🔼The name Quirinius in the Bible
The name Quirinius occurs only once in the Bible, namely in Luke 2:2, where Luke explains that Caesar Augustus ordered his disastrous census while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This census, which gave Quirinius temporary authority over Judea and environs, tore Judea into two camps, namely:
- Those who considered taking a census in Israel illegal under Torahic Law (Genesis 32:12, Jeremiah 33:22, Hosea 1:10). These opponents clubbed up under the name the Zealots, revolted and kept fighting Romans whenever the urge occurred. This Zealot endeavor culminated in the Great Jewish Revolt, and ultimately in the sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the great Temple of YHWH in 70 AD.
- Those who figured that compliance with whomever had the power to destroy entire nations, their legacies and temples, takes precedence over a minor decree, especially when that decree isn't all that clear and may have been designed to protect a nation rather than endanger it. Joseph and Mary obviously belonged to this camp, and peaceful resistance whilst remaining legally compliant became the primary political policy of their son Jesus and His apostle Paul alike.
🔼The decade of Jesus' birth
Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was a self-made man from an undistinguished family, who battled his way to military prominence whilst stationed (possibly as governor) in the north African province of Crete and Cyrene (14 BC). In 12 BC he became consul, which had been the highest elected political rank of the Republic and was one of imperial nomination under the Empire. From 12 BC to 1 BC the consul governed peoples mostly in Galatia and Cilicia, after which he became the rector (that is the "corrector"; tutor and guide) of young Gaius Caesar, who would have succeeded emperor Augustus had he not succumbed to injuries on campaign, and been replaced by Tiberius. Quirinius moved on to serve the new emperor-to-be who was by then stationed in Roman Armenia.
Quirinius became governor of the Roman province of Syria in 6 AD, after the deposition of Herod Archelaus. The latter's father, Herod the Great had exterminated the last of the dynastic Hasmoneans (the Davidic royal line, which ruled until it fell to Rome in 63 BC, and Judea became a client kingdom) by murdering his own sons and Maccabean wife Mariamne, and although Herod was an Idumean, at least he had been raised as a Jew and kept the Judaic kingdom going — after all, Herod the Great had build the Temple.
After Herod's death, the kingdom was divided among his sons, and Archelaus had inherited Judea, Samaria and Idumea. He was no longer a real king, but rather a watered down version: an ethnarch, but still, diligently maintaining the appearance of a Judaic kingdom. In 6 AD, however, Judea was declared a Roman province, Archelaus was deposed and the kingdom of Judah had come to its end.
🔼Christians to the rescue
Certain folks had begun to campaign for the reinstitution of a Davidic king, who throughout the Old Testament was called Anointed One, or Messiah in Hebrew and Christ in Greek. These people had probably been active since the fall of the Hasmoneans, but became more so when the kingdom actually stopped to exists, and were most probably known as Christians long before Jesus came to the scene. Because Jesus later explained that not some military man in a fortress was the anointed one, but rather every individual under God (Exodus 19:6, Matthew 23:8-12, 2 Corinthians 1:21, 1 John 2:20, 1 Timothy 6:15), observers began to confuse followers of the Way with Christians, and that's why today we speak erroneously of Christianity.
Some modern critics have noted that Luke ties the birth of Christ simultaneously to historical events that span at least ten years: Herod the Great died in 4 BC and Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 AD. The suggestion that Luke made an error is beyond the merit of further comment — apart perhaps from noting that the gospels rank among the most complex literary works ever produced, and were produced within a literary tradition that has never been surpassed in skill and scholarship (or even effect).
A more helpful proposal comes with the understanding that in the first century AD, theology was not its own thing and was seamlessly intertwined with politics and scientific pursuits. Today the word Christianity indicates a religion, but if the winds of change had blown slightly different, this same word might today have denoted a political leaning, an art form or perhaps even a scientific discipline.
With the literary character of Jesus Christ, the evangelists explained the life of the historical Jesus of Nazareth as commentary on both the Old Testament and the events of the first centuries before and after Christ — roughly the period from the beginning of the fall of the Republic (from Publius Rutilius Rufus onward) to the translocation of the Sanhedrin from the destroyed Jerusalem to Jabneh and finally Usha of Galilee. That would explain why Jesus' birth spans at least a decade — Jesus' literary character embodies the resistance movement; also see our article on the name Pilate — and why He has two separate paternal lines of ancestry; one through Solomon (Matthew 1:6) and the other through Nathan (Luke 3:31).
🔼Origen of the name Quirinius
At first glance, the name Quirinius in Greek (namely Κυρηνιος, Kurenios; older translations of the Bible speak of Cyrenius) looks like it has something to do with the name Cyrene (Κυρηνη, Kurene, from whence hailed the Simon who carried Jesus' cross, and who was dubbed the "father of Alexander and Rufus" — Mark 15:21). This is noteworthy because while stationed in Cyrene, Quirinius successfully battled a desert tribe called the Marmaridea yet averted the cognomen (formal nickname) Marmaricus hence. Perhaps he chose the cognomen Quirinius in stead, or else decided to hang on to his surprisingly fitting inherited cognomen.
If Quirinius indeed rejected the name Marmaricus in favor of a name that derived from Cyrene, then ultimately both names stem from the Greek word κυρος (kuros), which means (supreme) power or denotes a man with ultimate authority. From this same noun comes the more familiar noun κυριος (kurios), meaning master or lord. In the Bible this word is applied to the Roman emperor (Acts 25:26), pagan deities (1 Corinthians 8:5) but mostly to YHWH and Jesus.
To Greek ears the name Quirinius rang like the word κυριος (kurios), but to the Romans it doubtlessly associated with the name Quirinus. That latter name belonged to two separate and important Roman deities:
The ancient (probably pre-Roman Sabine) war god Quirinus, whose traditional sanctuary was situated on Quirinal Hill, later one of Rome's signature seven hills. Roman mythologists elaborated on the character and functions of Quirinus, by having the victorious founder Romulus turn into Quirinus upon his death and ascension into the heavens.
In Augustan times, the worship of the Roman state was hip and considered salvific (and thus compulsory), and the Roman state was represented by a triad of gods — initially Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus and later, as the state evolved, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. It's significant that Quirinus was mostly associated with the general populus at peace (subsequently called quirites), which obviously lost much of her respectability when the senate-governed Republic degenerated into the totalitarian Empire.
Note that Quirinus' most dominant symbol was the myrtle, which obviously also plays a major part in the Bible as symbol of virtuous foreigners who do good despite unfamiliarity with Torahic prescriptions (Zechariah 1:8).
Quirinus was also a minor epithet of the major deity Janus, who guarded beginnings and transitions. Particularly his presiding over the transition between a state of war and the state of peace was marked by his epithet Quirinus. Janus was honored with a temple in Rome that was built by an ancient king named Numa, and which was equipped with huge doors. During times of peace these doors would be closed, but during times of war they would be open, sometimes for centuries on end.
In the time of Jesus, the doors frequently opened but were shut again with ever greater fanfare as the concept of peace became more and more revered and was ultimately deified as Pax under Augustus. That means that the term "open door" became synonymous with a period of war (Revelation 3:7-8, Matthew 16:18), and when Jesus says, "knock and the door will open" (Matthew 7:7), He's not talking about supplicatory prayer to God (in Jewish tradition, God does not reside behind a door) but warns that if resistance against the Romans (the swine mentioned in 7:6, see our article on the name Legion) drops off the platform of open debate and plummets into the basin of violence, the door of Janus' temple will certainly open against the Jews. And of course He was right.
The ancient king Numa not only built Janus' temple, he also issued a set of royal laws, or leges regia. One of these laws was called spolia opima, which described the ritual concerning the stripping of a defeated enemy regent, and that included an offer to Janus Quirinus and the sacrifice of a lamb. The stripping of Jesus' clothes, so emphatically mentioned by the evangelists, obviously corresponds with this rite.
🔼Etymology of the name Quirinius
The cognomen Quirinius doubtlessly comes from Quirinus, but it's not wholly clear where that name comes from. Some suggest that it comes from the Sabine word for spear, namely quiris, which in turn suggests that the story of the fratricidal Romulus and Remus shares a common ancestor with the story of Cain (means spear) and Abel. In this case Quirinus would be Spearman and Quirinius would mean Of The Spearman. Note that this theory places the name Quirinius also in close vicinity of the name Pilate (which might mean Equipped With Lances).
Another possible source of these names is that of the Sabine city Cures, from whence the Sabines travelled to Rome and joined the locals into becoming the Romans. The Sabines employed many terms that came from northern Europe, and quir- appears to be cognate with the Germanic wer and wehr, hence the German word Wehrmacht (literally: defence force) and the Dutch verbs weren (to eschew) and verweren (to defend). This would give the name Cures the meaning of Citadel or Defence Fort, and Quirinus that of Defender and Quirinius Of The Defender.
The Roman lance or javelin may seem like the signature attack weapon, but in fact it was far less a typical long-range ballistic weapon such as the arrow, and much rather an intermediate between the ballistic attack weapon and an instrument of active defense such as the sword. Particularly close ranks of javelin carrying soldiers would be nearly impossible to penetrate.
A third possible source of our name(s) is in the word curia, which describes the original and most rudimentary governmental structure of the ancient Roman republic; later the curia evolved into the Senate. It's not clear where this word might have come from, but it's obviously similar in form and meaning to the Greek word κυρος (kuros).
Some scholars have proposed that curia is a contraction of co-wiria, literally "a company of virile men". Whether the oldest form of republic government was signified by a closed-knit group of butch homeboys or rather stemmed from a hedge of spear-carrying defenders isn't clear but perhaps one inspired the other (and ultimately even the otherwise hard to explain crown of thorns on Jesus' head).
Note that our English word "disenfranchise" is the opposite of "enfranchise", and is based on the word franca, meaning javelin (hence the Franks and France). To enfranchise, literally means "to equip with a spear" and is used in the sense of granting a settlement municipal rights or a person citizenship (a right to vote and govern). To disenfranchise means to take liberty away or to enslave.
All these associations combined make it clear that Quirinus was not simply a war god but rather a great defender and keeper of the peace. As literary character, Quirinus obviously makes a very close parallel to basic structure of the Biblical universe, as the evangelists undoubtedly were quite aware of. Their view on Rome was not that it was innately evil, but rather that it had once started as a most glorious of human endeavors but had become corrupt until it became the utterly blasphemous Empire with its ridicules divine emperor. Many, even among the Romans, mourned the loss of that original innocence, and tried to steer Rome back to its former glory and righteousness.
Since Quirinus means Powerful Defender or Powerful Peacemaker, the name Quirinius means Powerful Man Of Peace, with a strong hint towards the "government resting on his shoulders" (Isaiah 9:6). The cognomen Quirinius combined with his praenomen Publius (means "of the people") makes for a name that reflects a decidedly Republican and peace-loving political leaning.