Critics of the bible say that Luke wrote a contradiction in the bible when he said that Quirinius was governor of Syria when Jesus was born.

Their stance is usually as follows:

Matthew and Luke attempt to give the time of Jesus' birth, approximately. But between these two attempts there is a discrepancy of at least ten years; for Herod died 4 B.C., while Cyrenius did not become governor of Syria until 7 A.D. A reconciliation of these statements is impossible. Matthew clearly states that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. Luke states that Augustus Caesar issued a decree that the world should be taxed, that "this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria," and that Jesus was born at the time of this taxing.

[WHEN CRITICS ASK, Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, Victor Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 1992, p.p. 384-385]:

Luke has not made an error. There are reasonable solutions to this difficulty. First, Quintilius Varus was governor of Syria from about 7 B.C. to about 4 B.C. Varus was not a trustworthy leader, a fact that was disastrously demonstrated in A.D. 9 when he lost three legions of soldiers in the Teutoburger forest in Germany. To the contrary, Quirinius was a notable military leader who was responsible for squelching the rebellion of the Homonadensians in Asia Minor. When it came time to begin the census, in about 8 or 7 B.C., Augustus entrusted Quirinius with the delicate problem in the volatile area of Palestine, effectively superseding the authority and governorship of Varus by appointing Quirinius to a place of special authority in this matter. It has also been proposed that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two separate occasions, once while prosecuting the military action against the Homonadensians between 12 and 2 B.C., and later beginning about A.D. 6. A Latin inscription discovered in 1764 has been interpreted to refer to Quirinius as having served as governor of Syria on two occasions. It is possible that Luke 2:2 reads, "This census took place before Quirinius was governing Syria." In this case, the Greek word translated "first" (prwtos) is translated as a comparative, "before." Because of the awkward construction of the sentence, this is not an unlikely reading. Regardless of which solution is accepted, it is not necessary to conclude that Luke had made an error in recording the historical events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Luke has proven himself to be a reliable historian even in the details. Sir William Ramsay has shown that in making reference to 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands he made no mistakes!" *********************************************************


"His full name was Publius Sulpicius Quirinus. Recent historical investigation has proved that Quirinus was governor of Cilicia, which was annexed to Syria at the time of our Lord's birth. Cilicia, which he ruled, being a province of Syria, he is called the governor, which he was de jure, of Syria. Some ten years afterwards he was appointed governor of Syria for the second time. During his tenure of office, at the time of our Lord's birth (Luke 2:2), a 'taxing' (R.V., 'enrolment;' i.e., a registration) of the people was 'first made;' i.e., was made for the first time under his government. ...(Luke 2:2; R.V., 'enrolment'), 'when Cyrenius was governor of Syria,' it is simply a census of the people, or an enrolment of them with a view to their taxation. The decree for the enrolment was the occasion of Joseph and Mary's going up to Bethlehem. It has been argued by some that Cyrenius (q.v.) was governor of Cilicia and Syria both at the time of our Lord's birth and some years afterwards. This decree for the taxing referred to the whole Roman world, and not to Judea alone. (See CENSUS.)


The skeptics say: It is generally assumed that Jesus was born in the last year of Herod's reign. How long before the close of Herod's reign was he born?

Matthew: At least two years (ii, 1-16). Matthew says that when the wise men visited Herod he diligently inquired of them the time when the star which announced the birth of Jesus first appeared.

When he determined to destroy Jesus and massacred the infants of Bethlehem and the surrounding country, he slew those 'from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men,' clearly indicating that Jesus was nearly or quite two years old at this time. In attempting to reconcile Matthew's visit of the wise men to Jesus at Bethlehem with the narrative of Luke, which makes his stay there less than six weeks, it has been assumed that this visit occurred immediately after his birth, whereas, according to Matthew, it did not occur until about two years after his birth.

***************ANSWER FROM THE BIBLE****************

The Luke account does not mention the visit of the Magi, the murder of the innocents, nor the flight to Egypt. For it did not serve the purpose of the author. Otherwise he would have included it.

The context is not one of a strict chronological order of events, leaving no single event out. Luke jumps from Jesus’ presentation in the Temple to their return to Nazereth, perhaps several years later, not necessarily six weeks later.

The events of Matthew chapter 2 do not appear in Luke. And the events of Jesus’ presentation in Luke 2:21-38 do not appear in Matthew either.

In view of the geographical fact that Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth are relatively reachable distances from one another - even afoot.

