The Census 

LogoThe evangelist Luke tells of a universal, world-wide census ordered by the Roman Emperor Augustus:

  • "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.
  • "So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.
  • "And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."
  • (Luke 2:1-7).

LogoFrom the time of the Enlightenment, it has been pointed out by Bible detractors that secular history does not report such a census, though there was a much smaller, local census held in 6 A.D., as Luke himself was aware (Acts 5:37). Was this a blunder on Luke's part? Did he think Jesus was born in 6 A.D.?

The First Handwritten List
Gaul Palestine
The Institution Taxation
Blunder After Blunder Whole Round World
Every Tribe Citizens and Aliens
The Jubilee Quirinius
City of David

Thriceholy Radio

LogoThe First

"This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria." (Luke 2:2).

LogoOne of the ambiguities in this passage is the use of the word 'first,' προτη. What does this word modify? The 'first' what? What are we counting? What is first and what is second? Word order is a little less helpful in an inflected language like Greek than it would be in a language like English where word order determines grammatical function. Is this the first census as opposed to a second census of which the reader might be aware, such as the census of 6 A.D.? Or is it the 'first' time Quirinius was governor of Syria, as opposed to a second, discontinuous term? Or does 'first' mean 'before,' as in, the census happened first, and then subsequently Quirinius began to govern Syria? This interpretation has its defenders.

'First,' προτη, is translated 'before' in John 1:15 and John 1:30: "This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before [προτος] me.’" Also in John 15:18: "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before [προτον] it hated you." The 'while' or 'when' you see in the translations is not found in the Greek, but is supplied by the translators for continuity. If Luke's meaning is that this census was conducted before Quirinius began to govern Syria, there is no historical problem. Why he might want to say that, is simply to distinguish this census from the more notorious census which sparked civil unrest.

Tertullian seems to have been of this persuasion, because he identifies the governor who presided over the census as Saturninus, not Quirinius:

"But there is historical proof that at this very time a census had been taken in Judaea by Sentius Saturninus, which might have satisfied their inquiry respecting the family and descent of Christ." (Tertullian, Five Books Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 19).

This does not seem credible, but realizing that Tertullian is a Biblical literalist, he does seem to understand Luke's 'first' as 'before,' which is a possible interpretation. Luke's language would not have seemed ambiguous to his first readers, who were aware of the historical situation, though from lack of context it has become perplexing.

As to the two-governorships theory, Emil Schurer, who denied the historicity of Luke's census, nevertheless counted two of them: "P. Sulpicius Quirinius, B.C. 3– 2 (?) During the period B.C. 3– 2 there is no direct evidence about any governor of Syria. But it may be concluded with a fair amount of probability from a passage in Tacitus, that about this time P. Sulpicius Quirinius, consul in B.C. 12, was appointed governor of Syria. . .P. Sulpicius Quirinius, A.D. 6 ff After the banishment of Archelaus, ethnarch of Judea, in A.D. 6, P. Sulpicius Quirinius went to Syria, and immediately on his arrival took the census in Judea (Josephus, Antiq. xvii. 13. 5; xviii. 1. 1, 2. 1)." (Schürer, Emil (2017-02-01). A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (Kindle Locations 2087-2155). Capella Press.) Evidence for this theory is not altogether lacking.

Handwritten List

"And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered." (Luke 2:1).

Luke's assertion that a world-wide census was decreed by Caesar Augustus is not directly confirmed by secular history. However neither is the concept entirely absent from secular history. After Augustus' death, Tiberius pulls out a handwritten list of all the assets of the empire:

“The Senators, however, whose only fear was lest they might seem to understand him, burst into complaints, tears, and prayers. They raised their hands to the gods, to the statue of Augustus, and to the knees of Tiberius, when he ordered a document to be produced and read. This contained a description of the resources of the State, of the number of citizens and allies under arms, of the fleets, subject kingdoms, provinces, taxes, direct and indirect, necessary expenses and customary bounties. All these details Augustus had written with his own hand, and had added a counsel, that the empire should be confined to its present limits, either from fear or out of jealousy.”

(Tacitus, Annals 1.11).

LogoWhere would Augustus have acquired the information he wrote out in this document? How could he have known the numbers had he never counted them? It will not do to say he just made them up; does he have a book contract with Harper Collins?

Cassiodorus, who unfortunately is very late,— sixth century A.D.,— mentions an enterprise of Augustus' instigation which would have produced the desired, and obtained, information, and its applicability to "each taxpayer" would imply some connection with a census:

"'Therefore let your Greatness send an experienced land surveyor (agrimensor) to settle this dispute by assigning fixed boundaries to the two estates. Augustus made a complete survey of the whole "Orbis Romanus," in order that each taxpayer should know exactly his resources and obligations. The results of this survey were tabulated by the author Hyrummetricus.'"

(Cassiodorus, Senator. The Letters of Cassiodorus Being A Condensed Translation Of The Variae Epistolae Of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (Kindle Locations 4337-4340).)

He plainly has some source for this information other than Luke, who does not mention any Hyrum who is a land surveyor. Pagan authors from the period closer to the events in question unfortunately shed little light on this matter. It's not that there is any lack of information pertaining to a census, an established institution of the time both in Rome itself and in the provinces. Rather, there is a wealth of references, none of which however seems to be the right one at the right period. Suetonius mentions three censuses in connection with Augustus:

"He was also given the supervision of morals and of the laws for all time, and by the virtue of this position, although without the title of Censor, he nevertheless took the census thrice, the first and last time with a colleague, the second time alone." (Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Octavius Augustus, p. 69 Modern Library).

There is no mention that the scope of this census was any different from the usual Italian coverage; on the other hand, neither is it denied. What is atypical is that Suetonius says he was not censor, though he conducted the census, and he revived the office. In apparent disagreement, historian Cassius Dio grants him a censorship, "After this he [Augustus] entered upon a censorship with Agrippa and besides setting aright some other business he investigated the senate." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 52, Chapter 42).

Originally the office of censor was an important and powerful one. The censors not only conducted the census but investigated the private morals of all the citizens. The office gradually withered away. Some of the earlier emperors were listed as filling this office, "At present all of them [titles] are, as a rule, bestowed upon the rulers at once, except the title of censor: to the earlier emperors they were voted separately and from time to time. Some of the emperors took the censorship in accordance with ancient custom and Domitian took it for life." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 53, Chapter 18). Luke does not say that Augustus was censor at that time, rather that he decreed that all the world was to be enrolled; it is striking nevertheless that Augustus did not consider this job title as in any way beneath his dignity. Perhaps Suetonius has some technicality in mind that would withhold the title from him. Suetonius describes Augustus as performing the rites subsequent to the census, "As he was bringing the lustrum to an end in the Campus Martius before a great throng of people, an eagle flew several times about him. . ." (Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Octavius Augustus, p. 112). So we know Augustus did conduct the census on occasion.

Given that the Roman census was conducted every fifth year, and Augustus occupied the chief place in the state for more than 40 years, we know also that any list we can compile from the secular historians, of any census which Augustus may have overseen as supreme ruler or even personally conducted as censor, is not exhaustive. Thus Luke's census is a slender reed for the atheists to lean upon. Did Augustus conduct a census? Secular history answers, yes. Oh, that wasn't the right one, they assure us. They know this how? Given the fragmentary nature of the literary remains of classical antiquity, we do not have in our hands complete coverage of all the events which might be of interest. Of course it would be nice to have some of this material, it would answer a lot of questions.


How do you conduct a census in Gaul, among its barely pacified inhabitants? Other than the southernmost portion of this region, Julius Caesar in recent memory had conquered these people. Augustus ordered a census:

"Caesar, having settled the affairs of the state, [Y.R. 724. B.C. 28,] and reduced all the provinces to exact order, received the surname of Augustus; and the month Sextilis was named, in honour of him, August. [Y.R. 725. B.C. 27.] Caesar having called a meeting of the states at Narbo, a census was made of the three Gauls, which were conquered by his father."
(BOOK CXXXIV. Livy. (1850). History of Rome by Titus Livius: The epitomes of the lost books (W. A. McDevitte, Ed.) (2212). Medford, MA: Henry G. Bohn.)

The logistics of conducting a census amongst an as yet uncivilized populace present daunting practical problems. Some of these people may even have been semi-nomadic. They did not exactly have street addresses. But somehow Augustus did it:

“He also set out apparently to make a campaign into Britain, but on coming to the provinces of Gaul lingered there. For the Britons seemed likely to make terms with him and Gallic affairs were still unsettled, as the civil wars had begun immediately after their subjugation. He made a census of the people and set in order their life and government.”

(Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 53, Chapter 22).

Logo Perhaps the case calls for estimation. One might almost say, if Gaul, why not the world? The census was both a domestic and a foreign endeavor. There is nothing unusual about the Roman empire holding a census. From ancient times it was done in the city of Rome, the practice was gradually extended to Italy, and later on passing notices come into view of census returns from more far-flung parts of the empire. Cassius Dio mentions Augustus in connection with the Roman census. 28 B.C. is not that long after the battle of Actium. Apparently Augustus set out putting his house in order not long after stealing it from its rightful owners,

"At that particular time besides attending to the ordinary run of business he finished the taking of the census, in which he was called Princeps Senatus, as had been deemed proper under the real democracy."
(Dio, Cassius, Roman History, Book 58 [1] Complete Works of Cassius Dio (Delphi Classics) (Kindle Locations 13692-13694).)

This historian, writing at a later time, explains that the emperors possess the power of the censor's office, though no longer employing the name, and conduct the census: "Some of the emperors took the censorship in accordance with ancient custom and Domitian took it for life. This is, however, no longer done at the present day. They possess its powers and are not chosen for it and do not employ its name except in the censuses." (Dio, Cassius. Roman History, Book 53 [18] Complete Works of Cassius Dio (Delphi Classics) (Kindle Locations 13944-13945). Luke does not tell us that Augustus personally conducted the census, only that he ordered it. As a matter of fact, though, Augustus had on occasion personally conducted a census!

