And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. 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 [i].
This is a lengthy article, so here is the conclusion: Christians are obligated to cooperate with our government in the 2010 census. We must treat the census officials with respect, we must honor them, and we must answer all of their questions. Last but not least, any tax the government imposes as a result of the 2010 census must be paid.
Just as the United States numbers its population every ten years, so governments in biblical times kept track of their citizens. Several major censuses are mentioned in Scripture, including one when Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was imperial legate in the Roman province of Syria.
Censuses were never popular in the ancient world for the understandable reason that they are designed to discover assets (people and property) that might otherwise remained undetected. The countings were important for taxation, administration, military planning and conscription, recruitment of labor for public works projects, and for tithes and offerings to maintain religious institutions. Caesar Augustus therefore used censuses to inventory the resources and needs of his empire, to raise money, and to determine where to allocate his troops. The Romans are believed to have held numerous empire-wide censuses, and Luke could have been referring to one of those.
God used the census to bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, in fulfillment of His divine plan.
Between Rome, the temple system, and other taxing authorities, Jews in Jesus’s time were probably paying between 30 and 40 percent of their income in combined taxes and religious dues.
Aside from paying tithes and temple taxes, the people of Judea had to pay three major imperial taxes. The first was the tax on land, the tributum soli. The second was the vectiqalia, a general tax of the empire that included tax on imported goods at ports. Last was the head tax, tributum capitis, the “tribute” we read of in the Gospels. These differences within the taxation system prompted the Pharisees in Judea to ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” [ii] . Augustus started this tax and Quirinius, head of Syria, attempted to carry it out. He ordered all natives of Judea to return to the town of their family to be counted for the new tax.
The people behind the census were unpopular in Bible times just as it is in our own, and for the same reasons. Censuses always have major political implications. Registration was almost always experienced by the people as a tool of exploitation and oppression, especially where government was maintained without the choice of the governed and with little concern for their welfare. Such was the case in Israel under the Romans. It was almost always associated with military conscription and tax collection. The local workers involved in the census process were usually despised as traitors. Here are several professions associated with census-taking in the Bible:
First, there is the seedy Tax Collector. Tax collectors were contract workers who amassed enormous tax revenue for the government. Some translations call them “publicans,” but publicans were actually the ones who employed tax collectors to do the actual gathering of monies. Generally speaking, the populous viewed them as mercenaries working for the Romans. Not surprisingly, tax collectors were looked down upon by their fellow citizens.
The Apostle, Matthew (originally called Levi), was one of these turncoat tax gatherers. He was called by Jesus follow Him [iii]. Trained as a meticulous record-keeper, Matthew preserved many of Jesus’s teachings such as most of the Sermon on the Mount. He was chosen as a disciple by Jesus to the disgust of the scribes and Pharisees who could not understand why Jesus would associate with such an irreligious traitor [iv]. Jesus came into the world to forgive the sins of wicked men like Levi. There is no heart too hard for the Spirit and grace of Christ. There is no one beyond help. Men like Matthew recognize they are sinners and need a Doctor who can treat their sickness. Conversely, the Pharisees were self-righteous people who would not come for aid, and in their own eyes did not need Jesus [v].
Next there was the Publican, from the Latin, publicanus; it suggests a “provincial general.” The publican is not to be confused with the customs officer or tax collector. Publicans were wealthy men, usually Gentiles, who contracted with the Roman government to be responsible for the taxes of a particular district. Each province was assessed a certain amount of taxes by Rome, and the publican employed tax collectors to bring in that amount. Anything he could gather over and above the assessed amount was his to keep as a commission or “collection fee.” The shrewd publican, often backed by military force, collected import-export surcharges, road and bridge user fees, and as many other levies as he could. This led to unscrupulous practices and to hatred by the Jews toward these Gentile “sinners” who were in league with Rome.
