Josephus (not Luke) Misdated Quirinius’s Census

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Excerpt John Rhoads argues in a recent article that it was Josephus, not Luke, who misdated Quirinius’s census. Jared Compton offers a brief review of Rhoads' thesis. Continue reading

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John Rhoads argues in a recent article (off-site link) that it was Josephus, not Luke, who misdated Quirinius’s census. The gist of his piece is that the Judas whom Josephus associates with a tax revolt in AD 6 (Ant. 18.4–23) is the same Judas whom Josephus says was killed a decade or so earlier by Herod the Great (Ant. 17.148–67). Rhoads offers two main arguments in support of this thesis.


First, he argues that the slightly different names given both Judases (Judas, the son of Saripheus, and Judas the Galilean) are actually two ways of referring to the same individual. Second, he argues that Judas’s tax revolt occurred during Herod’s reign, not following it. Rhoads’s arguments are a bit complicated, so I’ve tried to sort them out below. If he’s right, then many recent attempts to exonerate Luke are largely unnecessary, since Luke doesn’t need to be harmonized with Josephus. Whether or not he is right, however, is a question I’ll have to leave for another day (or, more likely, someone else).


Argument #1: Judas the son of Saripheus = Judas the Galilean.


In Ant. 17.147–67, Josephus describes the activity of Judas, the son of Saripheus, while in the parallel accounts in Wars (1.648), he’s called the son of Sepphoraeos. Alternate readings of the Antiquities account, however, lead Rhoads to conclude that the Wars account is the more accurate of the two. This suggests that Judas, the son of Saripheus/Sepphoraeos was likely the son of a well-known inhabitant of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee (cf. Ναζωραῖος in Luke 18:37)—perhaps the Galilean bandit Hezekiah, who is identified as Judas the Galilean’s father in another place (Ant. 17.269–85; cf. cf. Schürer 1:381). In short, Judas, the son of a well-known Sepphorian in Ant. 17.148–67 is, plausibly, Judas the Galilean in Ant. 18.4–23 (cf. Wars 2.118). What further adds to the plausibility of this identification is the fact that in both accounts Judas is described as a teacher, surrounded by disciples, and aided by another rabbi.


Argument #2: The tax revolt occurred during Herod’s reign.


Coponius. Rhoads argues that Josephus incorrectly assumed that Coponius’s presence, alongside Quirinius, meant that Quirinius’s census took place in AD 6, since that was when Coponius became prefect of Judea (see Ant. 18.1–23; Wars 2.117–18). The problem with this, however, was that Coponius could not have been prefect at this time since Josephus’s narrative presents him as subservient to Quirinius. Quirinius, e.g., is said to have been of consular rank, whereas Coponius, along with others who were sent with Quirinius, was of the lower, equestrian rank. Had Coponius been prefect, he would have answered only to the governor of Syria, which Quirinius was not. Quirinius, rather, is described as an assistant to the governor (a legate juridicus; governor = legati pro praetore). What’s more, Josephus says that in his administrative capacity Coponius had “dominion over the Jews,”  which would overstate his jurisdiction in AD 6, since it did not include Antipas and Philip’s territories. If Coponius was indeed active in Judea prior to his prefecture, then this probably explains the otherwise anomalous reference to his presence at the trial of Herod’s son Antipater in 5 BC (Ant. 17.134 v.l.).


Sabinus. Rhoads argues that Sabinus, who was present in Jerusalem at the time of Herod’s death, is another name for Quirinius (see Ant. 17.221, 18.1–2; Wars 2.16). Both were assistants to the governor of Syria, both were of consular rank, both were concerned with Judea’s tax revenue, and both were in charge of settling Herod’s estate. Rhoads suggests that both names may have been cognomens (i.e., an extra name—often a nickname—given to a Roman citizen), since such names were often ethnically-based. Quirinius, e.g., may have been the Roman nickname (as opposed to the Semitic Sabinus) given Publius Sulpicius, as a result of the deity associated with his Sabinian heritage (i.e., Quirinius), a heritage Rhoads infers from the fact that Quirinius was born in Lavinium, a city SW of Rome that had a significant Sabine population.