And since faithful Jews often came to Jerusalem which is next to Bethlehem to worship, celebrate festivals and sacrifice at the Temple. It is therefore reasonable to consider that Joseph, Mary and Jesus might have moved back and forth in the 2+ year period in question at least one or more times. In any case an argument from silence is not a strong one, i.e., that Luke is held accountable for what Matthew includes or vice versa.

The order of events is

1) Journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem

2) Birth of the child

3) Presentation in the Temple

4) Visit of the Magi

5) Flight of the family to Egypt

6) Return and settlement at Nazareth

Eusebius, Epiphanius and Patritius maintain that, after the presentation in the Temple, Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth (Luke 2:39), and, having arranged their affairs there, came back to Bethlehem (which must have possessed very strong attractions for them), with a view to make the latter place their home.

Wordsworth thinks they came to Bethlehem the second time on the occasion of one of the great annual feasts. At this time they received the Magi not in a stable, but in a 'house' (Matt 2:11), and from this city they fled into Egypt."

[Kitto, II. 548, note; Andrews’ Life of our Lord, pp. 84-89]

None of this is impossible - and very plausible considering the reachable distances between the cities and the habit of Jews to visit Jerusalem regularly. So to assume that several years did not go by between our Lord’s presentation in the Temple when He was a baby, (Lk 2:21-39), and when Joseph and Mary moved back to Nazareth, (Lk 2:39) or to assume that Joseph and Mary never came back to Bethlehem after they left is an argument from silence which refutes itself.

One might ask the skeptics:

Where is there a demand that there is a strict chronological sequence of events with nothing left out. Matthew left out a number of things that appear in Luke’s account.

Where does it say that this was the last time Joseph, Mary and Jesus were in Bethlehem.

Where is it ruled out that they indeed did return to Bethlehem or remained at residence there when the Magi came to visit Jesus? Answer: no where.

Note verse 2:41 of Luke: "Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover."

So they did return to Jerusalem/Bethlehem area.


On an objection about Luke, Quirinius, and Herods:

[Updated Sept 1, 1999]

Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, p. 28-29. (cited in Lowder's pages on The Jury is In)writes ...

"The difficulty begins on one small point but spreads from it, like dry rot, to bring larger constructions to the ground.

Why do I all of a sudden smell polemic? ;>) ...would you consider 'dry rot' a 'value laden' term? hmm...

Quirinius, the governor of Syria whom Luke's Gospel mentions, is known from a careful history of affairs in Judea which was compiled by Josephus, an educated Jew, writing in Greek at Rome between c. 75 and c. 80. Josephus had his own prejudices and areas of interest, but he worked with a framework of hard facts which were freely available for checking and which he had collected responsibly. According to Josephus, Quirinius was governor of Syria with authority over Judea in AD 6, when the province was brought under direct Roman control. The year was a critical moment in Jewish history, as important to its province as the 1972 to Northern Ireland, the start of direct rule. On such a fact, at such a moment, Josephus and his sources cannot be brushed aside. There is however, an awkward problem. Luke's Gospel links Jesus's birth with Quirinius

I may have a problem with the word 'with' but keep going....

and with King Herod, but in AD 6 Herod had long disappeared. He had died soon after an eclipse of the moon which is dated by astronomers to 12-13 March 4 BC, although a minority of scholars have argued for 5 BC instead.

So far, so good....

The Gospel, therefore, assumes that Quirinius and King Herod were contemporaries, when they were separated by ten years or more.

I assume you mean contemporaries in office--they were certainly contemporaries in life...Quirinius, at the time of King Herod's death was doing military expeditions in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire (Tacitus , Annals 3:48; Florus, Roman History 2:31), with some evidence indicating that he either was a co-ruler with the governor of Syria (the somewhat inept Quintilius Varus) or at least placed in charge of the 14-year census in Palestine. Varus was famous for the later fiasco at the Teutoburger forest in Germany (9 ad) and at his appointment as Gov.. of Syria in 7 BC was largely 'untested'. The census was due in 8-7 BC, and Augustus could easily have ordered his trusted Quirinius (fresh from subduing the Pisidian highlanders) to assist in this volatile project. Herod I had recently lost favor of the emperor and was probably dragging his feet on taking the census--a process which always enraged the difficult Jews! This would have pushed the timeframe into the 5 BC mark, which fits the general data.

