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. 2 This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. 4 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, 5 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 We know from other historical documents that there was an empire wide census every 14 years, with the closest known census to Jesus’ birth being ordered in 8 B.C. While this date would seem to be too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.