Luke, the Census, and Quirinius: A Matter of Translation
Introducing the Issue
One of the more well-known criticisms of the Gospel of Luke’s infancy narratives is that it puts the census (also called a “registration”), that caused Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem, at the wrong time. Most versions translate Luke 2:1 along the lines of the New Revised Standard Version:
Luke 2:2: This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
The problem is that the registration that occurred under Quirinius took place in 6 AD, a few years after the reign of King Herod. But Luke places the birth of Jesus during the reign of King Herod, between 4-7 BC. The registration under Quirnius was significant because it signaled the beginning of direct Roman control over Judea. Prior to that time, King Herod – not a respected Jew, but also not a Roman – governed all of Israel as a client king of Rome. Not too long after he passed away, Judea came to be ruled directly by the Romans. At the beginning of this direct rule, the governor Quirinius held a census – a common Roman means of preparing for taxation. The census therefore was a sign of direct Roman (foreign and pagan!) rule and became the impetus for a revolt by many Jews who resented direct Roman control.
Did Luke get this famous event wrong? Probably not. A number of respected New Testament and Greek scholars have challenged the popular translation of Luke 2:2 as the "first" census under Quirinius. Rather, they conclude that it is more properly interpreted to refer to a census "prior to” or “before” Quirnius' governorship. Thus translated, the passage looks something like this rendering by N.T. Wright in Luke for Everyone, page 20:
Luke 2:2: This was the first registration, before the one the one when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Under this translation, Luke is not placing Jesus’ birth during the governorship of Quirinius, but before it. Before the uprising that it spawned and during the reign of King Herod. But is this translation merely a contrivance to avoid the problem? No, there are good reasons for translating Luke 2:2 in this manner.
Luke is otherwise knowledgeable about the census of 6 AD, making it unlikely that he would date it to a time when Judea was still under the rule of a client King. As discussed above, the census under Quirinius was notable not because it was a census, but because it marked the beginning of direct Roman rule. This was unacceptable to many Jews, and there was even a revolt, which was recorded by Josephus and Luke. In Acts 5:37, Luke mentions this revolt: "After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished and all who followed him were scattered."
Moreover, Luke shows himself familiar with the political situation between Rome and Judea and Galilee -- more knowledgeable than any of the other gospel author. He correctly places the birth of John the Baptist "in the days of Herod, king of Judea." (Luke 1:5). He understands the rather complex issue of how Herod's kingdom was divided after his death in 3 BC (Luke 3:1-2). He is careful to distinguish King Herod from "Herod the Tetrarch," the ruler of Galilee (Luke 3:19; 9:7; Acts 13:1). It seems unlikely, therefore, that Luke made such a big blunder as to confuse the Quirinius census as having occurred during the reign of King Herod.
The oddity of the author of Luke making such an uninformed error here is matched, perhaps exceeded, by the awkwardness of the grammar in Luke 2:2. As Craig Evans, notes, "most commentators agree that Luke's use of the word 'first' is grammatically awkward." Craig Evans, Luke, New Testament Series, page 43. This leaves the proper translation of the verse in doubt. And, in fact, many commentators have interpreted 2:2 as indicated above -- refering to a census before the governorship of Quirinius.
It is undisputed that the word translated by many as "first" in Luke 2:2 is the Greek word "protus.” The root word "pro" means "in front of, prior" and when compounded "retains the same significations: -above, ago, before, or ever." Strong's Hebrew & Greek Definitions. Indeed, the term is translated by most modern versions of the New Testament as "former" in Acts 1:1. Furthermore, "protus" also means "before" or "former" when it is followed by the genitive case (which it is in Luke 2:2). Nigel Turner, a leading Greek scholar and author of one of the leading textbooks on New Testament Greek, notes that Luke 2:2 is more correctly translated, "This census was before the census taken when Quirinius was governor." Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament, pages 23-24. Other respected New Testament scholars agree that this translation is a reasonable one. See Evans, Luke, page 43; Ben Witherington, New Testament History, page 65-66; William Temple, Readings in St. John's Gospel, page 16; Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity, page 98 99; A. J. B. Higgins, "Sidelights on Christian Beginnings in the Graeco-Roman World," Ev. Q. 41, page 200; W. Brindle, "The Census and Quirnius: Luke 2:2," JETS 27, page 48-50; and I. Howard Marshall. Also: Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary; Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible; John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible; and, Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament.
This translation is not without literary support. Dr. Brook Pearson notes that there are several examples from other ancient Greek texts of "protus" being used in the same grammatical sense as in Luke 2:2, to mean "before" or "prior." Brook W. R. Pearson, "The Lucan censuses, revisited", The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Apr. 1999. Perhaps most important, there are other New Testament examples of the Greek word "protus" being used to mean "before" or "former." John 1:15 is translated: "John testified about Him and cried out, saying, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me." Also, John 15:18 is translated in the New American Standard to state, "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you." Additionally, there are parallels in other ancient Greek literature of "protus" being used in the same sense as in Luke 2:2 to mean "before" or "prior": Aristotle Ph. 8.8 (263a, lines 11 12) ("therefore, in the earlier words concerning movement") and Athenaeus Deipnosophistae (discussing the origin of movements in dancing).
More than one “solution” to the Census “problem” has been offered, including the possibility of two censuses under Quirinius. It appears to me, however, that the above arguments (and a few others) demonstrate that the reasons for translating Luke 2:2 as referring to a census "before" the census under Quirinius are quite strong. Though this conclusion does not resolve all of the historical questions raised about the Nativity, it answers perhaps the strongest and most significant question (see this post for a solution to another supposed problem).