Luke's Account of the Enrollment
LUKE wrote for readers belonging to the civilized Graeco-Roman world; and he conceived the History which he presented to his readers as occupying a place in the general history of the Roman world. He often speaks of "the world"; but to him "the world" was strictly the Roman world, and any order issued by Augustus affected the whole world, as he says in 2:1. Accordingly, at important stages in the action, he inserts a few brief notes, just sufficient to show the position of his subject in the general history of the empire.

The most important of these notes is contained in the following words, 2:1-4, which we give according to the Revised Version:

Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, made when Quirinius was governing Syria. And all went to enroll themselves, every one to his own city. And 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 family of David -- to enroll himself with Mary his wife.

It might seem hardly necessary to state that in this passage of Luke the term "world," oikoumene, must be understood as the "Roman world, and not the entire earth with all its inhabited lands. But some modern scholars actually charge it as an error that this passage makes an order of Augustus effective throughout the whole earth, whereas the order would have no force except in the Roman empire. Accordingly we must point out that in several places Luke uses the same term "world" when he obviously is speaking only of the Roman empire. To the citizens of the empire all the rest of the earth often passed out of mind; and when they spoke of the world their view was restricted to the Roman world. So, for example, Demetrius, the silversmith of Ephesus, spoke about the State-Goddess Diana, "whom all Asia and the world worshippeth," i.e., to worship whom the whole province Asia and the Roman empire send their representatives and their crowds of visitors. Again, Paul and Silas were accused before the magistrates of Thessalonica because they had "turned the world upside down"; the accusers were not thinking of the disturbance of order among the outer barbarians, but only in many parts of the Roman empire. Similarly, any ordinary rational interpretation will recognize that Luke 2:1 speaks of the order of Augustus as issued for the whole Roman empire.

What was the extent of "the world" or "the Roman world," of which Luke speaks?

It included, of course, Italy and the organized Roman provinces. But, further, Luke evidently considered that it included the dependent kingdoms, such as Judea, for he describes this order as being carried out in the kingdom of Herod. That such was his point of view seems not to be appreciated by the scholars who ridicule the whole episode; and hence they think that he contradicts himself, when he speaks as if this order extended to the kingdom of Herod.

The question then arises whether it is justifiable to regard these dependent kingdoms, Judea and others, as forming part of the Roman world.

This question Strabo, writing about AD.19, answers emphatically in the affirmative. In the last chapter of his Geography he gives a description of the Roman empire as it was when he was writing about AD.19. He describes it as extending over the entire coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, and he expressly includes in it the western part of the African coast (Mauretania) which was ruled by King Ptolemy, who had just recently succeeded his father Juba II. Some parts of this empire are, he says, governed by kings, while part is in the form of provinces. There are also subject to the Romans certain dynasts, [35] and chiefs, and priests: and these live according to certain national laws. He distinguishes this whole empire, containing these various territories and governments and provinces, from the non-Roman and barbarian world. He declares that in the part of the empire which is directly under the authority and power of the emperor there are not merely Roman governors of three grades sent from Rome by himself, but also kings, and dynasts, and native officials of lower degree.

Strabo uses several expressions which show how completely he considered these kingdoms to be part of the Roman world. He defines the entire complex of territories as "the possessions of the Romans," ta touton; he speaks of sumpases choras tes hupo Rhomaiois; and he describes how the Romans. obtained them, prosektesanto.

Moreover, it is impossible to suppose that Augustus, when he defeated Mark Antony, abandoned the suzerainty which the latter had certainly exercised over many lands, and gave away to independent kings what had once belonged to Rome. The eastern parts of Asia Minor had been treated by Antony as subject to his own absolute authority. When he pleased, he set up a king over part of them; when he chose, he degraded the king. But whoever was the king, Antony claimed from him contributions and military service; and they all sent or led their troops to swell the army of their supreme lord at Actium. It would be irrational to suppose that Augustus, who claimed to be the champion of Rome against Antony, abandoned great territories which Antony had held to be under Rome.

We cannot, therefore, doubt that Strabo expresses the view held by Augustus and by all Rome, that the territory ruled by these dependent kings was part of the Roman empire. They were subject kings, and not free from the suzerainty of Rome.

Appian [36] describes the subject kings whom Antony appointed, including Herod, as paying tribute. We cannot doubt that the same was the case under Augustus. The empire did not abandon its claim to gain something from these kings; and Augustus would not gain less than Antony had gained. On the other hand, it seems to have been left to the discretion of the native rulers to govern and to collect revenue according to native customs and laws. Strabo, in his final chapter; distinguishes between the provinces, to which governors and collectors of taxes were sent from Rome, and the countries subject to Rome, but governed by native princes according to native laws.

Further, Strabo on p.671 describes the intention of the Romans in setting up these subject kings. He is speaking of Cilicia Tracheia, but he expresses the Roman theory as it was applied generally. Some of the subject countries were specially difficult to govern, either on account of the unruly character of the inhabitants, or because the natural features of the land lent themselves readily to brigandage and piracy. As these countries must be either administered by Roman governors or ruled by kings, it was considered that kings would more efficiently control their restless subjects, being permanently on the spot and having soldiers always at command. But the history of the following century shows how, step by step and district by district, these countries were incorporated in the adjacent Roman provinces, as a certain degree of discipline and civilization was imparted to the population by the kings, who built cities and introduced the Graeco-Roman customs and education.

It appears, therefore, that when Luke counts the kingdom of Herod part of "the Roman World," his point of view agrees with the ideas expressed by Strabo and held generally in the empire.

The decree of Augustus which Luke mentions is commonly interpreted as ordering that a single census should be held of the whole Roman world. This is not a correct interpretation of Luke's words. He uses the present tense (apographesthai pasan ten oikoumenen), and he means that Augustus ordered enrollments to be regularly taken, according to the strict and proper usage of the present tense. What Augustus did was to lay down the principle of systematic "enrollment" in the Roman world, not to arrange for the taking of one single census.

It deserves notice that Malalas, who took the false sense from Luke and describes Augustus as ordering that a single enrollment should be made, unconsciously changes the expression and uses the aorist [37] where Luke uses the present tense. Similarly, when Luke tells that Joseph went up for enrollment on one definite occasion, he uses the aorist (anebe and apograpsasthai).

Thereafter the text of Luke proceeds naturally: "This was the first enrollment, while Quirinius was administering Syria; and all persons proceeded to go for enrollment each to his own city". Here the presential tenses (apographesthai and eporeuonto) are necessitated by the sense: all persons, individually and severally, repaired to their proper cities for their respective enrollment. In the series of enrollments, which were inaugurated by the orders of Augustus, the first was the one with which the story is concerned; and Joseph, like the rest, 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 family of David.

From this passage, then, it appears that Luke's conception of the procedure in the Roman empire was as follows: Augustus ordered a systematic numbering to be made in the empire. This system of numbering went on for a time, or more probably permanently, and hence the "first" of the series is here defined as the occasion on which the story turns. We may assume unhesitatingly that, if any such system was inaugurated, it would be periodic, recurring regularly either once a year or after a definite term of years.

It is not stated or implied by Luke that the system was actually put into force universally. The principle of universal enrollments for the empire was laid down by Augustus; but universal application of the principle is not mentioned That point was a matter of indifference to Luke. What he implies, indubitably, is that the system was put into force in Syria, for it would be quite irrational that he should speak as he does, unless declare that Luke refers to a hitherto unsuspected fact in the methods of Imperial administration.

But, if our interpretation of Luke's words is correct, we must frankly admit that his credit as a historian is staked on this issue: there was a periodical numbering or enrollment in the Syrian province, and Christ was born actually during the time when the first enrollment of the series was being made in Palestine.

We observe that Luke knew about more than one "enrollment" or census (to use the strict Roman term). In 2:2 he speaks of a certain census as "the first"; in Acts 5:37 he mentions the census," i.e., the great census, meaning the epoch-making census taken about AD.7, when Judea had just been incorporated in the Roman empire as part of the province of Syria. According to the proper and accepted canons of interpretation in ancient literature, he must be understood in these expressions to distinguish between the first census and the great census. In an ordinary Greek writer the distinction would be unhesitatingly drawn. Why should some scholars assume that Luke thought there had been one single census, as to the date of which he was in a the system had been in force for a time, at least, throughout the Syrian lands. Further, it is not easy to admit that Luke could have used these words, unless the system had come into permanent use.

We conclude, then, that if Luke's authority is trustworthy, there must have prevailed during the first century a system of numbering the population at periodic intervals in the Syrian province, and probably elsewhere in the Eastern lands, or even in the whole empire.

If one had ventured ten years ago to draw this conclusion from the words of Luke, it would have been regarded as a reductio ad absurdum of his statement. The idea that such a system could have existed in the East, without leaving any perceptible signs of its existence in recorded history, would have been treated with ridicule as the dream of a fanatical devotee, who could believe anything and invent anything in support of the testimony of Luke. But now such revelations of order and method in the Roman Imperial Government, unmentioned and unheeded by historians, have resulted from epigraphic and archaeological investigation, that it is no longer so hazardous to state of utter confusion, when he uses language which in the simple and natural interpretation indicates two different census? A scholar should never start by assuming that the author whom he is interpreting is wrong; but to say that Luke in these two passages refers to one and the same census, is to fasten an error upon him at the outset, by disregarding the distinction indicated in his words.

Clement of Alexandria evidently understood the words of Luke in the same way as we have interpreted them. He speaks of the occasion when first they ordered Enrollments to be made. [38]

It is hardly possible to avoid inferring from these words of Clement that he knew of some system of enrollments, either in the empire as a whole, or at least in the province of Syria. His use of the plural and of the word "first" force this inference upon us.

Further, we shall find in chapter 7 that Clement, as residing in Egypt, was familiar with the Egyptian system of periodic enrollments. He could hardly avoid writing with this system in his mind, and his words imply beyond a doubt that he thought of some system of enrollments in Palestine. I do not see how any fair and unprejudiced critic can fail to conclude that Clement, rightly or wrongly, believed that the same system of periodic enrollments was maintained in Egypt and in Syria.

Again, Clement expressly says that the system of enrollments in Syria began with the one at which the birth of Christ occurred. Luke in all probability was his sole ultimate authority for connecting the birth of Christ with the first enrollment, he, no doubt, saw the statement also in other authorities, but they in their turn probably got it, whether immediately or ultimately, from Luke. But it is not so certain that Clement had no other authority than Luke for his belief that the system began in the reign of Augustus. He knew the system from his own experience in Egypt. It had recurred there regularly throughout his own life, and long before his time. It must have been a matter of common knowledge in his time what was the origin of the system. We are, I think, fully justified in quoting Clement as believing that the system of enrollments which he saw round him in Egypt, and which he thought or knew to be also practiced in Syria, began from Augustus and was made according to the, orders of Augustus.

A suggestion has been made that the Indictional Periods of fifteen years, which formed so important a feature in the administration of the later Roman empire, began to run from the census of Quirinius. On this theory the first census was taken in the year 3 BC. as the beginning of the first Indictional Period. But it can be shown positively that the Indictional System did not prevail under the early empire. The Indictions are an invention of the fourth century; and not merely are those periods unknown in earlier time, but a contradictory system existed. [39] Moreover, it is not easy to bring the evidence as to the duration of Herod's reign into consistence with the theory that he lived till 3 BC.

Our whole theory is based on the determination of the periodical enrollment system in the early empire; and for this fortunate discovery we are indebted to the wonderful progress of research in Egypt during the last few years.


[35] This title was given to certain princes, e. g., those who ruled Ketis in Cilicia Tracheia.

[36] Bell. Civil., 5., 75.

[37] hoste apographenai pasan ten hup' auton genomenen gen kai hen proen eichon Rhomaioi, Malalas, p. 226.

[38] hote proton ekeleusan apographas genesthai, Strom., 1., 21, 147.

[39] Mr. Grenfell notes, "it is absolutely certain that the indictions began in A. D. 312, and not before," as is shown by one of the Rainer papyri.

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