Some have questioned if there was an actual census as described in Luke 2:1-5, mainly with the intent to disprove that Jesus was the Messiah.
Let’s begin by seeing what Luke’s Gospel states:
1 And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.
4 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, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. (Luke 2:1-5)
Notice that specific details are listed above. It perhaps should be pointed out that if these details were in factual error that people around the time this was written would have objected. And historians have not found contemporaneous reports of people disputing details of Luke’s account.
However, the primary modern objections to Luke’s account by critics seem to be 1) there was no record of an empire-wide census during the time of Augustus, 2) Quirinus was not governor of Syria at the time, and 3) that people would not be required to relocate for a census.
Regarding the first common objection to Luke 2, it should be pointed out that Augustus, himself, stated there were various censuses during his reign. He specifically mentioned three for taxation (with one c. 8 B.C.), but also alludes to one for registration (Davis W. Readings in Ancient History: Rome and the West. Minerva Group, 2004, pp. 168-169) that some have considered an oath-type census. These may have been carried out a different times in different regions.
In ancient times, a census sometimes took years to perform (Holden, p. 153).
Related to the census in Luke, consider also two reports from the historian and lawyer Tertullian (late second/early third century):
For to none of men was the universal aggregation of spiritual credentials appropriate, except to Christ; paralleled as He is to a “flower” by reason of glory, by reason of grace; but accounted “of the root of Jesse,” whence His origin is to be deduced,— to wit, through Mary. For He was from the native soil of Bethlehem, and from the house of David; as, among the Romans, Mary is described in the census, of whom is born Christ. (Tertullian. An Answer to the Jews, Chapter 9. Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.)
For to whom else could He better have imparted it, than to such as were strangers to the Creator, if He especially belonged not to the Creator? And yet how could He have been admitted into the synagogue— one so abruptly appearing, so unknown; one, of whom no one had as yet been apprised of His tribe, His nation, His family, and lastly, His enrolment in the census of Augustus— that most faithful witness of the Lord’s nativity, kept in the archives of Rome? (Tertullian. Against Marcion, Book IV, Chapter 7. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3.)
Tertullian was indicating familiarity with this particular census, associates it with Augustus, and even reported where the records were stored.
If there was no census, Tertullian would not have included that in his address to the Jews as they would have been able to easily dispute this if the census had not happened.
Now consider that Augustus received the title, the Pater Patriae, on February 5, 2 B.C. (which was the Day of Concord on the Roman religious calendar). In the Res Gestae Divi Augusti VI.35, composed by Augustus himself, he wrote:
while I was administering my thirteenth consulship the senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title Father of my Country. (as cited in Argubright J. Bible Believer’s Archaeology – Volume 1. 2013, p. 140)
But in what way did Augustus obtain this title?
For the claim to be legally accurate that the entire Roman people gave the title Pater Patriae this would seem to have involved some type of an Empire-wide accounting. Since Augustus was awarded this in early 2 B.C., collecting supporting data for this must have begun in prior years.
Notice also the following about an empire-wide oath/registration/census:
In 6/5 B.C. the people in the town of Conobaria in Baetica, Spain took an oath for the safety of Augustus, as recorded in this somewhat fragmentary inscription, the first such oath found in the western part of the empire. It would appear that at this time an empirewide demonstration (even including Judea, where sacrifices were made to Jehovah for the safety of Augustus) of allegiance to Augustus and his designated heirs was orchestrated. (Lewis N, Reinhold M. Roman Civilization: Selected Readings, Volume 2. Columbia University Press, Originally 1955. 1990, p. 589)
The Armenian historian Moses of Khorene said that the native sources he had available showed that in the second year of Abgar, king of Armenia in 3 B.C.E., the census mentioned by Luke brought Roman agents “to Armenia, bringing the image of Augustus Caesar, which they set up in every temple.” It is implied that people had to go to the temples to register for the census. This information is very similar to that engraved on the Paphlagonian inscription (also referring to 3 B.C.), that recorded the “oath” given to Augustus. The same oath was sworn by all the people in the land at the altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts. (Martin E. The Star of Bethlehem. Academy for Scriptural; 2 edition, 1991, Chapter 12)
Presuming a start of an oath registration in 5 or 6 B.C., this is consistent with Jesus being born in 4 or 5 B.C. (Armenia, being a bit more remote from Rome, would reasonably have likely started later than the one in Judea). And as far as the Paphlagonian inscription goes, it says the oath was “completed” (Cumont F. “Inscription grecque de Vézir-Keupru dans l’ancienne Paphlagonie (Asie Mineure),” Comptes-rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 44 , 1900) in the third year from 6/5 B.C., hence was finished in 4/3 B.C. (it does not state which year the oath was first urged).
