A Survey of Schürer’s Challenges to the Lukan Census – 6

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series A Survey of Schürer’s Challenges to the Lukan Census

5.  Quirinius was not the Governor of Syria during Herod the Great’s Reign

Schürer’s fifth challenge is the most difficult within the current discussion.

A census held under Quirinius could not have occurred in the time of Herod, for Quirinius was never governor of Syria during the lifetime of Herod.1

History knows of a single legateship of Quirinius over the province of Syria, and that in c. 6 CE. His arrival in Syria coincided with the census of Judaea mentioned by Josephus.2 It is precisely this dating that presents the problem, since 6 CE is too late for the nativity.3

Over the centuries, many attempts have been made to reconcile Luke’s perceived discrepancy.4 Conservative biblical scholarship of the last 150 years has focused on a select few of the more robust explanations that do not sacrifice Luke’s accuracy. The two most often discussed are

  1. Two Legateships of Quirinius over Syria
  2. An alternate reading of Luke 2:2, “this was the first registration…”

5a.  Quirinius governed Syria twice?

This position argues that Quirinius held some type of governorship5 over Syria on two separate occasions; the accepted date of 6/7 CE as well as an earlier date (either c. 3-2 or c. 9-5 BCE).6 W. M. Ramsey et.al, forcefully argue this position, appealing to historical records, the Lapis Tiburtinus inscription7 and supposition, in an effort to place Quirinius in Syria prior to 6 CE.8

The reasons for the date of 3-2 BCE centers on scholarship’s current uncertainty as to who held the Syrian legateship at this time.9

23-13 BCE M. Agrippa
c. 10 BCE M. Titius
9-6 BCE S. Sentius Saturnius
6-4 BCE, or later Quintilius Varus
3-1 BCE ?
1 BCE to c. 4 CE Gaius Caesar
4-5 CE L. Volusius Saturnius
6-7 CE, or later P. Sulpicius Quirinius

As one can imagine, this has prompted much debate over Quirinius as a possibility, which would seemingly solve the dilemma presented by Schürer.10 However, Schürer, who is familiar with the suggestion, dismisses this dating as deficient,11 observing that these dates conflict with the accepted dates of Herod’s death (5/4 BCE).1213 Ramsey rejects the late dating for the same reason.14 For Ramsey, earlier dates (c. 9-5 BCE) are more appropriate.15 Additionally, Ramsey finds that an early dating coincides nicely with the known census decree by Augustus in 8 BCE.16

While a popular view early on, current scholarship considers the possibility of Quirinius holding two legateships in Syria historically untenable. While some discussion continues, the overall consensus has shelved it until better evidence can be presented.

5b.  The Census ‘Before’ Quirinius

Setting aside the assumption that Quirinius served twice as legate of Syria (thus assigning him the single legateship in 6 C.E.) allows us to explore another possible solution to Schürer’s fifth challenge. Briefly, that there is a possible alternate reading of Luke 2:2, from this:

This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

To this:

This was the first registration, before the one when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Or variants thereof.

This alternate translation, supported by a number of scholars,17 places the Lukan Census prior to the infamous census of 6-7 CE, with which Luke is also familiar (Acts 5:37). Certainly this is not a new argument; Schürer comments on it, going so far as to express its plausibility:

That this translation in case of need might be justifiable may be admitted (John 1:15, 30)18

But then goes on to say:

It is indeed absolutely inconceivable for what purpose Luke should have made the idle remark, that this taxing took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria. Why would he not rather name the governor under whom it did take place?19

Setting aside Schürer’s incredulity, scholarship remains cautious, keenly aware that this position has grammatical challenges.20

The form of the sentence is in any case odd, since it is hard to see why πρῶτος was introduced without any object of comparison, and it may be that πρῶτος should be understood as a comparative with the meaning ‘before’. Luke does write loose sentences on occasion, and this may well be an example of such. No solution is free from difficulty, and the problem can hardly be solved without the discovery of fresh evidence.21

[W]e would do better to take a plausible grammatical solution which accords with the evidence rather than to ignore the evidence on the basis of shaky grammar.22

 Despite the general acceptance of Luke’s abilities as a historian,23 Luke 2:2 in particular continues to pose problems for the student of the Bible. Critical scholarship is divided on the solution and will undoubtedly remain so until new evidence is discovered.