Joazar. Rhoads argues that the high priest removed immediately following Herod’s death is the high priest Joazar who was removed by Quirinius immediately following Judas’s tax revolt (see Ant. 17.164b, 206, 339b; 18.26b). Rhoads suggests that Joazar was appointed high priest by Herod after Judas’s armory raid, not after his eagle incident, as Josephus assumes. This means that Joazar was high priest during Judas’s tax revolt and eagle incident/execution, which followed. Rhoads then notes that the high priest deposed during the time of Herod’s funeral and at the behest of Judas’s followers corresponds with Josephus’s reports elsewhere of Archelaus’s removal, shortly after Herod’s death, of the high priest Joazar and with his report of Quirinius’s removal of a priest with the same name following Judas’s tax revolt. In short, Joazar was priest during Judas’s revolt against the tax administered by Coponius and Sabinus/Quirinius during the latter years of Herod’s reign.


As I noted earlier, I’ll leave off a full-scale review for the time being. I did, however, want to conclude by noting a handful of lingering questions that I suspect will need to be part of any fuller engagement of Rhoads’s thesis:


(1) Why does Josephus say Joazar was succeeded by two different persons if Joazar was appointed and deposed just once (see Ant. 17.399b and 18.26b)?


(2) If Joazar was, in fact, the priest deposed by Archelaus to satisfy his followers’ demands (Ant. 17.206), why does Josephus’s other report of this incident, which explicitly mentions Joazar, say Archelaus deposed him for “having risen-up with the partisans” (Ant. 17.339b)?


(3) Why does the catalogue of disturbances in 17.269–85 fail to mention the eagle incident, especially if, as Rhoads argues, it followed the armory raid incident?


Author's note: For another approach to the Quirinius incident, see Once More: Quirinius’s Census. And, for the historicity of another part of the nativity narrative, see Star of Wonder, Star of Light. (off-site link)


Jared Compton is an assistant professor in New Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. He received his M.Div. from DBTS in 2007 and is a Ph.D candidate in NT at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is presently writing a dissertation on Psalm 110 in Hebrews.


This article was originally posted on the DBTS blog, and has been posted here with permission.

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12/29/2012 5:28 PM #

It's an impressively constructed argument, but it is not a solution to the problem of Luke's Quirinius reference, for at least three major reasons.

First: Even if Rhoads is 100% correct in everything he posits, he has only succeeded in placing the Jesus-birth-census after Herod's death. Although Rhoads attempts to skirt this with a quick aside/footnote near the end, his actual argument depends on Quirinius 'the Sabine' coming along to dispose of "his Herod"s estate, for tax valuation purposes. Further, in that aside he takes Herod's death at 4 BC, suddenly posits Quirinius began as early as 5 BC, but cites Eusebius' date of Christ's birth as 3/2 BC. Is this all an afterthought? At any rate, if Quirinius' activity was in response to Herod's death, then Rhoads may have technically exonerated Luke at the expense of Matthew's entire infancy narrative. Surely, this was not what anyone wanted. (?)

Second: Rhoads' Judas-Judas-Judas conflation finds little similarity in the characterizations of these three different men. Apart from a willingness to die, which is not so unusual among first century nonviolent Jewish resistors, they have nothing in common. Innocent The armory-raiding Judas comes off as a roughneck with similar constituents, who collectively display no vision greater than seizing control of their own middling city, ultimately defying a Roman Legion in their obstinate desire to hold power, and being destroyed for it. (B) The rabbi Judas is presented as a Judean local whose clientelle must have been somewhat well to do, whose m.o. was inherently nonviolent and whose concern revolved around symbolic acts of upholding Torah. (C) The Gamala Judas is presented as a groundbreaking new thinker, whose philosophy was specifically anti-Roman and yet who did nothing but talk up rebellion before being taken and having his hopes nipped in their proverbial bud. Rhoads complains that Schurer has defended "activities" and Rhoads asserts he is conflating "men" instead of activities, but the actual problem is that Josephus presents completely different men.

Third: Rhoads has said nothing at all about Quirinius' larger career, or his significant wherabouts in prior and later years. Along with all the other reams of standard chronology Rhoads attempts to realign, Rhoads also needs to reassess Quirinius' prosecution of the Homanadensian War (which Syme and Levick both date to 4-3 BC, but which also probably implies preparations in late 5 BC, given that the Via Sebaste was freshly completed in 6) and to reassess Quirinius' mission advising young Gaius Caesar in Syria and Armenia (c.AD 2-4). If Rhoads can somehow reassign all that activity then Rhoads may at least succeed in presenting the single most complicated revisionist theory on Herod & Quirinius ever put forward. And that would be quite saying something. Nevertheless, at the moment Rhoads has Quirinius in Palestine in the same years when two titans of scholarship have Quirinius in Pisidia and Lycaonia. Something should have to be said about that, one way or another.

