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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
QUIRINIUS.—Luke 2:2 Authorized Version , ‘And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria’ is better rendered in Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 , ‘This was the first enrolment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.’ From art. Census it will be seen that this statement probably means that this was the first occasion of an enrolment of this nature, an enrolment of population by households as distinct from a rating-enrolment in reference to property, and that it took place during the governorship of Quirinius in Syria. Here, however, there seems to emerge a great discrepancy between St. Luke’s account and what is known from secular history. It is certain that Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was the administrator of Syria from a.d. 6 to 9, and that in that period he took the rating census mentioned in Acts 5:37 (Josephus Ant. xvii. xiii. 5, xviii. i. 1). But the birth of Jesus took place before the death of Herod the Great (Matthew 2), and that was in b.c. 4. The narratives of the two Evangelists seem to be at hopeless variance on a most important point. How are they to be reconciled?
One way of cutting the knot readily occurs. We might suppose that the clause Luke 2:2 was not in the original narrative, but was a marginal date inserted by an early copyist, who made a mistake as to the census intended; but the Manuscripts afford no warrant for this suggestion. Now, assuming the text to be as St. Luke wrote it, we can have no doubt that he did so quite deliberately, for he was most careful to give an accurate account (see Luke 1:1-4), and he himself has chronicled the census of a.d. 6 to 9 in Acts 5:37. This would lead us a priori to reckon that as in his view at least there was no discrepancy, there must be some explanation that does not lie on the surface. Dr. Lardner’s method of solving the difficulty is to interpret the verse thus: ‘This was the first census of Cyrenius, who (afterwards) was governor of Syria,’ St. Luke taking pains to distinguish, according to this view, between the two enrolments, and giving the information that Quirinius was the man who at a later time became governor of Syria. Thus Herodian says that ‘to Marcus the emperor were born several daughters and two sons’; yet we know that some of them at least were born before he became emperor. Dr. Lardner’s interpretation, however, does violence to the construction of the text, and is at best a forced expedient to avoid a difficulty. Fortunately, later scholarship is able to dispense with it. Zumpt (Commentatio de Syria Romanorum provincia ab Cesare Augusto ad Titum Vespasianum) has shown that Quirinius seems to have been governor of Syria on two occasions; and this clue has been followed up by independent studies of Ramsay (Was Christ born at Bethlehem?). A fragment of an inscribed stone found at Tivoli in 1764 tells of the doings of a Roman official in the time of Augustus. The name has perished, but from the facts recorded antiquarians of note agree in believing that he was Quirinius. Now this stone distinctly mentions that he was twice legatus of Syria. [The actual word legatus is wanting in the fragment preserved, but some such word is required by the context]. Still the problem is not solved by this discovery, though secular as well as sacred history must share the difficulty: for it happens that we know who were governors of that province for the whole period prior to Herod’s death in b.c. 4. In b.c. 9 Sentius Saturninus succeeded Marcus Titius, and Josephus (Ant. xvii. v. 2) says: ‘Now Quintilius Varus was at this time at Jerusalem, being sent to succeed Saturninus as president of Syria’; and this statement is verified by coins of Antioch-in-Syria bearing his name with date. As we know that Augustus had a rule that no governor of a province should hold that office for less than three or more than five years, the whole period from b.c. 12 to 4 is covered, and there is no room to place the governorship of Quirinius at the time required. He cannot have been governor before b.c. 12, for he was then consul at Rome; and even if it were of any service, we cannot place him later, for he became tutor of Caius Caesar and governor of Asia; so that there is a difficulty in fixing his earlier period of holding office in Syria, if, indeed, he was twice governor. Farrar has suggested that, the above-mentioned rule of Augustus notwithstanding, Varus was displaced ‘because his close friendship with Archelaus, who resembled him in character, might have done mischief’; but of this there is no evidence, and the conjecture is but a make-shift. A better solution of the problem is to reckon that the governorship of which St. Luke speaks may have been of a different character from that held by Saturninus and Varus. Quirinius was a man who had shown himself very capable in military affairs. Now at this period there were troubles with various tribes in Syria and its frontiers. Tacitus (Ann. iii. 48) tells us that Quirinius waged successful war against the Homonadenses in Cilicia (which belonged to Syria) at a time prior at least to a.d. 2, when he became rector to Caius Caesar. There is therefore, to say the least, no unlikelihood that while Varus, who had no military renown, was left as the ordinary governor to administer the internal affairs of the province, Quirinius was appointed an extraordinary governor in charge of the military operations in the same region, with the title of legatus, or more specifically of dux. Inasmuch as the Greek equivalent in the case of either civil or military governor is ἡγεμών, St. Luke would be justified in saying, as he does, that the first enrolment was made ‘when Quirinius was acting as governor’ (ἡγεμονεύοντος Κυρηνίου).* [Note: Camill. 23 uses ἡγεμονία for the division of an army under an officer.] Those nearer the Evangelist’s own day, for whom he was specially writing, and who were better acquainted with the secular history of the time than readers nowadays, would find the date he thus gives even more exact than if he had mentioned either Saturninus or Varus; for, as has been shown in art. Census, the enrolment was determined during the rule of the former, but, so far as Palestine was concerned, probably carried out during the rule of the latter. The likelihood of there being two simultaneous governors, one for military the other for civil affairs, in the same province, is supported by parallel instances adduced by Ramsay (op. cit. 238 ff.).
Another theory in explanation of the passage about Quirinius is that he was neither civil nor military governor, but merely one of the commissioners appointed to take the enrolment throughout the whole Roman world, the district for which he was responsible being Syria. Palestine, though not at this period actually a Roman province, was under the Roman suzerainty, and from its proximity it would be included under Syria. St. Luke, having no better word for the enrolment commissioner, might use ἡγεμωνεύων [ἡγ. τῆς σκέψεως ‘taking lead in the inquiry,’ Plat. Prot. 351 E]. Tertullian (adv. Marc. iv. 19) states that the census at the time of Christ’s birth was taken by Saturninus, not Quirinius, and thus seems to correct the narrative; but that must be merely because he knew that the enrolment had been decided upon during the civil governorship of Saturninus: he cannot have meant that it was actually accomplished then; for that would be utterly inconsistent with the date he elsewhere (adv. Judges 1:8) gives for the nativity, b.c. 3.
Literature.—Lives of Christ; Commentaries on St. Luke; Bib. Dictt. of Smith, Kitto, and Hastings, and works by Zumpt and Ramsay mentioned in article. Schürer’s latest expression of opinion (GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] i. 508 ff.) is strongly adverse to the accuracy of St. Luke as well as to Professor Ramsay’s theory.
Arthur Pollok Sym.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Quirinius'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/q/quirinius.html. 1906-1918.