1. In the Old Testament.
  2. In the New Testament.

      The Roman Census of Citizens (§ 1).

      Provincial Census to Regulate Tribute (§ 2).

      Cases and Methods of Roman Census (§ 3).

      Palestinian Census of 6 A.D. Quirinius (§ 4).

      Luke ii. 2 in Error. Jesus not Born Under Quirinius (§ 5).

      No General Census Under Augustus (§ 6).

      Solution, a Census by Herod (§ 7).

Census is a term used to designate an enumeration of the people, generally for purposes of taxation or for service in the army.


[I. In the Old Testament:

Of censuses of the whole population there are recorded in the Old Testament ten cases: (1-2) under Moses (Ex. xxxviii. 26, cf. Num. i.; Num. xxvi.); (3) under David (II Sam. xxiv. 1-9; see DAVID); (4) under Solomon (II Chron. ii. 17-18); (5) under Rehoboam (I Kings xii. 21); (6) under Jehoshaphat (II Chron. xvii. 14-19); (7) under Amaziah (II Chron. xxv: 5-6); (8) under Uzziah (II Chron. xxvi. 12-13); (9-10) under Zerubbabel (?) and Ezra (Ezra ii. 64, viii. 1-14). There are other enumerations given, but they concern merely the strength of the army, as in II Chron. xiii. 3.

II. In the New Testament:

The subject here is of interest principally in its relation to the census mentioned Luke ii. 2 and Acts v. 37, and in connection with the birth of Jesus.]

1. The Roman Census of Citizens.

Originally the Romans made a census of Roman citizens only, the primary object being the adjustment of their quota in the taxes for the costs of war. This census was intended to exhibit not only the pecuniary but the total effective utility of the individual toward the State. So it included attestation of personal circumstances, capacity for service, civil and military, and the moral worthiness of those enumerated. Gradually this census of Roman citizens lost significance. While in earlier times it was repeated every five years in connection with a religious festivity (lustrum), during the civil wars it lapsed. Augustus, it is true, consistently with his general policy of bringing about an ostensible restoration of the republican order (T. Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, ii. 337, Leipsic, 1893), adopted the census anew. He put on record that he had thrice held a complete census of citizens, viz., in the years 29 B.C., 8 B.C., and 14 A.D. A census of this kind was made for the last time under the Emperor Vespasian.

2. Provincial Census to Regulate Tribute.

The census of the Roman provinces, introduced much later, was quite distinct from this census of citizens, the difference corresponding to that between the Roman people as conqueror and the provinces as conquered. Since in this light the provincial census was designed to regulate not the rights but the obligations of those enumerated, it served only to define military service and tribute. The forms of the latter in the various provinces showed great diversity. There was doubtless everywhere some sort of ground tax (tributum soli), usually in the form of a definite tribute, partly in money, partly in natural products, which could also be levied as communal tithes, except that if in case of a defective harvest the amount of the requisite tribute was not realized, the tithes were made good through other taxes. The real-estate tax was everywhere supplemented by a personal tax (tributum capitis), which might be levied as a uniform capitation tax for all, or (as in Egypt) as a graduated poll-tax; or as property or income tax. In all forms, however, it was let by contract to tax farmers. These taxes, which in the main came down from the republican era, were in the earlier period regulated partly by means of a census. But only from the time of the government of Augustus were they organized on a more extensive basis. Especially in the provinces incorporated by Cæsar and the emperors into the Roman Empire were the fiscal relations thus regulated.

3. Cases and Methods of Roman Census.

According to literary records well known, this was done three times in Gaul under Augustus, then under Nero and Domitian; in Syria, Judea, and Spain under Augustus; among the Clitæ under Tiberius; in Britain under Claudius; in Dacia under Trajan. Besides these provinces, the following are named in inscriptions as subjected to a census in imperial times: Aquitania, Belgium, Lugdunensis, Lower Germany, Macedonia, Thrace, Paphlagonia, Africa, and Mauritania. In the republican era the administration of these provincial censuses had been combined with the office of provincial governor; but in imperial times it was transferred to the emperor. Augustus personally executed this office in Gaul, in other cases the emperor was represented by men of the highest rank; for entire provinces, as a rule, persons of senatorial station were appointed; for smaller districts, knights. At the outset in the imperial provinces, the census was delegated only occasionally (Mommsen, ut sup., ii. 410, a, 4) to the provincial governor. The essential uniformity of organization of taxes and assessments throughout the empire, such as is proved for the later imperial times by the classic legal sources, although no traces are apparent of a sudden reorganization in relation to the provinces under the earlier period, was early anticipated by the census regulations of Augustus. As to the detailed constitution of this provincial census, which later became universal, there is still some debate; it is fairly certain, however, that it regulated a real estate tax for proprietors and a personal tax for the landless; that it included the taxpayers' personal assessment; that its organization was not communal but provincial; and that the formal declaration took place in the principal centers of the fiscal districts. Of the interval between censuses there is certain knowledge only in relation to Egypt, through the new discoveries of Egyptian papyri (U. Wilcken, Griechische Ostraka, in Archiv für Papyrusforschung, vol. i., 1899), according to which in that country two kinds of assessments (apographai) were executed at stated times: a popular enumeration every fourteen years, and a declaration of movable property annually.

4. Palestinian Census of 6 A.D. Quirinius.

In Palestine, at all events, a census quite in the Roman manner was executed in the year 6 A.D., though only in the southern part of the country, which in that year came under immediate Roman jurisdiction. The Syrian legate Quirinius was at that time entrusted with the extraordinary imperial commission of undertaking a census not only in the newly annexed country but also throughout Syria (cf. also CIL, iii., supplement, no. 6687). The vehement opposition which the regulation provoked among the Jewish population and especially with a faction whose


leader was Judas of Galilee shows that in that form it was new to the region. This census, as the mention of Judas of Galilee implies, is referred to in the words of Acts v. 37, "in the days of the enrolment."

5. Luke ii. 2 in Error. Jesus not Born Under Quirinius.

More difficult of solution is the other New Testament passage, in which mention is made of a census decreed from Rome (Luke ii. 2). It is here distinctly stated that this census, commanded by Cæsar Augustus for the whole Roman Empire, was the first which took place in Palestine (as decreed by Augustus) when Quirinius was governor of Syria; and that by it Joseph was obligated to go with Mary to Bethlehem, his place of enrolment, where the birth of Jesus came to pass. From the starting-point of Acts v. 37, it were most plausible to bring the birth of Christ, according to Luke ii., down to the time of the census of the year 6 A.D. This is antagonized by the chronology of Luke iii. 23, also by the fact that both Matthew and Luke presuppose the birth of Jesus during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in the year 4 B.C. of the Dionysian era (see HEROD AND HIS FAMILY); that is, the birth of Christ would have occurred in the last preceding years. But in those years Quirinius could not have been governor of Syria, because Sentius Saturninus was governor in the years 8-6 B.C. (Josephus, Ant., XVI. ix. 1), and from 6 B.C. until after Herod's death the governor was Quintilius Varus (Josephus, Ant., XVII. v. 2, x. 1). It has been therefore proposed on exegetical grounds to set aside the synchronism between the governorship of Quirinius and the birth of Jesus. But these attempts are impossible artifices. It has also been affirmed on the strength of the later governorship of Quirinius in the year 6 A.D., that he served an earlier preceding term (T. Mommsen, Res gestæ divi Augusti, Berlin, 1865). But the evidences of this are quite uncertain. And since in no case can an earlier term of Quirinius as governor coincide with the reign of Herod the Great, it would not elucidate Luke ii. 2. If it be assumed that the census of the year of Christ's birth was begun by Saturninus, continued by Varus and completed by Quirinius (Zumpt), against this in Luke ii. 2, the governorship of Quirinius is evidently intended to indicate the time when the event recorded there took place; and a census by a Roman officer in Judea before the annexation of that country is improbable. Accordingly Zahn assumes that only one Roman census took place in Palestine, namely, under Quirinius, which is meant both in Luke ii. and in Acts v.; save that this occurred not in the year 6 A.D., but in the year 4 B.C., several months after the death of Herod. But the particularity of the data in Josephus contradicts this hypothesis, which at all events does not clear the Gospel of Luke of error. On this account it is to be assumed that the governorship of Quirinius, Luke ii. 2, has been erroneously transposed from the census of the year 6 to the year of Christ's birth.

6. No General Census Under Augustus.

Still again, the report in Luke ii. of a general Roman imperial census is not historically warrantable according to the literal text. Disregarding later untrustworthy accounts, there are no literary or epigraphic traces of an imperial census in the time of Augustus, and such an event could not have occurred without leaving some traces. And from the monument of Ancyra it is evident that Augustus did not hold a census of Roman citizens in the period from 8 B.C. to 14 A.D. Only in the emperor's financial reform projects with reference to the whole empire, and in the assessments held by him in many parts of the empire, appears a certain nucleus of truth for that statement in Luke ii.

