The Census of Quirinius was a census of Judea taken by Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, Roman governor of Syria, upon the imposition of direct Roman rule in 6 CE.[1] The Gospel of Luke uses it as the narrative means to establish the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1–5), but places it within the reign of Herod the Great, who died 9 years earlier.[2][3][4] No satisfactory explanation of the contradiction seems possible,[5] and most scholars think that the author of the gospel made an error.[6]

The census

Mary and Joseph register for the census before Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic c. 1315.

In 6 CE the Roman Empire deposed Herod Archelaus, who ruled the largest section of Judea as a Roman client king, and converted his territory into the Roman province of Judea. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, the newly-appointed Imperial Legate (governor) of the province of Roman Syria, was assigned to carry out a tax census of the new province.[7] According to Josephus, a Jewish historian writing in the late first century CE, Jews reacted negatively to this census. Most were convinced to comply with it by the high priest, but some joined a rebellion led by Judas of Galilee.[8]

Mention in the Gospel of Luke

The Gospel of Luke chapter 2 correlates the date of the nativity of Jesus to the census of Quirinius:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

— Luke 2:1–5 (NRSV)

There are major difficulties in accepting Luke's account: the gospel links the birth of Jesus to the reign of Herod the Great, but the census took place in 6 CE, nine years after Herod's death in 4 BCE; there was no single census of the entire empire under Augustus; no Roman census required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors; and the census of Judea would not have affected Joseph and his family living in Galilee, there is no time in the known career of Quirinius when he could have served as governor of Syria before 6 CE, the Romans did not directly tax client kingdoms, and the hostile reaction of the Jews in 6 CE suggests direct taxation by Rome was new at the time.[9][10][6] Some conservative scholars have argued that Quirinius may have had an earlier and historically unattested term as governor of Syria, or that he previously held other senior positions which may have led him to be involved in the affairs of Judea during Herod's reign, or that the passage should be interpreted in some other fashion,[11][12][13] but these arguments have been rejected as "exegetical acrobatics", in the words of Geza Vermes,[14] springing from the assumption that the Bible is inerrant,[15] and most critical scholars have concluded that Luke's account is an error.[6]

See also



  1. ^ Gruen 1996, p. 157.
  2. ^ Edwards 2015, p. 68–69.
  3. ^ Sanders 1995, p. 111.
  4. ^ Gruen 1996, p. 156.
  5. ^ Edwards 2015, p. 71.
  6. ^ a b c Brown 1978, p. 17.
  7. ^ Gruen 1996, p. 156–157.
  8. ^ Brown 1977, p. 552.
  9. ^ Novak 2001, p. 293–298.
  10. ^ Brown 1977, pp. 552–553.
  11. ^ Bruce 1974, pp. 193–194.
  12. ^ Habermas 1984, pp. 152–153.
  13. ^ Boyd & Eddy 2007, pp. 142–143.
  14. ^ Vermes 2006, p. 28–30.
  15. ^ Novak 2001, pp. 296–297.


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  • Habermas, Gary R. (1984). Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
  • Maisch, Ingrid; Vogle, Anton (1975). "Jesus Christ". In Rahner, Karl (ed.). Encyclopedia of Theology. A&C Black. ISBN 9780860120063.
  • Merz, Annette (2015). "The Quest for the Historical Jesus". In Van Kooten, George H.; Barthel, Peter (eds.). The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Experts on the Ancient Near East, the Greco-Roman World, and Modern Astronomy. BRILL. ISBN 9789004308473.
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  • Perkins, Pheme (2009). Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Eerdmans. ISBN 9780802865533.
  • Sanders, E.P. (1995). The Historical Figure of Jesus. Penguin UK. ISBN 9780141928227.
  • Theissen, Gerd; Merz, Annette (1998). The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Eerdmans.
  • Vermes, Géza (2010). Jesus: Nativity - Passion - Resurrection. Penguin UK. ISBN 9780141957449.
  • Vermes, Géza (2 November 2006). The Nativity: History and Legend. Penguin Books Limited. ISBN 978-0-14-191261-5.