The Census of Quintilius Varus
Luke said that Jesus was born at a census when Quirinius (KJV: Cyrenius) was a ruler in Syria. This reference has been an enigma to historians for generations because no such census of Quirinius has been found by historians which could have occurred from 7 to 1 B.C.E. Scholars have stated that Luke simply did not know what he was talking about, and that he probably got his facts mixed-up with the census of Quirinius that took place in C.E. 6/7. There is undisputed evidence that Quirinius was governor beginning in C.E. 6/7 and that he conducted a census at that time (even Luke mentioned it ― Acts 5:37). But up to now, no available information has been discovered to show that Quirinius was an administrator (and a census taker) in 3/2 B.C.E. or in previous years. This new historical research, however, can find that census of Quirinius in the historical records which took place at Jesus’ nativity. In the New Testament, Luke actually states that the “census” was an enrollment or a registration of some kind. He does not say what Quirinius’ census was for; but we now can discover the reason for his census.
Let us recall from the last chapter that Tertullian said that Roman records supported the fact that censuses (he used the plural) were conducted in Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth. Tertullian said they took place at the time when Saturninus was governor of Syria. Tertullian, though, said nothing about Quirinius as conducting those censuses. This early Christian scholar also identified the year with that which we now reckon as 3/2 B.C.E. If the biblical narrative given to us by Luke and that of Tertullian can be married together, how could it be that two governors (Saturninus and Quirinius) were then in Syria at the same time? This poses a problem and it has been one of long standing.
Perhaps Josephus provides a clue to help straighten out the mystery. The historian mentioned that actually there were “governors” (plural) in Syria during the rule of Saturninus. 1 While during the earlier governorships of Titius and Quintilius Varus, Josephus spoke of a “governor” (singular), 2 but during the administration of Saturninus why does he mention the plural “governors”?
How many governors were there at this time? Josephus mentions the names of Saturninus and Volumnius. Were these the only men to whom Josephus was referring? Or, could Quirinius be considered as well? This is the very time Luke in his Gospel places the administration of a census by Quirinius. Since it is clear that Saturninus was the regular governor, it must be held that the rule of Quirinius was of a different and special nature. Such special status could well accord with the other types of commands that Quirinius held as attested in the historical records.
Quirinius’ war against the Homonadenses, for which Tacitus singled him out for praise, has been called a “special command.” 3 This status is also reflected in an inscription which mentions Quirinius “as holding an honorary municipal office at Antioch-by-Pisidia.” 4 And it was certainly a special command for Quirinius when he became rector of the young Gaius Caesar when Gaius acquired residential authority at Antioch over the eastern provinces in C.E. 1. 5 Gaius was probably not strictly called the governor of Syria at the time (C.E. 1 to 4) and it may well be that Quirinius was responsible for running the everyday affairs of government. Tacitus said that Quirinius was one having “considerable talents for business.” 6 This could account for his selection as being “guardian” of Gaius who was the heir to the Empire. Too, as our historical reconstruction shows, Quirinius already had experience in Syria by administering the censuses Tertullian talked about in 3/2 B.C.E. which took place during the time when Saturninus was governor. All these references indicate special commands for Quirinius throughout his entire governmental career. There are other historical records about Quirinius which show his special assignments.
This special status of Quirinius is also suggested when he later became governor of Syria in C.E. 6/7. Josephus said he was given the rank of dikaiodotes ― a governor, but in the sense of one having extraordinary judicial powers (the word dikaiodotes means “judge”). And Professor Feldman quoting J.A.O. Larson in the Loeb translation of Josephus states,
“that the word dikaiodotes is found only in Antiquities, XVIII. 1 and in inscriptions from Lycia in the sense of ‘governor.’ Larson plausibly suggests that the word was not so much a title for a governor as an honorary appellation, much like soter or euergetes. It would emphasize the high regard with which the governor was held as an honest judge, the duties of the governor (in Lydia, at least) being largely judicial.”
Quirinius, then, was even an unusual type of administrator in Syria during the period C.E. 6/7. It could be said that he had special (and probably extensive) powers directly from Augustus. He could have been called, in contemporary terms, a powerful “man-Friday” for Augustus or, officially, a Legatus Augusti. This certainly must be the case. When Quirinius conducted the census at the time of Saturninus, Justin Martyr said that Roman historical records showed Quirinius as being the procurator in Judaea. 7 Justin dated this political role of Quirinius to the time when Jesus was born. Since Justin was a 2nd century author referring to Roman records, it is reasonable that he must have been acquainted with the various Roman political titles afforded to eminent officials. It is a shame that Justin’s reference that Quirinius was a procurator at the time of Jesus’ nativity (and not a governor) has seldom been mentioned by historians. But its implication is of profound importance. A procurator was normally a personal advocate of the emperor with special authority quite distinct from the residential governor.
This indication of Justin may have significance to our question concerning Quirinius. The Cambridge Ancient History, vol, X, p. 216, has an interesting comment on the role of a Roman procurator. “Each province had its equestrian procurator who in the eyes of the provincials was almost as important as the governor himself.” 8 These procurators were appointed by the Emperor quite independently of the legatus (governor), and the relations between the two were frequently none too friendly. The fact that Justin said that Quirinius was a procurator while conducting the “census” gives much weight to the belief that a resident governor also ruled Syria at the same time. It looks like Luke was well aware of the fact that Quirinius was in Palestine conducting a registration of peoples when Saturninus was the actual governor of Syria. (I will soon discuss why biblical translators erroneously call Quirinius a governor.)
We have no early historical information other than Luke and Tertullian that a census of the Roman world took place in 3/2 B.C.E., Augustus, with his own hand, composed an account of major events in his life. He wrote of the official censuses in 28 B.C.E., 8 B.C.E., and C.E. 14, 9 but nothing in our year of discussion. Yet in his Gospel, Luke said the whole Roman world was involved in some kind of “census.” Why was there an Empire registration of peoples in 3/2 B.C.E. of which Luke speaks? When one recalls the history of that period ― particularly what happened in 2 B.C.E. ― we may well have the reason for such a registration.
Recall that in chapter one of this book I pointed out that the year 2 B.C.E. was one of the most important and glorious in the career of Augustus. It was the Silver Jubilee of his supreme rule over the Empire and the year in which the Senate awarded him the country’s highest decoration the “Pater Patriae” (Father of the Country). There was no year like it for majestic celebrations in Rome, and since the significance of the festivities involved the entirety of the Empire, there can be little doubt that similar anniversary ceremonies were ordained by Augustus and the Senate for all the provinces.
It should be remembered that back in 27 B.C.E. Augustus was given complete and absolute allegiance by the Senate and people of Rome. Would there not have been a renewal of their loyalty to Augustus in the Jubilee year? If so, we could well have a reference to an Empire-wide registration of loyalty to the emperor. Josephus mentioned that Augustus demanded an oath of allegiance about twelve or fifteen months before the death of Herod. This event would fit nicely with a decree going out from Augustus in 3 B.C.E. that all were to give an oath of allegiance to him at some designated time during the year. Obviously, the recording of oaths (where people ascribed their names) was a type of registration. That is what Luke said the census was. It was an enrollment of people.
If the oath of loyalty mentioned by Josephus is what brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem (I will quote the text in a moment), then it makes sense why Mary had to accompany Joseph. In a regular census Mary would not have needed to go with Joseph, nor would Joseph have needed to travel so far. Some have suspected that both Joseph and Mary were descendants of David, and were legitimate claimants to the throne of Israel (had such a throne existed). It could easily be seen why Mary, as well as Joseph, was expected to sign the oath of loyalty to Augustus. All “royal claimants” would have especially been singled out to give the oath of allegiance. This would even have involved Mary. It was possible in Jewish circles for female descendants of David to have the rights of primogeniture and kingship for their offspring (cf. Antiquities, XVIII. 124 and also Acts 16:1–3 where the principle of legal maternal descent is shown).
