Census of Quirinius

The Census of Quirinius was a census of Judea taken by Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, Roman governor of Syria, upon the imposition of direct Roman rule in Judea in 6 CE.[1] It caused a limited and unsuccessful uprising by Judas of Galilee.

Both the census itself and the uprising are mentioned in the Bible: the Gospel of Luke controversially places the census during the reign of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5) (most scholars believe that the author of the Gospel is mistaken),[2] and the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 5:37) refers to the failed Jewish uprising against the census.

The census[edit]

Mary and Joseph register for the census before Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic c. 1315.

After the banishment of the ethnarch Herod Archelaus in 6 AD to Vienna, the newly formed Roman province of Judea (the conglomeration of Samaria, Judea and Idumea) came under direct Roman administration, with Coponius appointed as prefect. At the same time, Quirinius was appointed Legate of Syria, with instructions to assess Judea Province for taxation purposes.[3] One of his first duties was to conduct a census as part of this order.[4]

The assessment was greatly resented by the Jews, and open revolt was prevented only by the efforts of the high priest Joazar.[5] Despite efforts to prevent revolt, the census did trigger the revolt of Judas of Galilee and the formation of the party of the Zealots, according to Josephus.[6]

A surviving papyrus document from the Roman province of Egypt in AD104 illustrates a census situation in the time of Trajan analogous to the census of Quirinius. The papyrus contains a command in Greek from the Prefect Gaius Vibius Maximus for all those in his area of authority to return to their own homes for the purposes of a census (apogaphēs).[7][8] Gaius Vibius Maximus (AD 104) uses the same word apographa that the Gospel of Luke (c. AD 90) does, while Josephus (AD 98) uses the term apotimesis. Potentially this refers to two distinct parts of a census: first the assessment, and then the payment of taxes.[9]

In the New Testament[edit]

In the New Testament of the Bible, the census is referred to twice, once in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:2) in connection with the birth of Christ, and once in the Acts of the Apostles (5:37) concerning the Jewish revolt against the census.

The second chapter of Luke relates the date of the nativity of Jesus to the census of Quirinius:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

— Luke 2:1–5 (NRSV)

There are major difficulties in accepting Luke's account: the gospel links the birth of Jesus to the reign of Herod the Great, but the census took place in 6 CE, nine years after Herod's death in 4 BCE;[10][11][12] there was no single census of the entire empire under Augustus. No plausible resolution of this contradiction seems possible;[13] no Roman census required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors; and the census of Judea would not have affected Joseph and his family, living in Galilee.[2] Thus while Luke appears to present a precise date, the gospel is inconsistent with the historical evidence.[14]. Alternative theories, for example that Quirinius may have had an earlier and historically unattested term as governor of Syria, or that he previously held other senior positions allowing him to be involved in the affairs of Judea during Herod's reign, or that the passage should be interpreted in some other fashion, have generally been rejected as "exegetical acrobatics" (Geza Vermes),[15][16] and most critical scholars have concluded that Luke's account is erroneous.[2]

The census is mentioned again in the Acts of the Apostles, which is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke. Here, the census is referred to in a speech by Gamaliel, a member of the Sanhedrin, who identifies Theudas and Judas of Galilee as examples of failed Messianic movements.

After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.

— Acts 5:37 (NRSV)

Gamaliel then reasons that the movement emerging in the name of Jesus of Nazareth would similarly fail "if the work be of men", but would be invincible if it be the work of God, and thus recommends granting the surviving Apostles freedom of speech.[17]

Long-term effect[edit]

Judas of Galilee, or Judas of Gamala, was a Jewish leader who led resistance to the census.[18] He encouraged Jews not to register and those that did had their houses burnt and their cattle stolen by his followers.[19] He began the "fourth philosophy" of the Jews which Josephus blames for the disastrous war with the Romans in 66–70 AD. These events are discussed by Josephus in The Jewish War and in Antiquities of the Jews and mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles.

Scholars Gunnar Haaland and James McLaren have suggested that Josephus's description of the fourth sect does not reflect historical reality. According to Haaland, Josephus's description of the radical sect contrasts with his positive description of mainstream Jewish schools of thought, in order to show that the Jewish War was incited by a radical minority.[20] Similarly, McLaren proposes that Judas and his sect act as scapegoats for the war that are chronologically, geographically and socially removed from the priestly circles of Jerusalem (and from Josephus himself).[21]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Gruen 1996, p. 157.
  2. ^ a b c Brown 1978, p. 17.
  3. ^ Hayes, John Haralson; Mandell, Sara R. (1998). "Chapter 3: The Herodian Period.". The Jewish people in classical antiquity: from Alexander to Bar Kochba. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 153–154. ISBN 978-0-664-25727-9. Retrieved June 13, 2010. Thus in 6 or 7 AD, Augustus commissioned the newly appointed Legate of Syria, Quirinius, to carry out the census
  4. ^ Erich S. Gruen, "The Expansion of the Empire under Augustus" in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume X: The Augustan Empire, 43 BC – AD 69, (Cambridge University Press, 1996) pages 157
  5. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: QUIRINIUS, P. SULPICIUS: "The assessment caused great dissatisfaction among the Jews (ib.), and open revolt was prevented only by the efforts of the high priest Joazar (ib. 2, § 1). The levying of this assessment resulted, moreover, in the revolt of Judas the Galilean and in the formation of the party of the Zealots (Josephus, "B. J." vii. 8, § 1; Lucas, in Acts v. 37). Josephus mentions the assessment in another passage also ("Ant." xx. 5, § 2)."
  6. ^ H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-674-39731-2, page 274: "Josephus connects the beginnings of the extremist movement [called the Zealots by Josephus] with the census held under the supervision of Quirinius, the legate of Syria, soon after Judea had been converted into a Roman province (6 AD)."
  7. ^ Mitchell, T.C. The Bible in the British Museum; Interpreting the Evidence. London- British Museum Press, 1988. [1]
  8. ^ [2]
  9. ^ Hans Schwarz. 1998. Christology. William Eerdman Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, p79
  10. ^ Edwards 2015, p. 68–69.
  11. ^ Sanders 1995, p. 111.
  12. ^ Gruen 1996, p. 156.
  13. ^ Edwards 2015, p. 71.
  14. ^ Novak 2001, pp. 296–297.
  15. ^ Vermes 2010, p. unpaginated.
  16. ^ Novak 2001, p. 293–298.
  17. ^ Acts 5:38–39
  18. ^ Raymond Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas: Essays on the Three Biblical Christmas Stories, Matthew 2 and Luke 2 by Raymond E. Brown (Liturgical Press, 1978), page 17.
  19. ^ Julian Doyle, 'Crucifixion's a Doddle
  20. ^ Gunnar Haaland, A Villain and the VIPs: Josephus on Judas the Galilean and the Essenes. In Anders Kolstergaard et al. (ed.), Northern Lights on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Proceedings of the Nordic Qumran Network 2003–2006. Studies on the Text of the Deserts of Judah v. 80. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Pp. 241–244.
  21. ^ James S. McLaren, Constructing Judaean History in the Diaspora: Josephus’s Accounts of Judas.In John M.G. Barclay (ed.), Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish Strategies in the Roman Empire. London: T&T Clark, 2004. Pp. 90–108.