in Judaea or to date the start of his legateship of Syria to any other period than A.D. 6-7; the only thing in this regard that is uncertain is how long his legateship lasted.”
Two Latin inscriptions mention Quirinius. One confirms his legateship in Syria, and his census in Syria; the other, set up in Pisidian Antioch, mentions his election as high commissioner (duovir) either during his Homonadensian campaign or as advisor to Gaius Caesar (Dessau, ILS sect. 2683, sects. 9502-9503).
The first confirms no earlier census, but refers to the known one in 6 CE. The second inscription is from Pisidian Antioch, which is at least 300 miles from Syria.
A last paragraph in John Elder’s book cites another papyrus concerning the conduct of a census. This is the one quoted by McDowell, above.
Although there is no reference in the text, this appears to be London Papyrus 904 (from A.D. 104), an edict of G. Vibius Maximus. It asks people to return to their *current* place of residence to enroll. The fantastic element of Luke’s census is the implication that Joseph, being of the family of David, had to return to Bethlehem, his supposed ancestor. We have no idea of the residence of this “royal line” since the time of David; Jesus’ ancestors may not have resided at Bethlehem for a thousand years. This papyrus, describing the practices of the census in Egypt, may have little bearing on customs in Syria and Judaea.
Since there are no footnotes, none of the assertions can be checked, and for the use of scholarship, Elder’s book is useless.
(M2) Joseph P. Free. _Archaeology and Bible History_. Revised and expanded by Howard F. Vos. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, revised ed., 1992. Earlier eds., 1950, 1962, 1969. Luke 2 material on pp. 242-3 in this ed.
I’ve listed this edition because it was the one available in the UCLA library, and as a new edition, it should contain any updates from the last few years.
The discovery of papyri supporting a census in 9-6 B.C. is referred to the following:
(F1) Camden M. Cobern. _New Archaeological Discoveries_, 9th ed. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1929, pp. 46-47; also p. 538.
(F2) Jack Finegan. _Light from the Ancient Past_. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959, p. 260.
Free makes assertions, not referenced, that an inscription found at Rome in 1828 indicated that Cyrenius (Quirinius) had been governor twice; and that shortly before World War I, Ramsay found a monument in Asia Minor likewise implying two governorships for Cyrenius. Without references, it is not clear which inscriptions are concerned. The inscription is Pisidian Antioch has already been discussed. The other may be the Tivoli (= Tiburtum?) inscription.
According to the Anchor Bible (p.403), the beginning of the Tivoli inscription (Dessau, ILS sect. 918) is lost, and therefore the name of the person honored are lost. There is no evidence it refers to Quirinius, and it has often been ascribed to others.
The Tivoli inscription has nevertheless been cited to support the view that a second legateship for Quirinius would have been possible. This is actually a mistranslation; properly, it should say that the person, being a legate of Augustus for the second time, “he received Syria and Phoenicia.” That is, the person performed public service twice, and the last time, he was legate to Syria (Anchor Bible, p. 403).
It is unheard of that a proconsul would become a legate of the emperor twice in the same province (see J. G. C. Anderson, _Cambridge Ancient History_ 10  878; R. Syme, “Titulus Tiburtinus,” 590).
Finally, Free refers to the edict in A.D. 104 that showed that people were to return to their ancestral homes. Reference:
(F3) Adolf Deissmann. _Light from the Ancient Past_. New York: Harper & Bros., 1922, p. 271.
However, this work is not listed in the catalog of either the UCLA library, or in the Library of Congress system (Marvel). This book, originally printed in German, has gone through a number of editions. Free and Vos apparently have made a scribal error. I suspect that the actual entry should read:
(F3A) Gustav Adolf Deissmann. _Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Greco-Roman World_. Rev. ed. New York: George H. Doran, 1927.
Nevertheless, this work is also not in the UCLA library, and I have been unable to obtain it. Yet another work by Adolf Deissmann, _New Light on the New Testament_, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908) does not contain a reference to Quirinius or Cyrenius.
The papyrus for 104 CE is apparently the London papyrus, quoted and analyzed above.
F. F. Bruce
Trying to make a new start, I turn to another Christian apologist, who is often quoted by McDowell, but not in this regard:
(B) F. F. Bruce, _The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?_. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1943; Fifth revised ed., pp. 86-87.
Bruce, who had been a professor of Biblical Exegesis at the University of Manchester, is more informative on the subject of Luke, Quirinius, and Roman practice. Here we are given the citation from Josephus (_Antiquities 18.1.1) that Quirinius was imperial legate in Syria in A.D. (CE) 6, and who had supervised the enrolment mentioned in Acts 5:37, which provoked the insurrection led by Judas of Galilee. He agrees that Quirinius’ previous service was in Galatia, not Syria. Bruce also ‘saves’ Luke’s accuracy, but some of the arguments he uses are different.
