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The World Census of Caesar Augustus

19 Dec
Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Ci...
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Many believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem at the time of a world tax levied by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1), but this is not so. In fact, it is due to this error that many critics think Luke contradicted Matthew who dated Jesus’ birth before Herod’s death, but Rome’s tax levied in Jerusalem didn’t occur until after the death of Herod. The fact is that Rome never taxed the Jews until Herod’s son, Archelaus, proved to be an unworthy leader of Judea and was exiled to Vienne in Gaul. At this time Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria, took authority over Judea, Samaria and Idumea and took account of the value of Jews’ property and substance and levied a tax upon them to be sent to Rome. While Herod was alive, he (Herod) taxed the people according to his will and sent a tribute to Rome. Rome did not directly tax Judea until about 6 CE, when Caesar banished Archelaus.

So, what then was Luke referring to when he recorded that Caesar Augustus took a worldwide tax? Actually, other translations use a better translation for the Greek in this case than the King James offers. The Greek word apographo (G583) and apographe (G582) should be translated enrolled and enrollment respectively. In 2 BCE Augustus celebrated his silver jubilee and this coincided with the 750th anniversary of Rome. It was a year of great celebration in the Empire, and the Roman senate decided to honor Caesar by bestowing upon him the title, Pater Patriae or “Father of the Country”. In doing this, a worldwide census was taken in 3 BCE whereby every citizen of the Roman Empire swore allegiance to Caesar, and a notice stating this was presented to Caesar Augustus in February of 2 BCE.

All that was required of the citizens was to go to the official enrollment center in their city, which may have been a local temple or in the case of the Jews a synagogue or some such place to sign their names stating they loved and supported the Emperor. In the case of Jews whose genealogy went back to David, Herod made a special requirement. He kept a close watch upon anyone who may have a claim upon his throne, even when no claim was expected to be pursued. Herod’s death didn’t occur until January of 1 BCE (see my three part study which can be accessed HERE). Joseph and Mary had to return to Bethlehem not only in order to swear allegiance to the Emperor but also to Herod. Josephus records the incident where over 6000 Pharisees refused to sign the enrollment and were fined.[1]

Later, enrollments such as this one became a matter of course and were implemented whenever the emperor died and a new emperor had taken his place.[2] In the later case Vitellius received word of the death of Tiberius from Rome, and Caius reigned in his stead. Vitellius, the governor of Syria was in Jerusalem at the time and commanded that the multitude swear fidelity to the new emperor.

Besides being logically unsound in that Rome never directly taxed the Jews while Herod the Great was alive, archeological evidence also supports the enrollment translation rather than taxing. An inscription stating that an oath of obedience was taken in other parts of the Empire has been found in Paphlagonia, and is dated to 3BCE. The inscription states: “taken by the inhabitants of Paphlagonia and the Roman businessmen dwelling among them… (and) the same oath was sworn by all the people in the land at the altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts.”[3] There is, therefore, no reason to assume a contradiction between Luke and Matthew. The timeframe of Luke 2:2, however, is a bit controversial but not without a reasonable explanation. Luke states that this enrollment was taken when Quirinius (Cyrenius) was governor of Syria. Actually, he wasn’t the governor of the Syrian province until 6 CE. Nevertheless, Luke’s statement can be taken in one of two ways. First, does the Greek word, protos (G4413), refer to the enrollment being the first of its kind, or does it modify Quirinus’ governorship, meaning before the enrollment taken by Quirinius when he was governor of Syria in 6 CE at the time of Archelaus’ exile? Some scholars believe the latter is possible, pointing to John 1:30 and John 15:18 for support. If this is so, then there is no controversy—the enrollment occurred before Quirinius’ governorship and this agrees with the historical records. However, another possibility is that Quirinius was on a special assignment from the Emperor, deriving his authority from the Roman government at Antioch in Syria to take the enrollment in Judea.

Many of Quirinius’ responsibilities were conducted under the authority of his being especially assigned to the task. He oversaw the census taken in 6 BCE. That was a special assignment. He was assigned as the guardian to Gaius, the son of the Emperor, and this was a special assignment.[4] Tascitus also claimed Quirinius had a special talent for business,[5] which would make him a desirable candidate to conduct a census. Josephus records that there were governors (plural) in Syria about the time of the enrollment,[6] so, although Quirinius isn’t mentioned by name in Josephus’ account, it is entirely possible that he was under special assignment to take care of the census responsibility. The text in Luke couldn’t properly say he was governor of Judea or Palestine, since this was Herod’s kingdom. Luke would have to say that his governorship derived its authority from the Roman province of Syria, even though he was under special assignment to perform the task in Herod’s kingdom, which in reality was subservient to Caesar.


[1] Antiquities 17.2.4, (041-045)

[2] Antiquities 18.5.3, (124)

[3] Lewis & Reinhold, Roman Civilization, vol. II, pps. 34 and 35, Harper Torchbooks Edition.

[4] Tacitus, Annals, III.48

[5] Ibid.

[6] Antiquities XVI. 9.1-2; 11:1-2 (280, 285, 357, 361).

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Posted by on December 19, 2010 in Christianity, Christmas, Religion

 

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