We quote the much controverted text of Luke, according to the “Codex Sinaiticus:” αὔτη ἀπογραφὴ ἑγένετο πρώτη ἡγεμονεύοντος, τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου. It is impossible not to observe the place occupied by the word πρώτη in the oldest of the manuscripts. It is not, as in subsequent texts, separated from the genitive ἡγεμονεύοντος, but immediately precedes it; it is, then, very probable that, notwithstanding the exceptional hardness of the phrase, it governs the words which follow it, so that we may strictly translate thus: “This census took place before Cyrenius was governor of Syria.” Without enumerating the various examples of similar phraseology which may be found in Greek literature (see Tholuck, “Glaubwürdigkeit,” p. 181), we will confine ourselves to recalling the words of John the Baptist: πρῶτός μου ἦν, “He was before me” (John 1:15). Evidently πρῶτος here governs the genitive. If this translation is admitted, it removes the great difficulty presented by any other version; for the general census presided over by Cyrenius did not take place till ten years later.
I can see, on the other hand, no difficulty in supposing that Herod may have consented to meet the wishes of Augustus. It is certain that Augustus was constantly occupied with the thought of adjusting the balance of his empire, and the allied kingdoms dependent on it (Suetonius, “Octavius,” c. xxviii.). Savigny, after having shown that from the commencement of the empire there was an endeavor to introduce the census in all the provinces, admits that the mode of taking the census varied according to the customs of the countries in which it was made (“Zeitschrift fur Geschischltich. Rechtwissenschaft,” Vol. vi.). There is also a curious passage of Suidas which speaks expressly of a first census made throughout the empire under Augustus (Tholuck, Glaubwürdigkeit, p. 194). Herod made the census willingly, not as a subject, but as a royal ally; that is, in the form appropriate to the customs of his kingdom. Thus all objections are removed. A novel attempt at explanation has met with great success.
Zumpt, in his book, entitled “De Syria Romana provincia ab C. Aug., ad T. Vespas.” (1854), endeavors to show that Quirinius was twice governor of Syria. Tacitus records that Quirinius crushed the nation of the Homonadensians in Cilicia, after his elevation to the consulate and before he had been sent out as a guide to C. Cæsar, in his expedition into Armenia (“Annals,” iii. 48). His consulate dates from the year of Rome, 742, and his expedition into Armenia about 756. He defeated the Homonadensians, then, in this interval; but he could only have done it as governor of Syria, for Cilicia was then a dependency of that province. Now the names of the governors of Syria being known up to the year 720–51 B.C., his entry upon office is brought up to that year. It follows that he must have been for the first time governor of Syria in the year of Rome, 750, the actual date of the birth of Jesus Christ. Mommsen arrives at the same result by his reading of the medal found at Tivoli, and struck in honor of a consul, the conqueror of a valiant nation, twice governor of Syria, and who survived Augustus. Now these designations apply only to Quirinius, conqueror of the Homonadensians, and the only one of the legates of Syria who lived under Tiberius. Mommsen, on the same ground as Zumpt, places the first governorship of Quirinius on the verge of the year 751. This result is assuredly of great interest.
The difficulty, however, still remains, that in 750 Judæa was not a Roman province. (See Mommsen’s “Notes on the Monuments of Ancyra.” The entire debate has just been reopened by the learned pamphlet of M. Henri Lutteroth, entitled “Le Récensement de Quirinius” (Paris, 1865). Rejecting the solution which we have accepted, and which is due to Herwart, the author proposes to connect Luke 1:80 with Luke 2:1. “The child,” says the Evangelist, speaking of John the Baptist, “grew and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the desert till the time of his showing to Israel.” M. Lutteroth understands by this “showing to Israel” the first participation of John the Baptist in the passover feast, which took place with young Jews at twelve years of age. The following verse (Luke 2:1) gives us the precise date of that event, by pointing to the census under Cyrenius. Thus the edict of Augustus was published at the time when John celebrated his majority.
Our principal objection to this explanation arises from the meaning which M. Lutteroth attaches to Luke 2:6. The evangelist, after connecting the census under Cyrenius with the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, adds, “And so it was that while they were there the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” “Εγνένετο δὲ ἐν τῷ εἶναι αὐτοὺς ἐκει ἐπλήσθησαν αἱ ἡμέραι τοῦ τεκεῖν αὐτὴν.” It appears to us evident that the second fact is closely connected with the first. M. Lutteroth is obliged to dissever them entirely; for, according to his theory, the birth of Jesus Christ took place twelve years before. He is compelled to supplement Luke’s text thus: “It was there they were also when the time came that she should be delivered.” It seems to me impossible to admit that the capital event of the Gospels and of history should be thus casually mentioned, and linked as an episode to a fact so insignificant as the first participation of John the Baptist in the passover.
E. de Pressensé, Jesus Christ: His Times, Life, and Work, trans. Annie Harwood, Fourth Edition. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1871) 199.