Sulpicius' life.

Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was a good example of the stalwart people of Italian stock who filled the gaps in the Roman imperial aristocracy left by the dying off of the republican nobility. What we know of his life illustrates the typical successful career pattern under the first Roman Emperor Augustus (63 BC - AD 14), but today he is most famous for the evangelist Luke's problematic use of him to date Jesus' birth.

The most important historical source for the life of Sulpicius is Tacitus' Annales 3.48, recording his death in AD 21:

A little later, Tiberius asked the senate to award a public funeral to Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. He came from Lanuvium, and had no connection with the ancient patrician Sulpician family. But he was a fine soldier, whose zealous services had earned him a consulship and honorary Triumph from the divine Augustus for capturing the fortresses of the Homonadenses on the Cilician borders. Later, appointed advisor to Gaius Caesar during the latter's Armenian commission, Quirinius had treated Tiberius, then living at Rhodes, with respect--as the emperor now told the senate; and he coupled this praise of Quirinius' attentiveness with an attack on Marcus Lollius, whom he blamed for Gaius Caesar's perverse quarrelsomeness on that occasion. But others had less agreeable memories of Quirinius, who was a mean, over-influential old man, and (as I have mentioned) had persecuted Aemilia Lepida. (Translated in Grant 142.)

Other sources fill out the picture. Tacitus says elsewhere (Annales 3.22.1) that his wife Aemilia Lepida was a granddaughter of both Sulla and Pompey the Great, two of the pre-eminent political figures of the dying age of the republic--she was a great catch for the plebeian Sulpicius, even if Tacitus goes on to say that she was very corrupt. (She claimed a child she bore after their divorce was Sulpicius' doubtless with a view to claiming a share of the otherwise childless Sulpicius' estate.)

We know that Quirinius' consulship was in 12 BC, and that he had no consular ancestors. Put another way, he was a self-made man, and by virtue of his success and reliability was rewarded with the extremely important honor of being the nominal head-of-state, one of the consuls. This amounted to ennoblement. On his way up the career ladder, he had successfully fought the Marmaridae (a North African piratic people), and after his consulship he was evidently governor of some province which put him in a position to defeat the Homonadenses on the Cilician border. This would probably be the province of Galatia, in present-day N. Turkey.

At some point while overseas in Asia Minor, he evidently visited the future emperor Tiberius during the latter's self-imposed exile on Rhodes, a cagey move which paid off when events led to Tiberius' being made heir apparent to Augustus. It is a mark of Augustus' respect for Quirinius that he made him rector (advisor) to his grandson Gaius Caesar in the latter's mission to Armenia in AD 2.

As a long-standing and highly trusted servant of the regime, Quirinius was sent to Syria as imperial legate (governor) in AD 6, and was entrusted with the thorny business of liquidating the estate of the deposed Judaean ruler Archelaus (son of Herod the Great) and putting the newly acquired province on a paying basis by organizing it for taxation. Josephus tells us this (in his Jewish Antiquities 17.1 ff.), adding that it was a time of discontent for the people, inasmuch as they had lost their independence. A census was carried out under Sulpicius' auspices of (at least) Roman citizens there, as a Latin inscription found in Venice in the 17th century attests (ILS 2683).

The unhappiness of Sulpicius' later years can be deduced from Tacitus' account; his undue influence stemmed from the power any childless Roman of means had through using the prospect of a sizeable legacy as a club to beat people with.

Sulpicius and Luke 2.

But if you have heard of Sulpicius, it is surely thanks to the evangelist Luke (2:1-2):

At that time an edict went out from Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of the whole world. (This was the first census under Quirinius as governor of Syria.) (Translated in Brown 393.)

This passage raises a famous problem in the New Testament, because Quirinius' dates as governor (AD 6-7) conflict with Luke's general setting of the birth narrative's time "In the days of Herod, King of Judaea" (1:1), i.e., no later than Herod's death in 4 BC. Much ink has been spilled trying to reconcile this glaring error, and solutions have included taking Herod to stand for the son of Herod the Great, Sulpicius as having held an unattested earlier governorship of Syria, and similar flailings against the obvious solution: Luke was simply wrong here.

Except possibly for people with fundamentalist leanings, no one worries much about Luke's anachronism anymore, as I infer from the treatments of three Catholic priests (and eminent NT scholars) who have written about the scholarly problem: J.P. Meier (A Marginal Jew I, 212-213: "Attempts to reconcile Luke 2:1 with the facts of ancient history are hopelessly contrived"), R.E. Brown (The Birth of the Messiah, 393-396, 547-556: "When all is evaluated, the weight of evidence is strongly against the possibility of reconciling the information in Luke 1 and Luke 2"), and J.P. Fitzmyer (The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 393: "it is clear that the census is a purely literary device used by him (i.e., Luke) to associate Mary and Joseph, residents of Nazareth, with Bethlehem, the town of David, because he knows of a tradition, also attested in Matthew 2, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem").

The striking historical fact associated with the name of P. Sulpicius Quirinius, therefore, is that we do not know the year of Jesus' birth. (Nor the day. December 25 was taken from Mithraism.)

Philological notelet: King James's Cyrenius follows literally the Greek Kyreniou. Quirinius would naturally turn into Kyrinios, or Kyrenios owing to the lack of Qu- in Greek. More careful authors sometimes wrote kou- for qu-, e.g., Kouintos for Quintus.


Furneaux, Henry. 1896. The Annals of Tacitus.Volume I: Books I-VI. Second edition.
Grant, Michael. 1996. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Revised reprint.

On the New Testament problem:
Brown, Raymond E. 1993. The Birth of the Messiah. A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A. 1981. The Gospel According to Luke I-IX. The Anchor Bible.
Meier, John P.1991. A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume One: The Roots of the Problem and the Person.

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