The Ho-Hum Part of the Census

Thursday, December 20, 2012 Posted by Debbie Legg

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I’ve been doing research into the time period of Jesus’ birth, some of which includes the census.  Here is some information that, at least for me, adds some color to the black and white of Luke’s Gospel. 

Let me first say that the widely-held belief that Herod died in 4 BC is due to a typo in the recopying of Josephus’ manuscripts in 1544.  All copies from before 1544 indicate Herod’s death was in 1BC.  This fact, along with other information, dates the birth of Jesus in June 2BC, and therefore John the Baptist’s six months earlier in late 3BC/early 2BC.

At the time of John’s birth, Caesar Augustus had ruled the Roman Empire for 25 years and had brought peace throughout the land.  To celebrate these events, the Roman Senate gave Augustus the title Pater Patriae (Father of the Country).  Part of the celebration included citizens and non-citizens alike signing an oath of loyalty to Augustus. 

This was called a census but was not part of the official tax and count census cycle.  In an official census, Mary would not have been required to go, and Joseph would not have had to travel so far.  But as this was a special census focused on loyalty to Caesar, there would have been a particular desire to identify any possible usurpers.  In Judea, that included claimants to the throne of King David.  Everyone in Bethlehem for the census would have been on that list of potential troublemakers, including Joseph and Mary, both descendants of David.

This ho-hum background information gives me a possible answer to a question I’ve had—why did Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem when they did?  They probably had a year to register.  Why not wait until after Jesus was born?

Among many possible answers (God's will being one of them), I wonder if they weren’t trying to be registered before Jesus was born to avoid having to declare him as loyal to Caesar.  After all, Gabriel told Mary that the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David (Luke 1:32).  A future king cannot declare loyalty to the one he might replace.

Hmmm… Food for thought anyway.  Sometimes that ho-hum information can become a humdinger.
*Most of this information is from The Star That Astonished The World, Ernest L. Martin, ASK Publications, 1996. 

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