Question: "Does Luke's claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem at the time of Quirinius' census match the historical record?"
Answer: Quirinius’ census has been a point of controversy among biblical scholars and skeptics for centuries. History tells us that Caesar Augustus reigned over the Roman Empire from 27 BC to AD 14 and ordered a census to be conducted during his tenure. Herod the Great reigned in Judea until 4 BC, so Jesus had to be born sometime in or before 4 BC. Luke gives us a few historical details to set the stage for the birth of Christ: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria)” (Luke 2:1–2).
Luke’s mention of Quirinius as governor of Syria during the time of Caesar’s census appears to cause a problem as history records that Quirinius held that governorship between AD 6 and 7, at least ten years after the birth of Jesus. There are at least three possibilities for how we can interpret Luke 2:2 concerning the census and Quirinius:
(1) Luke made a historical error regarding Quirinius’ census. Such a blunder would, of course, mean that Luke’s Gospel was not inspired by the Holy Spirit and would cast doubt on all the rest of Luke’s writings.
(2) The Greek word for “first” in Luke 2:2 is a form of the word protos and can be translated “before.” Thus Luke 2:2 could actually be translated, “This was the census taken before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
(3) Quirinius actually ruled Syria on two separate occasions, and there were actually two censuses taken. The “first census” mentioned in Luke 2:2 occurred during Quirinius’ first term as governor, and another during his second term. The second census is mentioned in Acts 5:37 and probably took place between AD 6 and 7 (Josephus links this census to an uprising led by Judas of Galilee). Luke was the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, and his goal was to write “an orderly account” (Luke 1:3). It seems that Luke did write a careful, orderly account: he mentions two censuses, and it was during the first one that Jesus was born. It would be unlikely for such a meticulous historian to make a blatant mistake in his timeline of events.
The Christian doctrine of the inerrancy of the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20–21) leads us to reject explanation (1). Most of the available evidence points to explanation (3) as the best perspective on Quirinius and the census. The Bible is true history, and its details are more trustworthy than the historical writings of the Romans and Josephus.