Luke tells us that the reason why both Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem was because he was reckoned as belonging to the house of David. While everyone else went “into his own city” (Luke 2:3) no doubt in their own local neighborhoods, those of royal Judaic lineage because of political implications had to register in Bethlehem. This requirement would allow Herod to know who all claimants were in Judaea to the royal throne of David. He was anxious to know who all these people were (in order to keep them subjected to thorough non-political functions) so that his own dynasty would survive. This was especially important at this time in history because there was then a great deal of messianic expectation among the Jews.
Registering David’s descendants in Bethlehem, the city of David, would have been a ploy not only to get all the people to attend for prestige purposes but for Herod to find out who they were. Since Augustus had ordered that an oath of allegiance be given to him, Herod simply included himself and the legitimacy of his kingdom within the same oath. And since females among the Jews could give Davidic heirship to descendants, Herod included the women as well. This would have given him a complete record of all such claimants to the throne. This could well be why Mary was expected to accompany Joseph. Let us now look at that oath of loyalty mentioned by Josephus in greater detail.
Josephus referred to the second (and the ordinary) census conducted by Quirinius in C.E. 6, but what about the first one which Tertullian said took place in the time of Saturninus who was governor of Syria in 3/2 B.C.E.? Lardner, as early as the 18th century, was convinced that Josephus mentioned this earlier one as well. 10 The oath referred to in Josephus and the registration of Luke may be one and the same. The best thing to do is to quote the remarks of Josephus about the oath in their entirety.
“There was moreover a certain sect of Jews who valued themselves highly for their exact knowledge of the law; and talking much of their contact with God, were greatly in favor with the women of Herod’s court. They are called Pharisees. They are men who had it in their power to control kings; extremely subtle, and ready to attempt any thing against those whom they did not like. When therefore the whole Jewish nation took an OATH to be faithful to Caesar, and [to] the interests of the king, these men, to the number of above six thousand, refused to swear. The king having laid a fine upon them, Pheroras’ wife [Herod’s sister-in-law] paid the money for them. They, in requital for her kindness (for they were supposed, by their great intimacy with God, to have attained to the gift of prophecy), prophesied that God having decreed to put an end to the government of Herod and his race, the kingdom would be transferred to her and Pheroras and their children. Salome [Herod’s sister], who was aware of all that was being said, came and told the king of them. She also told him that many of the court [of Herod] were corrupted by them. Then the king put to death the most guilty of the Pharisees, and Bagoas the eunuch, and one Carus, the most beautiful young man about the court, and the great instrument in the king’s unlawful pleasures. He [Herod] likewise slew every one in his own family, who adhered to those things which were said by the Pharisee. But Bagoas had been elevated by them and was told that he should some day be called father and benefactor of the [new] king, who was to be appointed according to their prediction, for this king would have all things in his power, and that he [the king] would give him [Bagoas] the capacity of marriage, and of having children of his own.” 11
More than 6000 Pharisees refused to take the oath of allegiance to Augustus and Herod. And as Josephus stated, this was because of their belief that the Messiah and his age was just on the horizon. As said before, Lardner went so far as to suggest that this oath of allegiance and the census mentioned by Luke were one and the same. It may well be true. There is a similarity in the wording within the two sources. Note how the two texts are worded when placed beside each other. First notice Josephus.
“When therefore the whole Jewish nation TOOK AN OATH to be faithful to Caesar and to the interests of the king [Herod] ... above six thousand Pharisees refused to swear.”