7. Solution, a Census by Herod.

If then in the light of Luke ii. the governorship of Quirinius and the Roman imperial census can not be verified, this report is not to be rejected as unhistorical in all other respects. That Herod at that time received orders from Augustus to undertake a census in his country is not an impossibility. Highly as Herod was esteemed even by the emperor, he nevertheless remained the emperor's subject. This is manifest from the words of Augustus, that he would henceforth treat him not as his friend but as his subject (Josephus, Ant., XVI. ix. 3); as likewise from his rating in the number of the Syrian procurators (Ant., XV. x. 3). Consequently, since the Jews of Palestine from Pompey's time forth had been obliged to pay tribute in various forms to the Romans, Herod was also bound to the payment of tribute promptly after his appointment as king (Appian, Bella civilia, v. 75). It is, therefore, arbitrary to doubt (Schürer) that he also paid such dues continually (cf. Wieseler, TSK, 1875, pp. 541 sqq.). Nevertheless he was not deprived of the right of imposing and increasing taxes in his own name (cf. Josephus, Ant., XV. x. 4; XVII. ii. 1, xi. 2). It is accordingly to be assumed that he had to furnish tribute to a prescribed amount at Rome the collection of which was generally left to him out of Jewish revenues. Where, however, the Roman interest required it, the emperor, as a matter of course, could intervene for raising the necessary taxes to make up the tribute. This is apparent from a similar case, wherein Augustus commanded Archelaus to remit one-fourth of the Samaritans' taxes (Josephus, Ant., XVII. xi. 4). It is then conceivable that he commanded Herod to regulate the taxes necessary for the Roman tribute by means of a census by virtue of the forms already in vogue. For that Augustus did not at that time order a specifically Roman census in Palestine, but adhered to the Jewish practises, is borne out by other analogies in Roman procedure (Tacitus, Annales, iv. 72), by the operations of the Roman census of the year 6 A.D., and by indications afforded by the Gospel of Luke, according to which the census in question was decreed conformably to Jewish tribal enrolments. [For reply to above see QUIRINIUS.]


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The older literature on II. is given in TSK, 1852, pp 663 sqq. P. E. Huschke, Ueber den zur Zeit der Geburt Christi gehaltenen Census Breslau, 1840; idem, Ueber den Census und die Steuerverfassung der . . . Kaiserzeit, ib. 1847; C. Wieseler, Chronologische Synopse der


vier Evangelien, Hamburg, 1843; idem, Beiträge zur richtigen Würdigung der Evangelien, Gotha, 1869; idem, in TSK, 1875, pp. 435 sqq.; J. von Gumpach, in TSK, 1852, pp. 663 sqq.; A. W. Zumpt, Commentationes epigraphicæ, ii. 73-74, Berlin, 1854; idem, Das Geburtsjahr Christi, pp. 20 sqq., Leipsic, 1869; Aberle, in TQ, 1865, pp. 103 sqq., 1868, pp. 29 sqq.; A. Hilgenfeld, in ZWT, 1865, pp. 408 sqq., 1870, pp. 151 sqq.; H. Gerlach, Die römischen Statthalter in Syrien und Judaa, pp. 22 sqq. Berlin, 1865; T. Lewin, Fasti Sacri, London, 1865; H. Lutteroth, Le Recensement de Quirinius en Judée, Paris, 1865; C. E. Caspari, Chronologisch-geographische Einleitung in das Leben Christi, Hamburg, 1869; J. Marquardt, Römische Staatsverwaltung, vol. i., ii. 204 sqq., Leipsic, 1881-84; P. Schegg, Das Todesjahr des . . . Herodes und das Geburtsjahr Christi, pp. 37 sqq., Munich, 1882; F. Riess, Nochmals das Geburtsjahr Christi, Freiburg, 1883; T. Zahn, in NKZ, 1893, pp. 633 sqq.; W. M. Ramsay, in Expositor, 1897, pp. 274 sqq., 425 sqq.; idem, Was Christ Born at Bethlehem, London, 1898; Sehürer, Geschichte, i. 508 sqq., Eng. transl., I. i. 357, ii. 80, 105-143; Haverfield, in Classical Review, July, 1900, pp. 309 sqq.; DB, iv. 183; EB, iv. 3994-96; also the commentaries on the passages in Luke and Acts, and the works on the Life of Christ.


CCEL home page
This document is from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library at
Calvin College. Last modified on 05/10/04. Contact the CCEL.
Calvin seal: My heart I offer you O Lord, promptly and sincerely