Census of Quirinius

The Census of Quirinius refers to the enrolment of the Roman Provinces of Syria and Judaea for tax purposes taken in the year 6/7 AD during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Supposedly the census was taken when Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria, after the banishment of Herod Archelaus from the Tetrarchy of Judea and the imposition of direct Roman rule.

An account of the census was given by the first century historian Josephus, who associated it with the beginning of a resistance movement that he called the Zealots.

In Christianity, the Gospel of Luke connects the birth of Jesus to a so-called worldwide census in which individuals had to return to their ancestral cities.

Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, travelled from their home in Nazareth, Galilee, to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. This explains how Jesus, a Galilean, could have been born in Bethlehem in Judea, the city of King David.

English: The evangelist portrait from the Gosp...

The evangelist Luke writing

No other record than Luke’s account of such a census exists, and there was no practice in the Roman Empire of requiring people to returning to an ancestral city for a census. No historical sources mention a worldwide or even a Roman-controlled world census which would cover the population as a whole; those of Augustus covered Roman citizens only; and it was not the practice in Roman censuses to require people to return to their ancestral homes.

Biblical scholars, troubled by the apparent contradiction in Scripture, have traditionally sought to harmonise these accounts, while most critical scholars regard this as an error by the author of the Gospel of Luke.

The first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke comprise a birth narrative that is unique to this gospel. The passage (Luke 2:1-7) has long been considered problematic by Biblical scholars, since it places the birth of Jesus around the time of the census around 6/7 AD, whereas the Gospel of Matthew indicates a birth during or just after the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, nine years earlier.

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

(Luke 2 : 1 – 7)

Modern scholars tend to explain the disparity as an error on the part of the author of the Gospel, concluding that Luke was more concerned with creating a symbolic narrative than a historical account, and was either unaware of, or indifferent to, the chronological difficulty. The Gospel associates the birth of Jesus with that of John the Baptist, in the time of King Herod’s reign.

Traditional scholars, bibliolatrous fundamentalists, who on the whole take Biblical inerrancy more or less for granted, have sought to reconcile these details. For the most part this has involved the suggestion of an earlier census carried out, or begun, during the reign of King Herod.

This view may have been in response to this problem that the historian Tertullian, writing around 200 AD, stated that the census had been taken by Gaius Sentius Saturninus, the legate of Syria, 9 – 6 BC, rather than Quirinius. This would solve the problem of the varying dates in the books of Matthew and Luke but would still leave us with the question why the population had to return to their place of birth. An event which remains unproven by any other historical evidence than the bible.

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