THE CENSUS OF QUIRINIUS
Luke recorded that before the birth of Jesus, "a decree went out from
Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.
This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of
Syria." (Luke 2:1-2) In response to this census Joseph and Mary
proceeded to Bethlehem to be counted.1 and there Jesus was born.
Added note: The word "first" in this context is from "protos"
(prwtoV), defined in Strong's Greek Dictionary as: contracted
superlative of pro - pro 4253; foremost (in time, place, order or
importance):--before, beginning, best, chief(-est), first (of all),
former. If the early translators of the New Testament had been aware
of the historical conflict posed by "first" we would long have read
"This was the census before the one taken while Quirinius was governor
of Syria." Then there would have been no perceived difference between
history and scripture.
The latest possible date for the birth of Jesus was before the death
of Herod the Great on November 27, 4 BCE. It also would be desirable
to establish the earliest possible date, and thus set the limits for
Jesus' birth. Augustus' decree for a worldwide census for taxation has
often been used to try to establish this earliest limit. However, the
gaps in our knowledge of the taxations of the period and the details
of the career of Quirinius have led to no firm conclusions. Based on
this lack of information, some have denied the historical validity of
Luke's statement.2 Or, it has been stated the census of the world was
only a generalization of Augustus' ongoing drive to classify the
empire, as evidenced by the many local censuses conducted at different
times.3 However, it can be historically established that Augustus did
decree such a specific census. To use this approach it is necessary to
establish which decree of Augustus would have required a worldwide
census, when he decreed it, and when Quirinius (Cyrenius) put it into
effect in Judea. The words of the Roman historian, Dio Cassius,
provide a starting point.
I. Augustus' Decree for Taxation
Caesar Augustus ruled from 44 BCE to 14 CE. An edict of Caesar
Augustus decreeing a census for purposes of taxation for all the
inhabited earth, or essentially the Roman Empire, is recorded by Dio
Cassius.4 By 5 CE the military expenditures for the widespread Roman
legions exceeded income, and "Augustus lacked funds for all these
troops." (Dio Cassius, Roman History LV 24:9) No tax plan was accepted
at that time. In 6 CE Augustus established a "military treasury. . . .
Now Augustus made a contribution himself toward the fund and promised
to do so annually, and he also accepted voluntary contributions from
kings and certain communities; but he took nothing from private
citizens, . . . but this proved very slight in comparison with the
amount being spent." (Roman History LV 25:3-4) To overcome this
deficit, Augustus "established the tax of 5%, on the inheritances and
bequests which should be left by people at their death to any except
very near relatives or very poor persons, representing that he had
found this tax set down in Caesar's memoranda. It was, in fact, a
method which had been introduced once before, but had been abolished
later, and was now revived. In this way, then, he increased the
revenues." (Roman History LV 25:5-6) In 6 CE Caesar Augustus issued a
worldwide decree that for a second time there would be a 5%
inheritance tax on estates, something beyond the normal taxation. Such
a taxation would require a census to register transferable assets,
such as land, and to record genealogies to establish "very near
relatives." As the benefactor, this taxation would have had the full
support of the Roman military.
Josephus noted the effects on non-citizens of this decree in Judea in
6 CE: "Now Cyrenius, a Roman senator, and one who had gone through
other magistracies, and had passed through them till he had been
consul, and one who, on other accounts, was of great dignity, came at
this time into Syria, with a few others, being sent by Caesar to be a
judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance.
Coponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent together with
him, to have the supreme power over the Jews. Moreover, Cyrenius came
himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to
take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus'
money; but the Jews, although at the beginning they took the report of
a taxation heinously, yet did they leave off any further opposition to
it." (Ant. XVIII 1:1) However, to the north, "a certain Galilean,
whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt; and
said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the
Romans, and would, after God, submit to mortal men as their lords."
(Wars II 8:1) And, later he wrote of "Judas who caused the people to
revolt, when Cyrenius came to take an account of the estates of the
Jews." (Ant. XX 5:2) Caesar's 5% tax was to be on the estates, as
noted by Josephus. The census attached to this taxation was also noted
by Luke: "Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew
away some people after him, he too perished, and all those who
followed him were scattered." (Acts 5:37) The peoples of Judea and
Galilee were already being taxed, and yet they protested this
taxation. What was different this time?
When Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE, Judea came under Roman
tribute. (Ant. XIV 4:4; Wars I 7:6) Although Herod later collected his
own heavy taxes, some portion would have gone to Rome. It has been
contended that Rome had no ability for direct taxation in Herod's
territory,5 but, Augustus could interfere in local taxation. When
Samaria remained loyal to Caesar after the death of Herod the Great,
he "eased of one quarter of its taxes, out of regard to their not
having revolted." (Wars II 6:3; also Ant. XVII 11:4) Normally, any tax
money due was likely collected by Herod or his successors and paid
directly to Rome by them. To the taxpayer, their money would have been
seen as going primarily to their local government, and not to Rome. At
the time of Jesus' birth the Romans may have required the taxation,
but the money was collected by Herod's government. The military
purpose of that taxation may not have been general public knowledge,
but only seen as another burdensome tax collected by Herod.
The census for taxation in 6 CE was different. The Romans and their
troops would have directly conducted that census. It was specifically
to support the military, who were not welcomed by most of the Jews.
The first Roman governor, Coponius, had just replaced Archelaus, and
the Jews were suddenly under direct Roman control. This tax was on
their land, which was their inheritance from God. The fanatical Judas
took the opportunity to revolt against the further demands of mortal
men and their military might.
There had been ongoing taxation throughout the Roman provinces.
Augustus' worldwide decree in 6 CE established an additional tax to
support his troops. As noted by Dio, this was the second attempt at
such a taxation, as it "had been introduced once before, but had been
abolished later, and was now revived." There had only been one prior
5% taxing specifically for the military, and it was probably that
decree referenced by Luke, that "went out from Caesar Augustus, that a
census be taken of all the inhabited earth." The decree for taxation
and a census at the time of Jesus' birth was likely that first
unsuccessful attempt to support the military treasury.
Since there is no specific record of the first decree for taxation for
the military, but only the reference by Dio, no dating is presently
available. There are, however, several related early sources.
Tertullian (ca. 155-245 CE), a Christian theologian at Carthage, noted
that a census in Judea took place under Sentius Saturninus, 9-6 BCE.
He wrote, "But there is historical proof that at this very time there
were censuses that had been taken in Judea by Sentius Saturninus,
which might have satisfied their inquiry respecting the family and
descent of Christ." (Against Marcion IV:19) The year, or years, of
taxation is not specified. It is also not known if that census was for
normal taxation of everyone, or if it was specifically related to the
inheritance tax to support the military. It should be noted that
`censuses' is in the plural,6 which suggests normal taxations.
Tertullian may only have presumed such a census based on Luke,
Josephus and his knowledge of the history of the period. He appears to
have known that Quirinius was not governor of Syria at that time, or,
it has been suggested, had access to an early version of Luke that
described the census as conducted by Saturninus, not Quirinius. The
words of Tertullian do not confirm or establish a specific date for
Justin Martyr, who was born in about 105 CE, wrote to defend the
Christians against persecution, and appealed, "Now there is a village
in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which
Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registries of the
taxing under Quirinius your first procurator in Judea." (First
Apology, 34) Here is an appeal to the public registries, which have,
unfortunately, been lost. Whether his comments are derived only from
the writings of Luke, or he had independent verification of the
earlier "taxing under Quirinius" is not known. He also refers to
Quirinius as the "first procurator in Judea," as opposed to governor
of Syria. Again, there is no specific dating.
II. Quirinius Was Governor of Syria
Since there is not yet sufficient information to establish the year of
the first inheritance taxation, perhaps it is possible to identify
when Quirinius became "governor of Syria" and could have conducted
such a census. The problem is that it does not seem possible to
establish that Quirinius was governor of Syria before 6 CE. The
governors of Syria during the period, with their approximate dates,
Governors of Syria
BCE 10-9 M. Titius
BCE 9-6 Gaius Sentius Saturninus
BCE 6-3 P. Quinctilius Varus
BCE 3-1 L. Calpurnius Piso (?)
BCE 1-4 CE Gaius Julius Caesar
4-6 CE L. Volusius Saturninus
6-7 CE P. Sulpicius Quirinius