There is nothing particularly out of place here. Although the secular historians do not report Luke's census in detail, we do know in a general sense that the emperor had charge of conducting the census, and that this was done, at various times and places, in far-away provinces such as Spain and Egypt as well as in Italy and Sicily, as had long been done. In long-civilized parts of the world, a census was no novelty; Egypt, for example, had counted its inhabitants back in the days of the Middle Kingdom:

"An elaborate system of registration was in force. Every head of a family was enrolled as soon as he had established an independent household, with all the members belonging to it, including serfs and slaves (GKP, pi. ix, f., pp. 19-29). The office of the vizier was the central archives of the government as before, and all records of the land-administration with census and tax registration were filed in his bureaus."
(Breasted, James Henry. A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest (Kindle Locations 1800-1803). Calathus Publishing.)

In some 'younger' regions it was probably a new thing. The pieces of the puzzle are all in place, although no secular historian puts them together into Luke's configuration. But since Luke is generally a reliable historian, there is no good reason to question that configuration. It's not impossible, it's not even unlikely.

We know about this census in Gaul because this historian, who makes an effort to be reliable, mentions it. He is opinionated but well-placed, an anti-Ciceronian, but other than that generally reputable. If he hadn't mentioned it, we wouldn't know. Is that grounds for running around screaming that he made it up?


A census was no novelty for Palestine; many ambitious Bible-readers have motored along from page 1 of Genesis. . .until they hit the brick wall of the census data in Numbers. Some of the precedents are difficult to interpret. King David performed a census. . .and was punished by God with a plague:

“Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and to the leaders of the people, “Go, number Israel from Beersheba to Dan, and bring the number of them to me that I may know it.”

“And Joab answered, “May the Lord make His people a hundred times more than they are. But, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? Why then does my lord require this thing? Why should he be a cause of guilt in Israel?”

“Nevertheless the king’s word prevailed against Joab. Therefore Joab departed and went throughout all Israel and came to Jerusalem. Then Joab gave the sum of the number of the people to David. All Israel had one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword, and Judah had four hundred and seventy thousand men who drew the sword. But he did not count Levi and Benjamin among them, for the king’s word was abominable to Joab.

“And God was displeased with this thing; therefore He struck Israel. So David said to God, 'I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing; but now, I pray, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.'” (1 Chronicles 21:1-8).

Exactly what the offense was is unclear; Israel had been counted before without mishap, as provided in Exodus 30:12, but, "And David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people." (2 Samuel 24:10). Was it because, even though David was a man after His own heart, God speaking through Samuel did not endorse the change in the form of government? A census to determine resources enters into God's stated objections to monarchy. One's attitude to the census would depend upon the answer to this question of Biblical interpretation. A later census in 6 A.D., after the dismissal of the client king, was controversial, but it does not follow that a census held 'voluntarily' while the Jews were still nominally self-governing would be equally controversial.

A more positive mention is found in Nehemiah 7:5, "Then my God put it into my heart to gather the nobles, the rulers, and the people, that they might be registered by genealogy. And I found a register of the genealogy of those who had come up in the first return, and found written in it:. . .Altogether the whole assembly was forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty, besides their male and female servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred and thirty-seven; and they had two hundred and forty-five men and women singers." (Nehemiah 7:5-67). There have been censuses conducted in the holy land for millenia. One thing noteworthy in Nehemiah's venture is the stress on genealogy.

The Israelite census does seem to have incorporated genealogical information:

"And the Gadites dwelt in Gilead, in Bashan and in its villages, and in all the common-lands of Sharon within their borders. All these were registered by genealogies in the days of Jotham king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam king of Israel." (1 Chronicles 15:16-17).

Going back to the beginning, census results are recorded in the Book of Numbers. The data collected included genealogy: "And they assembled all the congregation together on the first day of the second month, and they declared their pedigrees after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of the names, from twenty years old and upward, by their polls." (Numbers 1:18). Like the original Roman census, this was to determine military resources, a moot point under the Roman empire because the Jews were exempt from military service. Taxation was more of an issue, "After her, Aristobulus and Hyrcanus ruled. In their reign Pompeius the Roman general put the Jews under Roman taxation." (Eusebius, Chronicon, Kindle location 2608). So a census in the holy land was far from a novelty.

The Institution

The census was by no means an institution unique to Rome; the Bible-reader will recall the census-lists in the book of Numbers, and the disastrous, unauthorized census performed by David. Greek cities also numbered their citizens; Plato in his Laws mandates a census, "And he must divide the citizens also into twelve parts, making all the twelve parts as equal as possible in respect of the value of the rest of their property, after a census has been made of all." (Plato. (1967 & 1968). Plato in Twelve Volumes, Laws, Book 5, 745d. Vols. 10 & 11 translated by R.G. Bury. Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.). The census of the city of Rome was conducted every fifth year, accompanied by religious observances, and required information not only about financial resources but about one's ancestral tribe. This institution goes back to the kings:

“After he [Servius Tullius] had made these regulations, he ordered all the Romans to register their names and give in a monetary valuation of their property, at the same time taking the oath required by law that they had given in a true valuation in good faith; they were also to set down the names of their fathers, with their own age and the names of their wives and children, and every man was to declare in what tribe of the city or in what district of the country he lived. If any failed to give in their valuation, the penalty he established was that their property should be forfeited and they themselves whipped and sold for slaves. This law continued in force among the Romans for a long time.”

(Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Book IV, Chapter XV).

LogoThis was evidently done on the honor system, though those caught misrepresenting the facts paid a penalty. Cicero reminds us that the Roman census records do not report who is a citizen, but rather who says that he is a citizen: "But, since the census does not confirm the right of citizenship, but only indicates that he, who is returned in the census, did at that time claim to be considered as a citizen, I say that, at that time, when you say, in your speech for the prosecution, that he did not even himself consider that he had any claim to the privileges of a Roman citizen, he more than once made a will according to our laws, and he entered upon inheritances left him by Roman citizens. . ." (The Speech of M. T. Cicero for Aulus Licinius Archias, the Poet). Archias' claim of Roman citizenship had been challenged; we discover in Cicero's defense that he was a citizen of so many places, what's one more! The Roman census may have been conducted on the honor system, but just as in dealing with our own immigration service or IRS, you would be well advised to tell the truth.

Rome had for a long time performed a periodic census of her own population, and extending this measure to the empire as a whole was a logical progression. Registering the citizens was a long-standing duty of the office-holder known as the 'Censor:' "These officers they called censors, and they had power to deprive a Roman knight of his horse, and to expel men of loose and disorderly life from the Senate. They also took a census of property, and kept a register of the various tribes and classes of the citizens; and they likewise exercised various other important powers." (Plutarch's Lives, Life of Cato, Chapter XVI, Volume II, Kindle location 1839). This was a very powerful office under the republic, but changed its character under the empire and ultimately fell into disuse.

The Roman censors not only counted the citizens, but monitored their morals and deportment, at least during the republican era when this was an achievable task. The Roman census expanded its reach to the Italian cities, as these once-conquered, hostile realms came in time to form an organic whole with the city of Rome. These people would make their avowals in their own municipalities, but coordinated with the census at Rome. To count all the inhabitants of the empire would be a new thing, but also a natural next step. Ultimately all citizens of the empire would receive Roman citizenship, but that happened several centuries later, under the emperor Caracalla. According to historian Cassius Dio, Caracalla had his eyes on the revenue. The cartoon version of the Roman empire peddled by people like John Dominic Crossan has the mother city bleeding her subject provinces dry, but in fact Roman citizens were subject to several taxes from which provincials were exempt, including an inheritance tax, and Caracalla wanted to end that privilege:

"And the taxes, both the new ones which he published and the ten per cent. tax that he instituted in place of the twenty per cent. to apply to the emancipation of slaves, to bequests left to any one, and to all gifts; for he abolished in such cases the right of succession and exemption from taxes which had been accorded to those closely related to persons deceased. This accounts for his giving the title of Romans to all the men in his empire. Nominally it was to honor them, but his real purpose was to get an increased income by such means, since foreigners did not have to pay most of those taxes." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 78, Chapter 9, Kindle location 22751 Delphi).

While that happened much later, the tendency to stitch recently conquered areas into the fabric of the empire was ongoing. As mentioned before, Augustus is reported by secular historians to have taken several censuses during his term of office, "While these events were occurring Augustus took a census, reckoning in all the property that belonged to him, as an individual might do, and also making a list of the senate." (Dio, Cassius (2014-09-18). Roman History, Book 54 [35] Complete Works of Cassius Dio (Delphi Classics) (Kindle Locations 14654-14655).) None of these events can be identified with Luke's census, but it is gilding the lily a bit to say we know nothing of any such activity on Augustus' part. Around 4 A.D., he took another one: "The emperor himself took a census of the inhabitants of Italy possessing property valued at not less than five myriad denarii. The weaker citizens and those dwelling outside of Italy he did not compel to undergo the taking of a census, for he feared that they might be disturbed and show insubordination of some sort." (Dio, Cassius (2014-09-18). Roman History, Book 55 [13] [Complete Works of Cassius Dio (Delphi Classics) (Kindle Locations 14982-14984).) Sure, this one's too late and too restricted geographically, the other is too early, but even the atheists must concede Luke is not describing an impossible event. Their census of 6 A.D., upon which they hang so much weight, is also unknown to any historian outside of Josephus. We know that Augustus took an active interest in census data, and even conducted them himself. It's a shame that, of the eighty book in which this author wrote his Roman History, so few survive.

These enumerations were periodic and the results recorded in detail, though one suspects the party who reported an age of 150 years old had made some error with respect to birth date: "We are informed by Mutianus, that, on the peak of Mount Tmolus, which is called Tempsis, the people live one hundred and fifty years, and that T. Fullonius, of Bononia, was set down as of the same age, in the registration which took place under the censorship of Claudius Cĉsar; and this appeared to be confirmed by comparing the present with former registrations, as well as many other proofs that he had been alive at certain periods—for that prince greatly interested himself in ascertaining the exact truth of the matter." (Pliny, Natural History, Book VII, Chapter 49 (48)).

