Quirinius, Governor of Syria When Jesus Was Born?
Quirinius – if not for his name found in the Gospel of Luke he would be all but forgotten. Mention of his name presents probably the greatest challenge to validating the five tight date parameters established by Luke and Matthew for the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
All five events – Caesar Augustus, his census decree, Quirinius governing in Syria, the reign of King Herod plus a celestial star event– could have only happened during the 2 BC timeframe, the year when secular history cannot fill in the gap with Quirinius.
LK 2:1-3 “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.” NKJV
Luke 2:2 offers three clues about Quirinius. The Gospel does not say Quirinius took the census – only that Quirinius was governing Syria. It suggests there was more than one census associated with Quirinius. And it contains a rarely used Greek word.
Matthew’s Gospel says Herod was King when Jesus was born; later Luke confirms Herod as King and adds the limiting parameters of Quirinius governing in Syria, a census decreed by Augustus and the Star. Problem – Herod’s reign and Quirinius governing in Syria do not overlap in the 4 BC timeline of secular history; however, evidence now strongly suggests Herod death occurred the years of 2 -1 BC.
In his day Quirinius (Cyrenius in Greek) was a famous, powerful Roman Consul, the highest Senate rank achievable. His resume included stints as a provincial governor in Crete & Cyrene, Galatia, Pamphylia, possibly Asia and was a war hero for his military victories – all prior to 4 BC.
Jewish history views Quirinius quite differently, known as the infamous governor of Syria in 6 AD who imposed the Roman provincial taxation that triggered a Jewish revolt. It understandable how the contemporary Jewish reading audience of Luke would easily recognize a reference to Quirinius and why the author delineated two registration events.
If there was a first apographe registration associated with Quirinius, “This census first took place…” there had to be a second one. Indeed, the common author of the Gospel of Luke and the Books of Acts makes a second reference in Acts to an apographe registration:
ACT 5:37 “After this man [Theudas], Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census [apographe], and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed.” NKJV
Luke’s scenario is benign and implies, corroborated by Matthew, the oddity that Mary also had to register. By contrast, the Acts scenario is circumstantially different – it sparked a revolt. Neither is associated with a Roman lustrum census last taken in 8 BC.
Unique to the Gospels is Luke’s twice-used word hegemoneuo, a special form of hegemon. Two words that have different definition distinctions, yet both are typically translated into English as “governor.”
Greek hegemoneuo is a verb meaning “to act as ruler” as in acting with the authority of a governor. Its root word, hegemon, is a noun appearing 19 times in the New Testament; a name title meaning “a leader, that is, chief person (or figuratively place) of a province: — governor, prince, ruler,” usually translated as “the governor.” Luke and Acts use the hegemon title reference 8 times, but only Luke exclusively uses hegemoneuo, just twice, to describe the acting roles of both Quirinius and Pilate. Appearing in very close proximity: 
LK 2:2 “This census first took place while Quirinius was governing [hegemoneuo] Syria.”
LK 3:1 “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor [hegemoneuo] of Judea…” (NKJV)
Pilate was a Procurator, a Roman Prefect – not a legate “governor” of a Roman province appointed by Caesar requiring Consul rank. Pilate’s responsibilities included Roman financial affairs and vested judicial power over life and death decisions, essentially possessing the authority powers of a governor.
Quirinius is described using exactly the same word, hegemoneuo. In the eyes of the Jews, the Roman distinctions of rank made little difference because both had virtually the same fearful, absolute Roman governing authority.
Luke is not alone in treating the Roman procurators acting as governors – so did Josephus and Caesar Augustus. Josephus made numerous references to “Saturninus and Volumnius…the presidents of Syria.” Saturninus was the legate governor and Volumnius was the procurator.
Caesar, in a letter sent to Herod referenced by Josephus, instructed the King to seat three Syrian judges for the murder plot trial of Herod’s two sons. Augustus called out by name Saturninius and Pedanius as the two “presidents” of Syria, and the procurator Volumnius. In effect there were three governing authorities in Syria toward the end of Herod’s reign – 2 presidents and a procurator.
“Caesar had ordered the court to be assembled…The presidents set first, as Caesar’s letters had appointed, who were Saturninus, and Pedanius, and their lieutenants that were with them, with whom was the procurator Volumnius.” – Wars
A few years later with Herod’ death, Varus and Sabinus separately rushed to Jerusalem to secure his estate. “Varus, the president of Syria,” according to Josephus who also identified Sabinus as both “Caesar’s procurator” and “Caesar’s steward for Syrian affairs” Who was the other “president” at the time of Herod’s death? Josephus didn’t say.
Secular history recognizes Saturninus as the legate Roman governor of Syria circa 9-6 BC. Varus was legate governor from at least 6-4 BC, perhaps into 3 BC and possibly again in 1 BC leaving a complete gap in 2 BC.
Independently, several 19th century historians tackled the Quirinus enigma. Not all were in complete agreement in their conclusions and timelines; however, their research results were in relative agreement that Quirinius served in a governing capacity in Syria prior to his infamous 6 AD governorship.
Some historians concluded that Quirinius first governed in Syria sometime during 6-1 BC; more notably others narrowed the time frame to the years of 3-2 BC. Secular historical evidence cannot confirm the Roman governor of Syria during the years of 3-2 BC.
Two 20th century archeological discoveries of ancient inscriptions may provide the strongest evidence that Quirinius governed twice in Syria. Research by Dr. Gerard Gertoux concluded these two inscriptions identify Quirinius as the governor of Syria during the 3-1 BC timeframe. One called out Quirinius by name…two times:
“Q[uintus] Aemilius Secundus s[on] of Q[uintus], of the tribe Palatina, who served in the camps of the divine Aug[ustus] under P. Sulpicius Quirinius, legate of Caesar in Syria, decorated with honorary distinctions, prefect of the 1st cohort Aug[usta], prefect of the cohort II Classica. Besides, by order of Quirinius I made the census of 117 thousand citizens of Apamea.”– Titulus Venetus inscription 
Gertoux makes the case that the Quirinius census registration of Apamea, Syria, was part of the special census taken in 2 BC as part of the Breviarium of Augustus. Further, such a census would have required the assistance of King Herod in Judea. Specific to Apamea, it could not have been the 8 BC lustrum of the Roman Empire nor could it be the 6 AD taxation that was exclusive to Judea.
Research by multiple historians indicate Quirinius did govern in Syria at some point during the years of 6-1 BC. Does this evidence corroborate Luke’s statement that Quirinius governed in Syria at the time of a census registration decreed by Caesar Augustus while King Herod was alive?
Updated November 21, 2021.
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