The Star of Bethlehem
Appendix 1 

Quintilius Varus and the Lapis Tiburtinus

Audio read by Tom Parks -  MP3
Audio read by Charlie Corder -  MP3

The man of the inscription now in the Vatican Museum was once governor of the province of Asia and two coins have been found which show at one time that Quintilius Varus was proconsul of Africa. 1 It is held by some that the same consular could not be proconsul of Africa as well as Asia because, for one thing, the two offices were selected by lot from among the ex-consulars. 2 True enough, if one believes that a fixed system of lot drawings for yearly consularships was in operation for Africa and Asia in the time of Augustus, then this would present a problem. Yet no exact uniform and rigid modus operandi for such things was then in evidence. 3 For example, Agrippa governed Asia while in charge of other provinces. 4 Also, Asian consulars were sometimes chosen without the lot 5 or with the lot manipulated. 6 The governorship was even given to a person not of consular rank, 7 and governors for two or even three years in succession are acknowledged (while the “rule” demanded a one-year tenure). 8 These points refer to the province of Asia, but they are equally pertinent to proconsular Africa.

This shows there was no consistent system yet worked out for the governorships of these provinces. “The reign of Augustus was marked by the absence of rigidity and fixed rules.” 9 It would have been possible for Quintilius Varus, if the emperor wished it, to have been governor of Africa in, say 8/7 B.C., of Syria in 6 to 4 B.C.E., of Asia in 3/2 B.C.E., and Syria again from 2 B.C.E. to C.E. 1. If some insist that regulations would not allow it, then perhaps the remarks of Sir Ronald Syme would be appropriate, “Who ordained the rules for Caesar Augustus in the management of the provincia?” 10 The point is, Augustus was emperor and he did as he jolly well pleased.

If the lapis tiburtinus, however, refers to Varus, why does it not record his African governorship? This can hardly be a problem. The inscription is in such a fragmentary state (only parts of six lines have come down to us), that his African residence could have been mentioned near the top or bottom no longer extant. Even those who accept Quirinius as the man of the inscription are aware that there is no mention of the emperor Tiberius ― an unforgivable omission if Quirinius were the man of the inscription. Yet again, the top and bottom parts of the lapis are gone, so these “omissions” allow no argument one way or the other.

Another point. The parts of the six lines seem, at first glance, to be giving an order of events in chronological sequence. This is maintained by Syme because he reads the word iterum as “second,” not “twice.” On the other hand, Professor Groag did not feel the lapis is chronologically arranged, and he was followed by Magie and A.E. Gordon. 11 If iterum truly means “twice” (as I have shown in this book), then it would call for two non-consecutive terms of office over Syria, and this would favor the belief that the events of the inscription are not chronologically disposed. This would allow the conquered kingdom to have been Herod’s by Varus, and the two victories (the supplicationes binas) to have been his subjection of Galilee and Judaea. This would account well with the central period of Varus’ career, though it is not strictly in accord with an ordered chronology from top to bottom.

The same is reflected in the “Queen of Inscriptions” (the Monumentum Ancyranum ― otherwise called the Res Gestae Divi Augusti). Augustus did not compose this work in chronological order from top to bottom. He introduced a subject, treated it in general chronological fashion, returned to another subject, and then to another, etc. Even within the contexts of his subjects he was not always consistent in a chronological way. In the section dealing with payment of moneys to the Roman plebs, he mentioned his penultimate donation, and then, abruptly, recorded an event which happened 24 years earlier ― completely out of chronological order (II. 15). On buildings, he interjected, out of sequence, an event 16 years before the context allows (IV. 20). In his record of embassies from foreign kings and rulers, he mentioned events in 26 B.C.E., 20 B.C.E., then back to 31 B.C.E., and finally 10 B.C.E. (VI. 32). Again, Augustus was not paying attention to sequential chronology.

It is precarious business to demand that the lapis tiburtinus has within it a strict descending chronology from top to bottom. This is especially true since the word iterum signifies “twice.” All this helps to show that the inscription could well refer to Quintilius Varus and his exploits in Palestine at the death of Herod. This is the very part of Varus’ career that his family would have wanted to relate to all around Tibur and at Rome. And, with the lapis tiburtinus found about half a mile from the doorstep of Varus’ villa, surely he must be the one it describes.

1 Grant, FITA, pp.228, 230.

2 Schurer, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Div.I. vol.I, p.347, note 16.

3 Atkinson, Historia [1958], p.301 and Syme, The Titulus Tiburtinus, p.590.

4 Atkinson, Historia, p.302.

5 Atkinson, Historia, pp.304, 307–308.

6 Syme, The Roman Revolution, p.395.

7 Atkinson, Historia, p.305.

8 Atkinson, pp.308–309.

9 Atkinson, Historia, p.302.

10 Syme, The Titutus Tiburtinus, p. 590.

11 Magie and A.E. Gordon, The Titulus Tiburtinus, p. 594.

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