‘Time present and time past are both, perhaps, present in time future’, as T.S. Eliot wrote. The course of history is shaped by traditions that started nearly two millennia ago. This is especially apparent on Christmas Eve. Many will attend church services and listen to the story of the birth of Jesus as told by the Evangelist Luke. Or is it history?
The birth of Jesus in the town of Bethlehem is described in two of the gospels. Matthew and Luke agree on the basic elements of the Christmas story, though they stress different details. Matthew has gift-bringing Magi, Luke has shepherds; Matthew has the star, Luke the manger. Matthew places the birth of Jesus under king Herod and Luke places it under the Roman emperor Augustus while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
In particular, Luke 2:1-4 mentions three things: Augustus ordered a census of the entire Roman world; this happened while Quirinius was governor of Syria; and people had to register in their own town, and so Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem. We know that Augustus conducted three censuses of Roman citizens, in 28 BC, 8 BC and 14 AD, because he mentions them in his political testament (Res Gestae 8). But these would not necessarily involve Joseph or Mary since they were not Roman citizens. Besides, Iudaea was not a Roman province but a protectorate until 6 AD so that a census of Roman citizens seems unlikely beforehand. The first universal census, which may have influenced Luke as a living memory, took place in 74 AD.
However, the Romans were prolific census-takers. Newly subjugated provinces were often ordered to be registered. This served a dual purpose: taxation, particularly poll tax or capitatio, and military service. The usual result, somewhat inevitably, was insurrection. Tax-related incidents sparked the revolts of Arminius in Germania (9 AD) and Boudicca in Britain (60/61 AD), to name but the famous. In a fine piece of invention, the Roman historian Cassius Dio (62,3) credits the latter with the complaint that the Romans tax the living into slavery, and then keep on taxing them even in death. In fact, rebellion also ensued when the newly acquired province of Iudaea was registered in 6 AD under the governorship of P. Sulpicius Quirinius.
Luke purports to be factual (Luke 1:1-3), yet it seems difficult to harmonize his account of the provincial census surrounding Jesus’ birth. The point of his story is rather to connect Jesus to the royal lineage of David and place his birth in Bethlehem in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Egyptian papyri regularly contain complaints that oppressive taxes will force office-holders to flee their idia, their place of origin (anachorèsis). Yet Joseph, of noble blood, is prepared to travel to his place of origin, in the middle of winter and with a pregnant wife, to shoulder his tax burden by the emperor’s decree. His submission to duty foreshadows Jesus’ later teaching that one should render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s – that is: taxes – and unto God the things that are God’s.
Undoubtedly, there is a lesson here. Merry Christmas!