Luke’s Nativity – An Investigative Breakdown

 

Luke and Matthew provide significantly different perspectives about the Nativity circumstances of Jesus of Nazareth, yet they have the common threads of the historical timeline, geographic locations and the key figures. In the very opening paragraph of Luke, the author states that his letter is based on the eyewitness accounts “from the beginning”:

LK 1:2-4 “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.” (NASB)

Beginning with the birth of John the Baptist, Luke’s account describes circumstances not found in any other Gospel. Zechariah, a Levite Jewish priest, had been chosen to represent his priestly division to offer incense to God.

While inside the Temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him specifically described as standing on the right side of the altar. The angel delivered God’s message that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, would become pregnant with a son to be named John. Gabriel foretold the child’s purpose in life, even that the baby would be filled with the Holy Spirit before he was born.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were considered “advanced in years.” It is a relative term considering that girls married and began having children as soon as nature allowed, about 13 years of age.[1] Doubting Gabriel’s message, Zechariah was struck dumb during his wife’s pregnancy.

Luke does not describe Elizabeth’s pregnancy as miraculous. Two Greek words referencing a miracle are used elsewhere in Luke, but not used here for Elizabeth. In the other instances, the Greek word dunamis is translated to English using such words as “miracles,” “deeds of power,” “power of the Spirit,” or “mighty works” and semelon is translated with such words as “miracle,” “miraculous sign,” “sign from heaven.”[2]

Six months later in Nazareth 80-90 miles away, Mary, who had been betrothed to Joseph, was going about her daily routine. Gabriel met her saying, “”Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” The angel’s message continues to be quoted:

LK 1:31-32 “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David…” (NASB)

Mary is quoted using the personal pronoun “I” asking Gabriel how she could have a baby when she was a virgin. Mary and the angel Gabriel are the only ones present making Mary the primary source of the conversation. Gabriel went on to explain the Holy Spirit would impregnate her and she would give birth to the Son of God:

LK 1:35 “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (NRSV)

Elizabeth re-enters Luke’s account when Gabriel told Mary that she was 6 months pregnant. After Gabriel departed, Mary hurried to go visit her. Upon hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s babe leapt within her.[3]

Presumably only Mary and Elizabeth are present for this greeting dialog, similar to Zechariah and Gabriel. Elizabeth’s blessing statement is consistent with both Gabriel’s message and her greeting to Mary. If Elizabeth was not available to the author, then Elizabeth’s praise containing four personal pronouns of “me” and “my” was restated by Mary:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord. For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”

Less obvious, although a very important detail, Elizabeth knew about Mary’s immaculate conception before Mary told her. It was only a few days after Gabriel told Mary she would conceive the Son of God. Mary’s pregnancy was not visible and it seemed only Mary knew about it. A woman’s pregnancy is not naturally known even to the mother, barring modern medicine, until 2-4 weeks or later after conception.[4]

Upon hearing Elizabeth’s blessing, Mary was filled with emotion. Her detailed passionate praise is quoted with the personal pronouns “my” and “me” five times. The primary source of Mary’s praise strongly appears to be Mary herself.

Matthew articulates Joseph’s reaction to discovering Mary’s pregnancy months later after she returned from the trip to visit Elizabeth and he was understandably upset. Joseph was considering a divorce until a visitation by Gabriel informed him Mary had not cheated, rather the Holy Spirit impregnated her as a fulfillment of prophecy.

Luke’s Nativity identifies two Roman rulers not found in Matthew that serve as historical date markers – Caesar Augustus and Quirinius governing in Syria. Two other specific details are a decree issued by Caesar Augustus which, in turn, became the compelling factor for Mary to travel to Bethlehem in her late stage of pregnancy.[5]

Chronicling the birth of Jesus, Mary went into labor in Bethlehem and was forced to give birth in a stable because all the inns were full. Luke quotes an angel appearing to shepherds outside of Bethlehem announcing his birth and a larger number of angels in the sky praising God. The source of the quote had to be one of the shepherds.

LK 2:10-14 “…behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord…And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”(NKJV)

Immediately, the shepherds quickly went into the little town of Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph with Jesus lying in a manger confirming the angel’s birth announcement. What the shepherds witnessed, they widely told to people who marveled at their report.

