Reading Time: 9 minutes

This is the fifth instalment in the “Debunking the Nativity” series (not including a rebuttal piece) and I will concentrate in this piece on Quirinius and Herod. These posts sit alongside my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination.

If you have watched any primary school nativity, you will have seen Mary and Joseph travel all those miles for a census (Luke) and then getting chased away to Egypt by Herod after the king had killed some innocent babies in the hunt for Jesus (Matthew). It is amazing that these two events are not reported in the other Gospel account. Why on earth would Luke not include the story of the king of the country murdering children and chasing the Messiah away to another country, where they stayed for two years? It beggars belief.

TheNativityI always, in my talks on this subject, analogise the accounts to this:

Imagine two cars (Matthew and Luke) crash together, their frames entwining in the incident. Two thousand years later, you come across the crash in a dig, and see this machine with two engines, two steering wheels and eight wheels. “Wow, cars back in those days had two steering wheels and engines, and eight wheels!” Smashing these two accounts together is problematic, and takes away from the huge differences they have.

Who knew that primary schools were theologically and historically naive!

It is a shame that the general laypeople’s view of the nativity accounts is broadly the same.

One of the biggest and most talked about contradiction of the nativity accounts concerns the dating of these two core events in each of the Gospels: the census of Quirinius and Herod.

Let us remind ourselves of the context. Luke has this to say of Quirinius (2:1-3):

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.

This seems to be a fairly explicit statement that Quirinius is alive and well, governor of Syria, and ordering a census that came directly from Rome and the Emperor Caesar Augustus. Matthew, on the other hand, claims this (2:1-4):

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

This, too, is an explicit statement that Herod was in charge of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Thus using simple logic we can deduct that, at the time of Jesus’ birth, both the census of Quirinius took place and Herod lived. However, this is extremely problematic since we know that the census took place in 6 CE and Herod died in 4 (0r 5) BCE. This is a gap of at least ten years! It is at least ten years since if Herod was alive at the time of Jesus’ birth and we know he ordered a massacre and suchlike (all of which would have taken some time), then we know he would have survived for some time around this moment and after the birth. This is quite a long period of time to have as some anomaly. On the face of it, either one or both of the Gospel authors are lying. They are simply claiming things as facts which are impossible.

Which Herod?

With regard to Matthew’s reference to Herod, it must be noted that Herod had three sons; all called Herod—Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas and Herod Philip (as well as many other sons). We are sure that Matthew was referring to Herod the Great (the father) because he later states, after the death of Herod, when Joseph and family have fled to Egypt and look to come back:

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.

This means that Matthew was definitely referring to Herod the Great being ruler during Jesus’ birth.

The Christian is left with several options: either question the date that Herod died, or that the census took place, or claim that Quirinius knocked around twice in the area, or had two censuses. I will not deal too much with the census per se in this post, as it is a huge subject. Again, refer to my book on that.


The famous contemporary Jewish historian Josephus provides much of the evidence for the timing of Herod’s death. He claims that Herod came into power in 37 BCE and that he ruled for 34 years until his death, therefore making his death in around 4 BCE. In his Jewish Antiquities Book XXVII chapter 6 he declares that shortly before he died there was a lunar eclipse. This eclipse was originally thought to be the one of 13th March 4 BCE which would put Jesus as being born before that. A lunar eclipse in 5 BCE allows more realistic time for events claimed in historian Josephus’ writing to take place and is possibly a more likely scenario. This eclipse was also total instead of partial, which the one of 4 BCE was. Some scholars now argue that the eclipse could have been later[1] and conclude that Herod actually died closer to 1 BCE, but these are in the great minority, the motivation of which seems to be to try to get Matthew out of this issue. It must be noted that eclipses were often used to signify important events and may not have been entirely accurate.

Let us look to see who was in charge of Syria at the time of Herod’s death. Josephus, again, helps us out:

… as also how our people made a sedition upon Herod’s death, while Augustus was the Roman emperor, and Quintilius Varus was in that country[2]

Josephus further verifies this with other mentions of Varus and Herod simultaneously:

Now Varus, the president of Syria, happened to be in the palace [at this juncture]; so Antipater went in to his father, and, putting on a bold face, he came near to salute him. But Herod stretched out his hands, and turned his head away from him, and cried out, “Even this is an indication of a parricide, to be desirous to get me into his arms, when he is under such heinous accusations. God confound thee, thou vile wretch; do not thou touch me, till thou hast cleared thyself of these crimes that are charged upon thee. I appoint thee a court where thou art to be judged, and this Varus, who is very seasonably here, to be thy judge…”[3]

So this tells us that Matthew cannot be right in his claim that Herod was alive at the time of Jesus’ birth since Luke claims that Quirinius was governor of Syria at the time. We know from Josephus that Quintilius Varus was governor of Syria at the time of Herod’s death.

The Accuracy of Josephus

Some Christians will call Josephus’ historical accuracy into question. For example, W.F. Albright, the famous Christian archaeologist, claimed “how inaccurate Josephus generally was in details”[4]. Josephus, though, given the context, can be described as a fairly accurate historian in many ways. His inaccuracies are most often concerned with exaggeration of numbers[5]. Some of these can be put down to copyist errors, but some scholars do try to focus on such discrepancies. In The Credibility of Josephus, Magen Broshi of the Israel Museum[6] states:

Undoubtedly, the source of much of Josephus’s accurate data was the Roman imperial commentaries, the hupomnemata, specifically mentioned by him three times in his later works…

It has not been our intention here to prove that he is always exact or correct in every statement, but to show that his data are in many instances accurate, and that they stem from reliable sources to which he had access from the very beginning of his literary career.

These references we have to Herod and Varus are not mere numbers, or even dates, in a sense. These are multiple accounts as to the fact that Varus and Herod simultaneously existed and ruled (or in Herod’s case, died). Furthermore, we also know the dates, through Roman records and other sources[7], of who the governors of Syria were. The list is as follows:

13/12 – 10/9 BCE  Marcus Titius

10/9 – 7/6 BCE      Gaius Sentius Saturninus

7/6 – 4 BCE             Publius Quintilius Varus

4 – 1 BCE Unknown, probably Lucius Calpurnius Piso[8]

1 BCE – 4 Gaius Julius Caesar Vipsanianus

4 – 5           Lucius Volusius Saturninus

6 – 12         Publius Sulpicius Quirinius

12 – 17       Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus Silanus

Thus based on this list derived from multiple accounts, we can surmise that Herod definitely ruled no later than 4 BCE. We can also use evidence of coinage for Varus’ rule which end in 4 BCE.

To further state the case, Josephus (Jewish War 1.670) has Herod’s son Archelaus ending his reign, which started at the death of his father Herod the Great’s death, after ten years of rule in 6 CE. This means that his father must have died in 4 BCE or shortly before. Archelaus’ dates are confirmed by another source, Roman historian Cassius Dio in his Roman History (55.27.6). Before it is suggested that he merely got his information off of Josephus, it is apparent that he did not use Josephus as his source since he claims that he does not know why Archelaus was deposed which he would have known if he had read Josephus (even to the point of accusing the wrong people—his brothers). He also calls him by a different name (Herod the Palestinian rather than Archelaus). If you still have any doubt, this is corroborated by Roman coinage from Judea[9].

The problem with some apologists, such as Jack Finegan in his Handbook of Biblical Chronology (1998), is that to establish a later death for Herod (such as based on a later lunar eclipse) they have to throw out all the other evidence which supports an earlier date which make it entirely unlikely and ad hoc. For example, it would mean that Varus must have had an unusually long governorship. But since we are fairly certain that Varus’ governorship ended in 4 BCE, this would be highly improbable and against known evidence. It is a dangerous pastime to try to manipulate a conclusion with known data since, though the conclusion may be desirable, the use (or brushing under the carpet) of the known data is not desirable. As Richard Carrier (2011) says:

So the case for any date earlier than 5 B.C. or later than 4 B.C. for Herod’s death is simply untenable in every respect.

Apologists such as Finegan have tried many different angles, some of which are too ad hoc and contrived to even mention here, and so I will refer you to the excellent essay of Richard Carrier’s, The Date of the Nativity in Luke, which covers multiple arguments in an emphatic and well-researched manner.

To conclude this section, it seems to be irrefutable, given the evidence, that Herod the Great died in either 4 or 5 BCE. The evidence comes from Josephus, Dio and coinage, as well as Roman records of governorship of Judea. Just taking Josephus alone, the various accounts and claims he makes are considerably interwoven with other facts. It is not good enough to simply say that he might have been inaccurate and got his dates wrong since the interconnectedness would make such a claim of inaccuracy affect a whole web of events. There would simply be no reason to throw out this positive evidence unless you have an agenda set against the implications that such a date would give. It is far more probable that, in this particular case, Josephus is correct and this is born out by further corroborated sources such as Dio and coinage.

Therefore, it is safe to say that Herod did indeed die in 4 or 5 BCE and that if Jesus was born at this time, any claims of a census coinciding with this timeframe would need some serious investigation. On the face of it, the contradiction between Luke and Matthew still clearly stands.



[1] E.g. Steinmann (2009). See Carrier (2011 6th edition) for a refutation of this position.

Steinmann, Andrew E. (2009), “When did Herod the Great reign?”, Novum Testamentum, Volume 51, Number 1, 2009 , pp. 1-29

[2] Preface of The War of the Jews, 1.9-10

[3] Ibid, 1.617 which continues to talk of dealings with the Herods and Varus up to 1.639. This is also confirmed in 2.66-80 where Varus remains in charge after the death of Herod the Great.

[4] W. F. Albright, JOR 22 (1931-32), p. 411.

Albright, William and Mann, C.S. (1971), The Anchor Bible.  Matthew, New York: Doubleday

[5] Cohen (1979) p. 233

Cohen, S.J.D. (1979), Josephus in Galilee and Rome, his Vita and Development as a Historian, Leiden: E.J. Brill

[6] The article first appeared in Journal of Jewish Studies: Essays in Honor of Yigael Yadin in 1982 by the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies and can be found at (retrieved 15/01/2012)

[7] E.g. Strabo, Velleius, Tacitus and Josephus.

[8] See Dabrowa (1998) p. 22-26 for evidence of Piso governing in 1 BCE and that Varus had finished his rule in 4 BCE. Also, see Carrier (2011, 6th Ed) for such a defence and its sources.

Dabrowa, Edward (1998), The Governors of Roman Syria from Augustus to Septimius Severus, Germany: R. Habelt

[9] See no 4954 A.M. Burnett in Roman Provincial Coinage.

Burnett, A.M. (1992), Roman Provincial Coinage, London: British Museum Press

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments