Does the timing of the census ordered by Caesar Augustus during Quirinius’ governorship question the accuracy of the biblical account of the birth of Christ?
This question came in from Robert of Tennessee who wrote asking: “I saw a documentary on Smithsonian TV that said the First Century census ordered by Caesar Augustus didn’t really occur until 6 A.D., well after Jesus was born. Can you either dispute or confirm that?”
In Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus Christ, chapter 2 verses 1-2 gives the reader a historical marker. The passage declares, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)”
According to Josephus’ Antiquities (18), Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was a well-known Roman military and political figure who was appointed to serve as governor of Syria — in 6 A.D. Jesus’ birth happened prior to the death of Herod the Great, and it was recorded that he died — in 4 B.C. If Quirinius was supposed to be the governor at the time of Jesus’ birth, then this late governorship in 6 A.D., some 10 years later, would seem to show a conflict within the biblical account.
According to the Archaeological Study Bible commentary (pg 1667), there are three possible explanations for this apparent contradiction:
1) The Lapis Tiburtinus fragment implies that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, once during Jesus’ birth and then later again in 6 A.D.
2) Some Greek scholars believe a better translation of the original Greek should be, “This census was before the one made when Quirinius was governor.”
3) Though not much supported, the Early Church Father Tertullian believed Luke got his historical facts mixed up and should have written “Sentius Saturninus,” or that there was later corruption in the copying.
Regardless, we today are still missing the definitive archaeological piece to properly corroborate or not extra-biblically Luke’s statement. Does that mean that the Bible is in error here? No, for as archaeology has proven again and again, every spade turned over produces something that proves yet again the Bible’s account as historic and accurate.
That Quirinius had two separate terms in office is supported by the existing archaeological evidence. The Bible contains the greatest cache of historical documentation every made. And, God’s Word is divinely inspired. For these reasons and many more, believers in Christ can indeed take Luke’s statement that Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world while Quirinius was governor of Syria as historical fact. We therefore can continue to trust the Bible as our inerrant foundation for our Christian faith.