The Census in Luke 2:1, 4-5
“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” (Luke 2:1, NKJV)
“Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.” (Luke 2:4-5, NKJV)
Luke is the only Gospel writer who relates his narrative to dates of world history. Caesar Augustus, according to many, was the first and greatest Roman emperor. Having replaced the Republic with an imperial form of government, he expanded the empire to include the Mediterranean world, established the famed Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) and ushered in the golden age of Roman literature and Architecture. Augustus (which means “exalted”) was a title voted to him by the Roman senate in 27 B.C.
By A.D. 6 wide-scale censuses were taken every every fourteen years; before that time, periodic cenuses seem to have occurred at less regular intervals. As tax census instigated by the reverred emperor Augustus initiates the contrast between Caesar’s earthly pomp and Christ’s heavenly glory. Censuses were important for evaluating taxation; they were generally conducted locally, so all local governments in all regions probably did not simultaneously implement Caesar’s decree.
The census was used for military service and taxation. Jews, however, were exempt from Roman military service. The census of Caesar Augustus has traditionally been thought to have the purpose of levying taxes, but it may rather have had the purpose of declaring allegiance to Augustus.
The King James render “should be taxed.“ Our word “tax” means to levy and raise money for the use of government. This is not the meaning of the original word here. It means rather to “enroll,” or take a “list” of the citizens, with their employments, the amount of their property, equivalent to what was meant by census. Judea was at that time tributary to Rome. It paid taxes to the Roman emperor; and though Herod was “king,” yet he held his appointment under the Roman emperor, and was subject in most matters to him. Farther, as this “enrollment” was merely to ascertain the numbers and property of the Jews, it is probable that thy were very willing to be enrolled in this manner; and hence we hear that they went willingly, without tumult – contrary to the common way when they were “to be taxed.”
Thus, the term actually means a census, not a taxing decree, though taxing generally followed and was based on the census.
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Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary. New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
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