A Proclamation in Nazareth that Changed History
Highly unlikely was that Jesus would be born any place 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 and there was no reason to 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, she would have been looking forward to having the support of her husband, Joseph, family and friends over the few remaining days when that special moment would arrive.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, a Town Crier, known as a praeco in Latin, shouted out a proclamation that changed history…and Mary’s destiny, when he announced a decree from none other than Roman Caesar Augustus:
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
Traditional Nativity stories cite a “census” decree issued by Caesar Augustus was announced by the praeco that had an immediate major impact to Joseph and Mary. Perhaps 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 the Bible, 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 which is not found anywhere in New Testament Greek texts.
First and third verses of Luke chapter 2 contains 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 actual documented record – a written enrollment register or listing resulting from the enrollment activity 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.
A Roman “census” was not just used for taxation assessments and to enumerate the population. It also included other purposes such as to establish a public registry; identify Roman citizens; and sizing the military needs. Oft overlooked, it required an oath to be given at the time of registration that is not unlike today’s legal agreements, ULAS, required for various email, mobile phone and other online services.
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.
Announcement by the praeco of 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
The praeco’s announcement 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 week later or a couple of weeks earlier, 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 already set in motion that was soon to take place in Bethlehem.
Augustus’ registration decree compelled Joseph and Mary to do the unthinkable. At the point when Mary was ready to give birth to her baby, they embarked on a long, 90-mile trek on foot facing the compounded dangers and risks that came with the winding route through the steep, hilly wilderness to Bethlehem. They knew that Mary would give birth before they returned to Nazareth.
Meanwhile, Magi from a foreign country were planning a month’s long journey to Jerusalem not knowing they would eventually also end up in Bethlehem…a small town where neither they nor Joseph and Mary had planned to be. King Herod would actually send the Magi to Bethlehem to find the baby “King of the Jews” in a plot to kill him.
Had Jesus been born in Nazareth, the Magi would never have found him in Bethlehem. Was the timing of the praeco’s announcement of Caesar’s decree merely a coincidence that unexpectedly changed the birthplace of Jesus from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, or was it a fulfillment of Micah’s Messiah prophecy?
Updated September 18, 2022.
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