Quirinius, Governor of Syria

15 May
Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem

from Google Images

Luke claims that Quirinius[1] was governor (hegemoneuo – G2230) of Syria when the enrollment of all the people of the Empire took place (Luke 2:1-2). However, history shows us that either Saturninus or Quinctilius Varus was governor of Syria when Jesus was born.[2] Nevertheless, Josephus also shows us that there were at least two governors of Syria during the time when Herod suspected disloyalty among several members of his family, and when he had them tried and executed.[3] Therefore, it may be possible that Quirinius acted as a governor of some capacity of Syria during the time Jesus was born, or even under some special authority by order of the Emperor to take the census.

Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until cir. 6 AD when Augustus Caesar banished Herod’s son, Archelaus, and annexed the Jewish lands to make them a part of the Syrian province.[4] At that time Quirinius conducted a census for the purpose of taxation in order to get a head count of the Jews, as well as, to assess the value of their properties. The whole affair erupted into a small war between Rome and some Jewish zealot factions (cf. Acts 5:37). Yet, this is not the census that Luke speaks of in Luke 2:1, although some critics try to use it as a testimony of Luke’s ignorance.

Some scholars try to solve the problem by saying Luke intends us to understand that protos (G4413) in the phrase: “this enrollment was first (G4413) made when Quirinius was governor of Syria” should be rendered “this enrollment was made before (G4413) Quirinius was governor of Syria.” The Greek word is so translated in John 1:55 & 30. Such an argument would make sense in that the census referred to in Acts 5:37 (conducted cir. 6 AD) would be the most notable among the Jews, so the census of 3 BC would be referred to as before that one. While I am intrigued with this explanation, because it would render the problem of Quirinius’ governorship moot, I am not so knowledgeable of the Greek that I can allow myself to fully embrace this explanation, because other scholars find problems with such a rendering at Luke 2:3.

Most scholars believe Luke’s intended meaning is that the census took place during a time when Quirinius governed Syria in some capacity, and, at least for the present, it is how I receive Luke’s statement in Luke 2:2. We know that sometime after Quirinius was named consul by Caesar Augustus in 12 BC he conducted a successful campaign against the Homonadensian strongholds in the mountain chain of Phrygia, Lycaonia and Cilicia. During this time he was attached to Syria when Saturninus was governor of that province, and he would have held the title of legatus Augusti, having the same rank as Saturninus.[5] Even so, however, it was Quirinius who commanded the armies of Syria, while Saturninus governed the domestic affairs. Quirinius’ title, legatus (Latin), in the Greek would be hegemoneuo (G2230) just as Luke terms Quirinius’ title as governor in Luke 2:2. The point is that we know an empire-wide census was taken in 3 BC, and Quirinius was at least in the vicinity of Syria and is a very good candidate for taking such a census, because we know he did conduct one later in Judea, Galilee and Samaria for the purpose of taxation in 6 AD.

Luke tells us that a worldwide census was conducted when Jesus was born, and he implies in Luke 2:1-2 that either Quirinius conducted more than one census (which he did) or that other similar censuses were conducted later, but the very first census of their kind was conducted by Quirinius.[6] Luke refers to this census in Luke 2:2. It was the worldwide census conducted at the time of Jesus’ birth.


[1] Quirinius is Latin for Cyrenius. Depending upon the translation of the Bible used one or the other would be noted at Luke 2:2.

[2] Josephus tells us that Quinctilius Varus replaced Saturninus about the time Antipater was tried by his father Herod the Great [see Antiquities of the Jews 17.5.2 (089)]. The problem is that many believe Varus took his office at Syria cir. 4 BC, and Herod’s death took place only a few months later. However, there is better information showing Herod died in 1 AD, so Varus wouldn’t have replaced Saturninus until cir. 1 or 2 BC. If Jesus was born in 3 BC, Saturninus was probably governor of Syria.

[3] See JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews 16.10.8 (344) where Saturninus and Volumnius are named as governors of Syria. They may or may not have been of equal rank. Saturnius was probably the president of the province, while Volumnius perhaps acted as the procurator of Syria or in some other capacity by the order of the emperor.

[4] See JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews 18.1.1 (001-002)

[5] Just as was the case during the later Jewish war with Rome when Vespasian was legatus Augusti conducting the war against the Jews, while Mucianus officially governed the province of Syria

[6] Josephus refers to a similar census conducted by Vitellius, the governor of Syria, at Jerusalem. Before going to war against Aretas, king of Arabia, Vitellius decided to go to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the God of the Jews for his success. “When on the fourth day letters arrived [at Jerusalem] announcing the death of Tiberius, he made the people swear their loyalty to Gaius” (JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.3 (124) – brackets mine). That is, he conducted a census similar to the one mentioned in Antiquities of the Jews 17.2.4 where 6000 Pharisees refused to swear allegiance to Caesar. This shows the census referred to by Luke at Luke 2:2 was the first of its kind conducted for swearing loyalty to Roman emperors.

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Posted by on May 15, 2016 in Gospel of Luke


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