Luke, the Census, and Quirinius: A Matter of Translation

Since the most prolific of my blogging partners, Layman, has been tied up at work (and looks to be for some time), I thought that in light of the Christmas season, I would repost two pieces that he wrote a couple of years ago about the Census in Luke 2 because we have an number of new readers who may never have read through his thoughts on this issue from two years ago. They are republished as originally written with only my correcting some typographical errors. Enjoy.


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.

Circumstantial Evidence

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.

Linguistic Evidence

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 -- referring 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).


Could There Have Been An Earlier Census? -- Further Thoughts on Luke's Nativity

Even if Luke is properly translated to refer to a registration which occurred before the famous one under Quirinius, it is argued that it is impossible that there was any census in Judea prior to the one under Quirinius. This is mostly an argument from silence based on the fact that -- other than Luke's reference -- there are no direct mentions of any such census. Since arguments from silence are problematic, especially when -- as here -- our records and history are incomplete, critics attempt to bolster this argument by arguing that there were no census' in client-kingdoms under Roman rule. That is, though under the control of Rome, Rome let a local king run the province. At the time of Jesus’ birth, that king was King Herod. However, there are at least two responses to this argument. First that Herod conducted his own system and second that Rome ordered such a census be conducted. I will deal with the first response in this post – the possibility that King Herod conducted his own census to please his Roman masters.

A. Judea as a Roman Client-Kingdom

The scope and significance of Judea's status as a "client-kingdom" under a "client-king" is often misrepresented or misconstrued. It is true that Judea was not governed directly by a Roman governor, but by a client-king: Herod. However, it is clear that Israel was a part of the Roman Empire. It had been conquered by Emperor Pompey and "placed under Roman tribute and in short order a sum of more than 10,000 Talents was extracted from them." Ben Witherington, New Testament History, page 51. Eventually, Herod maneuvered himself into the good graces of Rome, and was officially appointed King of Judea and eventually gained actual control of Judea by force of arms. His tenure was lengthy, but it was never doubted that he ruled as a subject of the Roman government. "Herod successfully retained power as King in Judea from 37 to 4 BC by consistently making himself useful to the Romans. From the viewpoint of Rome he reliably fulfilled the role of a client king whose power ultimately derived from Rome, but whose cultural ties with the people he ruled made Roman influence more palatable." Richard L. Niswonger, New Testament History, page 43. Herod never used his position to stress Judaean independence or resist the wishes of his Roman patrons. In fact, "he used his great political and diplomatic gifts to ensure that he always had the backing of whoever was in power in Rome." Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, page 110.

Now that we have a better understanding of Herod's submissive role under his Roman rulers, we can consider three possible, perhaps probable, ways in which a registration would have been undertaken under Herod, King of Judea.

B. Herod May Have Conducted His Own Census

It is possible that the census of Luke 2:2 was Herod's own, undertaken to please his friend Augustus and/or govern Judea in a Romanized fashion. It is undisputed that Herod undertook many building projects and wars which placed a heavy tax burden on his people. Accordingly, it possible that Herod established a relatively efficient system of taxation that -- like his Roman counterparts -- relied on a census. Such a census would also have the added benefit of establishing more social control over his people (also a known concern of Herod's). It is undisputed that Herod 1) had a great and constant need for an income, 2) attempted in many ways to emulate Roman governance, and 3) was a paranoid ruler who (correctly) believed that he was not all that popular with the common man. In fact, Herod had his own secret police and attempted to keep the upper hand in the social as well as military control of his people.

Herod’s attempt to emulate Roman culture was not just a matter of his personal admiration for their culture – though that too existed. It was also part of Herod's job as a client-king to help “romanize” his population. Regarding client-kingdoms, Rome "interfered with their affairs so far as to appoint princes who would rule in her interest, and whose task it was to tame and civilise their subjects till they were fit to come directly under Roman rule." W. T. Arnold, The Roman System of Provincial Administration to the Accession of Constantine the Great, page 14. Moreover, "client kings were encouraged to foster urbanization and general economic improvement; when their kingdoms had reached a level compatible with that generally prevailing throughout the Empire, they could be and usually were incorporated so as to become provinces or parts of provinces.... [And Augustus] had made it unmistakably clear that client kingdoms possessed no more than an interim status: annexation was always intended as soon as they were sufficiently romanzied." E.T. Salmon, A History of the Roman World from 30 BC to AD 138, pages 104-05, 130. Given the Emperor’s policy of registering the entire Roman Empire, Herod would have had good reason to follow suit and conduct his own census.

Herod himself had gladly accepted Roman citizenship, and was therefore a direct subject to the Emperor. Herod also established a Roman theater in Jerusalem. He built a large Roman-style amphitheater on the plain outside of Jerusalem. He instituted Roman-style games. To be sure, Herod accommodated the beliefs of his people -- by taking down trophies in the stadium considered to be idols for example. But these were concessions that made Romanization more amenable, not earnest efforts on the part of Herod to reject Romanization.

So, it is very possible that Herod adopted a census to tax his own people, and Luke is referring to this practice. As Dr. Pearson notes, "We cannot think that in the process of Romanizing his kingdom, he would incorporate Roman architectural, military, religious, and recreational techniques, models, and practices, but would reject their incredibly efficient administrative systems--or that he would be allowed to do so by his overlords." Brook W. R. Pearson, "The Lucan censuses, revisited", The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Apr 1999.

Dr. Pearson also believes that there is evidence that a census was undertaken by Herod during his reign. Among other arguments, Dr. Pearson cites to an interesting passage in Josephus referring to "village scribes" under Herod. The same term is used in other ancient documents to refer to a position closely associated with census-taking. Although Richard Carrier of has criticized Dr. Pearson’s arguments, his attack falls short. He overlooks (or ignores) the forceful argument that Dr. Pearson makes that Herod -- as a direct subject to the Emperor and a client-king serving at Rome's whim -- was expected by his Roman overlords to Romanize Judea. Carrier also claims that Dr. Pearson fails to consider what other tasks "village scribes" might do while he himself seems to ignore Dr. Pearson's references to many ancient documents showing that the term used by Josephus was closely linked to census taking duties.


The argument that even if Luke was referring to an earlier census, he is still in error because there was no earlier census rests on an argument from silence. Though such arguments may be useful from time to time it is not convincing here. It is very plausible that Herod could have conducted his own census pursuant to what he knew the Emperor’s policy to be. Herod also could have seen such a census as part of his responsibility (and desire) to Romanize Judea. Finally, there is some indirect evidence from Josephus that officials uniquely related to census taking were present under King Herod. Frankly, I do not know that this was the case, but it is certainly a possibility. In a later post I will deal with the possibility that Rome itself ordered the census under King Herod.


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