Compared with the comments of Luke from original Greek:
“Now in those days a decree was issued by Caesar Augustus that all the world SHOULD BE REGISTERED [enrolled]. This was the first registration when Quirinius was ruling from Syria.” 12
Certainly, the reference in Josephus to the oath must be looked on as some kind of a registrations swearing of loyalty to Augustus and to Herod. How does one show loyalty? It is done by doing the will of the ruler, giving him devotion, paying one’s share of taxes for the upkeep of the government, and recognizing the legality of the regime. And, no time in the Roman world would have been better for such an oath than the year preceding the Silver Jubilee celebrations. It could even have been called a census, as well as a registration, because the recording of an oath of allegiance from all people required the ascribing of their names to obey Augustus and Herod. How else did Josephus know that over 6000 Pharisees refused to take the oath unless some kind of record of their number had been made?
Once the chronology of the period is properly understood it can be seen that the oath would have been required about twelve to fifteen months before the death of Herod. Anyone reading the narrative of Josephus without pre-conceived opinions would have to put it somewhere in that range of time. This oath would have been given during the governorship of Saturninus, and that is the exact period when Tertullian said the registration of Judaea was conducted. Coupled with this is the fact that Luke called this “census” the first registration. It could mean that he was distinguishing this “census” from the second (and ordinary) census of Quirinius which took place in C.E. 6/7, or that this was the first registration of its kind that ever took place. The latter reason has the best credentials.
The truth is, the “oath” mentioned by Josephus and the “census” of Luke are no doubt one and the same. All fits perfectly if the registration was ordered by Augustus in the summer of 3 B.C.E. to be completed by autumn of 2 B.C.E. during the year in which he was acclaimed the Pater Patriae. We will see that this was the first time that Augustus ever ordered all in the Empire to show such loyalty.
When the universal registration mentioned by Luke is dated to 3 B.C.E., a flood of light comes on the scene showing several Roman references to it. Since Luke said it was Augustus who gave the decree for an Empire-wide registration, perhaps we should let Augustus tell us with his personal statement about a political accounting of peoples that involved the whole Empire. It took place in 3 B.C.E. just when Luke said a registration occurred and when Josephus shows the Jews gave their oath to Augustus. This was the first time the emperor had the whole Roman Empire award him the title Pater Patriae (Father of the Country). We have a record from Augustus that an Empire-wide registration took place in 3 B.C.E.
Augustus received his most prestigious title, the Pater Patriae, on February 5, 2 B.C.E. which was the Day of Concord on the Roman religious calendar. But in what legal way did Augustus obtain this title? In the Res Gestae, composed by Augustus himself, he wrote,
“While I was administering my thirteenth consulship the senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people [italics mine] gave me the title Father of my Country.” 13
Within the Empire there were over 4 million Roman citizens. For the totality of the citizenry to approve the bestowal of the Pater Patriae must have involved an Empire-wide accounting. Since Augustus was officially given the award in early 2 B.C.E., the registering of the citizens must have been decreed and began to be carried out sometime in 3 B.C.E.
In this universal registration of citizen approval regarding the “Fatherhood” of Augustus and the recognition of Supreme authority that the title signified, it is reasonable that all non-citizens in the Empire also gave some kind of recognizable approbation within the same period of time. Since most people in Judaea and the Empire were not Roman citizens, Augustus could well have decreed in 3 B.C.E. that everyone should swear an oath of absolute obedience to him to accompany his majestic award as being “Father of the Country.” This would have been an appropriate gesture from all peoples in acknowledging their obedience to him by the time of his Jubilee Year of supreme power in 2 B.C.E.
Remarkably, an inscription found in Paphlagonia (north central Asia Minor) that is clearly dated to 3 B.C. records an oath of obedience “taken by the inhabitants of Paphlagonia and the Roman businessmen dwelling among them.” 14 The inscription states that Romans as well as non-citizens took the oath. And importantly, the whole of the population were required to swear it. “The same oath was sworn also by all the people in the land [italics mine] at the altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts.” 15 This was in 3 B.C.E. Also, in Judaea an oath was required of all the people at the same time (as shown by my chronological reconstruction). 16 This is a reasonable hint that the oath mentioned by Josephus was the same that the people of Paphlagonia were required to render. If so, then it could have been a part of the Empire-wide recognition of Augustus’ Pater Patriae.
There is yet another point. The Armenian historian Moses of Khorene said that the native sources he had available showed that in the second year of Abgar, king of Armenia in 3 B.C.E., the census mentioned by Luke brought Roman agents “to Armenia, bringing the image of Augustus Caesar, which they set up in every temple.” 17 It is implied that people had to go to the temples to register for the census. This information is very similar to that engraved on the Paphlagonian inscription (also referring to 3 B.C.), that recorded the “oath” given to Augustus. The same oath was sworn by all the people in the land at the altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts. The similarity of language is so striking (and since the year is exactly the same), it may mean that we have Armenian history showing that the registration mentioned by Luke did indeed occur in the year 3 B.C.E.
The fact that the census of Luke was actually an Empire-wide oath to Augustus was recognized by Orosius, who lived in the 5th century. He must have had early sources for his evidence. He wrote,
“[Augustus] ordered that a census be taken of each province everywhere and that all men be enrolled. ... This is the earliest and most famous public acknowledgment which marked Caesar as the first of all men and the Romans as lords of the world, a published list of all men entered individually .... This first and greatest census was taken, since in this one name of Caesar all the peoples of the great nations took oath, and at the same time, through the participation in the census, were made apart of one society” 18
Orosius also identified the year for this enrollment and oath as being 3 B.C.E. He said the oath was taken to enroll Augustus “as the first of all men” ― an apt description of the bestowal of the Pater Patriae in his Silver Jubilee year and when the priestly celebrations for the 750th anniversary of Rome took place. The fact that Orosius equaled the census with an oath of allegiance to Augustus may well mean that he had historical records that substantiated it.
The fact that oaths and censuses should go together should be no strange thing. Most Roman census declarations required an oath of allegiance to the emperor. One such declaration for property tax ended with, “We swear by the fortune of the Emperor Caesar Trajanus Hadrian Augustus. ... under oath.” 19 “And I swear by the Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus that I have kept nothing back.” 20 It is thus very reasonable that the “census” mentioned by Luke could well have been the “oath” referred to by Josephus, as well as Orosius, and the Paphlagonian inscription.
It thus seems highly probable that all people in the Empire registered an oath of obedience and an approval of the Pater Patriae to Augustus at this time, 21 and that Quirinius had been sent to the East to conduct it for that section of the Empire. This would mean that Quirinius possessed special powers that were different than those of the resident governor. And though the registration was decreed in 3 B.C.E. (and many took the oath at that time), there was no doubt a few months allowed for peoples to register their oaths because it was universal in application with all people involved in the matter. It is reasonable that a period of about a year was allowed for the complete enrollment. Thus, Augustus’ information in his Res Gestae, the Paphlagonian inscription, the history of Armenia, Orosius, Josephus and the statement of Luke historically blend together well.
Luke said that “all the [Roman] world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). Some have assumed that this “registering” was for taxation purposes. But Luke nowhere states that the payment of moneys was the reason for the enrollment, though an oath of obedience certainly involved financial accountability.
There is clear evidence that the registration conducted by Quirinius was not for taxation. While King Herod was alive none of the Jews in Judaea paid taxes to Rome. They paid them to Herod himself. This is made clear in the events immediately following Herod’s death. The Jews asked Archelaus (Herod’s successor) to relieve them of excessive taxes. 22 Had the Jews been paying taxes directly to Rome (brought about by the census of Quirinius) this request would have been irrelevant. From 63 B.C.E. to 47 B.C.E. Judaea was a part of the province of Syria and paid tribute directly to Rome. From 47 B.C.E. to 40 B.C.E. Hyrcanus was the “ruler of a free republic,” 23 but the Jews still paid direct taxes to Rome. When Herod became king, however, the tribute to Rome ceased and Herod collected all taxes. This continued until C.E. 6/7 when direct taxation was again imposed upon those in Judaea. 24 This means that the registration by Quirinius in 3/2 B.C.E. was not strictly for tax purposes. This helps to show that it was primarily a census of loyalty to Augustus that all in the Empire had to undertake in honor of Augustus’ “Fatherhood.” The Paphlagonian inscription called it an “oath,” Josephus called it an “oath,” and Luke simply called it a “registration.”
