Is there an historical mistake in Luke 2:1-2?


by Shawn Brasseaux

Bible critics grumble that Luke 2:1-2 allegedly contains an historical mistake: “[1] And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. [2] (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)” Is there an error here?

Mary the virgin gives birth to the Lord Jesus in verse 7. Herod the Great, king of Judaea, died when Jesus was just a few years old (cf. Matthew chapter 2). If Herod died no sooner than 1 B.C., we deduce Luke 2:1-2 (and Jesus’ birth) occurred circa 4 B.C. Difficulty, however, arises when historians claim Cyrenius* did not become governor of Syria until A.D. 6. If they are correct, Luke is mistaken because he has Cyrenius reigning several years earlier. (*The King James Bible calls him “Cyrenius.” Modern English versions name him “Quirinius,” his full title being “Publius Sulpicius Quirinius”).

According to Jewish historian Josephus, a prominent census (“taxing”) was conducted in Palestine in A.D. 6. Acts 5:37 makes reference to that event in which the Jews fiercely rebelled. Cyrenius was in charge of that taxing, as well as punishing the insurgents. Could this have been the census of Luke 2:1-2? No. The A.D. 6 census was roughly a decade after the census coinciding with Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:7. Luke must have another census in mind when opening chapter 2.

One Bible commentator sheds light on the subject from an archaeological standpoint: “A fragment of stone discovered at Tivoli (near Rome) in A.D. 1764 contains an inscription in honor of a Roman official who, it states, was twice governor of Syria and Phoenicia during the reign of Augustus. The name of the official is not on the fragment, but among his accomplishments are listed details that, as far as is known, can fit no one other than Quirinius. Thus, he must have served as governor in Syria twice. He was probably military governor at the same time that history records Varus was civil governor there.”

Apparently, in 8 B.C., Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus sent out the decree for the census to be undertaken, but delays prevented it from being administered until three or four years later. Remember, aged Herod the Great was in his final years, and political disagreement between him and Rome likely complicated the process. This was the census of Luke 2:1-2, when Cyrenius (Quirinius) had been military governor of Syria, and Quinctilius Varus the civil governor. Many years later, Cyrenius became civil governor of Syria, and there was a second census (the one of A.D. 6, alluded to in Acts 5:37 in hindsight).

There is no historical mistake in Luke 2:1-2. Cyrenius (Quirinius) reigned as governor of Syria twice. Luke 2:1-2 refers to a census during his first term (circa 6–4 B.C.). Cyrenius served another term approximately A.D. 6–9, with a second census taken here (mentioned in Acts 5:37). Remember, if the Holy Spirit did not guide Luke to perfectly record the historical facts, then we could not trust the Bible as touching (the more important) spiritual facts! Think about it!

Also see:
» Who was “Herod?”
» Who was “Caesar?”
» Who was High Priest—Annas or Caiaphas?