I should emphasize, in conclusion, that Rhoads' source criticism on Josephus, following Schwartz, was not only impressive but surprisingly compelling, as was his general command of the relevant material involved. Honestly, I not only felt myself almost being persuaded, I actually shocked myself by wanting at one point to find myself completely persuaded. It is indeed as rigorous a construction as Jared had promised it would be. But, for the obstacles listed above, I must reaffirm that Rhoads' tremendous effort here ultimately fails.

For any argument to move this many mountains in attempting to stamp out one molehill, it should have to be absolutely flawless in its power to convince instead of relying so much on speculative "possibility". The standard reading of Josephus on Quirinius remains, for the moment, far more convincing.

There may yet be a solution to the "problem" of Luke's Quirinius statement, but this is not it.

Bill Heroman - 12/29/2012 5:28:43 PM

1/13/2013 9:20 PM #

As to the Luke 2:2 issue, it could be possible that what we have in extant Gospel of Luke manuscripts is a dittography of "TE" in the word "PROWTE". This would change the resulting English translation from "first" to "before" (subordinating conjunction), solidifying Luke 2:2 as a parenthetical note reading "Such a census would originate before the governor of Syria was Quirinius." But how early of a manuscript deviation would we be talking about for that?

I have also read of another solution that actually ends up being an Antimereia of Hyperbaton in which "PROWTE" ("first") really does mean an emphatic "PROW" ("before").

Z. E. Kendall - 1/13/2013 9:20:26 PM

6/27/2013 3:01 PM #

In private correspondence, I've thanked Jared for his thoughtful engagement with my work.  I repeat that here.  I also want to thank Bill Heroman for his contribution.  Let me add just a few comments in response.

First, with respect to the first two of Jared's lingering questions, I will say that the various accounts accounts of the priesthood succession have defied easy reconstruction by those who have focused on this question.  My article refers to some of the relevant literature.  I hinted at my idea of an answer which I noted the semantic parallelism between the removal of the high priesthood from Matthias and the removal of the high priesthood from Joazar which Jared mentions in his second question.  I will not make it more explicit until I can take the time to dot my i's and cross my t's.

Jared's third question simply raises the issue of why one of Josephus' sources did not mention an event discussed by another of his sources.  While we can speculate, those kinds of questions reach beyond the data we have.  He could have been ignorant of it or unconcerned.  It's like asking why Luke refers to Joanna at the empty tomb while the other Gospels do not.

With respect to Bill's first concern, I apologize that I was not more clear.  Sabinus/Quirinius had been in the area for the sake of the Census prior to the death of Herod the Great.  That was the whole point of arguing that the Judas who revolted against the census was the same one who was captured and executed by Herod the Great shortly before his death.  

With respect to the date of Herod's death, my article did not take a clear position.  It simply acknowledges that according to Josephus, the Quirinius finishes the census work after he takes care Herod's estate.  As a result, the 3/2 BC date Eusebius gives for the census could legitimately refer to both the end of the census after Herod's death if one accepts the 4BC date or the start of the census before his death if one accepts the 1BC date.  I personally agree with my colleague Andy Steinmann and accept the 1BC date.

I simply disagree with Bill that the Judas's of the three accounts reflect divergent personalities and different persons.  I encourage readers to make up their own minds on this matter.

I agree with Bill that I did not address the issue of Quirinius' wider career.  I simply argued for what I consider the best construal of Josephus.  I may have some more to say on this question, but I disagree that such analysis was necessary for that article.  Instead, I believe that the proper historical approach would be to investigate the history of Quirinius' career given the likelihood that he was the figure that two of Josephus' main sources identified as Sabinus.

John Rhoads - 6/27/2013 3:01:33 PM

9/7/2013 2:03 PM #

According to Luke 2:1: Now at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. This census — the first — took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. The historian Paul Orosius precisely date the census of Augustus in the year 752 of Rome (Histories against the pagans VI:22:1; VII:3:4) or in 2 BCE.
According to Josephus: Quirinius had now liquidated the estate of Archelaus; and by this time the registrations of property that took place in the 37th  year after Caesar's defeat of Antony [= 6 CE] at Actium were complete (Jewish Antiquities XVIII:1-4,26). The first registration under Herod the Great in 2 BCE, as the census of Apamea, was made to know the number of citizens and it is not to be confused with the one implemented in Judea by Quirinius when he came in 6 CE to ensure the liquidation of property of Herod Archelaus after his disgrace, and of which  Josephus says it was followed by an evaluation of property. This two-step operation did not have the same nature, nor the same goal, or the same geographical scope as the previous one. It was conducted according to the principles of the Roman capitation and not according to Hebrew customs, and only covered the sole  Judea, not Galilee.
General censuses were performed every 5 years (= 1 lustre) as can be deduced from those reported by Cassius Dio.The census prior to the one of 4 CE, confined to Italy (Cassius Dio LV:13),was performed in 2 BCE. Two other topics linked to the first census of Quirinius are examined: Dating the war of P. Quinctilius Varus. The intervention of Varus, after Herod's death, is described as a war by Flavius Josephus and also by the Seder Olam, yet the only war mentioned in the Roman archives in this region and at that time is the one conducted by Caius Caesar in 1 CE. The career of Caius Caesar, the grand-son of Augustus, was very brief, an inscription in a cenotaph of Pisa provides his cursus honorum and mentions as the only honorary remarkable action: after the consulship which he held with good  fortune, waging a war beyond the farthest borders of the Roman people. Dating the birth of Jesus.Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata I:21:145) place the birth of Jesus 194 years before the death of Commodus (31 December 192 CE) and Tertullian (Against the Jews VIII:11:75) place it in the 41st year of the reign of Augustus [which began from the second triumvirate of October 43 BCE] and 28 years after the death of Cleopatra (29 August 30 BCE). By combining these data, the birth of Jesus must be fixed in 2 BCE in a period between 1 September and 30 October.

see: Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius

Gertoux - 9/7/2013 2:03:00 PM

9/10/2013 5:01 PM #

Greetings Gerard Gertoux and all,

The paper to which Mr. Gertoux gives us a link has good supporting documentation for his statement that it was a Roman custom to perform a general census every five years. As Mr. Gertoux acknowledges, however, various events such as a crisis in the empire could cancel or postpone a census. He presents evidence from Roman authors for censuses in 28 BC, 23 BC, 18 BC (postponed), 13 BC, and 8 BC. There is no direct Roman evidence for the exact year of the following census, which we should expect in 3 BC. A census limited to Italy occurred in AD 4, but this was 11 years, not 10, after the 8 BC census. For other reasons, Mr. Gertoux determines the “missing” census date back from this date rather than measuring forward from the 8 BC date, thus giving his 2 BC for the census that brought the holy family to Bethlehem.

If we keep open the option that this could have been in 3 BC, then we have fairly good agreement with the conclusion reached in Jack Finegan’s "Handbook of Biblical Chronology" (p. 319) and Andrew Steinmann’s "From Abraham to Paul" (p. 254), namely that Jesus was probably born in late 3 BC or early 2 BC. I would encourage others to examine Mr. Gertoux’s reasons for narrowing the date of the Nativity to between 1 September and 30 October of 2 BC.

Mr. Gertoux is therefore part of a growing consensus that dates the death of Herod the Great to sometime between the lunar eclipse of 10 January 1 BC and the Passover of that year, 89 days later. The older “Schürer consensus” followed Laurentius Suslyga (AD 1605) who placed the date of Herod’s death in 4 BC. This idea arose because of the practice of Herod’s sons of backdating their reigns to when Herod appointed them responsibilities in administration in 4 BC, although Herod did not die until 1 BC. The scholarship supporting the new consensus is quite convincing. It includes a paper written by Mr. Gertoux in 2005 entitled “Datation de la mort d’Hérode et de sa naissance,” in which he places the birth of Herod in 72/71 BC, his de jure appointment as king of Judea in 40 BC, his capture of Jerusalem thus becoming de facto king in 37 BC, and his death in January of 1 BC. These dates may be compared to those of Andrew Steinmann, “When Did Herod the Great Reign,” Novum Testamentum 51 (2009) pp. 1-29, which dates Herod’s birth to about 72 BC, his appointment by the Romans to late 39 BC, his conquering of Jerusalem to 10 Tishri 36 BC, and his death in the first quarter of 1 BC.

It is of some interest that Dr. Steinmann, while citing many other references in his paper on Herod, does not refer to Mr. Gertoux’s “Datation” paper, even though it deals with the same problems that Dr. Steinmann was addressing. But there seems to be a good reason for this: Mr. Gertoux’s paper only exists on the Web and was never published in any of the journals. This has been a characteristic of Mr. Gertoux’s work that has puzzled me from time to time when I have perused his articles: they all show considerable erudition in citing sources both ancient and modern, yet they are not published in the journals. I wondered why until I read some comments contained in the “Dating the Two Censuses” paper to which Mr. Gertoux gave a link in his entry above. He is a graduate student at the University of Lyon, and of course his native language is French. At the end of his “Two Censuses” paper he makes the following revealing comment: “According to this prestigious and powerful academic [M. Sartre]  ‘in fact all of the information [from Luke] appears unbearable (…) how Luke could be so wrong.’ ” A footnote to the word “academic” explains, “As a member of the editorial board of major journals of French history he [Sartre] is the guarantor of “orthodoxy” of articles.”

