Reuben Grace
A Christmas Mystery: Luke, Quirinius and Jesus' birth

Picture the scene.

It’s Christmas and you’re enjoying reading the nativity story in Luke’s gospel. The familiar story encourages and comforts you as you reflect on the wonder of God with us.

But then your atheist history buff friend tells you there’s a serious historical error in Luke’s story. So you decide to look into it yourself. Apparently, it’s something to do with the hard-to-pronounce ‘Quirinius’ in Luke 2. Some furious Googling takes you late into the night… The further you go down this rabbit hole, the more it seems like Luke really did get his facts wrong. The explanations get more and more confusing and convoluted…. If Luke can’t even get this right, your friend argues, how can we trust anything else he says about Jesus…?  Your friend has played their trump card. But are they right? And what is the apparent error in Luke 2?

The problem: 10 missing years

As a careful historian, Luke helpfully links times in Jesus' life to kings and Romans officials we know about from other sources. In the Christmas story in Luke 2, however, this seems to get him into trouble.

Here’s the issue:

Luke tells us.

  • John the Baptist was born ‘in the days of King Herod’ (Luke 1:5) - who we know died in 4 B.C.
  • That the angel Gabriel comes to Mary in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John. Meaning Jesus must be born around 9 months later, and probably before 4 B.C. BUT then gives us a timing for Jesus’ birth that sounds like it is 10 years too late:
  • ‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria….’ (Luke 2:1-2)

We know Quirinius wasn’t governor of Syria until AD 6 - around 10 years after Herod died. And we know this because we have complete list of Roman governors of Syria in this period.

That leaves around a decade missing in Luke’s story! What is going on?

Many solutions

In the almost endless debate on these verses, scholars have proposed very many creative solutions:

  • Two governors had the same name?
  • Quirinius held a similar role at an earlier period (but which there is little evidence for)
  • Maybe Quirinius was co-governor with someone else?
  • Luke passed on an error in the sources he was using

Frankly, some of them seem quite unlikely or to be based more on wishful thinking than evidence!

By this point, going down the Google rabbit hole myself - and I write this as a history graduate! - I was fairly well stumped and dissatisfied with the solutions on offer. They seemed to require leaps and bounds of imagination. I know that generally in history, the simplest solution is the best.

A straightforward solution

For help, I turned to Craig L Blomborg, Distinguished Professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary in Colorado. Surely, I thought, his 800-page book The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, which came out in 2016, would give me some clear answers!

Blomberg discusses some of the possible solutions and gives his current view:

‘I am now more inclined to suggest a straightforward alternative translation: ‘This census took place before Quirinius was governing Syria…’[1]

He explains that the comment about Quirinius is a very brief aside. And that it is ‘notoriously ambiguous’![2]

For those interested, Blomberg explains that the word traditionally translated ‘first’ can also be translated as ‘before’. In fact, it’s the second most common use of the word.

If you look closely in your Bible, you’ll see most English translations note this as an acceptable alternative translation at the bottom of the page.

How does that help?

Luke makes this remark because there was a very famous census that happened in AD 6 just after Quirinius became governor of Syria. That census provoked a famous rebellion because it was about paying taxes to Rome.[3]

This census in AD 6 was so well known that years later in Acts 5 it can simply be called 'the' census.

So it would have been important for Luke to clarify that the census around the time of Jesus' birth was not 'the' census in AD 6 but an earlier one.

The earlier census
It’s sometimes claimed that there is no evidence of a census in Israel before the famous one in AD 6. But we do know there were regular censuses in the Roman world.

Also, we have evidence from a Roman source that in 8 BC Caesar Augustus did order a census of ‘all the [Roman] world’ (Luke 2:1).

Censuses took a long time, even a few years, especially in faraway Judea. Not many people in Jesus' day lived away from their hometowns, but those that did were often required to go back to register.

So when was Jesus born?

It’s likely the census Luke refers to was the one that was begun in 8 BC. So Blomberg argues for Jesus being born in 7 or 6 BC. (The fact it's not AD 1 is due to a miscalculation from a sixth-century monk who drew up the calendar that would become standard in the West!)[4]

Blomborg writes

 ‘If…. Luke were simply writing fiction at this point, it is highly unlikely that such convergences [with history] would appear.’[5]

A trump card?

So there is a solution to the Christmas mystery! Best of all, it actually makes sense of the evidence available and what Luke wrote. So there is no major historical error in the Christmas story after all, once you understand the text and the context- which is what history is all about.

More broadly, it shows the confidence we can have in the four gospels found in our New Testaments. While there are often challenges such as this one to try and navigate, it’s encouraging how good solutions emerge on closer investigation. Also, as I show in my other blog post, new archaeological evidence has consistently proved the gospels right. Our friend was partly right - if there was a major error in Luke’s gospel it would undermine his credibility to make other claims about Jesus. However, since the gospel writers get historical, geographical and personal details right, this helps give us confidence to accept that they reported what they knew about Jesus accurately.

If you enjoyed this…

How can I trust the Bible: https://youtu.be/6PawarklCmg






[1]  Craig L Blomborg,  The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (2016), p.123 (ebook edition) - in chapter 2.

[2] Blomberg, Historical Reliability of the New Testament, p.123

[3] Blomberg, Historical Reliability of the New Testament, p.123

[4] Blomberg, Historical Relibability of the New Testament, p.177.

[5] Blomberg, Historical Relibability of the New Testament, p.177.