Problem: Jesus was born before 4 BC or after 6 AD
Verses: Matthew 2:1, Luke 2:2; Status: Serious

Matthew tells us that Jesus was born before the death of King Herod, which we know from history was in 4 BC. On the other hand, Luke appears to tell us that Jesus was born while Quirinius was ruling Syria, which he started to do in 6 AD.

So the order of events is as follows:

Matthew 2:1 ... Jesus is born
Matthew 2:19 ... Herod dies in 4 BC
Luke 2:1-5 ... Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem after Quirinius becomes Syrian governer in 6 AD
Luke 2:6-7 ... Jesus is born

Translation issues

It may be possible to avoid the problem with a different translation of Luke 2:2. Here is the normal translation:

This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (ESV)

The ESV's notes give as an alternate translation:

This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria.

This could reconcile the dates, as it would mean Quirinius was not yet governor. It's worth noting that evangelical Bibles like the ESV, NASB and even the NIV see the first translation as the more probable one, and academics too say that the second translation is unlikely - because it is not the natural reading of the Greek. Alfred Plummer, in A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Luke, writes:

It is incredible that Luke, if he had meant this, should have expressed it so clumsily.

Similarly, the Oxford Bible Commentary says:

It is not, however, a natural reading of the Greek and has about it something of the air of desperation.


That Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 AD is fairly well attested. It is also well attested that he carried out a census at that time - indeed, a man called Judas of Galilee led a rebellion in protest at it; which incidentally is mentioned at Acts 5:37.

So it seems like Luke is referring to this census, and is therefore placing the birth of Jesus at around 6 AD, contradicting Matthew. However, some have suggested that nothing in Luke rules out Quirinius having ruled Syria at a previous time, and carrying out a census on that occasion as well. It seems that there is no external evidence whatsoever to support this idea, but that doesn't prove it false. This solution is probably an inerrantist's best bet.

Updated: 2009-08-24

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