Nazareth’s Town Crier Proclamation that Changed History
It seemed highly unlikely that Jesus would be born anywhere else other than Nazareth. The angel, Gabriel, who visited Mary announcing her supernatural conception did not instruct her to go anywhere else to bear her child so why would she think otherwise?
Mary was expected to give birth at home – most certainly not in a stone enclave used to shelter livestock in the faraway town of Bethlehem. Nearly 9 months pregnant, Mary would have been looking forward to having the support of her husband, family and friends over the few remaining days when that special moment would arrive.
LK 2: 1-3 “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.” NKJV
What exactly did the Town Crier proclaim that would compel Joseph and Mary to promptly leave for Bethlehem? Traditional Nativity stories cite a “census” decree by Caesar Augustus. Surprisingly, the word “census” is not used in many of the English Gospel translations.
Greek for “census” is kensos meaning “tax” which does not appear in Luke’s Greek text. Used only four times in Bible Greek texts, kensos is used exclusively by the author of Matthew, all specifically in the context of “tax” and not related to the Nativity story.
Latin for “census” is the word censēre and is found nowhere in Bible Greek texts. In fact, the word “census” appears only once in all of the many chronicles of Josephus, a reference to a census taken by Moses in Antiquities.
First and third verses of Luke chapter 2 contain the Greek word apographo, a verb meaning an activity to “write off (a copy or list), i.e. enrollment.” Caesar’s decree initiated an action to make a list of the population in the Roman Empire by conducting an enrollment process. It has been translated into English in various Bible versions as “census,” “registration,” “enrolled,” “numbering,” and “taxed.”
Verse 2 uses the Greek word apographe, a noun meaning “an enrollment, by implication an assessment.” It refers to the documented record – a written enrollment register or listing resulting from the actions initiated by Caesar’s decree.
Translating Greek to English has its challenges and Luke’s Nativity story is a prime example. The difficulty for translators is capturing the correct distinctions in the English translation by relying, at least to some degree, on their contextual interpretation of the text.
Roman censuses required an oath to be given at the time of registration and they were not just used for taxation assessments. Censuses also had several other purposes such as to enumerate the population; establish a public registry; identify who were Roman citizens; and sizing the military.
Common to all five English translation variations of Augustus’ decree are the characteristics of taking an action that produced a documented enrollment registration or a listing which, regardless of purpose, required an oath and enumerated the population. All translations are thus consistent with a typical Roman census registration process.
Town criers announcing Augustus’ decree informed people when and where to appear for the registration. Compliance was not optional. Failure to do so was a very serious Roman offense known as incensus, the origin of the English word “incense” meaning “to arouse extreme anger or indignation.” Punishment was harsh including the possibility of loss of property, slavery, imprisonment or even death.
LK 2: 4-6 “Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was,that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.”NKJV
Proclamation by the town crier in Nazareth came at the tail end of months of Roman government planning and implementation throughout the vast Empire. Interestingly, if the crier’s announcement had occurred just a couple of weeks earlier or later, as very easily could have happened, Jesus would have been born in Nazareth. Timing of the proclamation, instead, set in motion a unique confluence of events soon to take place in Bethlehem.
Implications of Augustus’ registration decree compelled Joseph and Mary, at the point when she was ready to give birth to their firstborn son, to endure the compounded dangers and risks of making the long 90-mile trek on foot through the steep, hilly wilderness to Bethlehem. Meanwhile, Magi from a foreign country were in the process of making a month’s long journey to Jerusalem not knowing they would eventually also end up in Bethlehem…a small town where none of them had planned to be.
Had Jesus been born in Nazareth, the Magi would never have found him in Bethlehem as directed by King Herod and Micah’s Bethlehem Messiah prophecy requirement would not have been met. Was the timing of the town crier’s announcement of Caesar’s decree merely a coincidence that unexpectedly changed the birthplace of Jesus from Nazareth to Bethlehem?
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