The Census

Luke 2 opens with these words:

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

A couple of recent posts have made oblique allusions to historical problems with this census. I thought it might be worthwhile to try to articulate these issues more directly for those who may be intereted in this subject.

Augustus reigned to AD 14, and there was indeed a Publius Sulpicius Quirinius who became legate of Syria in AD 6 and who indeed conducted a census of Judea (not Galilee) in AD 6-7. So if we were able to posit a birthdate of Jesus in AD 6-7, the historical problems would be greatly ameliorated. But this is not only in conflict with Matthew, but with Luke himself, each of which posits that Herod the Great was still alive at the time of Jesus’ birth–yet Herod died in 4 BC, or fully ten years before the census of Quirinius.

One approach at harmonization would be to somehow understand the reign of Herod as extending to the time of Quirinius. There are immense, really insuperable problems with trying to do this, so the more common harmonistic approach is to try to posit a census prior to the well established one of AD 6. So let us examine whether such a harmonization is possible.

First, we would need to understand that a census of the “whole world [IE empire]” would have to be hyperbole. We know of three censuses ordered by Augustus of Roman citizens for statistical purposes: 28 and 8 BC and AD 13-14. We also know of censuses conducted in the provinces, such as in Gaul and Egypt, the main purposes of which were taxation and military service. So Luke could be read not as referring to a single census, but of Augustus’ policy of trying to get accurate population statistics as a matter of ongoing policy.

We have no clear parallel to a Roman census sending people back to their ancestral lands for enrollment. The ones we know of either registered people where they lived or in the principal city of a district from which the tax would be collected. We know of a case in Egypt in AD 104 (based on papyrus evidence) where a temporary dweller had to return to his regular domicile where he had a house for enrollment, which was driven by tax concerns about property and agriculture. If the Lucan description is accurate, it would have simply been Roman aquiescence to the Jewish concern for tribal and ancestral relationships. This is possible, as Rome often allowed local administration of such details.

Luke presumes that the census affected Galileeans, but we know that the census of AD 6 was limited to Judea, which was the area of Quirinius’ direct supervision (Galilee was a tetrarchy ruled by Herod Antipas). So the harmonist must posit an earlier census by Quirinius before Judea and Galilee were ruled separately.

Did Quirinius serve two separate terms as legate of Syria? Here is what we know of this position during the years preceding Quirinius’ known service there:

23-13 BC M. Agrippa
ca. 10 BC M. Titius
9-6 BC S. Sentius Saturninus
6-4 BC or later Quintilius (or Quinctilius) Varus
1 BC to ca AD 4 Gaius Caesar
AD 4-5 L. Volusius Saturninus
AD 6 to after 7 P. Sulpicius Quirinius

There are a couple of gaps in our knowledge of the legates of Syria, but we also know a fair bit about Quiriius’ career during this time, and it seems unlikely he served as legate prior to AD 6. We know from the Annals of Tacitus (III.48) that he served as consul in 12 BC. Sometime between 12 and 6 BC he was leading the legions in war against the Homonadenses. He was an adviser to Gaius Caesar for several years before AD 4. We have no good indication he served two different terms as legate of Syria.

Some people point to a couple of inscriptions to bolster the theory of an earlier legateship of Quirinius. First is the Lapis Tibutinus, discovered in 1764 and now in the Vatican Museum, This titulus, composed after AD 14, describes an unnamed person who was a major official victorious in war, who twice served as legate, the second time as legate of Syria. That this is a reference to Quirinius is pure speculation. The second was found on a marble base discovered in 1912 in Antioch of Pisidia. The inscription is dedicated to G. Caristianus Fronto, a colonist of Antioch who served “as prefect of P. Sulpicius Quirinius, the chief magistrate [duumvir], and as prefect of M. Servilius.” Although the inscription identifies Quirinius as a chief magistrate and not Servilius, it has been argued that the two men should be understood as of equal status, and that this refers to a legateship of Quirinius at the same time that Servius was legate of Gaul. But this would be during the Homonadensian war, and that Quirinius was legate of Syria during that time is highly dubious. So neither of these inscriptions is really evidence for a prior term of Quirinius as legate in Syria.

Even if we could posite a prior term of Quirinius, why would Augustus require a census in Palestine, when he had a client king there (Herod the Great) who paid tribute and had his own tax collectors? The known census of AD 6 was conducted precisely because Herod’s son Archelaus had been deposed and Judea was coming under direct Roman administration. Josephus’ account of the census of Quirinius in AD 6 in order to make an assessment of the property of the Jews and liquidate the estate of Archelaus led to shock among the local populace. Most, following the intercession of the high priest, complied, but Judas the Galilean led a rebellion, becoming the leader of the Zealot movement. So the account of Josephus does not seem to support the notion that the populace was already accustomed to direct census/taxation by Rome.

