The Taxing of Augustus

In consequence of an edict that all the world should be taxed, Joseph and Mary leave Nazareth to go to Beth- Luke ii. 1-5. lehem, the city of David, to be taxed there.

The chronological and other questions connected with this taxing are undoubtedly among the most perplexing which meet us in the whole Gospel narrative. The former have been already considered, but the latter demand a careful examination. Before we proceed to consider them, let us note the character of the Evangelist's statements, and his general purpose.

i Winer, ii. 133.

Turning to Luke's words, (ii. 1-3,) we find that he speaks in very brief and comprehensive terms. An edict had been issued by the -Emperor Caesar Augustus, " that all the world should be taxed, and this taxing was first made when Cyreiiius was governor of Syria." In obedience to this edict, all went to be taxed, each into his own city. This is all the information the Evangelist gives. He does not say when this edict was issued, nor what were its peculiar features, nor give any account of its execution, except in Judea. Its only apparent value to him, and the only cause that leads him ta^mention it is, that it was the occasion that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. He therefore speaks of it only in the most general way, and we cannot learn from him whether it was a mere enrolment of persons, or also a census of property; whether it embraced all the provinces of the empire, or but a part; whether it was executed at once, or after a lapse of time, or in various provinces at various times. He is concerned only with its immediate relations to the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, and does not mention even the manner of its execution in Judea, whether by Herod and his officers, in obedience to imperial direction, or by a special commissioner from Rome, or by the governor of some adjoining province. In the absence of definite statements in the Gospels, we turn to contemporary history, but here a like silence meets us. How little the historians of those times record of the period from V50-'760, we shall soon see.

In our examination of this subject we shall consider: 1st. The nature and extent of this taxing; 2d. The proof that it actually took place; 3d. Its connection with Cyrenius.

First, the nature and extent of this taxing. The word translated taxing, airoypa^ means "properly transcription, then inscription, both of persons and things." l It may therefore denote simply an enrolment or enumeration of persons, a descriptio capitum ; or may involve also a registration of property upon which taxes are to be assessed. For the latter, however, the Greeks had a special word, aTroTiju/qcrt?.1 To this corresponded the Latin term census, whose first object, according to Greswell,2 was to ascertain the value of property ; but, according to Winer, curoypcupy) was generally used by Grecian writers upon Roman matters as equivalent to census. That it is used by Luke in the latter sense in the only other passage of his writings, (Acts v. 37,) in which it is found, is plain.

1 Alexander.

From the term itself, then no certain inference can be drawn. It may have been'an^enrolment of the people, with a view to learn the number of the inhabitants of the empire, and for general statistical purposes; or it may have had direct reference to taxation. If we turn, then, from the term itself to the context, to learn its meaning, it is said that no census of property can be referred to, as there is nowhere in the narrative any allusion to patrimony or inheritance, and that Joseph and Mary could have had no possessions at Bethlehem.3 A more forcible argument upon this side is the fact that there was a rebellion of the Jews against the attempt to impose taxes upon them under Cyrenius, at a later period.4 (Acts v. 37.) This implies that there had been no previous attempt to tax them, and that the registration now in question was one of persons only, with reference to the amount of population.5 On the other hand, Meyer insists that Luke puts this taxing upon the same footing as that of Cyrenius, as an enrolment for taxation, and that not future but immediate. Most, however, take a middle view, supposing Augustus in his edict to have reference to taxation, but not designing that it should at once take effect.6

i Winer, ii. 398. Ebrard, 169. 2 i. 541. 3 Greswell, i. 542.

4 Josephus' Antiquities, 18. 1. 1.

& So Alford, and many. • So Ewald, v. 20,

It seems most probable, all things considered, that this enrolment had reference both to persons and property. That Augustus, now in the prime of life and undisputed master of the empire, should desire to establish a general and uniform system of taxation, finds support in his general character and policy. But he was far too wise a man to hasten matters prematurely, or to force disagreeable measures upon disaffected provinces. If, then, this enrolment was with reference to taxation, in its execution he would be governed by policy. The first step was to learn the number of the inhabitants, their names, tribes, families, &c, and together with this, to make a registration of property as the basis for the assessment of taxes. But considerable time may, and in many cases must have elapsed between the enrolment and the subsequent collection of such taxes. If, therefore, we suppose that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, not simply to have their names registered, but also to give account of their possessions, it would by no means follow that taxes were then and there collected of them. If this had been so, we may well be surprised that no disturbance should then have taken place among the people at large, as did take place a few years later. The preliminary steps, though pointing to a future exercise of power in the actual assessment and collection of taxes, could give no tangible ground of offence.

