There is a well known problem in Luke 2:2, usually translated as, ‘This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria’.
The problem is that Luke locates the birth of Jesus ‘in the days of Herod’ who died in 4 BC (Luke 2:5, 26) whereas Josephus plainly tells us that the census occurred under Quirinius. That census was conducted in AD 6-7 when the Romans annexed Judea as a province and which provoked the uprising led by Judas the Galilean. Quirinius was a famous Roman general who does not appear to have been the governor of Syria before AD 6. It seems Luke has made a significant error by locating Jesus birth about ten years too late!
There are four possible explanations.
The first is that Luke has innocently replicated an error in the written or oral information that he received. Against this, however, is Luke’s clear understanding that Herod’s realm had been divided after his death (Luke 3:1-2) and that Joseph from Galilee would have paid his taxes in Galilee to the incumbent tetrarch so there would have been no need for him to travel to Bethlehem in Judea to be registered for paying taxes in that jurisdiction.
The second is that Luke deliberately introduced the error to make the theological point that he favoured the uprising led by Judas. This is unsustainable since the only point Luke makes is to contrast the humble godliness of little, defenceless people like Joseph, Mary and the shepherds with the distant, uncaring figure of Caesar Augustus whose decree brought such suffering.
A third explanation is that the error lies with Josephus. Whilst there are some discrepancies between Josephus’ Jewish War and his Jewish Antiquities any theory of error in this matter is unlikely. Quirinius’ census was a momentous event marking the transition from Judea as a Jewish ethnarchy under Archelaus to a Roman province under its first prefect, Coponius. The imposition of direct Roman rule in Judea meant the imposition of tax that was now payable directly to Caesar, symbolising that he, not God was the ‘master’ of the people. It was this ‘numbering’ of the people that drove Judas to lead his rebellion (Acts 5:37; cf. Num. 1:2). Twenty seven years later this was still a burning issue, inspiring the loaded question to Jesus, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?’ (Mark 12:14).
The fourth is that there was an earlier census but that Luke’s very brief sentence (9 words) is open to several interpretations. The critical word is ‘first’ (pro|tos). Grammar experts argue that ‘first’ in Luke 2:2 is an adjective meaning ‘first’ in a superlative sense (first of at least three).
There are unsurmountable historical problems insisting that ‘first’ must be understood as a superlative sense. It implies that there were at least two other censuses in Judea after Quirinius’ famous census in AD 6. Quirinius’ census was a momentous event which provoked a rebellion, which Luke rightly called the census (Acts 5:37). Had there been other subsequent censuses in Palestine after Quirinius we would know about them from Josephus, so controversial were they.
We note, therefore, that the word ‘first’ can also mean ‘foremost’, ‘most prominent’, that is, in an absolute sense, for example in the Prodigal father’s command, ‘bring…the best robe’ (Luke 15:22) or the question, ‘which commandment is the greatest of all?’ (Mark 12:28). This use of ‘first’ meaning ‘foremost’ in an absolute sense is a genuine alternative to understanding ‘first’ in a superlativesense (first of at least three). Understood in this way, Luke 2:2 would read as: ‘This enrolment became most prominent when Quirinius was governor of Syria’. (See Stephen Carlson, Luke 2:2 and the Census - http://hypotyposeis.org/weblog/2004/12/luke-22-and-the-census.html)
Luke’s words, then, are distinguishing the enrolment during Herod’s reign involving Joseph and Mary from the ‘most prominent’ enrolment under Quirinius in AD 6. Thus it is possible that Luke 2:2 is alluding to some otherwise unknown enrolment during Herod’s time, when his kingdom was undivided and when Joseph of the line of David, was required to enrol in Bethlehem, his ancestral city.
Some argue against the historical possibility of a census earlier than Quirinius’ census. We know that Augustus conducted an imperial census beginning in 18 BC (Res Gestae 8) and that such a census could have occurred within the domain of a client king like Herod (Tacitus, Annals vi.41). Furthermore, there is evidence of a Roman registration in Egypt in 104 BC requiring registrants to return to their ancestral homes. We also know that Augustus Caesar required the ‘whole Jewish people’ in Israel to make an oath of allegiance to him in about 7 BC (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities xvii.42) though there is no information about a necessity for Jews to return to their ancestral cities.
Luke 2:2 has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly books and articles but the problems remain unsolved. It seems Luke has either replicated an error from the sources available to him, or – more probably – has expressed himself too briefly. There is a strong possibility of an enrolment during Herod’s years that could have affected Joseph and Mary. Either way it would be unreasonable to accuse Luke of wilful error, for what would have been his reason for doing so? I do not think the problems in Luke 2:2 are a basis for the wholesale rejection of this author, his integrity or competence.
The governors of Syria during this period were M. Titius (10 BC); C. Sentius Saturninus (9 – 6 BC); Quinctilius Varus (6 – 4 BC); Calpurnius Piso (4 – 1 BC); C. Iulius Caesar (1 BC – AD 4); L. Volusius Saturninus (AD 4 – 5); P. Sulpicius Quirinius (AD 6). See further E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish people in the Age of Jesus Christ I (rev. and ed. By G. Vermes and F. Millar; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1973), 257-259.
Yet Luke uses the same Greek adjective in Acts 1:1 in a comparative (non-superlative) sense where the ‘first book’ clearly means the first of two books, that is, ‘the former book’ (= Luke’s Gospel).
As in Luke 15:22 (‘the best robe’) and Eph. 6:2.
For examples of censuses being conducted in ‘vassal kingdoms’ (e.g., Apamea, Cappadocia, Petra and Samaria) see (H. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 16.
Hoehner, Chronological Aspects, 15.
P.W. Barnett, ‘Enrolment in Luke 2:1-5’, ExpT lxxxv.12 (1974), 374-380.