One of the more problematic issues with the Christmas story is the question of the Census of Quirinius in Luke 2:2. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, there was indeed a Quirinius who served as governor in Syria starting in 6 A.D., and in that year there was a Roman census during the time of Jesus’ birth by Luke’s testimony. However, then compare this to the infancy narrative in Matthew and try to line it up with the record of Josephus concerning Herod’s death around 4 B.C., which Matthew says is after Jesus’ birth. This gives you about a ten year discrepancy regarding the actual date of the birth of Jesus. Was Jesus born around 6 A.D. according to Luke or before 4 B.C. according to Matthew? What are we to make of this?
We already know that the Christian calendar, which has no year “0” in it, was orginally meant to be started in agreement with Jesus’ birth prior to the death of Herod, but that appears to be off by a few years. We can thank “Dennis the Dwarf”, a 6th century monk, for getting us sidetracked with that one (look here for more nerdy details about the story of the Anno Domini system). But most Bible scholars agree that Luke’s apparent birthdate for Jesus in 6 A.D. is far too late to be correct. What then do you do with the census of Quirinius?
The consensus in critical scholarship has concluded simply that Luke somehow got this wrong. Skeptics run with this and conclude that the Gospels are unreliable as historical documents. UNC Chapel Hill scholar and former evangelical Bart Ehrman, for example, argues that Luke is using the whole census idea as a theological device of fiction to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of the heir to the Davidic throne, namely Jesus. The virgin birth then is starting to sound, well,…. uh… rather contrived. Mmmm… Does this mean that I got all of those ding-dang Christmas decorations down out of the attic for nuthin’? Bummer.
But what if a closer look at all of the evidence suggests an alternative way of looking at the Quirinius Question?