Secular history bears out that Publius Quirinius (the Roman that Luke claims was governor at the time of Jesus' birth) was in fact fighting a military campaign in the mountainous regions of Galatia and Cilicia between 12 B.C. and 1 A.D. Until he received the title of Duumvir after that campaign, he would not have qualified as governor (lieutenant governor/ procurator).
Luke 2:1-2 tells us that a man named Quirinius was the governor of Syria at the time of Christ’s birth (Luke 2:7).
Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke 2:1-2 (NASB)
The question we are concerned with is, “Was Publius Quirinius governor of Syria?” Yes, we believe that the Quirinius whom Dr. Luke refers to is Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (c. 51 BC – AD 21). Historically, critics have criticized the Bible by claiming that Dr. Luke made a mistake when he claimed that Quirinius was governor at the time of Christ. They were not seeking truth, but to discredit Dr. Luke and the integrity and truthfulness of the Bible. Sadly, the critics have a pattern of such behavior. For example, they once claimed that the Bible was wrong when it said the city of Jericho did not exist since no archaeological evidence existed – until archaeologists found Jericho. Then they never apologized that they were wrong but moved on to another criticism. Many other examples could be cited, but that is not the purpose of this article. Time is on the side of the Bible. Archaeology will continue to discover facts that prove the critics wrong and frustrate them. Supporting facts may not be found in their lifetime, but history has demonstrated that the facts will be found. It has repeatedly happened. The following article will demonstrate that credible evidence does exist that Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was the governor of Syria at the time Christ was born.
Meaning of Luke 2:2
There are two important terms in Luke 2:2 that we must examine in order to understand the meaning of the verse. The two terms are the “census” and “governor.”
This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke 2:1-2 (NASB)
Here we are told that a census was taken by Quirinius who was called Cyrenius by the Greeks due to the absence of the letter “Q” in the Attic alphabet. It was the census taken during the time of Christ. The second census was taken in A.D. 6. Acts 5:37 refers to that census.
After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. Acts 5:37 (NASB)
It is important to notice that the Greek word for “census” is apograhe. It literally refers to the registration in preparation for taxation.
. . . the event of registering persons in connection with taking a census.
This helps us understand the nature of the census. It was not a time of taxation but a time of registration in preparation for taxation. The first taxation occurred during the time of Christ’s birth and the second occurred in A.D. 6.
The Greek word for governor is hegemoneuo and it means “ruler” or “prefect.” Technically, hegemoneuo is a nontechnical term that does not always precisely mean “governor.” Sir William Ramsay writes,
Hence the word used, as employed by Luke, might be applied to any Roman official holding a leading and authoritative position in the province of Syria.
Thus Quirinius could have been a governor or someone of lesser rank.
Publius Quirinius Governor of Syria
Historical data indicates that C. Sentius Saturninus was governor of Syria from 9 B.C. to 6 B.C.. P. Quintilus Varus was governor from 6 B.C. to 4 B.C. Consequently, since Christ was born while King Herod the Great was alive and it is conventionally believed that King Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. This means that Publius Sulpicius Quirinius could not have been governor of Syria when Christ was born. But this conclusion ignores some important facts.
The first is that King Herod the Great could not have died and did not die in 4 B.C. but later. For more information read, “When did King Herod the Great reign and die?”
Second, the early church fathers attest that Christ was born about 3 B.C. to 2 B.C. For more information read, “Fables of Christmas — Birth of Christ, Pagan Holiday, Christmas tree, Candy Cane.” The study “Prophecy of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks – Daniel 9:24-25” documents the dating of the birth of Jesus Christ and the year in which King Herod the Great died.
The next important historical fact is that Publius Sulpicius Quirinius had a position of authority over both Cilicia and Syria from 4 B.C. to A.D. 1. What follows summarizes the facts provided by Zumpt as reported by Karl Georg Wiesleler and F. Godet.
Karl Georg Wiesleler reports that Cilicia and Syria were united under one authority when he states,
This reasoning makes it exceedingly probable that Cilicia was united to Syria at the period when Quirinius reduced the Homonadenses, and Zumpt now proceeds to confirm this by more direct historical testimonies.
This conclusion as to the union of Syria and Cilicia may be strengthened by evidence down from a somewhat later period in the history of the Empire. We read in Tacitus of a certain tribe called the Clitae, who on two occasions, 30 A.D. and 53 A.D., from impatience at the tribute and taxes imposed upon them, withdrew to the mountain fastnesses of Taurus; where they maintained themselves for a time: on the second occasion extending their ravages to the sea, and the adjacent towns. Who then were these Clitae? Tacitus himself informs us that they were a tribe in the western part of “Cilicia Aspera,” near neighbors of the Homonadenses: and as we learn from the same authority that on each occasion troops were despatched by the governor of Syria (who in 30 A.D. was Vitellius) to quell the disturbances, we cannot doubt that Cilicia was under his jurisdiction, and was united to his province.
Zumpt having . . thus established the fact that Quirinius, at the time he reduced the Homonadenses, was “legatos Augusti,” and governor of Syria . . .
Then Karl Georg Wiesleler summarizes that Quirinius was “rector” or “authority” until 1 B.C.
Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, probably about the end of 4 B.C., remaining about three years. He reduced the Homonadenses of Cilicia, and in the last year of his government was “rector” to C. Ceasar till the end of 1 B.C., when he returned to Rome.
That is, Wieseler provides the supporting evidence that Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was the “rector” or acting governor over Syria from about 4 B.C. to 1 B.C.
It is also important to know that history indicates Quirinius was governor again in A.D. 6-7. This means that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two different occasions. This conclusion is supported by the discovery of a Latin inscription found in 1764 which refers to Quirinius as the governor of Syria on two occasions. The Vatican’s website displays a photo of the inscription and describes the Latin inscription as follows,
The inscription, found near Tivoli in 1764, probably belonged to the tomb of Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, “proconsul” (governor) of Asia and “legate divi Augusti” (imperial official) of Syria and Phoenicia in the time of the Emperor Augustus (27 BC -14 AD). This figure is mentioned in the Gospel in relation to the census at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Lk 2, 1-7): indeed, this census has been the focus of intense historical debate, as it would appear that it took place twelve years after the birth of Jesus. In fact, the inscription in question, with the term “leg (atus) iterum …” (“… twice legate”) attests to the possibility that Quirinius held an earlier post in Syria: on that occasion he could have overseen a more approximate estimate of the population, thus limiting the presumed discrepancy between historical sources and the passage from the Gospel according to Luke.
F. Godet agrees with this comment,
Mommsen also admits that fact of the double administration of Quirinius as governor of Syria.
Therefore, we have discovered that Quirinius had conquered Cilicia and was appointed “rector” or ruler of Cilicia. Since Cilicia and Syria were jointly ruled by one authority, Quirinius was also the ruler or hegemoneuo over Syria during the period of 4 B.C. to 1 B.C. Further, since King Herod the Great died in 1 B.C. and the early church fathers overwhelmingly claim that Christ was born in 3 B.C to 2 B.C., there is no conflict.
The supporting facts strongly indicate that Quirinius was the governor of Syria, about 3 B.C. – 2 B.C., at the time of Christ’s birth.
This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke 2:2 (NASB)
The report by Dr. Luke is affirmed by the historical evidence.
1. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 393.
2. Moulton and Milligan. Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. Hendrickson Publishers. 1997. p. 276.
3. Ian Howard Marshall. Commentary on Luke. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Eerdmans. 1978. p.106
4. Sir William Ramsay. Was Christ Born in Bethlehem. Hodder and Stoughton. 1978. p. 229.
5. Finegan. Ibid. p. 302-306. Take special note of p. 302, para 519. Also see Harold Hoehner. The Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. Academie Books. 1977. p. 20.
6. Karl Georg Wieseler. A Chronological Synopsis of the Four Gospels. Tr. By Venables. Nabu Publica Domain Reprints. (Book was originally printed by George Bell & Sons. 1878. See pp. 105-150.) p. 146-147.
7. Ibid., p. 147.
9. Ibid., p. 150.
10. Harold Hoehner. Ibid. p. 22.
11. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. When Critics Ask. Baker Books. 1992. p. 384
12. “Fragment of the sepulchral inscription of Quirinius” at the Vatican’s website (www.museivaticani.va/content/museivaticani/en/collezioni/musei/lapidario-cristiano/abercio/frammento-dell-iscrizione-sepolcrale-di-quirinius.html).
13. F. Godet. The Gospel of Luke. Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1887. p. 78.
Suggested Links:When did King Herod the Great reign and die?
Can we determine the date of Christ’s birth from the visit of the magi?
Was Jesus born on December 25? — Testimony of Historians
Fables of Christmas — Birth of Christ, Pagan Holiday, Christmas tree, Candy Cane
Prophecy of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks – Daniel 9:24-25