How do you understand the census in Luke 2?

Hi friends,

In Luke 2:1-3 we read,

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole empire should be registered. This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So everyone went to be registered, each to his own town.

But as the Wikipedia entry on this passages summarizes,

The Census of Quirinius is generally believed to be a census of Judea taken by Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, governor of Roman Syria, upon the imposition of direct Roman rule in 6 CE. The Gospel of Luke uses it to date the birth of Jesus, which the Gospel of Matthew places in the time of Herod the Great (who died between 5 BCE and 1 CE). Luke appears to have conflated Quirinius’s census with the death of Herod, and most critical scholars acknowledge a confusion and misdating by Luke.

The contradiction is clear:

If Jesus was born during Herod the Great’s reign, he had to be born before 1 CE.

But if Jesus was also born at the time of the census of Quirinius, he had to be born in 6 CE.

There’s no way to reconcile those two dates.

So it was with fascination that I read Dr. David Armitage’s careful exploration of the text. What stands out to me is his very close reading of the Greek text and the literary conventions of Luke’s writing. You can read the entire argument here:

In light of how he approaches the text, the translation becomes:

Here’s the main difference:

On this reading Luke’s digression concerning the census is not a chronological marker for the birth stories, nor does it serve a narrative function in explaining how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem. Rather, it emphasises to his readership – who may be very familiar with the connection of Jesus with Nazareth – that the family association with Davidic Bethlehem was substantive and officially recognised.

If you’re interested in following his detailed argument, let me know what you think!


I found this a fascinating read! One thing I have heard taught is that verse numbers and headings in Scripture are works of interpretation, as the original/early Greek manuscripts were (often? always?) devoid of them. Thus, something like this is not far-fetched. Asking the question, “To what does ‘those days’ refer?” is something that we can do.

As he points out, the interpretation of ‘those days’ linking the census to Jesus’ birth has ancient roots, thus, the ‘great weight of tradition’ (and, thus, popular imagination) is on the side of the ‘usual’ reading.

Nevertheless, I found his alternative timeline formulation to be interesting:

This sequence of events depicted by Luke could then be as follows:

  1. Towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great, Mary – who is from Nazareth – encounters an angel who foretells Jesus’ birth.
  2. Mary visits Elizabeth in the Judean hill country, then returns home.
  3. Although already found to be pregnant whilst betrothed, Mary marries Joseph – a man from Bethlehem – who initially takes Mary to his family home.
  4. Jesus is born in Bethlehem; because of space restrictions in their quarters, Mary and Joseph place the baby in a feeding trough in the main living area.
  5. The family subsequently relocate to Nazareth, establishing there a home of their own.
  6. Several years later, when Quirinius is governing Syria, an enrollment is announced, so Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, because this remains the location of Joseph’s family home, and he needs to register in connection with property there.

I also like that he made the case for narrative flash-forwards by pointing out that Luke used them in other places in his writings (Luke-Acts). This is not a convention that I had consciously noticed in my reading of either book!

I also appreciated that, if understood in this way, it links Luke and Matthew in purpose of establishing Jesus’ Davidic roots – Matthew via genealogy and Luke by way of a (later) census that solidifies Joseph’s family in Bethlehem.

Lastly, I appreciated how open-handedly he holds his case:

Certainly, the syntax does not demand the reading offered here; it may nonetheless permit it. Indeed, the primary concern of this paper has been to set out an alternative interpretative possibilitywithout necessarily asserting that this option has a higher probability than others.

Now I’m keen to re-read the birth narratives with that lens and see if other things make more or less sense!