Nativity, Census, Quirinius: Refuting Very Poor Christian Apologetics Again. Even More.

Nativity, Census, Quirinius: Refuting Very Poor Christian Apologetics Again. Even More. December 16, 2020

As I explained yesterday (perhaps read it for context), I was linked to a vicar apologist challenge for skeptics to lay out a Nativity contradiction. It went like this:

I was linked into some challenge from a vicar apologist who was seeking skeptic challengers to find nativity contradictions that he could slam dunk refute (by Dave M.). I obliged, got into a six hour debate on Facebook with him. He deleted my threads and blocked me. I then obliged on Twitter. He blocked me. He then blocked Dave too.

Utterly pathetic.

“I challenge anyone to illustrate X!”

Someone steps up to illustrate X.

*apologist blocks person who accepts challenge to illustrate X because he illustrates X*

Yes, this Christian, who was really seeking to be challenged, closed down the debate as soon as he was challenged. Well, a few friends on Facebook, where I posted the above, took to screengrabbing his continued posts against me, even though I couldn’t respond as I was blocked. Before I post them, let me tell you that he debated Bart Ehrman on BE’s blog last year; a debate that this Matthew Firth claimed to me he won. Well, not according to the (admittedly pro-Ehrman) commenters. I present just a couple of these as they reflect exactly the approach Firth took with our 6-hour online debate.

This one is key:

I believe Ehrman won. First is always the standard of not what is POSSIBLE but MOST LIKELY. Bart’s arguments appeared to be more technically factual. For instance, why accept an argument that requires an unusual interpretation of Greek over one supported with many examples? It might be true, but there is no reason to come up with a unique interpretation unless trying to make a predetermined outcome. And what is the likely hood of so many consecutive generations having unique marriages to make the genealogy work?

Granted some claimed contradictions have “reasonable” potential explanations due to culture, language use, etc. But many explanations require accepting unlikely possibilities. Even just mathematically, a lot of even 10% possible solutions multiplies out to extremely unlikely that the Bible has no contradictions.

Because it shows his reliance on the possibiliter ergo probabiliter fallacy I often discuss people like Firth using, such that if something is conceptually possible, it is interpreted as most probable, and therefore actually happened. “Aliens did it” is conceptually possible, but we don’t allow this to explain things in history because it has vanishingly low probabilities. Watch out for this later.


In my opinion you won the debate and I don’t say that because I am heavily biased towards you. You poked holes in Mr. Firth’s arguments and his attempts to squeeze a period of 40 days into a virtually non-existent space between two verses seemed like grasping at straws. The rest was even more far-fetched.


I enjoyed the debate and got my money’s worth. I know my biases and knew that the Reverend wouldn’t change them but I am very interested in how apologists construct their defense of inerrancy. In that regard, he did not disappoint! Without evidence, all he can do is construct possibilities of which they were pretty much beyond reason. They aren’t beyond his faith and, to me, that is really sad. How would his faith suffer if he admitted contradictions? What would he have to leave behind? Is he really so fearful of becoming atheist? Well never know because he just won’t admit them…even though he has to have Levirite marriages all over the place.

I got what I wanted…an apologist trying to rationalize the irrational with a creative imagination and the convictions of his faith!

You get the picture.

Well, I had all of my comments deleted by him (and then this honest vicar accused me of deleting 6 hours of my own work! Liars for Jesus, eh!), so the best I can do is post some screengrabs a few friends did:


I did explain a little of this yesterday. What Firth does here is make a startlingly big inference. Nowhere in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew does it say that Quirinius co-governed Syria with another governor. This has never happened in the history of the Roman Empire. Nowhere does it say Quirinius ruled twice (in order to have the attested census of 6 CE and be ruling at the time of Herod). This never happened in the history of the Roman Empire. This is an inference derived from the conclusion started with that the Gospels can not be contradictory or wrong.

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. This is evidence against his position.

