04.03.09 Lk 2:1-3 Bethlehem (c. 6-5 B.C.)
THE REGISTRATION (or Census)
1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole empire should be registered. 2 This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So everyone went to be registered, each to his own town.
“In those days … Caesar Augustus.” Luke linked the birth of Christ to both the reign of Caesar, and the governor-general Cyrenius (spelled Quirinius in Latin) of Damascus, as well as to several historical events in Rome. This method of dating was common in the ancient world, as the modern calendar had not yet been developed. According to today’s calendar, Augustus was born in 63 B.C. and he reigned from 31 B.C. to A.D. 14. He was the first Roman emperor who held sole power and, as such, expanded the empire to encircle the Mediterranean Sea. He developed the Golden Age for literature, architecture, and military accomplishments. He is credited with Pax Romana, meaning peace by the Roman military might, during which there were no major international conflicts for nearly a century although Jewish rebellions seemed to occur regularly. However, between the years 7 and 5 B.C., there was peace. But, to say that Roman peace existed in Judea and Galilee during the lifetime of Jesus – that is completely incorrect. Israel was the eastern frontier that faced the Parthians, and while the expanding Parthians were considered a threat to Roman security, the heavy military presence in Judea and Galilee deterred any potential military conflicts. Augustus also streamlined the functions of government that gave local vassal rulers, such as Herod the Great, greater autonomy and provided procedures for provincials to claim redress of abuses by their rulers. The Romans essentially had two goals: to collect taxes and maintain peace. As long as their vassal kings accomplished these two goals, they were pleased. However, the common people living under Roman rule became economic slaves. Their huge tax contributions supported the military machine and the affluent lifestyle of the wealthy bureaucrats in Rome and in the provincial capitals. To insure the maximum taxation potential, a census was taken every fourteen years or more frequently when a new governor demanded it.
A census generally required two years to complete after a decree was issued. All men between the ages of 15 and 60 were required to register at their ancestral village. However, one of the lingering mysteries is why the Jews had to return to their city of origin. The Romans could not have cared less about the Jewish people or their history. The population count could have been taken wherever the Jewish people were residing permanently, rather than making them return to the tribal areas that were allotted to them some 1,500 years earlier.
The Jews always looked upon a census with fearful reservations. They remembered the census ordered by King David and the fatal results that followed (2 Sam. 24). They concluded, therefore, that another census could invoke the wrath of God upon the Roman Empire and they would be included in the divine wrath because they participated in it.
The term “the whole empire” has been a point of debate. It literally means the inhabited land. The phrase originated with the Greeks meaning the entire region that they occupied. Later, the Romans adopted the same interpretation. Some translations have the phrase the world or the whole world. These phrases do not mean the entire globe, but the entire Roman Empire which the Romans considered to be the world. The phrase all the world, or orbis Romanus, was a well-known phrase that meant the entire region under Roman domination. Some scholars believe such a census did not take several years, but several decades. It is amazing that, in secular academic circles, no one challenges the fact that there is not one shred of evidence concerning the census decree that Tiberius made. But in religious academia, the thought that Quirinius functioned as an unofficial governor when Jesus was born, is highly criticized even in light of the stone inscription.
The Greek present tense of the wording of the phrase the whole empire, allows a census to have taken place throughout the empire, but not necessarily as a single census. Historians agree that there never was a single census that covered the entire empire. Residents were counted in several districts but not necessarily at the same time, followed by several other districts. Therefore, the census in question most certainly was not a single empire-wide counting of millions of people. It should be noted, that Tacitus twice said that during the entire reign of Tiberius, there was never a single census conducted throughout every district of the empire at the same time. Rather, various sections were counted and, eventually, the “whole” empire was recorded. Therefore, the conclusion to be made is that at the time of Emperor Augustus,
- Valuation censuses had been made in many provinces and
- These censuses took several years to complete.
It should also be noted that the first census appears to have been only in Judea, whereas the second included all three Jewish provinces. Even though these censuses were about a dozen years apart, in Roman thinking, these could have been part of the bigger valuation of counting the entire empire.
Finally, it must be noted that Herod the Great was still the ruler of the Holy Land, but Quirinius was his superior officer. Therefore, the census was probably taken as directed by Quirinius who may have authorized Herod to take the actual census. However, on the other hand, when considering the wide spread corruption by Roman authorities, Quirinius may not have trusted him to count accurately or honestly.
04.03.09.Q1 What is the significance of Luke’s term, the “first registration” in Luke 2:2?
As stated above, critics have long pointed to Luke’s account as proof of error in Scripture. Luke carefully said it was the first registration or census while Quirinius was “governor,” which obviously implies a second census. It is an important point because he took a second census about eleven years later in A.D. 6-9. It is easy to examine the second census and assume it was his only one. If that were so, then there would not have been a need to identify the first one as the “first registration.”
04.03.09.A. A RELIEF STONE CARVING OF A ROMAN CENSUS. There was hardly anything that the Romans did that caused deeper resentment than a census. In this relief carving, Jews line up under the watchful eye of Roman soldiers and officials. The population count was used to determine tax potential and the size of the Roman military needed in the event of a rebellion.
But there is an interesting point to consider: It was this same Publius Quirinius Varus, a/k/a Quirinius, not Herod the Great, who probably appointed Annas in A.D. 6, as the temple high priest – the same Annas who would later clash with Jesus. As to Quirinius, his life was near an end. In A.D. 9, he was transferred to Europe as the Imperial Legate in Germany. He crossed the Rhine River with three legions into Germania Magna, which had been occupied by Roman soldiers for the previous twenty years. He was enticed by German tribesmen to enter the Teutoburgian Forest where he and the entire Roman regiment were slaughtered. Only a few survivors returned to Rome to report of the legendary defeat.
04.03.09.B. ROMAN CENSUS EDICT IN EGYPT (Papyrus 904). Archaeologists have uncovered several ancient documents that refer to a census. Shown here is an example of such a decree. It was issued in A.D. 104 in the village of Bacchias in Egypt. Photograph courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum Library.
A portion of the census edict above reads as follows:
Gaius Vibius Maximus, Praefect of Egypt, states: “The enrollment by household being held, it is necessary to notify all who, for any cause whatsoever, are outside their homes to return to their domestic hearths, that they may also accomplish the customary dispensation of enrollment and continue steadfastly in husbandry that belongs to them.”
Roman Census Edict in Egypt (Papyrus 904)
This public announcement, whose ending was lost, made specific reference to citizens returning to their village for the purpose of a customary dispensation census. While it requires people to return to their homes, it does not suggest the return to one’s ancient tribal home. That poses a problem for some scholars who believe that the Romans required the Jews to return to their own homes because they were sensitive to the Jewish faith. There are two questions to be noted here:
- How or why would such a decree demonstrate sensitivity, when the Jews have a history of hating a census?
- Why did the Romans require the Egyptians to return to their homes? They certainly were not Jewish.
It must be noted that the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus and some 270 other documents found in Egypt indicate that a census was taken every fourteen years from 5/6 B.C. to A.D. 258. Fragments of various announcements discovered elsewhere also indicate the Roman custom of population counts at fourteen year intervals, although no discoveries have been made for the years A.D. 76 and 90. The historian Suetonius noted that censuses in the years 28 B.C., 8 B.C. and A.D. 14 included Roman citizens. On occasion, a census required women be counted with their husbands or fathers.
The combined taxes of its many provinces allowed the Roman emperors to give their people in Italy free “bread and circuses,” on a grand scale never seen before or since. Nearly all construction projects were built by thousands of slaves from captured lands and the materials paid for by foreign tax revenue.
When a decision was made to have a census taken, the public announcement was generally made in the month of Epeiph (late June) and the subjects had a year to be counted. However, some historians believe it may have taken as long as three years to count the entire population of a given province or country. Those who failed to register could have up to a fourth of their possessions confiscated as a fine. If they failed for two consecutive censuses, then they could lose up to half of their property.
The census included a brief description of the husband, the age of his wife, and an inventory of their possessions, such as the number of flat-tailed sheep and camels, and their house. It had to be signed, under oath, by the individual submitting the document. Likewise, a notice was given that punishment was to be meted out for those who provided false information. The oath was especially offensive to an orthodox Jew, such as Joseph, as it contained wording whereby he had to swear to his truthfulness and allegiance to the Roman emperor or deity. An example of an enrollment was found in Egypt that was written by a small Egyptian farmer. The sworn letter was signed on July 24, A.D. 66, in which he said,
To Papiscus, former cosmetes of the city and now strategus of the Oxyrhynchite nome, and Ptolemaeus, royal scribe, and the writers of the nome, from Harmitsis, the son of Petosiris (the son of Petosiris), his mother being Didyme, the daughter of Diogenes, of the men of the village of Phthochis which is in the eastern toparchy. I enrolled in the present 12th year of Nero Claudius Augustus Germanicus Imperator, nigh unto that same Phthochis, of the young of the sheep that I have, twelve lambs. And now I enroll those that since have been born, for the present second enrollment; of the young of those same sheep seven lambs – there are seven lambs. And I swear by Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator that I have kept nothing back. Farewell.
When Quirinius ordered a second census in A.D. 6, it generated a major controversy. There can be little question that paying taxes to a foreign pagan power and the requirement of swearing upon a pagan emperor or deity were major reasons why Judas of Galilee and his nationalistic followers revolted. This suggests that the special census that predated the birth of Jesus significantly increased social tensions – tensions that exploded into conflict during the second census.
04.03.09.Q2 Did Luke make an error concerning Quirinius (Lk. 2:1-7)?
Luke said that the birth of Jesus occurred when Augustus was emperor and Quirinius was governing Syria (Lk. 2:1-7). However, the problem is the lack of evidence that Quirinius (46 B.C. – A.D. 9) was governor when Jesus was born (7-5 B.C.). Critics have a legitimate reason to question this matter, but it can be addressed by examining the official of the office as well as one who functions temporarily without the official title.
According to two ancient historians, he was a special legate (diplomatic representative with military authority) charged by the Roman Senate to quell the Homonadensian Revolt in the Taurus Mountains in Asia Minor (now southeastern modern Turkey) which then was a part of Syria. In fact, Tertullian said that Sentius Saturninus ruled from 9-6 B.C. and Quinctilius Varus ruled from 7-4 B.C. (note the one-year overlap), so there is obviously doubt if Quintilius was the “official” governor at all.
To add additional confusion, Josephus recorded Varus as reigning in A.D. 6. The fact remains that Quirinius was not in the official position of governor, but functioned as governor as he was in charge of Syria’s defense and foreign policy under Varus. Since Galilee, Perea, and Judea were within Syria’s administrative district, Quirinius would have supervised the census and accompanying registration. Yet critics claim Luke make an error when he wrote the biblical account. Amazingly, “the stones cried out” the truth concerning this issue.
In 1764, a fragmented stone inscription was discovered near Tivoli, twenty miles east of Rome. It is known as the Tibur Inscription or the Lapis Tiburtinus (CIL XIV 3613) and is now in the Vatican Museum. This stone monument honored an official who had twice taken control of the affairs of Syria as the personal representative of Caesar Augustus. Due to the fact that only part of the entire inscription was found, the honored official cannot be identified. Many scholars believe this individual was Quirinius. Then, in 1880, the other missing part of the Tibur Inscription was discovered as part of a tomb, but the name of the official remains unclear. Scholars believe that the inscription of both pieces reads as follows:
At Quirinius’s command I carried out a census in Apamea, a city of 117,000 inhabitants. Also at Quirinius’s command I marched against the Ituraeans and captured their fortress on the mountains of Lebanon.
Therefore, from archaeological discoveries, inscriptions written in stone begin to clarify the status of Quirinius at the time when Jesus was born. Luke did not make an error in his report, but that leads to the next question (04.03.09.Q3).
04.03.09.Q3 Why did Joseph have to return to Bethlehem for a Roman census?
