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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
CENSUS.—This English word does not occur in the NT, the Greek term ἀπογραφή being rendered taxing in Authorized Version and enrolment in Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 both in Luke 2:2 and in Acts 5:37. In the former case, with which we are mainly concerned, ‘enrolment’ is certainly the better word; for the purpose of the enumeration was apparently not fiscal. That mentioned by Gamaliel, however, was a valuation as well as an enumeration, and it was called ‘the taxing’ with some reason. It was also better known than the other; par excellence it was ‘the census’ because a great tumult arose under Judas of Galilee in connexion with it, which made the occasion famous. That which took place at the time stated by St. Luke was so little known by the period when his Gospel was written, that he thinks it needful to insert a note about its date, lest it should be mistaken for the other. ‘This was the first enrolment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.’ This note, however, has been itself a matter of great perplexity, because the date thus indicated does not apparently tally with the ascertained facts of secular history. For the discussion of this intricate question see articles Birth of Christ, Dates, and Quirinius,
The nature of the census of Luke 2:1-3 is a topic of some interest, on which light has been shed by Ramsay in Was Christ born at Bethlehem? (1898). It seems to have been an enrolment by households, such as Kenyon (Classical Review, March 1893), Wilcken, and Viereck have shown was the practice in Egypt. Augustus had a great belief in the proper and systematic enumeration of his subjects, and the reckoning of them by households was a method which was carefully followed every fourteen years in Egypt. Many of the actual census papers have been found in that land in recent times, the earliest as yet discovered referring to the year 20 a.d. (Ramsay, op. cit., Preface, p. x note). This was quite different from the fiscal statistics compiled annually under the direction of the provincial governors of the Roman Empire, papers dealing with which have also been found. The household enrolments took place in cycles of fourteen years, and were dated according to the emperor in whose reign they were carried out. No mention was made in them of the value of property and stock, as in the annual returns, and the only financial purpose they served was to determine who were liable for the poll-tax exacted from all subjects between the ages of fourteen and sixty. This poll-tax was the tribute (κῆνσος) referred to by the Pharisees in the question to Christ as to the lawfulness of payment (Matthew 22:17; see art. Tribute) It would seem that in Syria women as well as men were required to pay this tax (Ramsay, op. cit. 147 note); and if that was the case also in Palestine, this fact may possibly explain why, on the first occasion when the enrolment that was the basis of the poll-tax was made, Mary accompanied Joseph to Bethlehem despite her critical condition.
The discovery of the household-enrolment papers in Egypt throws light on the statement of Luke 2:1 ‘there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.’ ‘All the world’ (πᾶσαν τὴν οἰκουμένην) was formerly supposed by some scholars, such as Kitto (Cycl. of Bib. Lit., art. ‘Cyrenius’), to mean merely the whole land of Palestine, so as to escape the difficulty that secular history, so far as then known, was silent as to any general census. The meaning of the phrase cannot be so restricted. It means certainly the whole of the Roman Empire, which in the days of Augustus meant for all practical purposes ‘the inhabited earth.’ Not only was Rome itself included, with all the provinces, whether in Italy or elsewhere, but also those lands which, though having kings of their own, were really under the Roman suzerainty. Such was that portion of Syria under the dominion of Herod the Great.
The silence of history as to such an enumeration as was now to be made is no proof that it did not take place; for of other enumerations to which casual allusion is made by historians, Augustus himself in his record of his achievements makes no mention, except in so far as Roman citizens were concerned. The counting of alien subjects was probably not deemed of sufficient importance to be chronicled. Moreover, the household enrolments which have been traced back in Egypt by extant papers to a.d. 20 suggest at least that there may have been earlier ones in a.d. 6 and b.c. 8, which brings us back to the approximate period to which St. Luke refers. It may here be observed that the Evangelist does not actually say (Luke 2:1), and very likely does not mean, that the intention of Augustus was that one single enumeration should be made of the whole Roman world. The tense of ἁπογράφεσθαι rather signifies that a census of this nature on the household-enrolment principle was to be the practice, this being the first occasion of its being ordered; which precisely tallies with the following verse when rightly rendered, ‘This was the first enrolment made at the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria.’ A fuller discussion of this latter statement is reserved for the article Quirinius.
The enrolment with which we are particularly concerned, then, would be appointed for b.c. 8; but in the case of Herod’s kingdom it was not achieved till about a couple of years later, apparently for reasons which Ramsay has indicated, but which need not here be reproduced. They refer to the strained relations which then existed between Augustus and Herod. When it was made, the usual Roman method of enrolment at the residence of those enumerated was not followed, but one more in consonance with Jewish ideas. The people had often before been numbered by their tribes, and Herod probably judged that, especially on this first occasion of such an enrolment, the use and wont would be more acceptable to his subjects than a method new to them, and would be less likely to arouse resentment or even tumult. The Roman practice was to interfere as little as possible with the usages of the nations which had been subjugated; and therefore we may reckon that the particular method of taking the census would be left to the decision of the ruler of the district. Accordingly it was arranged that the tribal method should be followed, and that in subordination thereto the enrolment should be by persons registering themselves at the place from which the head of the family had sprung. Hence we read that ‘all went to enrol themselves, every one to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, because he was of the house and family of David, to enrol himself with Mary who was betrothed to him’ (Luke 2:3-5). If, as Matthew 1:25 leads us to believe, Mary was actually recognized at this period as Joseph’s wife, she would be enumerated as one of his household, whatever her own lineage was; but if St. Luke’s expression ‘betrothed’ is to be pressed, would indicate not merely that the marriage was not publicly known or officially recognized, but that she herself must also have been of the family of David, and as such was enrolled in her own right. It may also be observed that the great gathering of those who claimed to be of ‘the stock of Jesse’ would help to explain how, when Joseph and Mary arrived, ‘there was no room for them in the inn’ (Luke 2:7).
Literature.—Lives of Christ and Commentaries on St. Luke; articles in Bible Dictionaries, as Smith, Kitto, and Hastings; Ramsay, Was Christ born at Bethlehem? (1898); Zumpt, Das Geburtsjahr Christi (1869); Zahn, art. in Neue kirchl. Ztsch. (1893); Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] i. ii. 105.
Arthur Pollok Sym.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Census'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/c/census.html. 1906-1918.