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?

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    Did you see the wikipedia entry on that subject, linked on the Quirinius page? – Peter Turner Jan 27 '12 at 14:51
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    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
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    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
  • 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

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.

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  • Your assumption is the everyone was reading Luke back then. Luke's book was written 60-90 CE. By then the population was at least one generation removed from the event. Few people could read and fewer had access to this specific book - in fact, there were probably other books which were more interesting. – The Freemason Apr 23 '15 at 14:58
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    @The Freemason - Your date range for the writing of Luke's Gospel is wrong IMHO. Luke wrote his Gospel before he wrote Acts of the Apostles which looks as if it was written about 63 AD. Acts chapter 28 finishes abruptly with no mention of the death of Paul or Peter. It doesn't speak of the persecution arising in the reign of Nero. The only realistic reason is that those events had not yet happened. And Luke's Gospel includes about the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20-24) which started with the Roman/Jewish War 66 AD as if it is a future event, not a past event. – Andrew Shanks Nov 14 '18 at 0:17
  • @AndrewShanks I provided a link to where I got my dates - it has since been changed to a later date: "80–90 CE.[76][77] Text indicates written a generation after that of the first disciples, uses Gospel of Mark, and appears to address concerns raised by the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE". I appreciate the idea and it makes logical sense. However I don't think it's generally accepted: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dating_the_Bible – The Freemason Nov 28 '18 at 17:45

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.

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  • Welcome to the site. I hope to see you post again soon. – fгedsbend Sep 11 '14 at 15:34
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    @anna - Herod Agrippa I killed James the Apostle, not James the Lord's brother. According to Josephus, James the Lord's brother died in 62 AD at the instigation of the High Priest Ananus, son of the High Priest of the same name in the gospels. This Ananus, son of Ananus, had been appointed High Priest by Herod Agrippa II. – Andrew Shanks Apr 13 at 13:01

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."

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    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
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    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 '14 at 13:11
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    @DJClayworth We can be confident, based on calculations that the date of the eclipse is correct. Granted, although it can be answered with, "the all powerful God changed the date of the eclipse this one time." However it is most likely that Luke (generally seen by bible scholars as suspect) is incorrect here. Sorry to comment on one of my old answers but I was looking for something else. – The Freemason Dec 29 '14 at 14:39
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    -4-Mar-23 seems most plausible since the eclipse would have started before the moon was visible, giving the appearance of a moon rising in the sky already eclipsed - unique indeed! – The Freemason Dec 29 '14 at 17:34

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.

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  • 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. – fгedsbend Nov 22 '14 at 16:07
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    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? – user247 Nov 22 '14 at 16:26
  • It is advisable to cite sources if you can, but this is a really promising answer! – Reluctant_Linux_User Nov 22 '14 at 22:42
  • If a Roman census was conducted in 6AD, that does not rule out the possibility that an earlier census was conducted years before. The bible refers to the "first census", suggesting that there were more than one. – Paul Chernoch Sep 28 '15 at 15:30
  • +1 in hopes that you'll turn your attention to this answer again and provide some sources for your arguments. – Justin Jul 22 '16 at 12:02

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 (AJ 18.1 and 18.2). 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.

  1. NOW Cyrenius, a Roman senator, and one who had gone through other magistracies, and had passed through them till he had been consul, and one who, on other accounts, was of great dignity, came at this time into Syria, with a few others, being sent by Caesar to he a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance. Coponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent together with him, to have the supreme power over the Jews. Moreover, Cyrenius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus's money; 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, by the persuasion of Joazar, who was the son of Beethus, and high priest; so they, being over-pesuaded by Joazar's words, gave an account of their estates, without any dispute about it. Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite, (1) of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, (2) a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty; [...]

  2. WHEN Cyrenius had now disposed of Archelaus's money, and when the taxings were come to a conclusion, which were made in the thirty-seventh year of Caesar's victory over Antony at Actium, he deprived Joazar of the high priesthood, which dignity had been conferred on him by the multitude, and he appointed Ananus, the son of Seth, to be high priest;


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 by 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

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  • the word doesn't mean before, it means first. When translating to english the phrase before can be used when a relationship to the first thing is used. I came first in my family can be said as I came before my brothers and sisters. However, thats a quirk of translation, the greek is saying it was the first.. not saying there was a census before. – Keith Nicholas May 6 '17 at 11:40
  • I did not say that the text says "there was a census before". What I said was that the text says "this census was before Quirinius was governing Syria" – Johannes Sep 13 '17 at 6:44

This is going to be very brief. For those who really want to get to the bottom of this I give two free online articles at the end.

The argument of Andrew Steinmann, John Rhoads and others is that Josephus got himself into a bit of a mess, and misunderstood his sources. It isn't just that Josephus disagrees with Luke's data in Scripture, it is that Josephus disagrees with Josephus.

For instance, Josephus says that the High Priest Joazar was made High Priest by Herod the Great because he opposed Judas who was trying to persuade the Jews not to cooperate with the Roman census. Josephus then tells us in one place that Joazar was deposed by Archelaus in the days immediately after the death of Herod the Great to try to appease the Jews. But in another section Josephus tells us Cyrenius deposed Joazar about 7 AD: it cannot be both.

