Quirinius’ Census

Ostracon, recording a part of Quirinius' census. Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

The ostracon to the right can be seen in the National Library of Austria. It was found in Elephantine in southern Egypt, and was written by someone who was obviously accustomed to writing many texts. A man named Amonios son of Amonios, tax gatherer, declares that a man named Soros, son of Pachompos, had paid the head tax in the fifth regnal year of the emperor Claudius (i.e., 45 CE). The man had paid sixteen drachms, for himself and seven relatives.

Nobody likes to pay taxes, and two drachms per person was a substantial amount (about two daily wages for a skilled worker). Before the taxes could be gathered, however, the Romans needed to know how many people lived in a province, which is why they organized censuses. So, when the Roman emperor Augustus decided to dethrone the Judaean ruler Archelaus and add his realm to the province of Syria, in 6 CE, governor Publius Sulpicius Quirinius had to count the people. Many Jews tried to obstruct the census; their leader was Judas.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus suggests that there were disturbances (Jewish Antiquities 18.4-6, 23), and this can also be deduced from a remark in the Acts of the Apostles, where it is implied that Judas’ band of followers was dispersed and Judas was killed (5.37). However, the revolt is absent from the catalog of armed interventions by Syrian governors included in the Histories of the Roman historian Tacitus (5.9). This means that it was not necessary to send the legions, which in turn means that the rebellion cannot have been widespread.

Yet, the Jews remembered Quirinius’ census as a national disaster. Writing two or three generations after the events, Luke could assume that every reader knew Quirinius’ governorship, realized what calamity had befallen the nation, and how bad the situation had been (Luke 2.2). It is the background, black as the night, for the spectacle he is about to present: the coming of the Messiah. When Judas’ bandits and the Roman soldiers were fighting, when things were at their worst, God had shown Himself to be nearest.

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3 Responses to Quirinius’ Census

  1. Bill says:

    I am not sure Josephus says Judas instigated actual fighting. The Loeb translation of Antiquities suggests his plot to attack made much progress, but does not say there was actually fighting (Antiquities 18:6; War 2:118 is a bit less vague, but not by much.)

    (Separately, if you’re suggesting Luke knowingly placed Jesus’ birth around 6 AD, do you suppose Luke was confused about when Herod died?)

    I suspect Quirinius was remembered not because there was much fighting, but precisely because there was not. The peaceful transition, in stark contrast to that of 4 BC, must have been something the populace was very glad to enjoy, especially with such recent memories of Varus’ brutality.

    At any rate, Josephus’ interest in Judas the Galilean seems more focused on the philosophical seed he planted which only sprouted five or six decades later. You rightly note “the rebellion cannot have been widespread”. I suggest that for all we know, the rebellion could well have been nipped in the bud.

  2. if you’re suggesting Luke knowingly placed Jesus’ birth around 6 AD, do you suppose Luke was confused about when Herod died?

    I do not think that he was confused; he was aware of the tradition that Matthew also records, that Jesus was born in the year of Herod the Great’s death (Luke 3.1). (Of course, I am assuming that Matthew’s Herod is Herod the Great, which is not certain.) What I am suggesting is that Luke sacrificed chronology to create a contrast between a violent transition and the coming of the prince of peace.

    Yet, you may be right that Quirinius was responsible for a peaceful transition.

  3. Bill says:

    There are potential solutions, however tenuous, for the problem of Luke 2.2, but I see no way Luke could have referred to either Archelaus or Antipas as “King of Judea” (1.5). Besides, one could as easily say that putting Augustus and ‘oikoumene’ in the same sentence (2.1) was meant to evoke the Pax Romana. Why, then, evoke the “calamity” about Quirinius?

    My own assessment is that Luke 2.1, taken by itself, should most likely refer to the census’ expansion beyond Italy in 27 BC. If that’s fair, it would give us a 40 year span in two verses – a lot to sprint past, if Luke were wanting us to dwell mostly on the end point of that span.

    Btw, Matthew’s Herod is called the father of Archelaus, rules Jerusalem, and dies before Joseph learns that Archelaus is ruling. What am I missing that could make us uncertain of Matthew’s opinion on this point?

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