Besides Luke's Gospel (which is grammatical difficult and may not mean "first" chronologically, but rather "most prominent/important"), is there any evidence that the famous census conducted by Quirinius in c. 6 AD was the first census taken in Judea under Roman rule? Do any extant documents from antiquity state this or is the conclusion drawn largely from Luke and an argument from silence. (Certainly there are known Roman registrations that could have extended into Judea (and don't necessarily relate to taxes), but we don't have a document that says they did.)

The reason I ask is that people sometimes emphatically state that the 6 AD census was the first and thus Luke must be wrong to tie it to Jesus' birth. (Whereas grammatically it is possible that Luke is saying "the census before that one".) I am just wondering if there is any hard data behind this statement, or if it as exactly as it appears - an overstatement of the confidence with which we know this "fact".

  • I'll try to form a direct answer sometime, but most of the content will be from the relevant portions of this answer I wrote for a larger (too wide) question on History.SE history.stackexchange.com/a/28057/16911 The fact Quirinus is known to be on Asia minor earlier, is involved in a census, that Augustus was reinstating regular census as of 22BCE (giving Lk 2:1 a wider context) and that the governor of Syria around the time of Herod's death is unknown all point to the strong possibility that this registration was the first in relation to the later 6CE one. Not first ever.
    – Joshua
    Jul 3, 2016 at 4:15

2 Answers 2


Until the time of Quirinius, Rome certainly had the power to impose a census in Judea, but to have done so would not have made any sense, being a waste of resources and an imposition on King Herod who ruled autonomously on Rome's behalf. After Herod's death, his empire was broken up, in accordance with his will, and Archelaus inherited Judea, Samaria and Idumea. Archelaus proved to be both unpopular and incompetent, so was deposed by Rome in 6 CE, with Rome taking direct control over the former kingdom. Rome now needed to know what taxes could be raised in its new provinceand therefore conducted a first Roman census in Judea. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, reports as follows on Quirinius and his census:

Jewish Antiquities , XVIII, i, 1: Quirinius, a Roman senator who had proceeded through all the magistracies to the consulship and a man who was extremely distinguished in other respects, arrived in Syria, dispatched by Caesar [Augustus] to be governor of the nation and to make an assessment of their property. Coponius, a man of equestrian rank was sent along with him to rule over the Jews with full authority. Quirinius also visited Judaea, which had been annexed to Syria, in order to make an assessment of the property of the Jews and to liquidate the estate of Archelaus; but the Jews, although at the beginning they took the report of a taxation heinously, yet did they leave off any further opposition to it ...

We can be certain of the date of this census, because Josephus actually mentions the year 6:

Jewish Antiquities , XVIII, ii, 1: Quirinius had now liquidated the estate of Archelaus; and by this time the registrations of property that took place in the thirty-seventh year after Caesar's defeat of Antony at Actium were complete. Since the high priest Joazar had now been overpowered by a popular faction, Quirinius stripped him of the dignity of his office.

Luke 2:2 says that the census first (πρώτη) took place when Quirinius was governing Syria. The straight-forward reading of this, accepted by most scholars, is that Luke is saying this was the first census in the region.

Luke confuses things a little, by saying (Luke 2:1) that the census was necessary so that the whole world could be registered, thus intimating that the census involved the entire Roman Empire. However, there never was a census of the entire Roman Empire. In any case, people throughout the Roman Empire, apart from residents of Rome, were already taxed long before the New Testament events. Judea was being brought into the empire and preparations were being made to tax its population.

  • The "that all the world should be taxed" of the King James (Luke 2:1) is a possible mistranslation; ἀποτῑμησις can mean "tax" but it can also simply mean "registration" (i.e. census). Modern translations generally use language like "that all the world should be registered." (ESV) ... There are known to be non-tax based registrations (e.g. in tax-exempt territory) in the Roman empire which are referred to by the same word, so my question remains: is there any testimony that the 6 AD census was the first such registration in Judea?
    – ThaddeusB
    Jul 20, 2015 at 23:49
  • Since there is ambiguity in the use of this word in Luke, I am happy to change the word to 'registered' in my answer. I have also updated my extract from Antiquities, to show that the purpose of this census was indeed taxation. I hope this is now a better answer. Jul 21, 2015 at 1:22
  • 1
    The "first" of Luke may mean "most prominent" (first can have this meaning even in English) as shown by, for example, the existence of textual variants which support this reading. Your answer is OK, but doesn't fully answer my question - are their any ancient historians (not necessary to be 1st century) who say the 6AD census was the first in Judea or is it simply an inference (as your answer implies)? I have slightly adjusted my question to hopefully make it more clear.
    – ThaddeusB
    Jul 22, 2015 at 14:30
  • @ThaddeusB I'll defer to you on knowledge of the Greek language, although this surprises me. 'First' is πρώτος (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CF%80%CF%81%CF%8E%CF%84%CE%BF%CF%82), as in Luke. 'Prominent' is Επιφανής. Jul 22, 2015 at 22:08
  • Also, the problem with proving a negative is that it is often almost impossible to prove that something did not happen long ago. Nevertheless, historians has searched for evidence of an earlier Roman census of Judea and found none. The wording of Josephus' account shows that the Jews were at first incensed at being subjected to a census, which makes a recent census very unlikely. Some apologists claim Josephus misdated the census, other apologists claim there had been an earlier census in which he had a more junior role, although this would not fit easily into what we know of his career. Jul 22, 2015 at 22:14

A correct interpretation of Luke 2:2 requires taking into account a key item of historical information of a most practical nature: any census of subjects (as opposed to citizens) of the Roman Empire was carried out for tax purposes, to determine the taxable base of each subject. In such a census, people to be registered were not expected to travel but to do exactly the opposite: stay in their homes and wait for the census officer, who was above all a tax assessor. Josephus, in his description of precisely the census ordered by Quirinius in 6 AD, explicitely states that the registered people had their possessions assessed, including land and livestock (AJ 18.1-3, quoted in the Jul 20, 15 answer by Dick Harfield). And it is evident that Joseph did not have properties in Bethlehem, otherwise he and Mary would not have had to seek shelter in a manger for Mary to give birth.

Therefore, the historically informed translation of Luke 2:2: "hautē apographē prōtē egeneto hēgemoneuontos tēs Syrias Kyrēniou" is "this registration took place before Quirinius was governing Syria". Note that rendering "prōtē" as "before" is consistent with the established translation of the end of Jn 1:15: "hoti prōtos mou ēn" = "because He was before me".

Thus, noting from Acts 5:37 that Luke was fully aware of the event of Quirinius' census, its nature and its consequence, namely the uprising of Judas the Galilean, the reason of his mentioning the event in Luke 2:2 becomes crystal clear: state for the record that he was not talking about that census. I.e., Luke is saying: "Given that in a Roman census of imperial subjects people remain at their homes, I state for the record that the census that prompted Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem was before Quirinius ordered his infamous one."

How then could it come to pass that Luke's statement was interpreted for centuries in exactly the opposite way as he meant it? Because of complete unawareness of historical context. I imagine that anyone living in the Roman Empire at that time would find this discussion hilarious to the point of ridiculous, and think: "How can these guys not understand that a census of subjects of the Empire (as opposed to Roman citizens) is for tax purposes, and that people must wait for the census officer at their homes? How else could the census officer reckon the taxable base of each person other than having a look at his property?"

On the other hand, the census that prompted the travel of Joseph and Mary was ordered by Herod and obviously restricted to the territory ruled by him. It approximately coincided in time with a global census ordered by Augustus in 8 bC, but was of different nature. Whereas Augustus' 8 bC global census was restricted to Roman citizens and for statistics, not tax, purposes [1], the motive of the Census ordered by Herod in 7/6 bC was that all his subjects should swear fidelity to Caesar and King (AJ 17.42) [2]. Together with the record of the oath, people were registered for an egalitarian contribution per capita in the way ordered by Ex 30:11-16, in which the possessions of each person were not taken into account.

In the context of a registration ordered by Herod, and knowing his profile, the order that all descendants of King David should register in one place was wholly plausible and logical, as it allowed Herod to know all potential claimers to the throne of Israel (and hence potential threats to his position). Furthermore, it is highly likely that the duty to travel to the city of their ancestors was in force only to King David's descendants, because of the people in general Luke says that "all went to be registered, each to his own town" (Lk 2:3), not "each to the town of his ancestors".

[1] Res Gestae Divi Avgvsti Chapter 22 (The Deeds of Divine Augustus) translated by Thomas Bushnell, BSG. Available online at: http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html#71

[2] Armand Puig i Tàrrech, "Jesus: An Uncommon Journey : Studies on the Historical Jesus", Mohr Siebeck, 2010. Chapter 2 "The Birth of Jesus", Section 4 "A More Judaico Census Decreed by Herod", pp 74-84. Partially available online at: http://books.google.com/books?id=elFp5tRSUH0C

  • Welcome to Christianity.SE, and thanks for offering an answer. While there is much interesting information here, it suffers from at least two lacks: 1. It provides no sources or documentation for its statements (see: What makes a good supported answer?), and 2: It doesn't actually answer the question, with "hard data," of whether Quirinius's 6 AD census was the first. If these lacks could be remedied, this would be a useful answer here. Jul 3, 2016 at 7:25
  • @LeeWoofenden I was also going to comment suggesting he source his claims. I however do think this absolutely answers the question. It addresses whether or not it was the first or in what sense it was first, which is the core question. I actually agree with much of answer and know of sources that would support him. If he does not add them I may answer myself with them, and additional information as well. He specifically needs evidence for the 8BCE census, and sources that agree with his understanding of "before Quirinius". Evidence of censuses held by Herod on behalf of Rome help too.
    – Joshua
    Jul 3, 2016 at 14:24

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