Josephus speaks of three men called Judas, he speaks of them as three different people - Steinmann et al argue these three Judases are actually the same man, who lead an insurrection in the days of the census which actually occurred in the reign of Herod the Great.

The comments of Josephus that there was an insurrection by "a Judas of Galilee" in the days of the census is confirmed by Acts 5:37:

"After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing [census], etc..."

The taxing being referred to in Acts 5:37 is believed to be the census which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

[[[[ Rambling Diversion for those who are interested !

(It is not surprising that Joseph knew that Bethlehem was his ancestral home, even though King David was a thousand years before... Joseph was the direct descendant of David, and if the Davidic dynasty continued up to Joseph, then Joseph himself would have been the King. Furthermore, the line of descent of the males was recorded by the priesthood in Jerusalem, probably when each baby boy came for circumcision. It would have been these legally binding records which Matthew and Luke would have consulted for their genealogies of Christ.)

It needs to be pointed out that in English translations there are different renderings of Luke 2:2.

The NIV says "This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria"; the KJV "this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria". It is believed that both of these versions have problems: the NIV implies that there was more than one census over a relatively short space of history; this seems unlikely due to the cost, and the method of taking the census seems designed to make another in such a short space of time unnecessary.

The KJV speaks of a taxing rather than a census.. it may be true that the census was mostly taken in order to help with taxation, but it wasn't a taxing in itself, it was merely a census to assist with future tax gathering. (It is very obvious that no one would go to Bethlehem, away from the evidence of their wealth at home in Nazareth, in order to have their wealth assessed!) No, the only purpose of the travel to Bethlehem is to have recorded their names and addresses. In a largely agricultural empire are the census makers going to arduously travel around to every hamlet, every remote homestead and single hovel to record every name? No, let the census authorities set themselves down/set up shop in the towns and let the people in the countryside around come to them. There aren't enough census makers to take any other policy; any other method would take up decades of time.

Why not just take a census in the hometown (eg Nazareth) rather than the ancestral town (Bethlehem)? Maybe:

First, that was probably not how Roman citizens were already recorded, they were recorded in the ancestral town. For instance, the Apostle Paul could wander around the Empire and simply tell people he was a Roman citizen to create genuine consternation in any official who had mistreated him. Where was the evidence he was a Roman citizen? It would have been in the public records office in Tarsus.

Second, recording in the hometown creates problems if people move to a different town after the census. Nomatter how many times a person moves to a different town, their ancestral town remains the same.

Finally, both the KJV and the NIV say the activity was performed while Quirinius (Greek form)/ Cyrenius (Latin) "was Governor of Syria". I am told that the Greek does not actually say that and that a better translation of Luke 2:2:

"This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria" (NKJV).

Whst is the difference? Quirinius was not the Governor of Syria until 6 AD, but may have been acting as governor without the formal title at other times previous to 6 AD.

End of First Rambling Diversion ]]]]

{{ Second Rambling Diversion On the Lunar Eclipses

Since comments have been made by others concerning a lunar eclipse let me briefly outline the issue. Josephus says that shortly before Herod the Great fell ill leading to his death there was a lunar eclipse. Josephus also indicates that a number of (unsuccessful) attempts to heal Herod were made, he died, had a funeral, and then Archelaus was acting ruler (needng confirmation from the Roman Emperor) when the Passover took place. There are four contending dates for the lunar eclipse, to which I add the number of days before Passover:

  1. 23 March, 5 BC, 29 days;

  2. 15 Sept, 5 BC, 7 months;

  3. 13 March, 4 BC, 29 days;

  4. 10 Jan, 1 BC, 89 days.

A discussion of the impossibility of squeezing all the events included in Josephus's account between the lunar eclipse and Passover for 13 Mar 4 BC (the Consensus View promoted by Emil Schurer) is discussed by Andrew Steinmann: his conclusion is that only 10 January 1 BC fits all the criteria. See page 12 and subsequent of Steinmann's article (linked at bottom of this post).

End of Second Ramble }}

See "Josephus misdated the census of Quirinius" by John H. Rhoads (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2011) https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/54/54-1/JETS_54-1_65-87_Rhoads.pdf

"When did Herod the Great reign?" by Andrew Steinmann, Novum Testamentum 51, 2009; https://www.jstor.org/stable/25442624?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3A0c06cf19ef6befdf56b9123d5754ba4a&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

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In addition to the census there is information regarding the lunar eclipse. According to EarthSky: Each calendar year has at least four eclipses – two solar and two lunar. Most years have four, but five, six or even seven eclipses are also possible. Does it say anywhere wether the eclipse was full? I couldn't be sure since we cannot know how long it took to organize the census, or how long it took them to record each person by hand (no computers), or how long it took then to get to Bethlehem, However engaging, I believe that much of this discussion is moot. You either believe or you don't.

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    Welcome to the site. We are glad you decided to participate. Please see What this site is about and How this site is different to help you learn how the site works. Also see the help center and take the tour to learn the site functions. I hope to see you post again soon. – fгedsbend Jan 4 '15 at 18:28
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    You're probably right, but a better effort to answer the question is generally what we go for here. – fгedsbend Jan 4 '15 at 18:28