There may be more evidence to support this. It was common for Roman citizens to have their citizenship records checked every five years. There were both municipal records in Italy and in the provinces that registered citizenship status for Romans. When new citizens were enrolled, they were registered in the official tribal lists at Rome, and in many cases in the archives of their own native cities or other important “Roman centers” throughout the Empire. 25 Roman citizenship at that time was a prized possession and people wanted credentials of some kind to vouch for the title (cf. Acts 22:25–28). The registrations were checked and adjusted as to present circumstances every five years. Interestingly, we have clear evidence that Augustus had official censuses in 28 and 8 B.C.E. 26 This was a twenty year interval, and, of course, divisible by periods of five years. The next five-year time for checking would have been 3 B.C.E. This was the precise year that the imperial oath recorded on the Paphlagonian inscription took place (sworn by both Roman citizens and natives).
Professor Sherwin-White of Oxford University said it was customary for provincial Romans to have their citizenships “checked” or to renew imperial privileges at certain cities to which citizens politically belonged. The normal thing for Roman provincials was to “be registered at his native city.” 27 In Asia Minor there were “archive cities” throughout the area where Roman imperial records were deposited. Many Roman provincials could prove their citizenship status by reference to those records. If the “oath” in Paphlagonia was the same as the “oath” that Josephus said took place in Judaea, and if both “oaths” were a part of the “census” mentioned by Luke, then perhaps Luke’s remark that “everyone went into his own city” (Luke 2:3) might make sense for Roman provincials as well as non-Romans. This fits in well chronologically because all people periodically (and normally it was every five years) had to have their legal privileges or limitations checked at the “archive cities.” And 3 B.C.E. was an exact five year period from the last Roman census. This would help to show that this particular year was indeed a year in which a “census” or a “registration” would have occurred even under ordinary circumstances.
Recall that the official censuses involving taxation were in 28 B.C.E. and 8 B.C.E. This was an exact 20-year period between the two censuses. The next official census according to Augustus was in C.E. 14. That is 21 years after 8 B.C.E. ― not 20 years as one might expect. Could it be that a whole year was dropped out of taxation accounting in that period? Was the majestic Silver Jubilee year of 2 B.C.E. a non-taxable year? If so, note what would then have happened. The next five year period for checking the personal affairs and effects of Romans would have been in C.E. 4 and the next in C.E. 9, followed, of course, by the regular census five years later in C.E. 14. Interestingly, C.E. 4 and C.E. 9 were the exact years in which Augustus passed the social legislation pertaining to Roman citizens. 28 If what I am saying is true then we have, in the time of Augustus, official, censuses occurring every 20 years. This must be the case because professors Vermes and Millar report that the earliest actually attested census for taxation was in C.E. 33/34, and that is 20 years after the last official census of Augustus in C.E. 14. 29 All of the five year periods between the main 20-year censuses could be called minor censuses.
The year 2 B.C.E., however, was reckoned so glorious ― a new beginning for Augustus and Rome ― that it looks like imperial taxation and evaluation ceased during that year if people would give their oath of allegiance to Augustus as their Pater Patriae and that they reckoned him as their universal lord. This could well be the case. It was not uncommon to remit some or all taxes at times.
