IS LUKE WRONG ABOUT THE DATE OF JESUS’ BIRTH? A Case Study in How to Do Serious Evangelical Apologetics (Part 2)

IS LUKE WRONG ABOUT THE DATE OF JESUS’ BIRTH? A Case Study in How to Do Serious Evangelical Apologetics (Part 2)

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© 2015, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.


An Analysis of the Issue

When Did Herod the Great Die?

We are told repeatedly that Herod the Great died in 4 BC.[1]  Almost all reference books cite this date.  For example, the New Bible Dictionary tells us of “Herod the Great, king of the Jews 40-4 BC, born c. 73 BC[2] and The Oxford Bible Commentary states categorically that “Herod died in 4 BCE.[3]  Skeptics crow about this fact,[4] insisting that this date is “historically unassailable.[5]

Evangelicals, meanwhile, accept this date without question.  John MacArthur, commenting on Matthew 2:1, flatly states that

In the days of Herod the king.  This refers to Herod the Great … This Herod, founder of the famous line, ruled from 37-4 B.C.[6]

I. Howard Marshall, too, agrees,[7] while Sarfati speaks of

Herod the Great’s death, which occurred in 4 BC.[8]

And we have already seen that Bock and Wallace agree with this date.

Yet there is a simple and obvious question to ask, though no one seems to think to ask it, and that is: How do we know that Herod died in 4 BC?  Why does everyone accept this date without question?

In fact, there is only one ancient source that dates the death of Herod, and that is Josephus.  Yet Josephus nowhere says, “Herod died in 4 BC.[9]  Why, then, are people so sure that Herod died in 4 BC?  This date is supposedly deduced from other information given to us by Josephus.  Carrier explains:

Josephus says in Jewish Antiquities 17.191 and Jewish War 1.665 that Herod died thirty-seven years after he was proclaimed king by Rome (40 B.C., a date confirmed by Appian, BC 5.75; and Josephus agrees, with a very precise date: Jewish Antiquities 14.389, so there is no room to move here), and thirty four years after he assumed the crown (37 B.C., as Josephus himself says: Jewish Antiquities 14.487), and since Josephus accurately proceeds through the years of his reign, including several that have independent corroboration (such as “the seventeenth year” of Herod’s reign, securely placed by Josephus in 20 B.C., see 17.4), it is absurd to suggest he made any mistake greater than a single year.[10]

Furthermore, in Antiquities of the Jews 17.6.4 (= 17.167), Josephus relates an incident shortly before Herod’s death and reports that “that very night there was an eclipse of the moon,” and Schurer points out that “Only on the night of Mar. 12/13, 4 B.C. was there a lunar eclipse, and there was no such phenomenon in 3 or 2 B.C.  Accordingly the death of Herod took place between Mar 12 and Apr 11 in the year 4 B.C.[11]

With two independent lines of evidence in Josephus converging on the 4 BC date for the death of Herod, it would seem that this date is “historically unassailable” indeed.[12]  However, a closer look puts things in a rather different light.

Carrier claimed that

Josephus says in Jewish Antiquities 17.191 and Jewish War 1.665 that Herod died thirty-seven years after he was proclaimed king by Rome (40 B.C., a date confirmed by Appian, BC 5.75; and Josephus agrees, with a very precise date: Jewish Antiquities 14.389, so there is no room to move here).


First, here is what Josephus wrote in Antiquities 17.8.1 (= 17.191)

When he had done these things, he died, the fifth day after he had caused Antipater to be slain; having reigned, since he had procured Antigonus to be slain, thirty-four years, but since he had been declared king by the Romans, thirty-seven.

In Wars of the Jews 1.33.8 (=1.665), he wrote,

So Herod, having survived the slaughter of his son five days, died, having reigned thirty-four years since he had caused Antigonus to be killed, and obtained his kingdom; but thirty-seven years since he had been made king by the Romans.

It is clear that Carrier is correct that Josephus recorded that “Herod died thirty-seven years after he was proclaimed king by Rome,” but, contra Carrier, that year is not identified as being 40 BC.  Carrier claims that this was “confirmed by Appian, (BC 5.75),[13] but he is very wrong here.  The following is what Appian writes in BC 5.75:

After these events Octavian set forth on an expedition to Gaul, which was in a disturbed state, and Antony started for the war against the Parthians.  The Senate having voted to ratify all that he had done or should do, Antony again despatched his lieutenants in all directions and arranged everything else as he wished.  He set up kings here and there as he pleased, on condition of their paying a prescribed tribute: in Pontus, Darius, the son of Pharnaces and grandson of Mithridates: in Idumea and Samaria, Herod: in Pisidia, Amyntas; in a part of Cilicia, Polemon, and others in other countries.  Desiring to enrich as well as to exercise the soldiers, who were to go with him into winter quarters, he sent some of them against the Partheni, an Illyrian tribe near Epidamnus, who had been very much attached to Brutus; others against the Dardani, another Illyrian tribe, who were forever making incursions into Macedonia.  Others he ordered to remain in Epirus, in order to have them all round him, as he intended to pass the winter himself in Athens.  He sent Furnius to Africa to bring four legions, that were under the command of Sextius, for service against the Parthians.  He did not know as yet that Lepidus had deprived Sextius of the command of these troops.

As can be seen, Appian does not actually tell us the year of Herod’s appointment.  In fact, from what we see here, 40 BC is not possible.  Another Roman historian, Dio Cassius, does not mention Herod but he does describe the same events as Appian does here and dates them more clearly, and from that we can determine the date of Herod’s appointment:[14] it was 39 BC, not 40 BC.

Furthermore, historians know that the 40 BC date is impossible.  Herod traveled to Rome during midwinter and met there with his friend Antonius, who helped persuade the Senate to proclaim Herod king.  As Duane Roller points out

The midwinter context of the trip is an essential point in Josephus’s narrative, and there is no reason to doubt it … the winter of 41-40 BC is impossible, inasmuch as Antonius was away from Rome (and did not return until the middle of 40 B.C.), and the spirit of cooperation between Antonius and Octavian implicit in Herod’s visit can only reflect the situation after the triumvirs’ agreement at Brundisium and the marriage of Antonius and Octavia, events of autumn 40 B.C.  Thus Herod was in Rome in “midwinter,” as Josephus put it … Midwinter implies late in the calendar year, probably the latter part of December.[15]

After his arrival, it took some time for Herod to be named king, including the convocation of a senate (Antiquities 14.14.4), and this could not have been done in the brief time remaining in 40 BC.  So, contra Carrier’s assurances, Herod was proclaimed king in 39 BC, not 40 BC.

It is also important to note that Roller points out that

Josephus’s date of Ol. 184 [i.e. the 184th Olympiad] would mean no later than the winter of 41-40 B.C., but the consuls mentioned, Cn. Domitius Calvinus (II) and C. Asinius Pollio, are the consules ordinarii of 40 B.C.  Yet Josephus was often inconsistent about synchronisms between Olympiads and consulships … [16]

This is worth remembering when we hear people such as Carrier talking about Josephus supplying “a very precise date.[17]

Next, Josephus tells us that Herod obtained the kingship for himself when he had Antigonus killed “when Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus were consuls of Rome on the hundred eighty and fifth olympiad, on the third month, on the solemnity of the fast” (Antiquities 14.16.4), which would date the event to BC 37, as Carrier maintains.  However, the entire quote tells us that Herod obtained the kingship for himself when he had Antigonus killed

when Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus were consuls of Rome on the hundred eighty and fifth olympiad, on the third month, on the solemnity of the fast, as if a periodical revolution of calamities had returned since that which befell the Jews under Pompey; for the Jews were taken by him on the same day, and this was after twenty-seven years’ time.  (Bolding and underlining added.)

Now, Jerusalem fell to Pompey in 63 BC, and twenty-seven years after that is 36 BC, not 37 BCOnce again we see Josephus contradicting himself, and since the 37 BC date is based on the consuls and Olympiad, about which, as we’ve seen, “Josephus was often inconsistent,[18] the 36 BC date would seem to be more reliable.

Now we reach a crucial question: How did Josephus count regnal years (i.e. the years of a king’s rule)?  Ancient historians counted them either as inclusive (i.e. the year of the king’s ascension to the throne, which was only a partial year, was counted as a year), or as non-inclusive (i.e. counting beginning with the first full calendar year of the king’s reign); in the case of the beginning of Herod’s reign, inclusive counting would begin at 39 BC, whereas non-inclusive counting would begin at 38 BC.

So how did Josephus count regnal years?

Every other reign in this period, including those of the Jewish high priests, are reckoned non-inclusively by Josephus.[19]

Non-inclusively.  So the 37 years Josephus ascribes to the reign of Herod he counts from 38 BC, and it ends in 1 BC.  Not 4 BC.  1 BC.

Those who want to argue for a 4 BC date for Herod’s death have one more card to play, and that is the claim that Herod’s sons date their rule from around 4 BC. In Antiquities: 18.4.6, for example, Josephus writes,

About this time it was Philip, Herod’s brother, departed his life, in the twentieth year of the reign of Tiberius, after he had been tetrarch of Trachonitis, and Gaulonitis, and of the nation of the Bataneans also, thirty-seven years.

The twentieth year of the reign of Tiberius was AD 34, so if Philip had ruled for 37 years, he began to reign in 3 BC, not 1 BC (though not 4 BC, either).

Now, this might be a strong argument, but for the fact that in Wars of the Jews 1.32.3 Josephus records the following about Antipater, another of Herod’s sons:

Upon Herod’s saying this, he was interrupted by the confusion he was in; but ordered Nicolaus, one of his friends, to produce the evidence against Antipater.  But in the mean time Antipater lifted up his head, (for he lay on the ground before his father’s feet,) and cried out aloud, “Thou, O father, hast made my apology for me; for how can I be a parricide, whom thou thyself confessest to have always had for thy guardian? … And indeed what was there that could possibly provoke me against thee?  Could the hope of being king do it?  I was a king already.”  (Bolding and underlining added.)

If Antipater was a king already at this time, it is beyond doubt that his reign began before the death of Herod, and so the date at which Herod’s sons became king cannot be used to date the death of their father.

A careful examination of Josephus’ data, then, indicates that Herod died in 1 BC, not 4 BC, but before we continue, let us take note of something interesting raised by the issue of the beginning of the reigns of Herod’s sons.  As we have seen, we are told that Herod was proclaimed king in 40 BC and that he ruled for 37 years.  But that takes us to 3 BC, not 4 BC!  And if the beginning of the reigns of Herod’s sons are taken as the date of the death of Herod, that also takes us to 3 BC.  So why does everyone agree that Herod died in 4 BC?

The answer is the lunar eclipse that occurred shortly before the death of Herod, mentioned by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews 17.6.4.  As we have seen, there was no lunar eclipse in 3 BC.[20]  There was, however, one on the night of Mar. 12/13, 4 B.C.,[21] so scholars backdate Herod’s death to 4 BC, contrary to the rest of Josephus’ data!  It is important to note this; we are told that the data in Josephus supports a date of 4 BC for the death of Herod, but this is not true.  In fact, the data is divided, and the 4 BC date is obtained by choosing the evidence of the eclipse over the regnal numbers.  The fact that the data is thus divided should give scholars pause.

However, as we have seen, the regnal data points to a date of 1 BC for the death of Herod, not 4 BC, and there was a lunar eclipse in 1 BC; in fact, there were two of them, one on January 10 and one on December 29.[22]  So, unlike the 4 BC date, Herod’s death in 1 BC is consistent with both the astronomical and regnal data in Josephus.  It is beyond any reasonable dispute, then, that Herod died in 1 BC, not 4 BC.[23]  This, in turn, means that Jesus was born in 3-2 BC.[24]

Is this important?  First, it is makes better sense of Luke’s testimony that

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the time of the high priest Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness … Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age … (Luke 3:1-2, 23a. Bolding and underlining added.)

The “fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” is AD 29 or AD 30.  Had Herod died in 4 BC, Jesus would have been born no earlier than 5 BC, and would be 34 or 35 when He began His ministry “at about thirty years of age.”  If Herod died in 1 BC, Jesus would have been 31 or 32.[25]

Second, let us look again at Tobin’s chart of the governors of Syria.  Recall that Tobin points out that we have ancient records of the governors of Syria from 23 BC to AD 7, and there is no room in the relevant time period to insert a second (prior) governorship for Quirinius:[26]

If Herod died in 1 BC, then the “relevant time period” to insert a governorship for Quirinius is 3-2 BC, the exact time period for which the governor of Syria is unknown from any historical source.[27]  It is no longer possible to insist, as liberal skeptics do, that Quirinius could not have been governor of Syria at the time of the census because, they say, we know who was governor from other sources at the “relevant time period.

When Did Quirinius Govern Syria?

As we have seen, no evangelical scholar seems to question the claim that the historical evidence proves that Quirinius began governing Syria in AD 6, so that there is a contradiction between the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, and this contradiction remains even if Herod died in 1 BC instead of 4 BC.  And why would it occur to them to question it?  Skeptic Paul Tobin summarizes the historical evidence thus:

Quirinius’s career is relatively well documented in our primary sources.  Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome (3:22-23, 3:48), Suetonius’s Tiberius (49), Strabo’s Geography (12:6:5) and Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews (17:13:5, 18:1:1) all mention aspects of his career.  From these accounts we know that he was born sometime before 50 BCE and that he died in 22 CE.  We know that he was consul of Rome by 12 BCE.  He was in Asia Minor between 12 and 6 BCE, where he fought the war against the Homonadenses.  He was the governor of Pamphylia-Galatia between 6 to 1 BCE.  And he was serving as the advisor for Gaius Caesar for several years before 4 CE. Josephus mentioned Quirinius several times when he became governor of Syria in 6 CE (Antiquities 17:13:5, 18:1:1).  So we read of Quirinius’s career spanning twenty years from 12 BCE to 6 CE, yet not once was he mentioned as taking over the governorship of Syria at any time during the reign of Herod.

The conclusion is inescapable–Quirinius could not have been governor of Syria twice.[28]

Who would question all this?  After all, Quirinius’ career “is relatively well documented in our primary sources.”  Who would think to question Tacitus, Suetonius, Strabo, and Josephus?  Surely that AD 6 date for Quirinius beginning to govern Syria is unassailable, isn’t it?  Certainly no evangelical scholar would question it.

This, however, is a poor approach indeed.  We should never accept anything blindly but should verify everything.  And when we do set about verifying these claims, matters become very interesting.  If one looks up Tacitus’ Annals, he will find very little about Quirinius, with no specific dates, hardly anything about his political career, and nothing about him serving in Syria.[29]  Suetonius, meanwhile, says nothing whatsoever about Quirinius.  Strabo makes a brief mention of Quirinius in connection with the Homonadenses war and says nothing else about him.  So the façade that the AD 6 is well documented and historically unassailable collapses like a house of cards.  The fact is that this date is not documented in a plethora of different sources; on the contrary, it is documented in only one: Josephus.

This, of course, casts a very different light on matters.  Liberal scholars want you to believe that

Luke commits an error because he has Jesus’ birth take place while Quirinius was governing Syria, although it’s a historic fact that Quirinius didn’t govern Syria until AD 6.

However, the actual situation is not that at all; it is that Luke and Josephus disagree on when Quirinius governed SyriaLuke does not disagree with known facts of history; he only disagrees with Josephus.

Liberal skeptics, of course, want people to think that Luke disagrees with known facts of history here, and our evangelical scholars swallow it hook, line, and sinker, when in fact Luke only disagrees with Josephus.  The crucial question thus becomes: Who is more trustworthy on this matter?  Luke or Josephus?

The answer is beyond any possible dispute: Luke is by far the better historian.  Liberal scholars have certainly long assailed the reliability of Luke regarding historical matters, but all their attacks have failed. [30]  Indeed, Luke’s track record is unparalleled:

All in all, Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands without making a single error.[31]

No other Greco-Roman historian even comes close in terms of accuracy.

The great archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, who spent years in the field studying the actual sites at which the events of Acts took place, concluded that

Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect to its trustworthinessLuke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements trustworthy … this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians … Acts could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Aegean world, and that it was written with such judgment, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement … You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment.[32]

It is very much a different story in the case of Josephus.  He is not nearly as reliable as Luke.  On the contrary

Josephus’ accuracy and reliability as a historian have been challenged repeatedly.  His free interpretation of his sources and his embellishments of the biblical record … he had a habit of overstating for dramatic purposes … Josephus also had trouble with numbers, uncritically accepting and then transmitting augmented statistics … Mount Tabor, for example, tops ‘thirty stadia’ or 18,200 feet in Josephus , when in fact it is only 1,920 … At times he is inconsistent in statements made in The Jewish War when compared with those in Antiquities … The discrepancies between The Jewish War and his Vita, however, are more serious.  They include irreconcilable versions [of some events] …[33]

And, as we have already seen,

Josephus was often inconsistent about synchronisms between Olympiads and consulships …34]

But there is still more.

John H. Rhoads did a very interesting source critical analysis of Josephus’ writings,[35] analyzing the sources he used in compiling his works.  He tells us,

During the last twenty-five years, Daniel Schwartz and others have developed some fruitful insights into the historiography of Josephus which have highlighted the susceptibility of Josephus to mistaken duplications and to reporting contemporaneous events from different sources as if they happened at different times.[36]

Schwartz backs this up with a number of examples.  For example, Josephus tells of two different rebels in the time of Herod, both named Judas.  Schwartz shows that if we accept Josephus’ version that these were two different men, we’d have to believe that

  • Two insurgents against Herod were active within weeks of each other around the time of Herod’s death
  • Both were named Judas
  • Both were connected with Sepphoris
  • Both were nicknamed in connection with a famous father
  • One was executed by Herod the Great for raiding Herod’s temple, and the other waited ten years after raiding Herod’s armory to adopt the same manner and substance of teaching as the first
  • The second was opposed by the very same high priest who had opposed the earlier Judas even though this high priest was reportedly deposed twice during those ten years.[37]

It seems obvious that an erroneous duplication by Josephus is more likely than this constellation of coincidences actually having happened.  Based on this sort of analysis, Rhoads argues convincingly that

The account which Josephus tells of the census conducted by Quirinius, and the corresponding revolt by Judas the Galilean, is actually a mistaken duplication, broadly speaking, of events which occurred much earlier … The census began before Herod the Great’s death.[38]

It is beyond any possible dispute, then, that Luke is by far the superior historian to Josephus.  Josephus makes mistakes.  He is generally a good historian, but he is by no means perfect, and he is not nearly in the class of Luke, who makes not one demonstrable mistake in either of his books.

And that’s not all.  Luke was far closer in time to the events about which he is writing than was Josephus.  The Gospel According to Luke was published in AD 48,[39],[40] while Josephus’ Wars of the Jews dates to ca. AD 76-79 and his Antiquities of the Jews to ca. AD 93-94.[41]  These facts indicate strongly that Luke would have had access to better direct information than did Josephus.

We also note that the manuscript attestation for Luke’s books is far better than for Josephus’s books.  There are thousands of extant manuscripts of Luke,[42] but only a relative handful of Josephus’ writings.[43]

In light of these facts, then, whenever Luke and Josephus disagree the default assumption should be that Luke is correct.  Again, by any fair standard, when Luke and Josephus contradict each, Luke should be considered right, and the burden of proof should be on those who want to argue that Josephus is correct.  It is difficult to see how such a burden could be met.

It is hard not to conclude that Josephus is favoured over Luke by liberal scholarship only because of an inveterate bias against the New Testament.  Why so many evangelical scholars, on the other hand, simply follow along without any discernible effort to verify the claims of liberal scholarship is much more difficult to understand.[44]  Nevertheless, the facts are now clear: Luke was not wrong about the date of the census; if anyone was wrong, it was Josephus.



[1] March/April of 4 B.C, to be precise, according to Compton (op. cit.).

[2] Douglas, JD et al. Eds. New Bible Dictionary. Second Edition. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press and Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1982, p. 478

[3] The Oxford Bible Commentary, op. cit., p. 929

[4] Tobin (op. cit., p. 217), for example, insists that “It was Herod who initiated the rebuilding of the temple … He did not live to see its completion for he died in 4 BCE.”

[5] ibid., p. 345

[6] MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Study Bible. Nashville, London, Vancouver, and Melbourne: Word Publishing, 1997, p. 1394.  (Bolding his.)

[7] Marshall, op. cit., p. 51

[8] Sarfati, “Census,” op. cit.

[9] Of course he would not write it in such a way, since the BC/AD dating system would not be invented until centuries in the future.  Nevertheless, he could have dated the event precisely by linking it to the regnal years of important people, as Luke dates events in Luke 3:1.

[10] Carrier, op. cit.

[11] Filmer, W.E. “The Chronology of the Reign of Herod the Great” JTS (1966), pp. 283-298. Posted at’s%20Reign.html#_ftnref3.  Schürer did later say that there were also lunar eclipses in 5 BC and 1 BC, but that these were too early or too late to be taken into consideration, based on the other data.

[12] It is interesting, though, that Carrier (op. cit.) expends some effort to underscore how reliable Josephus is in this matter, asserting that “Josephus’ principal source for the reign of Herod in Jewish Antiquities books 14-17 (and presumably for the parallel material in the earlier Jewish War) is the Histories of Nicolaus of Damascus, a close friend of Herod, who in turn relied on first-hand knowledge and Herod’s own Memoires.[17.1]  In fact, we know Josephus consulted Herod’s Memoires directly, and “others” (tois allois) who wrote about Herod’s reign (Jewish Antiquities 15.174).  Thus, to propose that he erred in dating the king’s death by a full two years (actually three, as Finegan places his death in 1 B.C.) is incredible.”  Yet almost immediately he wants us to believe that “we cannot trust the reported coincidence of a lunar eclipse near to Herod’s death (Jewish Antiquities 17.167).  Only a partial eclipse is astronomically confirmed for March 13, 4 B.C., which makes this an unlikely candidate, and it is unclear how much time followed the event and his actual death anyway.  But that kind of claim was commonly made for great events (in this case a notorious murder) and thus is often not genuine.”  Why we should trust Josephus on one matter but not another is not clear – yet.

[13] Carrier, op. cit.

[14] Filmer, op. cit.

[15] Roller, Duane W. The Building Program of Herod the Great. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998, pp. 11-12

[16] ibid., p. 11

[17] Carrier, op. cit.

[18] Roller, op. cit., p. 11

[19] Steinmann, Andrew E. From Abraham to Paul. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011, p. 223

[20] Filmer, op. cit.. Nor was there any lunar eclipse in 2 BC.

[21] ibid.

[22] Nollet, James A. “Astronomical and Historical Evidence for Dating the Nativity in 2 BC.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 64:4 (December 2012), p. 214.  Nollett and Pratt (Pratt, John P. “Yet Another Eclipse for Herod.” The Planetarian 19:4 (December 1990), pp. 8-14, reprinted at argue for AD 1.

[23] Or possibly AD 1.

[24] We cannot know precisely how long before Herod’s death Jesus was born.  It is not known when Herod gave the command to “put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.” (Matthew 2:16b)  However, in the absence of meticulous birth certificates or definitive ways to tell the age of a young child, there can be no serious doubt but that Herod would have built a “margin of error” into his command, so that Jesus need not have been born a full two years before Herod’s command was issued.

[25] His exact age would depend on the amount of time that passed between the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

[26] Tobin, op. cit., p. 348.

[27] Any source other than the Gospel According to Luke, that is.

[28] Tobin, Paul. “The Bible and Modern Scholarship” in Loftus, John W. ed. The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010, p. 163.  (Bolding added.)

[29] For example, Tacitus records the following in Annals 3:48: “About the same time, he asked the senate to allow the death of Sulpicius Quirinius to be solemnized by a public funeral.  With the old patrician family of the Sulpicii Quirinius — who sprang from the municipality of Lanuvium — had no connection; but as an intrepid soldier and an active servant he won a consulate under the deified Augustus, and, a little later, by capturing the Homonadensian strongholds beyond the Cilician frontier, earned the insignia of triumph.  After his appointment, again, as adviser to Gaius Caesar during his command in Armenia, he had shown himself no less attentive to Tiberius, who was then residing in Rhodes.  This circumstance the emperor now disclosed in the senate, coupling a panegyric on his good offices to himself with a condemnation of Marcus Lollius, whom he accused of instigating the cross-grained and provocative attitude of Gaius Caesar.  In the rest of men, however, the memory of Quirinius awoke no enthusiasm, in view of his attempt (already noticed) to ruin Lepida, and the combination of meanness with exorbitant power which had marked his later days.”  Quirinius’ “attempt to ruin Lepida” was “already noticed” in Annals 3:22-23, in which the only additional details given about Quirinius is the statement that he was “a rich man and childless” and a mention of his “doting years, barren bed, and petty family.”

[30] For details, see Appendix 1 of Part 3 of this article.

[31] Geisler and Brooks, op. cit., p. 201

[32] Ramsay, W.M. St. Paul The Traveler, op. cit., p. 81; Ramsay, Sir W. M. The Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. London and New York and Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915, pp. 222, 85-89.  (Bolding and underlining added.)

[33] Maier, Paul L. “Introduction” in Whiston, William. Transl. The New Complete Works of Josephus. Revised and Expanded Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999, p. 14.  (Bolding added.)

[34] ibid., p. 11

[35] Rhoads, John H. “Josephus Misdated the Census of Quirinius.” JETS 54:1 (March 2011), pp. 65-87

[36] ibid., p. 67.  (Bolding and underlining added.)

[37] ibid., p. 87

[38] ibid., p. 67.  (Bolding and underlining added.)

[39] John Wenham establishes a range of dates of possible publication of the Gospel According to Luke (which range includes this date), based on internal and external Patristic evidence, in Wenham, John. Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.  The colophons found in about one hundred and fifty Family-35 manuscripts tell us that the Gospel According to Luke was “published fifteen years after the ascension of Christ” (i.e. AD 48). (Pickering, Wilbur N. The Greek New Testament According to Family 35. Lexington, KY: 2014, p. 179).  Thus there are two independent lines of evidence pointing to this early date.

[40] According to Wenham (ibid.), Acts was published in AD 62.  However, Luke was probably researching and writing it from AD 48 onwards, as indicated by the “we” passages in the book, at which points he was a participant.

[41] Maier, op. cit., pp. 10-11

[42] Andrews, Edward D. Misrepresenting Jesus: Debunking Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. Byesville, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2011, p. 466

[43] Interviewed by Lee Strobel, Bruce Metzger said, “With regard to the first-century historian Josephus, we have nine Greek manuscripts of his work The Jewish War, and these copies were written in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries.  There is a Latin translation from the fourth century and medieval Russian materials from the eleventh or twelfth century.” (Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998, p. 60)

[44] See Tors, John. “The Three-Headed Monster and the Evangelical Betrayal of the Bible: Exposing the Major Weapons Levied against the Trustworthiness of the Bible” at


Comments: 8

  1. Alan Montgomery says:

    I think you still have problems. Was Quirinius Governor of Pamphylia-Galatia, from 6 BC to 1 BC as Tobin claims?

    Also, even if Herod was appointed in 39 BC (-1 year) and his reign is counted non-inclusively (-1 year), you have only changed two years not three. Herod then died 2 BC.

    Also According to Josephus, Varus was governor of Syria after Herod’s death and yet he only reigned til 4 BC.

    I am still unconvinced by this treatment.

    Alan Montgomery

    • John Tors says:

      Thank you for your careful consideration of our article.

      Regarding your first question, as the article pointed out we have no primary source material about Quirinius that would tell us this. Tobin based his claims on Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome (3:22-23, 3:48), Suetonius’s Tiberius (49), Strabo’s Geography (12:6:5) and Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews (17:13:5, 18:1:1). As we found, however, “If one looks up Tacitus’ Annals, he will find very little about Quirinius, with no specific dates, hardly anything about his political career, and nothing about him serving in Syria. Suetonius, meanwhile, says nothing whatsoever about Quirinius. Strabo makes a brief mention of Quirinius in connection with the Homonadenses war and says nothing else about him.” So there seems to be no evidence for Tobin’s claim that Quirinius was Governor of Pamphylia-Galatia from 6 BC to 1 BC.

      On the contrary, Emil Schürer points out that “Cilicia was … also Pamphylia and Galatia were, no consular province, whereas Quirinius led the war against the Homonadensians as one who had been consul. Now, one who had been a consul was never sent to a praetorian province, which was administered by one who had been a praetor. The only conclusion then that remains is that Quirinius at the time of that war with the Homonadensians was governor of Syria. But since this governorship belongs to the period before the year A.D. 3, that is, to the period before he had been appointed counsellor to C. Caesar in Armenia, it cannot be identical with the one of A.D. 6, referred to by Josephus. The only date, therefore, that we can assign to it is the interval between Varus and C. Caesar, that is, B.C. 3-2.” (Schürer, Emil. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark (1890), pp.352-353.) It seems clear, therefore, that there is hard evidence that Quirinius was indeed governor of Syria at the time of the birth of Jesus (according to our calculation), regardless of whether he had a second governorship or, more likely, Josephus simply erred regarding a governorship starting in AD 6.

      Regarding your second point, “even if Herod was appointed in 39 BC (-1 year) and his reign is counted non-inclusively (-1 year), you have only changed two years not three. Herod then died 2 BC,” this does change only two years. But you have forgotten that, as the article pointed out, the regnal data for Herod, as commonly understood, actually points to 3 BC, not 4 BC, and was simply backdated to allow for the eclipse Josephus mentioned. So changing this by two years takes you to 1 BC, not 2 BC.

      The other, better, way to look at this is to consider the actual data in Josephus. Herod took office in 39 BC. Non-inclusive reckoning would start the count in 38 BC, and he reigned 37 years – which takes us to 1 BC.

      Finally, regarding Varus, Josephus does tell us that he was governor of Syria after Herod’s death, but he does not tell us that he reigned only until 4 BC. He does not time-stamp Varus’s reign; the assumption that he reigned only until 4 BC is based on the belief that Herod reigned until 4 BC when he died, which belief, as we have shown, is not justified. In other words, we derive no independent data from Varus’ reign, neither from Josephus nor, as far as I’ve been able to determine, any other ancient documentation.

      With these matters cleared up, perhaps you may find our treatment convincing. Let us know if we may be of further assistance.

    • Alan Montgomery says:

      Thank you for explaining the privileges of consuls. It does not imply that he became governor of Syria though except as you say on the authority of Luke.
      I have figured out the math. There is no 3rd year.
      1. Year adjustment for accession year=-1
      2. Year adjustment to agree with. Fall of Jerusalem 27 years before Herod’s conquest =36 BC. =-1
      3. 2 BC in Jewish calendar is Nisan 2 BC to Nisan 1 BC. The 11th month is January 1 BC in the Roman system. But my original point is that if the death of Herod is moved 3 years then. Varus also moves 3 years. There is now NO room to place Quirinius between Varus and Herod as you suggest in your paper.
      The new order of events is Quirinius governor , Jesus born, Varus governor and Herod’s death.
      The placement of Varus and Quirinius trade places.
      Also note that it took them 46 years to construct Herod’s temple when Jesus visited it. It was started either 20 or 19 and I think you argue 18 BC
      If 18 then Jesus visited it in 28 AD. Jesus first Passover was likely 28 BC and he started his ministry in 27 AD
      This would suggest a birth date. In 4 BC or early 3 BC. (Jewish)

      Alan Montgomery

    • John Tors says:

      Regarding your first point, it is not the case that we have only the authority of Luke (though that would be sufficient) that Quirinius became governor of Syria. As Schürer points out (p.352), “a war could not at any time be carried on except by the governor of that province in which or from which the war was being conducted.” The only province from which the war Quirinius prosecuted against the Homonadensians and which had legions was Syria, so, as Schürer says (ibid.), “the only conclusion then that remains is that Quirinius at the time of that war with the Homonadensians was governor of Syria.”

      Regarding your claim that “if the death of Herod is moved 3 years then. Varus also moves 3 years. There is now NO room to place Quirinius between Varus and Herod as you suggest in your paper,” you seem to basing this on the reconstructed list of governors that has Varus reigning from 6-4 BC and moving that block up to 4-1 BC, and on that basis you think there is “NO room to place Quirinius between Varus and Herod.”

      You do not seem to have followed what I have said. First, there is no evidence that Varus governed for three years. All we can know from Josephus is that Varus was governor before the death of Herod and continued after Herod’s death. In fact, as I pointed out, Josephus seems to indicate that Varus became governor of Syria not long before Herod’s death. That latter event having happened in 1 BC, there is plenty of room left for a governorship by Quirinius in 3-2 BC, which is what, as I’ve pointed out, is what the historical evidence shows. You need to stop viewing those speculative reconstructions about the governorships as being actual facts.

      Finally, regarding Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in John 2, you argue that this took place in AD 28 because Herod began to build the temple in 20-19 BC (I did not mention a date for this event). On the assumption that this building began in 18 BC, you project that the events of John 2 must have taken place in AD 28, since His opponents said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple.” But that assumes that forty-six years passed from the beginning of the construction to the moment at which Jesus was being addressed in John 2, and that is not so.

      What was actually said is “τεσσαράκοντα καὶ ἓξ ἔτεσιν ᾠκοδομήθη ὁ ναὸς οὗτος.” ᾠκοδομήθη is the aorist indicative passive of οἰκοδομέω (“I build”), so that the sentence translates as “This temple was built in forty-six years,” indicating the total amount of time that was taken in building it as a contrast to Jesus’ apparent promise to raise it up in three days. But it is not saying that the building period extends to the moment at which His accusers say this to Jesus, as if the building process were continuing. If they had meant that, the Greek verb would have been in the present, not aorist, as in Luke 15:29 and Acts 24:10. (See Wallace, Daniel B. “Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament.” Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan (1996), pp.519-520 for more details.)

      Accordingly, the date at which the construction of the temple began and the stipulated forty-six years this process took cannot be used to date the incident in John 2, and therefore cannot be used to discern the year of Jesus’ birth. But there is enough other evidence to set this date. I trust that your objections have now been fully answered.

  2. Alan Montgomery says:

    Now from what you claim Quirinius was governor in Syria when Jesus was born. Then Herod killed his son and died 5 days later. At this point Car is was still Gov of Syria and then Gaius Caesar
    I deduce from what you told me and your solution that G.Caesar reigned in Syria in 1 BC Varus reigned 4-1 BC and Herod died in 1 BC. Thus Jesus was born 5 BC and thus Quirinius was installed in Syria 6 BC and reigned 6-4? BC.
    You see the problem. Quirinius must reign Before Varus and your gap is After Varus.
    This is just logic. I have not changed any of your interesting conjectures.
    So I think you must go back to the drawing board. I would find your work more Christ-like if you omitted your rather harsh criticisms of others.

    • John Tors says:

      Thank you for your further input. I admit that I’m having some difficulty understanding your timeline. I’m not sure who “Car” is (although I assume you mean Quirinius), and I don’t know whence that 5 BC date for the birth of Jesus came.

      What I argued for is that Jesus was born in 3-2 BC, while Quirinius was governor of Syria and Herod was king, as Matthew and Luke say. Herod died in 1 BC, five days after executing one of his sons. There is, as I showed in my previous response, historical evidence for Quirinius governing in 3-2 BC; he was not installed in 6 BC. The only remaining objection to my proposal is the belief that Herod died in 4 BC, but, as I showed in the article, the historical evidence does not support that date, but rather that he died in 1 BC. So all of the historical and Biblical data are in agreement.

      The problem you adduce is that “Quirinius must reign before Varus and your gap is after Varus.” What is your basis for the claim that Quirinius must reign before Varus? If it is the idea that Varus ruled from 6-4 BC, we have no independent evidence for that. On the contrary, we know that Varus reigned after the death of Herod, and if Herod died in 1 BC, then Varus was certainly reigning after Quirinius. (In fact, that 4 BC date for the end of Varus’ reign seems to be based on the belief that Herod died in 4 BC, which, as we’ve seen, is incorrect.) Finally, as I showed in my previous response, we have actual historical evidence for Quirinius governing in 3-2 BC, and hard evidence trumps uncertain ideas about when Varus reigned. So it seems to me that my proposed timeline remains valid.

    • Alan Montgomery says:

      Dear Sir

      The Car name is supposed to be Varus but I was unable to change my typo after I saw it.
      My point is that Varus was the governor before and after the death of Herod. You CANNOT move the dates of Herod without simultaneously moving Varus. So when did Varus rule Syria? According to you he must have reigned until 1 BC. From when did he reign? Well he appears to have reigned for two years prior or 3-1 BC. So when did Quirinius reign? Not after 3 BC. When was Jesus born? Not after 3 BC! So I do not think there is a valid explanation here.

      I do not understand the assertion that Quirinius as a former consul “had to be” governor of Syria and not ruler of Pamphylia-Galatia? This makes no sense to me.

      Alan Montgomery

    • John Tors says:

      Your objection rests on the idea that Varus “appears to have reigned for two years.” The problem with this is that, as far as I can tell, there is no hard evidence to back up this claim. There is a good deal of ancient documentation regarding Varus’ disaster in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9, but there is nothing about his career in Syria other than what we find in Josephus, and Josephus tells us nothing about the length of Varus’ reign. Indeed, Antiquities 17.5.2 implies that Varus become governor of Syria shortly before Herod’s death (which would not, then, clash with the idea of Quirinius governing in 3-2 BC).

      Re: “I do not understand the assertion that Quirinius as a former consul “had to be” governor of Syria and not ruler of Pamphylia-Galatia? This makes no sense to me”: Think of it this way: a governor “rules” a state and a mayor “rules” a city. If one is a mayor, he does not “rule” a state and if one is a governor he does not “rule” an individual city.

      According to Schürer, in the Roman scheme of administration a “consular province” was always ruled by a former consul and a “praetorian province” was always ruled by a former praetor. Quirinius was a former consul and as such could only govern a “consular province” such as Syria. Pamphylia-Galatia was not a “consular province,” which means that Quirinius could not have been a governor there. I trust this clarifies matters.

      Now, I would like to draw your attention back to one key point that I made, regarding the reliability of Josephus. The reconstruction of the dates of the governors of Syria is based on Josephus and starts with the assumption that Herod died in 4 BC. With that being wrong, the entire reconstruction has to be revisited and cannot as is be used to overturn my proposal. And the crucial fact is, as I’ve pointed out, Luke is a much more reliable historian than Josephus, so trying to use even reconstructed data from his writings to overturn Luke’s statements seems to me to be an uphill battle at the very least.

      If you have not yet read the article by John Rhoads that I referenced (Rhoads, John H. “Josephus Misdated the Census of Quirinius.” JETS 54:1 (March 2011), pp. 65-87), it might be a good idea to do so. He goes into a much deeper analysis of the reliability of Josephus than I did. It might help clarify matters for you.

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