“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria." (Lk 2:1-2).
1. the census under Qurinius
The Gospel of Luke describes the census (or enrollment) which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem at the time of Christ's Birth. Luke states that this census occurred when Quirinius was was governor of Syria. This implies that Quirinius had authority over both Syria and Judea, at least for the purpose of the census. Luke calls this census the first under Quirinius. The second census under Quirinius was described in detail by Josephus (Ant. 18:1ff). In the early years of the first century A.D., Quirinius again had authority over Syria and Judea for the purpose of a census. A Galilean named Judas started a rebellion against this taxation. This rebellion is mentioned in Acts of the Apostles: “After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census….” (Acts 5:37).
Luke calls Quirinius "governor of Syria." Quirinius did have the title of governor of Syria at the time of the second census. But, at this earlier date, Quirinius most likely had only the role of one who governs, rather than the actual title. Similarly, Luke calls Pontius Pilate "governor of Judea" (Lk 3:1), even though Pilate had the title of procurator. Luke uses the word "governor" to mean "one who governs."
The usual date for the second census under Quirinius is A.D. 6. As a result of earlier dates for the deaths of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, as well as for the death of Herod the great, my revised date for that census is A.D. 2. If this was the date of the second census under Quirinius, when was the first census? According to Dr. E. Jerry Vardaman, the census under Caesar Augustus was taken every 17 years in the provinces (the occupied territories, including Israel). He places the first census under Quirinius in 12 B.C., 17 years before the second census of A.D. 6 (Chronos, Kairos, Christos, p. 305). My revised date for this first census would therefore be 16 B.C.
Each census was for the purpose of taxation. The census/taxation took two years to complete. From late spring of one year, through all of the next year, until spring of the third calendar year (Nikos Kokkinos, Chronos, Kairos, Christos, p. 140-141). So, in this revised chronology, the census of 16 B.C. actually began in late spring and continued until the spring of 14 B.C.
2. Microletters on the Lapis Venetus
Dr. E. Jerry Vardaman also offers archaeological evidence in support of the conclusion that the 12 B.C. census was the census of Luke 2:2. A census is mentioned on an ancient tombstone called “Lapis Venetus” (stone of Venice). The tombstone was for a Roman officer who, under orders from Quirinius, made a census of Apamea, a city in Syria. Vardaman uses microletters on the tombstone to date the tombstone itself to 10 B.C. Microletters on the tombstone also state that the census of Apamea took place in the year that Quirinius was a Roman consul:
The letter ‘L’ is the abbreviation for ‘year,’ the letter ‘A’ stands for the number one. Letters were used in ancient Greek and Latin to stand for numbers. In the Greek number system, the first letter represented the number 1, the second letter represented 2, etc. The abbreviation “CONS” stands for “consul” or “consulship.” And “P.S.QVIRINI” is the Quirinius mentioned in Luke 2:2. He is also mentioned by Josephus and by Dio, both of whom state that Quirinius was a Roman consul. The usual year given for the consulship of P.S. Quirinius is 12 B.C. Based on this and other considerations, Vardaman dates this census to 12/11 B.C. Vardaman’s discovery of this microletter inscription on the Lapis Venetus provides important archaeological evidence concerning the year of the Birth of Christ. This inscription places the census at the time of Christ’s birth beginning in the first year of the consulship of Quirinius. (See Dr. Vardaman's Lecture 1 for detailed information about the Lapis Venetus, the microletters, and the census.)
3. Revised chronology of Christ's Birth
Given the above information, and the revised dates for events in Roman history, my revised chronology places the first census under Quirinius in 16/15 B.C.
People at that time in history, as is much the same today, preferred to pay their taxes later, rather than sooner. Also, communication was difficult and slow in that time period, so that, after a census/taxation decree was issued by the government in Rome, it took many months for word of this to spread among the people, and then longer for the people to make the trip to the place of their birth.
The Gospel of Luke indicates that the city of Bethlehem was crowded at the time of Christ's Birth, since there was no room for the Holy Family at the inn, and the only place left for the Christ-Child was in a manger (Lk 2:7). It is more likely that Bethlehem would be so crowded in the second year of the taxation (the “collecting year”), when people are up against a deadline for paying their taxes. In this line of reasoning then, 15 B.C. is preferred over 16 B.C. as the year of Christ’s Birth.
For more information on this topic in Biblical chronology, see chapter 4 of the book.