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The Census that Brought Our Lord to Bethlehem

Paul Senz

Jesus Christ is a real person who walked the earth in a real time and in a real place. There was something altogether remarkable about him, of course—and we know what an understatement that is. But even setting aside our belief that he was fully God and fully man, the incarnate logos of God, second person of the Blessed Trinity, we must acknowledge that he is, in fact, real.

The strange thing is that there are many out there who continue to challenge this seemingly straightforward fact. And to do so, they call into question the historical reliability of the Gospels.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke begin with narratives about the birth and infancy of Jesus. Both evangelists go to great lengths to establish Jesus Christ as a historical person, carefully placing him in a specific historical period by referencing leaders and events at the time he was born.

Those who question the historical reliability of the Gospels usually point to one of a few standard objections, all of which have been dealt with handily countless times. There is at least one objection, however, that does not get brought up as often. It has to do with apparent historical inaccuracies in the Gospel accounts of the census of Quirinius, the census that we are told brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Luke 2:2)”

The objection essentially goes like this: Quirinius was not governor of Syria during the reign of King Herod, and no enrollment was carried out by Quirinius until several years after Herod’s death and well after the birth of Christ; so the enrollment could not have happened as indicated, which means that the Holy Family was not in Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth, which then calls into question any historical detail offered in the Gospels.

There are a number of issues with this line of reasoning, but there are three primary points to be considered here: the death of Herod the Great; the roles held by Quirinius (including when he held those roles); and whether or not a census was held at the time in question.

St. Luke places the birth of Jesus within the reign of Herod the Great (1:5). But Quirinius was not governor of Syria while Herod the Great ruled. So, how could he have run a census during the reign of Herod, during which Jesus was born?

The Jewish historian Josephus wrote in the first century that Quirinius began to govern Syria after the banishment of Archelaus. It appears that this was as long as eleven years after the death of Herod the Great. Since we know from the Gospel of Matthew that Herod was king when Jesus was born, it seems clear that Quirinius was not governor of Syria at the time of Jesus’ birth. Doesn’t this pose a problem for the biblical account?

The Anglican scholar N.T. Wright presents one solution to this apparent quandary based upon nuances in the translation of the original Greek. Luke 2:2 tells us that “this was the first [protos] enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Now, usually protos means “first;” however, it can also be used to mean “before,” especially when it is followed by the genitive case, as it is in this verse. Wright suggests that a more accurate translation would be, “The census took place before the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

Okay, so we have dealt with the objection that Quirinius was not, in fact, governor of Syria when the enrollment took place. Does this mean that the enrollment never actually happened, as critics claim? And if it did happen, why would Quirinius have been involved with the enrollment at all?

Even though he was not the governor at the time, there are other governmental positions that would have been responsible for such an enrollment. Some scholars have recently made the argument that, at the time Jesus was born, Quirinius had a prominent administrative role that would entail his being involved in a census. In Luke’s Gospel, describing Quirinius’ role in the census, he uses the term hegemon, the same word he uses for Pilate. St. Justin Martyr wrote that Quirinius was a procurator in Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth, before his time as governor of Syria (Apology I.34), and Tertullian makes it clear that the governor of Syria at the time was Saturninus (Adv. Marc. IV.XIX). So, the objection simply does not hold water.

The trouble is that, while our knowledge about the ancient world is constantly developing, there is still so much that we don’t know. Our understanding of when certain events happened, and even our understanding of the terminology that may have been used (and which differed from time to time and place to place), grows with new scholarship every year.

Jesus Christ walked the earth, and that is an inescapable fact. The Gospels reliably record historical events that happened to real people at a real time. In spite of efforts to discount the Gospels (or at least the particular elements certain critics do not like), they are demonstrabl, historically reliable documents that tell us of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

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