It has been said by many, that this edict was confined to the Holy Land, and did not apply to the whole empire.1 But the weight of authority is decidedly the other way.2 The phrase iracra 77 Olkoviacvt], " all the world," when used in the Gospels, (Acts xi. 28, is in dispute,) beyond question refers to the Roman Empire as embracing at that time the greater part of the habitable world. But while the edict thus had application to the whole empire, and may have looked forward to some general system of taxation as the final result, yet in a kingdom composed of so many heterogeneous and discordant provinces, its execution in each must have been governed by circumstances. A ruler wise as Augustus would, in a province like Judea, temporize and wait for a favorable opportunity, rather than meet the perils of rebellion. It is not improbable, therefore, that years may have passed before the edict was carried fully into effect.

1 See Lardner, i. 267.

2 So Meyer, Greswell, "Wieseler, Ebrard, Alford.

Second, the proof that such a taxing actually took place confirmatory of the statement of the Evangelist. It is admitted that there is no express statement in any contemporary writer of such a taxing or census at this time, and embracing the whole empire, w7hether as a registration of persons, of property, or for general statistical purposes. Suetonius1 relates that Augustus three times held a census, and from the Ancyran monument we learn that these were held in 726, 746, and 767 ; but it is probable that they were confined to Italy, and did not extend to the provinces.2 But that the census did at times extend to particular provinces, is beyond question. Thus there was one in Gaul, one in Spain, and Strabo alludes to them as not uncommon.3 If then Augustus held a census, now in Italy and now in the provinces, there is nothing improbable in the fact that he should hold one throughout the empire. And there are several circumstances mentioned by writers of that period that confirm this supposition. That there was a geometrical survey of the Roman Empire, which, if not commenced, was carried out by Augustus, seems to be well established.4 Of the Roman chorographic maps, Merivale says (iv. 426): " They measured, we may believe, not only the roads, but the areas' which lay between thern; the labors of a quarter of a century produced no doubt a complete registration of the size, the figure, and the natural features of every province, district, and estate throughout the empire," And that with such a survey a general census should be connected is antecedently probable. The statement of Suidas, (Lex. airoypa^) that " Augustus sent out twenty men of great probity into all parts of his empire, by whom he made an assessment of persons and estates," is indeed unsupported by any other author, but has no intrinsic improbability.1 We know also from Tacitus2 that Augustus had a little book which he had written out with his own hand, and which contained accounts of the numbers of soldiers, of the taxes, imposts, and the like: Gpes publico continebantur. Quantum civium, sociorumque, in armis; quas classes, regna, provincise tributa, aut vectigalia et necessitates et largitiones, quae cuncta sua manu perscripserat Augustus. This breviarium imperii is mentioned also by Suetonius and Dio Cassius, and must have been based upon governmental surveys of all parts of the empire. As has been said by Prideaux, it was probably something of the same kind as the Doomsday Book of William the Conqueror.

If all the facts do not prove with absolute certainty that Augustus did ever order a general census, they go far, at least, to make it probable, and thus to confirm the Evangelist's statement. Lardner (i. 267) objects chiefly upon the ground of the silence of the Roman historians. But in the history of Dio Cassius there is a great gap from 747-757, the very period in which Luke states this taxing to have been held. Suetonius is very brief, as also Tacitus. The argument, therefore, from the silence of contemporary writers is of little force, and if pushed to its extreme would compel us to believe that no important event took place in the long reign of Augustus of which the few historians whose works remain to us in whole, or in part, have not made specific mention.3

Third. The connection of this taxing with Cyrenius. We have, already, in the essay upon the date of Christ's birth, examined the point whether Cyrenius was not twice governor of Syria, and found strong grounds to believe that this was the case. If so, his first administration was from the autumn of 750 to 753, and the taxing now in question was the first as distinguished from the second, which took place during his second administration, some ten years later. But as some degree of doubt, from the scantiness of our data, must necessarily rest upon this conclusion, let us suppose, as has usually been done, that he was not governor of Syria till 760, and examine Luke's statement from this point of view.

i Greswell, i. 537. 2 Ann., i. 11. s see Ebrard, 171.

