The Enrollment of Jesus’ Birth

I am republishing Jimmy Akin’s post found here: The Enrollment of Jesus’ Birth.

The Gospel of Luke describes the timing of Jesus’ birth as follows (Luke 2:1-6):

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.

This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed, who was with child.

And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered (RSV).

Skeptics have claimed that this passage reveals historical error on Luke’s part. It has been claimed:

  • Augustus never instituted a worldwide census.
  • Quirinius conducted his census in A.D. 6, but Jesus was born around 7-6 B.C., meaning Luke is off by a decade.
  • People were not required to go to their ancestral cities in Roman censuses—much less the city where an ancestor like David had lived a thousand years earlier.

Each of these claims has straightforward answers. In fact, there are multiple answers.

The problem is not knowing how to respond, because we have an embarrassment of riches here in the form of numerous responses. The actual challenge is figuring out which of the many possible answers are the most likely.

Here we will look at only some of the responses that have been proposed. There are numerous others.

Did Augustus ever decree a worldwide enrollment?

How should we understand Luke’s statement that “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled”?

“All the world” means the Roman world—i.e., the Roman empire.

And many take Luke’s statement to mean that there was a single legal document issued by Augustus that commanded a worldwide enrollment, and this is possible.

As we will see below, there is evidence of a worldwide enrollment occurring in 3/2 B.C.; it just wasn’t a tax census.

On the other hand, the term that the RSV translates “decree” (Greek, dogma) can also mean things like “decision” or “command” (cf. BDAG, s.v. dogma).

Understood in this way, Luke would not be referring to a single legal document but just to a decision or command issued by Augustus. In other words, Augustus decided the whole empire needed to be taxed, and so it needed to be enrolled for those purposes.

This would tell us nothing about how the decision was implemented, just that the decision was made.

And this corresponds to the historical facts as they are known to us. Historian Paul L. Maier writes:

The three celebrated censuses conducted by Augustus in 28 B.C., 8 B.C., and A.D. 14—Achievement No. 8 in his Res Gestae—are apparently enrollments of Roman citizens only, although they may have involved censuses in the provinces also, since some Roman citizens certainly lived outside Italy.

Luke rather intends here a provincial census of noncitizens for purposes of taxation, and many records of such provincial registrations under Augustus have survived, including Gaul, Sicily, Cilicia, Cyrene, and Egypt. Among these were client kingdoms such as that of Herod the Great; for example, Archelaus (unrelated to Herod), client king of Cappadocia, instructed a subject tribe “to render in Roman fashion an account of their revenue and submit to tribute.”

Provincial enrollments are also well attested in Dio Cassius (53:22) and Livy (Epistles 134ff.; Annals 1:31, 2:6). There is also an epigraphic mention of a census by Quirinius at Apamea in Syria (an autonomous “client” city-state).

In view of such provincial enrollments, Mason Hammond concludes that Augustus began “a general census of the whole Empire for purposes of taxation” in 27 B.C.

It thus may be a mistake to suppose that Luke is referring to a single legal document issued by Augustus rather than a general policy established by Augustus to enroll the empire.

The latter better corresponds with the facts as they are known.

How Long Did Enrollments Take?

The Roman empire was a big place, and the Romans did not have rapid transportation or communication by today’s standards. As a result, censuses took time.

They often were performed in stages, the first stage being known as the descriptio prima (Lat., “first enrollment/registration”), which involved getting a list of everybody that needed to be taxed and their resources.

The taxation itself would come at a later stage, which added time to the process.

Subjects of the Roman empire also didn’t like being taxed—especially since so many of them were living in conditions of poverty—and Roman censuses often met with resistance, including violent uprisings.

Putting down these uprisings or otherwise getting stubborn locals to comply with the census process further added time to the procedure.

This could result in a census taking much longer than you might expect. Today, the United States conducts a population census once every ten years, with the survey period occupying a year.

However, we know of one case in this period when a Roman census in Gaul (France) took 40 years to complete! (I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke at 2:3).

Consequently, if the enrollment of Jesus’ birth was a tax census, Luke could be referring to an early phase of it—such as the descriptio prima—occurring at the time of his birth, but the census itself may have stretched into the first decade A.D., leading it to become associated with the later administration of Quirinius.

What year was Jesus born/What year did the enrollment occur?

Both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. A common view is that Herod died in 4 B.C., and since Matthew indicates that Jesus was born up to two years before this (Matt. 2:16), it has been common to date Jesus’ birth in 7 or 6 B.C.

Despite its popularity, this view is inaccurate. As recent scholarship has indicated, Herod the Great actually died in 1 B.C. (see Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology [2nd ed.], Andrew E. Steinmann, From Abraham to Paul).

Consequently, Jesus was not born in 7 or 6 B.C. but in 3 or 2 B.C., as multiple early sources indicate.

We thus should look for the enrollment occurring in 3/2 B.C.

What was the nature of the enrollment?

Many people assume that the enrollment was a census. Historically, censuses have been used for a variety of purposes.

Today in America, they are used for determining things like the apportionment of government representatives and funding. However, in history they were used for other purposes, like assessing the size of an army one could muster or raising tax revenues.

Many interpreters have assumed that the census Luke is referring to was a tax census, and this is possible.

However, it is not the only alternative, since he does not say that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world be taxed. Instead, he says that the whole world should be “enrolled” and that an “enrollment” occurred.

The Greek word Luke uses for the act of enrollment—apographô—does not mean specifically “to take a census.” It is more general than that and means “to enroll,” “to transcribe,” “to inventory,” “to list,” “to register.”

So, any kind of empire-wide registration in 3/2 B.C. might be in view.

And it so happens that we know of one.

An Enrollment of Loyal Subjects?

There is an inscription composed by Augustus known as the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Latin, “Acts of the Divine Augustus”), in which he states:

In my thirteenth consulship the senate, the equestrian order and the whole people of Rome gave me the title of Father of my Country (Res Gestae 35).

Augustus’s thirteenth consulship was in 2 B.C., and as the people of Rome were scattered over the empire, declaring him Father of the Country involved an empire-wide enrollment.

The historian Orosius states:

[Augustus] ordered that a census be taken of each province everywhere and that all men be enrolled.

So at that time, Christ was born and was entered on the Roman census list as soon as he was born.

This is the earliest and most famous public acknowledgment which marked Caesar as the first of all men and the Romans as lords of the world, a published list of all men entered individually. . . .

From the foundation of the world and from the beginning of the human race, an honor of this nature had absolutely never been granted in this manner, not even to Babylon or to Macedonia, not to mention any lesser kingdom (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans 6:22).

Josephus appears to refer to this enrollment, stating that a group of more than six thousand Pharisees refused to swear the loyalty oath to Augustus:

When all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good will to Caesar, and to the king’s government, these very men did not swear, being above six thousand; and when the king [Herod the Great] imposed a fine upon them, Pheroras’s wife paid their fine for them (Antiquities 17:2:4[42]).

For this to work, records would have had to have been kept for who did and did not swear goodwill toward Augustus, meaning an enrollment was made of those who did swear.

Since the proclamation of Augustus as Father of the Country by “the whole people of Rome” occurred in 2 B.C.—coinciding with Jesus’ birth—it is possible that the attestation of loyalty to him was the enrollment to which Luke refers.

What is the relation of the enrollment to Quirinius?

Luke 2:2 contains a clarifying comment to help the ancient reader identify which enrollment Luke is referring to. The RSV renders the verse this way:

This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria

This statement contains two parts, the first of which says it was the “first” enrollment and the second relates it to the Roman official Publius Sulpicius Quirinius.

“First” or “Before”?

The RSV translates the initial part of the clarification as “This was the first enrollment.”

If that is the correct understanding, Luke may be indicating that the enrollment taking place when Jesus was born took place earlier than some later enrollment.

Such a later enrollment would presumably be more famous, and so Luke may be specifying that this was the first one to keep his readers from confusing it with the later, better-known one.

However, there is another option. Some commentators have pointed out that the word that the RSV translates “first” (Greek, prôtê) also could be rendered “before.”

In this case, the passage would be rendered “This was the enrollment before Quirinius was governing Syria.”

Consequently, Luke would again be contrasting the enrollment of Jesus’ birth with a later, better known one.

On the other hand, it also has been suggested that Luke’s phrase apographê prôtê (“first enrollment”) may be a translation of the Latin phrase descriptio prima, which was a technical term for an initial registration of people prior to taxation.

In that case, Luke would be clarifying that it was a preliminary listing of the population to get them on the books for later taxation.

Was Quirinius Governor of Syria at This Time?

The RSV translates the second part of Luke’s clarification as “when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

However—as commentators have widely noted—this is not a literal translation of the Greek.

The Greek noun hêgemôn can be used as a technical term for a Roman prefect. It also can be used in a more general sense to mean “ruler” or “governor,” without indicating a specific rank.

However, Luke does not use a noun in this verse. Instead, he uses the participle hêgemoneuontos, which would be translated “ruling” or “governing.”

As a result, commentators have pointed out that a more literal translation of Luke’s statement would be “Quirinius being in charge of Syria” (J. A. Fitzmyer, Anchor Bible, The Gospel According to Luke (1-9) at 2:2).

This means that the text does not tell us that Quirinius was specifically the prefect of the Roman province of Syria but just that he had some important governmental function there at the time of the enrollment.

When Was Quirinius Governor of Syria?

Like many Roman officials, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius had a long and varied career, in which he held many different positions.

And, unfortunately, we do not have a complete account of what he was doing in each year of it. I. Howard Marshall provides a summary of what historians generally believe to be the case:

After holding a military command against the Marmaridae (in N. Africa?), Publius Sulpicius Quirinius became consul in 12 BC. At some point during the next 12 years he subjugated the Homonadenses, a race of brigands on the south border of Galatia. He acted as guide and supervisor of the young prince Gaius Caesar in Armenia, AD 3–4, and he was legate of Syria, AD 6–9; he died in AD 21 (The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text at 2:2).

As you can see from this, we don’t know a great deal about what Quirinius was doing in the first decade B.C., when Jesus was born. We know that he subjugated a group of brigands at some point, but that’s it.

It also is generally thought that he was legate (governor) of Syria in A.D. 6, but Roman officials could hold posts more than once, and historian Jack Finegan gives the following as “the usually accepted sequence of governors of Syria” (Handbook of Biblical Chronology [2nd ed], §519):

10-9 B.C.M. Titius
9-6C. Sentius Saturninus
6-4P. Quintilius Varus
3-2 (?)P. Sulpicius Quirinius
1 B.C.-A.D. 4C. Caesar
A.D. 4-5L. Volusius Saturninus
6-7P. Sulpicius Quirinius

This table is based on the work of historian Emil Shurer, and it includes an initial period in which Shurer concluded that Quirinius likely served as governor of Syria in 3-2 B.C.—the time when we know on other grounds that Jesus was born.

In his History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Shurer writes:

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. . . .

Quirinius led the war against the Homonadensians as one who had been consul. Now, one who had been a consul was never sent to a praetorian province, which was administered by one who had been a praetor. The only conclusion then that remains is that Quirinius at the time of the war with the Homonadensians was governor of Syria.

But since this governorship belongs to the period before the year A.D. 3, that is, to the period before he had been appointed counsellor to C. Caesar in Armenia, it cannot be identical with the one of A.D. 6, referred to by Josephus. The only date, therefore, that we can assign it to is the interval between Varus and C. Caesar, that is, B.C. 3-2 (1:1, p. 351-353).

We thus have reason to think that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, and the first occasion coincides with the correct time frame of Jesus’ birth.

Was There a Census in A.D. 6?

The common claim that Quirinius performed a census in Roman-occupied Palestine in A.D. 6 is based on statements by the Jewish historian Josephus.

However, there is a problem with the data in Josephus. As historian Andrew E. Steinmann notes in his book From Abraham to Paul:

There is another approach that is more likely—that Josephus misdated Quirinius and the census. This argument was made a century ago by Zahn, Spitta, Weber, and Lodder and has most recently been revived by Rhoads. . . .

In close proximity with Quirinius’ presence in Judea, Josephus also noted a rebellion led by a man named Judas. In fact, in Antiquities Josephus recounts three rebellions led by an insurgent or insurgents named Judas.

The details of these three rebellions overlap in ways that suggest Josephus is actually giving three different accounts of the same event.

However, they occur at different points in Josephus’s narrative, suggesting either (1) that Josephus was bringing together multiple sources that dated the rebellion differently, or (2) that Josephus misunderstood what his sources were saying, or (3) that Josephus changed his mind about when the event should be dated and later re-inserted it into his narrative. Based on this, Steinmann concludes:

In summary, it is likely that Josephus misplaced the arrival of Quirinius in Judea and, therefore, misdated the census. The initiation of the census in Judea should be dated to the spring or summer of 3 BC. That census prompted Judas’ rebellion. Once again the date of Jesus’ birth must have been sometime in late 3 BC or early 2 BC.

The entire basis of the objection to Luke 2’s accuracy thus may result from a confusion on the part of Josephus.

Did enrollments require people to go somewhere special?

Luke 2:3 says that, in response to Augustus’s mandate, “all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.”

Some have questioned whether this would really have happened. Did people need to go someplace special to be enrolled?

The answer is not difficult to see: If you were already in your “own city,” you didn’t need to go anywhere. You were already there.

Luke is referring to the situation of people who—for one reason or another (travelers, merchants, migrant laborers, people with more than one home)—were away from their place of legal residence.

This is not unexpected, as many processes historically have required people to be in their place of residence. Until very recently, people in America were required to be in their place of legal residence in order to vote, and people still need to file their state and property taxes where they live.

With modern mail and the internet, we have more flexibility, but those didn’t exist in history, and people needed to be in a stable place—such as their place of legal residence—in order to participate in various enrollments.

Thus, in A.D. 104, the Roman governor of Egypt, Gaius Vibius Maximus, issued a decree in which he stated:

Since registration by household is imminent, it is necessary to notify all who for any reason are absent from their districts to return to their own homes that they may carry out the ordinary business of registration and continue faithfully the farming expected of them (lines 20–27; in Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, 268).

