Question: Was Luke wrong about the date of the "census of Quirinius," which he used to date the birth of Jesus?
AP: Probably, almost definitely for sure. The records of the Roman Empire have not retained any news of a universal census during the reign of Augustus, which simply makes it very unlikely.
Luke says that such a census took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria and during the reign of Herod the Great, the king. This just isn’t possible. How would he allow this king of Israel conduct a census in his territory?
The only census that was carried out was performed right when Herod the Great died, Archelaus his son was deposed by Augustus and Judea became a Roman imperial province. Then there was a need for a census of the people so that they could pay their taxes to the new rulers. This actually took place in A.D. 6 or 7, and this census was conducted by Quirinius. That happened some ten years after the birth of Jesus, not in the same year!
Beyond that, the reason given by Luke (the need to get Joseph to Bethlehem, the place where their family came from, i.e., that it was a tribal census) is also unlikely. The reason for a census, fundamentally, is for tax purposes, for payments to the imperial treasury. Everyone would have paid their fees based on where they lived, not where their families came from; doing the latter for tax purposes would have just created a huge mess, something Roman authorities would have wanted to avoid.
It seems that Jesus was not born during the years when Quirinius was governor of Syria, but actually before.
TWH: We actually just had a post dealing with the birth of Jesus Christ. You can view it here. As I said in that post, we know that he was governor of Syria in A.D. 6 at the time of a census (but that doesn't necessarily refer to this one). That’s the problem that Antonio references. Strong arguments can be made that Quirinius was part of a dual reign governorship before A.D. 6 (e.g., the Lapis Tiburtinus). And there is strong evidence to support that censuses were taking place about every seven/fourteen years in the Empire (see, for example, Roger S. Bagnall, Hellenistic and Roman Egypt: Sources and Approaches [Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006], 255-265). Just because there is no explicit reference to a census before the death of Herod does not mean that one did not take place.