Pliny's interest in the census centers around these anomalous results, which I strongly suspect are the consequence only of some carelessness in recording of birth dates. Perish the thought that people would ever fib about their birth date! In addition to the registration under Claudius, he mentions a census under Vespasian and Titus:

"First of all, however, it must strike us that the variations which have taken place in this science prove its uncertainty; and to this consideration may be added the experience of the very last census, which was made four years ago, under the direction of the Emperors Vespasian, father and son. I shall not search through the registers; I shall only cite some instances in the middle district that lies between the Apennines and the river Padus. At Parma, three persons declared themselves to be one hundred and twenty years of age; at Brixellum, one was one hundred and twenty-five; at Parma, two were one hundred and thirty; at Placentia, one was one hundred and thirty; at Faventia, one woman was one hundred and thirty-two; at Bononia, L. Terentius, the son of Marcus, and at Ariminum, M. Aponius, were one hundred and forty, and Tertulla, one hundred and thirty-seven. In the hills which lie around Placentia is the town of Veleiacium, in which six persons gave in their ages as one hundred and ten years, and four one hundred and twenty, while one person, M. Mucius, the son of Marcus, surnamed Felix, and of the Galerian tribe, was aged one hundred and forty." (Book VII, Chapter 50 (49), Pliny the Elder. (1855). The Natural History (J. Bostock, Ed.) (2205). Medford, MA: Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street.)

Believe it or not, I say. It is possible to find scattered references to census returns for various parts of the empire; for example, the geographer Strabo mentions that there are 500 knights registered at Gades (Cadiz), in Spain:

"Still, in amount of population, their city does not seem to be surpassed by any with the exception of Rome. I have heard that in a census taken within our own times, there were enumerated five hundred citizens of Gades of the equestrian order, a number equalled by none of the Italian cities excepting that of the Patavini."
(Strabo. (1903). The Geography of Strabo. Book III, Chapter V, Section 3. Literally translated, with notes, in three volumes. (H. C. Hamilton, Ed.) (253). Medford, MA: George Bell & Sons.)

Citizens were rated by property classification, from the lowly proletariat on up to the knights. So we know there was a census held there, but how often? Were these Spanish knights counted in the same world-wide census which numbered the holy family? It's impossible to know, but there's nothing impossible about a census. Many years later, the empire would settle into the rhythm of a 15-year indiction; but that lay in the future.

Strictly speaking, Luke does not say that a world-wide census was successfully held, but that the decree went out. Long-civilized areas knew what a census was, and very likely had held them on their own before ever becoming part of the Roman empire, as was the case with Israel, but Gauls roaming in the northern forests presented more difficult problems. Still, as noted, Augustus made a census in Gaul: "These were the acts of Augustus at that time. He also set out apparently to make a campaign into Britain, but on coming to the provinces of Gaul lingered there. . .He made a census of the people and set in order their life and government." (Dio, Cassius (2014-09-18). Roman History, Book 53 [22] Complete Works of Cassius Dio (Delphi Classics) (Kindle Locations 13994-13995).) Since this is the worst-case scenario, Palestine is easy by comparison.

The Young Cicero Reading, Vincenzo Foppa, 1464


There was not one unitary scheme of taxation that applied empire-wide. When large chunks of earlier empires like those of Alexander the Great's successors or of Carthage broke off, Rome sometimes continued existing usages in the interests of stability. Sicily even had an income tax, which the local censors managed:

“But now it is worth while to see how the censors were appointed in Sicily while that man was praetor. For that is the magistracy among the Sicilians, the appointments to which are made by the people with the greatest care, because all the Sicilians pay a yearly tax in proportion to their incomes; and, in making the census, the power is entrusted to the censor of making every sort of valuation, and of determining the total amount of every man's contribution. . .

“He therefore, as I say, he, Timarchides, sent censors into every city, having taken bribes for their appointment. Comitia for the election of censors, while Verres was praetor, were never held not even for the purpose of making a presence of legality. This was the most shameless business of all. . .

“The census was so taken, when you were praetor, that the affairs of no state whatever could be administered according to such a census. For they made a low return of the incomes of all the richest men, and exaggerated that of each poor man. And so in levying the taxes so heavy a burden was laid upon the common people, that even if the men themselves said nothing, the facts alone would discredit that census, as may easily be understood from the circumstances themselves.”

(Marcus Tullius Cicero, Against Verres, The Second Book of the Second Pleading 53-56).

LogoSo how did that work out? Not very well! The problem was not at the conceptual level. The concept was present in Sicily of a progressive tax which drew more from the rich than the poor. According to Varro, the Roman practice was for the tax to be proportioned to net worth, like our property tax: "Tributum ‘tribute’ was said from the tribus ‘tribes,’ because that money which was levied on the people, was exacted tributim ‘tribe by tribe’ individually, in proportion to their financial rating in the census." (Terentius Varro, Marcus. On the Latin Language, Book V, Chapter 181. Delphi Complete Works of Varro (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 80) (Kindle Locations 6991-6992).) So the concept of progressivity was there. But in practice, in Sicily, the rich bribed the censors, who were not only census-takers but the IRS agents, while the poor could not afford to bribe them, and so ended up footing the bill. This state of affairs was unfortunately common in the Roman empire, where the rich got richer in spite of well-intentioned efforts to even the balance:

 Marcus Tullius Cicero 
Against Verres

LogoAccording to Tertullian, the Roman empire would save a lot of money if all citizens were as honest as the Christians:

"But your other taxes will acknowledge a debt of gratitude to Christians; for in the faithfulness which keeps us from fraud upon a brother, we make conscience of paying all their dues: so that, by ascertaining how much is lost by fraud and falsehood in the census declarations — the calculation may easily be made — it would be seen that the ground of complaint in one department of revenue is compensated by the advantage which others derive." (Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 42).

Rome assessed a variety of direct and indirect taxes. Whether Tax Freedom Day came earlier for them or for us is open to question:

LogoBlunder After Blunder

Atheist objections to the census start with the concept that Luke 'goofed,' mistaking the census of 6 A.D., which is mentioned in Josephus and also by Luke in Acts, for an earlier event. . .which never happened. Being atheists, they do not feel bound to make sense of their own theory.

"Quirinius's census is apparently the event described in Luke 2:1-2, the census that sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. . .it would place the birth of Jesus more than a decade later than the time of Herod the Great." (L. Michael White, From Jesus to Christ, p. 32).

This the author understands to be a blunder: "In fact, Jesus would have been about twelve years old at the time of the census." (L. Michael White, From Jesus to Christ, p. 12). OK, let's try out the 'blunder' theory: Luke mistakenly thought that Jesus was born in 6 A.D. So, if so, what age would he have thought Jesus to be in about 28 A.D.?: "Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age. . ." (Luke 3:23). Wait a minute, he should have said 22 years of age! Is it possible that Luke could have gotten all of these dates so wrong? Oh, but he had no idea when the second census occurred, even though he mentions it in Acts. And why not? This information was no secret; state business was published: "Caesar's very first enactment after becoming Consul was, that the proceedings both of the Senate and of the people should day by day be compiled and published." (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Julius Caesar, p. 12 Modern Library). Rome even had a daily newspaper, "From the private journals of those Roman penny-a-liners and these official current reports there arose a sort of news-sheet for the capital (acta diurna), in which the resume of the business discussed before the people and in the senate, and births, deaths, and such like were recorded." (Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Volume 5, Kindle location 35523, end-notes). Luke couldn't count, even if he used his fingers and his toes? The 'blunder' theory cannot be sustained.

The problem is shown here: "There is no evidence whatsoever that he [Herod] actually ordered a mass slaughter of children in order to ill the 'messiah' (as reported only in Matt. 2:16)." (L. Michael White, From Jesus to Christ, p. 24). It is true that there is no other evidence. Notice, please, that in the eyes of these authors, the New Testament is "no evidence whatsoever." Instead of assigning some slight evidentiary value to the New Testament, realizing that many of its historical details are confirmed by secular historians, this approach assigns a negative value to this information: it is presumed false until proven otherwise. But there can be no rational defense for such an approach. Certainly no one expects the atheists to go along with the Christian contention that the Bible is inspired and reliable. But neither can there be any reason, other than bias, for them to insist it has nil evidentiary value. We are not dealing here with supernatural events, which the atheists' religion requires them to disclaim. Massacres, and censuses, happen all the time; no one who sees an American census enumerator, clipboard in hand, walking down the street, on the tenth year, thinks that he or she has witnessed a supernatural event.

We would not know about this census but for Luke, however there is no reason "whatsoever" to think it did not occur. These little set-pieces go back to the misnamed Enlightenment, and have been stove-piped down through the years from one generation of atheists to another, at no time interacting with any Christian response. Why didn't Luke think that Jesus began His ministry at the age of 22, if their claims are correct? There is no answer, and never will be any answer. The 'blunder' theory just doesn't work.

Some of these authors go beyond the 'blunder' theory, escaping into orbit accompanied by raucous laughter, finding the very concept of Luke's census absurd on its face. One such is Muslim Reza Aslan:

Reserved for Sedition Conspiracy Theory
Reimarus Name That Zealot
The Messiah Mythology
Ancient Literacy Prophecy Impossible
Apollonius of Tyana Sic et Non
Judge Judy The Census
The Vineyard The Third Day
Contradictions: Bible vs. Koran

LogoAccording to my Bible Atlas, the mileage to be covered between Nazareth and Bethlehem, point to point, is 69 miles (Atlas of Bible History, Kindle location 610). That's not a trivial trip, but why it would be assumed impossible is unclear. There is more controversy about Luke's simple and straightforward account than there needs to be, for instance,

"However, because the sole purpose of a census was taxation, Roman law assessed an individual's property in the place of residence, not in the place of one's birth.  . .Luke's suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great distances to the place of his father's birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and his possessions, which, in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous." (Reza Aslan, Zealot, p. 53).

Notice that this tendentious author assumes that legal residency was assigned at birth and was immutable, and that thus 'his own city' means 'his natal city.' Notice moreover that he assumes every single individual in the Roman empire no longer resides at his place of birth, an assumption one can only call 'asinine.' The population of the Roman empire was far more mobile and urbanized that most people today would imagine, not to mention more literate, but there never yet has been a human society in which no one at all still lives in the place where he was born. To this day some people still live in the house where they were born. Incidentally, neither is it true that the sole purpose of a Roman census was taxation; an individual's legal status and citizenship rights were dependent upon his listing. Originally the design was primarily to rank the citizens according to military capacity. The lowest orders were exempt from military service, not out of compassion for the under-privileged but because the men were expected to provide much of their own equipment. The conundrum of what to do with a 'knight' who was too fat to get on his horse come up later. The property-less proletarians could still vote, they were not stripped of all their rights as free men; but if the voters were called by centuries, their each individual vote counted for very little.