It appears that Luke knew that the birth of Jesus occured at the conclusion of the reign of a Herod and at a time of political trouble, but there were two such events, and writing 80 years after the fact in a society without ready documentation for such things (this was before the internet or Google, after all), Luke confused the two events. One was the death of Herod in 4 BC, when Jews protested the giving of the kingdom to Archelaus, and the other and more memorable was in AD 6, when Judea came under direct Roman rule.


  1. Well, we can’t be too hard on old Luke. 80 years blurs fone’s memory, and I’d do worse in a tax audit.

  2. blurs *one’s memory… Ack!

  3. When I read these awesome posts by Kevin, in my head I hear kung-fu sound effects. Whap! Thwak! Hi-ha! Zzzot! Eeow!

    He has this way of breaking out the intellectual judo and throwing down facts and faith like no one else.

    Namaste, Kevin.

  4. Nice stuff, Kev.

  5. “(this was before the internet or Google, after all”

    Not so. There was an internet in ancient times, but the technology was lost during the Great Apostasy.

  6. Another avenue you don’t seem to have marched down-or maybe you have and just didn’t write it here: Luke talks about taxation and you are discussing a census. I can understand the link, but are they necessarily so? Might there have been a special taxation ordered at the imperial level that wasn’t necessarily linked to a census? Perhaps even drawing on a prior census as the basis for the taxation? And maybe in such a scenario Joseph decided to go back to his ancestral homeland “for tax purposes” but that this wasn’t necessarily something everyone would have done?

    I don’t raise these questions with any evidence, it’s just that it seems to me that we’re talking about an entirely different world here (ancient Rome) with reams and reams of missing macro and micro data. And that in addition to some degree of human error in the historical record, we could also simply be missing a huge part of the picture ourselves because of those large gaps in the historical record.

    Which to me is simply part of the larger logical point regarding faith and historicity: more often than not history can’t prove scriptural events (the Exodus, the Book of Mormon, etc.) and people use that to try to claim that logic demands we toss religion out as fable. But it seems to me in most cases the historical record is so fractured that it’s like we’re trying to understand the inner workings of a semiconductor factory by peaking in through random cracks in the outside wall. There’s so much we can be missing that logically we have to acknowledge there is huge scope for there being an explanation we don’t currently have the facts on for reconciling the scriptural and the historical record.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    The Greek verb rendered “to be taxed” is apographO, which more literally means “to be enrolled,” or more broadly “to enter into public records the names of men, their property and income.” You can recognize the elements of the verb in English; it is a compound verb formed from the preposition apo + graphO, which means “to write” (cf. such English words as graphic, graphite, graph, etc.). So the text is clearly talking about a census; the KJV language about being taxed is simply extrapolating from the census itself to its doubtless ultimate purpose, which would have been taxation.

    (My post also addresses problems with direct Roman taxation of a client kingdom like this. In such a case the taxation would have been indirect in the form of tribute paid by the client king, who would have collected it by his own taxation.)

  8. So what about the dating issue, Kevin?

    (Yeah, I know the popular view is after 70 AD due to a dependence on Mark)

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Most scholars would date Luke to AD 80-90, but a significant minority would put it earlier, say 60-65.

  10. The idea that Luke got a bit mixed up 80 years after the fact makes sense. So might Joseph and Mary have made a trip to Bethlehem at such an inopportune time for another reason?

    Passover? A big carpentry contract? A family reunion?

  11. Kevin, thanks for the clarification. I should have done as I usually do and at least checked my Arabic bibles first, and at least two of those translations do clearly point to something more akin to a census, the older translation’s “iktitaab” in fact almost exactly corresponds with what you say the Greek apographO means (in case it wasn’t already clear, I know no Greek). Appreciate the insights. It’s all a huge puzzle to me, one I don’t imagine we’ll get more than a few bits and bobs of solved before we die, but I relish the process of trying to figure it out and appreciate folks like you who lend your expertise!

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    mistaben, you’re right that the census was a convenient mechanism for getting Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem. If that no longer works, they could have made the journey for some other reason, just as you posit. Or they may have simply lived in Bethlehem to begin with, as Matthew seems to assume. Or Jesus may have been born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, an idea I explored (noncommitally) in a recent post.

  13. #7
    The Greek verb rendered “to be taxed” is apographO, which more literally means “to be enrolled,” or more broadly “to enter into public records the names of men, their property and income

    While I’m unsure of the meaning found in Luke there is a Roman practice to identify all citizens in order to establish their allegience to the state.

    It’s interesting that the early Catholic Church used some of the same means to identify all members and the religious affilliations of the husband and wife. They would also note if any children were born and whether any were illegitimate.

    Pre-dating the Catholic Church, the Roman Empire may have requested numbering or enrolling their subjects including Joseph and Mary. Heaven knows they would’ve needed the support of all subjects when they went to war!

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