There is no doubt about the Herod in question. When the great King Herod died, his kingdom was split between his sons, two of whom did add Herod to their names. Herod Antipas locally in Galilee as a tetrarch until 39, but Luke 1:5 connects the Annunciation with Herod `king of Judea':

This is correct...the Annunciation occurred around the census point, under King Herod--the reference in 1.5 is why did you use the word 'but'? Did you think the annunciation was under Antipas? King Herod (I) was 'king of Judea' but was also 'king of galilee'..the terms would not have been understood as restrictive (king of 'only') BEFORE the kingdom divided...

When he refers to Herod Antipas at 3:1, he correctly calls him tetrarch, not king. Herod Archelaus ruled Judea until AD 6, but only as an ethnarch: like Matthew 2:22, Luke might have misdescribed him as king, but, like Matthew, he would have called him Archelaus or Herod Archelaus.

You have confused something here. Both Luke 1.5 and 2.2 BOTH refer to King Herod the Great...3.1 refers to problem so far

At 1:5 the Herod must be the great King Herod, just as Matthew's Gospel describes. In Matthew the Nativity coincides with the great Herod, Massacrer of the Innocents, whose death is a reason for the return from the Flight into Egypt.


Luke's Gospel, therefore, assumes that King Herod and the governor Quirinius were contemporaries, but they were separated by over ten years or more. The incoherent dating is only the start of the problem.

I think I already explained this above.

Also, it is worth noting that we have a MS that describes a soldier who was 'legate of Syria' TWICE during this timeframe.

There are two main interpretations of this MS: one is that it refers to Q. Varus (placing Quirinius as a procurator during the birth of Christ), and the other that it refers to Quirinius himself.

The first option is defended by Ernest Martin in CKC: 90:

"A Latin inscription found in 1764 about one-half mile south of the ancient villa of Quintilius Varus (at Tivoli, 20 miles east of Rome) states that the subject of the inscription had twice been governor of Syria. This can only refer to Quintilius Varus, who was Syrian governor at two different times. Numismatic evidence shows he ruled Syria from 6 to 4 B.C., and other historical evidence indicates that Varus was again governor from 2 B.C. to A.D. I. Between his two governorships was Sentius Saturninus, whose tenure lasted from 4 to 2 B.C. Significantly, Tertullian (third century) said the imperial records showed that censuses were conducted in Judea during the time of Sentius Saturninus. (Against Marcion 4:7). Tertullian also placed the birth of Jesus in 3 or 2 B.C. This is precisely when Saturninus would have been governor according to my new interpretation. That the Gospel of Luke says Quirinius was governor of Syria when the census was taken is resolved by Justin Martyr's statement (second century) that Quirinius was only a procurator (not governor) of the province (Apology 1:34). In other words, he was simply an assistant to Saturninus, who was the actual governor as Tertullian stated."

The inscription in question is a fragment of a funeral stone discovered in Tivoli (near Rome) in 1764, and is now displayed in the Vatican Museum. We know only that it was set up after the death of Augustus in 14 A.D., since it refers to him as "divine." The actual content of the inscription is as follows:


The second option is favored by William Ramsay (NBD, s.v. "Quirinius"):

"The possibility that Quirinius may have been governor of Syria on an earlier occasion (*Chronology of the NT) has found confirmation in the eyes of a number of scholars (especially W. M. Ramsay) from the testimony of the Lapis Tiburtinus (CIL, 14. 3613). This inscription, recording the career of a distinguished Roman officer, is unfortunately mutilated, so that the officer’s name is missing, but from the details that survive he could very well be Quirinius. It contains a statement that when he became imperial legate of Syria he entered upon that office ‘for the second time’ (Lat. iterum). The question is: did he become imperial legate of Syria for the second time, or did he simply receive an imperial legateship for the second time, having governed another province in that capacity on the earlier occasion?...The wording is ambiguous. Ramsay held that he was appointed an additional legate of Syria between 10 and 7 bc, for the purpose of conducting the Homanadensian war, while the civil administration of the province was in the hands of other governors, including Sentius Saturninus (8-6 bc), under whom, according to Tertullian (Adv. Marc. 4. 19), the census of Lk. 2:1ff. was held.

Under either of these scenarios, SOMEONE served twice, and under either of these scenarios, Quirinius could EASILY have been responsible for the census.  

And curiously enough, even if that were NOT the case somehow, the linguistic data of the last few decades indicates that Luke 2.1 should be translated 'BEFORE the census of Quirinius' instead of the customary 'FIRST census of Quirinius'--see Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament, T&T Clark: 1966, pp. 23,24 and Syntax, p. 32. This would 'solve the problem' without even requiring two terms of office for Q.