Count up all the errors in his above discussion. One did not present one's possessions for the inspection of the censor. And it can not possibly be the case that everyone was obligated to travel "great distances;" but suppose even it were. No doubt Reza Aslan will go through the roof when he discovers that Moses required the inhabitants of Judaea and Galilee to travel to Jerusalem three times a year:

“Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year: You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread (you shall eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt; none shall appear before Me empty); and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field.

“Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.” (Exodus 23:14-17).

How onerous! Some of these folks must travel as far as Joseph and Mary did in their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and yet somehow the world remained upon its course, it did not flip out of orbit; if the economy was indeed "placed on hold," certainly the travel and hospitality industry wouldn't have noticed. Mr. Aslan's own religion requires those financially able to travel to Mecca, a desert burg which is quite possibly nowhere convenient to where they live, without any noticeable yearly catastrophe resulting therefrom.

The people of the Roman empire were a people who knew gatherings and farewells:

"To yearning heart of wanderer give rein
with fervid foot; so bid a long farewell
to that fond band of friends, who once left home
together, but who must return again
from separate paths, through mottled scenes to swell
the ranks that sway along the spidered roads to Rome."
(Catullus, XLVI. Iam ver egelidos).

But Reza Aslan is one of those best-selling authors who keep telling us Jesus was a 'peasant.' These 'peasant' authorities cannot have it both ways: an inert, motionless agrarian society in which no one ever moved cannot also simultaneously be a society where no one at all lived in the same place where he was born. Another author who pursues this same train of thought is John Dominic Crossan, one of the leading lights of the Jesus Seminar:

"First, there never was a worldwide census under Augustus. Second, the Palestinian census was undertaken by the Syrian legate, P. Sulpicius Quirinius, in 6 to 7 C.E., about a decade after the birth of Jesus. You will recall, from chapter 6 above, that its occasion was the annexation of Archelaus' territories under a direct Roman prefecture. Third, and above all, even if Augustus had ordained a complete census of the Roman world, and even if Quirinius had overseen its administration in Archelaus' territories, the Roman custom was to count you in the place of your domicile or work and not in that of your ancestry or birth. This is little more than common sense. Census was for taxation; to record people in their ancestral rather than their occupational locations would have constituted a bureaucratic nightmare." (John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, p. 372).

Oddly enough, John Dominic Crossan is the same author who assures us that the world of the Roman empire in the first century was a static, inert, motionless 'peasant' society in which everyone did exactly what his grandfather had done, nothing more, nothing less. If this were so, no one would have had to anywhere, but to the place where they went on market days, to register in their own city! This idea is so arbitrary, and so contrary to what is known of the highly mobile population of antiquity, that even those trying to push it can't help but forget about it from time to time. You know, this type of thing:

"The same sky, the same earth, the same rain, the same snow, the same houses, the same feast days, the same food, the same poverty: poverty handed down from fathers, who had inherited it from their grandfathers, who had received it from their forefathers. The life of men, beasts and earth always seeming shut in a motionless circle, closed away from the changes of time." (Ignazio Silone, quoted p. 137, John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity).

One must express mystification as to why these people are always arguing about the same thornbush when they all live miles and miles away from where they were born. Why does Crossan first tell us that nobody ever moved in that 'peasant' world, and then tell us that everybody did? If these people don't even believe their own material, why should anyone else?

LogoWhole Round World

Augustus' decree, as quoted by Luke, requires the whole world to be enrolled. How does the Latin Vulgate render this?

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world [universus orbis] should be taxed." (Luke 2:1).

LogoThat's the whole round globe! Actually Jerome's translation is a bit ambitious, not to mention rotund; the Greek word is οικουμενη, meaning household, or the inhabited portion of the earth. Still, the Romans did not actually govern the entire inhabited world. So how can this be? Can such a decree have been historical?

One point that draws objections is the reported scope of the census: the whole world. Atheists protest, Rome did not rule the whole world. This is certainly true. They may have aspired to rule the world, and perhaps they laid claim to the entirety, but they fell short. They may not have realized how far short: the Romans did not even know of the existence of North and South America, Australia or Indonesia. Nor did they ever rule over China, Scythia, Scandinavia, Parthia, India, or sub-Saharan Africa, areas of which they had at least some vague idea though unaware of the full scope of their population and territorial extent. They may have held sway over no more than one fourth of the total: "By the time Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus assumed the imperial office, they held sway over a quarter of humanity." (The Fate of Rome, Kyle Harper, p. 31). The entire globe? Universus orbis? Not even close! But Luke cannot be held to account for guaranteeing the accuracy of the decree's language, because if this is what the decree said: 'The whole world is to be registered,'— then a citation in indirect discourse, that 'all the world should be registered,' is perfectly accurate. We do not stand surety for official decrees by quoting them!

The Romans were wont to say that they ruled the whole world, "Our own nation, whose history Africanus traced from its beginnings in yesterday's discourse, now holds sway over the whole world [orbis terrae]." (Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the Commonwealth, Book III, Chapter XV). They were not modest people. Whether they ever presented the millions of Chinese (the Seres) with a bill for back taxes in arrears is unknown. If in a generous mood, they may have waived the penalty. One of Cicero's political triumphs was arguing, successfully, against a proposal for land reform, always a popular measure in the political life of the late Republic. He succeeds by drawing attention away from the figure of the dispossessed farmer, a figure who almost demands our sympathy, and focusing instead on the administrators of the proposed system. Who are these unelected tyrants who have the power to take your land and give it to me? Who could justly exercise such almost unlimited power? ". . .and then also when the Catos, and the Phili, and Laeli lived, men whose wisdom and moderation you had obtained a thorough knowledge of in pubic, and private, and forensic, and domestic affairs; still such a charge as this was entrusted to no one so as to allow the same man to be both judge and seller, and to be so for five years over the whole world [toto in orbe terrarum], and also to have power to alienate the lands of the Roman people from which their revenues are derived. . ." (Cicero, Second Speech In Opposition to Publius Servilius Rullus, A Tribune of the People, Section 64). Now, the redoubtable Pompey never conquered China; he would have had to march through Parthia, hostile territory, to get there, and he never even conquered Parthia! So how, "the whole world"? Well, he said it, they used to say it, and if it turns up in indirect quotation, so be it. He's looking for revenue from the whole heap, though I suspect a few of those Chinese people hid their money in their shoes: "Let then, O Romans, all the money which there is in the world come into the hands of the dictators; let nothing be omitted; let every city, every district, every kingdom, and lastly even your own revenues be sold by them; let the spoils won by your generals be added to the heap." (Cicero, The Second Speech, In Opposition to Publius Servilius Rullus, A Tribune of the People, Section 62).

The poet Manilius grants Caesar's sway over "the world:"

"And did not stars the rise of states dispose,
Had mighty Rome from such beginnings rose?
Had shepherds built, or swains without control
Advanced their cottage to a capitol?
Placed on whose heights, our Caesars now survey
The lower earth, and see the world obey?"
(Manilius, The Rule of Fate, p. 503, Modern Library, The Latin Poets).

"It was the gift of fortune, then, in the first place, that he [Titus Pomponius Atticus] was born in that city, above all others, in which was the seat of the empire of the world [orbis terrarum], and had it not only for his native place but for his home. . ." (Cornelius Nepos, Lives of Eminent Commanders, Book XXV, Titus Pomponius Atticus, Chapter III). Nero Caesar implied that he ruled the whole world: "The proclamation ran: 'Nero Caesar wins this contest and crowns the Roman people and his world.' Possessing according to his own statement a world, he went on singing and playing, making proclamations, and acting tragedies." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 63, Chapter 14). Even the rebellious Gaul, Gaius Julius Vindex, exhorted his people, "Therefore now at length rise against him: come to the succor of yourselves and of the Romans; liberate the entire world!" (Vindex, quoted in Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 63, Chapter 22). Vindex, had he met with success, would not have liberated the millions of Chinese, who even then needed liberation. But they said things like that.

In the second century A.D., Fronto tells Marcus Aurelius, "For it falls to a Caesar to carry by persuasion necessary measures in the Senate, to address the people in a harangue on many important matters, to correct the inequities of the law, to despatch rescripts throughout the world [per orbem terrae], to take foreign kings to task, to repress by edicts disorders among the allies, to praise their services, to crush the rebellious and to cow the proud." (M. Cornelius Fronto, Correspondence, Volume II, Loeb edition, p. 59). Surely Fronto, who was no fool, knew there were places on this terrestrial globe where they didn't care about Caesar's rescripts. But he says it anyway. What do you call it when people say things they know are not true? Flattery? Positive thinking? Later he says, "What, will the Immortal Gods allow the Comitium and Rostra and tribunals, that echoed to the speeches of Cato and Gracchus and Cicero, to be hushed in this age of all others? the wide world [orbem terrae], which was vocal when you received it, to become dumb by your doing?" (M. Cornelius Fronto, Correspondence, Volume II, Loeb edition, p. 65). Is it realistic to fear the terrestrial globe would not fall silent if Marcus stopped talking? All those millions of Chinese people, to say nothing of Eskimos and such, will become mute? They never even heard of Marcus Aurelius.

The emperor Commodus gave himself titles including "Peacemaker of the World:" And to the senate he would send a despatch couched in these terms: 'Caesar Imperator, Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, Augustus, Pius, Beatus, Sarmaticus, Germanicus, Maximus, Britannicus, Peacemaker of the World, Invincible, Roman Hercules, High Priest, Holder of Tribunician Authority for the eighteenth term, Imperator for the eighth time, Consul for the seventh time, Father of the Fatherland, to consuls, praetors, tribunes and the Commodian Fortunate Senate, Greeting.'" (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 73, Chapter 15). No doubt he wasn't really "invincible" either; but were the Roman emperors capable of saying things like that? They were capable.

Agrippa in Pseudo-Hegesippus warns the Jews that, to get away from Roman arms, they will have to depart from this world: "'To weave reasons for war is pernicious, since the condition of war is harsh against all, against the Romans it is a last resort. Whom if you wish to flee since you are not able to conquer, the world must be abandoned by you. But you allege the desire of freedom.'" (Pseudo-Hegesippus, Book 2, p. 148).

