The Roman census and the historical accuracy of Luke 2:2

Mary and Joseph with donkey entering Bethlehem

Did a Roman census make Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem as reported by Luke?

The physician Luke, who traveled with the apostle Paul in the 50s and 60s AD, was a careful historian, and he included very specific information about the time and place of some events. One of those was Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem.

“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.” Luke 2:1-5 (NKJV)

The King James and most other modern translations use “was governor of Syria.” This has led some scholars to claim that Luke made a mistake because Quirinius was governor of Syria from AD 6 to 12, not during the final years of Herod the Great, who tried to kill Jesus shortly after his birth (Matthew 2). Saturninus governed as the imperial legate from 9 to 7/6 BC and Varus governed from 7/6 to 4 BC, overlapping the final years of Herod the Great’s reign. The New King James (NKJV) and Christian Standard (CSB) translations use the more accurate translation “was governing Syria.”

Roman Provincial Government: Governor and Procurator

There were more people involved in governing a province than the imperial legate. There are good reasons from both ancient documents and linguistic analysis to believe Quirinius was the procurator responsible for a provincial census at the time of Jesus’s birth.

Syria was an imperial province on the eastern border of the Roman empire. From the late Roman Republic until the end of the Parthian empire in AD 224, military conflicts between Rome and Parthia were common, and as many as four legions were stationed in Syria during that time. The Roman governor of Syria was appointed by the emperor to be the top general (legatus Augusti pro praetore) in command of all the legions based in his province. A lesser general, called a legatus legionis (legate of the legion), commanded each separate legion under him.

The governor of Syria managed military, administrative, and judicial affairs. With hostile Parthian neighbors to the east and the political tensions in Judaea that often prompted military action, his main focus was military readiness and response.

The usual Greek word for the governor of Syria was στρατηγός (strategos), which means “general.” The governor of Syria was never called a procurator.

Procurator was a lower position than governor, but still very important in the daily lives of the people of a province. He was independently appointed by the emperor but was subordinate to the governor of Syria. The emperor personally appointed him to be in charge of financial affairs, such as collecting taxes and, most importantly, organizing any census of the province.

A Roman census wasn’t conducted simply to count the number and type of people living in an area. It’s primary goal was to determine what taxes were due to the empire. The procurator was to make certain they were paid. In 4 BC, when Varus was the governor (legatus Augusti) of Syria, it was his procurator Sabinus who confiscated the treasure of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem.

The historian Josephus used two Greek words for procurator: igemonas (ηγεμόνας) meaning ruler and epitropos (επίτροπος).

Correct Understanding of the Word Luke Used

A vital point in understanding what Luke wrote in 2:2 is the form of the word related to igemonas. It’s a verb form called a participle, which typically in English ends in -ing. More specifically, it’s the present active participle that translates “ruling.” So Luke didn’t write that Quirinus was governor (legatus Augusti) of Syria. He wrote that Quirinius (the Latin equivalent of the Greek Cyrenius) was “ruling” and he was “of Syria” when Luke wrote “ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου,” which is how the procurator of Syria would be described.

So, the fact that Saturninus was the provincial governor (legatus Augusti) of Syria while Herod the Great ruled Judea and Quirinius was governor when Augustus decreed an empire-wide census in AD 8 doesn’t mean Luke made a “mistake.” He’d correctly written that Quirinius was procurator of Syria, not provincial governor, when Joseph and Mary had to go to the town where Joseph’s family was based to be enrolled in the census.

Ancient documents describing the census under Quirinius

Rome kept detailed records of each individual who was enrolled in a census. It was a simple matter to inspect those records to confirm a person was in the census lists. We have writings from two early Christian leaders that tell us where the record of Jesus’s birth was preserved in a Roman census.

The first is from Justin (Justin Martyr, c. AD 100 -c. 165), who came from Nablus, a town about 30 miles (49 km) north of Jerusalem and between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. He later lived in Rome. He wrote an apology defending the Christian faith and trying to convince Antoninus Pius (emperor from AD 138-161) to stop the persecution of Christians. He was unsuccessful and was later martyred. But in that document, he states, “Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judaea.” (Justin, Apology. I.34, transl. Schaff 1885). He provided the information the emperor would need to access the census data of the family of Jesus that documented his birth.

The second is from Tertullian (Q. Septimius Florens Tertullianus; c. 155 AD – c. 220 AD). In his Adversus Marcionem 4.19, (transl. Evans 1972), he wrote, “Also it is well known that a census had just been taken in Judaea by Sentius Saturninus, and they might have inquired of his ancestry in those records.” Since this census would have been taken between 9 and 7/6 BC while Herod the Great was still alive, it would be the census that caused Joseph and Mary to make the trek from Nazareth to be enrolled, as Roman law required.

There were standard practices for Roman provincial censuses. A person had to register in the place where they lived. But if they also owned property in a different location, they had to travel to that location and register their property themselves. There’s a papyrus from Egypt showing that people were ordered in AD 104 by the Prefect of Egypt to return home and register where their families lived.

So, Luke’s description of the time of the census was not a mistake, and the need for the journey back to Joseph’s family home is consistent with what is known of Roman policy in conducting a census. Since it would have been very easy to verify what Justin and Tertullian were saying by consulting the census records, there’s no good reason to assume Luke wasn’t accurate in his reporting.

The full names of the imperial legates in charge of Syria were:
Gaius Sentius Saturninus (9 to 7/6 BC)
Publius Quinctilius Varus (7/6 to 4 BC) This is the same Varus who lost three legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in Germania in AD 9. He committed suicide there to avoid being captured.
Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (AD 6-12)

For more information on the Roman census, you can find it in Chapter 3 of my primary reference:
Huebner, Sabine R. Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

If you’d like to compare many Bible translations yourself, you can find 14 English translations, the original Greek, and several non-English translations of the New Testament at the Blue Letter Bible website (https://www.blueletterbible.org/).

Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby