"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.This census is foundational for Luke's narrative. The census is the driving force that moves Mary and Joseph from their home in Nazareth of Galilee (in the northern part of Palestine) to Bethlehem in Judea (in the southern part of Palestine). It is the reason why Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem, in a stable at the time of Jesus' birth. Without the census, Jesus would have presumably been born at the home of Mary and Joseph in Nazareth. No stable, no manger, no farm animals or shepherds (much like the birth of Jesus in Matthew 2).
With the census being so central to the Luke's story, what can we know about it? Josephus, a first century Jewish historian also mentions the census, and it is important to his narrative as well. In fact, the census of Quirinius sets off a mini-rebellion by Judas the Galilean, and is an important precursor to the Jewish war which is the primary focus of Josephus' Jewish War, and Antiquities. Luke also mentions Judas the Galilean in connection with the "census" in Acts 5, so he is well aware of the connection of the census with Judas. According to Josephus, this census takes place during the governorship of Quirinius, legate of Syria, in 6-7 C.E.
The timing of the Roman census in 6-7 C.E. makes perfect sense, as, before 6 C.E. and dating back well into the first century B.C.E., the region of Judea had been under the administration of Herod the Great and his sons. Herod, and his sons after him had administrative control of most of Palestine and were responsible for the collection of taxes and general rule. Before 6 C.E., there would be no reason for Rome to conduct a census. Censuses existed in Rome primarily for the purposes of taxation. As long as the Herods were collecting and submitting taxes to Rome, Rome would have no need for a census. But, something changed in 6 C.E. In 4 B.C.E., Herod the Ethnarch (King, Ruler of a people), who had ruled most of Palestine since 37 B.C.E. died. He left his kingdom to his son Archelaeus. Archelaus and Herod's other sons all traveled to Rome to argue for their father's kingdom before Emperor Augustus. In the end, Rome divided Herod's kingdom among his three sons. Judea and Samaria went to Archelaus; Galilee and Perea went to Herod Antipas, and Batanea went to Phillip.
Archelaus the Tetrarch (ruler of a fourth), ruler over Judea and Samaria, was a vicious ruler hated by his people. He slaughtered many of his own citizens on multiple occasions. When he went to Rome to have his kingdom ratified by the Roman Emperor, his own citizens sent a delegation after him to oppose his rule. In the end, his administration was a disaster and Rome removed him from power in 6 C.E. and replaced his rule by bringing Judea and Samaria under their own governor in Syria. At the time, 6 C.E., that governor was Quirinius. And now that Judea was under Roman rule, they needed to know how many people lived there, thus, the census of Quirinius of 6 C.E. A Roman census prior to this time makes no sense.
This is the basic historical background for the census of Quirinius. Stay tuned for future posts on the census.
*For more info on the census, see Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 547-556.