When Was Jesus Born?

When Was Jesus Christ Born?

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When Was Jesus Born
LUKE CHAPTER 2 COMMENTARY

Luke 2:2 When Was Jesus Born?

LUKE 2:2  2 This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.

When was Jesus born?
Luke 2:2 fares prominently in the debate over when Jesus was born, as opponents of the Bible attack this verse to question not only when Jesus was born but also the inerrancy of the Bible.

How does Luke 2:2 related to when Jesus was born?
According to Luke chapter 2, including verse 6 (see Joseph and Mary), Jesus was born while “Quirinius was governing Syria” (Luke 2:2), which the best known Roman records indicate to have been from 6 AD to 12 AD.

What is the controversy?
The Gospel of Matthew states that King Herod was ruling Israel when Jesus was born (see where was Jesus born?). King Herod questioned the wise men who came to worship Jesus about the star of Bethlehem to estimate when Jesus was born, and then slaughtered all boys in Bethlehem who were two years and younger (see slaughter of the innocents). Herod died in 4 BC, so the controversy is, was Jesus born before Herod’s death in 4 BC or was He born during Quirinius’ governorship in Syria from 6 AD to 12 AD?

What is the answer?
Jesus was born before Herod died in 4 BC.

How long before 4 BC was Jesus born?
While the Bible doesn’t pinpoint the year when Jesus was born, it does give us a narrow range, as follows. Jesus returned to Israel from Egypt and settled in Nazareth after Archelaus began to rule in Judea in 4 BC. Before taking Jesus from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Passover feast when Jesus was twelve years old, the Bible says Joseph and Mary “went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover” (see Jesus’ parents). “Every year,” as opposed to ‘one year’ or ‘both years,’ means at least three years, so Jesus spent at least four years in Nazareth before His visit to the temple at twelve years of age. This means that Jesus was at most eight years old when Archelaus began to rule in Judea in 4 BC, which in turn means that Jesus was born between 12 BC and 4 BC.

Can this range be further narrowed?
The “census” mentioned in Luke 2:2 was ordered in 8 BC (see Augustus Caesar), so Jesus was born between 8 BC and 4 BC.

Then what about “Quirinius... governing Syria” in Luke 2:2?
Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (“Quirinius”) was a Roman general and governor who subdued at least two troubled regions in the Roman Empire for Augustus Caesar. Born in 51 BC, Quirinius rose up through the Roman ranks and at 37 years of age in 14 BC led a campaign against the Marmaridae, a North African tribe that was plundering in Cyrenaica (Libya today). When he defeated them, Augustus Caesar made him Consul in 12 BC and dispatched him to put down the Homonadenses, a tribe that had risen up in the mountains of Cilicia (Turkey today), which is adjacent to Syria. Quirinius spent the next decade leading military campaigns from Syria against and eventually defeating the Homonadenses, and was “governing Syria” (Luke 2:2) during the time of the “census” (Luke 2:2).

Why would Quirinius lead military campaigns in Cilicia from Syria?
Syria was the base of the main Roman army for the empire’s eastern front.

Who were the official Roman governors of Syria during this period?
Marcus Titius (12-9 BC), Gaius Saturninus (9-7 BC), and Publius Varus (7-4 BC).

Then where does Quirinius fit in?
Normally, Augustus Caesar appointed one Imperial Legate (“Legatus Augusti pro praetore”) to govern (“hegemoneuo”) as his emissary in each imperial province of the Roman Empire. In exceptional cases, usually involving wars or putting down difficult rebellions, however, he and his successors are known to have dispatched, if needed, a second Imperial Legate to lead the war effort and deal with other ‘external’ affairs of the province, while the resident Imperial Legate managed the province’s normal ‘domestic’ affairs. For example, when the Jews rebelled against Rome, Vespasian was dispatched as the Imperial Legate to crush it in 67 AD, starting from southern Syria, while Mucianus, the resident Imperial Legate, remained in northern Syria and managed the province’s normal affairs. Likewise, during the Roman - Parthian War (63 - 58 AD), Corbulo was dispatched as the Imperial Legate to lead the Roman army in Syria against the Parthians, while Quadratus, the resident Imperial Legate of Syria at that time, remained behind. From 12 BC to 4 BC, Titius, Saturninus and Varus took turns managing Syria’s ‘domestic’ affairs while Quirinius was in charge of Syria’s ‘external’ affairs, not just the war effort against the Homonadenses since Luke mentions him “governing Syria” (Luke 2:2) at the time of this census in Judea, which was next to and being managed from Syria.

Why couldn’t Titius, Saturninus and Varus fight the Homonadenses?
Besides being occupied with domestic affairs, not all Roman governors were able to fight wars. When they arrived in Syria, Titius, for example, was an old man and Varus had no military experience. In fact, when Caesar Augustus later moved Varus to be the Imperial Legate of Germania (Germany today), he marched the three Roman legions under his command into an ambush in which all ~18,000 Roman soldiers were annihilated by German tribesmen in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9 AD), handing Rome its worst military defeat during the reign of Augustus, who is said to have been devastated by the news and to have occasionally muttered for years thereafter, “Vare, Legiones Redde!” which is Latin for, “Varus, Give me back my Legions!”

Could Quirinius have been working under Titius, Saturninus and Varus?
Each Roman legion was commanded by a Legional Legate (“Legatus Legionis”). To have the authority to command multiple legions and their Legional Legates in the war against Homonadenses, Quirinius had to have held the rank of Imperial Legate (Legatus Augusti pro praetore), the same rank as Titius, Saturninus and Varus, and which carried the authority to govern an imperial province.

Why do Roman records date Quirinius governorship of Syria to 6-12 AD?
To cap off his career, Quirinius returned to Syria in 6 AD as the resident Imperial Legate, oversaw a second census, this time just for the region, which Luke mentions in Acts 5:33, and governed the province for 6 years before retiring to Rome in 12 AD at 63 years of age. This is why Luke 2:2 specifies the census as the “first” one “that took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.”

Why isn’t there an explicit secular corroboration of “Quirinius was governing Syria” (Luke 2:2) while waging war against Homonadenses?
The Bible, infallibly written by God (see Origin of the Bible), doesn’t require corroboration by fallible secular sources. Having said that, secular sources already place Quirinius in Syria at the time of Jesus’ birth, holding the rank of Imperial Legate (governor), and provide other cases of more than one Imperial Legate governing a Roman province during times of war. So, while there is already secular corroboration, additional corroboration wouldn’t surprise since as archaeology advances, more and more of the Bible continue to be corroborated. For example, doubters of the Bible claimed for centuries that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who sentenced Jesus to be crucified (see Praetorium), is a fictional character since there is no record of anyone named Pontius Pilate in Roman history or archaeology. They fell silent in 1961 when Pilate’s name was discovered engraved on a limestone fragment in the ruins of the Roman stadium in Caesarea (see more examples).

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