Luke 2 opens with these words:
1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
A couple of recent posts have made oblique allusions to historical problems with this census. I thought it might be worthwhile to try to articulate these issues more directly for those who may be intereted in this subject.
Augustus reigned to AD 14, and there was indeed a Publius Sulpicius Quirinius who became legate of Syria in AD 6 and who indeed conducted a census of Judea (not Galilee) in AD 6-7. So if we were able to posit a birthdate of Jesus in AD 6-7, the historical problems would be greatly ameliorated. But this is not only in conflict with Matthew, but with Luke himself, each of which posits that Herod the Great was still alive at the time of Jesus’ birth–yet Herod died in 4 BC, or fully ten years before the census of Quirinius.
One approach at harmonization would be to somehow understand the reign of Herod as extending to the time of Quirinius. There are immense, really insuperable problems with trying to do this, so the more common harmonistic approach is to try to posit a census prior to the well established one of AD 6. So let us examine whether such a harmonization is possible.
First, we would need to understand that a census of the “whole world [IE empire]” would have to be hyperbole. We know of three censuses ordered by Augustus of Roman citizens for statistical purposes: 28 and 8 BC and AD 13-14. We also know of censuses conducted in the provinces, such as in Gaul and Egypt, the main purposes of which were taxation and military service. So Luke could be read not as referring to a single census, but of Augustus’ policy of trying to get accurate population statistics as a matter of ongoing policy.
We have no clear parallel to a Roman census sending people back to their ancestral lands for enrollment. The ones we know of either registered people where they lived or in the principal city of a district from which the tax would be collected. We know of a case in Egypt in AD 104 (based on papyrus evidence) where a temporary dweller had to return to his regular domicile where he had a house for enrollment, which was driven by tax concerns about property and agriculture. If the Lucan description is accurate, it would have simply been Roman aquiescence to the Jewish concern for tribal and ancestral relationships. This is possible, as Rome often allowed local administration of such details.
Luke presumes that the census affected Galileeans, but we know that the census of AD 6 was limited to Judea, which was the area of Quirinius’ direct supervision (Galilee was a tetrarchy ruled by Herod Antipas). So the harmonist must posit an earlier census by Quirinius before Judea and Galilee were ruled separately.
Did Quirinius serve two separate terms as legate of Syria? Here is what we know of this position during the years preceding Quirinius’ known service there:
23-13 BC M. Agrippa
ca. 10 BC M. Titius
9-6 BC S. Sentius Saturninus
6-4 BC or later Quintilius (or Quinctilius) Varus
1 BC to ca AD 4 Gaius Caesar
AD 4-5 L. Volusius Saturninus
AD 6 to after 7 P. Sulpicius Quirinius
There are a couple of gaps in our knowledge of the legates of Syria, but we also know a fair bit about Quiriius’ career during this time, and it seems unlikely he served as legate prior to AD 6. We know from the Annals of Tacitus (III.48) that he served as consul in 12 BC. Sometime between 12 and 6 BC he was leading the legions in war against the Homonadenses. He was an adviser to Gaius Caesar for several years before AD 4. We have no good indication he served two different terms as legate of Syria.
Some people point to a couple of inscriptions to bolster the theory of an earlier legateship of Quirinius. First is the Lapis Tibutinus, discovered in 1764 and now in the Vatican Museum, This titulus, composed after AD 14, describes an unnamed person who was a major official victorious in war, who twice served as legate, the second time as legate of Syria. That this is a reference to Quirinius is pure speculation. The second was found on a marble base discovered in 1912 in Antioch of Pisidia. The inscription is dedicated to G. Caristianus Fronto, a colonist of Antioch who served “as prefect of P. Sulpicius Quirinius, the chief magistrate [duumvir], and as prefect of M. Servilius.” Although the inscription identifies Quirinius as a chief magistrate and not Servilius, it has been argued that the two men should be understood as of equal status, and that this refers to a legateship of Quirinius at the same time that Servius was legate of Gaul. But this would be during the Homonadensian war, and that Quirinius was legate of Syria during that time is highly dubious. So neither of these inscriptions is really evidence for a prior term of Quirinius as legate in Syria.
Even if we could posite a prior term of Quirinius, why would Augustus require a census in Palestine, when he had a client king there (Herod the Great) who paid tribute and had his own tax collectors? The known census of AD 6 was conducted precisely because Herod’s son Archelaus had been deposed and Judea was coming under direct Roman administration. Josephus’ account of the census of Quirinius in AD 6 in order to make an assessment of the property of the Jews and liquidate the estate of Archelaus led to shock among the local populace. Most, following the intercession of the high priest, complied, but Judas the Galilean led a rebellion, becoming the leader of the Zealot movement. So the account of Josephus does not seem to support the notion that the populace was already accustomed to direct census/taxation by Rome.
It appears that Luke knew that the birth of Jesus occured at the conclusion of the reign of a Herod and at a time of political trouble, but there were two such events, and writing 80 years after the fact in a society without ready documentation for such things (this was before the internet or Google, after all), Luke confused the two events. One was the death of Herod in 4 BC, when Jews protested the giving of the kingdom to Archelaus, and the other and more memorable was in AD 6, when Judea came under direct Roman rule.