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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Some Comments on the Newsweek Article – The Census

The Newsweek article picks up on the usual criticism that the Gospel of Luke is wrong about the census. It argues that Luke erroneously claims that there was a global census ordered by August:

“Augustus conducted no global census, and no more local one makes sense in Luke's time frame.”

Here is what the Gospel of Luke actually says:

Luke 2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. (NRSV).

The notion that a census would occur simultaneously throughout the entire Empire at one point is an anachronism. That’s the way we do it in the United States, in a highly centralized process administered by the federal (central) government during a discrete time period. Such a feat was not possible in ancient times. And note that Luke does not actually describe the census being carried out through the entire empire. He merely states that Augustus decided and made it official policy that the entire Roman world be registered

And it appears that Luke was on to something. As Ben Witherington notes:

If Luke is not simply indulging in rhetorical hyperbole, it is not absolutely necessary to take Luke 2:1 to mean that the whole empire was enrolled at once. What the Greek suggests is that Caesar decreed that "all of the Roman world be enrolled." The present tense of the verb apographo and the use of pos suggest that what Caesar was decreeing was the extension of the enrollment already going on in some parts of the empire to the rest of the empire. Historian A.N. Sherwin-White reminds us, "A census or taxation-assessment of the whole provincial empire . . . was certainly accomplished for the first time in history under Augustus."

New Testament History, page 65.

So there seems to be no historical problem with Luke’s reference to Augustus and the census. The timing of that census and what it may or may not have required of Joseph and his family is another matter. But that is for another time.

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