Making sense of the Census of Quirinius

by Mark Rogers

In regards to the year of Jesus’ birth there have been various proposals. In particular there has been some debate about what Luke 2:1-5 really means. The debate revolves around when the empire-wide censuses took place in relation to Christ’s birth. James Trimm outlines his explanation in Birth of Yeshua at Sukkot Luke 2:1-7.  Jonathan Sarfati outlines his proposal in The Census of Quirinius. Here I would just like to suggest that there may be a simpler explanation.

What I assert is that the answer is not to be found in the dubious idea that Quirinius ruled Syria twice. The simple proposal that I suggest here is that there are two entirely different Greek words used in Luke 2:1-5, and not one, which unfortunately for 2,000 years many theologians, Bible scholars, historians, linguists, and translators have failed to notice.

It is important to note that Luke, an avid historian, recorded the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts with the intention of informing future readers of important historical events, which occurred during the time span of both books.

In the following I highlight the words in question and include the original Greek words in square brackets.

Luke 2:1-5 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed [apographō]. 2 (And this taxing [apographē] was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed [apographō], 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 [apographō] with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

Acts 5:37 After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing [apographē], and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.

Luke uses two Greek words to refer to events relating to taxation in these verses (Luke 2:1-5 and Acts 5:37). One Greek word refers to the collection of information or in other words a ‘census’ for the purpose of future tax collection by the Romans and another Greek word refers to the actual direct act of ‘tax collection’ by the Romans.

Luke uses the Greek words:

  1. ἀπογραφή apographē (pronounced ap-og-raf-ay’) (Strong’s G582 from G583 meaning an enrollment; by implication an assessment:—taxing) to refer to the direct act of collecting taxes by the Romans, and,
  2. ἀπογράφω apographō (pronounced ap-og-raf’-o) (Strong’s  G583 from G575 and G1125; to write off (a copy or list), that is, enrol:—tax, write) to refer to an act of writing a list as in recording a census.

Luke is consistent in using apographē (Strong’s 582), the actual act of tax collecting, in Luke 2:2 & Acts 5:37. Luke’s use of apographō (Strong’s 583), which he uses to refer to a registration, census or writing of a record as in Luke 2:1, 3 and 5, is also used by Paul in Hebrews 12:23. This succinct word choice would appear to clearly indicate that Luke wanted to record an unambiguous and accurate historical account for posterity.

Luke makes it clear in Chapter 1:5 that Jesus was born in the time of Herod the Great. The decree to tax all the world by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1) could have been made at any time prior to Jesus’ birth. However, all taxes at the time of Christ’s birth were likely administered by Herod on behalf of Rome but not directly by Rome.

The Bible does not say that Caesar Augustus ordered the whole world to return to their place of birth. Luke does however say that all went to be taxed. However, it is highly likely that Luke was referring to Jews who lived in the areas which were being governed by Herod the Great, namely Judaea, Galilee, Peraea and territories east of Jordan.

However, the problem that has arisen in relation to Luke 2:2 seems to have been caused by most scholars, who have neglected to recognise that Luke first records in Luke 1:5 that Jesus was born in the time of King Herod the Great (history tells us before 4 B.C.) and that the note that Luke inserts in apparent error in Luke 2:2, that has been interpreted to mean that Jesus was born in the time of Quirinius (history tells us between 6 A.D. – 8 A.D.), may have had an entirely different function. That function being one of a historical informative note included by Luke, as opposed to Luke getting mixed up with his dates in contradiction to Luke 1:5.

Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (Greek Κυρήνιος – Kyrenios or Cyrenius; c. 51 B.C. – 21 A.D.) ordered a tax collection on behalf of Rome.

Yeshiva001

Credit: nazarenespace.com

In the King James Version of the Bible, in Luke 2:2, an historical note appears in parentheses:

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

This note recorded by Luke, and possibly placed in parentheses later, by scribes or, translators, was most likely intended to have the effect of informing readers that the census taking place at the time immediately preceding the birth of Jesus was the ground work for the direct collection of taxes by the Romans that took place later under Quirinius/Cyrenius around 6 A.D. – 8 A.D.. However, the historical note recorded in Luke 2:2 has been interpreted by many scholars as a contradiction of Luke 1:5 in regards to the birth of Christ.

Luke 2:1, 3 and 5 does not mention a revolt at the time of Jesus’ birth as the census was most likely conducted by King Herod the Great and did not include the direct collection of taxes by the Romans. However, Acts 5:37 refers to the upheaval caused by direct taxation by the Romans in 6 A.D. – 8 A.D.,

Acts 5:37 After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.

The following is my translation of Luke 2:1-5 how I think it possibly should have been rendered:

Luke 2:1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the Roman world should be registered and assessed for taxation.

Luke 2:2 (And this direct collection of tax by the Romans was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 

Luke 2:3 And all the subjects of Herod the Great went to be registered and assessed for taxation, every one into his own city.

Luke 2:4 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:)

Luke 2:5 To be registered and assessed for taxation with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.’

Sarfati’s conclusion in his article is thoroughly appropriate; he states,

The evidence backs up what Ramsay wrote after a lifetime of archaeological research on the New Testament:

I take the view that Luke’s history is unsurpassed in regard to his trustworthiness … . You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment.

And like a good historian, Luke gives us details that allow us to place the Incarnation at a specific point in history. For him, the theological and the historical were inseparably connected, which is a good reason for us to take both seriously.

For more information on this article contact the author at markrogers4004@gmail.com

About John Gideon Hartnett

Dr John G. Hartnett is an Australian physicist and cosmologist, and a Christian with a biblical creationist worldview. He received a B.Sc. (Hons) and Ph.D. (with distinction) in Physics from The University of Western Australia, W.A., Australia. He was an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award (DORA) fellow at the University of Adelaide, with rank of Associate Professor. Now he is retired. He has published more than 200 papers in scientific journals, book chapters and conference proceedings.
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