Matthew, on the other hand, outlines a different Nativity aspect telling how the Magi had observed signs in the sky that prompted their long journey to find the newborn “King of the Jews.” After consultation with Jewish religious experts, King Herod revealed to the Magi where they could locate the babe. When the Magi found Jesus, the family had moved to a house.

Luke adds two other details. Eight days later during the Jewish circumcision event, Joseph and Mary officially named their baby Jesus as each were separately instructed by Gabriel. At the 30-day mark according to the Law, the parents presented Jesus to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem and offered a sacrifice which required a priest.

Much of Luke’s Nativity account is unique yet it is in sync with Matthew. Four key points are common to Luke and Matthew – Jesus was born in Bethlehem; Nazareth is his hometown; Herod is King with governing authority of country of Judea. Does Luke’s Gospel Nativity meet the standards of credibility?

 

Updated December 3, 2022.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] Luke 1:7, 18. NASB, NKJV. West, Jim. “Ancient Israelite Marriage Customs.” Quartz Hill School of Theology. n.d. http://www.theology.edu/marriage.htm>  Rich, Tracey R. “Marriages.” Judaism101. 2011. <http://www.jewfaq.org/marriage.htm>
[2] Luke 4:14; 10:13; 19:37; 23:8. NetBible.org. Greek text. dunamis <1411>, semelon <4592>
[3] Slatzman, Russell. “Biblical travel: How far to where, and what about the donkey?” Aleteia. 2017. https://aleteia.org/2017/01/24/biblical-travel-how-far-to-where-and-what-about-the-donkey> Kosloski, Philip. “Mary traveled a highly dangerous path to visit Elizabeth. Aleteia. 2019. <https://aleteia.org/2019/05/31/mary-traveled-a-highly-dangerous-path-to-visit-elizabeth>
[4] “Month by Month.” Planned Parenthood. 2020. <https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/pregnancy/pregnancy-month-by-month> “Home pregnancy tests: Can you trust the results?” Mayo Clinic. 2019. <http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/getting-pregnant/in-depth/home-pregnancy-tests/art-20047940> “How long does it take to know I’m pregnant?” nct.org. n.d. <https://www.nct.org.uk/pregnancy/am-i-pregnant/how-long-does-it-take-know-im-pregnant>  Marple, Kate. Ed. “Early signs of pregnancy: When will I feel symptoms?” babycenter.com. 2019. <https://www.babycenter.com/getting-pregnant/how-to-get-pregnant/early-signs-of-pregnancy-when-will-i-feel-symptoms_10372077>
[5] The Nativity Story. TheBridgeChurch. image. n.d. <http://www.thebridgechurch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/The-Nativity-Story.jpg>

Quirinius, Governor of Syria When Jesus Was Born?

 

Quirinius – if not for the Nativity account in the Gospel of Luke, his name would be all but forgotten. The governance of Quirinius presents probably the greatest challenge to validating the five tight date parameters established by Luke and Matthew for the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Luke confirms Matthew saying Herod was King when Jesus was born. Luke adds three more defining parameters including Quirinius governing in Syria.[1] Four of these five events – Caesar Augustus, his census decree, the reign of King Herod plus a celestial star event – align with the 2 BC timeframe leaving Quirinius as the X-factor.

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)

Three observations about Quirinius can be pulled from Luke 2:2. Quirinius was governing Syria; suggests there was more than one census associated with Quirinius; and contains a rarely used Greek word.

According to secular history, a conundrum is posed because Herod’s death and Quirinius governing in Syria do not sync with the 4 BC timeline. Evidence now strongly suggests Herod’s death occurred during 2 -1 BC potentially changing the equation.

In his day Quirinius (Cyrenius in Greek) was a famous, powerful Roman Consul, the highest Senate rank achievable.[2] 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.[3]

Jewish history views Quirinius quite differently. He is known to them as the infamous governor of Syria who in 6 AD imposed a Roman provincial taxation triggering a Jewish revolt.[4] It understandable how the contemporary Jewish reading audience of Luke would easily recognize a reference to Quirinius and why the author delineated two separate registration events.

If there was a first apographe registration associated with Quirinius, “This census first took place…” there had to be a second one.[5] Indeed in the Books of Acts, the common author of the Gospel of Luke, makes a second reference to another 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 census registration scenario is benign and implies, consistent with Matthew, the oddity that Mary also had to register.[6] By contrast, the Acts scenario is circumstantially different – it sparked a revolt. Neither event is associated with a Roman lustrum census last taken in 8 BC according to Augustus’ own documented declaration.

Unique to the Gospels is Luke’s twice-used word hegemoneuo, a specific form of hegemon. The two words 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.[7] 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.”[8] The common author of Luke and Acts uses the hegemon title reference 8 times.

Just twice and only in Luke does the author exclusively use the word hegemoneuo, both times appearing in very close proximity in the text. The word hegemoneuo is used to describe the acting roles of both Quirinius and Pilate: [9]

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 Prefect of a Roman province appointed by Caesar, not a legate “governor” which required Consul rank.[10] Pilate’s responsibilities included Roman financial affairs and vested judicial power over life and death decisions, essentially possessing the authority powers of a governor.[11]

Quirinius is described using exactly the same word, hegemoneuo.[12] In the eyes of the Jews, the Roman distinctions of rank made little difference because both positions virtually had the same fearful, absolute Roman governing authority.

Luke is not alone in its treatment of Romans in a governing position in Syria – so did Josephus and Caesar Augustus. Josephus made numerous references to “Saturninus and Volumnius…the presidents of Syria” even though Saturninus was the Roman legate governor and Volumnius was the Roman procurator.[13]

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.[14] In essence, there were three governing authorities in Syria toward the end of Herod’s reign – two presidents and a procurator.[15]

“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 of the Jews

A few years later with Herod’ death, Varus and Sabinus separately rushed to Jerusalem to secure his estate. Josephus identified “Varus, the president of Syria” and Sabinus as “Caesar’s procurator” and “Caesar’s steward for Syrian affairs.”[16] The question is then, 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.[17] Varus was Roman 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.[18]

Independently, several 19th century historians tackled the Quirinus enigma.[19] Not all were in complete agreement with 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 Roman legate governorship.[20] 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.[21]

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.[22] One called out Quirinius by name…twice:

“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.”(English translation) Titulus Venetus inscription[23]

Gertoux makes the case that the Quirinius took a special census in 2 BC as part of the Breviarium of Augustus. This census could not be referring to the 8 BC lustrum of the Roman Empire exclusive to Rome nor the 6 AD taxation census taken by Quirinius that was exclusive to Judea. Further, a census in Apamea would have required the assistance of Judean King Herod.