The first point that meets us is the right construction of the Evangelist's words: "this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria," avirj -q a7roypa(£?7 7Tpi\)T7} eyej/eTo, 7]y€fJLovevovTOs Ttjs Supias KvpyvLov. If this be read, this was the first taxing, in distinction from a second, and took place under him as governor of Syria, but in fact he was not so governor till 760, we must construe the term 7?ye^ora;ovTos, " governing," in its wide sense as applicable to any one who fills a place of rule. Thus understood, Cyrenius, though not the governor, may have been a joint, or assistant ruler, as Josephus1 speaks of Saturninus and Volumnius as the presidents of Syria. Or he may have been an extraordinary commissioner sent from Rome especially for this purpose.2 In all this there is nothing intrinsically improbable, and it agrees with the fact that he was about that time in the East, and engaged in political affairs. It corresponds also to the statements of the fathers, except Tertullian, that this taxing was by Cyrenius. Still, on the other hand, the obvious import of Luke's words is, that he was then the governor over Syria, not an assistant, and still less a commissioner appointed to a special service in a neighboring kingdom.

i Atitiq. 16. 9. 2 Lardner, i. 329. Wieseler, 113.

1 Aug. c. 27. 2 Wieseler, 91. Greswell, i. 535.

a Lardner, i. 263. Greswell, i. 536. 4 Wieseler, 77-81. Sepp, i. 136.

According to another construction of Luke's words, taking TrpuT-q for irpwrepov^ this taxing was before Cyrenius was governor of Syria.1 So understood, it was the purpose of the Evangelist to distinguish between the two taxings, taking for granted that all knew that the second was under Cyrenius. But admitting that the Greek will bear this interpretation, still had this been Luke's meaning it would have been more naturally exjDressed another way.

Most English commentators have preferred the following construction; this taxing was first made—i. e. carried into effect, when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.2 The enrolment was made at the time of the Lord's birth, but its actual execution was deferred some nine or ten years, or till Judea was made a Eoman province. This is not inconsistent with Luke's words, since the enrolment was only preparatory to the assessment and collection of the taxes, and the latter may have been delayed by political difficulties till the time of Cyrenius.

Some, as Lardner, (L 333,) would make -qycpLovvovros Ttjs Svptas to be merely an official title, and to imply not that Cyrenius was then actually governor, but that he had at some previous period of his life filled the office. Having been governor, the title continued to cleave to him, and by it he was generally designated and best known. This, however, is forced.

But some objections still remain to be considered. First, that this taxing could not have taken place in Herod's lifetime, because inconsistent with the political relations of his kingdom to the Empire. It still had a nominal independence, and was not converted into a province till the banishment of his son Archelaus. In this, however, is little force.3 The relations between Borne and her dependent kingdoms were constantly fluctuating; and what rights and privileges she should at any time give them, was a matter of policy.1 Judea was well known to Augustus as full of discontent and sedition, and there can scarce be a doubt that it was his purpose even before Herod's death to reduce it, so soon as circumstances permitted, to the rank of a province. Besides, the personal relations of Augustus and Herod had a little before this become far from friendly,2 and therefore the former was not likely to be governed in his actions by mere considerations of good will. And Herod could oifer no effectual resistance to any measure the Emperor might propose. He was now old and greatly hated by the Jews, and without Roman assistance could not have been sure of his kingdom for a day.

1 So Usher, Whitby, Tholuck, Wieseler, Ewald, Greswell. 3 Middleton, Hales, Campbell, Norton. So among the Germans, Ebrard,, Lange, Lichtenstein. a Winer, ii. 899.

