The question of Jesus’ birth date has long been scrutinized in relation to Herod’s death and Luke’s census. This article draws heavily on the research done by Andrew E. Steinmann as it relates to Herod’s death, and the governor of Syria, which coincides with the astrological phenomenon seen by the Wise Men, as well as the in-depth study by Glen Miller of A Christian Thinktank on the Syrian governor mentioned in the gospel of Luke.
Evidence for a 3 BC Date for Luke’s Census
An inscription with the oath of allegiance has been found in Paphlagonia and is clearly dated to 3 BC (Lewis & Reinhold, Roman Civilization, vol. II, pp. 34 and 35. Harper Torchbooks Edition has these words, “taken by the inhabitants of Paphlagonia and the Roman businessmen dwelling among them,” and importantly, the whole of the population were required to swear it: “The same oath was sworn by all the people in the land at the altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts”). Josephus mentioned that an oath of allegiance was demanded by Augustus about twelve or fifteen months before the death of Herod (Antiquities, XVII, 41-45). It is highly likely that the inscriptional oath found in Paphlagonia, the oath mentioned by Josephus, and the census of Luke are one and the same.
Evidence for a 1 BC Date for Herod’s Death
For numerous reasons supported by historical evidence, many scholars believe Herod died in 1 BC, rather than 4 BC. Most early Christian sources place the birth of Jesus sometime in late 3 or early 2 BC. Since Jesus was born before the death of Herod according to Matt 2:1-19, these sources imply Herod died after 4 BC. (Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 284-291, §486-500 and table 139.)
Several problems arise with regard to the commonly accepted 4 BC death: 1) The main source for determining the years of Herod’s reign, and therefore his death, is Josephus. However, Josephus contradicts himself at times, and other historians also find error in his dating, such as Appian, Dio, Filmer, Vernes, and Millar (Appian, Civil Wars 5.8.75. Sections 69-76; Dio’s Roman History; Filmer, “Reign of Herod,” 285; and Vermes and Millar in their edition of Schürer). (Similar problems arise for the date of his conquest of Jerusalem.) 2) Another alleged evidence of a 4 BC death is the reign of Herod’s sons; however, we know at least one of his sons co-ruled with him. (Josephus, War 1.625. and Josephus, War 1.631-632. 3) We know Herod died shortly after an eclipse. However, much occurred between the eclipse and Herod’s death, and there arise serious time conflicts between the limited amount of days between the eclipse that would have preceded a 4 BC death. These issues are eliminated given the greater amount of days following the eclipse that would have preceded a 1 BC Death. (For charts, a tally of days, and a detailed chronology as well as a comprehensive list of historical sources, please see When Did Herod the Great Reign? Andrew E. Steinmann. Novum Testamentum, Volume 51, Number 1.
Who was the Governor of Syria?
A Latin inscription found in 1764 about one-half mile south of the ancient villa of Quintilius Varus (at Tivoli, 20 miles east of Rome) states that the subject of the inscription had twice been ‘legate’ of Syria. This inscription, recording the career of a distinguished Roman officer, is unfortunately mutilated so that the officer’s name is missing. There are two main interpretations: one is that it refers to Quintilius Varus (which allows Quirinius to be 2nd in command and in charge of the census, as the Greek word in Luke means a variety of positions); and the other that it refers to Quirinius himself, which eliminates any further problems. Under either scenario, Quirinius could easily have been responsible for the census.
In addition, the Greek text of Luke 2:2 is as follows: haute apographe prote egeneto egemoneuontos tes Syrias Kyreniou. It is generally translated something like, “This first census came about while Quirinius was governing Syria.” It is possible, however, to translate prote not “first” but “before” or “prior.” The same word is translated in the NT as “former” by Luke in Acts 1:1. Nigel Turner, author of A Grammar of New Testament Greek, suggests that a better translation of Luke 2:2 would be, “This census was before the census taken when Quirinius was governor” (referring to the well-documented census of AD 6. See Grammatical Insights into the New Testament, 23-24). If this translation is accurate, it doesn’t make any difference who the governor of Syria was at the time.
In summary, it is possible that Jesus was born in late 3 or early 2 BC and that Herod died in March of 1 BC. As more research is done, and future archaeological evidence is discovered, hopefully Luke’s census and the visit of the Wise Men will no longer be under attack by critics, and any doubt of the gospel’s veracity pertaining to Jesus’ birth can be put to rest.
(This article is taken from Appendix B of the apologetic novel, Prophecy of the Heir).