Augustus – More than Just the Nativity Story

Caesar Augustus is well-known in the Luke’s Nativity account for his proclaimed registration decree.[1] Little known actions by the Emperor of Rome had further implications long before and after to the accounts written about the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

LK 2:1-3 “…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)

Adopted son of Julius Caesar, his birth name of Octavius was officially changed by the Roman Senate in 27 BC to Augustus meaning “the exalted one.” At that time, the Senate granted him full powers as Emperor of Rome reigning as Caesar until his death in 14 AD.[2]

Initially Augustus was one of three triumvirate rulers of Rome along with Marc Antony and Marcus Lepidus. Antony and his lover, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, allied to challenge the rule of Rome ending with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.[3] Augustus triumphed, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, and King Herod unexpectedly rose to prominence.[4]

Antony and Cleopatra were backed by Herod in the War of Actium and, being on the losing wrong side, he expected to be executed by Augustus. Thinking he had nothing to lose, Herod traveled to Rome to present himself to Caesar whereupon Augustus, after a clever arugment presented by Herod, allow him to retain his crown as Judea’s king.[5]

Luke referenced Caesar Augustus and Quirinius governing in Syria while Herod was King at the time Jesus was born. Problematic, Quirinius is not considered by secular history to be a governor in Syria until years later in 6 AD which then raises the question about the credibility of Luke’s account.[6] Unwittingly, Jewish historian Josephus injected Augustus into the timeline enigma with a clue that had nothing to do with his registration “census” decree.

Wars of the Jews adds a piece to the timeline puzzle by bringing to light an intriguing detail. A letter had been sent by Herod to Augustus asking for official guidance on the sensitive matter of the murder conspiracy trial to kill the King by two of his very own sons. Josephus referenced Caesar’s response:[7]

“With these directions Herod complied and came to Berytus [Beirut] where Caesar had ordered the court to be assembled…The presidents set first, as Caesar’s letters had appointed, who were Saturninus, and Pedanius, and their lieutenants that were with them, with whom was the procurator Volumnius also…after whom sat the principal men of all Syria…”

Caesar Augustus named two Syria province “presidents” and a procurator to be judges – three Roman authorities who had concurrent governing responsibilities in Syria. Conventional wisdom has been that only one president and one procurator governed a Roman province.

Varus succeeded Saturninus, Jesus was born, months later Herod died, and Josephus wrote that Syria president Varus and procurator Coponius rushed to secure Herod’s estate.[8] Assuming Augustus still recognized two presidents and a procurator in Syria, who then was the second president in Syria when Jesus was born – was it Quirinius? 

Many governors of Syria over the course of decades were routinely referred to as “president” by Josephus, including Varus. Curiously the Roman historian of the Jews did not ever refer to Cyrenius aka Quirinius as the “president” of Syria. Had it not been for the letter by Augustus naming Pedanius as another president of Syria, the existence of a second concurrent president of Syria just months later when Jesus was born, would not otherwise be known.

Commencing with the thirteenth consulship of Augustus on February 5, 2 BC, the Roman Senate celebrated his Silver Anniversary as Emperor.[9] To mark the occasion, Augustus was proclaimed Pater Patriae, the “Father of the Country,” an honor  included in his self-authored “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus” (Res gestae divi Augusti).[10]

Treatment of the Jews under Augustus was officially to be in moderation. To that end, Augustus had chiseled into a pillar in the Temple of Caesar in Rome his decree granting the Jews certain liberties. Anyone who transgressed this decree was to be severely punished.[11]

After Herod’s death, Augustus decreed the former Judean kingdom to be ruled by the three surviving sons of King Herod – half by Archelaus as ethnarch and the remaining half divided among Philip and Antipas as tetrarchs. Augustus promised Archelaus “the royal dignity hereafter, if he governed his part virtuously.”[12]

Putting to the test Augustus’ decree concerning the Jews, Caesar stood by his word. Ten years later after Archelaus failed to govern Judea with moderation, a complaint was lodged against him by “the principal men of Judea.” Augustus banished Archelaus to Vienne, a punishment which had long-term implications.[13]

