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.