If, then, Augustus designed this enrolment as only preparatory to taxation, and if Herod looked upon it as an infringement of his royal rights, he could only submit. Resistance would only have brought his own downfall and the downfall of his family. And it is most probable that the execution of the measure was given chiefly into his hands. Two facts are mentioned by Josephus, both of which have been supposed to have some relation to this taxing. He speaks3 of an oath which all the Jews were obliged to take, giving assurance of their good will to Caesar and to the king's government, and which was refused by six thousand of the Pharisees. This is supposed by Patritius (iii. 171) to refer to the taxing of Luke. But this took place under Saturninus and before the taxing. He speaks also of an insurrection a little before Herod's death.4 This insurrection, though the ostensible cause of it was the erection of a golden eagle over the great gate of the temple, doubtless had far

1 As to the tribute actually paid by the Jews to the Romans, see Greswell, ii. 375; and as to the autonomy of subject provinces, deeper roots, and very probably stood in direct connection with the enrolment, which the insurgents, who were zealots for the law, regarded as only a preliminary step to their more complete subjugation to Rome.

We find also, in these statements of Josephus, an answer to a second objection that such an enrolment could not have taken place without popular disturbances, such as took place afterward, and are mentioned by Luke, (Acts v. 37.) Both just before and after Herod's death were commotions which showed that the people at large were much disquieted, although there was no general resistance to Roman rule. But there was a large party who wished that Judea might then be made a Roman province,1 and those who were zealous for national independence were now by no means so numerous as a few years later. The enrolment, therefore, might have been carried into effect without producing any general rebellion, however a few excitable spirits may have been aroused to resistance.

The conspicuous part which Cyrenius played in this taxing, so conspicuous that Luke connects it directly with his name, will surprise no one who considers the peculiar state of political affairs. Archelaus, the successor of Herod, received but half of his father's territories, and that not under the name of king, but of ethnarch. He ruled only by sufferance, and was from the beginning both hated and despised by the Jews. In this condition of things, it was natural that the chief direction of public matters should fall into the hands of the governor of the adjoining province. Josephus gives ample proof how ready the Romans were under Varus, to interfere in Jewish quarrels, and with what contempt the Syrian governors treated the subject kings around them.2 If, also, as there is good reason to believe, it was the purpose of Augustus at the first favorable opportunity to depose Archelaus and to reduce Judea to a province, we shall find no difficulty in believing that Cyrenius, as governor of Syria, might then have conducted the taxing.

i Antiq., 17.11. 2. * Antiq., 19. 8.1.

But how is the silence of Josephus in regard to this matter to he explained ? Whatever may have been his motives, we find that, in point of fact, he does pass over the whole period of the rule of Archelaus almost in silence. He mentions no governor of Syria from Varus, 750, to Cyrenius, 760. So he wholly passes over the Parthian war under Caius Caesar.1 This cannot have been from ignorance. Wieseler (98) supposes that he concealed, so far as possible, all that testified to the Messianic hopes of the Jews and against their submission to Roman domination. His mention of Judas of Galilee, who headed the rebellion at the second taxing, is very brief.2 Lardner, (i. 355,) alluding to this latter passage, supposes that Josephus avoids the mention of these contests between the Jews and Romans, because the principles of Judas were very popular, and he must offend his countrymen on the one hand, or the Romans on the other. Thus much is plain, that he passes over as lightly as possible every thing that testifies to the degradation of his people.3

Thus, in various ways, the difficulties connected with the taxing may be met (though it cannot be said that they are all yet removed), if we assume that Cyrenius was but once governor of Syria. But we have strong historical evidence that he twice filled this office. If this shall be confirmed by further investigations, all doubts as to the literal accuracy of Luke will be removed.

Why, in Joseph's journey to Bethlehem, Mary should have accompanied him, is not stated by the Evangelist. Some have supposed that she was obliged to go, in order to be enrolled ; but neither, according to Jewish or Romish custom, was it necessary that she should be personally present.1 Others suppose that she possessed a little inheritance in Bethlehem, and so must go thither,a But this is without proof and against probability; for, if she had had possessions there, she would scarce have been compelled to go to the inn. In all likelihood she went with Joseph because, at this delicate and trying period, she was unwilling to be left at Nazareth alone. That she was aware of the prophecy that the Messiah should be born at Bethlehem is not improbable ; but that she journeyed there with a design thus to ensure its fulfilment,8 is not consistent with the general tenor of her conduct.

i Zumpt, ii. 87. a Antiq., 18. 1. 6.

s See Journal Sac. Lit., vol. vi. 292, &q.

Merivale, iv. 400. a Josephus, Antiq., 16. 9. 3. a Antiq., 17. 2. 4. * Antiq., 17. 6. 2.