Emperor Tiberius adopted the governing philosophies of Augustus including the treatment of the Jews with moderation. This philosophy affected the governing standards of the two Roman Procurators sent to Judea during the 22-year rule of Tiberius, the second of whom was Pilate.[14]

Two years after condemning Jesus to the cross at the behest of the Jews, Pilate himself was subjected to a complaint lodged by Samarians of Judea charging mistreatment. Vitellius, governor of Syria, removed Pilate as procurator of Judea and sent him to Rome to be judged by Tiberius according to the decree of Augustus. Before he reached Rome, Tiberius was murdered and tradition says Pilate was banished by Emperor Caligula to Marseilles, in southern France.[15]

Actions taken by Augustus affected Herod, Quirinius, Tiberius and Pilate – all secular historical figures mentioned in the Gospel accounts who had impacts on the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Does this historical information lend credibility to the Gospel accounts about Jesus?

 

Updated December 18, 2021.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES

[1] “Augustus.”  Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2014.  <http://www.livius.org/person/augustus>  Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals. 14 AD. Internet Classic Archive. 2009. <http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.html>
[2] Suetonius (C. Suetonius Tranquillus or C. Tranquillus Suetonius).  The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. n.d.  <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/home.html>  “Augustus Comes to Power.”  UNRV History |The Roman Empire.  United Nations of Roma Victrix. 2020. <http://www.unrv.com/fall-republic/augustus.php> “Augustus.” Livius.org.
[3] “Second Triumvirate.” Livius.org. 2015. <http://www.livius.org/articles/concept/triumvir/second-triumvirate>
[4] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews.  Book XIV, Chapter 14; Book XV, Chapters V-VI. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. Book XV, Chapter VI.1, 5-7. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book I, Chapter 20.1-3. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  “Mark Antony.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mark-Antony-Roman-triumvir/Alliance-with-Cleopatra> Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Jerusalem.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Chapter VI.5-6.
[vi] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter I.1. Schurer, Emil.  A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. Volume 1. 1890. pp 350-351. <http://books.google.com/books?id=BRynO3W9FPcC&pg=PP1#v=snippet&q=Tiberius&f=falseThe New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Volume 9. p 375.  Doig, Kenneth F.  New Testament Chronology. Chapter 5. 1990. <https://books.google.com/books?id=pZJAAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA375&lpg=PA375&dq=Sentius+Saturninus+bio+encyclopedia&source=bl&ots=Yr6hey_Yyt&sig=ACfU3U3_QfHNQxSi3nMAhiiAZdTJqMNr_Q&hl=en&ppis=_e&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwikl7O2j5_nAhURXM0KHToTC2oQ6AEwA3oECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=Sentius%20Saturninus%20bio%20encyclopedia&f=false>  No Woe Zone. <http://nowoezone.com/NTC05.htm> “Syria.” Regnal Chronologies. 2014. <http://web.raex.com/~obsidian/Syria.html#Syria>
[7] Josephus, Flavius. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVII.2.  Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter XI.
[8] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapters V.2,   VII.1. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters XXXI.5, XXXII.1, 5, XXXIII.7-8. Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the death of Herod.” 2015. Academia.edu. 2014. <http://www.academia.edu/2518046/Dating_the_death_of_Herod>  Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Chapter 11. A.S.K. (Associates for Scriptural Knowledge. 2003. <http://web.archive.org/web/20190620081117/http://www.askelm.com/star
[9]Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Gertoux. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.” Augustus. The Deeds of the Devine Augustus. “pater patriae.”  Nova Roma.  “pater patriae.” Encyclopædia Britannica.  Mosley, John.  “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows.”
[10] Augustus, Caesar. The Deeds of the Devine Augustus (Res gestae divi Augusti). <http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html>  “pater patriae.” Nova Roma. 2007. <www.novaroma.org/nr/Pater_Patriae_(Nova_Roma)>  Martin. The Star of Bethlehem. Chapter 13. Mosley, John. “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows.” Third Quarter 1981, International Planetarium Society, Inc. n.d. <http://www.ips-planetarium.org/?page=a_mosley1981>
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter VI.2, 8.
[12] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII. Chapter XI.4; Book XVII. Chapter XII.2.  Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Galilee; Herod the Great; Jerusalem; Judaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624> Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Idumaea; Jerusalem.” 2002. < https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[13] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII. Chapter XIII.2; Book XVIII, Chapter I.1.
[14] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter II.2; VI.5 “Valerius Gratus.” Encyclopedia.com. 2019. <https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/valerius-gratusdeg>
[15] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter XIII. 2, 5.