When the Romans conducted a census, they cared little for the family or tribal affiliations of their subjects, but they did want peace. They were essentially interested in the tax potential and required military in the event of an uprising. The question is of particular interest because, according to history, the Romans almost never required anyone to return to “each to his own town.” There is no record of a Roman census anywhere else that required residents to return to their ancient tribal lands, except in Egypt (see 04.03.09.B). They could not have cared less about Jewish ancestral tribes or lands, yet Joseph had to return to his ancient home. However, if this was a Jewish census, then the question would be understandable since all Jews inherited land from the distribution during the days of Joshua. The following suggestions have been presented to explain his trip to Bethlehem.
- The Jews have always looked upon a census with disdain. When King David took a census, the wrath of God fell upon the nation. Neither Rome nor the Jewish leaders wanted another rebellion, so some scholars believe that the Sadducees, who were friends with the Romans, suggested that if everyone was required to return to their original tribal area, then a rebellion would be less likely.
- Another suggestion is that the census was for the purpose of taxing land products. Since Joseph’s family came from the tribe that settled in Bethlehem, he may have had vested interest in the land. Therefore, he would have been required to return to his hometown for the tax census.
While the answer may never be fully known, what is known is that there was peace at the time of this census. But when Quirinius instituted another census in A.D. 6, it appears that he levied two kinds of taxes.
- A property tax, or tributum soli or agri. This was a tax on agricultural or other products and could be paid in kind or in cash.
- A poll tax, or tributum capitis. This tax was an equal amount, that varied from region to region, that had to be paid by every qualified person – only children and old men were excluded (no mention of old women).
Since the second census appears to have been more extensive registration than the first, the result was a rebellion and discussions of it extended throughout the first century. The rebellion of the second census is well known, for even Luke wrote of in in Acts 5:37, “in the days of the census.” The obvious question then arises as to why he didn’t follow the advice of Jews as he had done previously? The mystery remains veiled. Whether Quirinius was governor when Jesus was born is a moot point; he evidently was in a position of authority at the time. There are two concluding points to be considered:
- At the command of Quirinius of Syria, the first census was taken while Herod the Great was still king. Rome knew all too well of Herod’s health issues, that he was a brutal dictator, and there was always imminent danger of a rebellion. They were not about to take any chances in this volatile part of the world. The death of Herod the Great and the rivalry of his sons that followed provided ample opportunity for another Jewish revolt.
- The first census was taken before the more well-known census which was also issued by the same Quirinius.
- Augustus may have wanted the census to be taken gradually as not to stir an uprising.
04.03.09.Q4 Why was Quirinius appointed to the rulership position of the Roman district of Syria?
The specific reasons for the appointment have been lost in history, but enough is known to reconstruct three reasons with a high degree of accuracy.
- The corruption in Syria was well established
- Rome was losing tax revenue from this area
- There were constant rumors of pending Jewish rebellions. Impoverished Jews who could not pay their taxes had mortgaged their land to the tax collectors. For this reason, Jesus alluded to the debtor, creditor and the prison in his teachings. For example, a steward owes the king and the servant owes the steward (Lk. 7:41; Mt. 18:23).
Historians agree that the problems in Syria at the time go back to at least 57 B.C. when Gabinius was appointed to the office of governor-general or proconsul. Under his leadership (57-55 B.C.) corruption became paramount and did not dissipate upon his departure. Therefore, when Quirinius was installed as governor-general of Syria, corruption of the highest order was well established. For this reason, the Roman historian Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.), said,
Gabinius extorted, daily, an incalculable weight of gold from the well-stocked and rich treasures of Syria, and made war on the peaceful [people] that he might cast their ancient and hitherto untouched riches into the bottomless gulf of his own lusts.
Cicero, Pro Sestion, 100.43
Elsewhere Cicero said,
In Syria his one employment was to make corrupt agreements with tyrant’s interested decisions, robberies, pillages, and massacres.
Cicero, De Provinciis Consularibus, 100.4
While Gabinius ruled five decades before Quirinius Varus and the birth of Jesus, his actions reflect the corrupted standard of government operation in Syria, of which the Jewish Promised Land was a district. The fact that the Persian Empire was a threat on the eastern front coupled with the corruption was a primary concern to Rome. Therefore, Quirinius was installed as a temporary ruler to take a census and straighten out the mess.
