Take the 2-minute tour ×
Christianity Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for committed Christians, experts in Christianity and those interested in learning more. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In Matthew 2, it makes it clear that Jesus was conceived during the reign of Herod and was a young child when Herod died.

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

We know that Herod died in 4 BC, so we know that Jesus must have been born in 4 BC or shortly beforehand.

In Luke 2, it is made clear that Jesus was born during the census of Quirinius

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. ... He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.

Quirinius became governor of Syria and performed his census in 6 AD. From this we know that Jesus must have been born in 6 AD.

This is a nine year discrepancy between the time of Jesus' birth as recorded by Matthew and the time of Jesus' birth as recorded by Luke. How can these two accounts be reconciled?

share|improve this question
Did you see the wikipedia entry on that subject, linked on the Quirinius page? –  Peter Turner Jan 27 '12 at 14:51
Hmm... that wikipedia article on Herod could use an update. There's a very good chance that Herod actually died in 1 or 2 B.C., rather than 4 B.C. –  Joel Coehoorn Jan 27 '12 at 15:05
Other than Josephus, who was born around 40 years subsequent to the events in question, do we have any evidence for the dates of reigns of Quirinus and Herod? It's possible Josephus is wrong due to incorrect sources, after all. –  Heath Hunnicutt Feb 16 '12 at 23:44
<Unconstructive comments removed.> –  El'endia Starman Aug 10 '12 at 3:03
How do you know your sources are reliable? Ex. Antiquity of the Jews. Is that one author's opinion, or combined? You see, you can't just choose your one source of truth as something to compare to the bible. –  user6467 Nov 5 '13 at 9:46

4 Answers 4

This is a fairly common question, and there is a very good answer. A detailed answer can be found here and here. These are some of the highlights.

It is important to note that Luke mentions that the census to which he is referring is the first census taken while Quirinius was governing. This seems to indicate that at the time of writing, the readers would need to distinguish between multiple censuses. Luke specifies that this was the first one.

Additionally, the term used for the ruling of Quirinius in Luke is not specific to a certain position. So, it's quite possible that he held one position at first and then was promoted to the specific position of governor and performed a census then as well.

So, linking the census mentioned by Josephus to this first census that took place when Quirinius was in a position of governing is uncertain at best.

Being 2,000 years removed from this, our historical data and understanding are certainly not what they would have been to first century readers of Luke's account. It is doubtful that Luke would have created such a glaring inconsistency, and if there were one, the readers of that day would surely have raised objection to it and discounted the narrative. Indeed, there were many in that day who would have loved to expose Christianity as false, if given the chance.

Still, there is ample evidence to resolve this apparent discrepency when we pull back from the assumption that there was only one census that must be connected between Josephus and Luke, and we also understand that Luke does not specify a particular position in mentioning the governance of Quirinius.

share|improve this answer

Herod probably died in the year 4. That date is corroborated by an eclipse of the moon which occurred on the very night that Herod burnt Matthias alive (Antiquities of the Jews - Book XVII, vi, 4), a few days before his own death; for there was an eclipse of the moon from 12 March to 13 March, 4 B.C.

So that leaves Luke in error, because we know that Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was governor of Syria, and that a census was made in A.D. 7. We can read in the Chronology in Cheyne's Encyclopedia pg 736, "any census in Judea before the well-known one in the year A.D. 7 is impossible".

How can these be reconciled? They cannot. Yeshua Ben Yosef probably was not born in Bethlehem because of a census or not before "the murder of the innocents". However he was born in Bethlehem as there are many accounts, Christian or not. Even the Quran hints to it. Matthew and Luke are the only two books describing the nativity and the importance of his birth at the time is was not as important as it is now - to Christians.

