In reading — as one does — the popular atheist material on the Internet with regards New Testament scholarship, I recently came across a very old argument which is often trotted out by people who don’t know any better with regards the dating which the gospels assign to the the nativity and Roman census. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod. Luke recounts the story, with which we are all familiar, of Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem to register as part of the census which was taken. The skeptic typically objects upon reading those accounts and complains that these two things are actually a decade removed from each other. According to Luke, Jesus was born at the time of the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria — a census which was recorded by the Romans as occurring in 6 A.D. But Herod’s death — whom Matthew asserts was alive at the time of Jesus’ birth — occurred in 4 B.C.
According to Luke 2:1-3,
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
But just how sound is this objection?
The first thing to take notice of is Luke’s remarkable accuracy as an historian in other areas. He gets many titles of rulers correct (in one case he got the title of an Asian leader right which Cicero gets wrong), has cities in the right place, in addition to various other incidental historical details. In light of this, it would be unwise to immediately jump to the conclusion that Luke is historically in error at this point. Before we reach that conclusion, we should first look to see whether there are any plausible alternatives which are not strained or ad hoc.
Second, we know from historical sources that Augustus ordered the census to be taken every twelve years, and we have records of those taking place in 8 B.C. and 6 A.D. If we assume that it probably took two or three years for a census to be completed, then it is not inconceivable that the census Luke has in mind was the one ordered in 8 B.C.. Herod died in 4 B.C., and so Jesus’ birth probably took place in 6 or 5 B.C. or thereabouts.
Third, the linguistic data of the last few decades indicate that Luke 2:2 can be translated, “This census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” In fact, if you turn to this verse in your Bible you will likely see a footnote indicating that this is so.
Fourth, as has been suggested by some, it is possible that Quirinius reigned twice. In 1764, a Latin inscription (the Lapis Tiburtinus) was discovered which recorded the career of a distinguished Roman officer. Unfortunately, the inscription is mutiliated such that the name of the individual concerned is missing. But some have interpreted the surviving details as descriptive of Quirinius. It states that when he became imperial legate of Syria, he entered upon that office “for the second time”. Another view is that this Latin inscription actually refers to Quintillius Varus, who was the governor of Syria at two separate times., reigning from 6 to 4 B.C. and again from 2 B.C. to 1 A.D. Between 4 and 2 B.C. reigned Sentius Saturninus. It is interesting that Tertullian (Against Marcion 4:7), in the third century A.D., notes that the imperial records show the occurrence of censuses in Judea during the reign of Sentius Saturninus. It is also noteworthy that, in the second century A.D., Justin Martyr (Apology 1:34) states that Quirinius was only a procurator of the province. Thus, some have argued, Quirinius was only an assistant to the governor Saturninus
In light of these plausible resolutions to Luke’s account of the census which, on first brush, appears paradoxical, it seems that the evidence would compel us to give Luke the benefit of the doubt on this issue, particularly when considered in the context of his exceptional historical accuracy on other matters.