But it’s worse because there is no attestation to a census at the time of Herod. Anywhere. Nor can there be, because Herod ruled a semi-autonomous client kingdom, and there is no attestation anywhere in the history of the Roman Empire to client kingdoms having Roman censuses, because they didn’t pay Roman tax (but an annual tribute from Herod).

Does Firth not see his problem? There is no positive evidence for a co-governorship and double ruling and a client kingdom having Roman tax census. Not only is this not attested to in and of itself (either in the Gospels as an explicit claim, or in any extra-biblical sources as an explicit claim), it is not attested to in principle outside of this case either because this sort of thing never happened, and, indeed, couldn’t happen (as a client kingdom having a Roman census).

Double ruling, co-governorship

To his point 1) – no, no there are no reasonable ways of explaining this. He would need to actually, you know, do this rather than assert it.

We know that Quintilius Varus was in charge from 7 BCE until the death of Herod (4 BCE). The sources for this are Tacitus, Velleius and Josephus as well as coinage.[1] It might be wise to refer back to the list of Roman governors in the previous section. Thus, on the face of it, the governors are well attested, and Quirinius fits in at 6 CE. The position of governor could only be given to people who had held the political title of consul—two were elected to this political office in the Republic each year. Quirinius was a consul in 12 BCE and thus he could not have served as governor in Syria before that. Therefore, to fit Quirinius in around this time means massaging Jesus’ timeline and playing around with the governorship of Marcus Titius (13-10 BCE). The main problem for Quirinius having an earlier governorship is that it is simply not attested anywhere. There is no evidence for it.

As mentioned, more devastating for the double ruling theory is that in no province anywhere in the Roman Empire, and at no time in Roman history, did any governor ever serve twice. It is remarkably ad hoc to suggest that Quirinius served twice just to fit the census timeframe in with the life of Herod! In Tacitus’ Annals (3:48), the historian gives an obituary for Quirinius and yet this is not mentioned there.

For Christians to hold such an improbable theory they must be able to bring something to the evidentiary table or stand accused of inventing theories to fit conclusions with no basis whatsoever.

Furthermore, we also know the dates, through Roman records and other sources,[1] of who the governors of Syria were. The list is as follows:

  • 13/12 – 10/9 BCE Marcus Titius
  • 10/9 – 7/6 BCE     Gaius Sentius Saturninus
  • 7/6 – 4 BCE           Publius Quintilius Varus
  •  4 – 1 BCE Unknown, probably Lucius Calpurnius Piso[2]
  • 1 BCE – 4 Gaius Julius Caesar Vipsanianus
  • 4 – 5         Lucius Volusius Saturninus
  • 6 – 12       Publius Sulpicius Quirinius
  • 12 – 17      Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus Silanus

Thus, based on this list derived from multiple accounts, we can surmise that Herod definitely ruled no later than 4 BCE. We can also use evidence of coinage for Varus’ rule that end in 4 BCE.

To further state the case, Josephus (Jewish War 1.670) has Herod’s son Archelaus ending his reign, which started at the death of his father Herod the Great’s death, after ten years of rule in 6 CE. This means that his father must have died in 4 BCE or shortly before. Archelaus’ dates are confirmed by another source, Roman historian Cassius Dio in his Roman History (55.27.6). Before it is suggested that he merely got his information off of Josephus, it is apparent that he did not use Josephus as his source since he claims that he does not know why Archelaus was deposed, which he would have known if he had read Josephus (even to the point of accusing the wrong people—his brothers). He also calls him by a different name (Herod the Palestinian rather than Archelaus). If you still have any doubt, this is corroborated by Roman coinage from Judea.[3]

Firth’s claims of “Luke’s magisterial grasp of history” is hilarious. Goodness, this needs to be laid out and not just asserted. I would refer him to Richard Carrier’s quite brilliant evisceration of this position in Not the Impossible Faith that shows that this claim from Firth is misguided Christian wishful thinking and nothing more.

