Matthew’s Nativity – An Investigative Breakdown

 

Easy to forget, the Christmas Nativity story didn’t happen in a single night – it is a time-lapsed compilation of what took place over many weeks, if not months. Two Gospels, Luke and Matthew, provide the accounts of the Nativity story.[1]

Luke’s account starts just before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The story corroborates Herod was King and ends when Jesus was about a month old.[2]

Matthew’s account starts with the angelic pregnancy announcement. It then jumps to the arrival of the Magi who, at the direction of Herod, found Jesus in Bethlehem: “when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother.”[3]

Matthew wrote, “Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,” translated as “Magi” in some Bibles.[4] As strange as it may seem, purveyors of mysticism were in the Jewish Nativity story of Jesus.

According to the Talmud, Magi were also known as “fire worshippers” and “Guebers.” from Persia.[5] Magi had a long history of persecuting the Jews making them well-known, feared and disliked.[6]

Plato referred to the Magi as “king makers,” a reputation that had to be known to Herod. Further, Herod was not of Jewish heritage – his father was Idumean and his mother was Arabian.[7]

Magi were highly regarded in the former Persian and Greek Empires for their mysterious abilities. Greek Hellenism’s culture accepted all religions, especially Zoroastrianism with its magian priests who had a reputation for their ability to read the stars and make accurate predictions.[8]

Setting the scene in Matthew, King Herod of Judea was in his Jerusalem palace rather than one of his three other palaces in Herodium, Jericho and Caesarea.[9] Soon he would move to Jericho to live out his final days with a most miserable health condition…but not yet.[10]

Calling upon Herod at his palace, the Magi were promptly welcomed. After all, Herod openly embraced Hellenism and had incorporated Greek inscriptions and architectural features in the enhanced Jewish Temple causing great consternation with the Jewish leadership.[11]

Shockingly, these Wise Men had said something most alarming to King Herod. The Magi announced the reason for their visit when they asked a question:

MT 2:2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”(NKJV)

Any king, especially Herod, would be distressed when these king-maker Magi said they were looking for a newborn “King of the Jews.” And, they didn’t use future tense; rather present tense – he was already a king.

More disconcerting, the Magi said they had “come to worship Him” and it probably seemed very likely the people might want to do the same. Word leaked out to the people of Jerusalem of what the Magi had said and not surprisingly, they were also “troubled.”

At the very least, the rumor mill presented an air of uncertainty which always tends to worry a populace. If the child was the foretold Messiah, such speculation certainly stirred the pot even more.

Herod’s next action clearly demonstrates he believed the Magi when he “gathered all the chief priests and scribes together asking them where the Christ was to be born.”[12] A change in language is of special note. The Magi inquired about the birth of a “King of the Jews” while Herod’s quote uses the Greek word Christos meaning Messiah.

Whether this difference in language is attributable to the author of Matthew or if Herod concluded the King of the Jews meant the Messiah, it didn’t make any difference. The chief priests and scribes understood what Herod was asking as evidenced by their specific answer.

Jewish chief priests and scribes – members of the Jewish leadership – reported to Herod that a Ruler was prophesied to be born “In Bethlehem of Judea.” Unambiguous, their answer included the quote from the prophecy of Micah 5:1/2.

MT 2:5-6 “…So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.”’”(NKJV)

Previous mention of seeing ”his star” was initially not an attention-getting detail. Herod accepted the Magi’s declaration, but this detail had been overshadowed by the bombshell announcement that there was another King of the Jews.

Undoubtedly, the Magi saw something in the night sky compelling them to travel hundreds of miles “from the East;” however, they didn’t say when they had seen “his star.”  Herod soon realized these details were important – the time of the star’s appearance would serve to determine the child’s age.

Actions by Herod in the remainder of the account are telling. For this ruthless King with a reputation of murdering anyone who might be a threat, there was only one course of action – eliminate the threat. Every step taken from that point forward focused on this outcome.

Herod secretly called the wise men” to second meeting – to “determine from them what time the star appeared.”[13] The Magi, who still had not yet received an answer to their own question, agreed to meet with Herod again.

