THE ENROLMENT OF QUIRINIUS
Paul E. Kretzmann
Objections to Luke’s Gospel account
Many and various are the objections which have been made to Luke’s approximate date of the birth of Christ. He is supposed to have confused the census of 8 B. C. with that of 6–7 A. D., and imagined that Christ was born in the days of a census held about ten or eleven years after the death of Herod; or, when Herod was king, and yet when a Roman viceroy was organizing the new province of Palestine. “It has been maintained by many scholars in modern times that the census is either a fiction or a blunder; that the circumstances connected with it, which Luke relates, are contrary to history; and, in short, that the story is unhistorical and impossible, not in one way merely, but in several. … It is affirmed that Quirinius never governed Syria during the life of Herod, for Herod died in 4 B. C., and Quirinius was governor of Syria later than 3 B. C., and probably in 2 or 1 B. C.” [Ramsay, W. M., Was Christ Born at Bethlehem, 45-47. 101. 109]. All the objections to Luke’s account have been briefly summarized as follows: “1. Apart from the gospel, history knows nothing of a general imperial census in the time of Augustus. 2. There could have been no Roman census in Palestine during the time of Herod the Great, a rex socius. 3. Such a census at such a time could not have been carried out by Quirinius, for he was not governor in Syria then, nor till ten years later, when he did make a census which gave rise to a revolt under Judas of Galilee. 4. Under a Roman census it would not have been necessary for Joseph to go to Bethlehem, or for Mary to accompany him.” [Expositor’s Greek Testament, 1, 470].
It would not be absolutely necessary to pay attention to these objections, for the historical account inspired by God will stand against all statements of secular historians. Nevertheless, it is a matter of importance, in this case, to find that the archeological investigations of the last decades have vindicated the account of Luke and are tending more and more to confound the critics of the Bible. Documents have been found which show that enrolments in the Roman Empire were made every fourteen years, that this system was very probably inaugurated by Augustus, that the people went to their own towns for enrolment, that this was made on the basis of kinship. Archeology “has proved that the census was a periodic occurrence once in fourteen years, that this system was in operation as early as 20 A. D., and that it was customary for people to go to their ancestral abodes for enrolment. It has made it probable that the census system was established by Augustus, and that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice. … So far as the new material goes, it confirms the narrative of Luke.” [Barton, Archeology and the Bible, 432-437]. The latest inscriptional evidence shows that Quirinius was a legate in Syria for census purposes in B. C. 8–6. [Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary, 1, 60]. “If, as now seems fairly certain, Augustus began this system of a periodic census once in every fourteen years, and if this is what Luke refers to, we are able for the first time to reconcile all previous ‘contradictions’ concerning the date of our Lord’s birth — which must now be placed somewhere between 9 B. C. and 6 B. C. The exact year cannot be named, as such general enrolments would necessarily be prolonged, especially in the outskirts of the empire.” [Cobern, The New Archeological Discoveries, 47. Cp. Deismann, Light from the Ancient East, 268. 269; Ramsay, l. c., 117-144]. The objection that a census could not have been made in Palestine, since Herod the Great was a rex socius, is absolutely untenable. Herod was king only by the special grace of Augustus and the Roman senate, and well he knew it. Even if other kings had been excused in such a case, which is not at all plausible, Herod would have been very careful about voicing any objections to a decree of Augustus. [Cp. Lehre und Wehre, 1902, 353-356].
God’s Word is true
There is no need, therefore, of trying to construe the words of Luke in any but their actual sense. He knew what he was writing, and the Holy Ghost, who supervised every word, had the time fixed in just that way. It is a matter of satisfaction, however, that the science of archeology is aiding in silencing the objections of critics and convincing the gainsayers.