Luke & the census by Quirinius (Edited Title)


Does anyone here have an explanation for what appears to be an error in Luke where he mentions the census by Quirinius (sp) that Mary and Joseph had to partake in? Historians say there wasn’t a census at that time. Was Luke wrong or is there an explanation?


Okay, let’s play a game. I’ll name a somewhat recent event, you name as many leaders as you can. Try for people like the president, your state’s governor, your district’s senator…

*Pope Francis elected
*Pope Benedict XVI elected
*Hostess goes out of business
*Toy Story 3 is released
*Osama bin Laden is killed
*If you’re a parent, the birth of your first kid

That should be enough to get the point across…


So how many did you get?


Probably not many without the internet, right? Similarly, the authors of the Gospels may well have made mistakes with political details. I also think of one time in the Gospels where it mentions a combination of Roman rulers who never actually ruled at the same time. So why is Luke suddenly so good at remembering things that he has to get every last political detail correct?


God did not inspire Scripture to provide us a complete biography of Christ, an accurate history of the world, or the definitive textbook on science. It is however a history of salvation and an exposé on the revelation of His desire for each of us…so, don’t get to hung up on what is really insignificant in scripture, but rather take the time to ponder, pray on, and live out the important aspects.

Peace and all good!


LOL. At first I didn’t know where you were going with your game.
So is it possible that historical political details may be incorrect? Is it okay for Catholics to believe that they can be incorrect or do we, as Catholics, have to believe these details are right?


The matter of Luke’s Census is resolved with archeology [The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (1996) by Gary Habermas, pp. 171-173]…

Luke’s Census

In Luke 2.1-5 we read that Caesar Augustus decreed that the Roman Empire should be taxed and that everyone had to return to his own city to pay taxes. So Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem and there Jesus was born.

Several questions have been raised in the context of this taxation [1. See Bruce, Christian Origins, p. 192, for example]. Even if such a taxation actually did occur, would every person have to return to his home? Was Quirinius really the governor of Syria at this time (as in v.2)? Archeology has had a bearing on the answers to these questions.

It has been established that the taking of a census was quite common at about the time of Christ. An ancient Latin inscription called the Titulus Venetus indicates that a census took place in Syria and Judea about AD 5-6 and that this was typical of those held throughout the Roman Empire from the time of Augustus (23 BC-AD 14) until at least the third century AD. Indications are that this census took place every fourteen years. Other such evidence indicates that these procedures were widespread [2. Ibid., pp. 193-194]. Concerning persons returning to their home city for the taxation-census, an Egyptian papyrus dating from AD 104 reports just such a practice. This rule was enforced, as well [3. Ibid. p. 194].

The question concerning Quirinius also involves the date of the census described in Luke 2. It is known that Quirinius was made governor of Syria by Augustus in AD 6. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay discovered several inscriptions that indicated that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two occasions, the first time several years prior to this date [4. Robert Boyd, Tells, Tombs, and Treasure (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 175]. Within the cycle of taxation-censuses mentioned above, an earlier taxation would be dated from 10-4 BC [5. Cf. Bruce, Christian Origins, pp. 193-194 with Boyd, Tells, p. 175. Bruce prefers the date 10-9 BC for the empire-wide census, with that which took place in Judea occurring a few years later. Boyd places the date of the earlier census 6-5 BC, which coincides closely with the accepted dates for Jesus’ birth]. Another possibility is Bruce’s suggestion that the Greek in Luke 2.2 is equally translatable as “This enrollment (census) was before that made when Quirinius was governor of Syria” [6. Bruce, Christian Origins, p. 192]. This would mean that Luke was dating the taxation-census before Quirinius took over the governorship of Syria. Either possibility answers the question raised above [7. While ruling out the two-date approach to the governorship of Quirinius, Sherwin-White basically vindicates Luke’s account, while still finding more problems that does Bruce (pp. 162-171)].

Therefore, while some questions have been raised concerning the events recorded in Luke 2.1-5, archaeology has provided some unexpected and supportive answers. Additionally, while supplying the background behind these events, archaeology also assists us in establishing several facts. (1) A taxation-census was a fairly common procedure in the Roman Empire and it did occur in Judea, in particular. (2) Persons were required to return to their home city in order to fulfill the requirements of the process. (3) These procedures were apparently employed during the reign of Augustus (37 BC-AD 14), placing it well within the general time frame of Jesus’ birth. (4) The date of the specific taxation recounted by Luke could very possibly have been 6-5 BC, which would also be of service in attempting to find a more exact date for Jesus’ birth.