Information from the second meeting served to be useful to both parties. Herod “sent them to Bethlehem” thereby answering the original question of the Magi regarding the location of the child. In return, Herod was able to determine when the Magi saw “his star” and thus determine the age of the child.[14]

Cunningly, Herod told the Magi, “when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” Herod worshiped no one or thing – the trap was set.

MT 2:9-10 “When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.”(NKJV)

After the follow-up meeting with Herod, the Magi saw a second appearance of the “star,” a definitive clue that opens the door for the science of astronomy to plausibly explain it. In a very rare scenario during an 18-month period in 3-2 BC, an extremely rare series of conjunctions occurred in the cosmos centered around Jupiter.

June 17, 2 BC, about nine months after the first Jupiter-Venus very close conjunction, Jupiter, known as the king star, came into an occultation conjunction (overlapping/fused) with Venus, known as the Queen or mother star. The two brightest stars in the sky formed a much brighter star.[15]

Finding the child in Bethlehem was probably not difficult – in a small town, everyone knows what’s what, just ask. Finding Jesus in a house, the Magi “fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented expensive gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”[16]

It becomes clearer why Herod wanted to determine the age of the child. The King, who had obviously believed the Magi, realized they had deceived him when the Magi avoided him whereupon he commanded that all the children 2 years old and younger in the districts of Bethlehem to be killed. True to the reputation of Herod’s ruthless, cruel profile, the 2-year range was intended to leave no room for error.

MT 2:16 “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.”(NKJV)

More than capable of such evil deeds, there were no bounds for Herod’s diabolical behavior. He had tortured people for mere suspicions and killed countless Jews, not to mention killing his brother, three sons, a former Jewish High Priest, and plotted to have all the “principal men” of Judea killed upon his own death.[17]

King Herod’s drastic action confirmed five points the King believed:  the Magi’s declaration; the Jewish religious experts, the Micah prophecy; Christos had been born…and in Bethlehem. Herod died a few months later and oft overlooked is a key critical detail provided by Matthew:  Archelaus, King Herod’s son, became his successor, a fact consistent with secular history.[18]

At least 20 specific details are laid out in a logical sequence in 22 verses, much that is corroborated by history and science. Does this strengthen the credibility to Matthew’s Gospel account about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth?

 

Updated November 16, 2023.

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

REFERENCES:

All Bible quotes are from the New King James Version.

