Caesar Augustus, the census and Quirinius (Luke 1)

Caesar Augustus.

The reign of Caesar Augustus

Caesar Augustus was ruler of the Roman Empire when Jesus was born (Luke 2:1). He ruled for 45 years, from 31 B.C. to A.D. 14. Born Gaius Octavius, he was adopted by his maternal uncle, Julius Caesar 100-44 B.C.), and, as was common, assumed the name of his adoptive father. Thus, he was known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian. The name Augustus, “revered one”, was bestowed upon him by the Roman Senate in 27 B.C.

Augustus put an end to the civil wars that had raged since the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and established the Pax Romana (“Roman peace”) throughout the empire. For this, he received lavish honours in Rome and around the Roman world. Herod the Great built the city of Caesarea Maritima and rebuilt Samara (the former capital of the northern kingdom) in Augustus’ honour. The Greek name of Samaria, Sebastos, means “Augustus”.

That peace that characterized Augustus’ reign was marred only by the disaster of the loss of three Roman legions in a battle with German tribes at the Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9. Otherwise, Augustus used the stability of the times to carry out extensive building projects in Rome. Some of his structures have been excavated and can be seen today, such as the Forum of Augustus, the beautiful Altar of Peace and the Mausoleum of Augustus, where his ashes were placed.

Quirinius and the census

At the time og Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem to be counted for a census. Luke recorded that the census taken when Jesus was born “was the first census while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was a well known Roman military and political figure who was appointed to serve as governor of Syria in A.D. 6. At this time he carried out a census in Syria and Judea. This census is documented in the writings of Josephus (Antiques, 18) and is mentioned in Acts 5:37. An obvious problem is that this census is too late to be related to the birth of Jesus, since Jesus was born prior to the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C. How might one resolve this difficulty?

  • It may be that Luke was aware of Quirinius’ A.D. 6 census and that Luke 2:2 means there had been an earlier census during the reign of Herod, which was also supervised by Quirinius. Some scholars believe that fragmentary inscription called the Lapist Tiburtinus implies that Quirinius was twice governor of Syria, so that the A.D. 6 census was in fact his second census. This interpretation of the Lapis Tiburtinus is open to question, however; we do not know with certainty that this inscription actually dealt with Quirinius at all.
  • It may be that this verse should be translated as “This census was before the one made when Quirinius was governor”. This would be a somewhat peculiar translation of the Greek, but a number of New Testament scholars nontheless support it.
  • The church father Tertullian believed that the census of Luke 2:2 took place during the governorship of Sentius Saturnius (8-6 B.C.) rather than that of Quirinius. It may be that the txt of 2:2 has suffered some kind of corruption, although, except for Tertullian, there is no evidence for this.


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