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On Herod and Quirinius

It is easy to add an aura of authenticity to one's story by adding, as a kind of backdrop, historical persons and events. This quality of "realness", technically referred to as verisimilitude, is the mark of good historical fiction. It adds to our enjoyment, and if the author has insight and has done his homework, it will also add to our understanding of the actual historical period. However, perhaps more often than not, we come across bungling writers who get their history and dates mixed up; irritating the informed reader and misleading the uninformed one. Luke and Matthew most definitely belonged to the class of bungling authors of historical fiction. This we shall now proceed to prove.

To summarize, no historical record supports a Roman census earlier than 6 CE. And there is absolutely no possibility of Quirinius being the governor of Syria during the reign of Herod the Great. The gospels, especially Luke, had presented two events (Herod and the census) as though they were historically simultaneous when they were not. Luke, like Matthew in describing Herod's slaughter of the innocents, had resorted to fiction.

Born During the Reign of Herod the Great?

According to Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1, Luke 1:5). Matthew even attributed the trip to Egypt as an escape from Herod's massacre. Now we know from secular sources that Herod was definitely a historical figure.

We also know, with some accuracy, the actual date of Herod's death. We can say with certainty that Herod died towards the end of March in the year 4 BCE. This is because Josephus recorded the execution of forty-two people who had staged an unsuccessful revolt against the Idumean. Josephus recorded an eclipse of the moon that occurred during the night of this execution. This allows for precise astronomical calculations which sets the date of execution as March 13th 4 BCE. Now we are told that Herod died a few days after this execution, which makes his death around the second half of March 4 BCE. [1]

Thus, based on the gospel narratives, Jesus must have been born before or around 4 BCE.

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Born During the Census of Quirinius?

However we note that Luke's excuse for bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was the Roman census of Quirinius (Luke 2:1). While we have problems with Luke's description of the method of the census (as was discussed earlier), the census itself is undoubtedly a historical event. Josephus described a Jewish revolt that resulted from this census.

The date of the census, like the death of Herod, can also be dated with some precision. Josephus clearly states that the census took place thirty seven years after Caesar defeated Antony at Actium, which was fought on September 2, 31 BCE (another precise dating based on astronomy) based on our present system of reckoning. This means that census under Quirinius took place in the year AD6. [2] We also know, from Roman sources, that Quirinius was legate (or governor) of Syria between Volusius Saturninus and Caecilius Creticus Silonus, which makes his tenure last for six years, from 6 to 12 CE. [3] These dates are therefore consistent with Josephus' reckoning.

Now Luke said that it was this census that forced the pregnant Mary to leave Nazareth to travel to Bethlehem with Joseph. We have seen earlier that both gospels explicitly stated that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (i.e. 4 BCE). By a simple deduction, it is obvious that Herod had been dead for ten years when the census took place in 6 CE. The dates for the death of Herod (4 BCE) and the census under Quirinius (6 CE) are historically unassailable. This fundamental inconsistency shows that Luke had resorted to invention to tie in the nativity with historical events.

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Conservative Attempts At Harmonization

So how does the Christian theologians try to wriggle their way out of this? The normal "explanation" was that the census referred to by Luke was an earlier census. And to maintain their beloved dogma of Biblical inerrancy, they had also suggested that Quirinius was twice governor of Syria, once in 6 to 12 CE and earlier during the reign of Herod. [4]

These explanations are typical of the ones offered by the more conservative theologians. They have no grounding in any historical fact, the only motive is to try and save the Bible from any inconsistency. Let us list out the historical facts against such an explanation.

Firstly, there is no historical documentation of a census under Roman auspices earlier than 6 CE in Judea. An earlier census is also impossible for a few other reasons. As Josephus mentioned, in 6 CE the census provoked a revolt among the Jewish people who had never taken kindly to foreign domination and to censuses. Even when the census was done by King David himself it was not viewed in a favorable light. Thus we have the book of Chronicles attributing David's desire for census to the influence of the devil:

I Chronicle 4:1
And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.

As I have mentioned, a people who had historically been hostile to even their own King taking a census would not submissively allow some foreign power do the same. And according to Josephus, they didn't. [5] If an earlier census had occurred it would have provoked a similar reaction from the Jews which would have been impossible for historians to have missed. Some have suggested that the earlier census was carried out by Herod in accordance with Jewish customs and this would have prevented any riots from the inhabitants of Palestine. This explanation is equally unacceptable. Herod, being an Idumean, was considered by the Jews to be as foreign as the Romans! It simply stretches credulity to assert that there was an earlier census conducted in Judea which went unnoticed by historians. [6]

As I have also mentioned earlier, the Roman census is taken primarily for taxation purposes. It only became necessary in Judea in 6 CE after Archelaus was deposed and the province of Judea came under direct Roman rule. Before this Judea was a "client kingdom", i.e. under Roman domination but not under direct Roman rule. No Roman census in a client kingdom had ever been recorded. At any rate Herod the Great was a very obedient subject of Rome who paid his dues properly. There was no need for Rome to intervene directly with any kind of census in Judea. [a] [7]

The second point of the conservative apologists is that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, once in 6 CE and once earlier, during the reign of Herod the Great. This suggestion (apart from the obvious need to save the faith of the theologians) is based on a fragmentary inscription found in Antioch which supposedly referred to Quirinius as the governor of Syria at an earlier date than 6 CE. [8]

However this explanation is, as usual, flawed. The suggestion that the inscription could be understood to refer to Quirinius a governor was first made by the apologist Sir William Ramsey (1851-1939). The inscription simply mentioned that Quirinius was honored for his role in achieving a military victory. It was Ramsey who guessed that Quirinius' reward for his role was an earlier appointment, prior to 6 CE, as governor of Syria. Nothing in the inscription even suggests this. It is not surprising that most historians are of the opinion that the inscription does not provide any evidence to support the assertion that Quirinius was governor of Syria earlier than 6 CE. [9]

Furthermore we know that the two Roman governors of Syria during the last years of Herod's reign was C. Sentius Saturninus who held the post from 9 to 6 BCE and P Quintilius Varus was his successor from 6 to 4 BCE. And it was Quintillus Varus who, as the governor, suppressed the uprising that occurred after the death of Herod. The only years in which we have no record as to who the governor of Syria was in 3 to 2 BCE, by the time which Herod was already dead. [10]

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a.In addition the whole idea of a census - which was done purely for the purpose of facilitating tax collection - that would asked people to register at the home of their ancestors is ludicrous in the extreme. For taxation, all the goverment wanted to do was find out where people currently lived and how much taxes could collected from them.


1.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p61-63
2.Guignebert, Jesus: p97
3.Ibid: p100
4.McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: p71
5.Asimov, Guide to the Bible: p925
6.Ibid: p926
7.Guignebert, Jesus: p100
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p50
8.McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: p71
9.Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: p61
Cary & Scallard, A History of Rome: p630
10.Caird, Saint Luke: p28
Guignebert, Jesus: p100-101

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