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 eighth month of pregnancy to Bethlehem 90-miles away when Gospels of Matthew and Luke say she gave birth to Jesus of Nazareth. Secular historical timelines present a conflict with these 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 . In a parallel comparison, the translated English word “census” appears only once in any of the four voluminous works by Josephus, an Antiquities reference to a census taken by Moses.
Derived from the Latin word censēre is the English word “census” whereas the only possible Greek equivalents are the two words, apographo and apographe, with very similar meanings. By definition, as a verb, apographo means 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 the registry document, is used 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.”
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 was completed while Quirinius was governing in Syria in verse 2. 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:
“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 Augustus
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.
Taxation comes into play because data collection from a censēre was typically used to determine a tax valuation, an assessment or appraisal. A Roman procurator was then responsible for actual tax collection activities managed through local authorities.
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. 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 the Disciple Matthew.
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. According to Luke, the birth of Jesus occurred when Quirinius governed in Syria making the year 8 BC too soon under known or possible historical scenarios.
Further complicating the picture is the controversy surrounding the date of Herod’s death. Herod had to be alive in Matthew’s account establishing this limiting parameter, corroborated in Luke who added two more parameters – the “census” and Quirinius factors.
Secular historical calendars place Herod’s death in 4 BC. This year is determined from the printed accounts of Josephus’ Antiquities on which the secular timeline is reckoned. The calculation is based on the anchor date of the 20th year of the reign of Tiberius.
Investigation by historian buff David Beyer on the Antiquities content 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. He 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.
Building on Beyer’s discovery, Dr. Earnest Martin’s research points to a special set of circumstances in 2 BC. 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, the “Father of the Country.” Augustus considered it to be one the highlights of his reign 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.
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).
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 the three dating parameters documented in the accounts of Matthew and Luke – Augustus, his census decree, and during Herod’s reign.
Perhaps the strongest evidence of Luke’s reference that a registration decree was 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 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 gave them no other choice?
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