What was special about the census at the time of Jesus’ birth?

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world,” begins Luke 2:1 as the traditional starting point for many readers of the Christmas story every year. Caesar Augustus wasn’t the greatest king in history. Instead, he unwittingly helped move an ancient prophecy forward.

At the time, the Census was not appreciated. In order for the conquering empire to know how many people to tax, people were forced to travel about 90 miles to be counted for the census. How did a Roman census lead to one of our most beloved stories? Let us explore it further.

What Is the Definition of a Census?

Censuses are essentially official counts of people. Modern countries take in-depth censuses, mostly as a way to collect taxes, and Rome was no different. What was the point of the Roman census?

Censuses were a favorite of Caesar Augustus. Taxes helped keep the Roman army healthy, build roads, and finance army campaigns to keep conquering the world. Plus, he was a very luxurious emperor.

He ordered widespread Roman censuses at least three times: in 28 BC, 8 BC, and AD 14, he wrote in his “Res Gestae Divi Avgvsti” (The History of the Divine Augustus — kind of a fancy name for a diary).

Some regions of the Roman Empire also had regular censuses around the time of Christ; Judea underwent at least three censuses around then, in 8 BC, 2 BC, and AD 6. Empire builders and record keepers, the Romans. Censuses were part of the territory.

Caesar Augustus’ Role in the Census

Caesar Augustus was the title given to Octavian or Gaius Octavius. In 63 BC, he was born and adopted by Julius Caesar. Famously, Julius Caesar tried to become the supreme leader of the Roman Republic but was stabbed to death by senators. Rome’s transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire was completed by Octavian at the age of 18.

Rome’s emperor Octavian was a great statesman and military leader. The Roman Emperor had achieved a “Pax Romana,” a time of peace, flourishing trade, and stability by the time of Jesus. Caesar failed to get there as he was slowly amassing power and presenting himself as a leader for the people.

Rome almost doubled in size under Augustus. The empire spanned from Great Britain to India. The Roman Empire included Italy, Greece, Spain, Gaul, North Africa, Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Near East. There was no place Rome didn’t rule.

What Did This Mean for the Jewish People Specifically?

In 586 BC, the last monarch of Judah was blinded and taken off by Babylonian conquerors. Jews were exiled in Babylon.

King Cyrus of Persia gave them an edict in AD 538 short period of relative freedom under the Maccabees before Rome conquered them in 63 BC. They rebuilt Jerusalem, but they were still under the rule of Persia, Greece, and the Seleucid Empire.

At Jesus’ time, Israel was seen as a Roman backwater inhabited by rowdy people who had strange beliefs. While the Jews clung to their religion and customs, they had little autonomy. Jews sometimes held Roman citizenship and could enjoy certain rights and privileges, but most did not.

Romans taxed Jews and they followed Roman laws. Rome put in local authorities. So, when it came to the census, the Jews did what their Roman governors and local leaders told them.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:26-28).

Mary and Joseph’s Trip to Bethlehem

Luke 2:3 says everyone had to go to their own town to register for the census. Therefore, Luke says Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

The reason Joseph had to go to Bethlehem, Luke says, was that Bethlehem was the town of David, and he was of David’s lineage. In fact, Mary was of David’s lineage too.

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

Before Jesus was born, it’s not clear how long they stayed in Bethlehem. It’s highly unlikely that Mary gave birth the night they arrived, even if it makes for a clean-cut narrative.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child (Luke 2:4-5).

In the Bible, it says simply, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born” (Luke 2:6).

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them (Luke 2:6-7).

Although it goes against Christmas traditions, the truth is that we don’t know exactly where Mary and Joseph stayed. It doesn’t actually say Jesus was born in a stable; it just says he was placed in a manger: “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them” (Luke 2:7).

Jewish women were supposed to go to the temple for purification 40 days after the birth of their child, which Luke says Mary and Joseph did, then they probably returned to Bethlehem. When Jesus was “a young child,” the wise men came to Bethlehem and visited him there.

Joseph had been warned to leave Bethlehem in a dream, so the family fled to Egypt. In Bethlehem and surrounding areas, King Herod decided to kill all boys under two years old.

Herod was determined to get rid of the new “king of the Jews” after hearing about him from the wise men. Thus, their time in Bethlehem, which began with an empire-wide census, came to an end.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:13-15).

This was just the beginning of what was to come in Jesus’ life until he gave his life on a cross to save the world. 

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