Luke 2:2—Why does Luke say the census was during Quirinius’ governorship since Quirinius was not governor until a.d. 6?
Problem: Luke states that the census decreed by Augustus was the first one taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. However, Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until after the death of Herod in about a.d. 6. Is this an error in Luke’s historical record?
Solution: Luke has not made an error. There are reasonable solutions to this difficulty.
First, Quintilius Varus was governor of Syria from about 7 b.c. to about 4 b.c. Varus was not a trustworthy leader, a fact that was disastrously demonstrated in a.d. 9 when he lost three legions of soldiers in the Teutoburger forest in Germany. To the contrary, Quirinius was a notable military leader who was responsible for squelching the rebellion of the Homonadensians in Asia Minor. When it came time to begin the census, in about 8 or 7 b.c., Augustus entrusted Quirinius with the delicate problem in the volatile area of Palestine, effectively superseding the authority and governorship of Varus by appointing Quirinius to a place of special authority in this matter.
It has also been proposed that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two separate occasions, once while prosecuting the military action against the Homonadensians between 12 and 2 b.c., and later beginning about a.d. 6. A Latin inscription discovered in 1764 has been interpreted to refer to Quirinius as having served as governor of Syria on two occasions.
It is possible that Luke 2:2 reads, “This census took place before Quirinius was governing Syria.” In this case, the Greek word translated “first” (protos) is translated as a comparative, “before.” Because of the awkward construction of the sentence, this is not an unlikely reading.
Regardless of which solution is accepted, it is not necessary to conclude that Luke has made an error in recording the historical events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Luke has proven himself to be a reliable historian even in the details. Sir William Ramsey has shown that in making reference to 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands he made no mistakes!
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.