[1]  McLeay, Simon. StPeters. “The Nativity According to Matthew.” image. 2018. <https://www.stpeters.org.nz/media/_home_slide_image/th-18-12-02-the-nativity-matthew.jpg
[2] Luke 1:5; 2.
[3] Matthew 2:11. NKJV. Matthew 2.
[4] Matthew 2:1. Netbible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=1>
[5] Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. The Soncino Press. 1935-1948. Sanhedrin 98a.  <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_98.html#98a_22> Sanhedrin 74b. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_74.html>  “Babylonia.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10263-magi>  Cicero, M. Tullius. Divination. 44 BC. 1.46. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2007.01.0043%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D46> Cicero. Divinations. 1.2.
[6] Segal, Eliezer. “The Menorah and the Magi.” Sources. 1997. <https://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/971219_MagiMenorah.html> Missler, Chuck. “Who Were the Magi?” Idolphin.org.1999. <http://www.ldolphin.org/magi.html>
[7] Plato. Alcibiades 1. Trans. W.R.M. Lamb. c. 390 AD. 1 121e-1232. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0176%3Atext%3DAlc.%201%3Asection%3D122a>  “Herodotus. The Histories.  Book 3, Chapters 30, 60-79.  Missler. “Who Were the Magi?” Plato. Republic. Trans.Paul Shorey. 9.572e. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D9%3Asection%3D572e>   Herodotus. The Histories. Book 1, Chapters 107-122. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0239%3Abook%3D1>  Polybius. Histories. Book 34, Chapter 2. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0234:book=34:chapter=2&highlight=magi> Herodotus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herodotus-Greek-historian> Herod the Great.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great/?> “Edom (ē`dŏm), Idumaea, or Idumea.” The Free Dictionary. 2017. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Idumaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624> “Herod the Great Biography.” TheFamousPeople. image. n.d. <https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/herod-the-great-37596.php> Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. 8.1; 9/7. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0258:book=9:chapter=7&highlight=Magians%2C> “Pythagoras.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pythagoras>  “Cyrus takes Babylon.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2018. <http://www.livius.org/sources/content/herodotus/cyrus-takes-babylon> “Democritus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Democritus> Diogenes. Lives. 9.7.
[8] “Zoroastrianism.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/15283-zoroastrianism>
[9] Burrell, Barbara; Gleason, Kathryn L.; Netzer, Ehud. “Uncovering Herod’s Seaside Palace. BAS Library. 1993. <https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/19/3/7>  Geva, Hillel.  “Archaeology in Israel:  Jericho – the Winter Palace of King Herod.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2019. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jericho-the-winter-palace-of-king-herod>  “Herodium-King Herod-s Palace-Fortress.” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2000. < https://mfa.gov.il/mfa/israelexperience/history/pages/herodium%20-%20king%20herod-s%20palace-fortress.aspx>  Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews.  Trans. William Whitson. Book XV, Chapter XI. <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. Trans. William Whitson. Book I, Chapter XXI.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  “Herod.” Jewish Virtual Library. n.d. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/herod>
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter VIII; Book XVI, Chapter V; Book XVII, Chapters VI; VIII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Hellenism” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7535-hellenism>
[12] Matthew 2:4. Greek text. NetBible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=4>
[13] Matthew 2:7.
[14] Matthew 2:8, 16.
[15] Phillips, Tony.  “A Christmas Star for SOHO.”  NASA Science | Science New. 16 May 2000.  <http://web.archive.org/web/20170516003444/https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2000/ast16may_1>  “Venus And Jupiter Will Pass 42 Arc seconds Apart On May 17.” Press Release – Marshall Space Flight Center. SpaceRef.com. 2000. <http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=1819>  Carroll, Susan S. “The Star of Bethlehem:  An Astronomical and Historical Perspective.”1997. Twin Cities Creation Science Association. n.d. <http://www.tccsa.tc/articles/star_susan_carroll.pdf>
Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Associates for Scriptural Knowledge. 2003. Chapter 4.  Larson, Frederick A. The Star of Bethlehem. 2014. <http://www.bethlehemstar.net/setting-the-stage/why-are-we-hearing-this-now>  Haley, A. S. “The Star of Bethlehem and the Nativity.” Anglican Curmudgeon. 2009.   <http://web.archive.org/web/20171016111146/http://www.newmanlib.ibri.org/Papers/StarofBethlehem/75starbethlehem.htm> Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Jupiter.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[16] Matthew 2:11. NKJV.
[17] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI; Book XVI, Chapter XI; Book XVII, Chapters VI, IX.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters X, XXVII, XXXIII.
[18] Matthew 2:22.

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 report she gave birth to Jesus of Nazareth.

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

Derived from the Latin word censēre is the English word “census.” The word “census” is not used in many Gospel English translations for good reason – nowhere in the original Greek texts is found the Latin word censēre.[1]

As a parallel comparison in the four voluminous works by Jewish historian Josephus finds only one similar event is referenced in Antiquities of the Jews. Moses “numbered” the Hebrew army, but Josephus didn’t use the word “census.”[2]

Only two possibilities for Greek equivalents are words apographo and apographe, each with very similar meanings.[3] One word is a process activity and the other is a document record while both words have been interchangeably translated in English Bibles with five variations of “census,” “registered,” “enrolled,” “numbering,” and “taxed.”[4]

As a verb in Luke 2:1 and 3, apographo means an activity to “write off (a copy or list), i.e. enrollment,” an enrollment activity. Used in Luke 2:2 as a noun, apographe is “an enrollment, by implication an assessment,” an enrollment record – activity vs. record.

Res gestae divi Augusti

Backdrop to the historical context of a Roman census are the multiple facets associated with a 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]

Publicani purchased franchise rights to collect taxes through an auction held in Rome.[8] Abuses of tax collection were rife, a natural consequence of the Roman tax collection system.

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]

Aligning with secular historical timelines seems to pose a conflict with these two Gospels. Historians, religious scholars, and detractors take varied and opposing positions; however, virtually all believe both Herod and Augustus had to be alive for the birth of Jesus. Further complicating the picture is the controversy surrounding the date of Herod’s death.

Luke corroborates Matthew as Herod being alive 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 for Quirinius to be a governor.

Secular history places Herod’s death in 4 BC based on reckoning from the printings of Josephus’ Antiquities. The calculation is based on the anchor date of the 20th year of the reign of Tiberius in-spite-of two other entries in Antiquities and Wars recording that Tiberius died in his 22nd year.[11]

Major world libraries holding handwritten manuscript copies of Antiquities predating the printings were personally investigated and reviewed by historian buff David Beyer. He discovered that all 31 copies of existing handwritten manuscripts actually say Herod’s death occurred during the 22nd year of Tiberius, not the 20th year.[12]

Not uncommon were errors in transcribing manuscript documents according to Westcott and Hort, experts in literary analysis. The 2-year difference translates into Herod’s death occurring in 2 BC or early 1 BC, not 4 BC.[13]

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.

Roman history records the Senate bestowed upon their emperor the honor of Pater Patriae, an honor Augustus considered to be one the highlights of his reign listed in The Deeds of Divine Augustus. Martin asserts that to underscore this honor, the Roman Senate had Augustus decree a “registration” to be taken of the entire Roman Empire claiming allegiance to him as Pater Patriae.[15]

Historian expert Gerard Gertoux conducted independent research that corroborates the findings of Beyer and Martin. 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 this was 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 dating parameter, the Star corroborated 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 November 10, 2023.

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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>  Smith, William; Wayte, William; Marindin, G.E., Ed. A Dictionary  of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 1890. “apographe.” <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=register&f=false>
[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, Chapter II. 2, VI.5.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.8. 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> Westcott, Brooke F. & Hort, John A. The New Testament in the Original Greek – Introduction | Appendix. pp 4-7. 1907. <https://books.google.com/books?id=gZ4HAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+New+Testament+in+the+Original+Greek&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiOjMvk3fjXAhUE5yYKHSTHC5wQ6wEIOjAD#v=onepage&q=The%20New%20Testament%20in%20the%20Original%20Greek&f=false> Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Chapter 13. <http://askelm.com/star/star000.htm#_edn11>  Jachowski, Raymond. Academa.Edu. “The Death of Herod the Great and the Latin Josephus: Re-Examining the Twenty-Second Year of Tiberius.” p 11. n.d. <https://www.academia.edu/19833193/The_Death_of_Herod_the_Great_and_the_Latin_Josephus_Re_Examining_the_Twenty_Second_Year_of_Tiberius
[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>  Stevenson, Tom R. “Acceptance of the Title Pater Patriae in 2 BC.” <https://www.academia.edu/21863060/Acceptance_of_the_Title_Pater_Patriae_in_2_BC
[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>  Smallwood, E. Mary.  The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian. p 152. 1981.<http://books.google.com/books?id=jSYbpitEjggC&lpg=PA151&ots=VWqUOinty4&dq=census%20Syria%20Rome&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false>

 

 

A Game-Changing Proclamation in Nazareth

 

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.[1] 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. He announced a decree from none other than Roman Caesar Augustus just days before Mary was to give birth.[2] It was a game-changer having an immediate major impact on Joseph and Mary.

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. Perhaps surprisingly, the word “census” is not used in many of the English Gospel translations.

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.[3]

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, a former tax collector, where each time is specifically in the context of “tax” and not related to the Nativity story.[4] Latin for “census” is the word censēre which is not found anywhere in New Testament Greek texts nor any works by historian Josephus during the Roman era.[5]

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.”[6] 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.”[7]

Verse 2 uses the Greek word apographe, a noun meaning “an enrollment, by implication an assessment.”[8] It refers to the actual documented record – a written enrollment register or listing resulting from the enrollment activity initiated by Caesar’s decree.

