Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

25 Dec 2012

Josephus (not Luke) Misdated Quirinius’s Census

Posted By

John Rhoads argues in a recent article that it was Josephus, not Luke, who misdated Quirinius’s census. The gist of his piece is that the Judas whom Josephus associates with a tax revolt in A.D. 6 (Ant. 18.4–23) is the same Judas whom Josephus says was killed a decade or so earlier by Herod the Great (Ant. 17.148–67). Rhoads offers two main arguments in support of this thesis. First, he argues that the slightly different names given both Judases (Judas, the son of Saripheus, and Judas the Galilean) are actually two ways of referring to the same individual. Second, he argues that Judas’s tax revolt occurred during Herod’s reign, not following it. Rhoads’s arguments are a bit complicated, so I’ve tried to sort them out below. If he’s right, then many recent attempts to exonerate Luke are largely unnecessary, since Luke doesn’t need to be harmonized with Josephus. Whether or not he is right, however, is a question I’ll have to leave for another day (or, more likely, someone else).

Argument #1: Judas the son of Saripheus = Judas the Galilean.

In Ant. 17.147–67, Josephus describes the activity of Judas, the son of Saripheus, while in the parallel accounts in Wars (1.648), he’s called the son of Sepphoraeos. Alternate readings of the Antiquities account, however, lead Rhoads to conclude that the Wars account is the more accurate of the two. This suggests that Judas, the son of Saripheus/Sepphoraeos was likely the son of a well-known inhabitant of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee (cf. Ναζωραῖος in Luke 18:37)—perhaps the Galilean bandit Hezekiah, who is identified as Judas the Galilean’s father in another place (Ant. 17.269–85; cf. cf. Schürer 1:381). In short, Judas, the son of a well-known Sepphorian in Ant. 17.148–67 is, plausibly, Judas the Galilean in Ant. 18.4–23 (cf. Wars 2.118). What further adds to the plausibility of this identification is the fact that in both accounts Judas is described as a teacher, surrounded by disciples, and aided by another rabbi.

Argument #2: The tax revolt occurred during Herod’s reign.

Coponius. Rhoads argues that Josephus incorrectly assumed that Coponius’s presence, alongside Quirinius, meant that Quirinius’s census took place in A.D. 6, since that was when Coponius became prefect of Judea (see Ant. 18.1–23; Wars 2.117–18). The problem with this, however, was that Coponius could not have been prefect at this time since Josephus’s narrative presents him as subservient to Quirinius. Quirinius, e.g., is said to have been of consular rank, whereas Coponius, along with others who were sent with Quirinius, was of the lower, equestrian rank. Had Coponius been prefect, he would have answered only to the governor of Syria, which Quirinius was not. Quirinius, rather, is described as a special imperial envoy, in something of a complementary role to Syria’s governor (a legate juridicus; governor = legati pro praetore). What’s more, Josephus says that in his administrative capacity Coponius had “dominion over the Jews,”  which would overstate his jurisdiction in A.D. 6, since it did not include Antipas and Philip’s territories. If Coponius was indeed active in Judea prior to his prefecture, then this probably also explains the otherwise anomalous reference to his presence at the trial of Herod’s son Antipater in 5 B.C. (Ant. 17.134 v.l.).

Sabinus. Rhoads argues that Sabinus, who was present in Jerusalem at the time of Herod’s death, is another name for Quirinius (see Ant. 17.221, 18.1–2; Wars 2.16). Both were special envoys of the emperor, both were of consular rank, both were concerned with Judea’s tax revenue, and both were in charge of settling Herod’s estate. Rhoads suggests that both names may have been cognomens (i.e., an extra name—often a nickname—given to a Roman citizen), since such names were often ethnically based. Quirinius, e.g., may have been what the Romans called Publius Sulpicius, as a result of the deity associated with his Sabinian heritage (i.e., Quirinus), a heritage Rhoads infers from the fact that Quirinius was born in Lavinium, a city SW of Rome that had a significant Sabine population. Sabinus, on the other hand, may have been how he was known among the Semites of Herod’s court.

Joazar. Rhoads argues that the high priest removed immediately following Herod’s death is the high priest Joazar who was removed by Quirinius immediately following Judas’s tax revolt (see Ant. 17.164b, 206, 339b; 18.26b). Rhoads suggests that Joazar was appointed high priest by Herod after Judas’s armory raid, not after his eagle incident, as Josephus assumes. This means that Joazar was high priest during Judas’s tax revolt and eagle incident/execution, which followed. Rhoads then notes that the high priest deposed during the time of Herod’s funeral and at the behest of Judas’s followers corresponds with Josephus’s reports elsewhere of Archelaus’s removal, shortly after Herod’s death, of the high priest Joazar and with his report of Quirinius’s removal of a priest with the same name following Judas’s tax revolt. In short, Joazar was priest during Judas’s revolt against the tax administered by Coponius and Sabinus/Quirinius during the latter years of Herod’s reign.

As I noted earlier, I’ll leave off a full-scale review for the time being. I did, however, want to conclude by noting a handful of lingering questions that I suspect will need to be part of any fuller engagement of Rhoads’s thesis: (1) Why does Josephus say Joazar was succeeded by two different persons if Joazar was appointed and deposed just once (see Ant. 17.399b and 18.26b)? (2) If Joazar was, in fact, the priest deposed by Archelaus to satisfy his followers’ demands (Ant. 17.206), why does Josephus’s other report of this incident, which explicitly mentions Joazar, say Archelaus deposed him for “having risen-up with the partisans” (Ant. 17.339b)? (3) Why does the catalogue of disturbances in 17.269–85 fail to mention the eagle incident, especially if, as Rhoads argues, it followed the armory raid incident?

Note: For another approach to the Quirinius incident, see “Once More: Quirinius’s Census.” And, for the historicity of another part of the nativity narrative, see “Star of Wonder, Star of Light.”

2 Responses

  1. John T. Jeffery

    Thank you for posting this. I sincerely appreciate the work that has been, and is being done in this area to substantiate the accuracy of the Lukan account. I preached a sermon on Luke 2:1-7 on 23 DEC 2012 in which I dealt briefly with this issue. While there are many things that must be considered in the exegesis and translation of Lk. 2:2, and the apparent discrepancies with the extant secular (uninspired) historical material, the issue of authority will not take a back seat. Often the Scriptural account is treated as if all historical documents, including Scripture, are on a level “playing field” when it comes to authority and accuracy. The character of Scripture as the Holy Word of God being by its very nature inspired, inerrant and infallible seems to get “swept under the carpet” by unbelief, which is understandable. That needs to be seen for what it is. However, when believers allow that unbelief to set the agenda and establish the playing field they fail to honor God and His Word. This too needs to be seen for what it is. Our presuppositions need to be on the table, and not under the carpet. All of that being said, I appreciated one of your sentences above that caught my eye: “If he’s right, then many recent attempts to exonerate Luke are largely unnecessary, since Luke doesn’t need to be harmonized with Josephus.” While I think I understand your intent in this statement, and I don’t want to read into it an emphasis you may not endorse, I might add my own rephrasing to make a point: “Neither Luke nor the Holy Spirit need to be exonerated, and if any harmonization needs to be done, Josephus and the other secular authors need to be brought to the touchstone of Scripture, the anvil around which many broken hammers lay.”