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THE first enrollment in Syria was made in the year 8-7 BC., but a consideration of the situation in Syria and Palestine about that time will show that the enrollment in Herod’s kingdom was probably delayed for some time later.

Herod occupied a delicate and difficult position on the throne of Judea. On the one hand he had to comply with what was required of him by the Imperial policy; he was governing for the Romans a part of the empire, and he was bound to spread western customs and language and civilization among his subjects, and fit them for their position in the Roman world. Above all, the prime requirement was that he must maintain peace and order; the Romans knew well that no civilizing process could go on, so long as disorder and disturbance and insecurity existed in the country. Herod’s duty was to keep the peace and naturalize the Graeco-Roman civilization in Palestine.

On the other hand, he must soothe the feelings and accommodate himself to the prejudices of the jealous and suspicious people whom he governed. He could not hope to keep the peace among them, unless he humored their prejudices. They hated and despised Roman ideas, and they were intensely attached to their own customs. Their customs had all a religious foundation, and they could not comply with foreign requirements without doing violence to their deep-rooted pride of religion and their lofty contempt for the pagans by whom they were surrounded. Everything Roman was to them a heathen abomination; and, if Herod seemed to them to be forcing on them anything Roman, insurrection was almost certain to follow. But it was absolutely necessary to prevent insurrection, which was likely to make Augustus quite as angry with him as with the insurgents.

On the whole, Herod had been successful in his ambiguous position. He built many fortresses and many cities of the Graeco-Roman type, with temples of the Graeco-Roman gods, beginning with the god incarnate, the emperor himself, whose refusal to accept Divine honors was not very much regarded in the eastern lands. That was the approved method of spreading the Graeco-Roman civilization. The “city” was originally a Greek creation, and every city tended towards the cosmopolitan type of the Roman empire. Education, luxury, commerce, imitation of western manners, dislike for the national and “barbarian” manners, use of the Greek language, were encouraged in the crowded and feverish line of cities; and the national piety and the national exclusiveness found it more difficult to maintain themselves in their old strength.

But Jerusalem was left still Hebrew in spite of the theater and amphitheater and fortress called Antonia, which Herod built. There was really a double life in the ancient city, and Herod put on the appearance of fostering both. If he adorned the city with splendid buildings after the Greek fashion, he also was careful to rebuild the Jewish Temple with far greater magnificence than of old. He would show himself a true king of the Jews. He pretended to conform to the Jewish Law, and did so in some matters of form and ceremony. He refused to permit his sister Salome’s marriage with the Arabian Syllaeus, unless the latter conformed to the Jewish law.

Herod never entered the holy place, as Pompey did. He allowed the religious ritual free play. He never attempted to prevent any of the priestly ceremonial. He never assumed to himself ally of the priestly functions. When the temple was being built, only the priests were used in constructing the sanctuary, so that the holy place might never be profaned by any other than a priest’s foot or hand. He avoided heathen emblems and devices on his coins and on the buildings of Jerusalem. He: permitted the Sanhedrin to continue during his reign, and to exercise a shadow of its ancient power doubtless only in religious matters, and subject, doubtless, to constraint from the ever-present thought of what would be the result to themselves, if they did anything that Herod disliked.

Thus Herod kept up the appearance of maintaining national feeling, of defending the Jewish cause against all foreigners, and of respecting national ideas and prejudices. He governed his action on the natural and obvious principle. He did not attempt to force the Jews to do anything that was distinctly non-national and non-Jewish; he maintained their religious ceremonial, and refrained from obtruding on them personally anything that was offensive to them. The theaters and other pagan abominations were for the accursed heathen; but the Jews could do as they pleased about such unholy things. They tolerated Herod, and he did not outrage them.6363Dr. Schuerer well describes the ambiguous policy of Herod, Gesch. d. Jud. Volkes, etc., 2., p. 327 f.

But, in spite of all his care to comply with the Roman requirements, towards the end of his life Herod fell into disgrace with Augustus. He had made war on the Arabians; and Syllaeus, the Arabian minister, who was in Rome, obtained the ear and the confidence of Augustus, and persuaded him that Herod had made war on his own authority without Roman permission. Augustus was very angry, and wrote to Herod that, whereas hitherto he had treated the Jewish king as a friend, he would henceforth treat him as a subject.6464πάλαι χρώμενος αὐτῷ φίλῳ, νῦν ὑπηκόῳ χρήσεται, Josephus, Ant. Jud., 16., 9, 3 (§ 290).