Justin Martyr said that Quirinius had been sent to Syria with the title of procurator at the time Jesus was born. Scholars maintain that he was an interim “governor” and that the census was made when he was ruling or administrating his duties in Syria. According to Roman governmental procedures, each province had its equestrian procurator, who in the eyes of the provincials was almost as important as the governor himself. Therefore, the title of “governor” would have been applied by the common people.
It must be noted that while Quirinius’ command was the District of Syria, the three Jewish provinces within that district comprised only a small area of his responsibilities. According to Tacitus, it was a common practice during the iron rule of Augustus that when a governor failed to perform as desired, a replacement was sent in to take a census and assume control. Other provinces where Augustus exercised this action were in Gaul (27 B.C., 12 B.C.), Cyrene (7 B.C.), and Egypt (30 B.C., 9 B.C.). It has been well documented that a census was taken every fourteen years thereafter until about A.D. 270. Therefore, many scholars believe that the 1764 discovery reveals that he was the Quirinius mentioned in the gospels. If Saturninus ruled from 9-7 B.C., he did so inadequately and, therefore, Quirinius was ordered by Augustus to take temporary control. This theory is a very real possibility. As previously stated, when a new governor took command, one of his first priorities was to take a census to improve the revenue flow to Rome. This is precisely what Augustus did in 30 B.C. when he took control of Egypt and initiated the “first census” shortly thereafter.
In addition to the corruption issues in Syria, the domain of Herod the Great had its own unique set of problems. As previously stated, the Jewish land was subject to the Last Will and Testament of Herod. The Roman puppet made three changes to this document in his last few years of life and each change had to be approved by Rome. Augustus was aware of Herod’s health problems as well as his reputation of being a brutal tyrant and taskmaster. These were the ideal ingredients for a peasant uprising, a potential rebellion the Parthians also recognized. Therefore, a census in the Holy Land would inform Rome of the following:
- The number of men who could potentially rebel at the death of Herod – an important fact for any emperor to know.
- The tone of the political stability. This was not a numerical figure, but those taking the census could gage the feelings of the people in various communities concerning their hostility. This was as important as knowing the number of men who could potentially be in a revolt, especially, since by this time there were already a number of small revolts against the Romans.
- The potential maximum tax revenue of the region. Josephus said that the entire province of Judaea had to pay an annual tax of 600 talents. Since he received his information from Nicholas of Damascus, the personal historian for Herod the Great, his information can be deemed to be highly accurate. That was a huge amount and placed the Jewish people in economic slavery.
- Since tax collectors not only cheated the peasant population, but also the government officials, a census could give an estimation of how honest they were. It was common knowledge among governors that at times the collectors had cheated them as well as merchants and peasants.
According to Josephus, Herod found himself in serious disfavor with Rome as well as with his political allies in Syria. Herod was a puppet king under the direct control of the Roman governor Damascus. When Herod died, his kingdom was divided into four sections, one of which went to the acting Syrian governor. In this politically chaotic environment, scholars believe Quirinius established law and order – precisely what Rome needed. This opinion has gained virtually total support by scholars when two other inscriptions were discovered in Pisidian Antioch, Syria, which stated a certain citizen served in the military under the reign of Quirinius at this time. Both inscriptions honored the same citizen. Luke did not record the name of the official political governor of Syria, but rather, recorded the name of the acting governor who held temporary rulership. He initiated the census and reported directly to the emperor himself. For this reason, Joseph had to take Mary and travel to his ancestral village of Bethlehem.
. The name “Caesar” was originally the family name of the Julian family. However, in short time it became equivalent to “the Emperor.” See Dunn, “Caesar, Consul, Governor.” 1:269-70. See Appendix 1 for dates of reign.
. Connick, The Message and Meaning of the Bible. 112-24; Metzger, The New Testament. 30-32; Tenney, New Testament Times. 130-32.
. Harrison, A Short Life of Christ. 36-37.
. Geikie, The Life and Words. 1:556.
. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:266.
. Schurer, A History of the Jewish People First Division, 2:112.
. McDowell. “The Historical Reliability of the New Testament.” 48.
. Bock, Jesus According to Scripture. 66 n17.
. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. 15.
. Tacitus, Annals 1.11 and Dio Cassius 53.30.2.
. McDowell. “The Historical Reliability of the New Testament.” 47-48.
. Josephus, Antiquities. 18.2.1; Acts 5:37; Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:267. However, in the year A.D. 9 Quirinius was sent to Germany where he lost his life in battle.
. Tenney, New Testament Times. 129.
. See Strabo, Geography 12.6.5, and Tacitus, Annals 3.48; Keller, W. The Bible as History. 372; Stein, R. Jesus the Messiah. 54.
. Deissmann, Light From the Ancient East 270-72; Wilson, Our Father Abraham. 46-48.
. On the census in Roman Egypt, which was typical of the entire Near East, see S. L. Wallace, Taxation in Egypt from Augustus to Diocletian. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University. 1938, 96-115.
. Deissmann, Light From the Ancient East 270-72; Blaiklock, “Census.” 1:771-72; See also Llewelyn, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity. 6:112-146 for other documents related to this subject.
. Suetonius, Augustus 27.5.
. Keller, W. The Bible as History. 357; Stein, R. Jesus the Messiah. 54-55.
. Vardaman, Jerry. “The Roman Census.” 71.
. Link and Tuente. “Swear, Oath.” 3:737-43. Josephus, Antiquities 3.16.10-11.
. The word toparchy is translated as province in 1 Macc. 11:28.
. This sworn document was found on a piece of parchment that was so narrow that it took 31 lines to write it. See Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East. 172-74.
. Vardaman, Jerry. “The Roman Census.” 72-73.
. Strabo, Geography 12.6.5; Tacitus, Annals 3.48; Stein, R. Jesus the Messiah. 54; Keller, W. The Bible as History. 358.
. McDowell. “The Historical Reliability of the New Testament.” 48.
. Tenney, New Testament Times. 137; Stein, R. Jesus the Messiah. 54.
. Santala, The Messiah in the New Testament. 98. A complete translation is found in Caiger, Archaeology and the New Testament. 141. See also http://www.harrington-sites.com/Carrier.htm#Tiburtinus Retrieved Oct., 15, 2011; See also http://www.ibri.org/RRs/RR004/04census.htm. Retrieved June 6, 2015.
. Fruchtenbaum, The Jewish Foundation of the Life of Messiah: Instructor’s Manual. Class 3, page 10.
. Schurer, A History of the Jewish People First Division, 2:109-10.
. Brindle. “The Census and Quirinius: Luke 2:2.” 52.
. From the time the Romans came in 63 B.C. until the “First Revolt” that caused the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in A.D. 70, there were thirteen other revolts and many more riots. See Appendix 25.
. Geikie, The Life and Words. 1:281, 570-72.
. For further study of loans, debts, and how first century Jewish courts ruled, see the Mishnah and the chapter titled Baba Bathra. See also Sanders, “Jesus in Historical Context.” 430.
. See 02.03.03 “Economy” for a brief description of the condition of the economy during the ministry years of Jesus.
. Justin Martyr, First Apology. Ch. 34.
. The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol. X. 216.
. Tacitus, Annals 2.42; Barclay, “Luke.” 20.
. Santala, The Messiah in the New Testament. 97.
. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. 22-23.
. Josephus, Antiquities 17.11.4 (320)
. Josephus, Antiquities 16.7.1 (183).
 The subject of high taxation that resulted in economic slavery is presented by Josephus, Antiquities 17.11.2 (307-308). See also 02.03.03 “Economy” and 03.06.04 “4 B.C. The Death of Herod the Great.” See also Sanders. “Jesus in Historical Context.” 430.
. See 06.03.11 for further information.
. Josephus, Antiquities 16.9.3.
. Harrison, A Short Life of Christ. 37.
. Connick, The Message and Meaning of the Bible. 112-24; Metzger, The New Testament. 30-32; Tenney, New Testament Times. 130-32.