Luke actually states that the “census” was an enrollment or a registration of some kind. … We have no early historical information other than Luke and Tertullian that a census of the Roman world took place in 3/2 B.C.E., Augustus, with his own hand, composed an account of major events in his life. He wrote of the official censuses in 28 B.C.E., 8 B.C.E., and C.E. 14 …
Josephus referred to the second (and the ordinary) census conducted by Quirinius in C.E. 6, but what about the first one which Tertullian said took place in the time of Saturninus who was governor of Syria … B.C.E.? Lardner, as early as the 18th century, was convinced that Josephus mentioned this earlier one as well. 10 The oath referred to in Josephus and the registration of Luke may be one and the same. The best thing to do is to quote the remarks of Josephus about the oath in their entirety.
“There was moreover a certain sect of Jews who valued themselves highly for their exact knowledge of the law; and talking much of their contact with God, were greatly in favor with the women of Herod’s court. They are called Pharisees. They are men who had it in their power to control kings; extremely subtle, and ready to attempt any thing against those whom they did not like. When therefore the whole Jewish nation took an OATH to be faithful to Caesar, and [to] the interests of the king, these men, to the number of above six thousand, refused to swear. The king having laid a fine upon them, Pheroras’ wife [Herod’s sister-in-law] paid the money for them. They, in requital for her kindness (for they were supposed, by their great intimacy with God, to have attained to the gift of prophecy), prophesied that God having decreed to put an end to the government of Herod and his race, the kingdom would be transferred to her and Pheroras and their children. Salome [Herod’s sister], who was aware of all that was being said, came and told the king of them. She also told him that many of the court [of Herod] were corrupted by them. Then the king put to death the most guilty of the Pharisees, and Bagoas the eunuch, and one Carus, the most beautiful young man about the court, and the great instrument in the king’s unlawful pleasures. He [Herod] likewise slew every one in his own family, who adhered to those things which were said by the Pharisee. But Bagoas had been elevated by them and was told that he should some day be called father and benefactor of the [new] king, who was to be appointed according to their prediction, for this king would have all things in his power, and that he [the king] would give him [Bagoas] the capacity of marriage, and of having children of his own.” (Josephus, Antiquities XVII.41–45)
More than 6000 Pharisees refused to take the oath of allegiance to Augustus and Herod. (Martin E. The Star of Bethlehem. Academy for Scriptural; 2 edition, 1991, Chapter 12)
The idea that Luke could have been referring to some type of oath census is not new. Notice confirmation in the 5th century from Paulus Orosius related to Augustus Caesar:
Caesar … ordered a census to be taken of each and every province and that all men should be enrolled. … This is that earliest and most famous acknowledgment which designated Caesar first of all men and the Romans lords of the world; for in the census list all. men were entered individually … The first and greatest census was then made. The great nations of the whole world took an oath in the one name of Caesar and were joined into one fellowship through their participation in the census. (Orosius P. The seven books of history against the pagans. Columbia University Press, 1936, pp. 317, 322)
Well, this could have been the decree referred to by Luke c. 4 B.C.
While some believe that there was a separate registrative census (separate from the taxing censuses), some others believe that the census Luke recorded was actually the first one started by Augustus c. 8 B.C. (McDowell, p. 86). More records may come out to make the specific one more definitive.
Therefore, despite naysayers, there is evidence outside of Luke’s Gospel that there was a registrative census at the time of Jesus’ birth.
