Was There Really A Census During the Time of Caesar Augustus?

Archaeology Illuminates & Affirms a Key Fact in the Christmas Story

 By all counts, Luke’s gospel is a wealth of historical information.

He opens it this way:

Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us… it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you might know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. (Luke 1:1;3-4)

Luke’s primary concern is order and accuracy, so that the recipient of the document (a certain Theophilus), “might know the certainty of those things in which he was instructed (v. 4).”

Not only is Luke’s account orderly, it is an excellent record of what truly happened that no-so-silent night, two thousand years ago.

The great classical archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, said that Luke was a “first rate historian…”

One who writes “…historical works of the highest order, in which a writer commands excellent means of knowledge, either through personal acquaintance or through access to original authorities, and brings to the treatment of his subject genius, literary skill, and sympathetic historical insight into human character and the movement of events. Such an author seizes the critical events, concentrates the reader’s attention on them by giving them fuller treatment…”[1]

One such event to which Luke draws attention is a government census which took place during the reign of Augustus, before Christ was born. This event is a pivotal event in the Christmas story and is often looked at with skepticism by some.

At the very beginning of Luke’s Christmas narrative in Luke 2:1-5 we are told that a census took place in the entire Roman world. The words are very familiar during Christmas as they are read aloud in so many sermons, plays, musicals and Christmas celebrations.

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 Qurinius 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, to Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child (Luke 2:1-5).

For many years, historians and scholars have pointed to the passage above mentioning the decree by Quirinius, as problematic if not completely inaccurate. Did a census really take place in the entire Roman world during that time, and did Mary & Joseph actually go up to Bethlehem to be registered, as Luke Gospel says?

New Testament scholar Dr. Harold W. Hoehner has summarized some of the top challenges faced by those who hold to the historical accuracy of Luke’s account.

He writes:

“[Emil] Schurer states that Luke cannot be historically accurate because: (1) nothing is known in history of a general census during the time of Augustus; (2) in a Roman census Joseph would have not had to travel to Bethlehem, but would have registered in the principle town of his residence, and Mary would hat have had to register at all; (3) no Roman census would have been made in Palestine during Herod’s reign; (4) Josephus records nothing of a Roman census in Palestine in the time of Herod – rather the census of A.D. 6-7 was something new among the Jews; and (5) a census held under Qurinius could not have occurred during Herod’s reign for Quirinius was not governor until after Herod’s death.”[2]

At first glance, these objections to the Roman census during the reigns of emperor [imperator] Caesar Augustus (Octavius) and governor [legatus] Quirinus may seem insurmountable and quite difficult to answer, but an honest appraisal of the historical and archaeological evidence suggests that they are not.

The objections we will answer here are 1 and 2 – (1) the claim that nothing is known in history of a general census during the time of Augustus, and (2) that in a Roman census Mary & Joseph would not have had to travel to Bethlehem to register.

Was There Census During the Reign of Augustus in the Roman World?

Roman denarius

Roman denarius

It is a commonly held assumption that the decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world was to be taxed, was a single census [a single event] in the entire Roman empire. The question is, is this how Luke understood it, or intended it to be understood? Very likely, not.

According to Hoehner, “What is meant is that censuses were taken at different times in different provinces – Augustus being the first one in history to order a census or tax assessment of the whole provincial empire. This is further substantiated by the fact that Luke uses the present tense indicating that Augustus ordered censuses to be taken regularly, rather than only one time.”[3]

New Testament historian Jack Finegan says, “As to the taking of such an enrollment in general, it is known from discoveries among the Egyptian papyri that a Roman census was taken in Egypt, and therefore perhaps also throughout the empire regularly, every fourteen years. Many actual census returns have been found, and they use the very same word (ἀπογράφω) which Luke 2:2 uses for the “enrollment.”[4]

The specific census which Luke mentions (Lk. 2:2), is that it “first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.”

Apart from Luke we have two other historical sources concerning Quirinius – the Roman historian, Tacitus (Annals 3.48) and the Jewish/Roman historian, Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 18.1-2).

According to Tacitus (Annals 3.48), P. Sulpicius Quirinius died in A.D. 21.

Josephus’s reference to Quirinius in Antiquities of the Jews (18,I,1.) poses somewhat of a problem, because he informs us that the “taxings conducted by Quirinius while governing Syria were made in the thirty-seventh year of Caesar’s victory over [Marc] Anthony at Actium in 31 B.C.. This would place the census in about A.D. 6/7, a date which is too late to be brought into alignment with the birth of Christ which was likely in the winter 5/4 B.C.[5]

In Luke’s account in Luke 2:2, he speaks of a census which “first” took place when Quirinius was governing Syria, so it is not out of the question that the census to which Josephus is referring was the second one, while Luke mentions the “first” one [i.e the earlier one].

Gleason Archer also notes that Luke, “was therefore well aware of the second census, taken by Quirinius in A.D. 7, which Josephus alludes to… We know this because Luke (who lived much closer to the time that Josephus did) also quotes Gamaliel as alluding to the insurrection of Judas of Galilee “in the days of census taking” (Acts 5:37).[6]

Additional evidence also seems to suggest that Quirinius served as governor twice which would then put him in an official position over Syria to enact the census of Luke 2:2. In 1784, a Latin inscription was discovered near Tivoli, located about twenty miles east of Rome. It is known as the Lapis Tiburtinus inscription, and according to Jack Finegan it, “…contains the statement of a high Roman official that when he became governor of Syria he entered the office for the second time (Latin, iterum). It has even been thought that this personage might have been Quirinius…”[7]

Whatever the identity is of the Roman official mentioned in the inscription, at minimum shows that it was not uncommon for Roman procurators to have served twice, and maximally it may eventually reveal that it was Quirinius himself, through further research.

Is it Plausible that Mary & Joseph Traveled to Bethlehem for the Census?

Luke 2:4-5 states: And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town 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 registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

Mary & Joseph traveling to Bethlehem

Mary & Joseph traveling to Bethlehem

Objection 2 listed above states, that in a Roman census Joseph would have not had to travel to Bethlehem, but would have registered in the principle town of his residence, and Mary would not have had to register at all.

It was generally understood that Roman law instructed property owners to register for taxation in the district where they owned land. However, “…a papyrus dated to A.D. 104, records an Egyptian prefect who ordered Egyptians to return to their ancestral homes so that a census could be taken. In first century Rome, since the Jews’ property was linked to their fathers (i.e. patriarchal), the Romans would certainly have allowed them the custom of laying claim to their family estate for taxation.”[8]

Since every person needed to appear in his ancestral homeland and since Mary was betrothed to Joseph, and pregnant with child, the two traveled to Bethlehem together. Surely Mary & Joseph would have understood the Scriptures, and the prophecies concerning Israel’s Messiah – that He must be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). It must have been truly amazing from their perspective, to see pieces of the Messianic puzzle fall in place – even if the pieces were official decrees from the Roman empire!

Once again, when Scripture is placed under the scrutiny of historical and archaeological research, it stands the test in amazing ways.

This is but one small example of where archaeology and history corroborate the Scripture to the finest detail. Luke’s gospel is just the first part of a two-volume set in which Acts is the second. Colin Hemer’s massive study, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History details at least 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts that have been confirmed by either historical or archeological research.

Truly Luke is indeed a remarkable historian. Like Theophilus, we can know the certainty of the things in which we have been instructed (the Gospel of Jesus Christ).

Jesus Came In the Fullness of Time

In Galatians 4:4 the Apostle Paul wrote: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

When Jesus the Messiah arrived, His timing was perfect! From the appearing of the star to the wise men, to the taking of the census by Rome, it was not too soon, and not too late. His first coming was not only perfect chronologically and historically, it was perfect in God’s providential time.

If Christ’s first coming is any indication of what the Second coming will be like – we can rest assured that the timing of His Second Coming (Revelation 19:11-21) will be right on God’s perfect divine time, once again.

 

[1] William Ramsay, Saint Paul: The Traveler and Roman Citizen (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001 reprint), 16.

[2] Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), 14.

[3] Ibid., 15

[4] Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past: The Archaeological Background of the Hebrew-Christian Religion, Volume II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 258.

[5] See Finegan, Ibid., 259, See also Hoehner’s work on this date which goes into much more detail in the original sources; Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), especially Chapter 1, ‘The Date of Christ’s Birth,’ pp. 29-44.

 

[6] Gleason L. Archer, Jr., New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982),

[7] See, Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology: Principles of Time Reckoning in the Ancient World and Problems of Chronology in the Bible, Revised Edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), p. 304. A view also held by William Ramsay, Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 4th Ed., London, 1920, pp. 275-300.

[8] See, Harold Hoehner, p.15

Free CrossExamined.org Resource

Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.

Powered by ConvertKit
12 replies
  1. Jerome Danner says:

    Glad to read this. This blog was much appreciated. So many think that research is not even done on these kinds of issues in the Bible, but this evidence that Christians are thinking about and researching the same issues presented by so-called skeptics.

    Reply
  2. Greg says:

    The lengths to which you go to rescue Luke’s gospel from the obvious fabrication of the census that sent Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem to “fulfill” prophecy regarding Jesus’ birth is appalling. I thought lying (telling half truths, obfuscatiing, withholding evidence) was something that your source of objective moral truth would instruct you not to do. I hope those who follow your blog are savvy enough to do some reading outside the literature of the apologetic world. If you made and defended this apologetic in a group of historical scholars (non-conservative evangelical that is) you would be made a laughing stock. But, you have to keep churning out posts for Frank’s blog so you don’t have much of a choice but to regurgitate old worn out explanations for the obviously fictional story. The supposed census of Luke’s birth narrative has been thoroughly debunked. Why didn’t you mention Vardaman’s “magic coins” as part of your apologetic defense as Strobel does in The Case For Christ? It’s no more fantastical than some of the things you hypothesize.

    Reply
    • EUnderhill says:

      “Why didn’t you mention Vardaman’s “magic coins” as part of your apologetic defense as Strobel does in The Case For Christ?”

      Most likely because Jerry Vardaman’s hypothesis does not hold any water to the hypothesis that was proposed here. The hypothesis proposed here makes more sense than Jerry Vardaman’s hypothesis of Roman microlettering coins having anything to do with Jesus. Assuming that the Roman Empire had to capability to do micro lettering, why would they put any thing on their coins concerning Jesus? More than likely they would have put something on the coins that had something to do with the Roman Empire. With the technology of that day, I seriously doubt that the Roman empire was capable of putting micro letters on their coins. Most likely explanation if Vardaman actually did find micro lettering on these Roman coins, it is probably of modern origin. As for the purpose, who knows.

      Reply
  3. Greg says:

    Additionally, you state that, “…a papyrus dated to A.D. 104, records an Egyptian prefect who ordered Egyptians to return to their ancestral homes so that a census could be taken. In first century Rome, since the Jews’ property was linked to their fathers (i.e. patriarchal), the Romans would certainly have allowed them the custom of laying claim to their family estate for taxation.”

    I can find no other way to describe this claim of yours except to call it an outright lie. If one takes the time to read the order and not take your word for it they will find that the order says nothing about returning to ancestral homes. It says, to their “own” homes. It only says “ancestral” when you and other apologists read it because you so very badly need it to. Belief in the inerrancy of the scripture causes intellectual atrophy. Let it go.

    Reply
    • Art says:

      Dear Greg: So where does the truth lay in what you perceive as intellectual dishonesty? Why do you spend time critiquing another person’s opinion? How about talking about the revelation of God to humanity through his son Jesus instead of spending time on mind-numbing interpretive details that when all said and done does not get you any closer to salvation.

      Reply
      • Rich says:

        Probably because there is no historical account of Jesus actually existing. The gospels were written some 80 years after Jesus’ death, and the epistles written about 50 years after his death make no mention of an earthly messiah. No biblical peers of Jesus decided to write down what extraordinary events occurred. Seems suspicious. Additionally no secular historical or census information was ever collected on him. It almost seems made up.

        Reply
  4. EUnderhill says:

    it looks like you may be partially right with this article. I just looked at the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Deeds of Divine Augustus) and it shows that Augustus had ordered three censuses during his reign. Although the first one appears to have been done one year before he became Emperor Augustus in 28 BC. The second one was done in 8 BC and the third was done in 14 AD. That last census is kind of ironic though, as Augustus died during that year. Tiberius is mentioned as Augustus colleague for the 14 AD census and he is probably the one who got the results of that census. Anyway the 8 BC census is probably the census that Luke was referring to. As for the 6 AD census that Josephus mentions, either he was wrong and no census occurred that year or it was only a census for Israel.

    Reply
  5. Eric Foster says:

    I have run the problem of the Quirinius census back and forth in my mind and in spite of being Christian I certainly have struggled with this problem. So I try to boil things down to the basics,.and when I do,..unfortunately Luke’s Quirinius Census falls short to both history, common sense and deduction,..this challenges my faith,.but I still believe Jesus is the Son of God.

    Rome was the superpower of the western world for a very long time.
    They accomplished this by balancing ruthless absolute power with respect and curiosity.
    Their enemies learned to confront or resist Rome directly would mean to lose everything, die a horrible and shameful death or become a slave. Capitulate and comply and there could be great rewards; connections to world wide police protected trade routes, fantastic infrastructure projects in your territory, limited respect for your religion, ie: as long as the Jewish people complied, Romans agreed not to transgress or trespass on their Jerusalem Temple.
    Rome was successful because they were extraordinarily good at administration and understanding human nature.
    Rome was also extraordinarily greedy and impatient yet practical.
    They needed that tax money, and were probably impatient to get it. Imagine if the IRS asked you to go to your daddy’s county,…It would have be a nightmare! Hundreds of thousands if not millions of peasants, Jews of all classes clogging the roads trying to get to whatever part of Israel their ancestor had lived in.
    Luke’s census falls short in history and logic.
    There was compliant resentment against the Roman rulers, so I as a Jew am ordered to go all the way to my ancestor’s land, There would be no way that the Romans could verify that what I told them was true when registering. It would be almost assured to collect a much faster and accurate census and tax when the individual could be physically identified by the nearest Roman base where their homes and property existed to be taxed. In the end I am not ruling Luke’s Quirinius census out, it just doesn’t seem to make sense.

    A balanced study from the on this subject can be found here: SERIOUS PROBLEMS WITH LUKE’S CENSUS
    excerpted from God, Reason, and the Evangelicals: https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/census.htm

    Reply
  6. Your mother says:

    “There are major difficulties in accepting Luke’s account: the census in fact took place in AD 6, ten years after Herod’s death in 4 BCE; there was no single census of the entire empire under Augustus; no Roman census required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors; and the census of Judea would not have affected Joseph and his family, living in Galilee; most scholars have therefore concluded that the author of Luke’s gospel made an error.”

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] of Jesus was “there is no record of a census being taken around Jesus’ birth!”. This article gives a detailed answer, but the short answer is: Yes, there was a census. It appears that there […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *