QUIRINIUS kwĭ rĭn’ ĭ əs (Κυρήνιος, G3256, Luke 2:2). KJV CYRENIUS, sī rē’ nĭ es. The full name is Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. Transliteration into Gr., and then transliteration into Eng. without reference to the Lat., led to the mistaken form “Cyrenius” in KJV (Luke 2:2). Quirinius was what the Romans called a “new man.” Like Cicero, he came to office and held the consulship (12 b.c.) and provincial governorships without the aid and advantage of a family tradition in politics or administration. Tacitus devoted a brief chapter to Quirinius when he recorded his death in a.d. 21. He wrote:

About the same time he [Tiberius] desired of the senate that “the decease of Sulpicius Quirinius might be celebrated by a public funeral.” Quirinius was born at Lanuvium, a muncipal town, and was nowise related to the ancient patrician family of the Sulpicii; but being a brave soldier, was for his active services rewarded with the consulship under Augustus, and soon after with a triumph, for driving the Homonadenses out of their strongholds in Cilicia; next, when the young Caius Caesar was sent to settle the affairs of Armenia, Quirinius was appointed his principal adviser, and at the same time had paid court to Tiberius, then in his retirement at Rhodes. This the emperor represented now to the senate; he extolled the kind offices of Quirinius, and branded Marcus Lollius as the author of the perverse behavior of Caius Caesar to himself, and of all the tensions between them. But the memory of Quirinius was not agreeable to the rest of the senate, by reason of the danger he brought upon Lepida, as I have before related, and his sordid meanness and overbearing conduct in the latter part of his life” (Tac. Ann. III, 48).

Quirinius was a notable soldier, with a desert campaign to his credit in Cyrene, which along with Crete he ruled as proconsul about 15 b.c. Between 12 b.c. and 2 b.c., he was engaged on a pacification project in Pisidia against the mountaineers, whom Tacitus, in the passage quoted above, described inaccurately as Cilician. Dates are vague, and for Biblical scholars are tangled with the problem of the date of the nativity. A fair statement might run as follows: The “first registration,” which took place “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2 NEB) could not have been the one to which Gamaliel referred, as reported in Acts 5:37. That registration was in a.d. 6 or 7. It therefore follows, given the customary fourteen year census cycle, that the previous enrollment was in 8 b.c. or 7 b.c.; hence the problem. Luke is clearly claiming that Quirinius conducted an earlier census in Pal. distinct from the one to which he makes reference in his second book. Consideration of this can begin with the assumption that Luke was a competent historian, careful of his facts, and not prone to unverified statements. His work generally supports such a reputation. Reference, therefore, to an earlier census taken by Quirinius in Pal. must be taken seriously. To assume such a census, while complete proof is lacking, requires no distortion of known historical facts. Luke’s claim is consistent with an extraordinary command for Quirinius in the E, between one and two decades prior to his regular governorship of Syria. It was established Rom. practice, going far back into Republican history, to appoint able officers to posts of special authority to deal with a local situation beyond the power or ability of the official within whose proper sphere it lay. Augustus was notably wary of placing too much power in the hands of the governors of those provinces that called for large military forces, and he often demonstrated a preference for special commissioners directly responsible to himself for the resolution of problems of extraordinary complexity.

According to Ronald Syme (Roman Revolution, p. 755), Quirinius was busy on the frontier problems of the Pisidian highlands between 12 b.c. and 2 b.c., though this is not to say that the subjugation of the Homonadenses, mentioned by Tacitus, required ten years of continuous campaigning. It does appear, however, that Quirinius was strategically placed for a piece of special work in the E in the middle years of this decade. It does no violence to Luke’s language, or to the known facts of history, if Quirinius was esp. commissioned at this time to supervise the Pal. census. Luke could not know that so much evidence would disappear with the lapse of time—that historians would wonder why he spoke of Quirinius as governor of Syria, when it was common knowledge that Quintilius Varus occupied that important post.

Quintilius Varus, who was governor of Syria from 7 b.c. to 4 b.c., was a man for whom Augustus may justifiably have entertained no great regard. Augustus, above all, was an able judge of men, and it was Quintilius Varus, who, in a.d. 9, reprehensibly lost three legions in the Teutoburger forest in Germany, one of the most shocking disasters to Rom. arms in the cent. Assuming that Augustus had some misgivings over the ability of Varus to handle an explosive situation, it is easy to see a reason for a special intrusion, under other direction, in the affairs of Varus’ province. A reasonable reconstruction might assume that Varus came to Syria in 7 b.c., an untried man. The census was due in Pal. in 8 or 7 b.c., and it could well be that Augustus ordered the man who had just successfully dealt with the problem of the Pisidian highlanders, to undertake the delicate task. Herod I had recently lost the favor of the emperor, and may have been temporizing about the taking of the census, a process which always enraged the difficult Jews. Quirinius’ intervention, the requisite organization, and the preparation for the census, could easily have postponed the actual date of registration to the end of 5 b.c., a reasonable date. (The matter is argued at length in Appendix Four of The Century of the New Testament, by E. M. Blaiklock.)

The picture emerges of a notable Rom., distinquished for his career of faithful service to Augustus, and perhaps for that reason earning the unpopularity at which Tacitus twice glanced. It is possible to observe his rise. Quirinius’ first wife was Appia Claudia, no undistinguished name. His second wife was Aemilia Lepida, a descendant of Sulla and Pompey, and destined bride of the young L. Caesar, untimely dead. He grew old, says Syme, “in envied opulence, the prey of designing society ladies” (Roman Revolution, p. 381). He was shrewd enough to pay discreet court to Tiberius, in exile at Rhodes, and lost nothing by such wisdom when Tiberius, in default of other heirs, succeeded Augustus. He left no heirs himself.


R. Syme, Roman Revolution, Index.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


See Chronology of the New Testament, sec. I, 1, (2); LUKE, THE GOSPEL OF, sec. 5.

Additional Material

a.d. 21). Roman imperial legate. The fixed events in his career, based on Tacitus and the interpretation of supporting Latin inscriptions, include being in 12 b.c. consul with Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus, in a.d. 2 adviser in the East to Gaius Caesar (the emperor's grandson), and in a.d. 6 the legate of Syria, succeeding Lucius Volusius Saturninus with a commission to make a tax census of the newly incorporated procuratorial Judea (cf. Luke 2:1, 2). There is identified for him also a campaign against a desert tribe while he was proconsul of Crete and Cyrene (c.15 b.c.) and the governance of Galatia some years later with a victory over the Homonadenses. To the gospel allusion the events of Acts 5:37 are compounded by the use of Josephus, whereby Quirinius's name and office have become the main obstacle in computing the year of Jesus' birth, if Herod the Great (37-4 b.c.) is involved.