Also remember that Luke was NOT one of the 12 original Apostles.
He was a 2nd generation follower having been taught by St. Paul. So we might cut him some slack as the previous poster pointed out.

Still it seems that the New Testament is quite accurate none the less.

Peace :thumbsup:


If Habermas is right great, but are we required, as Catholics (as opposed to Pentacostals or Baptists), to believe in the political history details of Luke’s writing, or are we
allowed to belive that some of those details are wrong?


Did I word that wierd?


I read that Pope Benedict wrote in one of his books that the date for Jesus’ birth is wrong. Does that support Luke’s words about the census?
But then if historians got the year of Jesus’ birth wrong, doesn’t that suggest the details about this subject in the Bible are wrong instead?


According to Pope Benedict in “Jesus of Nazareth, The Infancy Narratives”, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus said the census took place in 6 A.D. under Quirinius. The Pope also quotes eminent contemporary scholars who have no doubts about the fact of the census occurring; only questions about certain details and dates are debated by some…


Well I think that we tend to live in an age that loves to split hairs. I would really like to know just how accurately our CURRENT media reports the news.

We are debating wether we can trust a document written about events that happened 2000 years ago give or take a few. To me it is conforting that indeed there was a census and that it’s purpose was for taxation.
Wonder if the censuses done by today’s governments have the same purpose :rolleyes:

Luke wrote his Gospel around 65 AC and we have had to make calendar adjustments quite a few times in the interim due to the error of rounding the year to 365 days. (that’s why we have now and extra day every 4 years) And yet even then there will be needed another adjustment in the future.
So again 4 BC or 6 BC does it MATTER?

Jesus IS a historical person a REAL person HE was born.

HE WAS crucified and died and what is more important HE is ALIVE.

We have the testimony of His Apostles that gave their lives to horrible martyrdoom rather than recant it.

How many persons do you know are willing to sacrifice everything for an IDEA.

JESUS is NOT an IDEA. HE is REAL person, that’s why you COULD give up your life for HIM.

Peace :thumbsup:


Doesn’t that fail to line up with Jesus’ birth in 4AD? Though if I’m not mistaken didn’t the pope also say that the established date for Jesus birth was probably off, which might make it line up after all?


Yes, I forget the details but our dating of Jesus’ birth is pretty well established as being faulty now, due to the miscalculations of a monk centuries ago.


I’m going to buy the book Jesus of Nazareth, The Infancy Narratives. Was this information included in that book?
If Jesus was born earlier than the OM (original monk, lol) said, would the new date be comaptible with the census?


Yes, the Pope covers it to some extent in The Infancy Narratives. And, yes, apparently Jesus was born a few years earlier then the OM’s date, which he calculated in the 6th century and was to become the accepted rule for one reason or another.


Wasn’t the census and birth both around 4 BC?Forgive me if my math skills are wrong; math has never been my subject.


The problem, from my understanding, is that the census took place under Herod’s reign, but he died in 4 BC. But Jesus was also apparently born BC, before Himself? :slight_smile: Anyway, according to Josephus, it took place under Quirinius in 6 AD. And while Josephus stated otherwise, scholars have maintained that Quirinius was active prior to that time, during Herod’s reign, and that the census was a slow process taking place over several years. I’m just paraphrasing Pope Benedict, who covers the event sketchily, and who tells us that certainty is impossible in this case with the information we have.


Scott Hahn & Curtis Mitch wrote an extensive explanation (like a whole page) on the dating of this census in their notes for the Gospel of Luke in the Ignatius Study Bible.

Try to find it.


I wish I could I’ve got too many Bibles already. My husband would have a fit if I’d bought another one.


Ok, let’s just say or the sake of argument that Luke did get some of these historical details wrong. As Catholics, are we allowed to believe that some things in Scripture are wrong?
IOW, does the CC maintain that everything in Scripture is factual or does the CC say there may be errors in the Bible on history or science?


We treat Scipture differently than fundamentalists or sola scriptura adherents. We don’t depend on scripture as necessarily being scientifically correct on all points or necessarily perfectly correct in details such as time and place. Rather we acknowledge that its perfectly correct in conveying God’s will regarding man’s salvation and even then it must be understood by the light of the Holy Spirit, guiding the Church to accurate understanding. IOW ultimately our authority is the Church rather than Scripture. Here’re some salient points from the Catechism:

**107 The inspired books teach the truth. "Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures."72

108 Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living”.73 If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, "open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures."74

111 But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. "Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written."77

113 2. Read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”. According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (". . . according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church"81).**

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