You may want to read, Sanders, E. P. The historical figure of Jesus. Penguin, 1993. Sanders discusses both birth narratives in detail, contrasts them, and judges them not historical on p. 85–88. Specifically:

"Sanders' considers Luke's census, in which everyone returned to his ancestral home, as not historically credible given that Emperor Augustus, known for being rational, would not have uprooted everyone in the Empire by forcing them to return to their ancestral cities and that people were not able to trace their own lineages back forty-two generations."

share|improve this answer
A typesetting error in 1544 (just uncovered in the 1990's) in the manuscript used to nail the down 4BC date indicates that 1BC is probably more accurate. For sources, see Andrew Steinmann, "When Did Herod the Great Reign?" Novum Testamentum Volume 51, Number 1, 2009 , pp. 1-29 .. and .. Ernest L. Martin, The Star That Astonished the World (Second Edition; Portland, Oregon: ASK Publications, 1996) ISBN 0-94-5657-87-0. –  Joel Coehoorn Aug 10 '12 at 4:06
How does that change the date of the eclipse? Maybe I should read you source :) –  user1054 Aug 10 '12 at 12:49
Another source that discusses the eclipse issue: johnpratt.com/items/docs/herod/herod.html –  Joel Coehoorn Aug 10 '12 at 13:24
It's interesting that when two sources disagree, and one of them is Biblical, there is always a huge cry of "that proves the Bible must be wrong". –  DJClayworth Sep 17 at 13:11

There were several Herod's. The first Herod was Herod the Great. Herod Archelaus, (3 BC – 7 AD) ruled 10 yrs before being disposed by Herod Antipas. Antipas was king during the life of Jesus and killed John the Baptist. Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, is the King whose acceptance of worship caused his death. (Acts 12). He killed James, the bro of Jesus and imprisoned Peter, intending to do the same to him. There is another, Herod Agrippa II, who was reigning at the time of the Roman desolation.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to the site. I hope to see you post again soon. –  fredsbend the Grinch Sep 11 at 15:34

The information presented above is Not correct ! if you study the writings of Josephus, you will discover that Herod was made king in the time of the consulship of Calvinus and Pollio. they were made Consuls in Oct.2, 40 B.C and their 'consulship' continued in 39 B.C., when Herod was made King. Josephu, in making his reckonings of the high priests, does Not factor in partial year "time-lines", so we have to expect that he follows this same "System' on the Reign of the Kings or Emperors ! As such since Herod was made King, sometime in 39 B.C., that 'partial year would Not be reckoned by Josephus, and as such the dating of josephus woul be that of 38 B.C for the start of the 37 year reign of Herod ! Again, that brings us to 1 B.C. The writings of the Roman historians "Appian", and "Dio Cassius" confirm the fact, that Herod the great, ruled from 38 b.C. to 1 B.C

According to Josephus, Herod died between a lunar Eclipse and Passover, and Josephus lists several accomplishments by Herod after the eclipse, that included travel, and particularly a "Time-line" that could not have been accomplished in less than 50 days !

The 'fictitious date' of 4 B.C. ascribed to Herod's death, by the 19th century scholar; "Emil Schurer", simply does Not Fit the facts, as the Lunar eclipse of 4 B.C. was only partial, (35% ) and only 29 days to Passover ! Whereas the lunar eclipse of 1 B.C., was a "Total eclipse" and a full 89 days to the Passover. this then Fits the proper reckoning of Herod's death. Herod had every male child "under the age of 2 years" killed, at the end of 2 B.C. ,as it can be proven that Jesus was born on Tishri the 10th, of 4 B.C.,and he Died on April 25th [Gregorian calendar] 31 A.D. Jesus began His Ministry in the Fall of 27 A.D., which according to Lk.3:3 was the 15th year of Tiberius.
Tiberius was made "Co-Regent" with Augustus, on October 12 A.D., thus the reckoning of tiberius begins with his being "co-regent" and Not at the time of Augustus's death in 14 A.D. I am a missionary/Bible prophecy teacher , in ministry since 1963. trust this information is helpful.

share|improve this answer
Here's a +1 in advance. I think you need to build some credibility in this answer by adding in some quotes from Josephus that supports the timeline you are referring to. Click edit at the bottom left of your post to add that in. Welcome to the site. –  fredsbend the Grinch Nov 22 at 16:07
Suppose that we agree on the 1 BC date for Herod's death rather than the 4 BC date. How does this help reconcile with the 6 AD census date? –  Peter Olson Nov 22 at 16:26
It is advisable to cite sources if you can, but this is a really promising answer! –  Reluctant_Linux_User Nov 22 at 22:42

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.