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Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, and the Census

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register" (Luke 2:1-3).
 

All those even vaguely familiar with Luke's Christmas story have heard of Caesar Augustus and his famous decree. It was this decree that sent Mary in the ninth month of her pregnancy 80 miles south to Bethlehem, along with husband Joseph. But could such a thing have really happened? Do we have any proof from historical sources outside of the Bible that the Roman emperor ever authorized a census? Yes, we do.

"Caesar Augustus" reigned as emperor of the Roman empire from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. (Or 727 A.U.C. to 767 A.U.C.), 41 years in all. The grandnephew of Julius Caesar (100- 44 B.C.), his real name was Gaius Octavius and he lived from 63 B.C. to 14 A.D. Because Julius Caesar had legally adopted Octavius as his son, Octavius took the name "Caesar" from Julius, which in later years became a name almost equivalent to "emperor." "Augustus" is a Latin term that means "worthy of reverence."

Caesar Augustus's reign was marked by peace and security - the famous Pax Romana - as well as by lavish building projects throughout the empire. In addition, according to Paul Maier, Augustus had such an intense interest in religion within his realm that, if not for his other great achievements, he might have gone down in history as a religious reformer. In his day, belief in the traditional Greco-Roman pantheon had decreased dramatically as philosophical skepticism grew and a growing number joined the foreign mystery religions. Augustus was convinced that belief in the old gods had made Rome great so he set out to encourage his subjects to return to the worship of these gods. He restored eighty-two temples in Rome alone! He became the pontifex maximus (highest priest) in the state cult.1
 

What exactly was it that Caesar Augustus decreed, according to Luke 2:1? The King James Version of the Bible says, "that all the world should be taxed." Most other translations say something like "that all the world should be registered" (NRS) or "that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world" (NIV). The Greek verb is apographo, which literally means to "enroll" or "register" as in an official listing of citizens.2 What was it then, a census or a taxing? Both: It would have been a census taken in part for the purpose of assessing taxes. But only in part. Augustus was very interested in the number of citizens in his empire; he was especially interested in whether that number was growing. This probably was the primary reason for the census (see below).

But what of the census that Luke 2:1 speaks of? Is there any record outside of the Bible that Augustus ever issued such a decree? Yes. As a matter of fact he authorized three censuses during this reign. How do we know this? The three censuses are listed in the Acts of Augustus, a list of what Augustus thought were the 35 greatest achievements of his reign. He was so proud of the censuses that he ranked them eighth on the list. The Acts of Augustus were placed on two bronze plaques outside of Augustus's mausoleum after he died.

The three empire-wide censuses were in 28 B.C., 8 B.C., and 14 A.D. In all probability the one in 8 B.C. is the one the Luke mentions in the Christmas story. Even though scholarship normally dates Christ's birth between 4 and 7 B.C., the 8 B.C. census fits because in all likelihood it would have taken several years for the bureaucracy of the census to reach Palestine.

The only apparent difficulty with identifying the census that Luke mentions in the Christmas story with the one in 8 B.C. is, ironically, something Luke seemingly included to clarify the dating. He tells us in 2:2 that "this was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governing Syria." Seems simple. All we have to do is find out exactly when Quirinius was governing Syria and then we will know exactly when the census was given, right? Right. But the problem is, according to records available to us, Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6-7 A.D. -- eleven years too late!

We know this because ancient historians have quite a bit to say about our man Quirinius. Roman historians Tacitus, Seutonius, and Dio Cassius, as well as Jewish historian Josephus all wrote of him.3 His full name was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (d. 21 A.D.), who was what the Romans called a "new man." This means that he came to hold his political office on the basis of his own merits rather than by family tradition and inheritance. It was through his military conquests in Cilicia and elsewhere that Quirinius had been exalted by the emperor to the holding of governor in Syria in 6-7 A.D.

Does this mean that Luke is in error? Not at all, especially when he shows himself to be such a careful historian throughout both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, his other historical work. Besides, we believe Luke's Gospel to be inspired by the Holy Spirit!