Research by multiple historians indicate Quirinius did govern in Syria at some point during the years of 6-1 BC. Archeological evidence narrows the time frame even more. 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 25, 2022.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] Matthew 2. Luke 1-2.
[2] KJV. Kurenios <2958> Net.bible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=2958>
[3] Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.”  Titulus Venetus (CIL III; ILS 2683).  Inscription. p 9.  <http://www.academia.edu/3184175/Dating_the_two_Censuses_of_Quirinius>   Consuls.” History of Ancient Rome. 2018. <http://www.unrv.com/government/consuls.php>   “Senatorial Provinces.” History of Ancient Rome. 2018. <http://www.unrv.com/government/senatorial-provinces.php>  “Consul.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2018. <http://www.livius.org/cn-cs/consul/consul.html>  “P. Sulpicius Quirinius.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2018. <http://www.livius.org/su-sz/sulpicius/quirinius.html>  Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. The Complete Works of Josephus. Trans. and commentary. William Whitson. 1850. Book XVIII., Chapter I.1. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Consuls; Crete and Cyrenaica.” <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624
[4] Acts 5.  Smallwood, E. Mary.  The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian. 1981. pp 151-156.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=jSYbpitEjggC&lpg=PA151&ots=VWqUOinty4&dq=census%20Syria%20Rome&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapters I-IV.
[5] NRSV. Luke 2. Net.bible.org. Greek text. “protos” <4413>” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com>
[6] Smallwood. The Jews Under Roman Rule. p. 152.  Ando, Clifford. A Companion to the Roman Empire.  Ed. David s. Potter.  pp 178-179, 186.  2006.  Academia.edu. <https://www.academia.edu/649274/The_Administration_of_the_Provinces>  .
[7] Net.bible.org. Luke 2:1 footnote #5 and Greek text. “hegemoneuo <2230>”  Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. Josephus. Antiquities. Book VIII, Chapter XV; Book X, Chapter IV; Book XIV, Chapters IX, XII; Book XVIII, Chapter VI.  Josephus. The Life of Flavius Josephus. n.d.  #9, #17.  Josephus. Wars of the Jews. Book I, Chapter XXVII.3. Josephus. Against Apion. Book II, #22.
[8] Net.bible.org. Luke 2:1 footnote #5 and Greek text. “hegemon <2232>” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. Josephus. Antiquities. Book VIII, Chapter XV; Book X, Chapter IV; Book XIV, Chapter IX; XII; Book XVIII, Chapter VI..  Josephus. Life. #9, 17.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVII.  Josephus. Against Apion. Book II, #22.  “Pontius Pilate.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2019. <https://www.livius.org/articles/person/pontius-pilate>  “legate.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/legate-Roman-official>
[9] Josephus. Wars. Chapter IX.  Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter XI; Book XVIII, Chapter V. “Tiberius.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2018. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/tiberius>
[10] “Pontius Pilate.” Livius.org.  “legate.” Encyclopædia Britannica.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXIV.6, Book II, Chapter VIII, XIV. Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter III,  Book XVII, Chapters IV & XX; Book XVIII, Chapter III; Book XIX. Chapter XIX; Book XX, Chapter I.
[11] “Procurator.” Livius.org.  “Governor (Roman).” Livius.org. <http://www.livius.org/gi-gr/governor/governor.html>  “Procurator.” Merriam-Webster. 2018. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/procurator> “Procurator.”  Jewish Virtual Library. 2008. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/procurator>
[12] Net.bible.org. Luke 2:1 Greek text, footnote #5; “hegemoneuo <2230>”; “hegemon <2232>”; “hegemoneuo #2230” (Greek Word Study).  (Thayer); “hēgemoneuo <2230>” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/2230.html>
[13] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapters IX, XI; Book XVII, Chapter IX-XI; Book XX, Chapter XVIII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXI; Book II, Chapter II.  Antiquities.  Josephus. Life. #11.
[14] Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVII.  Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter XI.  Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Berytus.” <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624
[15] Ramsay, William M.  “Was Christ Born in Bethlehem?”  2010. Biblehub.com. Chapter 11. <http://biblehub.com/library/ramsay/was_christ_born_in_bethlehem/index.html>
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter IX; Book XVII Chapters, IX, X.  Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter II.  Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Judaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[17] “Syria.”  Regnal Chronologies.  Doig, Kenneth F.  New Testament Chronology. 1990. Chapter 5.  <http://nowoezone.com/NT_Chronology.htm>   Schurer, Emil. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ.1890. <http://books.google.com/books?id=BRynO3W9FPcC&pg=PP1#v=snippet&q=Tiberius&f=false>
[18] “Ancient History Sourcebook: Res Gestae Divi Augusti, c. 14 CE.” Davis, William Steams, ed. 1912. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/14resgestae.asp>  Ramsay.  Was Christ Born in Bethlehem?  Chapter 11. “Syria.” Regnal Chronologies. n.d. <http://web.raex.com/~obsidian/Syria.html#Syria> Schurer. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. Volume 1, page 351.  Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem: The Star That Astonished the World. Chapter 10. <http://askelm.com/star/star000.htm#_edn11%3E%20%3Chttp://web.archive.org/web/20170111193244/http://www.askelm.com/star/star001.htm>
[19] Davis, J. “Quirinius.” Schaff. History of the Christian Church, Volume I. “Chronology of the Life of Christ.” Chapter 2, Sec 16.  < https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc1; Ramsay.  Was Christ Born in Bethlehem? Chapter 11.
[20] Schaff. History of the Christian Church, Volume I. “Chronology of the Life of Christ.” Chapter 2, Sec 16.   Davis, J.. “Quirinius.”  Sieffert, F. “Census.” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Vol. II:  Basilica – Chambers. 1952. <http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/encyc/encyc02/htm/iv.vi.ccxxx.htm>
[21] Davis, J. “Quirinius.”  Schaff. History of the Christian Church, Volume I. “Chronology of the Life of Christ.” Ramsay. Was Christ Born in Bethlehem? Chapter 11. Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals.109 AD. Book III. Trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, <http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.html>  Davis, J.. “Quirinius.”  Smith, William.  A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 1857. “Vice’sima.” <https://archive.org/stream/schooldictionary00smituoft#page/n9/mode/2up/search/publicani>  “Cilicia.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering.  2018. <http://www.livius.org/cg-cm/cilicia/cilicia.html>  “Cilicia.”  UNRV History |The Roman Empire. 2017. <http://www.unrv.com/provinces/cilicia.php>  “Cilicia.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering.  2014.  <http://www.livius.org/cg-cm/cilicia/cilicia.html>  Mommsen, Theodor. The Provinces of the Roman Empire from Caesar to Diocletian. Volume 1. 1887. Chapter VIII., pp 347 – 397. <http://books.google.com/books?id=_WAKAAAAIAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q=asia%20minor&f=false>  Boak , Arthur Edward Romilly.  A History of Rome to 565 A. D. 1921. p 277. 2010. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/32624/32624-h/32624-h.html>  Schurer. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. Volume 1, pp 351-354.  “Syria.” Regnal Chronologies.  “Varus, Quintilius.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14647-varus-quintilius>  Doig. New Testament Chronology. Chapter 5.  Schurer. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. Volume 1, pp 352-353.  “Syria.”  Regnal Chronologies.  “List of Roman governors of Syria.”  Wikipedia.com. 2018.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_governors_of_Syria>   Sieffert, “Census.”  Gertoux. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.”  p 8.  Bunson. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Consuls.”
[22] Gertoux. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.” pp 3-5. Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the death of Herod.” 2015. p 1. <http://www.academia.edu/2518046/Dating_the_death_of_Herod>
[23] Gertoux. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.” Titulus Venetus (CIL III; ILS 2683).  Inscription. p 4.