Remitting part or all taxes was no new thing, especially if special circumstances were involved. Herod in order to honor his good fortune and because he was in a cheerful mood canceled a fourth part of taxes to the delight of his subjects. They went away with the greatest joy, wishing the king all sorts of good things. 30 The Romans remitted taxes from the Jews in their sabbatical years. 31 Even within the Empire it was not uncommon to cancel taxes at times of national joy at the accession of an emperor. Note that Alexander Severus cited a precedent of earlier emperors of remitting certain taxations at times of accession. 32 And, if there was ever a time when Rome was in joy, a feeling that a “new beginning” and a new “Golden Age” were happening, it was the year 2 B.C.E. Thus, it seems possible that the people taking the census/oath for the Pater Patriae of Augustus were granted many fiscal immunities to accompany the joyful Silver Jubilee of the princeps and the 750th anniversary of Rome as shown by the priestly records.
This helps to show that the census of Luke was not for taxation purposes. It was for Augustus’ exaltation to the Pater Patriae. All of this indicates that the first census conducted by Quirinius in Herod’s kingdom was for this reason. After all, while Herod was alive, he collected his own taxes, not Roman officials. But in 3 B.C.E., Quirinius was a procurator with unique powers from Augustus and responsible for conducting the special registration concerning the Pater Patriae for Augustus. It is just that simple.
There is one question that needs answering. Many translators of the New Testament render Luke 2:1 as though Quirinius were governor of Syria. In no way does Luke state this in his original Greek text, though I used to believe he did. Luke simply said that Quirinius was ruling or administrating this first registration from Syria, not that he was the governor of the province. The Greek word Luke used to show the rulership of Quirinius was hegemoneuontos. It is a present participle which simply means that Quirinius was ruling or administrating his duties from the region of Syria. There is not the slightest indication in Luke’s narrative that identifies the specific office being held by Quirinius while he was administrating his official duties.
In normal Greek usage at the time, the word hegemoneuontos could refer to any type of rulership from that of an exalted President or a military commander on down through various lesser offices to that of the local dogcatcher for the city. The word could very well refer to the fact that Quirinius was a procurator as Justin Martyr attests. Certainly, Quirinius was NOT the resident governor as so many assume. In no way do the words of Luke mean such a thing. Indeed, shortly afterward, Luke 3:1 referred to Pontius Pilate by the exact same word (and in the exact grammatical structure) and we know from a recent monumental discovery that Pontius Pilate was a Praefectus Judaeae, not a senatorial Legatus (Governor) who controlled one of the major provinces of the Empire. The fact is, Luke’s administrative description of Quirinius’ powers could dovetail nicely with those of a special Procurator of Augustus precisely as Justin Martyr said that Quirinius was. It is wrong to assume that Luke meant that Quirinius was the governor of the province of Syria.
There is, however, one possibility that could have made Quirinius to be a temporary governor of sorts. Note that Josephus tells us that Saturninus was still governor of Syria in the latter part of spring in 2 B.C.E. 33 But by the following November, Quintilius Varus was then governor and hearing the charges in Jerusalem against Antipater the son of Herod. Josephus tells us specifically that Varus had lately taken over the governorship from Saturninus. 34 This allows for a six month period in which no one knows who was governor of Syria. This was the summer change-over period from one governor to the next. Could it be that Saturninus left Syria in late spring, handed affairs over to Quirinius for the change-over interval, and then Varus took charge in late September or October of 2 B.C.E.? This is possible.
There was yet no established custom near the time of Augustus for governors to be in their provincial seats of authority at set times of the year. Cicero left his province before May 1st in 58 B.C.E. 35 His brother, however, did not leave Rome to take up his proconsulship until the early part of May. 36 This example shows that sometimes parts of the summer period saw a province without its resident governor. Obviously, a lieutenant would have been in charge in some capacity. In fact, Atkinson shows that it was common practice for some of the summer months not to have provincial governors in residence. 37 Perhaps this is what occurred in the change-over period from Saturninus to Varus. In truth, there was a good reason why both Saturninus and Varus would have wanted to be in Rome for the summer of 2 B.C.E. That year was one of great significance to the citizens of Rome and to those who lived within the Empire. It was the Silver Jubilee of Augustus’ accession to total power and the year he was proclaimed the Pater Patriae. This year was looked on as the apex of the Augustan Peace.
