The Census


I posted this question a long time ago and got some replies but am looking forward to the opinions of more people. Does anyone have an explanation for what appears to be an error where luke mentions a census by Quirinius that Mary and Joseph had to partake in? Historians say there wasnt a census at that time.
As Catholics are required to believe that can be incorrect or do we have to believe that ALL details in Scripture is historically 100% accurate?




Modern day historians do not have records of all of the local censuses that took place in ancient Judea. Don’t give too much credence to anti-Christian propaganda.


Don’t listen to historians, Satan has spent 2,000 years trying to destroy us.

If you must choose between the Bible and some historian, ick the Bible.


Jimmy Akin just did a recent post about this question.

And another theory is that the reference to him being governor relates to a lower office that he held earlier, not the more known office he held later in life.


There are historical records that the census records existed and were available and used to set the day of the year that Christmas/Jesus birth fell on. See the references on page 3 of my article on the Star of Bethlehem. On three different occasions the census records were searched in order to set the date of Jesus’ birth.
Cyril Martindale, “Christmas,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III, 1908 Robert Appleton Co., Online Edition Copyright, 2003 K. Knight


To answer part 2: No. Roman Catholics are not bound by obedience to believe that ALL details in Sacred Scripture are 100% historically factual.

Notice I changed your ‘accurate’.



Pilate was a procurator in the time of Jesus crucifixion, he was not a legate (governor of the whole state). Same with Quirinius, he was likely a procurator (lower office) prior to him being governor. This means Quirinius could of been a Judean administrator of a census. This census may have been Judean loyalty to the emperor Augustus.

This clears up some of the contradictions that occur in Luke.


The link to the top one is blank.



Yeah, what’s the difference?


This is what Scott Hahn says and there is an essay about it in the Ignatius Study Bible. It is the best explanation I have seen.



It works for me:shrug:

The Catechism states

109 In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.75

110 In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. "For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression."76

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

The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it.78

112 Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”. Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover.79

The phrase “heart of Christ” can refer to Sacred Scripture, which makes known his heart, closed before the Passion, as the Scripture was obscure. But the Scripture has been opened since the Passion; since those who from then on have understood it, consider and discern in what way the prophecies must be interpreted.80

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).

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."83

117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

  1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.84
  1. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.85
  1. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.86

118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:
The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.87 119 "It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgement. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgement of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God."88


Its working now.


Meaning that he did a census before he was governor?


Thanks, but can we believe there are historical errors in Scripture?


Sort of…

The summary is that Quirinius was Procurator of Judea at the time of Jesus birth and that he was Governor of Syria later. The “census” was actually an oath-registration conducted while he was in Judea and not his later taxation-census conducted when he was governor of Syria.

Whatever the “census” was, it was much earlier than the census known to have been taken by Quirinius for the purpose of taxation after he became Provincial Legate of Syria in 6 AD. Justin Martyr writes that Quirinius was “Procurator” of Judea at the time of Jesus birth and Luke uses the exact same Greek phrase for the governing role of both Pilate and Quirinius. This means that Quirinius was not “Provincial Legate” or “Governor” at the time of the Census and Jesus birth but held a lower administrative position at the time of Luke’s “enrollment” or “registration.”

So what is the enrollment/registration/census?

There is no historical evidence that Caesar Augustus initiated a registration of Roman citizens during the end of the first century BC or that it would have been across the whole empire. He did initiate registrations’ at other times but not at this particular time. Most registrations were for the purpose of taxation and Caesar would not have taken a census of Palestine while Herod the Great ruled as king and collected taxes of his own.

Josephus records that Judea was required to swear an oath of loyalty to Caesar during the last years of Herod’s rule. There was an oath elsewhere in the empire in 3 BC according to archeologists. Caesar Augustus himself wrote that the entire Roman empire had professed him to be “Father of all Men” by the time the title was given to him officially in 2 BC. All of this might mean that the “registration” or “enrollment” described in Luke 2:2 was not a census for taxation but an oath of allegiance.

From the essay…

*Although there are gaps in this reconstruction, and much remains uncertain, the cumulative force of the evidence is significant. Herod’s death, Caesar’s decree, and the governing position of Quirinius are all historical factors that, when reconsidered, yield a more coherent portrait of the events surrounding the Nativity. … This reconstruction not only eases the chronological tension in Luke 2:1-2 , it helps to confirm Luke’s reliability as a historian as well as the early Church’s reliability as a channel of historical traditions. *



More accurately, Pilate was a prefect. ‘Procurator’ only became the title of governors of Judaea after AD 41.

Personally, I lean more towards the explanation that this census was a local one, actually undertaken by Herod the Great. Why then does Luke say that the census covered “all the world”? I think this is more Luke harmonizing different censuses that occurred at different parts of the Empire at around the same time. This isn’t the first time Luke conflated together different events occurring at different areas: the famine of Acts 11 which is said to take place “over all the world” is historically actually more of a series of famines that struck different places at roughly the same time period rather than a single famine that struck the whole Empire at the same time. Apparently it was more convenient/practical narrative-wise (and more dramatic?) to combine them together into a mega-famine.

Just before Herod would have ordered his last census of his kingdom (around 7/6 BC), Augustus had apparently for the whole of the Empire (the 72nd census since the founding of Rome) - but Augustus’ 8 BC census only applied to Roman citizens. It’s likely Luke combined the two censuses together; they’re close enough anyway, and Herod did have some connections with Augustus.

You have to remember that before AD 6 with Quirinius, the governors of Syria had no jurisdiction over the census in Judaea. The AD 6 census was thus the census in 1st-century Jewish history, especially in light of the tax revolt that happened around this time. (There’s another theory that Luke - either accidentally or on purpose - conflated the AD 6 census with Herod the Great’s final years because the same thing happened on both occasions; uprisings sprung up both after Herod’s death and during the AD 6 census.)


Yes, Justin Martyr does assert that Quirinius was ‘procurator’ of Judaea. But the problem is, Rome only began to send prefects (the more accurate term for the period) to govern Judaea after Archelaus got kicked out in AD 6. Herod at his death divided up his kingdom to his sons, who ruled as tetrarchs (‘rulers of a fourth’ - in spite of there being only three recorded sons - Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip :p). Archelaus proved to be an incompetent ruler, so Rome deposed him and decided that from then on, a Roman governor would rule the territory once governed by Archelaus. In other words, there were actually no Roman prefects/procurators in Judaea until after AD 6.


I agree.
First off, there is a timing problem re Jesus birth and the reign of Herod.
But besides that…we have pretty good records for the reign of Caesar Augustus and none of them say anything about an empire-wide census that required everyone to return to their ancestral home to register.
The census’ of Augustus were for Roman citizens–they would not have covered Joseph–and the Romans were not required to return to ancestral homes. Furthermore, it was common practice for the census-takers to do the traveling, not the people–especially Mary, being female and nine-months pregnant.
The writings in Luke say that Joseph returned to Bethlehem because his ancestor, David, was born there a thousand years earlier.
So…everyone in the Roman Empire went back to the homes of their ancestors of a thousand years earlier?
That would be a major–if not impossible–undertaking.
For such an undertaking not to be mentioned in any ancient source apart from Luke is…odd, to say the least.
It was widely known that Jesus came from Nazareth, a small town that few had heard of–hence his name, Jesus of Nazareth.
Many scholars believe the addition of the census in Luke was a way to say he was born in Bethlehem, the home of King David, to fulfill the prophecy that a savior would come from there.


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