As we begin our look at the Christmas story as related by the Gospel of Luke, we’ll start in chapter 2. Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus with the following lines:

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. 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.

In his book The Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks At Christmas, Easter and the Early Church” Paul L. Maier makes an interesting observation:

“The first person mentioned in Luke’s familiar story of Christmas was neither Mary, nor Joseph, nor shepherd, nor wise man.  In fact, he would seem to have nothing at all to do with the story, for he was the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. And yet it was his decision, 1500 miles away in Rome, which started the train of events that finally led to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.”

 Caesar Augustus (23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) ruled the Roman empire from 27 B.C. until his death in 14 A.D.  This would coincide with the time of Jesus’ birth which is estimated to have been between 6-4 B.C (more on this dating in a future post). We know from other historical documents that there was an empire wide census every 14 years, with the closest known census to Jesus’ birth being ordered in 8 B.C.  While this date would seem to be too early to coincide with Jesus’ birth, many have theorized that while the census was ordered in 8 B.C., it may have taken several years to actually be initiated in Jerusalem.

Quirinius is the second person to be mentioned in connection with the census.  We know from the ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus that Quirinius ruled Judea and Syria from 6-7 A.D.  This is too late to reconcile with the earlier census of 8 B.C. However, notice that Luke comments that he is referring to the “First” census that Quirinius conducted.  This would mean that Luke was aware of the second census that was carried out in 6-7 A.D. This statement, along with other finds, have led to the theory that Quirinius was governor over Judea for a first time during the census of 8 B.C., and second time during the 6-7 A.D. time period.

Historians have long questioned the idea of people returning to their ancestral home to register for a census.  Even by our own modern standards, this seems ludicrous.  Can you imagine everyone in a country returning to where they were born to complete a census? It would be sheer chaos.  Surely, they claim, this was just a literary device used by Luke to get Jesus’ birth in the correct city to fulfill Old Testament prophesies.

This was the theory until a recent archeological find in Egypt.  A document was found that contained 3 letters dated in the 7th year of the Emperor Trajan’s reign, 103-104 A. D.  In it, there is mention of citizens being required to return to their homes to complete the census.  Here is the translation of the relevant portion of the letter:

Gaius Vibius, chief prefect of Egypt. Because of the approaching census it is necessary that all those residing for any cause away from their own homes, should at once prepare to return to their own governments, in order that they may complete the family administration of the enrolment, and that the tilled lands may retain those belonging to them. Knowing that your city has need of provisions from the country, I wish ……….(At this point the papyrus is untranslatable).

 As you can see, this and other documents found show that people were required to return to their family homes in order to register for the census.

So, what can we draw form all this?  George A. Barton sums up what we can confirm from archeology about the census mentioned in Luke 2:

“It should in all candor be noted just what archeology has proved concerning this matter, and what points are still, from the archeological side, outstanding. It has proved that the census was a periodic occurrence once in fourteen years, that this system was in operation as early as 20 A. D., and that it was customary for people to go to their ancestral abodes for enrolment. It has made it probable that the census system was established by Augustus, and that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, though these last two points are not yet fully established by archeological evidence. So far as the new material goes, however, it confirms the narrative of Luke.”

 Lacking any counter evidence that discredits Luke’s account, I think we are safe to say he accurately recorded the events leading up to the birth of Christ in these first lines of his narrative.

8 thoughts on “Did The Census Described By Luke Actually Happen?”

  1. I am no historian, but this seems like grasping as straws. In the Egyptian case, we have “away from their own homes” which makes some sense (if you work in another city, but your home is somewhere else, then go back home). The way that Luke tells it, “because he was of the house and lineage of David” – so you’re going back not your home but to your great-great-great-grandfather’s home. This is what would be chaotic and makes no sense as literal. It of course makes perfect sense if the author needs to have the Jesus from Nazareth but born in Bethlehem. We see the same logic in Matthew – some way, by hook or by crook – to get Jesus both from Nazareth but also born in Bethlehem in order to correspond with Old Testament stories. Seems to be a bit more parsimonious than trying to find ways of making it literal. How, for example, does one reconcile Matthew’s story with Luke’s? They include different significant details unlikely to be ignored by an eyewitness.

    1. The word rendered “family” in the Egyptian letter means “kindred”. And the phrase “belonging to” also means “kindred.” It appears that in Egypt the enrollment of each district was intended to include all the kinsmen belonging to that district. And so that those residing elsewhere should not forget to return home for the census, this edict was issued directing them to do so. It is well known that in many respects the customs of administration in Syria and Egypt were similar. Luke’s statement, that Joseph went up from Nazareth to Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to enroll himself with Mary, turns out to be the exact same method used by the Egyptian Government as we now know them from the papyri.
      Of course I realize there are differences in the Gospels. Any time you have different people telling the same story, you will get a different rendering of the events. Which differences in the birth narrative do you find troubling?