Both Saturninus and Varus would have wanted to be in Rome for the summer months. And both had an ace in hand to do it. Quirinius was then in Syria having conducted his procuratorial role of conducting a registration of peoples. Since Quirinius was a man of high rank, and with the province having peace and security on all sides, there would not have been the slightest reason for not having Quirinius assume the supreme command while concluding his procuratorial responsibilities. With Saturninus gone to Rome in late spring of 2 B.C.E., this would have left Quirinius as the full administrator until October or so. Something approaching this explanation might make some people think that Quirinius could have been considered the temporary governor of the province of Syria. Luke, however, in no way said that he was. The office that best suits Quirinius while he was performing his duties in conducting the registration of the people would be that of Procurator.
It is true that later, in C.E. 6/7, Quirinius himself became what could more appropriately be called an official governor of Syria (which then included Palestine). Though even here, he seemed to have special powers that normal governors did not have. A “census” was also taken at that time (and Luke referred to it — Acts 5:37) because the province officially became part of the Roman Empire in that year. But Justin’s remark that Quirinius was a Procurator when the “census” was taken at the nativity of Jesus, yet he was full (and undisputed) governor at the census for taxation in C.E. 6/7, helps to distinguish the two different “censuses.”
The explanation given in this chapter is reasonable and solves the difficulty at once. The statement of Luke can make good historical sense. Indeed, it could be said that Luke provides the key that shows who governed Syria from 3 B.C.E. on through the summer months of 2 B.C.E. And indeed, why should Luke not be accepted? He was probably a native of Antioch (or certainly familiar with the area). He was writing to a Roman nobleman who would surely have been knowledgeable of Roman affairs. Luke was also a writer who lived much closer to the events than either Josephus or Dio Cassius the early Roman historian.
The simplicity and reasonableness of the explanation in this chapter is a strong point in its favor. And interestingly, this historical information harmonizes the Paphlagonian inscription with Tertullian (quoting Roman records); this agrees with Justin Martyr (quoting Roman records) and with Luke (writing to a Roman nobleman). Orosius and Moses of Khorene the Armenian historian confirm it.
This means that the “census” of Quirinius which has eluded any positive identification by modern historians is now found in several historical sources and some of them right at the time the “census” occurred according to the chronology of the New Testament and that of secular history. In a word, the “census” of Quirinius associated with the nativity of Jesus has been found.
1 Josephus, Antiquities XVI.280, 285, 357, 361.
2 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.89.
3 Hugh Last, quoted by Rice Holmes in “Architect of the Roman Empire,” II.89, note 1.
4 Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 165.
5 Tacitus, Annals, III.48.
7 Justin Martyr, Apology, I.34.
8 See Tacitus, Agric., 15.
9 Res Gestae, II.8.
10 Lardner, Credibility, I.292–313.
11 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.41–45.
12 Luke 2:1.
13 Res Gestae, VI.35.
14 Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, II.34–35.
16 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.41–45.
17 R.W. Thomson, Moses of Khorene’s History of the Armenians, II.26.
18 Orosius, VI.22 and VII.2.
19 Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, II.387.
20 Ibid., 388.
21 Res Gestae, VI.35.
22 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.205.
23 Ibid., XIV. 117.
24 Sands, P.C., The Client Princes of the Roman Empire, 222–228.
25 Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 148.
26 Res Gestae, II.8.
27 Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 148.
29 Verines and Millar, The New Schurer, I.404.
30 Josephus, Antiquities XVI.65.
31 Ibid., XIV.202–206.
32 Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, II.444.
33 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.57.
34 Ibid., 89.
35 Att., III.9.1
36 Att., IV.2.1 cf V.3.
37 Atkinson, Historia, VII (1958), 310–312.
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