Very revealing. It explains why French Biblical scholarship has largely stagnated. Its “orthodoxy” defends the relics of the old documentary hypothesis, whose “Biblical” scholarship might better be characterized as anti-Biblical scholarship. In his footnote, Mr. Gertoux reveals the frustration that any writer who challenges the conventional wisdom will encounter, since he will not be up against the Académie as represented, and defended, by Monsieur Sartre.

Mr. Gertoux certainly has many ideas in his numerous unpublished papers that counter the ideas of the Académie. We will not agree with many of them, since he is by no means committed to our conservative estimate of the authority of God’s Word as found in the Bible. Yet in this latest paper he is offering some original research that supports Luke vs. Luke’s critics regarding the Quirinius census, which obviously will clash will Academian Sartre’s estimation of Luke. So if you’re reading this, Gerard, may I make a suggestion? Do an end run (that’s an American football term) around the academicians. Rewrite your research on the Quirnius census somewhat and submit it to a non-French journal such as Novum Testamentum. You are to be commended for writing this latest article in English. Submit it in English; the modern church thinks and communicates mostly in English. Your English is generally good, far better in comparison than if I tried to write in French, but it does have some awkward phrases and grammatical mistakes. Get someone whose native language is English to go over the final draft before you submit it. In the body of the article, interact thoroughly with John Rhoad’s article in JETS. Luke has been maligned for so long over the matter of the Quirinius census that we need to rattle the cage of those who have charged Luke with error in this matter.

There’s more to say about your thesis (two censuses) vs. that of John Rhoads (only one), but that’s enough for now. What is important is that both of you, for sometimes different reasons, firmly state that the ancient evidence is in favor of a census of the Roman empire in 3 and/or 2 BC, and the Roman official P. Sulpicius Quirinius played an important part in that census.

Yours in appreciation,
Rodger C. Young

Rodger C. Young - 9/10/2013 5:01:18 PM

9/11/2013 1:09 PM #

Unless I have misread it, Gertoux's contribution seems to simply assume, rather than to argue, that my interpretation of Josephus is false.  It is as if he were saying, "Ignoring Rhoads' assessment of Josephus, here's a way to hold together Luke, Josephus and other data.  While I certainly expect that a challenge to a scholarly consensus will typically be ignored, I find it odd that he would ignore it in a thread dedicated to its discussion.

With this in mind,  I will seek to bring his paper into conversation with my work by responding to a portion that seems to challenge my thesis.  Gertoux argues that Quirinius was Governor of Syria.  This claim is particularly bold since there is no explicit evidence that Quirinius was ever Governor of Syria.  

For the first governorship, he seems to assume that Luke's ἡγεμονεύοντος means "being governor," perhaps following Schuerer; however, both Luke and Josephus use that verb for exercising political authority with broader application.  Hugh Mason's 1974 volume, Greek Terms for Roman Institutions, would have been a helpful resource for him here.   Furthermore, this decision to introduce a Quirinius governorship into 3-1 BC causes Gertoux to divide the data from Josephus on the governorship of Varus into two distinct administrations, before and after the unmentioned governorship of Quirinius.  Furthermore, it requires the assumption that even though Josephus and his sources refer to a reaction by the Pharisees against some loyalty oath in 6 BC and the a revolt against taxation in AD 6, they are silent of any protest prompted by a Roman requirement of people to travel for registration in 3/2BC.

For the supposed second governorship, he asserts that Quirinius became governor of Syria in AD 6.  While this assertion is not unusual among those who combine the over-reading of Luke 2 with the apparent reference to arrival of Quirinius in AD 6 by Josephus, Gertoux seems to assert this governorship on the basis of Josephus alone.  However, Josephus explicitly labels Quirinius as a δικαιοδότης or legatus juridicus not legatus pro praeotore.

He then supports his assertion that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice with reference to the titulus tiburtinus saying, that Quirinius is "the only character to match all indications."  While I am not a master of the literature relating to the Titulus Tiburtinus, Syme et al have argued against Quirinius.  While Gertoux makes cogent arguments against the suggestions of Piso and Saturninus, he does not, in my opinion, fully engage the arguments of those who favor them nor their reasons for rejecting Quirinius.  He does not even cite Syme's article in which he challenges identifying the ignotus with Quirinius.

John Rhoads - 9/11/2013 1:09:17 PM

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