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.
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. He is known to them as the infamous governor of Syria who in 6 AD imposed a Roman provincial taxation triggering 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 separate registration events.
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.
Luke confirms Matthew saying Herod was King when Jesus was born. Luke adds three more defining parameters including Quirinius governing in Syria. 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)
Two observations about Quirinius can be pulled from Luke 2:2. “This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria” essentially states there was more than one census associated with Quirinius and the verse contains a rarely used Greek word, apographe. The word is a noun interchangeably translated in English Bible translations using variations of five different words – “census,” “registered,” “enrolled,” “numbering,” and “taxed.”
If there was a first apographe registration associated with Quirinius, “This census first took place…” there had to be a second one. Indeed in the Books of Acts, the common author of the Gospel of Luke, makes a second reference to another apographe.
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 registration scenario is benign and implies, consistent with Matthew, the oddity that Mary also had to register. 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. 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.” 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: 
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. 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 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.
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 essence, there were three governing authorities in Syria toward the end of Herod’s reign – two 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 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.” 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. 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.
Independently, several 19th century historians tackled the Quirinus enigma. 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. 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.
Two 20th century archeological discoveries of ancient inscriptions may provide the strongest evidence that Quirinius governed twice in Syria. Research by historian expert 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…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.” – Titulus Venetus inscription (English translation) 
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 May 28, 2023.
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