New Testament Chronology

New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)
. Kenneth Frank Doig

Exact Dating of the Birth and Crucifixion of Jesus



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Chapter 5

Luke recorded that before the birth of Jesus, "a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria." (Luke 2:1-2) In response to this census Joseph and Mary proceeded to Bethlehem to be counted,1 and there Jesus was born.

Added note: The word "first" in this context is from "protos" (prwtoV), defined in Strong's Greek Dictionary as: contracted superlative of pro - pro 4253; foremost (in time, place, order or importance):--before, beginning, best, chief(-est), first (of all), former. If the early translators of the New Testament had been aware of the historical conflict posed by "first" we would long have read "This was the census before the one taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria." Then there would have been no perceived difference between history and scripture.

The latest possible date for the birth of Jesus was before the death of Herod the Great on November 27, 4 BCE. It also would be desirable to establish the earliest possible date, and thus set the limits for Jesus' birth. Augustus' decree for a worldwide census for taxation has often been used to try to establish this earliest limit. However, the gaps in our knowledge of the taxations of the period and the details of the career of Quirinius have led to no firm conclusions. Based on this lack of information, some have denied the historical validity of Luke's statement.2 Or, it has been stated the census of the world was only a generalization of Augustus' ongoing drive to classify the empire, as evidenced by the many local censuses conducted at different times.3 However, it can be historically established that Augustus did decree such a specific census. To use this approach it is necessary to establish which decree of Augustus would have required a worldwide census, when he decreed it, and when Quirinius (Cyrenius) put it into effect in Judea. The words of the Roman historian, Dio Cassius, provide a starting point.

I. Augustus' Decree for Taxation

Caesar Augustus ruled from 44 BCE to 14 CE. An edict of Caesar Augustus decreeing a census for purposes of taxation for all the inhabited earth, or essentially the Roman Empire, is recorded by Dio Cassius.4 By 5 CE the military expenditures for the widespread Roman legions exceeded income, and "Augustus lacked funds for all these troops." (Dio Cassius, Roman History LV 24:9) No tax plan was accepted at that time. In 6 CE Augustus established a "military treasury. . . . Now Augustus made a contribution himself toward the fund and promised to do so annually, and he also accepted voluntary contributions from kings and certain communities; but he took nothing from private citizens, . . . but this proved very slight in comparison with the amount being spent." (Roman History LV 25:3-4) To overcome this deficit, Augustus "established the tax of 5%, on the inheritances and bequests which should be left by people at their death to any except very near relatives or very poor persons, representing that he had found this tax set down in Caesar's memoranda. It was, in fact, a method which had been introduced once before, but had been abolished later, and was now revived. In this way, then, he increased the revenues." (Roman History LV 25:5-6) In 6 CE Caesar Augustus issued a worldwide decree that for a second time there would be a 5% inheritance tax on estates, something beyond the normal taxation. Such a taxation would require a census to register transferable assets, such as land, and to record genealogies to establish "very near relatives." As the benefactor, this taxation would have had the full support of the Roman military.

Josephus noted the effects on non-citizens of this decree in Judea in 6 CE: "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 be 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' 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." (Ant. XVIII 1:1) However, to the north, "a certain Galilean, whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt; and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans, and would, after God, submit to mortal men as their lords." (Wars II 8:1) And, later he wrote of "Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews." (Ant. XX 5:2) Caesar's 5% tax was to be on the estates, as noted by Josephus. The census attached to this taxation was also noted by Luke: "Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away some people after him, he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered." (Acts 5:37) The peoples of Judea and Galilee were already being taxed, and yet they protested this taxation. What was different this time?

When Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE, Judea came under Roman tribute. (Ant. XIV 4:4; Wars I 7:6) Although Herod later collected his own heavy taxes, some portion would have gone to Rome. It has been contended that Rome had no ability for direct taxation in Herod's territory,5 but, Augustus could interfere in local taxation. When Samaria remained loyal to Caesar after the death of Herod the Great, he "eased of one quarter of its taxes, out of regard to their not having revolted." (Wars II 6:3; also Ant. XVII 11:4) Normally, any tax money due was likely collected by Herod or his successors and paid directly to Rome by them. To the taxpayer, their money would have been seen as going primarily to their local government, and not to Rome. At the time of Jesus' birth the Romans may have required the taxation, but the money was collected by Herod's government. The military purpose of that taxation may not have been general public knowledge, but only seen as another burdensome tax collected by Herod.

The census for taxation in 6 CE was different. The Romans and their troops would have directly conducted that census. It was specifically to support the military, who were not welcomed by most of the Jews. The first Roman governor, Coponius, had just replaced Archelaus, and the Jews were suddenly under direct Roman control. This tax was on their land, which was their inheritance from God. The fanatical Judas took the opportunity to revolt against the further demands of mortal men and their military might.

