Recent Archaeological Discoveries About The Census Of Luke

(More Bible studies available @

It is written:

Luke 2:1-3-And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2  This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3  So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

Through the years, I have been amazed at the ways that various archaeological discoveries have confirmed and illuminated the Bible text. While some believe that archaeology disproves the historical accuracy of the Bible, the opposite is the truth.

Let me share an example with you that I have only recently become acquainted with. It deals with the census recorded in Luke 2. Through the years, skeptics of the Bible have attacked the census recorded here on three grounds. First, it was claimed that such regular censuses were not taken. Second, it was argued that people would not need to return to their hometowns in order for such an endeavor. It has been argued by some that return to a homeland was “Christian fabrication” to provide a reason for Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem. Finally, it has been argued that Quirinius was not a real person.

Notice some of the ways that archaeology has answered these charges.

“Archæological research has recently thrown much light upon the census of Quirinius mentioned in Luke 2: 1-5. The evidence has come in part from ancient records on papyri which have been dug up in Egypt, some of which are herewith translated. The following extract from a large papyrus establishes the fact that a census or an assessment-list was made in the Roman empire every fourteen years. 1. Papyrus Showing Enrolment Every Fourteen Years.[ 607] After the death of my wife Aphrodite, or, as she was called by some, Aphroditoute, having departed from the district of Herakles and Sabinos, I enrolled the other children who dwell with Mysthes who is called Ninnos, who was 33 years old, and after the others, the wife of my son Mysthes who is called Ninnos, viz.:—Zozime, freed-woman of Ptolemaios Ammoniarios, daughter of Marion Geomytha, and was 22 years old, (who was living with her mistress, in the enrolment of the 9th year; at the time of the enrolment she [Zozime] was living in the Greek quarter, but has now moved into the neighboring quarter of Apolloneios Hierax) and the children of these two, Ammonios, aged 5, and Didymos, aged 4, and Aut …….., were not otherwise enrolled in the enrolment in the first year of the Emperor Cæsar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus and the Emperor Cæsar Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus, on the thirtieth of Payni [i. e., June 24, 161 A. D.]. To Potomon, governor of the Arsinoite district of Herakles, and Asclepiades, the royal census-taker, and Agathos Daimon and Dioskoros, census-takers of the metropolis, on behalf of Mysthes who is called Ninnos, Mysthes, son of Philo, whose mother is Herais, daughter of Ammoniosone, of the citizens of the metropolis, who are enrolled from the quarter of Apolloneios Hierax: there belongs to me in the district of Ammonios 1⁄12 part of the place called Nekpherotios, in which I enroll myself and my household for the current enrolment of the 14th year according to the household enrolment, as also I enrolled myself according to the household enrolment in the 23rd year of Antoninus (i. e., 160-161 A. D.); I am also Mysthes who is also called Ninnos; the one enrolled is 59 years old, and his wife, Zozime, the freed-woman of Ammoniarios, daughter of Marion, who was enrolled in the household enrolment of the 23rd year in the same quarter, is 38 years old, and the children of those two, …….. not enrolled in the enrolments, 11 years old, and likewise Dioskoros 10 (?) years old, and likewise …….., 9 years old, and a daughter, Isidora, 8 years old: thus I make my deposition. 15th year of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Cæsar, the lord. Intercalary Mesore: (i. e., the end of August, 175 A. D.). This papyrus, dated in the year 175 A. D., is very important as it proves that the census came every fourteen years. The enrolment mentioned at the end of it was made in connection with the census of 174-175 A. D., since the document is dated in August of the year 175. The enrolment mentioned about the middle of the document was the enrolment of 160-161 A. D. That was dated in the summer of 161. The one mentioned near the beginning of the quotation as having been made in the 9th year must refer to the census of the year 146-147, and the 9th year of Antoninus Pius, which was the year 147. The proof that the census was taken every fourteen years[ 608] is of the greatest importance to our subject, as will appear below. This enrolment was made by one Mysthes Ninnos on behalf of his son, who was also called Mysthes Ninnos, the wife of the son who was a freed-woman, called Zozime, and their children, who were the grandchildren of the man making the enrolment. Mysthes Ninnos, the grandfather, had been married twice. His first wife was named Aphrodite; after her death he married Herais, the mother of the son, Mysthes Ninnos. 2. Translation Referring to an Enrolment in the Reign of Nero.[ 609] Copy of an enrolment of Ammonios and …… ios, the gymnasiarch and librarian of the public library in the city of Arsinoe, in the presence of Pa …… xineos …… Paesios, son of Myo, priest of those who are from Karanis of the district of Heracles. According to the commands through the most excellent governor, Lucius Julius Vestinus, I have enrolled today my goods which are free from debt and mortgage and lien; in the neighboring village, a third part of my father’s house and courtyard, and places cleared of abodes, two lots of a half acre each, which were bought from Mesoereus, son of Nekpherōs, in the fifth year of Nero Claudius Cæsar Augustus Germanicus, Emperor, and a house in the village, which was bought from Onnophreus, son of Peteoræpeus, in the sixth year of Nero Claudius Cæsar Augustus Germanicus, Emperor. Whatever I make from these or buy in addition I will first report as it shall occur. The date of this document, which is only a copy, is not given, but as it refers to two transactions in real estate, which were dated respectively in the 5th and 6th years of Nero, and as that monarch’s reign began in October of the year 54 A. D., it is probable that this is a copy of an enrolment made in connection with the census of 62-63 A. D. This proves that the system of taking the census once in fourteen years was in operation as early as the reign of Nero. 3. Fragment from the Reign of Tiberius.[ 610] To Eutychides and Theon, local census-takers and village census-takers, from Horion and Petosiris, priest of Isis, the most great goddess, of the temple called the Two Brothers in the city of Oxyrhynchus on the street Myrobalanos, near the Serapeum. Those who live in the house which belongs to me and my wife Tasis and to Taurius, son of Harbichis, and to Papontos, son of Nechthesorios, and to Thæchemere, in the house which is near the aforesaid temple of the Two Brothers are as follows: The papyrus at this point becomes too mutilated for further translation. The importance of this document is revealed by an examination of the names of the officers, Eutychides and Theon. Another papyrus from the same place, which contains a notice of a removal, is dated in the 6th year of the Emperor Tiberius.[ 611] As these officers were still in office when this census was taken, this must be the census of the year 20-21 A. D. 4. Enrolments Probably Inaugurated by Augustus. Another papyrus contains a list of people who were exempt from poll-tax in the 41st year of the reign of Augustus.[ 612] As the poll-tax was intimately connected with the census, it is altogether probable that the census was inaugurated by Augustus. As he became emperor in 27 B. C. and at once proceeded to organize his empire, the census may have begun early in his reign. If there was one in 20 A. D. there would be one in 6 A. D., 9-8 B. C., and possibly in 23-22 B. C. If there was not one in 23-22, that in 9-8 B. C. would be the first. This is the one to which reference is made in Luke 2: 2. If the birth of Jesus occurred at the time of this census, it must have been earlier than we usually suppose. Ramsay thinks that the taking of the census in Judah may have been delayed till 7 or 6 B. C., on account of Jewish prejudices. 5. Document Showing that People Went to Their Own Towns for Enrolment. In connection with the census of Quirinius it is stated in Luke 2: 3: “All went to enroll themselves, every one to his own city.” This has been felt by many scholars to be an improbable statement, and has been cited as an evidence of the unhistorical character of the whole story of the census in Luke. In this connection part of a papyrus discovered in Egypt, which is dated in the 7th year of the Emperor Trajan, 103-104 A. D., is of great interest. This document contains three letters. The third of the letters is the one which relates to our subject. It is as follows:[ 613] Gaius Vibius, chief prefect of Egypt. Because of the approaching census it is necessary that all those residing for any cause away from their own homes, should at once prepare to return to their own governments, in order that they may complete the family administration of the enrolment, and that the tilled lands may retain those belonging to them. Knowing that your city has need of provisions from the country, I wish ………. (At this point the papyrus becomes too fragmentary for connected translation.) It is perfectly clear that in Egypt the enrolment was done on the basis of kinship. The word rendered “family” above [συνήθη] means “kindred” in the larger sense. The phrase rendered “belonging to” [them, i. e., the tilled lands] also means “kindred.” It appears, then, that in Egypt the enrolment of each district was intended to include all the kinsmen belonging to that district, and that, lest those residing elsewhere should forget to return home for the census, proclamations were issued directing them to do so. It is well known that in many respects the customs of administration in Syria and Egypt were similar. Luke’s statement, that Joseph went up from Nazareth to Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to enroll himself with Mary (Luke 2: 4, 5), turns out to be in exact accord with the governmental regulations as we now know them from the papyri. 