A Christmas Story: Luke and the Census

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin’ius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed, who was with child.” (Luke 2:1-5)

In the spirit of Advent we will examine the controversy and historicity of the “census” Luke mentions in his gospel.

Scholars have long suggested Luke 2:1-5 to be one of the least historically credible accounts in the New Testament, primarily because Caesar Augustus never ordered an empire-wide census and the census of Quirinius did not occur until A.D. 6, while he was Roman legate of Syria. Considering the lengths to which all the Gospel writers go to place their respective accounts within historical context, on the surface Luke appears to give critics of Christianity and the reliability of the Bible evidence for their claims. However, current scholarship seems to have arrived at a reasonable explanation:

Herod the Great ruled over Palestine as king (by appointment from the Roman Senate) from 37 B.C. until his death, which has traditionally been placed in the spring of 4 B.C. Why is this important? That date for Herod’s death would mean Jesus’ birth would have had to occur between 6 and 4 B.C. (remember Matthew says Jesus was born “in the days of Herod the king”), which has made the subsequent chronology tricky. Recent examining of the traditional evidence, though, is forcing a reevaluation of these dates. Scholars are increasingly suggesting Herod’s death may in fact have been later, in the spring of 1 B.C. This new, more developed and exegetical comprehension of the historical and archaeological records lends weight to the Church Fathers’ attempts to place the birth of Jesus, which they argued was between 3 and 2 B.C. If true, pieces start to fall into place….

Caesar Augustus initiated registrations of Roman citizens at various points during his reign, but there is an absence in the historical record of such census taking in the final years of the first century B.C. (Again, these were never empire-wide registrations; instead, they were regional.) Further, since census-taking was related to taxation, and Herod collected his own taxes, some have argued Augustus would have refrained from such a decree for Palestine while Herod ruled.

The problem is that Luke does not mention a “census”: he mentions an “enrollment,” a critical distinction. Josephus recounts that Judea was required to swear an oath of loyalty to Augustus toward the end of Herod’s rule (1), and archaeologists have unearthed artifacts indicating similar loyalty oaths were required elsewhere in the Empire around 3 B.C. Thus, the enrollment for which Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem was not a census, but rather a loyalty oath required by every resident of the Roman Empire. Remember that Augustus’s personal writings attest that the whole Roman world professed him to be “Father” of the Empire prior to “receiving” the official title by 2 B.C, further proof the enrollment in Bethlehem was not a census (2).

So far, so good, but the role of Quirinius is the most problematic aspect in defending Luke due to the dearth of archaeological and historical records pertaining to him. We do know, however, he was legate of Syria in A.D. 6 and conducted a census; yet, there is nothing indicating he held this position multiple times or that he oversaw more than one census. Thanks to Tacitus’s Annals, Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, and Strabo’s Geography, we additionally know Sulpicius Quirinius was a long-serving soldier in good standing, an influential political figure, and a friend to Emperor Tiberius, but nothing indicating a governing position during the time period in question (3). The question that has been raised is how could Luke associate Quirinius with an “enrollment” that occurred many years earlier?

Surprisingly, Luke provides the answer himself! Luke gives Pontius Pilate in 3:1 the identical title of “governor” he does to Quirinius. Since Pilate was a regional procurator, not legate of an entire province, it implies Quirinius was merely a functionary in the governing rule, an administrator, a bureaucrat, a logothete, not an imperial legate, at least in the time period Luke refers to. This case is strengthened by Justin Martyr who referred to Quirinius as a procurator in Judea (4), and by Tertullian, who said Saturninus was the official legate of Syria at the time of the Nativity (5). This would mean Quirinius was simply one of the government perfunctories tasked with administering the oath-taking.

Though it is worth noting both Justin Martyr and Tertullian write as if the Nativity revolved around a census-taking (accountable perhaps to problems of translation?), the recent findings on Caesar Augustus, Herod the Great, and Quirinus, as well as the events surrounding them reveal that Luke’s Nativity account is indeed historically accurate. It demonstrates Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for their requisite oath to Caesar sometime between 3 and 2 B.C., whereupon Jesus was born, and the aforementioned Quirinius was not “governor” of Syria, but just another cog in the governmental machinery. Yet again, the Bible is shown to be one of the most historically reliable sources of information in the ancient world, probably even the most reliable.

1. “Accordingly, when all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good-will to Caesar, and to the king’s government….” Antiquities, Book XVII, Chapter 2, Part 4.

2.  “When I administered my thirteenth consulate, the senate and Equestrian order and Roman people all called me father of the country, and voted that the same be inscribed in the vestibule of my temple, in the Julian senate-house, and in the forum of Augustus under the chario which had been placed there for me by a decision of the senate. When I wrote this I was seventy-six years old. “ Res Gestae, 35.

3. Catholic Bible Dictionary

4. “Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judaea.” The First Apology

5. “But there is historical proof that at this very time a census had been taken in Judaea by Sentius Saturnius….” Against Marcion, Book IV

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