By the way, Josephus makes it clear that upon the banishment of Archelaus, Judaea for the first time became part of the Roman province of Syria, and that Cyrenius (Quirinius) is the very first Roman governor over Judaea. Cyrenius had occupied all the other magistracies, was elected consul, and then was sent out as a governor of a province. The enrollment and taxation was occasioned by the incorporation. The Jews resented being taxed directly by Romans for the first time.
Bruce cites Josephus to show that Augustus treated Herod more as a subject than as a friend (Antiquities 16.9.3), and that Judaea took an oath of allegiance to Augustus as well as to Herod (Antiquities 17.2.4). Finally, it is supposed that a census was sometimes imposed on a client kingdom, as it was on Antiochus in eastern Asia Minor (Tacitus, Annals 6.41).
Nothing in either passage in Josephus mentions taxation or the census. The oath mentioned seems to have been an ad hoc assurance from Herod to Augustus of the goodwill of the Jews. The Tacitus passage refers to the Clitae, a tribe which was forced to submit an accounting of its revenue, and to submit to tribute. If it submitted to tribute, it was not subject to direct taxation. No mention is made of a census.
Bruce recognizes that Quirinius’ documented governorship of Syria began in CE 6. He argues, however, that Quirinius may have had a kind of governorship authority, or greater command jurisdiction over Syria, perhaps as part of his Homanadensian campaign, sometime between 12 and 6 BCE.
The problem is that we have a fairly complete list of Roman governors of Syria. The known legates of the province of Syria (Fitzmyer, Anchor Bible, p. 403):
M. Titius ca. 10 B.C.
S. Sentius Saturninus 9-6 B.C.
P. Quintilius Varus 6-4 B.C.
C. Caesar 1 B.C.-A.D. 4 (?)
L. Volusius Saturninus A.D. 4-5
P. Suplicius Quirinius A.D. 6-7 (or later)
Q. Caecilius Creticus Silanus A.D. 12-17
Bruce suggests that Tertullian may be right when he suggests that Saturninus was actually governor at the time of the census at the time of Jesus’ birth (Bruce, p. 87).
Tertullian (_Adv. Marc._ 4.19,10) relates the birth of Jesus to a census taken up under S. Sentius Saturninus. “It is known that censuses were taken in Augustus’ reign at that time in Judaea by Sentius Saturnius.” We don’t know how Tertullian got his information, and whether it relates at all to Luke 2. Tertullian also gives a different date for Jesus’ birth elsewhere, confusing the matter further (Anchor Bible, p. 404).
Thus, Bruce and some other Christian apologists suppose that Quirinius either had some sort of greater jurisdiction slopping over from Pisidia/Cilicia/Galatia, into the province of Syria, actually controlled by Saturninus, or a joint governorship with Saturninus. This authority would include the authority to run a census in Judaea, which at that time not a part of the empire.
There is no evidence for either of these suppositions. The Senate drew precise lines for the Provincia of its commanders (remember Caesar crossing the Rubicon; that river was the limit of his Provincia). For Imperial territory, Augustus would have been very wary of granting expanded powers over several provinces to any legate, much less appointing the equivalent of an Eastern Emperor at this date.
Other Christian Apologists
(E) Easton Bible Dictionary (?)
(HYPERTEXT LINK TO ENTRY “Cyrenius” in Christian Classics Library)
For some reason, the entry refers to the Latin name as Quirinus, not Quirinius. It asserts that “recent historical investigation has proved that Quirinus [sic] was governor of Cilicia, which was annexed to Syria at the time of our Lord’s birth.” He was appointed to the governorship of Syria again ten years later. No references are given to historical sources.
There is no justification to suppose that the Roman province of Cilicia, which stretched along the Mediterranean coast of Anatolia (today’s Asia Minor), was ever incorporated into Syria, or vice versa. See Balsdon, above, for maps and charts of the provinces. Cilicia retained independence in the Empire much later.
The Answer: What was Luke Thinking?
Fitzmyer, in the _Anchor Bible_, surveys the wreckage of all the attempts to save the accuracy of Luke. All of the approaches are failures.
The answer seems to be that Luke, in seeking to connect his story of the coming of a new savior with the ruler of the known world, Augustus, remembered the upset at both the death of Herod (4 BCE), and the exile of Archelaus and the incorporation of Judaea into the empire (CE 6). Civil disturbances broke out at both times. Luke conflated the two eras, and supposed that Quirinius was governor near the death of Herod, erasing ten years.