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What was the Census that took Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem?

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In the Christmas narrative Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem because of a census. This is the story …

The Bethlehem Census

History’s most famous census is a biblical one and the backdrop to the Christmas story. It’s the cause of Joseph going to Bethlehem, taking Mary with him. Only Matthew and Luke record the birth of Jesus, but the details of the census only appear in Luke’s account. According to Luke, the Roman Emperor Augustus ordered a general census of the Empire, and people went to their hometowns for it, which was the reason Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-3). This is recalled every Christmas.

Modern censuses

Most people are familiar with censuses. The United Kingdom has held a census every 10 years since 1801, and the most recent one was on 21 March 2021. The details in recent censuses are used to help government planning, and the details in historic ones are helpful for family history. The earliest census one in England was the Domesday book made in 1086, which was a list of property owners. In the US, censuses have also been held every 10 years since 1790. Today censuses can be completed online, but in the past had to be done in person. Throughout history, censuses have been used for many purposes such as registering oaths of allegiance, listing men available for military service, for property registration, for taxation, or a combination of these.

Other biblical censuses

The Bethlehem census was not the first census recorded in the Bible. Censuses appear throughout biblical history. The earliest census in the Bible took place many centuries earlier. After Moses had liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, each of the tribes had to pay its share for maintaining sacrifices and worship at the tabernacle, and men had to be ready to fight.

Moses and Aaron took a census of the Israelites categorised by clan and family, which listed all the men aged 20 or over, who were fit for military service (Numbers 1:2). Then after 40 years in exile, another census was held to again record all men aged 20 years old or over who were fit for military service. They assembled in the plains of Moab across the River Jordan from Jericho. It was an almost totally new generation of people, because the Bible records that the only names which were on this census and the one from forty years before were Caleb son of Jephunneh, and Joshua. (Numbers 26:64-65) This census was then used to help divide Canaan amongst the 12 tribes of Israel. A book listed all the numbers of men from these censuses, which is why the fourth Book of Moses is also called the “Book of Numbers”.

Later King Saul held a census of men from Israel and Judah (1 Samuel 11:8). His successor King David gave orders to Joab, the commander of his army to count the people from the tribes of Israel (2 Samuel 24:2) and the whole story is recorded in 2 Samuel 24 and in 1 Chronicles 21. This census took over nine months to complete (2 Samuel 24:9). Subsequently, King Solomon took a census of all the foreigners who were in the land of Israel (2 Chronicles 2:17).

In the Old Testament after the return from captivity in Babylon, another census was held of those who returned to Jerusalem and Judea. The results of this census are recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah.

What was the census?

The Greek word used by Luke for census is ἀπογράφω and it can be translated in different ways, such as register, enrol, enumerate or inscribe. It has the idea of entering names into a public record, but the purpose is not specified. The Authorized King James Version (KJV) followed William Tyndale’s translation in that it had “taxing”, but it may or may not have been linked to taxation. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) had “enrolment”. The New King James Version (NKJV), the New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT) have “census”. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the English Standard Version (ESV) have “registration”. These are all valid translations, but each implies something slightly different.

Roman censuses

Censuses were held by the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians and Chinese. In the Roman Empire, it is known that many registrations or censuses took place. Censuses were a means of making a roll-call, a declaration for registering property ownership, or registering men for military service. Each province paid taxes according to its headcount. The census which Luke records could have been a property declaration, an oath of allegiance, a listing of men for military service, or a combination. It is known that Augustus registered people who had made oaths of allegiance.

The census was important to the Roman system of administration and they were carried out about every five years or so, and provided a register of citizens and their property. The word census comes from the Latin word ‘censere’ meaning to ‘estimate’. Whatever it was that took place, the Roman census was obligatory, and there was no way for the average Joe (or Joseph) to fight it.

Who was Caesar Augustus?

This census was ordered by Caesar Augustus. He was a real person. His full name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus and he was the first Emperor. Before him, it had been the Roman Republic. He ruled the Roman Empire from 63 BC to 14 AD and established the Pax Romana. We know that he ordered a number of censuses during his long reign, because shortly before his death in 14 AD, Emperor Augustus left a personal account of his life and achievements which was engraved on bronze columns set up in Rome.

