Wise Men HeaderDate of Christ's Birth.

By Rev. Phil Greetham. © Copyright 1996. This Version, 2012.

1: Clues from Quirinius.

A known historical character mentioned in the Bible in association with Christ's birth is Quirinius.
Luke 2:2
This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Although not as well known as Herod the Great, the life of Publius Sulpicius Quirinius is fairly well documented. In 12 BC he became consul in Rome and shortly afterwards was given the task of bringing to order the rebelling Homanadensians of Asia. In 3 BC he became proconsul of Asia and in AD 3 - 4 he was advisor to Caligula during his campaigns. From AD 6 to AD 9 he was the Imperial Legate of Syria-Cicilia. It is during this time that we know an unpopular census for taxation was held in Israel. After this it appears he retired before dying in AD 21. It would appear that Quirinius was not a governor of Syria until AD 6 - far too late for the birth of Jesus, how can that be?

Tertullian's version of Luke's Gospel.
So who was governer of Syria at the time when Jesus was born? The information that we have from secular sources is that Titius was governor from 9 BC to 8 BC and that Saturnius governed between 8 and 6 BC. Now Tertullian, (c. AD 200) a North African Christian, appears to have the name 'Saturnius' as governor, in his version of Luke's gospel instead of Quirinius. This means that either he has an altered version or that our version is in error. An error could have crept into our version if an over zealous copier, altered 'Saturnius', and put in its place, 'Quirinius' who he recalled was governor during the famous taxation census of AD 6. This would mean that all the copies made from his copy would, from then on, read 'Quirinius' while the original would have been 'Saturnius.'

The second possibility is that the original was 'Quirinius' but knowing that Herod was dead when Quirinius was governor, another scribe altered Tertullian's copy to 'Saturnius.' Tertullian may have altered it himself if he had realised the problem.

Was Quirinius a governor on a previous occasion?
Another way of resolving the problem is that Lk 2:2, mentions that the Nativity census is the 'first census'. He might be suggesting that there might have been more than one census of which this was the first. It is known that when Quirinius became legate in AD 6 he did order a census for taxation and that this caused an uprising in Judea. Luke himself mentions this in his second book, The Acts of the Apostles. (Acts 5:37 ) Luke makes no attempt to link this census with what he describes as the 'first census' in his gospel account. This has caused some people to wonder if Quirinius might have been a governor of some sorts in this area before. He might then have held a census which could have been described as his 'first census' to distinguish it from this infamous taxation census which happened much later.
Dio Cassius, a Roman writer mentions there were taxes levied during this decade. This involved going back to one's home town to work out what had been left you as an inheritance, and then taxes were demanded based on its value . However, Dio Cassius does not help us with the dates of these taxes.
It has also been suggested that when Quirinius was in charge of subduing the Homanadensians from 10 BC to 7 BC Quirinius could have assumed military governorship of the surrounding provinces including Syria. The argument says that he could have secured an oath of loyalty via a census at any time during 10 BC and AD 3. It is suggested that this census prompted Joseph to go to Bethlehem.

If we assume that we have an error here and it should be 'Saturnius', then that gives us dates between 8 & 6 BC. If we assume a previous 'governorship' and census then it could be any time between 10 BC and 3 AD.
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