Returning to one’s place of residence was especially significant if one owned property there, because the property one owned needed to be assessed for purposes of taxation.

Why did Joseph go to Bethlehem?

Luke 2:4 states that “Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.”

This tells us that Joseph was staying in Nazareth but traveled to Bethlehem for the enrollment, and thus that Bethlehem has a claim as his primary residence for purposes of the enrollment.

Luke then adds the comment that this was “because he was of the house and lineage of David.”

If the enrollment was for purposes of taking a loyalty oath to Caesar, Josephus may have been specially required to go to Bethlehem because of his Davidic descent.

It was well known that Jews regarded the descendants of David as the stock from which legitimate Jewish kings must come—and that from them would come the hoped-for Messiah.

It could make sense for the authorities to demand that, as part of the enrollment, all the descendants of David come to Bethlehem—David’s own city—and there swear loyalty to Caesar.

This would be a dramatic act to head off future rebellions, both because the descendants themselves had sworn allegiance to Caesar and because the fact that they had done so (in Bethlehem itself!) would deter others from following them in a rebellion, as they could be viewed as Roman collaborators who had sullied the memory of David.

On the other hand, Joseph likely regarded Bethlehem as his legal residence anyway, for other reasons.

Keeping land within tribes and families was especially important in Israel. In fact, land was not supposed to be sold to outsiders. Instead, it could be effectively leased, but the legal title reverted to the family every fiftieth year in the Jubilee celebration (see Lev. 25).

It is not at all unlikely that Joseph had property in Bethlehem as a result of such arrangements. He may have even grown up in Bethlehem before moving away for work.

And so, although he was a carpenter in Nazareth for his income, his natural pride in his Davidic ancestry—and his being part- or full-owner of property in the clan’s ancestral home in Bethlehem—may have naturally led him to think of the latter as his proper legal residence, with Nazareth being a residence of economic convenience.

This could be the case whether the enrollment was for purposes of a loyalty oath or whether it was a tax registration.

If it was the latter, the fact Joseph owned property in Bethlehem would make his presence there necessary for purposes of assessment. (He also may have been assessed in Nazareth if he owned property there as well.)

And we have independent evidence of Joseph owning property in Bethlehem, for Matthew records that, as much as two years later, Joseph and Mary were living in a house in Bethlehem when the magi arrived (cf. Matt. 2:16).

Conclusions

We have surveyed only some of the responses that scholars have proposed to the challenges made regarding Luke 2:1-6.

Factors we have seen include:

  • While Augustus did not (so far as we know) issue a single legal document mandating a tax census of the empire, Luke does not say that he did; all the text requires is that Augustus made a decision to tax the empire, and he definitely did that.
  • The enrollment that Luke speaks of may not have involved a tax census but a loyalty oath, and we have evidence pointing to such an oath being administered empire-wide in 3/2 B.C., the year of Jesus’ birth.
  • Luke in some way relates the enrollment to Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, but Luke’s language is ambiguous: (1) he may say this was the “first” enrollment, before the more famous one later performed by Quirinius, (2) he may say that this enrollment occurred “before” the later, famous one by Quirinius, and (3) he may have indicated this was the “first registration” (Lat., descriptio prima) that preceded the actual taxation later carried out by Quirinius.
  • Luke does not say that Quirinius was the governor of Syria but that he had some kind of leadership role there, and Quirinius’s career is only partially known from our surviving sources.
  • There is evidence that Quirinius governed Syria twice—in 3-2 B.C. and again in A.D. 6-7.
  • And the timing of Quirinius’s census is uncertain because Josephus either changed his mind about when it was to be dated or because he was combining different sources, resulting in him referring to the events at three different places in his narrative.
  • Roman subjects who were away from their place of legal residence could be required to return there for registrations, as in the Egyptian census of A.D. 104.
  • And Joseph returned to Bethlehem because he regarded it as his primary legal residence in view of his Davidic heritage and the fact he owned property there. He may have even been specially required to go there, because of his Davidic descent, in order to swear loyalty to Caesar.

Which of these options (and there are others we haven’t mentioned) are the exact ones Luke has in mind is difficult for us to determine, given the state of our surviving historical sources.

However, Luke is referring to events that were publicly known in the first century. That’s his point. He’s helping his first century readers understand the timing of Jesus’ birth based on public events they would have known about. They lived in the first century, and this was still recent history for them. They also had access to numerous sources now lost.

Given the state of our sources today, it’s hard for us to know which precise things Luke is referring to, but he and his audience would have known which ones were under discussion—even if the particulars are hard for us to ascertain two thousand years later.

As Darrell Bock concludes:

In light of this and the various possibilities, it is clear that the relegation of Luke 2:2 to the categor

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