Part Two: Making Sense of the Census

The following is the second part of a five-part series. Read Part One: Is the Story Myth or Fact?

By Robert Stackpole, STD

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius 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. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7 RSVCE)

It may come as a surprise to many Catholics, but this passage from the Nativity story in St. Luke’s Gospel is hotly disputed by historians. Many scholars believe that Luke desperately tried to fit early Christian legends about the birth of Jesus into an historical framework, but he simply failed to pull it off. For example, Princeton New Testament historian James Charlesworth wrote this in his book The Historical Jesus (2008):

The historian is suspicious of the accuracy of Luke’s use of a Roman census to date and locate Jesus’ birth. Such a census is not supported by the known habits of officials during the Roman Empire. It is impractical that all who were to be taxed would know precisely where they were born and were able to return there for taxation. Luke may have confused a census under Quirinius in 6 c.e. with Jesus’ earlier birth. (65)

This hardly amounts to a fair assessment of the evidence. There are several possible scenarios available to the historian here, none of which solves every historical conundrum regarding the census. Nevertheless, each one comes close to a possible solution of the puzzle — close enough to exonerate St. Luke from grossly distorting the historical facts.

The Roman Empire’s Taxation Machine

First of all, St. Luke does not specify that all the Jews had to return to the place of their birth; rather it would seem they had to go to the ancestral city of their particular tribe or clan. In a much-neglected work by historian of the New Testament and ancient Rome, Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus and His Story (1970 edition), the author tells us:

The house of David came to Jerusalem with Ezra [Ezra 8:2]. Fanning out from Jerusalem, the returned exiles were resettled, each family in its own city [Nehemiah 7:26], their inheritances restored [Neh 11:3, 20]. The family home of the Davidites was Bethlehem, the city of David [I Sam 16:4, Lk 2:11]. There the homecoming members of the house of David established themselves again. In Nehemiah 7:26, the “men of Bethlehem” are mentioned expressly. In Nehemiah 10:35, the annual deliveries of wood for the use of the temple are assigned to the various patriarchal families who have settled around Jerusalem. In Ta’anith 4:5, the house of David is specially mentioned among the suppliers of wood. In John 7:42, and elsewhere Bethlehem appears as the center of the Davidic clan. It is obvious that not all the descendants of the house of David could continue to reside permanently in Bethlehem. But Bethlehem did remain the center, in terms of property rights also. For Jewish laws of inheritance made a point of preserving unbroken the hereditary property of patriarchal houses. (20)

Thus, it is not at all fanciful to believe, as St. Luke evidently did, that Joseph was a member of the house of David, and knew it; although he lived in Nazareth, he also would have been well aware that the ancestral center of his clan was Bethlehem.

Secondly, in Jesus and His Story, Stauffer provided an in-depth defense of the main outlines of St. Luke’s account of the census, based upon ancient documentation of Roman methods of census-taking and taxation. Stauffer points to a distinction in Greek between an apographe (an “enrolment,” the registration of taxable property and persons entailing an appearance at the registry office by most members of the family — the word actually used by St. Luke in chapter two) and an apotimesis (a tax assessment requiring payment). An enrollment that required Mary and Joseph to journey to Bethlehem was likely of the former kind, an apographe, and that could be why there is no mention in Luke of the armed rebellion that accompanied the apotimesis under Quirinius in 6 A.D. when the taxes actually had to be paid (and this could also explain why the ancient Jewish historian Josephus does not even bother to record the earlier, more peaceful apographe). That could also be why St. Luke describes it in 2:2 as the “first enrollment,” implying that there was a second one many years later (perhaps the apotimesis of 6 A.D.). Moreover, some scholars argue that Luke 2:2 legitimately can be translated as “This census took place before Quirinius was governing Syria,” which certainly makes sense if St. Luke meant to distinguish the earlier apographe from the famous apotimesis under Quirinius that led to such trouble many years later. 

On the other hand, it could be that there were two different men named Quirinius who had leadership roles in Palestine or its environs in that era, one after the other (Quirinius was actually a common name in the Roman Empire). Archaeologist Jerry Vardaman has found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it in micrographic letters. This Quirinius apparently served as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 B.C. until just after the death of Herod (ca. 4-1 B.C.). Since historians had already established that there was a Quirinius in charge of levying taxes on Judea in 6 A.D. that led to riots by the Jews, these could be two different people. On this reckoning, Luke’s words about an enrollment (apographe) taking place “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” would be exactly right: he was simply referring to the first “Quirinius.”

In any case, the biggest difficulty with Stauffer’s theory is that there does not seem to be as clear a distinction in meaning between these two ancient Greek words, apographe and apotimesis, as Stauffer claims, not even in the New Testament. Some scholars believe that is a decisive mark against his theory — but that is hardly fair. Even if the two words were fluid in meaning, Stauffer is right to point out that the Romans often taxed whole regions of the empire in two stages: first with an assessment of taxable persons and property — a huge undertaking and drawn out process that often lasted many years — followed by the actual appearance of at least one member of each family to pay the required taxes. Even if there were no entirely consistent terminology for these two stages of the taxation process, the Roman pattern fits the Lukan account very well. If there were a contentious payment of taxes in Judea in 6 A.D., there must have been a tax assessment of persons and property well before that — which easily could have coincided with Mary’s pregnancy.

Swearing and Oath to the Emperor

One can find an altogether different theory spelled out in The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament (2010 edition, see page 109). Many scholars believe that Herod actually died in 1 B.C., not 4 B.C. Some of the early Christian writers date the birth of Jesus between 3 and 2 B.C. (the Christian monks who established the B.C.-A.D. distinction evidently made a mistake of several years). Moreover, there is also considerable evidence that in 3-2 B.C. everyone in the Roman Empire was required to swear allegiance to Caesar Augustus as “Father” of the Empire. Thus, the registration described in Luke 2:1 may have involved an enrollment for swearing this oath, and not a census and assessment taken for the sake of taxation. The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible concludes:

This would mean that Jesus was born between 3 and 2 B.C., the enrollment of Joseph and Mary was a registration of their loyalty to the Roman Caesar, and the documentation of the oath was organized and implemented in Judea by Quirinius several years before he was made the official governor of Syria. This reconstruction not only eases the chronological tensions in Lk 2:1-2, it helps confirm Luke’s reliability as an historian as well as the early Church’s reliability as a channel of historical traditions. (p. 109)

There are two difficulties with this scenario, however; (1) on this theory, in the light of the inscription on Vardaman’s coin, and depending on the actual date of Herod’s death, there might have been two men named Quirinius who were in governing roles over the Syria-Judea area at the same time. Not impossible, but highly unlikely. More importantly, (2) the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible explanation does not mention how Quirinius pulled off a general taxation of the people of Judea in 6 A.D. without having had a general enrollment and assessment for taxation first (again, an assessment which was often done by the Romans many years in advance of the actual collection of taxes, because it was such a huge and cumbersome procedure, as Stauffer’s research shows). At least Stauffer’s scenario allows that the census mentioned in St. Luke’s Gospel manifests an original enrollment and assessment for taxation purposes in Judea, the precursor to the social unrest of the collection of those taxes around 6 A.D.

Nevertheless, the “census as loyalty oath” theory has at least one clear advantage: it explains why St. Luke tells us that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus “that all the world should be enrolled” (Lk 2:1). The loyalty oath was a worldwide event: a general taxation of Judea and the surrounding area was not. On the other hand, it could be that by a “decree” for “all the world,” St. Luke simply meant that there was a general Augustan policy to levy taxes on the whole Empire, a task which was ongoing, and which began and finished in different regions of the Empire at different times. There does seem to be some evidence that this was precisely what happened.

And so the historical discussion continues.

What conclusion can the faithful draw from this unfinished debate? Simply this: that either of these two theories — each one plausible in itself, if the final details can be ironed out — would exonerate St. Luke of any charge of trying to insert Christian legends of the Nativity into an historical framework.

Given that so much of the rest of Luke’s written work, in both his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, has been confirmed by historical research, he should be given the benefit of the doubt here as well. While the Census conundrum has not been solved once and for all, historians have come pretty close. He’s surely innocent until proven guilty. 

Thus, Christians can rest assured that in some sense, Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem long ago, to fulfill the legal demands of the Roman Empire, as subjects of Caesar Augustus. They had to endure political oppression and government over-reach just as we sometimes do; they were law-abiding citizens of their country, just as we all must be.

Next Time: 'O little Town of Bethlehem,' Was Jesus Really Born There?

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers.

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash.



You might also like...

How do Scripture scholars explain the star that led the Wise Men to Christ? Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD, explains. 

The miraculous conception of Jesus? What does the evidence actually suggest?

Some argue Jesus wasn't really born in Bethlehem. Dr. Robert Stackpole sets the record straight.