      1. I will of course not be able to parse ancient Egyptian, so I’ll let that one lie. 🙂

        As for the accounts, this is a decent summary from Bart Ehrman: ”
        But there are other differences that are difficult, if not impossible to reconcile. If all you had was Matthew’s Gospel, it would be clear what Joseph and Mary’s original hometown was. Bethlehem! (Not – decidedly not – Nazareth). There’s no word about them *traveling* to come to Bethlehem (because of a world-wide census, as in Luke). In Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Some two years later the magi come to worship him (in his “house” Matthew says) (you know it’s about two years later because King Herod asks the magi about when the star appeared that they’ve been following, and after they tell him he has his soldiers kill every boy two years and under in Bethlehem; so it’s safe to say the magi have been on the road for at least a year or more; none of that is in Luke). Joseph and his family escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath. And then, when Herod dies, they are able to come back. BUT (this is the key point) they can’t return to Bethlehem in Judea, because now Archelaus is the king, and he’s worse than his father Herod! And so the couple is forced to *relocate* to Nazareth.

        None of that fits in with what Luke says, where Joseph and Mary are not from Bethlehem but from Nazareth; they have to go to Bethlehem to register for this (alleged!) census being taken of “all the world” (!), Mary just happens to go into labor while there, and so Jesus is born there.

        Moreover, Luke is clear that after 32 days, when Mary performs her sacrifice for ritual cleansing (cf. Lev. 12), they return home to Nazareth. But if that’s true, how can Matthew be right that they fled to Egypt? The whole thing doesn’t work.

        1. But there are other differences that are difficult, if not impossible to reconcile. If all you had was Matthew’s Gospel, it would be clear what Joseph and Mary’s original hometown was. Bethlehem! (Not – decidedly not – Nazareth). There’s no word about them *traveling* to come to Bethlehem (because of a world-wide census, as in Luke). Both Luke and Matthew agree on the place of Jesus’ birth. Matthew never says that Bethlehem is their home town. He just doesn’t mention the travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth. This is in no way contradictory or irreconcilable.

          In Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Some two years later the magi come to worship him (in his “house” Matthew says) (you know it’s about two years later because King Herod asks the magi about when the star appeared that they’ve been following, and after they tell him he has his soldiers kill every boy two years and under in Bethlehem; so it’s safe to say the magi have been on the road for at least a year or more; none of that is in Luke). This theory has several flaws. The text states the wise men came “During the time of Herod (Herod the Great)”. Herod died in 4 B.C. if we take the generally accepted date of 5 B.C. for Jesus’ birth, then Herod would have been dead for one year when the Magi arrived. Herod was paranoid about attempts to overthrow his reign, to the point of having a good portion of his family murdered. Wiping out maybe 20 kids under 2 would not have been out of character for him, and the age range of 2 or under was probably just a safeguard to cover the entire time period the star was known to exist. This also assumes that the star appeared when Jesus was born, but the text does not say that. The purpose of the star appears to be to lead the Magi to Jesus. You can’t make a determination from this passage as to how old Jesus was when this event occurred.
          Joseph and his family escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath. And then, when Herod dies, they are able to come back. BUT (this is the key point) they can’t return to Bethlehem in Judea, because now Archelaus is the king, and he’s worse than his father Herod! And so the couple is forced to *relocate* to Nazareth.- This is forcing the text to say something it does not. It never used the term “relocate”. It simply says they could not return to where they had come from, and settled in Nazareth, which is the same location Luke gives.

          None of that fits in with what Luke says, where Joseph and Mary are not from Bethlehem but from Nazareth; they have to go to Bethlehem to register for this (alleged!) census being taken of “all the world” (!), Mary just happens to go into labor while there, and so Jesus is born there.- Again, this is not a contradiction. Luke is giving background information that Matthew doesn’t. Nowhere does Matthew say that Bethlehem is Joseph and Mary’s home town.

          Moreover, Luke is clear that after 32 days, when Mary performs her sacrifice for ritual cleansing (cf. Lev. 12), they return home to Nazareth. But if that’s true, how can Matthew be right that they fled to Egypt? The whole thing doesn’t work.- Both accounts agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and later moved to Nazareth with His parents. In order to integrate the two accounts, the record in Matthew of the flight to Egypt must be placed between Luke 2:38–39. The visit of the wise men may also have occurred here. If it occurred before Jesus’ temple dedication, Herod took at least a month from his encounter with the wise men to realize he had been tricked, which is not unreasonable. Both birth narratives highlight themes important to their respective authors. Matthew highlighted both Joseph’s role as a righteous, adoptive father through whom Jesus obtained Davidic lineage, and the recognition of Jesus as the true King of the Jews in opposition to Herod. Luke highlighted both the role of marginalized characters, women and shepherds, in the joyful recognition of the messianic Savior, and the significance of Jesus for Gentiles as well Jews.

    1. Linda, yes, there are secular historians and bible scholars like Bart Ehrman, who doubt both Luke’s and Matthew’s account. Much of it is based on expecting a level of agreement that you will almost never find between any ancient account of the same events.

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