And, while we are talking about Greek here...the term Luke uses for Quirinius' 'governorship' is the VERY general term hegemon, which in extra-biblical Greek was applied to prefects, provincial governors, and even Caesar himself. In the NT it is similarly used as a 'wide' term, applying to procurators--pilate, festus, felix--and to general 'rulers' (Mt 2.6). [The New Intl. Dict. of New Test. Theology (ed. Brown) gives as the range of meaning: "leader, commander, chief" (vol 1.270)...this term would have applied to Quirinius at MANY times in his political career, and as a general term, Syria would have had several individuals that could be properly so addressed at the same time. Remember, Justin Martyr called him 'procurator' in Apology 1:34, which is also covered by this term.] My point is...nothing is really out of order here...

Luke's Nativity story hinges on its `decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.' `Caesar Augustus' was the Roman Emperor, but if the Nativity took place in the reign of the King Herod the Great, the Jews were still Herod's subjects, members of a client kingdom, not a province under direct Roman rule.

You are somewhat mistaken here. It is true that Judea did not technically become a Roman province until 6 AD, but the facts prior to that indicate much tighter authority and control than your statement might lead one to believe. Rome did a military conquest before Herod the Great was even born. Pompey attacked Jerusalem and even invaded the Temple and was made a tributary (read: PAID TRIBUTE$) to Rome until Caesar defeated Pompey in Egypt around 48 BC. Herod the Great's dad had aided Caesar in that endeavor and so won the favor of Julius Caesar (and with it a procuratorship of, plus Roman citizenship and exemption from taxes.) Then in 47 BC, the daddy Herod appointed the son Herod to be governor of Galilee...still completely under Roman rule. He still had to be appointed tetrarch by Antony-- still a thrall, eh?!. He was also proclaimed 'king' by the Roman leaders (Octavius and Antony) in 40 bc--but he had to re-conquer the land from the Parthians, which he did in 37bc. As a 'client kingdom', they were still under the authority of Rome (all of the rulers, for example, were appointed--including ALL the Herods--and ratified by Rome.)

Actually, when I keep reading your paragraph, it sounds like you are calling Luke mistaken in referring to Rome as 'driving the issue' of the census. He is INDEED making that point, but HE is correct in that...The client-kings WERE still subject to Roman enrollment decrees. [see Blaiklock, The Century of the New Testament,(1962) and The Archeology of the New Testament (1970)]

The status of client-kings in the Roman Empire left them responsibility for their subjects' taxation.

Not decision-making authority--they couldn't say 'no', but local execution of the enrollment process-"yes".

Relations between the Emperor Augustus and King Herod had often been stormy and had even led to threats of Roman interference which Herod and his envoys had to avert. However, their conflicts never caused the removal of Herod's royal status, although this was the only way in which his kingdom could have been taxed on the Roman model in accordance with orders from the Roman Emperor. It is not just that Herod the Great never coincided with Quirinius the governor: he never coincided with a Roman taxing of."

The relationship between Augustus and King Herod had its ups and downs, indeed, but the argument that his Roman-granted title of king meant that his nation was exempt from taxes/tribute/census is just flat wrong. As I hinted at up above, it had become a tribute-paying tributary since its conquest by Pompey LONG BEFORE King Herod gets his title! (more below on this).

Augustus never issued a decree to tax the whole world.

Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, p. 29.

"It is even doubtful if the Emperor Augustus ever issued a decree to Rome's provinces that `all the world should be taxed.' Certainly, Romans did take censuses in individual provinces which were ruled directly by their governors. They were not, however, co-ordinated by an order from Augustus to all the world, at least so far as our evidence goes.

Read: argument from silence! (see below the points from Historian's Fallacies)

As that evidence extends through histories, local inscriptions and the papyrus returns of tax-payers in Egypt, it is immensely unlikely that a new edict of such consequence has escaped our knowledge.

Who are you trying to kid? You and I are looking at the same sources, no doubt, and there are HUGE, HUGE, HUGE gaps in the records! 'immensely unlikely'?!

In AD 6 we do know that Augustus was enacting a new tax on inheritance to help pay for his armies;

BTW, the taxation to support his army, is the main reason it is believed that Quirinius assisted in the taxing of 8-5 BC...his extended military maneuvers on the Pisidian highlands (dating from around 12 BC) would have required additional financing...

however, the tax affected only Roman citizens, not Jews of Nazareth, and there was no need for a worldwide census to register their names.