An Unusual Roman Census Decree By Caesar Augustus

 

Traditional Nativity stories refer to the “census” decreed by Caesar Augustus. It was the motivation for Joseph to take Mary in her late eighth month of pregnancy to travel to Bethlehem 90-miles away where Gospel Nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke say she gave birth to Jesus of Nazareth. Aligning with secular historical timelines seems to pose a conflict with these two Gospels.

LK 2:1-3 “Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.” NASB

Surprisingly the word “census” is not used in some of the Gospel English translations. One reason is that nowhere in the original Greek texts is found the Latin word censēre.[1] In a parallel comparison, the translated English word “census” appears only once in any of the four voluminous works by Jewish historian Josephus an Antiquities reference to a census taken by Moses.[2]

Derived from the Latin word censēre is the English word “census;” however, the only possible Greek equivalents are the two words, apographo and apographe with very similar meanings.[3] By definition, apographo is a verb meaning an activity to “write off (a copy or list), i.e. enrollment.” The noun, apographe, means “an enrollment, by implication an assessment,” the actual registry data produced by the enrollment activity.

As a verb, apographo, the activity, is used in Luke 2 verses 1 and 3 while the noun, apographe, is the registry document used in verse 2. Both Greek words have been interchangeably translated in English Bible translations using variations of five different words – “census,” “registered,” “enrolled,” “numbering,” and “taxed.”[4]

Applying the Greek definitions to Luke’s account, Augustus issued a decree for an enrollment activity in verse 1. The actual enrollment register (list) documentation occurred in verse 2 while Quirinius was governing in Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own city for the enrollment activity in verse 3.

Res gestae divi Augusti

Backdrop to the historical context are the multiple facets associated with a Roman censēre where enumeration of Roman citizens was the prized objective. Augustus took three lustrum Roman censuses during his 44-year reign. In Caesar’s own words:

“When I was consul the fifth time (29 B.C.E.), I increased the number of patricians by order of the people and senate. I read the roll of the senate three times, and in my sixth consulate (28 B.C.E.) I made a census of the people with Marcus Agrippa as my colleague. I conducted a lustrum, after a forty-one year gap, in which lustrum were counted 4,063,000 heads of Roman citizens. Then again, with consular imperium I conducted a lustrum alone when Gaius Censorinus and Gaius Asinius were consuls (8 B.C.E.), in which lustrum were counted 4,233,000 heads of Roman citizens. And the third time, with consular imperium, I conducted a lustrum with my son Tiberius Caesar as colleague, when Sextus Pompeius and Sextus Appuleius were consuls (14 A.C.E.), in which lustrum were counted 4,937,000 of the heads of Roman citizens.” – The Deeds of Divine Augustus [5]

Roman lustrums involved a lesser known religious component. A sacred ceremony at the conclusion of a lustrum involved the Censor offering a sacrifice to the god Mars on behalf of Rome’s citizens.[6]