Some scholars claim that Josephus indicated that the census Luke referred to instead began 7-10 years after Jesus was born was called the Census of Quirinius (sometimes spelled in English as Cyrenius).
Here is what Josephus wrote related to it:
17:5 So Archelaus’s country was laid to the province of Syria; and Cyrenius, one that had been consul, was sent by Caesar to take account of people’s effects in Syria, and to sell the house of Archelaus.
18:1 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’s 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, by the persuasion of Joazar, who was the son of Beethus, and high priest; so they, being over-persuaded by Joazar’s words, gave an account of their estates, without any dispute about it. Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite, (1) of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, (2) a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty; as if they could procure them happiness and security for what they possessed, and an assured enjoyment of a still greater good, which was that of the honor and glory they would thereby acquire for magnanimity. They also said that God would not otherwise be assisting to them, than upon their joining with one another in such councils as might be successful, and for their own advantage; and this especially, if they would set about great exploits, and not grow weary in executing the same; so men received what they said with pleasure, and this bold attempt proceeded to a great height. All sorts of misfortunes also sprang from these men, and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree; one violent war came upon us after another, and we lost our friends which used to alleviate our pains; there were also very great robberies and murder of our principal men. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17.5,18.1)
Quirinius in Greek is Κυρήνιος, sometimes transliterated Cyrenius, as in the above account.
So, in Josephus’ account, there was an account of a time of taxation and one Jewish leader rebelled. Whether this is the same or related to Gamaliel’s account in Acts 5:36 is not absolutely clear from this–but there are some common parts.
It has also been suggested that perhaps Josephus was actually referring to one named P. Quintilius Varus, who was legate in Syria from around 6-4 B.C. (Novak RM. Christianity and the Roman Empire: Background Texts. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2001, p. 298) instead of Quirinius.
Some believe that there was an error in Josephus’ account or its interpretation and that this particular census was held earlier.
While it is widely accepted the Quirinius had a census around 6/7 A.D., there is some possible evidence to suggest that Quirinius called for an earlier census.
First, from a biblical perspective, recall that Luke used the term “first” related to the census in Luke 2:2, likely fully knowing that there was a second census later.
Secondly, notice the following:
The Lapus Venetus (CIL III 6687) describes a census ordered by Quirinius of the Syrian city of Apamea. Some evidence suggests a date of 10-6 B.C. for this inscription … (Quirinius. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Q-Z. Bromily GW, editor. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, reprint, 1995, p. 12)
Furthermore, the Latin Tibirinus tells of someone getting authority again in that region, and it may be a reference to Quirinius becoming governor twice (Ibid, p. 12). While some dispute this, others believe that, at least to a practical degree, Quirinius held the governing authority twice and ordered the census that Luke 2:2 referred to (Holden, p. 154) and the census Josephus mentioned (which seems to have been later).
An additional reason to accept that is that, in the second century, Justin Martyr’s wrote to Roman that Quirinius was a “procurator,” not the governor of the area of Judea:
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. First Apology, Chapter XXXIV)
A procurator governs, but is not necessarily the governor. Hence, Quirinius’ role and timing is not inconsistent with Luke’s account.
There is another account of interest to mention related to Quirinius:
Jerry Vardaman has discovered the name of Quirinius on a coin in micrographic letters, placing him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 B.C. until after the death of Herod. The evidence contributed by Vardaman supports the view that there were two Quiriniuses. (McRay J. Archaeology and the New Testament. Baker Academic, 2008, p. 154)
If this inscription date is accurate, then perhaps Luke was referring to an earlier Quirinius or that Quirinius held some type of governing position there twice.
Some critics have claimed it was not feasible that Quirinius could have been governor twice or could have been when Quintilius Varus was governor. Well, there were problems with Quintilius Varus that may have led Quirinius to ‘govern’ while Quintilius held the post (Holden, p. 154), and that may be why Quirinius was officially given the governorship later.
Furthermore, it should be noted that Josephus reported about TWO governors/presidents of Syria at the same time in the first century named Saturninus and Volumnius (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 16, Chapter 9). Thus, it is logical to conclude there could have been two governors or an official governor and other governing official in Syria a few decades earlier.