An Unusual Roman Census Decree By Caesar Augustus

Traditional Nativity stories refer to the “census” decreed by Caesar Augustus. It was the motivation for Joseph to take Mary in her late eighth month of pregnancy to travel to  Bethlehem 90-miles away where Gospel Nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke say she gave birth to Jesus of Nazareth. Aligning with secular historical timelines seems to pose a conflict with these two Gospels.

LK 2:1-3 “Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.” NASB

Surprisingly the word “census” is not used in some of the Gospel English translations. One reason is that nowhere in the original Greek texts is found the Latin word censēre .[1] In a parallel comparison, the translated English word “census” appears only once in any of the four voluminous works by Jewish historian Josephus an Antiquities reference to a census taken by Moses.[2]

Derived from the Latin word censēre is the English word “census;” however, the only possible Greek equivalents are the two words, apographo and apographe with very similar meanings.[3] By definition, apographo is a verb meaning an activity to “write off (a copy or list), i.e. enrollment.” The noun, apographe, means “an enrollment, by implication an assessment,” the actual registry data produced by the enrollment activity.

As a verb, apographo, the activity, is used in Luke 2 verses 1 and 3 while the noun, apographe, is the registry document usage in verse 2. Both Greek words have been interchangeably translated in English Bible translations using variations of five different words – “census,” “registered,” “enrolled,” “numbering,” and “taxed.”[4]

Applying the Greek definitions to Luke’s account, Augustus issued a decree for an enrollment activity in verse 1. The actual enrollment register (list) documentation occurred in verse 2 while Quirinius was governing in Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own city for the enrollment activity in verse 3.

Backdrop to the historical context are the multiple facets associated with a Roman censēre where enumeration of Roman citizens was the prized objective. Augustus took three lustrum Roman censuses during his 44-year reign. In Caesar’s own words:

“When I was consul the fifth time (29 B.C.E.), I increased the number of patricians by order of the people and senate. I read the roll of the senate three times, and in my sixth consulate (28 B.C.E.) I made a census of the people with Marcus Agrippa as my colleague. I conducted a lustrum, after a forty-one year gap, in which lustrum were counted 4,063,000 heads of Roman citizens. Then again, with consular imperium I conducted a lustrum alone when Gaius Censorinus and Gaius Asinius were consuls (8 B.C.E.), in which lustrum were counted 4,233,000 heads of Roman citizens. And the third time, with consular imperium, I conducted a lustrum with my son Tiberius Caesar as colleague, when Sextus Pompeius and Sextus Appuleius were consuls (14 A.C.E.), in which lustrum were counted 4,937,000 of the heads of Roman citizens.” – The Deeds of Divine Augustus [5]

Roman lustrums involved a lesser known religious component. A sacred ceremony at the conclusion of a lustrum involved the Censor offering a sacrifice to the god Mars on behalf of Rome’s citizens.[6]

Taxation comes into play because data collection from a censēre was typically used as the basis to initiate a tax valuation, an assessment or appraisal. A Roman procurator was then responsible for actual tax collection activities managed through local authorities.[7]

Abuses of tax collection were rife, a natural consequence of the Roman tax collection system. Publicani purchased franchise rights to collect taxes through an auction held in Rome.[8] A franchise inherently involves making a profit, but Rome didn’t care about how the proceeds were collected as long as the government received its expected revenue. This opened the door to dishonest and abusive behaviors to collect more revenue than was necessary by the franchise owner’s tax collection agents known as publicans, the despised tax collectors of the Gospels such as was the Disciple Matthew.[9]

Syncing Luke’s account with the Augustus census in 8 BC does not come without controversy concerning historians, religious scholars, and detractors who take varied and opposing positions. Both Herod and Augustus had to be alive thereby establishing the limiting timeline parameter. Further complicating the picture is the controversy surrounding the date of Herod’s death.