It is known as “Res Gestae Divi Augusti”, which in English can be translated as the “Acts of the Divine Augustus”, and it gives a first-hand account of some of the things he did, which he wanted recorded for posterity. Within this account, he recalls that he ordered widespread censuses of the city of Rome at least three times in 28 BC, 8 BC, and 14 AD, and that on other occasions people registered an oath of loyalty to him. He died in 14 AD aged 75, and the month of August is named after him. He was succeeded by Tiberius, who was the Roman Emperor during the rest of Jesus’s earthly life.

What area was registered?

The Bible says “it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1 NKJV). Many translations such as the King James Version (KJV) and the New King James Version (NKJV) have “all the world”. Augustus would have had no jurisdiction nor ability to call a census for areas outside the Roman Empire.

The census could not have been “all the world” in a literal sense but it could have been all the Roman world. The New International Version (NIV) actually inserts the word “Roman” here, which is not in the Greek, to make it clear it was the “entire Roman world” (Luke 2:1 NIV). The New Living Translation and the Good News Bible similarly say “throughout the Roman Empire” to interpret what the text means.

This is one of those many occasions when the Bible uses hyperbole to refer to the whole world, but to mean the known world or their world at the time. We find this in other places too such as when apparently “The whole world sought audience with Solomon” (1 Kings 10:24 NIV) but then only mentions rulers from the region. Similarly, at Pentecost Luke writes that there were “Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5), but then lists only places in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Who was Quirinius?

Interestingly Luke refers to the census as the first census that took place while “Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2 NIV). It can also be translated as “Quirinius was governing Syria” which is how the New King James Version renders it (Luke 2:2 NKJV). He may or may not have been the official governor, and if not he was governing in some other capacity.

The name is spelt as Cyrinius in the Authorized Version (Luke 2:2 KJV), because it is Κυρηνίου in Greek, but is spelt in its Latin form as Quirinius in all modern translations of the English Bible. Quirinius was a real person. His full name was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, and he was a Roman official who lived from about 51 BC to 21 AD. He is mentioned by many ancient authors, including Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Tacitus and Caesar Augustus himself in his Res Gestae Divi Augusti. Quirinius rose to fame as a military commander, and in 12 BC Quirinius was created consul.

During the reign of King Herod, surviving records do not specifically record Quirinius as Governor, nor do they specifically mention a census. Encyclopaedias have a gap in their knowledge of who was Governor from 4 BC to 1 BC, so Quirinius may have been governing then. However, history does record a later census under Quirinius in 6 AD. Some scholars have concluded that Luke muddled his story up and made a mistake, suggesting that he meant this census, which could not have been the one at the time of Jesus.

However, a careful reading of Luke shows that he seems to be well aware of two different censuses. Luke calls the Bethlehem census “the first census” while Quirinius was governing Syria (Luke 2:2). The use of the word “first” implies there was more than one, and makes little sense unless there was at least a second census. Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, and in that book, Luke mentions another census when he quotes Gamaliel talking about the insurrection of Judas of Galilee and the Zealots “in the days of the census” (Acts 5:37 NIV). We know about this from the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote that it took place in “the thirty-seventh year after Caesar’s defeat of Antony at Actium” which is about 6 AD.

The verse “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2) can also be translated as “This was registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria”, as admitted by footnotes in the English Standard Version (ESV) or as “This census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria” as admitted by a footnote in the New International Version (NV). So, either Luke is saying this was a census before Quirinius governed, or it was a census when he had governed on a previous occasion. Either is plausible. Tacitus recorded that after Quirinius died in Italy in AD 21, Tiberius requested the Roman senate to call a public funeral for him.

Registration

According to Luke 2:3, “All went to their own towns to be registered.” Roman law instructed property owners to register for taxation in the district where they owned land. It may be that Joseph was registered in Bethlehem and had gone to Nazareth for work. However if he was from Bethlehem with family there, it seems odd that he could not find anywhere to stay. It could simply be that they could not find anywhere to stay, because many people knew him, and people did not want the disgrace of taking in an unmarried mother.

How long did they stay?

They seem to have stayed in Bethlehem a long time after the census, because Luke recorded that Mary attended the Temple for her purification, which takes place 40 days after birth (Luke 2:22-34). Later Matthew records that wise men visited Jesus when he was child at a house when he may have been about a year old. From Bethlehem they went to Egypt before returning to Nazareth.

The Final Census

The last and final census in the Bible is the final roll-call into the Book of Life, in which God records the names of those who are saved for Heaven. In the NET Bible translation it is called “the census book of the nations” (Psalm 87:6 NET).





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