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§ 15. The Taxing.—Birth of Christ at Bethlehem.

By a remarkable interposition of Providence, interwoven, however, with the course of events in the world, was it brought about that the promised King should be born in Bethlehem (as Micah the prophet had foretold), the very place where the house of David had its origin; while, at the same time, the lowly circumstances of his birth were in striking contrast with the inherent dignity and glory that were veiled in the new-born child.

The Emperor Augustus had ordered a general census of the Roman Empire, partly to obtain correct statistics of its resources,4141   This was not confined to the Roman provinces, but extended also to the Socii.—Tacit., Ann., i., xi. and partly for purposes of taxation.4242   Cassiodor., i., iii., ep. 52: Augusti temporibus orbis Romanus agris divisus censuque descriptus, ut possessio sui nulli haberetur incerta, quam pro tributorum susciperet quantitatibus solvendam. (Conf. Savigny’s dissertation in the “Zeitschrift für die geschichtl Rechtswissenschaft, Bd. vi., H. 3.) This language of the learned statesman shows that he followed older accounts rather than a Christian report drawn from Luke; and the expression of Tacitus confirms this conclusion. There is no ground, therefore, for the doubts started by Strauss, 3d ed., p. 257. As Judea was then a dependency of the empire, and Augustus probably intended to reduce it entirely to the 21state of a Roman province, he wished to secure similar statistics of that country, and ordered King Herod to take the census. In performing this duty, Herod followed the Jewish usage, viz., a division by tribes.4343   Luke’s account of the matter is so prosaic and straightforward, that none but a prejudiced mind can find a trace of the mythical in it. Examine the Apocryphal Gospels, and you will see the difference between history and fable. And even if it could be shown that the census was incorrect, and that the gathering at Bethlehem was due to some other cause, no suspicion would thereby be cast upon the entire narration; the only reasonable conclusion would be, that Luke, or the writer from whom he copied, had fallen into an anachronism, or an erroneous combination of facts, in assigning the census as the cause of the gathering. Such an error could not affect in any way the interests of religion. Moreover, what right have we to demand of Luke so exact a knowledge of the history of his times, in things that did not materially concern his purpose? Such anachronisms, in things indifferent, are common to writers of all ages. But the account itself contains no marks of improbability. The emperor would naturally order Herod, whom he still recognized as king, to take the census, and Herod as naturally followed the Jewish usage in doing it. It was the policy of the emperor, at that time, to treat the Jews with kindness, and therefore he would naturally make the first attempt at a census as delicately as possible. How repugnant such a measure was to them is shown by Josephus’s account of the tumults that arose on account of the census under Quirinus, twelve years afterward. Luke may have gone too far in extending (as his language seems to imply) the census over the whole empire; or, perhaps, in stating the gradual census of the whole empire as a simultaneous one. Perhaps he mistook this assessment for the census which occurred twelve years later, and on that account erroneously mentioned Quirinus. Nevertheless, Quirinus may have been actually present at this assessment, not, indeed, as governor of the province, but as imperial commissioner; for Josephus expressly says that he had held many other offices before he was Governor of Syria, at the time of the second census. I do not agree with any of the explanations, either ancient or modern, which attempt to make Luke’s statement agree exactly with history; they all seem to me to be forced and unphilological, while the want of exactness in Luke is easily explained, and is of no manner of importance for the object which he had in view. Joseph and Mary belonged to the tribe of David, and therefore had to repair to Bethlehem, the seat of that tribe. On account of the throng, they could find no shelter but a stable, and the new-born infant had to he laid in a manger.4444   The tradition in Justin Martyr (Dial. c. Tryph., 304, a), that they found shelter in a cave near the town, which had before been used for a cattle stall (ἐν σπηλαίῳ σύνεγγυς τῆς κώμης, may be true, although we should not like to vouch for it. It is more likely that the prophecy in Isai., xxxiii., 16 (which Justin refers to in the Alexandrian version), was applied to this tradition after it arose, than that the tradition arose from the prophecy. At that time men were accustomed to find every where in the Old Testament predictions and types of Christ, whether warranted by the connexion or not. The tradition does not specify such a cave as the passage in Isaiah would lead one to expect, nor, indeed, does the passage seem distinctly to refer to the Messiah.


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