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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature


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Cyre´nius, or, according to his Latin appellation, P. Sulpitius Quirinus governor of Syria (). The mention of his name in connection with the census which was in progress at the time of our Lord's birth, presents very serious difficulties, of which, from the want of adequate data, historical and critical inquiry has not yet attained a satisfactory solution. The passage is thus translated in the Authorized Version: 'Now this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.' Instead of 'taxing' it is now agreed that the rendering should be 'enrolment,' or 'registration,' as it is clear from Josephus that no taxing did take place till many years after this period. The whole passage, as it now stands, may be properly read, 'This enrolment was the first while Cyrenius was governor of Syria.'

This appears very plain, and would suggest no difficulty, were it not for the knowledge which we obtain from other quarters, which is to the effect, 1. that there is no historical notice of any enrolment at or near the time of our Lord's birth; and, 2. that the enrolment which actually did take place under Cyrenius was not until ten years after that event.

With regard to the extent of the enrolment, there can be little doubt that the words 'the whole world' in our common version should be rendered 'the whole land,' as it is clear Judea only is meant.

As for the difficulties just mentioned, various attempts have been made to remove them, but perhaps the most satisfactory solution is that which is sanctioned by the names of Calvin, Valesius, Wetstein, Hales, and others, who render the passage thus: 'In those days there went forth a decree from Augustus, that the whole land should be enrolled; but the enrolment itself was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.' The supposition here is, that the census was commenced under Saturninus, but was not completed till two years after, under Quirinus.

In support of this view Hales reminds us that a little before the birth of Christ, Herod had marched an army into Arabia to redress certain wrongs which he had received; and this proceeding had been so misrepresented to Augustus that he wrote a very harsh letter to Herod, the substance of which was, that 'having hitherto treated him as a friend, he would now treat him as a subject.' And when Herod sent an embassy to clear himself, the emperor repeatedly refused to hear them, and so Herod was forced to submit to all the injuries offered to him. Now it may be collected that the chief of these injuries was the performance of his threat of treating him as a subject, by the degradation of his kingdom to a Roman province. For soon after Josephus incidentally mentions that 'the whole nation of the Jews took an oath of fidelity to Caesar and the king jointly, except 6000 of the Pharisees, who through their hostility to the regal government, refused to take it.' The date of this transaction is determined by its having been shortly before the death of Pheroras, and coincides with the time of this decree of enrolment and of the birth of Christ. The oath which Josephus mentions would be administered at the same time, according to the usage of the Roman census, in which a return of persons, ages, and properties, was required to be made upon oath, under penalty of confiscation of goods, as we learn from Ulpian. That Cyrenius, a Roman senator and procurator, was employed to make this enrolment, we learn not only from St. Luke, but by the joint testimony of Justin Martyr, Julian the Apostate, and Eusebius; and it was made while Saturninus was president of Syria (to whom it was attributed by Tertullian) in the thirty-third year of Herod's reign, corresponding to the date of Christ's birth. Cyrenius, who is described by Tacitus as 'an active soldier and rigid commissioner' was well qualified for an employment so odious to Herod and his subjects; and probably came to execute the decree with an armed force. The enrolment of the inhabitants, 'each in his own city,' was in conformity with the wary policy of the Roman jurisprudence, to prevent insurrections and to expedite the business; and if this precaution was judged prudent even in Italy, much more must it have appeared necessary in turbulent provinces like Judea and Galilee.

At the present juncture, however, it appears that the census proceeded no further than the first act, namely, of the enrolment of persons in the Roman register. For Herod sent his trusty minister, Nicolas of Damascus, to Rome; who, by his address and presents, found means to mollify and undeceive the emperor, so that he proceeded no further in the design which he had entertained. The census was consequently at this time suspended; but it was afterwards carried into effect upon the deposal and banishment of Archelaus, and the settlement of Judea as a Roman province. On this occasion the trusty Cyrenius was sent again, as president of Syria, with an armed force, to confiscate the property of Archelaus, and to complete the census for the purposes of taxation. This taxation was a poll-tax of two drachmae a-head upon males from fourteen, and females from twelve to sixty-five years of age—equal to about fifteen pence of our money. This was the 'tribute-money' mentioned in . The payment of it became very obnoxious to the Jews, and the imposition of it occasioned the insurrection under Judas of Galilee, which Luke himself describes as having occurred 'in the days of the taxing' ().

By this statement Hales considers that 'the Evangelist is critically reconciled with the varying accounts of Josephus, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian; and an historical difficulty satisfactorily solved, which has hitherto set criticism at defiance.' This is perhaps saying too much; but the explanation is undoubtedly one of the best that has yet been given.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Cyrenius'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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