The Christmas Story - Part 1: The Census

There are numerous discrepancies in the Christmas narrative, according to skeptics. Therefore, I wanted to do a special post and tackle some of these objections. Merry Christmas!


"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem... " ~ Matthew 2:1

"And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child." ~ Luke 2:1-5

Misconception 1: Matthew states that the census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great. But Herod died in 4 B.C. and Quirinius' census occurred during A.D. 6 soon after his reign began. Matthew, then, seems to be saying that Jesus was born around 4 B.C., but Luke suggests that He was born around A.D. 6. What to do with the large gap?

There are two possible explanations, and both are quite simple. Jerry Vardaman, an archaeologist, did extensive research on this topic. He found a coin bearing the name of Quirinius in micrographic letters. This coin puts Quirinius' reign over Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after Herod's death. This means that either there were two governors by the name of Quirinius (which is quite possible, considering the name was not uncommon) and Jesus was born and the census took place during the reign of the latter; or there was one Quirinius who reigned at two different times, covering the period of the census. 

Misconception 2: December 25 is a pagan holiday made up by the Catholic church! Jesus couldn't possibly have been born on this day, so when was He really born? Doesn't this lend credence to the whole Christmas story being a myth? The Gospels can't even agree on when Jesus was born!

While I definitely agree that December 25 is a pagan holiday issued by the Catholic Church (the Christians in those days wouldn't hear of "Christmas" because of the paganism involved), there are some who would say that it is definitely not a pagan holiday, and there are several good articles on this topic from both sides (see list of links at bottom of post).

"The Gospels can't agree on when Jesus was born" - this statement is based on no evidence, since the Gospels don't specifically say when Jesus was born -- how then could they disagree? (I am aware of the fact that many will point to Quirinius' rule as a basis for such a claim [a point which we will get into in a moment].) However, there are several clues which we can follow to answer this question, all of which are based on history.

Many scholars believe that Jesus was born in the spring (April or May) of 4 B.C. This would support what Luke says in 2:8 - "Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night." Some say that the shepherds could not have been "living out in the fields" in the dead of winter! There are others, however, who claim that shepherd and sheep can be seen out in the fields on winter night even today; I'm not entirely sure on this point. What is certain is that by using computer technology (and counting methods, i.e. ages of people listed in the OT; see The Chronology of the Old Testament), we can go back in time and figure an approximate date for the birth of Christ: most place it in the spring of 4 B.C. This was when Herod the Great was reigning! And of course, Rome ruled the ancient world in those days; this would not preclude Herod reigning over a small town like Bethlehem.

And this does not lend credence to the Christmas story being a myth. Though paganism tends to distort many simple, but true stories, this does not mean that there is no truth to the stories; and in this case, this charge does not stand to scrutiny -- there are several clues which point to its historicity (again see links at bottom of post; I will be updating this list as time goes on).

Misconception 3: The Romans were so careful to archive their history, so why does it mention the census taking place during A.D. 6 if Jesus was born in 4 B.C.?

Firstly, we must note that there is no dispute as to whether or not the census occured; the dispute is over when it happened. "...both Justin and Tertullian, another Christian apologist of a generation or two later, were sure that the census which was held about the time of our Lord's birth was recorded in the official archives of the rign of Augustus, and that anyone who took the trouble to look these archives up would find the registration of Joseph and Mary there" (noted scholar F.F. Bruce, as quoted in He Walked Among Us).

So when did this census actually take place? In Acts 5:37, we read, "After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of THE census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed." Here, Luke refers to the well-known census of A.D. 6, prefacing it with the article "the" (census). This is supported by the fact that in Luke 2:2, the passage mentioning the census which took place at Jesus birth, Luke says, "This was the first census taken while Quirinius was govenror of Syria." In other words, there was a lesser-known census before that of A.D. 6. In support of this view, the Greek text renders it, "This census, a first one, coming to pass when Quirinius is ruling/leading Syria." (Additionally, the Greek often does not insert the word "is." If we take this word and insert it directly after the word "census," we get "This census IS a first one...") Therefore, this census took place sometime between A.D. 4-5, before the well-known census. If Luke had been referring to the census of A.D. 6, he would have simply said, "This is THE census coming to pass when Quirinius was ruling Syria."

Misconception 4: How could the census have occured during the reign of Herod the Great? After all, Israel was an independent nation at that time; it didn't lose that status until A.D. 6 when Rome took over and a census was carried out.

Firstly, we must consider that the census of A.D. 6 led to revolt among the Jews (as recorded by the historian Josephus). We have no record of this occuring during the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. This coupled with what was mentioned in "Misconception 3" suggests that this census was taken BEFORE A.D. 6. It seems that this "first" census appealed to Jewish customs. After all, the Jews didn't like Romans messing with their lives, and Herod was ruling Judea. So the Romans would have had to come up with a way to satisfy the Jews without provoking a riot and while still carrying out the desired census. Their solution, then, would have been to "negotiate a census carried out under Herod's auspices and according to the Jewish practices of registration by tribes" (ibid). Thus the need for Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. This is supported by the fact that the Romans normally carried out census' based on land ownership, not township.