6. Inscription Supposed to Refer to Quirinius. A fragmentary inscription found at Rome in 1828 is thought by Mommsen and others to prove that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, and that the governorship to which Josephus refers (Antiquities, XVII, i, 1), which was coincident with the deposition of Archelaus in 6 A. D., was his second appointment. The inscription as filled out by Mommsen and others reads:[ 614] [P. Sulpicius Quirinius, consul ……….; as proconsul obtained Crete and Cyrene as a province ……….; as legate of the divine Augustus, obtaining Syria and Phœnicia he waged war with the tribe of Homonadenses who had killed Amyntas the k] ing; when he returned into the domi[ nion of the Emperor Cæsar] Augustus and the Roman people, the senate [decreed] thanksgivings [to the immortal gods] on account of the two success[ ful accomplishments] and triumphal ornaments to him; as proconsul he ob[ tained] Asia as a province; as the legate of the divine Augustus he [obtained] again Syria and Phœnicia. If this inscription were intact its evidence would be decisive, but unfortunately it is only a fragment, and the name of Quirinius is just that which has to be supplied from other inscriptions. That so eminent a scholar as Mommsen thought that this name was the one which once began the inscription is of weight, but it does not compensate for the loss of the name. 7. Inscription from Asia Minor Referring to Quirinius.[ 615] The following inscription, discovered by Prof. Ramsay and Mr. J. G. C. Anderson, of Oxford, is believed by Ramsay to prove that Quirinius was governor of Syria between 10 and 7 B. C. To Gaius Caristanius (son of Gaius of the Sergian tribe) Fronto Caesianus Juli[ us], Chief of engineers, pontifex, priest, prefect of P. Sulpicius Quirinius duumvir, prefect of M. Servilius. To him first of all men at public expense by decree of the decuriones, a statue was erected. This inscription was found at Antioch, a fortified colony in southeastern Phrygia or southern Galatia, in the year 1912. The name Caristanius connects its erection with the time of the Hamonadian war, 10-7 B. C. That Quirinius received the honor of an election to the office of honorary duumvir of the colony at this time, is held by Ramsay to prove that he had been sent to Syria as governor, and had been military commander in the war against the Hamonades. It was the benefits which accrued to the little colony of Antioch from his victories in this war, which led to the election and the erection of this statue. Ramsay, accordingly, holds that this inscription proves Quirinius to have been governor of Syria about 11-7 B. C., and this confirms the statement of Luke 2: 2, that the census at the time when Jesus was born was the first enrolment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. One objection to this theory is that from other sources (Josephus, Antiquities, XVI, x, 8; xi, 3), it appears that Sentius Saturninus was governor of Syria at this time, i. e., from 9-7 B. C., just at the time when, according to the papyri, the census should occur. This is supported by a statement of Tertullian, that Jesus was born when Saturninus was governor of Syria. To meet this objection, Ramsay supposes either that the authority of Quirinius and of Saturninus overlapped, the former being military commander and the latter civil governor, or that Quirinius ruled until about July 1st of the year 8, the census year, and Saturninus then took office. These are, however, mere possibilities. We have not yet clear information concerning these points. Later, in 6 A. D., Quirinius was sent out to Syria again (see Tacitus, Annales, III, 48), and took over as governor of Syria the kingdom of Judah on the deposition of Archelaus, and conducted the census there of 6-7 A. D. (See Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, i.) Many scholars have held that Luke confused this governorship with earlier events and was accordingly in error as to his chronology by at least ten years, but the archæological facts here collected tend to corroborate Luke’s accuracy on this point. It should be added that Luke knew that Quirinius had charge of the census in Palestine in 6 A. D., as Josephus states, for he says: “This was the first enrolment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” 8. Conclusions. It should in all candor be noted just what archæology has proved concerning this matter, and what points are still, from the archæological side, outstanding. It has proved that the census was a periodic occurrence once in fourteen years, that this system was in operation as early as 20 A. D., and that it was customary for people to go to their ancestral abodes for enrolment. It has made it probable that the census system was established by Augustus, and that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, though these last two points are not yet fully established by archaeological evidence. So far as the new material goes, however, it confirms the narrative of Luke.” (George A. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible, 360-365 (Kindle Edition); Good Press)

We have here another example of how the Bible is the proven and true Word of God. Why not today believe in Jesus Christ (John 8:24), repent of your sins (Luke 13:3), confess Jesus as the Son of God (Acts 8:37), and be buried with Christ in the waters of baptism (Romans 6:3-4)? God will add you to His church (Acts 2:47), and your new church family will be there to help you as you grow as a Christian (Hebrews 10:24-25). When you fall short as a Christian and sin, the Lord will forgive you as you turn from that sin and confess it to Him in prayer (1 John 1:9).

We stand ready to assist you.

Acts 22:16-And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: