For those who
believe that the Gospels are accurate historical records
of Jesusí life, one of the most difficult problems in the
New Testament is the census mentioned in Luke 2:1-2:
Now it came
about in those days that 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 all were proceeding to
register for the census, everyone to his own city. And
Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of
Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David which is called
Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of
David, in order to register along with Mary, who was
engaged to him and was with child.
So, Luke tells
us Augustus took a census before Jesus was born and this
was the reason Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem. However,
critics say there are five reasons why Lukeís account is
1. There is
no known evidence of an Empire-wide census in the reign
of Augustus. If it occurred, wouldnít it be mentioned by
one or another of the ancient historians who recorded
records a lot about Herod but does not mention a Roman
census in Palestine.
was not appointed governor of Syria and Judea until A.D.
6, many years after Jesus was born.
4. In a Roman
census, Joseph would not have been required to travel to
Bethlehem and he would not have been required to take
Mary with him.
5. A Roman
census could not have been carried out in Herodís
kingdom while Herod was still alive.
In light of
these facts, did Luke make vast historical errors in his
chronology of events? All of this was stated or implied in
the Peter Jennings in his ABC Special "The Search for
Jesus," and continues to be brought up by many critical
scholars today. Historian Dr. Edwin Yamauchi told me:
know, was governor leader in A.D. 6 when there was a
census and there was a revolt led by a man called Judas
of Galilee. And there are several proposed solutions to
this well-known problem. One solution, of course, is
that Luke was clearly in error here; that he didnít have
correct information. Yet Luke is the most careful of all
the Gospel writers to try to correlate events in Judea
with Roman events. He knows that Jesus was born in the
reign of Augustus; that Jesus began His ministry in the
reign of Tiberius and so forth.
some of these objections. When Luke states that a decree
from Caesar Augustus went out that all the world should be
taxed, was he talking about just one empire-wide census?
No, according to Roman historian A. N. Sherwin White. The
censuses were taken in different provinces over a period
of time. But Caesar Augustus was the first one in history
to order a census or tax assessment of the whole
provincial empire. Luke uses the present tense to indicate
that Augustus ordered censuses to be taken regularly
throughout the empire rather than only one time.
collected in Egypt, have shown that the Romans undertook
periodic censuses throughout their empire. In Roman Egypt,
for example, from A.D. 33 until 257 A.D., 258 different
censuses were taken at 14-year intervals. This evidence
has been known for a number of years, and substantiates
Lukeís reference to Augustusí census, but it seems to work
against the Lucan account in terms of the year when Jesus
was born. Why? Because the 14-year intervals do not
intersect with the year of Jesusí birth in 4 B.C.
that problem, the Dictionary of New Testament
Background [Craig Evans and Stanley Porter,
eds., InterVarsity, 2000] states: "Evidence
indicates that Egyptian censuses were taken at 7-year
intervals during the reign of Augustus and can be
established with indirect and direct evidence for the
years of 11-10 B.C., 4-3 B.C., A.D. 4 and 5, and A.D. 11
and 12." This information is based on documentation
presented in The Demography of Roman Egypt
by Bagnell and Friar, a book published by Cambridge
University Press in 1994.
are other reasons to believe a census was taken by Caesar
Augustus in 4 or 5 B.C. Augustus knew of Herodís paranoia.
Herod frequently changed his will and then would kill the
family member he had put in charge if he were to die. Each
time he changed his will and the one who would succeed
him, he had to get permission from the Roman emperor to do
Augustus knew what was happening in Palestine. It is
reasonable to assume that Augustus, anticipating the
problems that would come about when Herod died, would want
to take a census of Herodís territory and might well have
extended the Egyptian census of 4-3 B.C. or performed
something like it in Judea.
of the census in Luke 2:1 is the only historical reference
of this census from antiquity, yet it rests on a plausible
reconstruction of events. Edwin Yamauchi comments, "Öthis
is a case where we do have something recorded in the New
Testament which is not directly correlated by
extra-biblical evidence. This doesnít mean that it did not
happen, however, because there are many things that occur
only in a given text without corroborative evidence of
other texts or inscriptions."