The key to solving this alleged puzzle, is in the phrase "first census" in the sentence, "This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governing Syria." What does Luke mean by a first census? One theory offered is that the Greek word for "first" (prote) is sometimes translated "prior to" or "before." This is a viable solution because the Greek text of Luke 2:2 can indeed be translated, "This census was before Quirinius was governing Syria."

A second theory holds that by saying "first census" Luke is telling his readers that there was another census that Quirinius oversaw. Was there a second one? Yes, and Luke mentions it in the Acts 5:37! The second census mentioned in Acts would have taken place in 6 A.D. Since it is well known that the Romans often held provincial censuses every fourteen years, it would follow that the "first census," the one at the time of Christ's birth, would have been held in approximately 8 B.C. -- if the fourteen year census cycle was in place at this time. The problem with this second solution is that Luke is specifically saying that the first census (the 8 B.C. one) took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria; and from all available extrabiblical sources, he wasn't. According to E.M. Blaiklock, however, evidence has been found that shows that Quirinius was in Syria for an earlier tour of duty, right around the time that Christ was born. He wasn't there as governor but in some other leadership capacity.4 Therefore, it is possible that Luke is alluding to this in 2:2.

Of the two theories the first has more to commend it, in my opinion. Ultimately, however, Luke was much closer to the historical sources and claims to have "investigated everything carefully" (Luke 1:3) and he did this under the Holy Spirit's inspiration. The bottom line is that the evidence that we have points to 8 B.C. as the date when the "Christmas census" would have been authorized.

So much for dating the census. What about motivation to authorize it in the first place? Do we have any clues from the historical sources about what might have motivated Caesar Augustus to issue his censuses? Perhaps one. Roman historian Dio Cassius tells us that Augustus was so concerned about the declining marriage and birth rate in his empire, that he passed legislation that made promiscuity a crime, which penalized bachelors in their right to inherit, and which bestowed political advantages on fathers of three or more children.5 Because of his demonstrated concern about marriage and birth rate in his empire, it is likely that one of the reasons that Augustus authorized the censuses was to see whether his legislation was working, or, at the very least, to see how birth rates fared.

Some scholars have scoffed at the notion that people in faraway Palestine (such as Joseph and Mary) would have had to travel to their ancestral birth place for a census. But we have evidence to show that such traveling was indeed done with a Roman census, in Egypt at least. A Roman census document, dated 104 A.D., has been discovered in Egypt, in which citizens were specifically commanded to return to their original homes for the census.6 Another census document from 119 A.D. has been found in which an Egyptian man identifies himself by giving (1) his name and the names of his father, mother, and grandfather; (2) his original village; (3) his age and profession; (4) a scar above his left eyebrow; (5) his wife's name and age, his wife's father's name; (6) his son's name and age; (6) the names of other relatives living with him. The document is signed by the village registrar and three official witnesses.7 This latter document is of special interest, because it gives us an idea of the kind of information that Joseph and Mary would have had to provide for the census.


1. Paul L. Maier, In the Fullness of Time (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), 6.

2. Other than its occurrences in Luke 2, the only other occurrence of apographo in the New Testament is Hebrews 12:23 " to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect" (NAS).

3. See Tacitus, Annals, II, 30; III, 22, 23, 48. See Seutonius, Tiberius x1ix; See Dio Cassius 1iv, 48; See Josephus, Antiquities 17:355; 18:26; 20:102. See also Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, (Princeton, 1964), 234-238.

4. E. M. Blaiklock, "Quirinius," The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, gen. ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 6.

5. Dio Cassius, Roman History, 1vi, 1-10. Dio Cassius tells of one occasion when Augustus was so vexed by the declining marriage and birth rates that he strode into the Forum, separated the married men and bachelors he found there into two different groups and then let the bachelors have it: "What shall I call you? Men? But you aren't fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! . . . What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? . . . You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!" Quoted in Maier, In the Fulness of Time, 6.

6. This is cited in Maier, Fullness, 4, who is quoting from A. H. M. Jones, ed., A History of Rome through the Fifth Century (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), II, 256f.

7. Maier, Fullness, 4.