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The Birth of Jesus, Part 1

Oct 12, 2013

The last verse of Luke 1 says about John,

80 And the child continued to grow, and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

John’s ministry began when he turned thirty years of age. It is likely that he remained at home in Hebron until he grew up. Then, perhaps around the age of twenty, he went into the wilderness to live until the time of “his public appearance,” that is, the start of his actual ministry. He turned thirty around the time of Passover of 29 A.D. Some day we will have to ask him if he came to someone’s home and sat in “Elijah’s chair” at Passover that year. Inquiring minds want to know.

But Luke was anxious to write a new chapter, focusing upon the birth of Jesus. So he writes in Luke 2:1, 2,

1 Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of [hagemonyuo, “ruling or administrating his duties in”] Syria.

Quirinius conducted a second census in 6 A.D. when he was full governor of Syria. Luke must have known that, so he specifies that he is talking about his FIRST census. This earlier “census” is what brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Luke thus dates Jesus’ birth according to events that were happening in Roman history. So in order to understand Jesus’ birth, we must know something about Roman history.

Anniversary Celebrations in Rome

The people of Rome were planning a huge 750th anniversary celebration in the summer of 2 B.C. Rome was at its height of power. Augustus Caesar (whose name was Octavian) had brought stability and peace to the empire since, and it was his 25th anniversary since being awarded the title of “Augustus” in 27 B.C. In fact, our month of August is named after him, just as July was named after Julius Caesar before him.

The Roman senate enthusiastically proclaimed Augustus as Pater Patriae, “Father of the Country” on February 5, 2 B.C. in honor of his Silver Jubilee (25 years). They also decided to conduct an unusual census, decreeing that every citizen in all parts of the Roman Empire should ratify Augustus as Pater Patriae. It was to be like a vote of confidence to honor Augustus.

This was not the usual census that was taken every 17 years. A census had already been taken in 12 B.C. Another would be taken in 6 A.D. as described in the Wikipedia,

“After the banishment of the ethnarch Herod Archelaus in 6 AD, Iudaea (the conglomeration of Samaria, Judea and Idumea) came under direct Roman administration with Coponius as prefect; at the same time Quirinius was appointed Legate of Syria, with instructions to assess Iudea Province for taxation purposes. One of his first duties was to carry out a census as part of this.”

The census of 12 B.C. is far too early to be the one which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Likewise, the census of 6 A.D. is far too late, even though it took place while Quirinius was Legate of Syria. But the universal registration of all citizens that were required to ratify the senate’s decree proclaiming Augustus as Pater Patriae perfectly fits the time frame for Jesus’ birth in September of 2 B.C.


This special census was placed in the hands of Quirinius (or “Cyrenius,” KJV), Rome’s foremost expert on taxation and census-taking. The main problem was that he was not governor of Syria until 6 A.D.

The governor of Syria who was there to welcome Quirinius was Saturninus. He had been governor for just two years, having replaced Varus in 4 B.C. But Varus had been reappointed governor of Syria and was due to replace Saturninus later in 2 B.C. The problem was that neither Varus nor Saturninus wanted to miss the celebrations in Rome that summer. Saturninus wanted to leave early, but Varus would certainly not relieve him sooner than necessary. So when Quirinius arrived in Syria, it allowed Saturninus to leave early, and hence Quirinius became the acting governor of Syria, as Luke says.

Quirinius had a high enough rank to fill the position of governor, and precedent for this had already been established. But according to Roman records, Quirinius was not the actual governor of Syria at the time of Jesus’ birth. The governors of Syria in the years before and after Jesus’ birth were:

Marcus Titius              (7 B.C. and earlier)
Publius Varus              (7 or 6 B.C. to 4 B.C.)
Gaius Saturninus         (4 to 2 B.C.)
Publius Varus              (2 B.C. to 1 A.D.)
Gaius Caesar              (1 to 4 A.D.) He was Augustus’ grandson.
Lucius Saturninus       (4-5 A.D.)
Publius Quirinius         (6-12 A.D.)

We do know, however, that Quirinius was sent to Syria in March of 2 B.C. Judea at the time was a province of Syria. We also know that Luke calls Quirinius “governor,” but yet he uses the term to denote the general administration of duties, because in Luke 3:1 he refers to Pilate as “governor of Judea,” when in fact he was a Procurator.

Historical records show that Governor Saturninus was still in Syria as late as May of 2 B.C. But then there is a gap in the historical records, and nothing is known for sure until November when Varus was the governor. In the six-month historical blank space, Jesus was born. It was the only possible year in which He could have been born during an administration of Quirinius in Syria and when a census was being taken.

No doubt the census in Syria was completed by late summer, and then Quirinius turned to Judea in September. His officials went to each town in Judea, and all the people were required to return to their home towns to register their approval of Augustus Caesar. This brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem so that Jesus could be born on the evening of the feast of Trumpets (New Year’s Day), September 29, 2 B.C.

The Trip to Bethlehem

Luke 2:3-5 says (1995 updated version),

3 And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.

Joseph and Mary were not yet married, for Luke tells us that they were yet “engaged.” This indicates that Mary was still living at home with her parents in Nazareth. They apparently had decided to postpone the marriage until after the birth of Jesus. Even then, given the circumstances, it is not likely that they held a public wedding, which would only serve to draw further criticism from those who did not believe her story.

So why did Joseph bring her along on the 80-mile trip to Bethlehem in that condition? If Mary was of the house of David, why did her father not make the trip with them? Most likely he did, for it would not have been prudent for them to travel alone and unchaperoned, even if they were part of a caravan.

Mary’s father was legally allowed to represent the family in this census. If alive, he would have been required to make the same trip to Bethlehem to register. A more intriguing question is why Mary even came along on this difficult trip while she was so far along in her pregnancy.

This seems to indicate that she was in some danger if she were to be left alone with her mother at home in Nazareth. Nazareth was an ultra-conservative religious settlement of Jews who were quick to execute anyone who strayed from the “righteous” path. In fact, as we will see later, after Jesus’ first sermon upon returning from the wilderness, the men of that city wanted to cast Him off the nearby cliff (Luke 4:29).

With Mary pregnant out of wedlock, there were many, no doubt, who advocated stoning her. If her father and fiancé had left her behind, they would have had reason to worry about her safety during their absence. But God used all of these circumstances to ensure that Mary would go to Bethlehem, so that Jesus would be born there as Micah 5:2 had foretold,

2 But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be counted among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.

In the Hebrew text of this verse, counting every 49th letter from the 4th yood (י) spells Yeshua. If you read every 48th letter in the verse, it spells out the names of Mary and Joseph. It was well known among the rabbis of the first century that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, for they considered Micah 5:2 to be a messianic prophecy. The verse tells us the city (Bethlehem), the tribe (Judah), His name (Yeshua), and His earthly parents (Mary and Joseph).

To this we may add that He was born at the feast of Trumpets, at the dawn of a new year, 532 years after the Edict of Cyrus had been issued, allowing the Judeans the right to immigrate back to the land of their fathers. The number 532 is 76 x 7. As 76 is the biblical number of cleansing, it was the required number of years to provide full and complete cleansing, after the nation had been brought back from death to life.

This is part 1 of a mini-series titled "The Birth of Jesus." To view all parts, click the link below.

The Birth of Jesus

This is part 6 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Luke

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Category: Teachings

Dr. Stephen Jones

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