Census of Quirinius

Census of Quirinius
Luke 2:2 (A) When was Jesus born?

Luke 2:2 (B) Quirinius

Luke 2:3-7 Joseph and Mary

Who was “Quirinius” (Luke 2:2)?
Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was a Roman general and governor who subdued at least two rebellious regions in the Roman Empire for Caesar Augustus. Born near Rome in 51 BC, Quirinius rose through the Roman ranks and at 37 years of age led a campaign in 14 BC against the Marmaridae, a North African tribe that was plundering in Cyrenaica (Libya today). After he defeated them, Caesar Augustus 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 (source: Tacitus, Annales, 3.48), and was “governing Syria” (Luke 2:2) during the time of the “census” (Luke 2:2).

Why would Quirinius lead military campaigns to Cilicia from Syria?
The Roman army for the empire’s eastern front was based in Syria, which was a far more populous and strategic province than Cilicia. Syria's Antioch was in fact the third largest city in the empire after Rome and Alexandria.

Who were the resident Roman governors of Syria during this period?
Marcus Titius from 12 BC to 9 BC, Gaius Saturninus from 9 BC to 7 BC, and Publius Varus from 7 BC to 4 BC.

Then where does Quirinius fit in?
Caesar Augustus typically appointed one Imperial Legate (Legatus Augusti pro praetore) to govern (hegemoneuo) as his emissary in each imperial province. Under extraordinary circumstances, however, usually involving wars or putting down rebellions, he and his successors 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 adjacent to and being managed from Syria.

Why couldn’t Titius, Saturninus and Varus fight the Homonadenses?
Besides being occupied with the normal affairs of running a province, 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 serving 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 the Homonadenses, Quirinius had to have held the rank of Imperial Legate (Legatus Augusti pro praetore), the same rank as the one held by Titius, Saturninus and Varus, and which carried the authority to govern an imperial province.

Why do Roman records say Quirinius governed Syria in 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 is mentioned in Acts 5:37 (see Gamaliel), and governed the province for six 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 “taken while Quirinius was governing Syria.”

Is there an explicit secular corroboration of Quirinius having governed Syria while waging war against the Homonadenses?
Not yet, but neither was there such secular corroboration of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who sentenced Jesus to be crucified (see Praetorium). The absence of anyone named Pontius Pilate in Roman archaeology led many Bible skeptics to claim that he was a fictional character, until 1961 when Pontius Pilate’s name was discovered engraved on a limestone fragment in the ruins of the Roman stadium in Caesarea. While the infallible Word of God (see Origin of the Bible) doesn't require corroboration by fallible secular sources, it should be noted that as archaeology and other sciences advance, more and more of the Bible continue to be corroborated (see examples).