The Birth of Jesus

“Cyrenius was governor of Syria”. Says an old commentator, with evident weariness: “Volumes have been written about this one verse”—and since his day volumes more. The essential facts are these:

The decree from Caesar Augustus “that all the world should be taxed” was really one of a sequence of censuses taken every fourteen years in the Roman provinces. It is known that Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria, but at a date which cannot possibly fit the year of the birth of Jesus. For this reason critics have been very ready to assume Luke’s inaccuracy and a late date for writing of his gospel. But through the researches of Sir William Ramsay the historical dependability of Luke has been substantiated over and over again, so it is surely wise to assume that Luke is correct here also until clear proof to the contrary is available. Actually it has been found that at this particular time (about B.C. 5, according to conventional reckoning) Quirinius did hold some important office in Syria such as might well be described as “Quirinius ruling”.

It is possible that the text should be read as meaning: “This was the first census when Cyrenius was ruling in Syria”, as though implying (what is known to be true) that at a later time there was another census under his governorship-which later census was evidently done Roman style and provoked a bitter rebellion led by Judas the Gaulonite. But on the earlier occasion Herod the Great was wily enough to dress up this political event in a Jewish guise, by holding it at the time of a Jewish feast and by insisting on all registering as members of their own particular tribe of Israel. Almost certainly, according to Exodus 30:11-16, the payment was made of the half-shekel of “atonement money … for the service of the tabernacle”. So the priests in Jerusalem would co-operate with enthusiasm, but for poor men like Joseph it would be a heavy tax on slender resources.

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Author: Harry Whittaker

Keywords: Cyrenius, Quirinius, governor of Syria, birth of Jesus

Bible reference(s): Luke 2:12, Luke 2:16, Luke 2:1-10

Source: Studies in the Gospels.

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