Even before Rome was ruled by emperors, in Pompey's triumphal procession, one trophy represented "the world:"

"He conducted the procession in honor of all his wars at once, including in it many trophies beautifully arrayed to represent each of his deeds, even the smallest: and after them all came one huge one, arrayed in costly fashion and bearing an inscription to the effect that it was a World Trophy." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 37, [21]).

Pompey, however, lost. Amongst the honors the sycophantic senate voted for Caesar upon his return to Italy was a representation of Caesar astride the inhabited world, represented as "lying beneath his feet" (Chapter 21):

"And they resolved that a representation of his chariot be set on the Capitol opposite Jupiter, that upon an image of the inhabited world a bronze figure of Caesar be mounted, holding a written statement to the effect that he was a demi-god. . ." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 43, Chapter 14).

In reality Caesar was no more the conqueror of the inhabited world than he was a demi-god. But self-effacing these people were not. We hear in the present day, from churches which preach the 'prosperity' gospel, about positive confession: that if you say 'There's a Lamborghini in the driveway' enough times, there will be a Lamborghini in the driveway. This seems unlikely, and besides is not Biblical: Christian prayer is petitionary, not declarative. These thought patterns and expectations would seem to have come out of New England Transcendentalism, view Mind Cure, rather than from the Bible. But the pagan Romans had a similar way of thinking. When Cicero, asked whether the Catilinian conspirators, whom he had executed in prison, their appeal unheard, were dead, he replied 'They have lived.' It is inauspicious, you see, to say somebody's dead. Today's Wiccan performs pagan ceremonial so long as it amuses her, then goes to channel surf and see what's on TV; but the ancient Romans had to keep repeating the same ceremonies over and over, because if anything unlucky happened during the observance, that ruined it, and you had to start over; and there were a plethora of unlucky things. They had religious OCD. Maybe they felt that saying they ruled the world was halfway to making it happen.

So maybe it's optimism, maybe it's propaganda, maybe it's high hopes, maybe it's grandiosity, maybe it's a positive confession, but the Romans did say things like that. When the Bible quotes Nebuchadnezzar, Satan, or other usually unreliable sources, the Bible avers that this party said that, not that what he said is so. The fool says, "There is no God." (Psalm 14:1). Is this true? It's in the Bible. But the same Bible also says, a fool said it. We might call this secondary inerrancy: some people seem to believe that, if the Bible quotes a speaker, what the speaker says must be true. But there is no such thing. If you want to believe what Satan, or the fool, says, you're on your own.

So don't let anyone tell you it is impossible for an imperial Roman decree of that era to refer to that government's sphere of competence as 'the whole world.' They did that all the time. Whether their reach exceeded their grasp is another story. Luke, of course, does not say that the world census was a smashing success. He does not say that the decree went out, and the census returns came streaming back in. In some recently acquired areas, where the Romans lacked even basic topographic and cartographic data, it seems unlikely. And if this grand project flubbed, that would be reason enough for the historians to fail to mention it. Without infrastructure, native bureaucracies who grasp the concept, and a cooperative populace, a census cannot succeed. But we do know of two who did get counted, Joseph and Mary.

Every Tribe

It is claimed by the detractors that the Roman census simply did not record the family lineage of enrollees, and so therefore Mary and Joseph's stated reason for going to Bethlehem cannot have been valid: "When, on the other hand, Luke tells that Joseph travelled to Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David, it is assumed that the preparation of the taxation lists had been made according to tribes, generations, and families, which was by no means the Roman custom." (Schürer, Emil. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (Kindle Locations 4181-4183). Capella Press.) However the ancient witnesses tell quite a different story. Marcus Tullius Cicero offers his take on the concept of a census, explaining that the information should be recorded according to "race" and "family:"

"Let the censors take a census of the people, according to age, race, family, and property. Let them have the inspection of the temples, the streets, the aqueducts, the rates, and the customs. Let them distribute the citizens, according to their tribes, fortunes, ages and ranks. Let them keep a register of the equestrian and plebeian orders. . .Let the number of such censors be two. Let their magistracy continue five years."

(Marcus Tullius Cicero, Treatise on Laws, Book III).

LogoThe Treatise on Laws is an ideal project like Plato's Laws, but, like Cicero's On the Commonwealth, his ideal republic ends up looking a lot like the actual Rome. The census did take notice of tribal affiliation, of which more later.

Lots of people, then as now, are from away: "In reply to your question, I should say, that Cato, and municipal citizens like him, have two countries, one, that of their birth, and the other, that of their choice. Cato being born at Tusculum, was elected a citizen of Rome, so that a Tusculan by extraction, and a Roman by election, he had, besides his native country, a rightful one." (Marcus Tullius Cicero, Treatise on Laws, Book II). Just as the months, once moon-cycles, had become artificial, untethered from their natural meaning, in Julius Caesar's renovation of the calendar, so the 'tribes' of Rome ceased to be racial or genealogical cohorts and became simple voting districts. They may have felt this was a natural evolution, an adaptation to a more mobile, cosmopolitan society. There were not many left who claimed to be autochthonic or aboriginal inhabitants. People were not necessarily related to those they lived among, as they once had been. But under the Mosaic constitution, this may have been a problem.

A Babe is Born

"But Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive. And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon." (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Chapter 6, Section 4, p. 1084).

Although Herod was already ill before he murdered the high priest, some people saw a cause-and-effect relationship: "It was said by those who pretended to divine, and who were endued with wisdom to foretell such things, that God inflicted this punishment on the king on account of his great impiety; yet was he still in hopes of recovering, though his afflictions seemed greater than any one could bear." (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Chapter 6, Section 5, p. 1084). Those who took this view undoubtedly included Josephus, himself descended from a priestly family, whose summary version of Judaism might have been, 'Show respect for priests.' The lunar eclipse "that very night" was the heavenly gavel banging down; God's verdict on this blasphemer was thumbs down. Josephus juxtaposes this atrocity with Herod's end because he perceives a cause-and-effect relationship between the two events. We would assume this must mean the event happened immediately thereafter. This is not always the way it works. The Pharisees tended to agree with the pagans that the mills of the gods grind slow, but exceedingly fine:

"Pompey himself entered the Holy of Holies to see what it contained; later, when he was assassinated, Jews saw it as divine retribution for this act of desecration."
(Pritchard, James B.. HarperCollins Atlas of Bible History (Kindle Locations 2537-2538). HarperCollins.)

Pompey was cruelly and deceitfully murdered by the Egyptians in 48 B.C.; but 15 years is as the blink of an eye. 'Because of' doesn't mean 'immediately thereafter.'

Usually atheists do not like supernatural occurrences and delete them from the texts they are studying, but this one they like. It may be a bit too pat that the eclipse occurs that very night. Could it be that perhaps in reality it was several months later, and each time the story was told it gravitated a bit closer to the event for which it formed the heavenly exclamation point? These events occurred long before Josephus was born; though and excellent, conscientious and diligent historian, he is dependent upon his informants for this information. For some reason, though they generally don't like events like this one, this one they like. Astronomers can provide a list of all the partial and total lunar eclipses visible in that area during that time frame, a wonderful resource. We can therefore ascertain, in theory, when this eclipse occurred, and the impious murder with which it is directly associated.

Some time after that Herod dies; Josephus does not say how long, though his death cannot have been immediate. A lot needs to happen, people coming and going, letters sent and received, before Herod can die. Six months? Two years? Four years? One cannot say, from the text. Unfortunately no secular historian informs us of the date of Herod's death. It would be good to know this information, because the gospels present Jesus' birth as occurring while Herod the Great is yet alive. The date of Herod's death, therefore, would give us a fixed date after which His nativity cannot have occurred. Unfortunately we do not have it. We act as if we have it, but we don't. On the one hand we have Luke's record. On the other hand we have assumptions about what is or is not likely.

In fairness to Josephus he does not, in fact, tell us when Herod died, though he does fail to mention Luke's census. His history does not contradict Luke, unless supplemented by inferences piled atop one another. Josephus is a wonderful historian, but readers who take the trouble to compare the Wars of the Jews with the Antiquities must realize he is far from infallible. He changes dates and circumstances as new sources of information become available, and why shouldn't he? Why is he aken to be an oracle, so that the New Testament must give way if there is a conflict? Even those who insist we must toss out Luke's census because Josephus fails to mention it do not really believe a lot of what he says: ". . .and if even but the half is true which the inventive imagination of Josephus has recorded, it must certainly have been horrible enough." (Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus, Kindle location 5366). So when it comes to the census, mentioned by Luke but not mentioned by Josephus, to whom are we bound? If Luke's account does not jibe with what an admittedly "inventive" author tells us or fails to tell us, so what?

This argument from silence falls short of convicting Luke of error, except in the eyes of those before whom he was already guilty, on grounds he penned a gospel. Do they judge others by the same standard? These same people cannot find it in their hearts to convict Josephus of being a Pharisee who thought eclipses were significant, even if not simultaneous with the events they signified. And I've never yet found one of these people who object to the pagan historians giving us a catalog of birth defects, of calves being born without hearts and that sort of thing, circumstances meaningful in pagan religion but not in reality. They don't throw these authors' works out unread, and likewise, Luke deserves a hearing when he recounts a circumstance otherwise unknown.

Incidentally, why is it necessary to use so much indirection and amateur sleuthing to determine the year of Herod's death? Doesn't Josephus give us the length of Herod's reign, as any competent historian should? Of course he does; it's 37 years from the original grant from Marc Antony and the senate:

"So Herod. . .died, having reigned thirty-four years since he had caused Antigonus to be slain, and obtained his kingdom; but thirty-seven years since he had been made king by the Romans." (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, Chapter 33, Section 8).

Herod was made king by the Romans twice. The original grant is impressively portrayed by Josephus, who describes Antony making the case to the Roman senate: "These reasons greatly moved the senate; at which juncture Antony came in, and told them that it was for their advantage in the Parthian war that Herod should be king; so they all gave their votes for it." (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, Chapter 14, Section 4). (Roman general Ventidius obtained a triumph for this Parthian war in 38 B.C.) But alas Antony's fortunes declined, leaving Herod in doubt, and so his second crowning is after the battle of Actium: "But now Herod was under immediate concern about a most important affair, on account of his friendship with Antony, who was already overcome at Actium by Caesar. . ." (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, Chapter 20, Section 1). He came to Augustus without his diadem, but Augustus graciously placed it again upon his head, "I do therefore assure thee that I will confirm the kingdom to thee by decree. . ." (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, Chapter 20, Section 2). Antigonus was killed, after Herod and Roman general Sosius captured Jerusalem: "Herod's dependence was upon the decree of the senate, by which he was made king; and Sosius relied upon Antony. . ." (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, Chapter 17, Section 9). According to the Antiquities, Antony had preserved Antigonus for his triumph, but then had him executed at Antioch. Does any of this give us a handle to a known, dated event?

What was the date of the battle of Actium? 31 B.C. That's important, because Josephus mentions this battle, ". . .for in the seventh year of his reign, when the war about Actium was at the height, at the beginning of the spring, the earth was shaken. . ." (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, Chapter 19, Section 4). If in 31 B.C. we're seven years into Herod's thirty-seven year reign, this brings us closer to the traditional date of Christmas than to 4 B.C.

Universal Birthday Close Enough for Government Work
Clement of Alexandria Epiphanius of Salamis
Speculation vs. Revelation Bible Evidence
Course of Abijah Sheep
Baptism Feast of Tabernacles
The Case Against Christmas The War On Christmas
O Christmas Tree Why December 25th?
Census Gee Whiz
Columbus Day Easter and the Equinox

LogoCitizens and Aliens

Plotinus is sure a census intends to count citizens, not aliens who happen to reside there:

"Remembering this fact, we must — however great the difficulty — exclude Soul from the present investigation, just as in a census of citizens, taken in the interests of commerce and taxation, we should ignore the alien population." (Plotinus, The Sixth Ennead, Third Tractate, Section 1).

LogoResident aliens were perhaps citizens of another place, but many people were not citizens of any place. Slaves were not citizens, neither in antiquity nor in the American Southland. One might wonder how the Romans faced the dilemma of whether they were to be inventoried as property or counted as residents of the places where they lived; the American solution, three-fifths, is less than elegant; unfortunately the Roman census does not seem to have counted them at all. Aliens are also not citizens, but the question of counting, say, illegal immigrants from Mexico in the American census would be somewhat different if both Mexico and the U.S. were part of a mammoth super-state, as Jefferson Davis would have preferred.

Egypt seems to have counted its residents from ancient times. Diodorus Siculus, a contemporary of Julius Caesar, mentions these census returns: "The number of its inhabitants surpasses that of those in other cities. At the time when we were in Egypt, those who kept the census returns of the population said that its free residents were more than three hundred thousand, and that the king received from the revenues of the country more than six thousand talents." (Siculus, Diodorus. Library of History, Book XVII, Chapter 52.6. Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 32) (Kindle Locations 19893-19895).) The ancient census counted citizens, not slaves nor aliens. Since a census provides useful information for governing, it cannot be assumed that, once Rome seized control of these areas, their first step would be to discontinue the accustomed periodic census.

Luke expresses it as a requirement of the census that the population take affirmative action to be registered, each in "his own city;" the perennial problem for the U.S. census of counting transients, travellers, and resident aliens was thus solved by fiat. There survive actual scraps of census papers preserved by Egypt's dry climate; that the empire conducted a periodic census is no fantasy: "Actual census papers have been found of the periodic year 62 [add also 34] after Christ." (W. M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, Chapter XX, p. 256.)

The way they did it in Palestine is also how they did it in Egypt: "The order is stated in the edict of the Prefect Vibius Maximus in A.D. 104, 'that all who for any reason whatever are away from their own Nomos should return to their home to enrol themselves.'" (W. M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, Chapter XX, p. 259.) Surely it is futile to confute, on a priori grounds, the way it is recorded they did it! Unlike the American census, whose enumerators fan out through the country-side looking for people, the people were expected to come to town to be counted, in Thrace as in Egypt and Palestine: "Similarly the magistrates of Mesembria in Thrace summoned the whole population to come into the town to be enrolled according to the law of the city and according to the custom." [Cagnat, "Inscr. Graec. ad res R. pertinentes," i. 769, from Dumont and Homolle, p. 460, no. 111.] (W. M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, Chapter XX, p. 264.)

Luke goes on to explain that Joseph went to Bethlehem "because he was of the house and lineage of David," without explaining whether registration 'by lineage' was an imperial mandate, or whether Joseph chose this course to safeguard his claim to Davidic descent. Atheist authors summarize Luke's report as follows: the Bible says it was mandatory for all citizens to report to the place where their ancestors distant one thousand years had previously resided. Luke offers no such information. There is one case under discussion; we know that Joseph chose to go to Bethlehem because he was a descendant of David. Was he himself born there? Had he previously resided there? Did he seek to safeguard a potential claim to the monarchy on behalf of his heirs?

The citizen of one place who removed to another became an incola of the latter place, not automatically a citizen, although he could petition for that status. Incolas domicilium facit: Residence creates domicile. The law allowed him freely choose his place of domicile:

"Freedom of choice and change lay at the foundation of domicil in the Roman law, and was one of the distinguishing features between it and origo. We have seen that the municeps could not, without the consent of the magistrates, divest himself of his origo [citizenship], even though he acquired citizenship elsewhere, and that such acquisition could not take place through his own act and will alone. But it was different with respect to domicil, which, subject to a few exceptions might be abandoned or acquired at pleasure. 'Nihil est impedimento, quominus quis, ubi velit, habeat domicilium, quod ei interdictum non sit.' [Dig. 56, t. 1, l. 31.] (Michael William Jacobs, A Treatise on the Law of Domicil, National, Quasi-national, and Municipal, pp. 156-157).

Luke does not in fact say that one's 'own city' was in all cases the place of one's birth, nor does he deny that, in the Roman empire citizens could petition to change not only their place of legal residency, but also where they held citizenship as, for instance,

"In the meantime, after a sufficiently long interval, having gone with Lucius Lucullus into Sicily, and having afterwards departed from that province in the company of the same Lucullus, he came to Heraclea. And as that city was one which enjoyed all the rights of a confederate city to their full extent, he became desirous of being enrolled as a citizen of it. And, being thought deserving of such a favor for his own sake, when aided by the influence and authority of Lucullus, he easily obtained it from the Heracleans." (M. T. Cicero, The Speech of M. T. Cicero for Aullus Licinius Archias, the Poet, Section 4, p. 414).

This passage suggests the process required voluntary action on the part of the citizen who wished, not to change his place of legal residence, but to acquire legal rights as a citizen of the new place. Application to the municipal authorities was required, with acceptance or rejection a possible outcome. Once Rome conquered the world, Roman citizenship became a valuable commodity, and people all over the empire laid claim to it. Application to the Emperor might do the trick:

"I have made it a rule, in accordance with the established custom of the emperors, to be cautious in bestowing the citizenship of Alexandria; but since you have already obtained that of Rome for Harpocras, your Iatraliptic doctor, I cannot bring myself to refuse this further application of yours. You will have to inform me from what district he comes, that I may forward you a letter for my friend Pompeius Planta, the Prefect of Egypt." (Letter from Trajan to Pliny, Book X, Letter 7 (23), Complete Works of Pliny the Younger, Kindle location 5753).

Later lots and lots of people had it, but that's another story. Natal place could be one thing, legal residence another: "Cato being born at Tusculum, was elected a citizen of Rome, so that a Tusculan by extraction, and a Roman by election, he had, besides his native country, a rightful one." (Cicero, Treatise on Laws, Book Two). They had, of course, illegal immigrants as well: "No small embarrassment to the Consulate is M. Perperna, who was Consul before he was a citizen. . .but whereas his life triumphed, his death was found guilty under the Papian law. For his father had embraced the rights of a Roman citizen to which he had no title and was forced by the Sabelli as a result of a trial to return to his former place of residence." (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, Book III. 4, pp. 285-287 Loeb edition). Given that there is nowhere in the world today where mere residence at a particular place automatically makes one a citizen, one wonders why the atheists are so certain this was the case in first century Palestine.

The population of that period was far more mobile than is sometimes realized today. While there were no uniform standards of citizenship in the ancient world, at least not until the later empire, this sifting and supervision is a common theme: "We have been having revisions of the citizen-lists in the demes, and each one of us has submitted to a vote regarding himself to determine whether he is a genuine citizen or not." (Aeschines, Against Timarchus, Section 77). And in fact this is done today. I used to work with a woman who, although she had lived for many years with her husband in the U.S., was not a citizen because she did not want to renounce the Queen, even though neither the Queen nor her Canadian citizenship was actually doing very much for her. Now, the atheist who summarizes this last sentence thusly, 'The Thriceholy web-site claims that U.S. law mandates Canadian citizens can never apply for U.S. citizenship because they are not to renounce the Queen,' has summarized it wrong; what they are getting wrong is whose choice, whose decision this failure to arrange for a change of citizenship was. She was not obligated to apply for citizenship. Bearing this in mind would reduce a lot of the bluster, like,

"According to Luke's own genealogy (3.23-38), David had lived forty-two generations before Joseph. Why should Joseph have had to register in the town of one of his ancestors forty-two generations earlier? What was Augustus —the most rational of Caesars — thinking of? The entirety of the Roman empire would have been uprooted by such a decree." (E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 86).

But Luke does not say there was any such decree binding on all inhabitants of the empire! We know of two individuals, Joseph and Mary, who cared very much where they were registered. Could this be related to the fact that whatever right to the Jewish throne Joseph or his heirs might hold was dependent upon this ancestry? Was it possible that registration under the tribe of, say, Naphtali did him and them no good? According to what Luke says, we are entitled to infer that Joseph sill maintained his legal rights at Bethlehem because it was David's city, nothing more. Justin Martyr thinks he could not even have enrolled as a member of the tribe of Judah while residing in Galilee: "Then he was afraid, and did not put her away; but on the occasion of the first census which was taken in Judaea, under Cyrenius, he went up from Nazareth, where he lived, to Bethlehem, to which he belonged, to be enrolled; for his family was of the tribe of Judah, which then inhabited that region." (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 78). Would his house's claim to the throne of Israel, however distant, been tenable at all if he could not establish he was of Davidic descent?

As to why Joseph may not have wished to transfer his legal residence to Nazareth, let's exhaust the possibilities: a.) Was this impossible under strict observance of Mosaic law? Recall, Moses' Jubilee requires land which has been alienated to be restored to its original possessors, a generous and egalitarian provision which would technically making 'moving' impossible in the long term. First century Jews were not living under Jubilee conditions, and Rabbi Hillel's 'reforms' only pushed that goal further away; but was there still a bias against land transfer? Were the tribes thus still rooted in their original places, at least for those whose observance was stringent? Observing the Jubilee in Galilee would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, because the original inhabitants who had received that land assignment by lot, the 'ten lost tribes,' were of whereabouts unknown. The land had been reconquered, re-Judaized, and re-attached to Judaea by the Hasmonaeans, but the two surviving southern tribes were not the possessors of the real estate by right under Moses' law. Who was? How did observant Jews of the day understand these difficulties? b.) Was change of residence common and accepted, as certainly there was no impediment under Roman law, but some inhabitants made the choice to register at their ancestral homeland as a protest against the non-occurrence of the Jubilee?

These two first questions pertain to the niceties of Mosaic observance under difficult conditions of dispossession, re-establishment, and foreign rule, and might have interested many pious inhabitants of the region. According to Rabbinic tradition, the Jubilees, at least as concerns northern Israel, ceased with the Assyrian deportations:

"There is a strange Jewish tradition to the effect that from the time when Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh were deported, the observance of Jubilee years ceased (Arakh. 32 b; Fer. Shebh. 39 c; Fer. Gitt. 45 d)."

(Edersheim, Alfred. Bible History: Old Testament: Books One Through Four (The Works of Alfred Edersheim Book 7) (Kindle Locations 19188-19190).

If that's what happened, is that what should have happened? When a law cannot be literally enforced, should one follow the spirit as far as possible? How people of the day understood this dilemma is difficult to reconstruct.

This last dilemma, while it would have been more than an individual issue pertaining to this single family, would have applied only to a small percentage of the nation, because most people did not trace their descent from David's line. c.) Was it possible for Joseph to register at his new abode but he was unwilling, as a descendant of David preferring to remain a resident of David's city? Was it in principle possible for Joseph and Mary to change their legal residence, had they wished to do so, while maintaining membership in the clan of David, but they failed to meet some unknown and unstated local legal requirement? Or would becoming Galilaeans for all purposes under the law have automatically involved relinquishing a claim to Davidic descent and heritage on behalf of Joseph's heirs? What would have been the implications had Jesus, who was legally Joseph's son though not biologically, ended up registered in a tribe which had no claim to the monarchy whatsoever?

In any case, there is no reason to infer from this passage that no one in the Roman Empire could ever change his legal residence, an inference Reza Aslan draws and then rejects as absurd. It is absurd, sufficient reason to reject it, and him along with it. Luke explains the circumstance of Joseph and Mary,— some readers have traditionally drawn the inference from this passage that Mary, too, was of Davidic descent,— though without clarifying to what extent this case was an instance of a general rule or a very unique personal dilemma.

The Talmud, compiled some centuries later, mentions a twelve-month residency period: "Said Rabha: This presents no difficulty. To be counted as inhabitant of the town, thirty days suffice; but to be a citizen, twelve months are required." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume XIII, Tract Baba Bathra, Chapter 1, Kindle location 52806). The geographic territory in question is not explained; recall, land tenure in the holy land was of theocratic institution, a state of affairs not found in Babylon; and how the Rabbis' views interacted with those of the government is also not clear. How the Mosaic provisions for the Jubilee in the holy land played into this equation is difficult to gauge. In the ideal commonwealth of Israel, every forty-nine years land reverted to its original owners. Although some pagan city-states practiced occasional land reform in the interests of economic equity, and Rome itself performed spasmodic land reform, as, for instance, under the Gracchi, the Romans had no comparable permanent institution. Did they respect it or ignore it? Respecting it would require enrollees to travel to their ancestral places, ignoring it might become a flash-point for discontent. Some Bible-minded commentators assume the enrollee's "own city" must have been his ancestral or tribal city: ". . .every one to his own city. [The city where his ancestors had been settled by Joshua when he divided the land — Josh. xiii.-xviii.]" (J. W. McGarvey, The Fourfold Gospel, Kindle location 681). For those zealous for the law, that has to be the correct answer, though leaning more toward the ideal than to current reality in the first century.

Augustus' census requires those obliged to register to travel to their own proper city: εις την ιδιαν πολιν. Did this mean citizenship, or legal residence?  For very many people travelling to 'their own city' cannot have been a long journey, a ride into town as on any market-day, though for many in this restless, rootless era it undoubtedly was. Paul, a peripatetic traveller, maintained his citizenship at Tarsus throughout, though he seems never to go there; evidently you could do that, even though the citizen was expected to present himself personally at the census for the city of Rome:

"For the rest I will take care that due warning is given, and a notice put up in all places, to prevent you being entered on the census as absent; and to get put on the census just before the lustration is the mark of your true man of business."
(Letter XXIII, To Atticus, Cicero. (1908-1909). The Letters of Cicero; the whole extant correspondence in chronological order, in four volumes (E. Shuckburgh, Ed.) (53). Medford, MA: George Bell and Sons.)

Mommsen explains a Carthaginian census figure that seems overblown thus, ". . .the numbering is doubtless to be understood in a political, not in an urban, sense, just like the numbers in the Roman census, and that thus all Carthaginians would be included in it, whether dwelling in the city or its neighborhood, or resident in its subject territory or in other lands. There would, of course, be a large number of such absentees in the case of Carthage. . ." (Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Book III, Chapter I, Kindle location 9435). Often ancient census numbers do seem over-inflated, in spite of the punctilious care which went into compiling these numbers; perhaps this carefulness about political rights is one reason: the numbers are not residency-counts, as we expect them to be.

Rome had gotten so big so fast because it was from the beginning a sanctuary city, a place of refuge for runaway slaves, vagabonds, and desperate debtors. A Roman could tell you his tribe; they voted by tribes: ". . . subsequently — perhaps in the year 259 — the Roman territory had been divided into twenty districts, of which the first four embraced the city and its immediate environs, while the other sixteen were formed out of the rural territory on the basis of the clan-cantons of the earliest Roman domain. To these was added. . . .as a twenty-first tribe the Crustuminian. . .and thenceforth the special assemblies of the plebs took place, no longer by curies, but by tribes." (Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Book 2, Chapter II, Kindle location 5247). But what did that mean? Not what it meant to the Jews. The Roman people were classified according to tribe, but these tribes were neighborhood groupings drawn on the map; they were not based on kinship, as indeed would not have been feasible for a people originally of no common descent. From lineage cohorts the tribes became voting districts, ultimately gerry-mandered away even from the confines of geography. Was there a conflict between Rome's artificial concept of 'tribes' and the Jews' stubborn pre-occupation with real descent, which resulted in Joseph and Mary's long, perhaps voluntary journey? Under the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of Roman law, they sometimes had what amounted to 'open enrollment:' "He [Appius Claudius] also gave each citizen the right to be enrolled in whatever tribe he wished, and to be placed in the census class he preferred." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Book XX, Chapter 36). The definition of a 'tribe' had broken far from its moorings in the original sense of lineage. It is difficult to say now what exact situation confronted Joseph and Mary, but it is clear that the scoffers have nothing to contribute to the discussion, other than stupidly to repeat that they would not have done it this way.

The Jubilee

LogoWhen Joshua conquered the land of Palestine, the tribes were settled in various allotments. The parcels and the parties receiving them were chosen by lot. Year by year inequalities grew, as the more efficient producers out-performed the others, but every fiftieth year the counter reverted to zero:

"And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. 

"Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land.

"And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family.

"That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine.

"For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field.

"‘In this Year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his possession.

"And if you sell anything to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor’s hand, you shall not oppress one another.

"According to the number of years after the Jubilee you shall buy from your neighbor, and according to the number of years of crops he shall sell to you.

"According to the multitude of years you shall increase its price, and according to the fewer number of years you shall diminish its price; for he sells to you according to the number of the years of the crops.

"Therefore you shall not oppress one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God."

(Leviticus 25:8-17).

LogoPeople had to care about this; it's in the Bible. But there are problems.

Luke gives Anna's "tribe" as "Asher," (Luke 2:36); could this woman trace her descent from this patriarch, or was she simply from that region? Matthew 4:13 gives us 'Zebulon' and 'Naphtali' as territories, not kinship groups: "And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim:. . ." (Matthew 4:13). If residence in that region gave one a tribal identity of 'Zebulon,' that's a problem; that's not the right tribe to inherit the monarchy. The status of Galilee must have been a difficult problem. If a Jubilee were attempted, it would mean full employment for the lawyers. Hasmonaean arms had re-won that area for the land of Israel, but how were the inhabitants to be classified? Population was, at various times, removed from that area, and also restored, and non-Jewish inhabitants conformed to the law. Do proselytes, while legitimate members of the commonwealth of Israel, receive any tribal land inheritance? The answer of some is, no, no more than do the Levites. But Ezekiel suggests in the restoration, they will have an inheritance:

"So shall ye divide this land unto you according to the tribes of Israel. And it shall come to pass, that ye shall divide it by lot for an inheritance unto you, and to the strangers that sojourn among you, which shall beget children among you: and they shall be unto you as born in the country among the children of Israel; they shall have inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel.  And it shall come to pass, that in what tribe the stranger sojourneth, there shall ye give him his inheritance, saith the Lord GOD." (Ezekiel 47:21-23).

Realizing that a fair land distribution was the Mosaic ideal, and that even amongst the pagans, similar ideals had animated the Gracchi, those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness must have longed for a Jubilee. We know that the blind hatred of the Pharisees for the Samaritans was not Jesus' answer. But what was it? If they held a Jubilee, who would receive title to the land? The small free-holder, because that is the basic principle? Or persons living in unknown locations in Babylon and Syria? When the law cannot be enforced to the letter, the spirit must prevail; but what is the spirit of the Jubilee? That the farmer should own the land he cultivates? That was do-able, and should have been done. Or that legitimate descents of the patriarchs should farm it? Josephus, for one, thought they were still out there, waiting to come pouring into the holy land at the Messiah's call.

On the one hand, if Anna is from the tribe of 'Asher' and can prove it, then this tribe is not 'lost;' there is a remnant population belonging to it in the holy land. But if someone has taken the map of the holy land out of the back of your Bible, with the tribal designations marked on it, and simply assigned Anna to 'Asher' because she was born within those boundaries, then this might appear to some as an innovation and redefinition.


Many Christians are familiar with Ramsay's defense of the 'two-term' theory: that Luke's 'first' refers to the first of two sojourns in the region by Quirinius, who then subsequently serves as governor in Syria. Further elucidation of Quirinius' career showed that he had been around prior to 6 A.D. It is interesting to reflect that this unlikely sequence of events resulted in the fulfillment of prophecy:

"If Mary, hoping that the son who was about to be born of her should be apparent to the world as the promised Messiah, had gone purposely to Bethlehem in order that the child might be born there, the fulfillment of prophecy would not have been so striking as it was when her journey to Bethlehem was forced on her by the constraint of external power. The order of nature, the law of the Roman world, drove her there without any intention or plan for her son, and thus was brought about the coincidence between the prophecy and the event." (W. M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, Chapter XXII, p. 308).

It is objected that, yes, Quirinius held office in the region during the correct time-frame, but not over the correct territory. But it will be noticed that, when there is trouble in the holy land, the legions are always dispatched from Syria. How much autonomy would a vassal-king like Herod the Great have enjoyed? This is open to dispute. His autonomy cannot have been perfect; nevertheless, why would Quirinius have conducted the census when a king sat in Jerusalem? But Luke doesn't say that Quirinius conducted the census! There is so much over-interpretation of this passage going on, that readers just need to back up for a second. That no client king ever conducted a Roman census is not historical, it is just an inference certain people make. At a slightly different time frame, the Roman client Archelaus conducted a census, in the process driving a subject tribe into secession:

"About this date, the Cietae, a tribe subject to Archelaus of Cappadocia, pressed to conform with Roman usage [quia nostrum in modum deferre census] by making a return of their property and submitting to a tribute, migrated to the heights of the Tauric range, and, favoured by the nature of the country, held their own against the unwarlike forces of the king; until the legate Marcus Trebellius, despatched by Vitellius from his province of Syria with four thousand legionaries and a picked force of auxiliaries, drew his lines round the two hills which the barbarians had occupied (the smaller is known as Cadra, the other as Davara) and reduced them to surrender — those who ventured to make a sally, by the sword, the others by thirst."
(Annals, Book VI., Chapter 41, Section 1, Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. Delphi Complete Works of Tacitus (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 24) (Kindle Locations 10749-10754).)

This tribe, whether like the Jews they had scruples against being counted, or whether they just didn't want to pay taxes, was pushed into rebellion by the census which Archelaus, a client king of the Romans, proposed to conduct. So is it impossible for a client king to go along with a Roman census? Of course not.

If the mention of Quirinius is a timing device, enabling the reader to understand when the event in question occurred, then it is irrelevant who was in nominal control of the territory at the time. Luke seeks to prevent confusion in his readers' minds between this first census and a second census, known to him also and mentioned in Acts, which occasioned controversy and rebellion. So he tells the reader, according to the 'two-term' theory, when this world-wide census occurred: during Quirinius' first term, not his second. That tells you when it happened, not who made it happen. This is done all the time by the ancient historians, yet many of the stalwarts of the 'Jesus Publishing Industry' cannot imagine why Quirinius would be mentioned, unless he governed that area directly and himself conducted the census. Compare,

"His only son, having come to manhood and married a woman of distinction, had by her Tullus Hostilius, a man of action, the same who was now chosen king by a vote passed by the citizens concerning him according to the laws; and the decision of the people was confirmed by favorable omens from Heaven. The year in which he assumed the sovereignty was the second of the twenty-seventh Olympiad, the one in which Eurybates, an Athenian, won the prize in the foot-race, Leostratus being archon at Athens." (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Book III. 1, 2-5, p. 5 Loeb edition).

Gasp,— so Dionysius of Halicarnassus is saying that the archons of Athens ruled Rome at that infant stage of in that great city's history! Um, no. The only reason he drags in the archon of Athens is to give his Greek-speaking readers the time frame. There is no uniform year-count like our 'A.D.' and 'B.C.,' so the historian must date events by relating the unknown to the known.

"Archaeological discoveries in the nineteenth century have provided additional information to remedy this apparent contradiction, however, revealing that Quirinius (or someone with the same name) was also a proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC to the death of Herod. Quirinius's name has been discovered on a coin from this period of time, and on the base of a statue erected in Pisidian Antioch. Archaeology now corroborates the early existence of Quirinius as a governor at the time of the census recorded by Luke." (J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity, Kindle location 3391).

Henry Ossawa Turner, The Annunciation

City of David

LogoAs we've seen, a lot of the problem with this passage lies in over-interpretation. More than in anything the passage actually says, unwarranted inferences drawn from the passage create difficulties. We are expected to grow alarmed that Luke's census requires everybody in the empire to pick up stakes and travel miles and miles! The economy would collapse! Get upset! Like the old adage has it, 'When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!' Except it doesn't require any such thing. We know of two people, Joseph and Mary, who did travel a very long way in order to be enrolled at one special place. Why was Bethlehem important to them? Perhaps because it was the city of David:

“Now the Lord said to Samuel, 'How long will you mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go; I am sending you to Jesse the Bethlehemite. For I have provided Myself a king among his sons.”

“And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” But the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’

“Then invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; you shall anoint for Me the one I name to you.”

“So Samuel did what the Lord said, and went to Bethlehem. And the elders of the town trembled at his coming, and said, “Do you come peaceably?”

“And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Sanctify yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons, and invited them to the sacrifice.

“So it was, when they came, that he looked at Eliab and said, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him!”

“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

“So Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.”

“Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.”

“Thus Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.”

“And Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all the young men here?” Then he said, “There remains yet the youngest, and there he is, keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him. For we will not sit down till he comes here.”

“So he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, with bright eyes, and good-looking. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him; for this is the one!”

“Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward. So Samuel arose and went to Ramah.” (1 Samuel 16:1-13).

David, Andrea del Castagno 

LogoHow many of these 'Davidians' would there have been? Eusebius assumes, enough to account for the 'no vacancy' sign at the inn: "Luke is recording the time of our Saviour’s birth. He mentions Augustus’ reign and the registration that took place in his time, and says that they had nowhere to stay in Bethlehem, as there was, naturally, a large number of people of David’s stock together in Bethlehem for the registration. That was why there was no house available for Joseph;. . ." (Eusebius of Caesarea, Gospel Problems and Solutions, To Stephanus 16, p. 89). If so, one must assume most of these people were aware they had no plausible shot at the throne, but sought rather for the prestige of an illustrious ancestor. Whether every tribe and clan of Israel was similarly valued by its descendants is not known, only assumed by hysterics like Reza Aslan.

The issue isn't that the Roman census didn't care about race, lineage or tribe; it did. But how did it assign these things? Though starting out as kinship groups, the Romans' own tribes had become essentially geographic districts: people were assigned to them on the basis of propinquity, or for political reasons, not because of common descent. Romans voted by tribes; to what tribe should freed slaves be assigned? Certainly now that they were free, they must be able to vote!:

"For though the censor could remove him from his tribe, which simply meant ordering him to change his tribe, he had no power to remove him from all the thirty-five tribes; that meant depriving him of his citizenship and personal freedom, not deciding where he was to be registered, but excluding him from the list of citizens altogether. This was the question at issue between them. At last they made a compromise. Out of the four City tribes they decided to choose one by lot, publicly in the Hall of Liberty, into which all who had ever been slaves should be incorporated. The lot fell upon the Esquiline tribe, and Tiberius Gracchus announced that it was decided that all the freedmen should be enrolled in that tribe." (Livy, Books 21-45. Book 45, Chapter 15, Section 4-6. (1912). History of Rome (C. Roberts, Ed.). Medford, MA: E. P. Dutton and Co.)

The manumitted slaves, now freedmen, might be from any corner of the globe, Germans from the northern forests, nomads from North Africa, Celts. They were no more related to the existing members of the Esquiline tribe than as all of Adam and Eve's children are related to each other. Not only for slaves dragged to the spot in chains, but for many people who lived there, Rome was not their ancestral home. Democracy contended with racial purity, and democracy won. The tribes had ceased to be exclusively kinship groupings. There was some push-back from conservative forces. Quoting a speech by

"I have observed in a speech of Publius Scipio On Morals, which he made to he people in his consorship, that among the things that he criticized, on the ground that they were done contrary to the usage of our forefathers, he also found fault with this. . .The passage in that speech is as follows: 'A father votes in one tribe, the son in another'. . ." (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, Book V, Chapter XIX).

Plainly, to the Censor Scipio, there was a problem here. Under the conservative understanding of what a tribe was, a son would have to belong to the same tribe as his father. These things were drifting from their moorings. When we turn our eyes to the holy land, the problem becomes worse, not better. The Samaritans said that, yes, they were the descendants of the people who had lived there before; the Jews said, no, they were not. How to reconstitute the northern tribes, after the Hasmonaeans rulers had reconquered the territory? It seems like an impossible task, but Moses' law depends upon these categories. And the Roman census itself, aspiring to record the citizen's race and tribe, had to enter something in these categories, not just leave them blank.

Was that a problem to Joseph and Mary? It seems like it must have been. Had Joseph and Mary averred under oath that they were of the tribe of Naphtali, this would have been an issue to any subsequent claim by their descendants (Jesus was Joseph's legal heir, though not his biological child) to the throne of David. How many people were similarly situated is unknown, though evidently enough that there was no room at the inn. If it was important to the registrant to be enrolled in a particular tribe or clan, such as the house of David, then surely that was a sufficient cause to set people in motion.

LogoWhy does the Latin Vulgate refer to the earth as an "orb" when, as every atheist knows, people back then thought that the earth was flat? Or maybe not everybody:

"And lo! the world,
The round and ponderous world, bows down to thee;
The earth, the ocean-tracts, the depths of heaven.
(Virgil, Eclogue IV).

"[R]ound and ponderous world?" Why did Virgil say 'round,' and not 'flat'?: