Debating Quirinius with a Christian

Debating Quirinius with a Christian December 15, 2020

I had the dubious pleasure of debating a number of different aspects of the Nativity with a Christian apologist (a Cambridge astrophysics graduate and vicar) whom I had been linked to on Facebook after he had posted this:

Time for my annual Christmas challenge. Skeptics say that there are contradictions in and amongst the Gospels in relation to the nativity narratives, along with textual and historical problems. The challenge is to highlight one such problem that I can’t refute. #ComfortAndJoy

What ensued was a long and protracted couple of threads and I will concentrate on one of them today, because I was quite astounded by the apologetic techniques being used.

Unfortunately, after many hours of putting in time and effort and a whole bunch of evidence, I was either blocked and/or my comments deleted from the thread. I obviously hit close to the bone.

We had a number of things on show, bordering on the invincible ignorance fallacy and certainly circular arguments.

I spent hours providing arguments and evidence and this guy came back with consistent invocations of Danth’s Law (where you are receiving a beating, but are consistently professing to “winning” whilst belittling your opponent).

Let me just lay out one of the arguments in a very simplified and murkily-remembered form as it was late last night:

One of the contradictions I talked about was Quirinius and Herod and the 10-year gap. The Gospel of Luke has Joseph and Mary travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census ordered by Quirinius. We know that he became governor of Syria in 6 CE. The Gospel of Matthew has the same birth taking place during the reign of Herod and we know that he died in 4/5 BCE. Given that Herod didn’t do his activities at exactly the time he died, this gives us probably a 12-year gap (at least 10 years) between the two Gospel claims that are supposed to be the same event.

Having written a book dealing largely with this issue in its middle section, I was hoping for some decent and nuanced debate. What I got was pure apologetics that hadn’t seemed to regard skeptical counter-arguments at all and was operating on Christian apologetic arguments that, as far as I am concerned, have long been debunked.

His position was the classic idea that Quirinius was, in fact, a co-governor with Quintilius Varus at the time of Herod’s reign. In other words, Quirinius appeared to not only be a co-governor, but also ruled twice since he ruled in 6 CE.

This is because we know from a variety of sources, that Quirinius definitely ruled from 6 CE as governor in Syria and that he ordered a census (because the area had just come back under Roman rule as a proper Roman province after being a client kingdom for 10 years under Herod the Great’s son, Herod Archelaus, and he had done a pretty bad job of running the place).

I also laid out the fallacy at the beginning of the discussion of possibiliter ergo probabiliter, the idea that it is possible, therefore, it is probable, therefore it happened. Which is to say, if something is conceptually possible, then it can plausibly act as an explanation for a set of events. Which is to say that, if I was presented with the above contradiction, I can posit that aliens came down and put us through a time warp, or some such silly and unevidenced claim. It is conceptually possible, as in, it is not a contradiction, and therefore I extricate myself from the problem. But this really isn’t good enough.

Here’s a short list of the terminal problems with his thesis:

  1. There is no precedent or evidence anywhere in Roman history of co-governorship of a Roman province.
  2. There is no precedent or evidence anywhere in Roman history of a governor ruling twice in the same province.
  3. There is no evidence in the variety of sources that we have that Varus, ruled with a co-governor. The coinage we have has only Varus on the back and ends in 4 BCE. All the written sources detailing the governorship of Varus obviously only talk of a single governor.
  4. At the time that my interlocutor claimed Quirinius was being a co-governor, he was actually fighting elsewhere. From 12 to 1 BCE, he led a campaign against the Homanades (Homonadenses), a tribe based in the mountainous region of Galatia and Cilicia, and around 5–3 BC, probably as legate of Galatia.
  5. If, as this apologist claimed, the census took place in Herod’s reign, then there would have been a Roman (tax) census whilst the region was a client kingdom. Client kingdoms are the buffer zones on the edge of the Roman Empire that are not required to pay direct taxes to Rome. There is no precedent or evidence in Roman history that a client kingdom had a Roman census. The reason why there was the actual census in 6 CE under Quirinius was because the region was converting from a client kingdom to a fully fledged vRoman province.
  6. There is no positive evidence for a census in the region during Herod’s reign and under Varus(/Quirinius!).
  7. I could also detail all of the problems with Luke’s claims of the census requiring people to return to their ancestral homes because this adds layers and layers of problem to the apologist thesis. However, I will keep it to these terminal issues above.

In presenting the arguments above, I provided a few links here and there and excerpts from other sources. The apologist with whom I was arguing provided no links or sources to his claims and on one occasion mocked me for pasting, you know, actual evidence.. To be honest, his claims were pretty run-of-the-mill Christian apologetics 101 claims that I dealt with in my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination [UK].

In fact, his argument and evidence for his argument amounted to this, and this alone (and I paraaphrase):

I have two very good historical documents that prove my case. You want me to provide evidence? Luke is my evidence. Luke is a historical source that proves that Quirinius was co-governor with Varus.

Here is a guy who claimed to have read everything in Greek and claimed I hadn’t done enough reading myself and claimed my arguments were completely weak and claimed he was essentially whooping my historical and exegetical butt. And yet, here was a guy who was using the Gospel of Luke to prove the Gospel of Luke.

I wish I could access his comments again because he gave such an air of (pseudo-)intellectualism that ended up being pretty enraging.

Not only was he claiming, without any doubt at all, that Luke proved, with utmost confidence, that something happened that has no precedent on at least three different counts in the entirety of Roman history, and that is actually disconfirmed by coinage, Josephus, Cassius Dio and other sources (so on and so forth), but he was seeing the Gospels as something that they are not: Roman historical evidence making explicit claims and proof of the truth of themselves.

By trying to prove that there is not a contradiction between these two documents, this man was merely asserting that it was true that they were coherent.

Me: “A and B cannot be synchronous and therefore one of them must be wrong (i.e. there must be a contradiction) because the claim in A offsets the claim made in B by 12 years, and here is the evidence, D, E, F, G, H, and I, and here is the reasoning X and Y.”

Him: “A and B are synchronous because… I say so. And I know because it I can infer it from A and B with no recourse to any other sources in the world.”

It’s the fact that the Gospel of Luke doesn’t even make the explicit claim of a co-governorship and a double-governorship that gets me. It’s an inference derived from the mere assertion that Matthew and Luke must be synchronous. That is the sum total of his evidence. It is entirely circular in nature.

“It is not a contradiction because it can’t be a contradiction (because my worldview says so) because the Gospels of Matthew and Luke cannot contradict and must be synchronous. But I can’t provide any external evidence for this.”

Time and time again I demand evidence and time and time again he replies with “the Gospel of Luke”.

So after some four or five hours of bashing this out, he deletes my comments and blocks me. That’s how they roll, ladies and gentlemen, that’s how they roll.

So no, apologist, you are wrong. This is a contradiction.

[If he ever reads this and feels that I am misrepresenting him, he is welcome to present his case in fall and I will post it on my blog and then produce a counter-argument.]


At the height of pathetic disingenuousness, he is now lying on Twitter. Go figure:

So, whilst I had concocted a rebuttal that I then had to paste Onto my friend’s thread because my threads had disappeared, I deleted the threads? This guy is literally lying for Jesus, unless a third party reported my threads, because only he and I can delete my threads on his status. And I sure as heck didn’t do it.

A bit of a Twitter spat now happening.

Stay in touch! Like A Tippling Philosopher on Facebook:

A Tippling Philosopher

You can also buy me a cuppa. Or buy some of my awesome ATP merchandise! Please… It justifies me continuing to do this!

Browse Our Archives