The time when this letter was written is, uncertain. Schuerer is inclined to date it in 8 BC., probably rightly. Lewin, Fasti Sacri, p. 109, places it in 7 BC.

These emphatic words, coming from an emperor whose words were always well weighed and weighty, soon bore fruit in action, as we may be certain. Nothing is related by Josephus as to the exact form that the Roman action took; but he tells very emphatically how much Herod was embarrassed by the loss of Augustus’s favor. In one point, Luke comes to our aid. He shows that Herod was ordered to consider that the recent orders for an enrollment in the Province Syria applied also to his kingdom and must be obeyed.

A probable conjecture places at this point the oath of fidelity to the Emperor, which the whole Jewish people was ordered to take, and which 6000 Pharisees refused. It is natural that, when the king was degraded to the rank of a subject, his people should be constrained to take the oath of allegiance to Caesar, in place of the oath to Herod which they had formerly taken.6565Schuerer, l. c., 1., p. 329; Josephus, 15., 10, 4. It was the practice under the empire that all subjects, both Romans and provincials, should swear allegiance and fidelity to the Emperor. In later time, under Trajan, the oath was taken every year on the anniversary of the Emperor’s accession, but it is uncertain when this custom was introduced. The words which Josephus uses would seem to imply that the oath to Caesar was taken and refused only once;6666παντὸς γοῦν τοῦ Ἰουδᾶικοῦ βεβαιώσαντος δι᾽ ὅρκων ἦ μὴν εὐνοησειν Καίσαρι . . . οἵδε οὐκ ὤμοσαν. Josephus, Ant. Jud., 17., 2, 4. The aorists imply a single occasion, not a regularly repeated custom. and the occasion is implied to have been towards the end of Herod’s life.

The two acts, the oath and the enrollment, obviously form part of the new policy of Augustus towards Herod, though we need not go so far as to suppose that the two were one (as some scholars have done), and that the oath was taken as part of the ceremony of enrollment.

Incidentally, we may notice as a masterpiece of irrationality and uncritical prejudice, the reflection which Strauss makes about the oath of allegiance to Augustus imposed on the Jews. “That this oath, far from being a humiliating measure for Herod, coincided with his interest, is proved by the zeal with which he punished the Pharisees who refused to take it.”6767Life of Jesus, 1., p. 203. Naturally, Herod had to punish the refusal as an act of treason. If he did not do so, any one of his enemies could ruin him by reporting the fact to Augustus. Moreover, there were so many Roman officials in Syria that the omission to punish the recalcitrants could not be kept from their knowledge, and every official was in duty bound to report the omission to his superiors or to the Emperor. The punishment, however, was very mild: a fine was inflicted on the whole 6000 recalcitrants, and was paid by the wife of Herod’s brother Pheroras. Subsequently, the ringleaders were put to death; but that was not on account of their refusing the oath, but because they were disobedient and disrespectful to Herod himself on a later occasion.

Herod was, naturally, unwilling to accept this mark of servitude and degradation in rank without making an effort to avoid it. He would, doubtless, request time; and he would have little or no difficulty in obtaining leave from the Roman governor, Saturninus, to postpone the numbering, until he had sent an embassy to Rome. Herod had formerly had great influence with Augustus; he might become powerful again; and the Roman officials had no reason to refuse compliance with such a reasonable request for temporary delay. Herod could represent with perfect truth that the imposition of a Roman census in Palestine would offend the prejudices of the Jews, and endanger the peace of the kingdom. Moreover, the crafty king knew well how to make his requests acceptable to Roman officers, who were almost invariably accessible to bribery.

Further, according to Josephus, Herod’s case was a good and strong one, and Syllaeus was a false accuser. After Saturninus had come to Syria as governor, in succession to Titius (probably in the summer of 9 BC.6868Some date his arrival as late as 8 BC. This would make the delay in the enrollment of Judea all the more natural. He was succeeded by Quinctilius Varus in 7. See Note 1 at end of chapter 11. ), long negotiations went on in his presence between Herod and Syllaeus; an arrangement was made between them; it was afterwards broken by Syllaeus; Herod again complained to Saturninus, and was authorized to make war on the Arabians.