Occasionally the Romans recruited local, non-Roman businessmen to become publicans. The head of the well-paying tax office at Jericho, Zacchaeus was such a man. As chief tax collector, he mostly likely bid for the right to collect taxes and then hired another tax collector to actually gather the money. Matthew (Levi) would have reported to someone like Zacchaeus. He was a loathed outcast in his hometown because he sold out to the hated Romans. He was considered a willing tool of the oppressors. When Jesus came through Jericho, Zacchaeus was forced to climb a tree to get a glimpse of Him [vi]. Jesus shocked everyone by inviting Himself to eat at Zacchaeus’s house [vii]. Zacchaeus responded by offering four times as much as he collected to those whom he had defrauded [viii]. Jesus went on to say that He sought after men such as Zacchaeus in order to save them from their sins [ix]. As usual, scribes and Pharisees were amazed that Jesus accepted the hospitality of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, and went to stay at his house. They murmured, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner” [x]. Many sinners were converted by Christ of whom no New Testament record is kept; but the conversion of some, whose case is bizarre, is recorded for our benefit, as this one.
Lastly there is the Governor. In Jesus’s early days it was none other than Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, a politician of considerable stature who had previously served as a senator and consul in Rome. He was appointed legatus Augusti, or special representative of the emperor – a “governor” of sorts – of Syria from 6-4 B.C., then as proconsul of Asia, 3-2 B.C., then a second time as “governor” of Syria from 6-9 A.D. He was an able administrator of “great dignity [xi]“ in the Roman Foreign Service. Periodic censuses were taken by Roman authorities during Augustus’s reign, and Quirinius helped complete an enrollment of his territory about 6 B.C. Quirinius had along the way acquired some level of sophistication about Jewish culture, showing a certain fondness toward them and their feelings; he wisely permitted his census to be taken according to Jewish rather than Roman traditions by recognizing their tribes and households. Here we see God’s providence working through secondary causes. It was Quirinus’s method of taking the census that brought Joseph and Mary to the place the prophet Micah predicted the Messiah would be born [xii].
What can we assume about Joseph’s mood toward the journey to Bethlehem? Whether he complained about Caesar’s high tax rates or the inconvenience the journey caused him, we do not know. But what we do know is that Joseph obeyed Caesar’s command by reporting to his home city to take part of the census.
Joseph, the compassionate carpenter from Nazareth, agreed to go ahead with wedding plans although he knew his betrothed, Mary, was to have a Baby not of his own making. He was a conscientious Jew who adhered faithfully to God’s Law — and also man’s law. When he learned the Divine origin of Mary’s unborn Child, he immediately trusted God’s promise and took Mary as his wife . After the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and the harrowing flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of male babies, Joseph settled his family at Nazareth and lived a quiet existence as a village carpenter. This man is highly honored in the Bible. He did not rebel against the government in retaliation of their confiscatory taxes and he went along with the Roman government’s mandate to be counted in the census.
We read in the Acts of the Apostles about the perils of rebellion against the census: “[The Jewish teacher, Gamaliel, said]… Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed… [xiii]” The Jewish historian Josephus may be speaking about this same man who stirred up a revolt because he resisted subservience and paying taxes to the Romans [xiv]. Whether or not they are talking about the same Judas, he started a violent revolution of his own making and called them “cowards” anyone who would pay a tax to the Romans, and would, after God, submit to mortal men as if they were lords. The revolt failed, he himself being killed, but his insurrection may have laid the groundwork for the party of the Zealots. The apostle Simon the Zealot [xv] may have previously been a member of this group. The point the teacher, Gamaliel, is making is that there are men who had started uprisings and had a following, but afterwards they were killed, their followers disbanded; the point being that there were in the past violent uprisings that are not ordained by God. The proof? Death and chaos ensues. Now Gamaliel advises his audience that the same thing may happen to Jesus’s followers. Of course the Sage is dead wrong about the Disciples of Jesus, but he was right about the Zealots. Yes, Christians should obey God rather than men, but refusing the government census and any subsequent taxation is not a proper biblical interpretation of this text.
Tax gatherers and census-takers are not off the hook in their responsibilities. They are required by God to serve in their positions as unto the Lord. They are to be honest stewards and maintain their position with great integrity. “And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.’ Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, ‘And what about us, what shall we do?’ And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages’” [xvi].
Ignore the Lord’s teachings at your own peril. A day is coming when we will all give an account of our actions to God Himself.
For more information about what the Bible says about honoring the authorities in our government, please click here.