Luke corroborates Matthew’s Herod reference and adds two more dating parameters – the “census” and Quirinius factors.[10] According to Luke, the birth of Jesus occurred when Quirinius governed in Syria making the year 8 BC too soon under known or possible secular historical scenarios.

Secular history places Herod’s death in 4 BC as determined from the printed accounts of Josephus’ Antiquities reckoning. The calculation is based on the anchor date of the 20th year of the reign of Tiberius.[11]

Investigation on the Antiquities dating by historian buff David Beyer included travel to major world libraries holding handwritten copies predating the first printings that came as a result of the invention of the Gutenburg press in 1544.[12] Beyer discovered all existing handwritten manuscripts of Antiquities actually say Herod’s death occurred during the 22nd year of Tiberius, not the 20th year. Recalculating, the 2-year difference translates into Herod’s death occurring in 2 BC or early 1 BC – not 4 BC.[13]

Building on Beyer’s discovery, Dr. Earnest Martin’s research points to a special set of circumstances in 2 BC.[14] Rome was in the height of its glory commemorating the 750th anniversary of its founding and was the same year as the Silver Jubilee reign of Caesar Augustus.

Inspired by the circumstances of 2 BC, the Senate bestowed upon their emperor the honor of Pater Patriae. Augustus considered it to be one the highlights of his reign as listed in The Deeds of Divine Augustus. To underscore this honor, prompted by the Senate, Augustus decreed a “registration” to be taken of the entire Roman Empire claiming allegiance to him as Pater Patriae.[15]

Dr. Gerard Gertoux conducted independent research where the results corroborate the findings of Beyer and Martin. Dr. Gertoux concluded that Luke’s “census of the world” occurred in 2 BC and was not for taxation purposes. Gertoux determined that Caesar’s motivation for the “census” was to quantify the entire resources of Rome as part of his breviarium totius imperii eventually to be read at his funeral along with the unveiling of his Res gestae divi Augusti (The Deeds of Divine Augustus).[16]

Research evidence produced by Beyer, Martin and Gertoux establishes a 2 BC timeline for a special “census” registration decreed by Augustus that occurred before the death of King Herod in late 2 BC or early 1 BC. These findings are consistent with dating parameters documented in the accounts of Matthew and Luke – Herod’s reign; reign of Augustus and his census decree; governing of Quirinius in Syria plus one other corroborating dating paramater, the Star validated by NASA data.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of Luke’s reference of a registration decree issued by Augustus has nothing to do with history and is best presented with a question. How likely is it that Joseph would risk taking Mary, a young 8-month pregnant teenage girl, away from her comfortable home and family on a difficult, treacherous week’s long journey on the back of a donkey to Bethlehem 90 miles away knowing it was quite possible that Mary could give birth in the wilderness along the way – unless the Town Crier’s announcement of Augustus’ decree gave them no other choice?[17]

 