Remember, the census in AD 6 is NOT the one of Luke 2.2 (of 8-6 BC.)...but the census of AD 6 DID hit the Jews pretty least 600 talents as a nation acc. to Josephus (Antiq. 17.320; Jewish War 2.97--cited in Jeremias' Jerusalem in the Times of Jesus: An investigation into the economic and social conditions during the New Testament period,Fortress: 1969). As a national tax, it DID effect the Jewish folk--loads like this are ALWAYS 'distributed to the people'(!) in addition to the already oppressive tax structure of the Herods...

And Luke does NOT place the 'worldwide census' at the time of the AD 6 tax...but rather puts it some time BEFORE the Syrian-based one in 7-5 BC...

But more accurately, Luke was probably not referring to a taxation census at all--simply a "registration". Registrations were normally associated with (1) taxation (above discussion); (2) military service (Jews were exempt) and (3) special government "ballots". We have conclusive evidence that an empire-wide (in decree, not necessarily execution, of course) registration occurred in the time frame described by Luke! Martin [CKC: 89-90] summarizes the literary, archeological, and iconographic evidence for this:

"A sixth reason for placing the nativity of Jesus in 3 or 2 B.C. is the coincidence of this date with the New Testament account that Jesus was born at the time when a Roman census was being conducted: "There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the Roman] world should be registered" (Luke 2:1). Historians have not been able to find any empire-wide census or registration in the years 7-5 B.C., but there is a reference to such a registration of all the Roman people not long before 5 February 2 B.C. written by Caesar Augustus himself: "While I was administering my thirteenth consulship [2 B.C.] the senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title Father of my Country" (Res Gestae 35, italics added). This award was given to Augustus on 5 February 2 B.C., therefore the registration of citizen approval must have taken place in 3 B.C. Orosius, in the fifth century, also said that Roman records of his time revealed that a census was indeed held when Augustus was made "the first of men"--an apt description of his award "Father of the Country"--at a time when all the great nations gave an oath of obedience to Augustus (6:22, 7:2). Orosius dated the census to 3 B.C. And besides that, Josephus substantiates that an oath of obedience to Augustus was required in Judea not long before the death of Herod (Antiquities I7:4I-45). This agrees nicely in a chronological sense with what Luke records. But more than that, an inscription found in Paphlagonia (eastern Turkey), also dated to 3 B.C., mentions an "oath sworn by all the people in the land at the altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts." And dovetailing precisely with this inscription, the early (fifth century) Armenian historian, Moses of Khoren, said the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was conducted by Roman agents in Armenia where they set up "the image of Augustus Caesar in every temple.''. The similarity of this language is strikingly akin to the wording on the Paphlagonian inscription describing the oath taken in 3 B.C. These indications can allow us to reasonably conclude that the oath (of Josephus, the Paphlagonian inscription, and Orosius) and the census (mentioned by Luke, Orosius, and Moses of Khoren) were one and the same. All of these things happened in 3 B.C."

What this means is that we have very, very clear evidence of an empire-wide registration in the time frame required! (How much more data do you need?!)

In Judea under Quirinius, we know from Josephus's histories of something more appropriate, not a worldwide decree but a local census in AD 6 to assess Judea when the province passed from rule by Herod's family to direct rule by Rome. Although this census was local, it caused a notorious outcry, not least because some of the Jews argued that the innovation was contrary to scripture and the will of God. According to the third Gospel, the census which took Joseph to Bethlehem was `the first while Quirinius was governor of Syria.'

I have already pointed out that 'first while' is probably a mistranslation of the text -- 'before' is more in line with koine idiom (see the reference of N. Turner, above)

Quirinius's census was indeed the first, but it belonged in AD 6 when King Herod, the story's other marker, was long since dead."

A couple of concluding points:

"evidence must always be affirmative. Negative evidence is a contradiction in terms--it is no evidence at all. The nonexistence of an object [read: "worldwide decree"-gmm] is established not by nonexistent evidence [read: "we can't find the decree so far"-gmm] but by affirmative evidence of the fact that it did not, or could not exist [e.g. a document that says it did not happen--gmm]" (above, p. 62)

Glenn M. Miller, 2/24/95 (updated 5/26/97)

[CKC] Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan, Jerry Vardaman and Edwin Yamauchi, eds. Eisenbrauns:1989.