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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Could There Have Been An Earlier Census? -- Further Thoughts on Luke's Nativity

Even if Luke is properly translated to refer to a registration which occurred before the famous one under Quirinius, it is argued that it is impossible that there was any census in Judea prior to the one under Quirinius. This is mostly an argument from silence based on the fact that -- other than Luke's reference -- there are no direct mentions of any such census. Since arguments from silence are problematic, especially when -- as here -- our records and history are incomplete, critics attempt to bolster this argument by arguing that there were no census' in client-kingdoms under Roman rule. That is, though under the control of Rome, Rome let a local king run the province. At the time of Jesus’ birth, that king was King Herod. However, there are at least two responses to this argument. First that Herod conducted his own system and second that Rome ordered such a census be conducted. I will deal with the first response in this post – the possibility that King Herod conducted his own census to please his Roman masters.

A. Judea as a Roman Client-Kingdom

The scope and significance of Judea's status as a "client-kingdom" under a "client-king" is often misrepresented or misconstrued. It is true that Judea was not governed directly by a Roman governor, but by a client-king: Herod. However, it is clear that Israel was a part of the Roman Empire. It had been conquered by Emperor Pompey and "placed under Roman tribute and in short order a sum of more than 10,000 Talents was extracted from them." Ben Witherington, New Testament History, page 51. Eventually, Herod maneuvered himself into the good graces of Rome, and was officially appointed King of Judea and eventually gained actual control of Judea by force of arms. His tenure was lengthy, but it was never doubted that he ruled as a subject of the Roman government. "Herod successfully retained power as King in Judea from 37 to 4 BC by consistently making himself useful to the Romans. From the viewpoint of Rome he reliably fulfilled the role of a client king whose power ultimately derived from Rome, but whose cultural ties with the people he ruled made Roman influence more palatable." Richard L. Niswonger, New Testament History, page 43. Herod never used his position to stress Judaean independence or resist the wishes of his Roman patrons. In fact, "he used his great political and diplomatic gifts to ensure that he always had the backing of whoever was in power in Rome." Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, page 110.

Now that we have a better understanding of Herod's submissive role under his Roman rulers, we can consider three possible, perhaps probable, ways in which a registration would have been undertaken under Herod, King of Judea.

B. Herod May Have Conducted His Own Census

It is possible that the census of Luke 2:2 was Herod's own, undertaken to please his friend Augustus and/or govern Judea in a Romanized fashion. It is undisputed that Herod undertook many building projects and wars which placed a heavy tax burden on his people. Accordingly, it possible that Herod established a relatively efficient system of taxation that -- like his Roman counterparts -- relied on a census. Such a census would also have the added benefit of establishing more social control over his people (also a known concern of Herod's). It is undisputed that Herod 1) had a great and constant need for an income, 2) attempted in many ways to emulate Roman governance, and 3) was a paranoid ruler who (correctly) believed that he was not all that popular with the common man. In fact, Herod had his own secret police and attempted to keep the upper hand in the social as well as military control of his people.

Herod’s attempt to emulate Roman culture was not just a matter of his personal admiration for their culture – though that too existed. It was also part of Herod's job as a client-king to help “romanize” his population. Regarding client-kingdoms, Rome "interfered with their affairs so far as to appoint princes who would rule in her interest, and whose task it was to tame and civilise their subjects till they were fit to come directly under Roman rule." W. T. Arnold, The Roman System of Provincial Administration to the Accession of Constantine the Great, page 14. Moreover, "client kings were encouraged to foster urbanization and general economic improvement; when their kingdoms had reached a level compatible with that generally prevailing throughout the Empire, they could be and usually were incorporated so as to become provinces or parts of provinces.... [And Augustus] had made it unmistakably clear that client kingdoms possessed no more than an interim status: annexation was always intended as soon as they were sufficiently romanzied." E.T. Salmon, A History of the Roman World from 30 BC to AD 138, pages 104-05, 130. Given the Emperor’s policy of registering the entire Roman Empire, Herod would have had good reason to follow suit and conduct his own census.

Herod himself had gladly accepted Roman citizenship, and was therefore a direct subject to the Emperor. Herod also established a Roman theater in Jerusalem. He built a large Roman-style amphitheater on the plain outside of Jerusalem. He instituted Roman-style games. To be sure, Herod accommodated the beliefs of his people -- by taking down trophies in the stadium considered to be idols for example. But these were concessions that made romanization more amenable, not earnest efforts on the part of Herod to reject romanization.

So, it is very possible that Herod adopted a census to tax his own people, and Luke is referring to this practice. As Dr. Pearson notes, "We cannot think that in the process of romanizing his kingdom, he would incorporate Roman architectural, military, religious, and recreational techniques, models, and practices, but would reject their incredibly efficient administrative systems--or that he would be allowed to do so by his overlords." Brook W. R. Pearson, "The Lucan censuses, revisited", The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Apr 1999.

Dr. Pearson also believes that there is evidence that a census was undertaken by Herod during his reign. Among other arguments, Dr. Pearson cites to an interesting passage in Josephus referring to "village scribes" under Herod. The same term is used in other ancient documents to refer to a position closely associated with census-taking. Although Richard Carrier of has criticized Dr. Pearson’s arguments, his attack falls short. He overlooks (or ignores) the forceful argument that Dr. Pearson makes that Herod -- as a direct subject to the Emperor and a client-king serving at Rome's whim -- was expected by his Roman overlords to romanize Judea. Carrier also claims that Dr. Pearson fails to consider what other tasks "village scribes" might do while he himself seems to ignore Dr. Pearson's references to many ancient documents showing that the term used by Josephus was closely linked to census taking duties.


The argument that even if Luke was referring to an earlier census, he is still in error because there was no earlier census rests on an argument from silence. Though such arguments may be useful from time to time it is not convincing here. It is very plausible that Herod could have conducted his own census pursuant to what he knew the Emperor’s policy to be. Herod also could have seen such a census as part of his responsibility (and desire) to romanize Judea. Finally, there is some indirect evidence from Josephus that officials uniquely related to census taking were present under King Herod. Frankly, I do not know that this was the case, but it is certainly a possibility. In a later post I will deal with the possibility that Rome itself ordered the census under King Herod.

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