While some have said that arguments involving Quirinius supporting Luke’s account are simply conjecture, those who claim Quirinius disprove Luke are falsely conjecturing. From what is known, there are several ways that Quirinius could have been involved as Luke wrote.
The reference to Quirinius in Luke’s account does not disprove what Luke wrote.
As mentioned before, some have said that citizens normally did not travel in Roman censuses. While that may be, Luke was reporting about the counting of a conquered people. It is reasonable to conclude that the relevant Roman authorities must have decided to move the Jews once to do such a census.
The late Dr. Ernest Martin wrote the following:
If the oath of loyalty mentioned by Josephus is what brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem … then it makes sense why Mary had to accompany Joseph. In a regular census Mary would not have needed to go with Joseph, nor would Joseph have needed to travel so far. Some have suspected that both Joseph and Mary were descendants of David, and were legitimate claimants to the throne of Israel (had such a throne existed). It could easily be seen why Mary, as well as Joseph, was expected to sign the oath of loyalty to Augustus. All “royal claimants” would have especially been singled out to give the oath of allegiance. This would even have involved Mary. It was possible in Jewish circles for female descendants of David to have the rights of primogeniture and kingship for their offspring (cf. Antiquities, XVIII. 124 and also Acts 16:1–3 where the principle of legal maternal descent is shown).
Luke tells us that the reason why both Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem was because he was reckoned as belonging to the house of David. While everyone else went “into his own city” (Luke 2:3) no doubt in their own local neighborhoods, those of royal Judaic lineage because of political implications had to register in Bethlehem. This requirement would allow Herod to know who all claimants were in Judaea to the royal throne of David. He was anxious to know who all these people were (in order to keep them subjected to thorough non-political functions) so that his own dynasty would survive. This was especially important at this time in history because there was then a great deal of messianic expectation among the Jews.
Registering David’s descendants in Bethlehem, the city of David, would have been a ploy not only to get all the people to attend for prestige purposes but for Herod to find out who they were. (Martin E. The Star of Bethlehem. Academy for Scriptural; 2 edition, 1991, Chapter 12)
Anciently, travel requirements were not restricted to Judea. The requirement to travel to their ancestral lands was also part of Caius Vibibus Maximum’s decrees when he announced a census in 104 A.D.:
Gaius Vibius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt. Since the time is come for the house to house enrolment, it is necessary for all absentees on any ground whatever from their own districts to return to their own hearths that they may carry out … the regular order of the enrolment (Nicoll WR, ed. The Expositor, Volume V, seventh series. Hodder and Stoughton,1908, p. 218)
Furthermore, notice the following from 48 A.D.:
I Thermoutharion along with Apollonius, my guardian, pledge an oath to Tiberius Claudius Caesar that the preceding document gives an accurate account of those returning, who live in my household, and that there is no one else living with me, neither a foreigner, nor an Alexandrian, nor a freedman, nor a Roman citizen, nor an Egyptian. If I am telling the truth, may it be well with me, but if falsely, the reverse. In the ninth year of the reign of Tiberius Claudius Augustus Germanicus Emperor. Oxyrhynchus papyrus 255 (Roth AG. Signs of the Cross: the Search for the Historical Jesus: From a Jewish Perspective. Xlibris Corporation, 2001, p. 54)
So, reports from two Roman leaders show people were required to relocate for a census.
This is outside evidence of the reasonableness of Luke’s account.
Perhaps it should be added that although the Church of Rome believes that the Luke 2 census took place, The Catholic Encyclopedia correctly declares that the “census would have been impossible in winter” (Christmas, 1908). Another reason to eliminate the winter was because shepherds in that part of the world did not spend their nights with the sheep at that time of the year.
So while there was a census and Jesus was born, that most likely would have been in the Fall. For why December 25th was selected by various ones, see the article What Does the Catholic Church Teach About Christmas and the Holy Days?).
There were censuses around the time of Jesus reported by Luke, Tertullian, and Josephus. History demonstrated that multiple censuses occurred during Augustus’ reign.
More on Jesus can be found in the free online book: Proof Jesus is the Messiah.