Taxation comes into play because data collection from a censēre was typically used as the basis to initiate a tax valuation, an assessment or appraisal. A Roman procurator was then responsible for actual tax collection activities managed through local authorities.[7]

Abuses of tax collection were rife, a natural consequence of the Roman tax collection system. Publicani purchased franchise rights to collect taxes through an auction held in Rome.[8] A franchise inherently involves making a profit, but Rome didn’t care about how the proceeds were collected as long as the government received its expected revenue. This opened the door to dishonest and abusive behaviors to collect more revenue than was necessary by the franchise owner’s tax collection agents known as publicans, the despised tax collectors of the Gospels such as was the Disciple Matthew.[9]

Syncing Luke’s account with the Augustus census in 8 BC does not come without controversy concerning historians, religious scholars, and detractors who take varied and opposing positions. Both Herod and Augustus had to be alive thereby establishing the limiting timeline parameter. Further complicating the picture is the controversy surrounding the date of Herod’s death.

Luke corroborates Matthew’s Herod reference and adds two more dating parameters – the “census” and Quirinius factors.[10] According to Luke, the birth of Jesus occurred when Quirinius governed in Syria making the year 8 BC too soon under known or possible secular historical scenarios.

Secular history places Herod’s death in 4 BC as determined from the printed accounts of Josephus’ Antiquities reckoning. The calculation is based on the anchor date of the 20th year of the reign of Tiberius.[11]

Investigation on the Antiquities dating by historian buff David Beyer included travel to major world libraries holding handwritten copies predating the first printings that came as a result of the invention of the Gutenburg press in 1544.[12] Beyer discovered all existing handwritten manuscripts of Antiquities actually say Herod’s death occurred during the 22nd year of Tiberius, not the 20th year. Recalculating, the 2-year difference translates into Herod’s death occurring in 2 BC or early 1 BC – not 4 BC.[13]

Building on Beyer’s discovery, Dr. Earnest Martin’s research points to a special set of circumstances in 2 BC.[14] Rome was in the height of its glory commemorating the 750th anniversary of its founding and was the same year as the Silver Jubilee reign of Caesar Augustus.

Inspired by the circumstances of 2 BC, the Senate bestowed upon their emperor the honor of Pater Patriae. Augustus considered it to be one the highlights of his reign as listed in The Deeds of Divine Augustus. To underscore this honor, prompted by the Senate, Augustus decreed a “registration” to be taken of the entire Roman Empire claiming allegiance to him as Pater Patriae.[15]

Dr. Gerard Gertoux conducted independent research where the results corroborate the findings of Beyer and Martin. Dr. Gertoux concluded that Luke’s “census of the world” occurred in 2 BC and was not for taxation purposes. Gertoux determined that Caesar’s motivation for the “census” was to quantify the entire resources of Rome as part of his breviarium totius imperii eventually to be read at his funeral along with the unveiling of his Res gestae divi Augusti (The Deeds of Divine Augustus).[16]

Research evidence produced by Beyer, Martin and Gertoux establishes a 2 BC timeline for a special “census” registration decreed by Augustus that occurred before the death of King Herod in late 2 BC or early 1 BC. These findings are consistent with dating parameters documented in the accounts of Matthew and Luke – Herod’s reign; reign of Augustus and his census decree; governing of Quirinius in Syria plus one other corroborating dating paramater, the Star validated by NASA data.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of Luke’s reference of a registration decree issued by Augustus has nothing to do with history and is best presented with a question. How likely is it that Joseph would risk taking Mary, a young 8-month pregnant teenage girl, away from her comfortable home and family on a difficult, treacherous week’s long journey on the back of a donkey to Bethlehem 90 miles away knowing it was quite possible that Mary could give birth in the wilderness along the way – unless the Town Crier’s announcement of Augustus’ decree gave them no other choice?[17]

 

Updated January 15, 2022.

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REFERENCES:

[1] “Census.”  Merriam-Webster. 2018. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/census
[2] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book 3, Chapter 12.4. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[3] Luke Greek text. Net.bible.org. “apographo <583>” and “aprographe <582>.” n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com>
[4] NASV, NRSV, ASV, BBE, KJV.  Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Censor; Census.” <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624
[5] Augustus, Caesar.  The Deeds of the Devine Augustus (Res gestae divi Augusti). #8. Trans. Thomas Bushnell. 1998. <http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html>
[6] “Lustrum.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2018. <http://www.livius.org/concept/lustrum>  Bunson. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Censor, Census.”
[7] Smallwood, E. Mary.  The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian. 2nd Ed. 1981. pp 151-152. http://books.google.com/books?id=jSYbpitEjggC&lpg=PA151&ots=VWqUOinty4&dq=census%20Syria%20Rome&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false Smith, William. “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography.” 1901. 3rd Ed., Vol. 1. “Censor”, “Publicani” and “Vectigalia.” <https://books.google.com/books?id=Cu89AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA403&lpg=PA403&dq=greek+word+for+census&source=bl&ots=LM1MjmCiJt&sig=1_yjJgyNxcCcSWZvf0QK69IJuMw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjx0oPA04DYAhXo6YMKHebvAEwQ6AEIejAK#v=onepage&q=census&f=false “Procurator.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2018. <http://www.livius.org/concept/procurator>
[8] Smallwood.  The Jews Under Roman Rule. p 152.
[9] Matthew 9; Luke 5. Smith, W. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. “Censor.” “Publicani” and “Vectigalia.”
10] Matthew 2; Luke 1. Smallwood. The Jews Under Roman Rule. Appendix E, p 568.
[11] Josephus.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVIII, Chapters IV.6 and V.4.  Bernegger, P.M. “Affirmation of Herod’s Death in 4 B.C.” Journal of Theological Studies Vol. 34, no 2. 1983. pp 526-531. <http://www.redatedkings.com/postings/Bernegger.pdf> Schurer, Emil. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. Volume 1. 1890. pp 464-465, footnote 165. <http://books.google.com/books?id=BRynO3W9FPcC&pg=PP1#v=snippet&q=Tiberius&f=false> Doig, Kenneth F.  New Testament Chronology. 1990. Chapter 4.<http://nowoezone.com/NT_Chronology.htm>
[12] Chase, Jeffrey S. “The Gutenberg Printing Press.” n.d. <http://www.cs.duke.edu/~chase/cps49s/press-summary.html>
[13] Beyer, David W.  “Josephus Reexamined:  Unraveling the Twenty-Second Year of Tiberius.” pp 90-93, 95-96.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=mWnYvI5RdLMC&lpg=PP1&dq=isbn%3A0865545820&pg=PA85#v=snippet&q=beyer&f=false> Wolfram, Chuck. “The Herodian Dynasty.” 2004. <http://web.archive.org/web/20151013221102/http:/freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~cwolfram/herod> Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Chapter 13. <http://askelm.com/star/star000.htm#_edn11
[14] Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.”  n.d.  pp 6-7. <http://www.academia.edu/3184175/Dating_the_two_Censuses_of_Quirinius>
[15] Augustus. The Deeds of the Devine Augustus. #35.  “pater patriae.”  Nova Roma. 2017. <www.novaroma.org/nr/Pater_Patriae_(Nova_Roma)>  “pater patriae.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/pater-patriae> Martin. The Star of Bethlehem. Chapter 13.  Mosley, John. “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows.” Reprint from Planetarian, Third Quarter 1981. <http://www.ips-planetarium.org/?page=a_mosley1981> Gertoux. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.” p 7.
[16] Gertoux. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.”  pp 6-7.  Davis, William Steams, ed.  Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources. Vol. II: Rome and the West. 1912-13. pp. 166-172. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/14resgestae.asp>  Schaff, Philip. “Chronology of the Life of Christ.”  History of the Christian Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity. A.D. 1-100. 1890. Chapter 2, Sec 16.  <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc1.i.II_1.16.html>
[17] “Distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem.” DistanceFromTo.net. 2018. <https://www.distancefromto.net/between/Nazareth/Bethlehem> “What is the distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem?” Reference.com. 2017. <https://www.reference.com/geography/distance-between-nazareth-bethlehem-6ac7e95c8360c7c7#> Bing.com/maps. Modern day mileage calculation from Bethlehem to Nablus (Nazareth) <https://binged.it/2mNpBy8>  Smallwood, E. Mary.  The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian. p 152. 1981.<http://books.google.com/books?id=jSYbpitEjggC&lpg=PA151&ots=VWqUOinty4&dq=census%20Syria%20Rome&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false>