A Roman “census” was not just used for taxation assessments and thereby enumerate the population. It also included other purposes such as to establish a public registry; identify Roman citizens; and sizing the military needs.[9] 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 have the characteristics of taking an action that required an oath, enumerated the population and produced a documented enrollment registration or a listing. All translations are thus consistent with a typical Roman census registration process.[10]

Announcement by the praeco of Augustus’ decree informed people when and where to appear for the registration.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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 up a unique confluence of events already set in motion that was soon to take place in Bethlehem.

Terrain between Nazareth & 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.[14] 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” as part of 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 June 4, 2023.

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REFERENCES:

[1] Finkel, Michael.  “Bethlehem 2007 A.D.” National Geographic.  December, 2007.
[2] Smith, William. “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography.” 3rd Ed., Vol. 1. 1901. “Census.” Google Books. <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>  Livius, Titus. The History of Rome.  Book 33, #28. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0144:book=33:chapter=28&highlight=crier>  Pliny the Elder.  The Natural History. 1.Dedication C. Plinius Secundus to His Friend Titus Vespasian. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=1:chapter=dedication&highlight=crier#note-link34>  Gaffiot, Felix. Dictionnaire Faffiot. “praeco” drawing. 1934. <http://digital-gaffiot.sourceforge.net/p.html>
[3] Hu, Shuqin. “Context in Translation.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research. 2010. Vol. 1, No. #, pp 325-325. <http://www.academypublication.com/issues/past/jltr/vol01/03/25.pdf>  “Importance of Context in Translation.” OneHourTranslation.com. 2015. <https://www.onehourtranslation.com/translation/blog/importance-context-translation>
[4] Net.Bible.org. kensos <2778>.  http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=2778>; Search results, <http://classic.net.bible.org/search.php?search=greek_strict_index:2778>  Strong, James, LL.D., S.T.D.  The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. “2778 kensos.” 1990.  “G2778.” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/2778.html>
[5] “Census.”  Merriam-Webster. 2017. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/census>  Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Censor; Census.”  <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624
[6] Net.bible.org. Luke Greek text. Strong, James. “apographo <583> (Greek).” The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. 1990.  Smith, William; Wayte, William; Marindin, G.E., Ed. A Dictionary  of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 1890. “apographe.” <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=register&f=false>
[7] NASV, NRSV, ASV, BBE, KJV.
[8] Net.bible.org. Greek text.  Strong. “aprographe <582> (Greek).”  The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.
[9] Smith, William. “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography.” 3rd Ed., Vol. 1. 1901. “Census.” Augustus, Caesar. The Deeds of the Devine Augustus. #8. <http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html> Cicero, M. Tullius. “For Marcus Caelius.” #32. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0020:text=Cael.:chapter=32&highlight=census>  Cicero. “For Milo.” #27. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0020:text=Mil.:chapter=27&highlight=census>  Cicero. “For Archias.” #5. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0019:text=Arch.:chapter=5&highlight=censors>  Livius. The History of Rome. Book 9, #19. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0026:book=9:chapter=19&highlight=census>  Livius. The History of Rome. Book 43, #14. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0144:book=43:chapter=14&highlight=censors>
[10] Net.bible.org. “proserchomai <4334>”; “telones <5057>; “telonion <5058>”; phoros <5411>; “kensos <2778>”.
[11] Smith, William. “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography.” 3rd Ed., Vol. 1. 1901. “Census.”  “Paternity.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11939-paternity>
[12] “incense.”  Merriam-Webster.  Peck, Harry Thurston. Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898). “Incensus.” <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0062:entry=incensus-harpers&highlight=incensus>  Smith, W. “Censor.” Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
[13] Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.” n.d. Academia.edu.  <http://www.academia.edu/3184175/Dating_the_two_Censuses_of_Quirinius>  Heinrich, Bill. Mysteries of the Messiah. 2016. “The Registration (Census).” <https://www.mysteriesofthemessiah.net/2016/01/04-03-09-bethlehem-c-6-5-b-c-the-registration-or-census/#_ftnref3>
[14] “Paternity.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11939-paternity> “What is the distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem?” Reference.com. 2017. <https://www.reference.com/geography/distance-between-nazareth-bethlehem-6ac7e95c8360c7c7#>  “Distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem.” DistanceFromTo.net. 2017. <https://www.distancefromto.net/between/Nazareth/Bethlehem>