Dating the Death of Herod and the Census of Quirinius

Of crucial importance in most theories of the Star of Bethlehem are two related chronological issues: the year of the census of Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria, and the year when king Herod died.

Both infancy gospels (Matthew 2:1-19; Luke 1:5) state that Jesus Christ was born in the “days of Herod, king of Judea”, who modern historians identify with Herod the Great in order to distinguish him from Herod Antipas, who was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4 BCE to 39 CE.

According to the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, Herod the Great died shortly after a lunar eclipse and was buried before the Jewish Passover feast (Jewish Antiquities XVII 6.4 [164-167] & 9.3 [213]). Most historians have identified the lunar eclipse mentioned by Josephus with that of 12/13 March 4 BCE, but some have argued that other lunar eclipses, such as the one of 9/10 January 1 BCE, could give a better chronological fit.

According to Luke 2:1-2, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem because Joseph and his family had to report there for a tax census ordered by the Roman emperor Augustus and carried out by Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (Cyrenius in Greek sources), the Roman governor of Syria. This census, mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 5:37) and by Flavius Josephus (Jewish Antiquities XVII 13.5 [355], XVIII 1.1 [1-4] & 2.1 [26], XX 5.2 [102]; Jewish War VII 8.1 [253]), took place in 6/7 CE and thus contradicts Luke’s earlier statement that it occurred during the reign of Herod the Great.

Some scholars have argued, mainly from a disputed interpretation of the so-called ‘Titulus Tiburtinus’ [CIL XIV 3613 = ILS 918] (a Roman inscription found near Tivoli in 1764), that the census of Quirinius mentioned in Luke was an earlier one (possibly around 7 or 2 BCE). Others have argued that the nativity census was indeed the one of 6/7 CE and that the Herod mentioned in the nativity gospels was in fact Herod the Great’s son and successor Herod Archelaus.

It is of interest to note that the church historian Q. Septimius Flores Tertullian (early 3rd century) claimed that the nativity census took place not under Quirinius but under Sentius Saturninus, governor of Syria from 9 to 7 BCE. (Adversus Marcionem IV 19).

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