Updated January 15, 2022.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] “Census.”  Merriam-Webster. 2018. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/census
[2] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book 3, Chapter 12.4. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[3] Luke Greek text. Net.bible.org. “apographo <583>” and “aprographe <582>.” n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com>
[4] NASV, NRSV, ASV, BBE, KJV.  Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Censor; Census.” <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624
[5] Augustus, Caesar.  The Deeds of the Devine Augustus (Res gestae divi Augusti). #8. Trans. Thomas Bushnell. 1998. <http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html>
[6] “Lustrum.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2018. <http://www.livius.org/concept/lustrum>  Bunson. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Censor, Census.”
[7] Smallwood, E. Mary.  The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian. 2nd Ed. 1981. pp 151-152. http://books.google.com/books?id=jSYbpitEjggC&lpg=PA151&ots=VWqUOinty4&dq=census%20Syria%20Rome&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false Smith, William. “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography.” 1901. 3rd Ed., Vol. 1. “Censor”, “Publicani” and “Vectigalia.” <https://books.google.com/books?id=Cu89AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA403&lpg=PA403&dq=greek+word+for+census&source=bl&ots=LM1MjmCiJt&sig=1_yjJgyNxcCcSWZvf0QK69IJuMw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjx0oPA04DYAhXo6YMKHebvAEwQ6AEIejAK#v=onepage&q=census&f=false “Procurator.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2018. <http://www.livius.org/concept/procurator>
[8] Smallwood.  The Jews Under Roman Rule. p 152.
[9] Matthew 9; Luke 5. Smith, W. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. “Censor.” “Publicani” and “Vectigalia.”
10] Matthew 2; Luke 1. Smallwood. The Jews Under Roman Rule. Appendix E, p 568.
[11] Josephus.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVIII, Chapters IV.6 and V.4.  Bernegger, P.M. “Affirmation of Herod’s Death in 4 B.C.” Journal of Theological Studies Vol. 34, no 2. 1983. pp 526-531. <http://www.redatedkings.com/postings/Bernegger.pdf> Schurer, Emil. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. Volume 1. 1890. pp 464-465, footnote 165. <http://books.google.com/books?id=BRynO3W9FPcC&pg=PP1#v=snippet&q=Tiberius&f=false> Doig, Kenneth F.  New Testament Chronology. 1990. Chapter 4.<http://nowoezone.com/NT_Chronology.htm>
[12] Chase, Jeffrey S. “The Gutenberg Printing Press.” n.d. <http://www.cs.duke.edu/~chase/cps49s/press-summary.html>
[13] Beyer, David W.  “Josephus Reexamined:  Unraveling the Twenty-Second Year of Tiberius.” pp 90-93, 95-96.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=mWnYvI5RdLMC&lpg=PP1&dq=isbn%3A0865545820&pg=PA85#v=snippet&q=beyer&f=false> Wolfram, Chuck. “The Herodian Dynasty.” 2004. <http://web.archive.org/web/20151013221102/http:/freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~cwolfram/herod> Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Chapter 13. <http://askelm.com/star/star000.htm#_edn11
[14] Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.”  n.d.  pp 6-7. <http://www.academia.edu/3184175/Dating_the_two_Censuses_of_Quirinius>
[15] Augustus. The Deeds of the Devine Augustus. #35.  “pater patriae.”  Nova Roma. 2017. <www.novaroma.org/nr/Pater_Patriae_(Nova_Roma)>  “pater patriae.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/pater-patriae> Martin. The Star of Bethlehem. Chapter 13.  Mosley, John. “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows.” Reprint from Planetarian, Third Quarter 1981. <http://www.ips-planetarium.org/?page=a_mosley1981> Gertoux. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.” p 7.
[16] Gertoux. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.”  pp 6-7.  Davis, William Steams, ed.  Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources. Vol. II: Rome and the West. 1912-13. pp. 166-172. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/14resgestae.asp>  Schaff, Philip. “Chronology of the Life of Christ.”  History of the Christian Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity. A.D. 1-100. 1890. Chapter 2, Sec 16.  <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc1.i.II_1.16.html>
[17] “Distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem.” DistanceFromTo.net. 2018. <https://www.distancefromto.net/between/Nazareth/Bethlehem> “What is the distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem?” Reference.com. 2017. <https://www.reference.com/geography/distance-between-nazareth-bethlehem-6ac7e95c8360c7c7#> Bing.com/maps. Modern day mileage calculation from Bethlehem to Nablus (Nazareth) <https://binged.it/2mNpBy8>