Incidentally, we notice that both the accusation that Herod had made war without Roman sanction, and the defense that he had been authorized by the governor of Syria, show how far he was from being an independent king.

It is, therefore, natural and probable that a postponement of the enrollment should have been granted to Herod; and, although our authorities merely say that an embassy was sent, and give no information as to the exact message, yet we may fairly assume that it was intended both to soothe the anger of Augustus and to beg for exemption from the enrollment, on the ground that this was likely to rouse the religious feeling of the Jews and cause disturbance and insurrection.

The embassy was sent to Rome, but it was not received in audience, and it returned without effecting anything. Augustus, of course, knew in a general way what instructions had been given to it, and he did not think that Herod had been sufficiently humiliated. Perhaps Herod’s case was not quite so good as Josephus represents it, and there was something to be said on the Arabian side of which we are not informed. Augustus must assuredly have received the reports of Saturninus the governor, and of Volumnius his own procurator; but he still continued stern and unforgiving to Herod.

In these circumstances the delay granted to Herod in regard to the enrollment was not extended, and, as we may suppose, he was called upon to obey the emperor’s orders. He sent a second embassy to Augustus, which was, in all probability, commissioned not, as before, to request exemption from the enrollment, but to announce his submission and to promise unconditional compliance. This embassy was much more favorably received, and returned from Rome successful; but Herod was evidently by no means completely pardoned or restored fully to favor. When once Augustus’s anger had been roused at the Jewish monarch’s assumption of too great freedom, it was far from easy to appease it entirely, and impossible to eradicate the effect produced on his mind.

The succession to Herod’s kingdom was subject to the sanction of Augustus6969Ant. Jud., 17., 3, 2 (§ 53); 8, 2 (§ 195). He could not punish his own sons without formally accusing them before a council of his relatives and the Roman officers of the province.7070τῶν κατὰ τὴν ἐπαρχίαν ἡγεμόνων Bell. Jud., 1., 27, 1. He had to send embassy after embassy to Rome to obtain the sanction of Augustus for his intended acts. He could not punish his guilty son Antipater without getting special leave from Augustus. In fact his kingdom was treated ostentatiously as an outlying part of the province, in which nothing of any consequence could go on without the Roman sanction.

Luke’s statement that the enrollment was applied to Palestine is therefore in perfect accord with the situation as revealed by Josephus during the last years of the life of Herod. The question that remains is: In what year was the enrollment made in Palestine?

The year which was generally observed in the southern part of the Province Syria and perhaps followed by Josephus in his history, began in the spring.7171See Niese in Hermes, 28., 1893, p. 212 ff.; also see Notes at the end of chapter 10. In Syria, therefore, the periodic year was probably 9-8 BC. and the actual numbering would take place in the year 8-7 BC.

The recital of events which has just been given will prove that the numbering in Palestine could not have occurred so early as the year 8-7, ending 17th April, 7 BC. A consideration of the character of the enrollment will bring us to a more precise result.

Herod was naturally eager to avoid giving to the enrollment an entirely foreign and non-national character Such a character both accentuated his own humiliation and was more liable to rouse the ever-wakeful pride and jealousy of his Jewish subjects. Obviously, the best way to soothe the Jewish sentiment was to give the enrollment a tribal character and to number the tribes of Israel, as had been done by purely national Governments.

The Roman officials would not be likely to object to this form of enrollment. Provided Herod obeyed the orders of Augustus that an enrollment must be made, it would be entirely in accordance with the spirit in which these subject kingdoms were treated, that the manner of making the enrollment should be left to the discretion of the responsible authority, viz., the king. Moreover, the marvelous success of Roman provincial administration was due to the skill and tact with which the officials accommodated themselves to the prejudices of the subject population; and this was clearly a case in, which Jewish susceptibilities might be taken into account as regards the manner of numbering. The people was well known to be stubborn and unyielding in its religious ideas; and, with rare exceptions, Rome humored its religious prejudices.