There had been ongoing taxation throughout the Roman provinces. Augustus' worldwide decree in 6 CE established an additional tax to support his troops. As noted by Dio, this was the second attempt at such a taxation, as it "had been introduced once before, but had been abolished later, and was now revived." There had only been one prior 5% taxing specifically for the military, and it was probably that decree referenced by Luke, that "went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth." The decree for taxation and a census at the time of Jesus' birth was likely that first unsuccessful attempt to support the military treasury.

Since there is no specific record of the first decree for taxation for the military, but only the reference by Dio, no dating is presently available. There are, however, several related early sources. Tertullian (ca. 155-245 CE), a Christian theologian at Carthage, noted that a census in Judea took place under Sentius Saturninus, 9-6 BCE. He wrote, "But there is historical proof that at this very time there were censuses that had been taken in Judea by Sentius Saturninus, which might have satisfied their inquiry respecting the family and descent of Christ." (Against Marcion IV:19) The year, or years, of taxation is not specified. It is also not known if that census was for normal taxation of everyone, or if it was specifically related to the inheritance tax to support the military. It should be noted that `censuses' is in the plural,6 which suggests normal taxations. Tertullian may only have presumed such a census based on Luke, Josephus and his knowledge of the history of the period. He appears to have known that Quirinius was not governor of Syria at that time, or, it has been suggested, had access to an early version of Luke that described the census as conducted by Saturninus, not Quirinius. The words of Tertullian do not confirm or establish a specific date for the census.7

Justin Martyr, who was born in about 105 CE, wrote to defend the Christians against persecution, and appealed, "Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registries of the taxing under Quirinius your first procurator in Judea." (First Apology, 34) Here is an appeal to the public registries, which have, unfortunately, been lost. Whether his comments are derived only from the writings of Luke, or he had independent verification of the earlier "taxing under Quirinius" is not known. He also refers to Quirinius as the "first procurator in Judea," as opposed to governor of Syria. Again, there is no specific dating.

II. Quirinius Was Governor of Syria

Since there is not yet sufficient information to establish the year of the first inheritance taxation, perhaps it is possible to identify when Quirinius became "governor of Syria" and could have conducted such a census. The problem is that it does not seem possible to establish that Quirinius was governor of Syria before 6 CE. The governors of Syria during the period, with their approximate dates, were:8

Chart XII
Governors of Syria
BCE 10-9 M. Titius
BCE 9-6 Gaius Sentius Saturninus
BCE 6-3 P. Quinctilius Varus
BCE 3-1 L. Calpurnius Piso (?)
BCE 1-4 CE Gaius Julius Caesar
4-6 CE L. Volusius Saturninus
6-7 CE P. Sulpicius Quirinius

Varus succeeded Saturninus as governor of Syria in about 6 BCE (Ant. XVII 5:2). In the chapter on "Herodian Chronology" it was determined that Varus was still governor after the death of Herod, at least until Summer of 3 BCE, and perhaps for another year or so. Jesus was born before Herod died, while Varus was governor of Syria. Quirinius was governor after Herod died. Quirinius does not appear to have been governor of Syria during the reign of Herod, at least in the usual sense.

It has been suggested that Quirinius was an imperial procurator for Caesar, and may have been the "Sabinus, Caesar's procurator" mentioned by Josephus (Ant. XVII 10:1).9 However, this reference is after the death of Herod and not related to a census. Little is known of Quirinius. He was a consul in 12 BCE, and sometime thereafter conducted the Homanadensian war against that tribe in the Cilician Taurus country of Asia Minor. This action was complete about 6 BCE. The exact status of Quirinius during this period is not known.10 The inscriptions of the period are not conclusive.11 Without further information it is only a guess that he had some official status to direct a census in Judea during the period before the death of Herod the Great. The suggestion that he was governor of Syria shortly after the death of Herod is irrelevant, since Jesus was born before Herod died. In 6 CE Augustus appointed him governor of Syria. He was later a favorite of Tiberius and was buried with honors in 21 CE (Tacitus, Annals, 3:48).

Luke acknowledged the later "days of the census," in 6 CE, which were disrupted by Judas of Galilee. The records are clear that Quirinius was governor of Syria then, but Luke's gospel distinguishes that the census at the time of the birth of Jesus was the "first." Luke certainly knew the chronology and rulers of that period. However, it has been suggested that Luke's intent was to say that the enrollment at the time of Jesus was the first one, as distinguished from the later one when Quirinius was governor of Syria. That is, Luke was not saying that Quirinius was governor at the time of the first census. The Greek usage can be interpreted to say: "This census was before that [census] when Quirinius was governor of Syria."12 Perhaps a better translation would be: "This census was the first before that under the prefectureship of Quirinius in Syria."13 As such, the Scripture is historically satisfied, but this translation does not advance our knowledge of the chronology of Jesus.