Series Navigation<< A Survey of Schürer’s Challenges to the Lukan Census – 5A Survey of Schürer’s Challenges to the Lukan Census – 7 >>
  1. ‘History’, p. 133. []
  2. See also Cotton, ‘Papyri’, pp. 106-7, for the Secundus inscription validating the Qurinian census in 6 CE. []
  3. Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born during Herod the Great’s reign, which ended with Herod’s death in 5/4 BCE. []
  4. This is seen as early as Justin Martyr (Apol. 1:34; 46; Dial. 78) and Tertullian (Adv. Marc. 19). []
  5. W. M. Ramsey points to Luke’s usage of the word ἡγεμονεύοντος for both legati and procurators in an effort to argue a more nuanced definition within Luke-Acts, which would relieve restrictions on Quirinius being a Legate; he could have governed in some other role, perhaps in a military capacity. W. M. Ramsey, ‘Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? A Study on the Credibility of St. Luke’, p.  245 (1898). []
  6. Porter, ‘The Reasons for the Lucan Census’ in Paul, Luke And The Graeco-Roman World, The Reasons for the Lukan Census’, p. 168, (2003). []
  7. This inscription partially highlights the career of an unknown Roman official who served as a Roman legate twice, at least once over Syria, as well as proconsul of Asia, during Augustus’ reign. Unfortunately, the manuscript is missing the name of this Roman officer, which leaves commentators looking to other sources for clues to his identity. See Ramsey, ‘Bethlehem’, p. 273, for a treatment of the inscription, which he refers to as “The Inscription of Quirinius”. Biblical scholarship is generally unsupportive of Ramsey’s claims. []
  8. ibid., pp. 227-48. []
  9. Brown, ‘Messiah’, p. 550. Fitzmyer, Schürer, et.al, agree with this timeline. []
  10. ‘History’, p. 133. []
  11. ‘History’, Vol. 1, p.352 []
  12. ‘History’, p. 138 []
  13. While beyond the scope of this article, there is some discussion over the dating of Herod’s death. Some suggest a later date, perhaps even to 1 CE, based on descriptions from Josephus. Problematic, among other issues, is how to address the time of Varus’ legateship in Syria, as both Josephus and Tacitus (Histories, 5:9) place Herod’s death during Varus’ service there. For further reading, see A. Steinmann, ‘When did Herod the Great Reign?’ Novum Testamentum 51 (2009): 1-29 (29). []
  14. Ramsey, ‘Bethlehem’, pp. 109-10. []
  15. ibid., pp. 227-48 []
  16. ibid., pp. 149-73 []
  17. N. T. Wright, F. F. Bruce, N. Turner, C. Evans, B. Witherington III, P. Barnett, I. H. Marshall, et.al. []
  18. ‘History’, p. 135. []
  19. ibid. []
  20. Bock calls it ‘cumbersome at best’. Luke’, p. 909; H. W. Hoehner considers it cumbersome as well, ‘Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ’, p. 21 (1977). Wallace is unconvinced of its validity (‘The Problem of Luke 2:2: This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria’, Online: http://bible.org/article/problem-luke-22-ithis-was-first-census-taken-when-quirinius-was-governor-syriai. For a historical overview of this argument, see Hoehner. []
  21. Marshall, ‘Luke’, p. 104 []
  22. Pearson, ‘The Lucan Censuses, Revisited’, p. 282. []
  23. See J. Burke for a detailed review of the current consensus of Luke’s historiographical abilities, http://berea-portal.com/historicity-of-the-book-of-acts-1/ []

Post a Comment

* (will not be published)