The next key point of Christian disingenuous arguing is “co-regency was common in the ancient world”. I’m sure you have noticed the issue here. He moves the goalposts by going from “Roman provincial governorship” to “the ancient world” in some nebulous assertion bait and switch. He changes the word from “governor” to “regency” – this is dishonest apologetics at its finest. We are mnopt talking about co-ruling kings (for which he does nothing to show this atually was “common” anyway!). I need say no more on this, for we are talking about Roman governors, and it was not only not common, it never happened as far as we can tell. Ever.


But inscriptions! he claims. There is evidence of co-governorship from inscriptions! he claims. This is another apologist 101 Quirinius claim, and centres around the Lapis Tiburtinus:

Often,[4] reference is made to an inscription named Lapis Tiburtinus, which is part of a funeral stone found near Rome, to support a double ruling of either Quirinius or Varus, depending on the theory. The Vatican Museum now displays it, guessing at the missing parts. All that is known of it is that it was created some time after 14 CE and the death of Augustus. The translation of the inscription is as follows:


For those thinking this refers to Quirinius, it does not mention his name at all, or even the then Emperor Tiberius. This alone seems terminal for the theory. We know of no second victory that Quirinius had succeeded in winning against a king, which is more striking, as Richard Carrier says, “especially since a “victory celebration” was a big deal–involving several festal days of public thanksgiving at the command of the emperor.”[5] Furthermore, Quirinius was not known to have governed Asia. Piso, on the other hand, did, as well as defeating Thracian kings twice. He may well have also governed Asia and had at least one victory celebration as alluded to in the inscription. As a result, this epitaph is highly unlikely to have belonged to Quirinius, and could well have belonged to the likes of Lucius Calpurnius Piso instead. As Carrier concludes:

Even more importantly, this inscription does not really say that the governorship of Syria was held twice, only that a second legateship was held, and that the second post happened to be in Syria. From what remains of the stone, it seems fairly obvious that the first post was the proconsulate of Asia. This means that even if this is the career of Quirinius, all it proves is that he was once the governor of Syria.[6]

For an incredibly convoluted and contrived chronology by a Christian apologist, see Ernest L. Martin’s The Star that Astonished the World (1991) where all known dates seem to have been massaged into a chronology that fits all the claims of the Bible with some rather ad hoc theorising, including the double governorship of Quintilius Varus, which lends itself to said theorising. The same problem exists: no person is known to have governed a province twice, and there is no evidence (other than an ad hoc appeal to the Lapis Tiburtinus and its missing words) to support Varus, let alone Quirinius serving in this position twice. As Christian apologist Charles Foster (2007, p.36) himself says:

Christian apologists often assert, with astonishing confidence, that there was more than one Quirinius, or that if there was one, that he was governor of Syria more than once… This smacks of desperation, and requires some highly imaginative handling of the evidence.

Is this “perfectly possible as a solution”? No, not really. Possibiliter ergo probabiliter. To get this to be evidence for co-governoship, you would have to really, really want it to be true to the point of doing a hatchet-job on your “evidence”.

But this just shows my fundamental lack of “inquisitiveness” because my mind should be so open that my brain falls out, apparently…

Greek for governor

His claim that Luke’s claim that Quirinius was “governor” could mean a “non-governor role” before his attested governorship in 6 CE, such as a procurator. Several issues stick out like a very sore, incongruously placed thumb here. Carrier sums it up well:

Could Luke mean that Quirinius was prefect of Syria under a superior official? Besides the fact that it is illogical to name the second in command rather than the actual governor, Quirinius had been a Senator of consular rank since 12 B.C. and thus could never have been a prefect, who had to be of equestrian rank (see Two Last Ditch Attempts below). It simply makes far more sense to read Luke as saying just what he says, rather than trying to lap on layers of undemonstrable and implausible hypotheses grounded in nothing but fantasy. The likely fact that Luke is borrowing from Josephus further undermines all such attempts at a solution (cf. Luke and Josephus)….

(1) Finegan’s response to the first conundrum is that Quirinius was actually prefect or procurator of Syria in 2 B.C. (§ 522), not an actual governor. But that is definitely impossible: those were offices held only by knights (men of the equestrian class), never by senators, much less senators of the most prestigious consular rank, and Quirinius had been of consular rank since 12 B.C. This mistake is similar to that made by those who want Quirinius to have been a co-governor. It just isn’t possible or logical, and of course has no evidence of any kind in support of it.

Really, to believe such nonsense is to set your thresholds of plausibility so low I am surprised this guy isn’t a Muslim, Hindu and shaman at the same time as being a Christian.

Oath-bearing allegiance

It’s like this guy has read all the apologist books he could get his hands on, sunk all of the theories, and not once thought to challenge the stuff he is reading to see whether it stacks up (hint, it doesn’t). He throws in the added claim that this could be an oath-bearing ceremony and not a census like, you know, Luke actually claims (trying to get out of a contradiction by changing what the author actually says is not legitimate, by the way). As Carrier states:

(2) Finegan’s response to the second conundrum is that Luke was referring to some sort of other ‘counting’ by Herod the Great. This could not be a census (see above). So Finegan argues it was when “the people of Rome” proclaimed Augustus Pater Patriae, “Father of his Country” (§ 525), but Finegan has badly erred here: this is a reference to a vote by Roman citizens, which would have nothing whatever to do with Judaeans. By confusing a vote with an oath-taking, Finegan conjures the false claim that Luke is referring to the registration of oaths of loyalty. Of course, this is already shot down by the fact that Herod was not alive in 2 B.C., as we’ve seen. And we have no record of such an oath in Judaea in that year or any year near it, despite the fact that Josephus usually records them: the last such oaths commanded by Herod were in 20 B.C.[17.4] and in 8 or 7 B.C.[17.5] Worse, this thesis is inherently implausible: Luke does not use the vocabulary of oath-swearing, nor does he describe such a process. For example, Joseph would not travel to Bethlehem if all he had to do was swear an oath of allegiance–that had to be done where he lived.[17.6]

Joseph’s journey only makes sense in the context of a census, where family land could require his presence (see second part of Luke’s Description of the Census above). Likewise, “that all that was inhabited be recorded,” using apographô as the verb, repeated again as the noun apographê, can only refer to a census: a register made for taxing. Indeed, the word does not even mean “count,” but “written up,” which meant a detailed record-making, and this term is never used in reference to registering oaths. Rather, some form of eunoeô is the correct word (Jewish Antiquities 17.42; cf. e.g. epi eunoiai in Jewish Antiquities 18.124 and enômoton tên eunoian in Jewish Antiquities 15.368). Indeed, typically, oaths were not registered at all: one swore before a magistrate and received a diploma attesting to the fact that you swore, which you could present if anyone challenged the fact, as is shown in detail in the martyrologies of those who refused to swear for Decius in 249 A.D. (and in accounts of Christians avoiding martyrdom by buying forged diplomas). Certainly the burden is on those who claim otherwise to present evidence, and I have never seen any.

Glenn Miller also claims that the world-wide census refers to this oath-making ceremony, by deferring to Martin in Vardaman and Yamauchi (1989). He proclaims, “What this means is that we have very, very clear evidence of an empire-wide registration in the time frame required!” I find this fascinating and not to say a little charitable. The evidence provided is hugely problematic, conflating a census with an oath-making ceremony. This is essentially what Martin claims:

1) “Luke” refers to the first time Quirinius was some type of leader in Syria.

2) The “census” was actually a registration of support for the Emperor around 2-3 BCE.

3) A registration of support for the Emperor around 2-3 BCE has support from ancient authors.[7]

However, the issues with this defence of the Lucan narrative are legion, as seen in Carrier’s analysis above, and I will pick only a few here as many will be discussed elsewhere:

2) The “census” was actually a registration of support for the Emperor around 2-3 BCE.

1) The Greek word used by “Luke” is never otherwise used for a “registration” of support.

2) The Greek word used by “Luke” is what is normally used for a census.

3) The registration of support for the Emperor around 2-3 BCE was only for Roman citizens. It’s unlikely that Joseph and Mary were Roman citizens.

4) “Luke’s” detail that Joseph was required to go to his ancestral home fits better with a census than a registration.

5) You still have different dates as per Josephus [such that] Herod the Great died [in] 4 BCE.[8]

It is this kind of harmonisation that frustrates me in that such harmonisations don’t cohere across different defences. Here, an oath-ceremony may appeal to an apologist scrabbling for potential “get-out-of-jail-free cards” but it simply does not cut the critical mustard. To compound a sense of how any “evidence” that supports a harmonisation is good enough for some apologists, Miller concludes about the Martin oath claim, “We have positive evidence of an empire-wide decree of Augustus within a year or two of the required date”. Despite this decree not being a census, Miller is happy enough to settle for something that is ‘roughly at the same time’. This cannot be seen as good scholarship.

To continue to expose the weaknesses of the oath-making defence, it is fairly evident that people would not have had to travel to a far-off town, particularly an ancestral town, to do this (it is unlikely for a census and even more unlikely for swearing an oath). Luke’s words “that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth” can only refer to a census, as we have seen above in Carrier 2011 and as the Errancy Wiki sets out above. Without any evidence whatsoever to support such a claim (of an oath-swearing ceremony), it is hard to see why it is attractive (other than to cure a headache brought on by textual incoherence).

Consequently, it seems that the evidence clearly points to the reported notion that the census referred to in Luke was the census of 6 CE; that it did take place under Quirinius; that it was the first census in Syria; that as a client kingdom before this time, Syria would not have had a census; that Quirinius did only rule once; and that such a claim is indeed incongruent with the claim that Herod was alive and baby-killing in the name of Jesus.

Not only is Firth being disingeuous with his attempts here, he is fooling not only himself but his willing followers, as you can see here:

For now, I will leave you with the words of the magisterial bibilical exegete Raymond Brown (1977, p.554):

Indeed, as regards the non-biblical “evidence”, it is doubtful that anyone would have even thought about an earlier census if he were not trying to defend Lucan accuracy.

Please grab a copy of my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination [UK].


[1] E.g. Strabo, Velleius, Tacitus and Josephus.

[2] See Dabrowa (1998) p. 22-26 for evidence of Piso governing in 1 BCE and that Varus had finished his rule in 4 BCE. Also, see Carrier (2011, 6th Ed) for such a defence and its sources.

[3] See no 4954 A.M. Burnett in Roman Provincial Coinage.

[4] Velleius 2.117.2; Tacitus, Historiae 5.9.2; Josephus, Jewish War 1.617-39 & 2.66-80, Jewish Antiquities 17.89-133, 17.221-23, 17.250-98

[5] Carrier (2011)

[6] Ibid.

[7] For example, by Ernest L. Martin at the Associates for Scriptural Knowledge (

[8] As set out in Errancy Wiki in the article “Luke 2:2 Holding” named so because apologist J.P. Holding uses this defence of the Lucan narrative. (retrieved 10/03/2012)

[9] Ibid.

Brown, Raymond (1977), The Birth of the Messiah, London: Geoffrey Chapman

Martin, Ernest, L. (1991; 2nd ed), The Star that Astonished the World, Portland: Associates for Scriptural Knowledge

Miller, Glenn (1999, ed 2008), “On an objection about Luke, Quirinius, and Herods:”,

Vardaman, Jerry E. and Yamauchi, Edwin M. (1989), Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns

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