III. Joseph and Mary Register for the Census

Luke went on to say that, "all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city." (Luke 2:3) It has seemed a problem that the Jewish method of returning to one's own tribal headquarters to be "numbered" was used for a census under Herod.14 The Romans usually took a census in one's home town.15 However, in a census for inheritance taxation it would be expected that this would be conducted where the tribal records were kept, no matter who conducted the census. Joseph was a descendent of David of the tribe of Judah. David's ancestral home was in Bethlehem, and in that town the land records and genealogies required for such a census would have been located. Or, simply, Joseph was born in Bethlehem but then lived in Nazareth. Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to register for this census, and there Jesus was born.

As will be seen in the following chapters, the evidence suggests a winter birth for Jesus. But, why would Joseph and Mary journey to Bethlehem in the middle of winter to register for the census? There are several possibilities. Joseph may have recently inherited some land. Since the special taxation was related to inheritances, Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem to claim his estate and settle any taxes due. He would have there registered his property for the census. Or, perhaps Joseph had recently become eighteen years of age, and as an adult was required to then register as an independent household.16 Or, they had recently married, and the registration of the family was required. Or, Joseph and Mary thought that their child might be the promised Messiah and that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). They may have timed their trip to Bethlehem for the census to ensure that Jesus was born there. Also, registration may have been required before the end of the Roman year, that is, December 31, and they were late. However, there is no need to require that Joseph's registration occurred immediately after the census for taxation was decreed. There are other possibilities, but these are mostly speculation.

IV. Conclusion

In support of Luke's description of the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, it is confirmed that Augustus did decree a 5% world wide inheritance tax to support the military. This was sometime before the second taxing in 6 CE and likely before Herod's death in 4 BCE; it was at some point discontinued. When this census took place cannot yet be determined, and Quirinius' official status at that time is unknown.

An alternate translation suggests that Luke was actually saying that the census was only the one before that when Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 CE. Luke was not saying he was governor when the first census was taken.

It does not seem presently possible to establish an earliest limit for the birth of Jesus. As such the search must go elsewhere to establish the date of His birth. As will discussed in the following chapters, the conception of John the Baptist and Jesus offers a surprising answer.


1. R. Smith, "Caesar's Decree (Luke 2:1-2): Puzzle or Key?," CTM 7 (1980), looks at Luke's intent to establish Joseph and Mary as subject to the decrees of Caesar.

2. For example, G. Cornfield, The Historical Jesus - A Scholarly View of the Man and His World (New York: Macmillan, 1982), 90; T. P. Wiseman, "`There Went Out a Decree from Caesar Augustus...'," NTS 33 (1987), 479-480.

3. See R. E. Brown, "Gospel Infancy Narrative Research from 1976 to 1986: Part II (Luke)," CBQ 48, 4 (1986), 670.

4. E. W. Faulstich, "The Birth of Jesus," IAT (July 1986).

5. E. Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ Vol. 1 (London: Clark, Rev. 1973), 413-416.

6. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977), 553.

7. C. F. Evens, "Tertullian's Reference to Sentius Saturninus and the Lukan Census," JTS NS24, 1 (1973), 39, concludes that, in context, Tertullian's argument was not concerned with the census of Luke and "ought not be introduced into discussions of it."

8. Schurer, History Vol. 1, 257-259. His dates are here modified to extend Varus' term to 3 BCE.

9. Although Sabinus is called "procurator" by Josephus, Coponius is usually recognized as the first governor in Judea.

10. J. Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1981), 5, reported micrographic lettering on coins of the period that suggest that Quirinius was proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BCE until after the death of Herod.   J. Vardaman, "Jesus' Life: A New Chronology," CKC, uses microlettering on coins to establish Jesus' birth in 12 BCE. However, the microletters are probably graffiti unrelated to the date of issue of the coins, and therefore undatable.

11. G. R. Habermas, Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus - Historical Records of His Death and Resurrection (Nashville: Nelson, 1984), 152-153.

12. H. W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 21.

13. L. H. Feldman in W. Brindle, "The Census and Quirinius: Luke 2:2," JETS 27 (1984), 48-49.

14. Schurer, History Vol. 1, 411-3.

15. J. Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964), 234-238.

16. There is no Scriptural basis for the claim that Joseph was an old widower, already with a family of children. Some require such an explanation to claim that Mary had no other child after Jesus, even to suggest that she remained a perpetual virgin.



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