In his work on the relations between the Imperial law and the National law, Dr. Mitteis has shown how much the Roman law was affected in the Eastern provinces by national law and custom.7272Reichsrecht und Volksrecht, Leipzig, 1891. In those countries Rome was brought in contact with an old civilization and a settled system of Greek law; and it did not seek to force on them its own law, as it did on the barbarous countries of the West. Similarly, the Roman governor of Syria was not likely to dictate the precise fashion in which the numbering of Palestine must be carried out.

Moreover, we have already seen that the prime consideration in the Imperial system of administering the provinces was to avoid disturbance and sedition. Augustus and the later emperors emphatically inculcated this principle on their lieutenants in the provinces. Herod could with perfect justice show that tribal numbering was the form which would tend most to peace and order in his kingdom.

Herod’s method in governing his kingdom was, as we have seen, to humor the Jews, and to accept the distinction which they proudly drew between themselves and the heathen. Must we not, then, suppose that he would employ the same method in his enrollment? Owing to the care with which the Jews preserved their family records and pedigrees, all true Jews would know what was their family and their proper city according to the ancient tribal system, even though they might have been forced by circumstances to change their abode. This seems to have suggested the mode of enrollment which Luke describes a mode which would mark off by a broad clear line the true Jews from the mongrel population of Palestine. All who claimed to be Jews were to repair to the proper city of their tribe and family. The rest of the population, who were probably much more numerous, would be counted according to their ordinary place of residence.

My friend, Professor Paterson, to whom I am indebted throughout these pages, points out that Augustus would specially desire an enrollment of Palestine in order to have some clear idea what was the military strength of the country. It was a troublesome district to rule. Disturbances were always apprehended. There was obvious advantage in knowing what was the exact strength of the possible rebels.

Moreover, the non-Jewish population was peaceable and well-affected to Rome. The enrollment would obviously be much more useful, if in distinguished accurately the rebellious from the peaceful element in the population. The tribal enrollment furnished the means of gaining this information. It might safely be concluded that all those who were content to be counted as non-tribal would be loyal subjects of Rome. The imposition of the oath of allegiance to Augustus would also furnish a test, and the number of those who refused the oath was kept. Josephus says there were more than 6000. He implies, not that this was an estimate of the strength of the Pharisaic faction, but that those who actually refused to take the oath were counted; and he says that they were regarded as dangerous and likely to rouse war and disturbance.7373ἐκ τοῦ προύπτου εἰς τὸ πολεμεῖν τε καὶ βλάπτειν ἐπηρμένοι, Ant. Jud., 17., 2, 4 (41).

According to Luke the tribal enrollment was made by ordering every head of a household to repair for the numbering to the proper city from which his family had sprung. Such a method would have been entirely inapplicable in a large country. But, as the traveler rides across the length of Palestine, it is vividly brought home to him that this was an easy and short method in that land. The Romans, who required that citizens should travel to Rome from the remotest part of Italy when they wished to register their vote, would see nothing to object to, if Herod consulted them as to his proposed scheme.

In the national character which Herod gave to his enrollment, probably, lies the reason why Mary as well as Joseph went up to Bethlehem — a detail which would be so inexplicable if the enrollment had been modeled after a Roman census. To go personally to the enrollment was regarded as substantiating a claim to true Hebrew origin and family. All they that went to their proper city were true Hebrews; and, as Luke says, “all (i.e., all true Hebrews in Palestine) went to enroll themselves, every one to his own city”.

It is important to notice the force of the word “all” here. This is one of many passages in Luke’s History where the precise sense that should be attributed to the word “all” or the word “they” may be, or has been, a subject of controversy, and can be determined only from the whole train of thought in the historian’s mind. He that misconceives the general thought underlying the whole passage inevitably misinterprets “they” or “all”

For example, who are “they” in Acts 13:3? On the way in which that question is answered hinges a controversy as to Church government. Who are “all” in Acts 18:17? On the answer depends the whole sense of the incident; but an answer is difficult, and depends on the general conception in the reader’s mind. Some say “all the Jews beat a Christian”: others say “all the Greeks beat a Jew”. Similarly, who are “us” in Luke 1:1? Professor Blass has recently answered that in his own way. Many would give a different reply.

Accordingly, to understand “all” in Luke 2:3, one must put oneself at the narrator’s point of view. As we have seen, he conveys the impression throughout the two chapters that he is giving the story of Mary herself. To her “all” are the Jews: she thinks only of her own people: the nonJewish population of Palestine is not embraced in her view.

But, when such a plan of tribal numbering was adopted, the time of year had to be carefully considered. In the first place the winter months had to be avoided, during which traveling was often difficult, and in which unfavorable weather might cause great hardship and even prevent the plan from being carried out. As the day had to be fixed a long time beforehand, it must have been fixed in the season when good weather could be calculated on. In winter, weather might be good or it might be bad, and at the best it would be cold and trying.

That a day was fixed by the authorities, and that it was not left to the discretion of the people to go when they pleased (as in Egypt people seem to have been permitted to send in their enrollment papers at any time they pleased within the year), seems to follow from the fact that Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem at the very time when the birth of the child was approaching. Moreover, the advantages of the plan in ease and speed would have been sacrificed, unless a day had been fixed for the numbering.

Further, it was urgently necessary that the time which was fixed should not interfere with agricultural operations — that it should not come between the earliest date for the first harvest and the latest date for finishing the threshing, and getting in the grain and the fine cut straw from the threshing floors.7474See Mr. J. W. Paterson’s excellent article on “Agriculture” in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible. On the use of the fine chopped straw in the economy of the farm, see Contemporary Review, August, 1897, p. 237. The harvest varied considerably in different parts of the country, and reaping extended over about seven weeks, beginning from the middle of April.

Taking these circumstances into consideration, we may say with considerable confidence that August to October is the period within which the numbering would be fixed. It is no objection to this view that tradition places the birth of Jesus at Christmas. It is well known that the tradition is not early, that it varies in different periods and in different sections of the Church, and that the earliest belief was different.

Lewin, in Fasti Sacri, p. 115, selects 1st August as the day and month. Without laying any stress on the reasoning from the priestly periods by which he reaches this precise and exact conclusion, we must attach great weight to the argument which he founds on the fact that the shepherds were watching their flocks in the open country by night. In Asia Minor, at least, the pasturing of the flocks by night takes place only during the hot season and not in the winter. The sheep will not eat under the hot sun: they stand idly in a dense crowd in any place where the semblance of shade can be found during the day, and during the night they scatter and feed. In cold weather they seek food during the day.

On this characteristic of the sheep is founded the rule, said to be observed in Palestine, that the flocks were sent out after the Passover and brought in about October before the “former rain”.

Within that period, April to October, the day fixed for the numbering must fall; and during that period April to July was required for the reaping and garnering of the year’s crop.

It seems unnecessary to do more than refer to the idle objection that has been made: How were the shepherds numbered? There must always be some people for whom the numbering is inconvenient, whatever be the time at which it is fixed; and we need not trouble to inquire what was the method adopted to meet the special case of the shepherds. That inquiry belongs to the sphere of the archaeological student, who studies the minutiae of the census system; but the historian, in his more general view, must omit such details. No critic, who retains his sober reason and does not yield to mere prejudice, would find any difficulty in it.

After all, not a great deal of journeying to and fro would be required for the enrollment. The remnant that could trace their origin to the Ten Tribes must have been very small. The majority of the strictly Jewish population was probably resident at that time in the southern part of Palestine, though there was also a large minority scattered over all the cities of the central and northern districts. A considerable number of people would have to make journeys of one to four days to their own city, and the same back again; but nothing approaching to a general transference of population would be necessitated.

For Herod’s enrollment, then, there is open only the late summer of 7 or 6 BC. Unless we have omitted some important factor (which is, of course, far from improbable, considering how scanty the evidence is), the enrollment can hardly be brought down so late as 5 BC. and we have seen that 8 BC. is excluded by other considerations.

Between the years 7 and 6 it is difficult to choose, so long as we confine ourselves to the evidence outside of Luke, for that evidence is insufficient to found a judgment upon, owing to the uncertainty of all the dates connected with the question. It may be that the embassy which was dismissed unheard by Augustus, returned so late that the necessary preparations and notice could not be made in time for the autumn of 7 BC. and it is certain that Herod was by no means eager to hurry the numbering. But these are mere vague presumptions.

Luke, however, gives additional information about the Savior’s life, which affords reasonable confidence that 6 BC. was the year of Christ’s birth.


That a difference should be made in the treatment of Jews and non-Jews in Palestine, is quite in accordance with Roman usage. For example, after the rebellion under Hadrian, the Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem.

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