But what about
Lukeís reference, "this was the first census taken while
Quirinius was governor of Syria?" When Luke says this was
the "first" census that took place under Quirinius, the
Greek word prote, usually translated "first,"
according to some Greek scholars can also be translated
"prior." If that is Lukeís meaning, then, he would be
referring to a census taken prior to the one taken
when Quirinius was governor in 6 A.D. Is it possible that
a prior census was taken, or even taken by Quirinius
historians know that Quirinius had a government assignment
in Syria between 12 B.C. to 2 B.C. He was responsible for
reducing the number of rebellious mountaineers in the
highlands of Pisidia. As such, he was a highly placed
military figure in the Near East and highly trusted by
Emperor Caesar Augustus. Augustus, knowing of the turmoil
in Herod the Greatís territory, may well have put his
trusted friend Quirinius in charge of a census enrollment
in the region of Syria just before the end of Herodís
The time period
from 7 to 6 B.C. also coincides with the transition period
between the rule of the two legates of Syria: Saturninus
from 9 to 6 B.C. and Varus from 7 to 4 B.C. The transition
of power between these two men took place between 7 to 6
B.C., and Augustus again may have appointed his friend
Quirinius to step in and conduct a census taxation when he
could not trust anyone else.
statement has a plausible foundation in history.
Why did Joseph
take Mary to Bethlehem?
about the criticism that in a Roman census Joseph would
not have been required to travel to Bethlehem and he would
not have been required to bring Mary with him? Well, now
historians have found that in A.D. 104, Vivius Maximus
issued an edict that states, "It is essential for all
people to return to their homes for the census." This
indicates it was plausible for Joseph and Mary to travel
to Bethlehem as Luke indicates. In fact, it is just one of
the many reasons scholars have found why Mary would have
needed to go with Joseph on his trip to Bethlehem. Claire
Pfann suggests another.
I think that
we find a few basic presuppositions that are just our
own modern skepticism and really donít deal with the
reality of the fact that, if Joseph and Mary had come to
live together as a married couple at this point, why on
earth would he leave her at home when he faced a
prolonged absence, waiting for the census to be
Could a census
have taken place while Herod was alive?
Next, what can
be said to those who say a Roman census could not have
been carried out in Herodís kingdom while Herod was alive?
This is simply
not true. Records have now been found that show the
emperor did take censuses in vassal kingdoms like Herodís.
In fact, when Herod died, his domain was divided among his
three sons, and Augustus ordered that taxes be reduced in
the territory of one of his sons. It proves the Roman
emperor was not afraid to intervene in one of his vassal
Further, it is
now known that in 8-7 B.C., Herod came into disfavor with
Augustus and was thereafter treated as a subject rather
than a friend. It resulted in Herodís autonomy being taken
away from him.
historians have also discovered that the people of Herodís
domain took an oath of allegiance not just to Herod, but
to both Augustus and Herod, which proves there was a
greater involvement of Augustus in Herodís realm.
account points to a census taken before Herod the Greatís
death and the division of his kingdom. Why? It would have
been highly implausible to think that after Herodís
kingdom had been divided between his three sons in 4 B.C.
that people in Nazareth under Herod Antipas would have
traveled to Bethlehem, the territory belonging to
Archelaus for purposes of taxation. It makes more sense
that such traveling would have been done when all the
territories were under Herodís rule himself and Augustus
called for an overall census.
So, since it
has been proved that Augustus had taken censuses in other
vassal kingdoms, and since Herod had come into the
emperorís disfavor, and since Herod was having troubles in
his own realm with his sons, it is more than probable that
Augustus would have wanted to conduct his own census,
assessing Herodís kingdom, while Herod was still alive.
And this is exactly what Luke recorded.