Bethlehem and the
Tax Census

Joseph Francis Alward
   December 21, 1998

It was generally believed that Jesus was brought up in Nazareth, but some people also believed that it was foretold that Jesus would be born in the little town of Bethlehem (see essay, Bethlehem Birth Prophecy).  Gospel writers, sincerely believing that their Jesus was the son of God and therefore must have fulfilled all of the messiah requirements found in the Old Testament, just assumed that Jesus was born in Bethelehm.  Not knowing the details, they may have felt justified in exercising a little literary license in order to flesh out the story.  

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In Luke's Bethlehem birth story, he decided to have Joseph travel from Nazareth with a very pregnant Mary to the town of Bethlehem, ninety miles of way, where she would give birth in a manger.   The reason given for the trip is extremely implausible, as the reader will see.  But, first, let's look at Luke's story:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  (Luke 2:1-6)

There are two things wrong with this story.

There Was No Universal Census at the Time of Jesus' Birth

Jesus was not greater than two years old when when King Herod made his death decree for all of Bethlehem's children under two years of age. Since Herod died in 4 B.C., the earliest year of Jesus' birth would have been about 6 B.C. As pointed out by historians, the only census by Quirinius when he was governor in Syria was conducted in A.D. 6-7 [2-3], which was twelve or more years after the birth of Jesus.

 Chaos Would Have Resulted

Caesar Augustus, according to Luke, decided that everybody in his empire should have to return for a tax census to the town of the house from which they descended .  Thus, Joseph had to return to Bethlehem "because he was of the house and lineage of David".  As Randel Helms remarks,

Luke has been forced to contrive a universal dislocation for a simple tax registration: who could imagine the efficient Romans requiring millions in the empire to journey scores or hundreds of miles to the villages of millennium-old ancestors merely to sign a tax form! Needless to say, no such event happened in the history of the Roman empire. [2]

[1] The Birth of the Messiah, Raymond E. Brown (New York: Doubleday, 1977), p. 413, quoted in Gospels Fictions, Randal Helms, Prometheus Books, page 59.
[2] Gospels Fictions, Randal Helms, Prometheus Books, page 59.

[3] The following is unedited correspondence between members of the list, December 10, 1998, and revised by D. R.  Edwards on December 21, 1998:

The census is documented in Josephus. The census made while Quirinius was legate of Syria occurred in 6 CE when Augustus deposed Archelaeus, a full 10 years after Herod the Great's death. The contradiction between Matthew and Luke is then obvious: Jesus couldn't have been born during the census of Quirinius and during the reign of Herod the Great, because the events are separated by at least 10 years.

One explanation that apologists have devised is to hypothesize that the census was ordered by Augustus during the reign of Herod, but it took some time to be implemented and was finally implemented during the hypothetical first governorship of Quirinius. This explanation, however, deserves little consideration, because one is asked to accept that it took 10 years for the census to be implemented. In other words, there is a 10-year lapse between the "in those days" of Luke 2:1 when Augustus decreed the census and the governorship of Quirinius referenced in the immediately following verse. The required time dilation between Luke 2:1 and 2:2-3 makes such an explanation quite difficult to swallow, which is probably why it is not the preferred explanation. Note also that this explanation requires that a census decree be issued in 4 BCE, a difficulty to be taken up later.

The more common explanation is to hypothesize a second governorship for Quirinius. Their support for this claim is an inscription found on a stone (the Lapis Tiburtinus), which refers to someone who was a governor, again, of Syria. The apologists claim that this inscription can refer to none other than Quirinius; hence, Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, and his hitherto unknown second governorship is shoehorned into as convenient a timeframe as possible (beginning around 2 BCE), during which he is considered to have executed the (undocumented) census decreed in 4 BCE. There are numerous difficulties with this explanation. First, the stone does not say that the unnamed person was governor of Syria twice, only that the person was a governor twice. It would have been quite rare for one individual to govern the same province twice. Second, the stone could be referring to M. Calpurnius Piso just as easily as to Quirinius. Third, in spelling out Quirinius' qualifications and assignments, Josephus would have had an excellent opportunity to mention any additional governorships for him. Needless to say, he didn't. Fourth, even if the stone refers to Quirinius, we know that Varus - not Quirinius - was governor of Syria during Herod's death. Josephus is quite clear about this. The road thus appears to culminate in a dead end.

There are two approaches to this new difficulty. The first is to hypothesize that Quirinius was in charge of the military affairs of Syria during Varus' governorship and was the one actually responsible for the nuts-and-bolts of the census. However, this suggestion trades one problem for another, because we know that Varus' principal military agent in 4 BCE Judea was not Quirinius, but Sabinus. An alternate approach is to suggest that (and here's where it gets complicated) 1. Caesar decreed a 4 BCE census that included Judea, 2. the Lapis Tiburtinus referred to Quirinius, 3. Quirnius was governor immediately following Varus, and therefore 4. Quirinius implemented the census after the conclusion of Varus' governorship. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? However, premises 2 and 3 are far from proven. In addition, we have the first premise that requires investigation: that Caesar decreed in 4 BCE a census of Judea. This is quite unlikely, as will be addressed later. And even if premises 1-3 were found true, we would have the new difficulty that, if there was a 4 BCE census, then the census that Luke refers to wouldn't have been the first, as he specifies in Luke 2:2.

Still another approach to the problem is to interpret Luke 2:2 as meaning that the census was *before* Quirinius was governor of Syria. This approach has the added attraction of eliminating the additional difficulty in the above solutions that arises from Luke 2:2 (if there was a 4 BCE census, then the 6 CE census would not have been the first). The first difficulty with this approach is that it assumes a 4 BCE census decree occurred. This solution also requires Luke 2:2 (NIV: This was the first census that took place while Quirnius was governor of Syria) to be read in a way that is at variance with nearly every English translation, and it requires the key Greek word (PRWTH) to be used in a way in which Luke never uses it elsewhere.

Now - what about this 4 BCE census? Note that each of the above "solutions" requires Augustus to have decreed in 4 BCE a census that included the territories under Herod's kingship. The arguments stand or fall on the hypothetical 4 BCE census taking place in Judea and surrounding environs. The apologists' problem is, there is no evidence that such a census ever occurred, while there is evidence to the contrary. The widespread conclusion is that Judea and Galilee, as part of Herod's client kingdom, would not have had to participate in a Roman-administered census such as Luke describes, even if it had been decreed in 4 BCE. Rather, Herod would have handled issues like that himself, most likely without need for a "census", per se. One must also consider that Josephus duly noted the 6 CE census - it caused great unrest and contributed to an uprising led by Judas the Galilean. A Roman-administered 4 BCE census, however, seems to have escaped Josephus' mention. Given Josephus' attention to such matters and the demonstrated potential for an uprising to have occurred, it seems incredible that Josephus would have omitted a 4 BCE census if it had occurred. However - if Luke is considered to have been referring to the 6 CE census rather than some undocumented 4 BCE census, at which time this geographic area was a province of the second class, governed by a prefect answerable to the legate of Syria (as was the situation when Coponius became prefect following Archalaeus' dismissal), then everything falls neatly into place.

The bottom line here is that the apologists' resolution to this issue ultimately relies on a lot of instances of, "It could have happened this way" with little if any supporting evidence and in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary.

D. R.  Edwards