Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Census of Quirinius II: Questions

In my previous post, I discussed the census of Quirinius referred to in Luke 2.  I drew the conclusion that this census occurred in 6 C.E. and really only makes sense at that time and not earlier.

That date, 6 C.E., as well as the way that Luke tells the story, raises some interesting questions. Scholarship always begins with questions. We must be willing to ask questions and follow the data to whatever answers we can find. In this case, the questions may not be easy and the answers may not be either.

Question 1: does Luke's story fit chronologically?  Here is the problem.  In 1:5 we are told that Herod was "King" of Judea when Zechariah was given the announcement of his son's birth.  His son, of course is John the Baptist. In 1:26 we are told that Elizabeth (the mother of John) was in her sixth month of pregnancy when the announcement of Jesus' birth is given to Mary.  In 1:39, Mary visits Elizabeth and John leaps in her womb in response to the presence of Jesus.  This firmly dates Mary's pregancy during or shortly after King Herod's reign.  Now the term King is important here, for only Herod the great could be called "King."  His sons, who also went by Herod, were also rulers, but they were not called "King."  Instead, Herod's sons (Antipas, Phillip, and Archelaus) were called "tetrarchs," rulers of a fourth of Herod's kingdom.  So, the Herod from 1:5 must be Herod the Great and not Antipas as some have argued.  The date of Herod the Great's death is firmly set in 4 B.C.E. So, Mary is pregnant during the reign of Herod the Great, but does not give birth until the census of Quirinius in 6 C.E.  See the problem?  Either Mary carried Jesus in the womb for 10 years before giving birth, or something in Luke's chronology is off.  Either Jesus was born in the waning moments of Herod the Great's reign in about 4 B.C.E.  (as in Luke 1 and also in Matthew 2), or he was born at the time of the census of Quirinius in 6 C.E.  It cannot be both.

Question 2: Does a trip from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea for a census make historical sense?  In Luke the reason Jesus is born in Bethlehem is because of this census.  But, does such a move even make sense?  Here is what I mean.  Last time I mentioned that Roman censuses were primarily for the purposes of taxation.  You would want to know how many people were living in an area from which you hoped to collect taxes.  But, Mary and Joseph don't live in Bethlehem, or even in Judea. They live in Galilee, which which would not even be covered in this census since Galilee at the time was under the rule of Herod Antipas who would be responsible for collecting and submitting taxes to Rome.  So, it makes no sense to send Mary and Joseph to Joseph's ancestral home (Bethlehem, the city of David, the ancestor of Joseph) to be counted for a census, the purpose of which is taxation, since Mary and Joseph will not be living there to be taxed.  And as expected, after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph return to Galilee.  We have no other example of a Roman practice of sending people to ancestral homes to be counted.  It would make no administrative sense.  The closest we have is that temporary dwellers would be sent back to their permanent residences during a census, not the other way around.*

So, in answer to these questions I would say 1), Luke's chronology is off and does not fit. And 2) Luke's story of Mary and Joseph does not make historical sense with regard to Roman practice.

These answers raise two other important questions which I hope to tackle at another time: 1) Was Luke's mistaken chronology a mistake? Or, did he knowingly include irreconcilable dates?  And 2) Was Luke aware of the implausibility of his narrative of moving Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus?  What do you think?

* See Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 549.


  1. Hi Keith, I suspect that Luke 2:2 is an interpolation. It seems out of place to me. And many people tend to skip it while reading Luke's Christmas story because it is awkward. That said, I think Luke referred to the Roman census of 8 BCE that would not have moved Joseph and Mary, but he decided to use that anyway for reasons I am still considering. Peace, Jim

  2. James,
    Thanks for the comment. In general, I don't buy in to proposals of interpolations without significant evidence. In this case I find no positive evidence for an interpolation, and see no reason why someone would want to add such a sentence which has caused so many problems for biblical interpreters.

    I also find an argument about a Roman census imposed during the reign of Herod the Great highly problematic given the fact that there is also no positive evidence for such a census imposed on this Roman client king in any other sources.

  3. Hi Keith,
    I want to more clearly state that the Roman census on 8 BCE is historically known to have been only for Roman citizens, but Luke nonetheless referred to it in his Gospel. For example, I said that it "would not have moved Joseph and Mary."

    Per my suspicion of interpolation, the only thing I know for sure is that the verse is parenthetical and if I correctly recall it is the only parenthetical verse in Luke. That by itself is not clear evidence of interpolation, but that puts it on my candidate list.

  4. Could it have been that Joseph was from Bethlehem while Mary was from Galilee, but Joseph was working and living in Galilee as a temporary worker? Hence when the census took place, Joseph would have to return home to be counted, but he took Mary with him. Mary also seems to have had family in Judea (Zachariah and Elizabeth), so moving to Judea would not have been out of the question for them. From Matthew, it seems that they lived several years in Bethlehem before departing to Egypt and then returning to Galilee.