At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped Him snugly in strips of cloth and laid Him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep.Luke 2:1–8
Now that Luke has set the scene for John and into him and his ministry he turns back to Mary and Jesus. As I stated in Bible Gem 735, Luke sets this family story in the wider context of what was happening in the wider world. This is significant both for the accuracy of what he was writing but also because Luke himself is keenly aware that this story is a story for all mankind. In this section there are two dignitaries mentioned: namely Caesar Augustus and Quirinius.
There is a wealth of material available to you free on E-Sword in terms of the historical background. What follows are some of the resources available to you through the commentaries in E-Sword.
Caesar Augustus – This was the Roman emperor. His first name was Octavianus. He was the nephew of Julius Caesar, and obtained the empire after his death. He took the name “Augustus – i. e., august,” or honorable – as a compliment to his own greatness; and from him the month “August,” which was before called “Sextilis,” received its name.
Quirinius This verse has given as much perplexity, perhaps, as any one in the New Testament. The difficulty consists in the fact that “Cyrenius,” or “Quirinius,” was not governor of Syria until 12 or 15 years after the birth of Jesus. Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. At that time “Varus” was president of Syria. Herod was succeeded by “Archelaus,” who reigned eight or nine years; and after he was removed, Judea was annexed to the province of Syria, and Cyrenius was sent as the governor (Josephus, “Ant.,” b. xvii. 5). The difficulty has been to reconcile this account with that in Luke. Various attempts have been made to do this. The one that seems most satisfactory is that proposed by Dr. Lardner. According to his view, the passage here means, “This was the “first” census of Cyrenius, governor of Syria.” It is called the “first” to distinguish it from one “afterward” taken by Cyrenius, Act_5:37. It is said to be the census taken by “Cyrenius; governor of Syria; “not that he was “then” governor, but that it was taken by him who was afterward familiarly known as governor. “Cyrenius, governor of Syria,” was the name by which the man was known when Luke wrote his gospel, and it was not improper to say that the taxing was made by Cyrenius, the governor of Syria,” though he might not have been actually governor for many years afterward. Thus, Herodian says that to Marcus “the emperor” were born several daughters and two sons,” though several of those children were born to him “before” he was emperor. Thus, it is not improper to say that General Washington saved Braddock’s army, or was engaged in the old French war, though he was not actually made “general” until many years afterward. According to this Augustus sent Cyrenius, an active, enterprising man, to take the census. At that time he was a Roman senator. Afterward, he was made governor of the same country, and received the title which Luke gives him.
Caesar Augustus – This was Caius Caesar Octavianus Augustus, who was proclaimed emperor of Rome in the 29th year before our Lord, and died a.d. 14.
Cyrenius, The next difficulty in this text is found in this verse, which may be translated, Now this first enrolment was made when Quirinus was governor of Syria.
It is easily proved, and has been proved often, that Caius Sulpicius Quirinus, the person mentioned in the text, was not governor of Syria, till ten or twelve years after the birth of our Lord.
St. Matthew says that our Lord was born in the reign of Herod, Luk_2:1, at which time Quintilius Varus was president of Syria, (Joseph. Ant. book xvii. c. 5, sect. 2), who was preceded in that office by Sentius Saturninus. Cyrenius, or Quirinus, was not sent into Syria till Archelaus was removed from the government of Judea; and Archelaus had reigned there between nine and ten years after the death of Herod; so that it is impossible that the census mentioned by the evangelist could have been made in the presidency of Quirinus.
Several learned men have produced solutions of this difficulty; and, indeed, there are various ways of solving it, which may be seen at length in Lardner, vol. i. p. 248-329. One or other of the two following appears to me to be the true meaning of the text.
- When Augustus published this decree, it is supposed that Quirinus, who was a very active man, and a person in whom the emperor confided, was sent into Syria and Judea with extraordinary powers, to make the census here mentioned; though, at that time, he was not governor of Syria, for Quintilius Varus was then president; and that when he came, ten or twelve years after, into the presidency of Syria, there was another census made, to both of which St. Luke alludes, when he says, This was the first assessment of Cyrenius, governor of Syria; for so Dr. Lardner translates the words. The passage, thus translated, does not say that this assessment was made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria, which would not have been the truth, but that this was the first assessment which Cyrenius, who was (i.e. afterwards) governor of Syria, made; for after he became governor, he made a second. Lardner defends this opinion in a very satisfactory and masterly manner. See vol. i. p. 317. etc.
- The second way of solving this difficulty is by translating the words thus: This enrolment was made Before Cyrenius was governor of Syria; or, before that of Cyrenius. This sense the word πρωτος appears to have, Joh_1:30 : ὁτι πρωτος μου ην, for he was Before me. Joh_15:18 : The world hated me Before (πρωτον) it hated you. See also 2Sa_19:43. Instead of πρωτη, some critics read προ της, This enrolment was made Before That of Cyrenius. Michaelis; and some other eminent and learned men, have been of this opinion: but their conjecture is not supported by any MS. yet discovered; nor, indeed, is there any occasion for it. As the words in the evangelist are very ambiguous, the second solution appears to me to be the best.
Caesar Augustus; second emperor of Rome; the name Caesar was common to all the emperors, as Pharaoh to the Egyptians, and afterwards Ptolemy. His name Augustus, was not his original surname, but Thurinus; and was given him, after he became Caesar, to express his grandeur, majesty, and reverence; and that by the advice of Munatius Plancus, when others would have had him called Romulus, as if he was the founder of the city of Rome (z): by him a decree was made and published,
Cyrenius, governor of Syria; or “of Cyrenius” “governor of Syria”; that is, it was the first that he was, concerned in; who not now, but afterwards was governor of Syria; and because he had been so before Luke wrote this history, and this being a title of honour, and what might distinguish him from others of that name, it is given him; for as Tertullian says (c), Sentius Saturninus was now governor of Syria, when Cyrenius was sent into Judea, to make this register, or taxing; and which is manifestly distinguished from that, which was made during his being governor of Syria, when Archelaus was banished from Judea, ten or eleven years after Herod’s death; which Josephus (d) gives an account of, and Luke refers to, in Act_5:37. Moreover, the words will bear to be rendered thus, “and this tax, or enrolment, was made before Cyrenius was governor of Syria”; πρωτη, being used for προτερα, as in Joh_1:15. This Cyrenius is the same whom the Romans call Quirinius, and Quirinus; a governor of Syria had great power in Judea, to which it was annexed, when Cyrenius was governor there. It is reported of R. Gamaliel, that he went to take a licence from a governor of Syria” (e); i.e. to intercalate the year: and Syria was in many things like to the land of Judea, particularly as to tithes, and the keeping of the seventh year.
Jamieson Fausett & Brown [JFB]:
Caesar Augustus — the first of the Roman emperors.
Cyrenius — a very perplexing verse, inasmuch as Cyrenius, or Quirinus, appears not to have been governor of Syria for about ten years after the birth of Christ, and the “taxing” under his administration was what led to the insurrection mentioned in Act_5:37. That there was a taxing, however, of the whole Roman Empire under Augustus, is now admitted by all; and candid critics, even of skeptical tendency, are ready to allow that there is not likely to be any real inaccuracy in the statement of our Evangelist. Many superior scholars would render the words thus, “This registration was previous to Cyrenius being governor of Syria” – as the word “first” is rendered in Joh_1:15; Joh_15:18. In this case, of course, the difficulty vanishes. But it is perhaps better to suppose, with others, that the registration may have been ordered with a view to the taxation, about the time of our Lord’s birth, though the taxing itself – an obnoxious measure in Palestine – was not carried out till the time of Quirinus.
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