I thought it would be good to compare how the study Bibles deal with a difficult historical reference like Quirinius, the governor of Syria. This might give us a taste of how these study Bibles address historical events. Thanks to Michele Bennett at Crossway’s ESV study Bible blog for the Gospel of Luke sample and Laura Bartlett at Tyndale’s NLT blog for the NLT Study Bible.
ESV Study Bible:
2:2 the first registration when Quirinius was governor. According to Josephus, Quirinius was governor of Syria AD 6-7 and conducted a census in AD 6 (which Luke is aware of and mentions in Acts 5:37). But this cannot be the census Luke is referencing here, since it occurred after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC., and it is known that Jesus was born during Herod’s reign (cf. Matt. 2:1; Luke 1:5). Various plausible solutions have been proposed. Some interpreters believe that because “governor” (participle of Gk. hegemoneuo) was a very general term for “ruler,” it may be that Quirinius was the administrator of the census, but not the governor proper. Another solution is to translate the verse, “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria” (see ESV footnote), which is grammatically possible (taking Gk. protos as “before” rather than “first”; the Greek construction is somewhat unusual on any reading). This would make sense because Luke would then be clarifying that this was before the well-known, troublesome census of AD 6 (Acts 5:37). (One additional proposal is that Quirinius was governor for two separate terms, though this lacks confirming historical evidence.) Though the year cannot be determined with complete certainty, there are several reasonable possibilities which correspond well to Luke’s carefully researched investigation (Luke 1:3-4) and to the historical and geographical accuracy evidenced throughout Luke and Acts. The most reasonable date is late in the year of 6 BC or early 5. See further The Date of Jesus’ Crucifixion, pp. 1809-1810.
NLT Study Bible:
2:2 Quirinius was governor of Syria: Quirinius held this post AD 6-9. In 6-4 BC, Quirinius also had authority over Judea, possibly through some kind of joint rule. He may have begun the census. Historical accounts mention three other censuses at that time (in Syria, Gaul, and Spain), and there was no reason not to have one in Judea, though it is not mentioned in secular records. Jesus was born around 6-4 BC, before Herod the Great died in 4 BC (see Matt 2:1-19).
NIV Study Bible:
2:2 Quirinius. This official was possibly in office for two terms, first 6-4 BC and then AD 6-9. A census is associated with each term. This is the first; Ac 5:37 refers to the second.
The NIVSB is certainly brief in its treatment of this historical difficulty, simply assuming two terms for Quirinius. The ESVSB gives the fullest treatment, stating all of the possibilities, even pointing out that an alternate translation may be useful. The NLTSB makes a similar point as the ESVSB, but is more concise. But the NLTSB does not address the other possibilities, nor addresses a translation alternative. For me, as an evangelist, the ESVSB gets the win because of its full treatment of the problem. However, I can see that average students and users may become confused by such lengthy details and would find the NLTSB more helpful.
As an aside, see if you find this interesting- both the NLTSB and ESVSB point out that Jesus must have been born between 6-4 BC. However, both study Bibles place Jesus’ death in their timelines at AD 30 or 33. Doesn’t this make Jesus’ age between 33 and 38 years old at his death? Tradition has typically figured that Jesus was 30-33 years old at his death. I look forward to finding out if the NLTSB and ESVSB reconcile this information, and if so, how.