Additionally, Herod would have been compliant with the Romans for Josephus records that he had recently fallen from the status of "friend" of the emperor to "subject." He would have done whatever it took to regain favor with the Romans.

In fact, it would have been impossible for Mary or Joseph to travel so freely into Bethlehem after Herod's death; "in order to travel from Nazareth to Behtlehem in A.D. 6, Joseph and Mary would have had to leave Galilee, governed by Herod Antipas and travel to Judea, now under direct control of the Roman government which had just deposed Archelaus. But as professor Brindle points out, the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem 'would have taken place only if there were one central authority over Palestine -- such as only during the reign of Herod the Great.'"

Furthermore, Sir William Ramsay, the renowned archaeologist, states, "The first enrollment in Syria was made in the year 8-7 B.C., but a consideration of the situation in Syria and Palestine about that time will show that the enrollment in Herod's kingdom was probably delayed for some time later." This dates the Luke 2:2 census at approximately 6-5 B.C. -- shortly before the death of Herod. The "delay" mentioned by Ramsay was most likely do to the fact that Quirinius  had just come back from a successful military campaign. Quintilius Varus was governing Syria at this time, and after several failures on his part, Augustus ordered Quirinius to take over Syrian affairs. "The census was due in Palestine in 8 or 7 B.C., and it could well be that Augustus ordered the man who had just successfully dealt with the Pisidian highlanders, to undertak the delicate task. Herod I had recently lost 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."

"Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed." ~ Luke 1:1-4

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger." ~ Luke 2:1-16

Merry Christmas! More to come on this topic, so stay tuned!

All quotes taken from He Walked Among Us by Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson unless otherwise specified.

Some great links on Christmas to check out (list will be updated periodically):

Come Reason podcasts
(Includes some podcasts on how Christmas is not a pagan holiday)

Paul Copan: The First Christmas: Myths and Reality
(Covers various aspects of the Nativity story)

Paul Maier - date of Nativity [PDF]
(Informative ebook on the dating of the Nativity)

God Think Blog: If you Love Santa DO NOT Read This Post 
(Talks about the real Santa and how it evolved into paganism.)

The Star of Bethlehem documentary
(Watch clips from the documentary using this link)

Mikel Del Rosario: No Room in the Inn?
(Shows what an "Inn" really is in Jewish culture.)


  1. Good post.

    My memory about the history of this time is a little shaky (it's been a LONG time since I looked this stuff up!!)-- but if Jesus was born in 4 BC, and Herod died in 4 BC, how could the Bethlehem massacre have happened? Herod ordered boys 2 years of age and younger to be killed, and this declaration was after a rather extended period of time since the magi had to have come to Herod, the Jews had been asked about the birthplace, and the magi have gone off... and later, Herod learning about the magi's departure and then his orders to kill the boys. A cursory reading of the Bible would show that all these events occurred within a short period of time, but I don't think so-- travel was involved, which always took time, and then Herod ordered the killing of boys 2 years and younger for a reason. OK OK, Jesus could have been born in March of that year, and the Bethlehem innocents murdered later that year.

    Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I *think* I remember Kepler or someone else saying that Christ was probably born about 6 BC in light of Jesus' birth occurring during Herod's reign, the Bethlehem innocents, and when the star appeared in the sky. A spectacular celestial conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter occurred during that time. I say I think because I am not 100% sure, having forgotten some of my research 10, 20 years ago. It's food for thought. I do remember considering Kepler's ideas, though.

    Additionally, your information about two Quiriniuses is new to me! I had heard the scholars explain that one Quirinius ruled twice. Now they are saying there were two Qs? Do they even know? lol.

    Another speculation is that the dates could all be messed up. I dislike the BC and AD thing, because it is so difficult to keep track of things! Back then, the Romans didn't use BC and AD... I wonder if the dating would be more accurate if the data referred directly to the times detailed by the Romans and others, such as Luke, at that era.

    Anyway, I can't say I am completely convinced yet WHEN Jesus was born. It could have been 4 BC (which is more probable than the 6AD), or perhaps earlier.

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    Those are some good questions you raised... I'll look into them, as I'm planning on tackling some of it in Part 2. Have you heard of a book entitled "The Chronology of the Old Testament"? It's written by a man named Floyd Nolsen Jones, and he spent years of research on the dating of Biblical events. In his analysis, he shows very precisely -- based on his work and others -- when he believes that Jesus was born and when He died... I'm fairly certain it was 4 B.C., but I'll double check. If you want to look into purchasing that book, I highly recommend it; there is some excellent material contained in its pages.

    God bless,
    Miss S.


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