Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Dear Fr. Tharp,
Other than the Bible are there any other accounts, records (i.e. historical) of the worldly tax ordered by Caesar Augustus at the time of Jesus’ birth?

Jan Reordan
Oklahoma City, OK

I assume you are referring to the event recorded in the Gospel of St. Luke 2:1-3: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.” The Roman Empire, as you note, assigned taxation rates to a particular district or region of the empire by means of these sorts of enrollments. Your question points to an essential feature of the Gospel, its historicity, i.e. the historical fact of the events recounted. If the Gospels are reliable historical records then I should be able to verify its claims from sources outside their pages. Many opponents of the Church try to shoot holes in the Gospel, and in the Bible in general, by suggesting that there are historical contradictions within the text, thus proving, in their minds, the falsity of the Church’s claims. Hence, historical verification becomes essential to solid evangelization.

Caesar Augustus was the emperor of the Roman Empire from 30 B.C. to 14 A.D. Caesar Augustus contracted various censuses throughout his reign so St. Luke might be thinking of one of these censuses. In addition, the Empire often respected the practices of cultures it had absorbed. Thus, in the land of Israel, officials used the accepted Jewish custom of returning to one’s ancestral home for the census. A problem crops up in that Quirinius was not governor of Syria until 6 A.D., a full ten years after the generally accepted scholarly dating of the birth of Christ (4-6 B.C.). When you add that the historical record doesn’t mention an empire-wide taxation census at the end of the first century B.C., you have a full blown mess on your hands. These discrepancies lead historians to suggest various solutions ranging from claiming St. Luke goofed his facts to contorting the historical record into a shape which doesn’t readily fit the historical data we do possess.

Recent historical data has suggested some simpler ways of understanding what St. Luke is referring to. While the Empire generally used the census for taxation purposes, taxation was not the only reason for a census. Both the Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of the Gospel period, and the fifth century Christian historian, Orosius, refer to an oath of loyalty to Caesar Augustus that all citizens of the Empire were required to make. A public act of fealty of this sort would require a census be drawn up in each province so that a provincial governor might prove the loyalty of his own subjects. Caesar Augustus himself alludes to this loyalty oath when he claims that the whole Empire proclaimed him its “father.” Historians date this event to around 2 B.C. Hence, while we don’t have a record of a taxation census at the time of the Nativity of Christ, we do have evidence for a different type of census which would fit the description found in St. Luke’s Gospel.

As to Quirinius’ governorship of Syria, we should note that St. Luke uses the same word for Quirinius’ role as he does for Pontius Pilate’s. Hence, St. Luke may have in mind that Quirinius was only a procurator before being governor of Syria. St. Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) refers to Quirinius being a procurator in Judea and not in Syria at the time of the Nativity while Tertullian (160? - 240? A.D.) states that Saturninus was the official legate of Syria at the time in question. Hence, Quirinius’ presence in the Gospel account can be explained by demoting him. Also, this is a good example of how a translation can introduce difficulties that don’t actually exist in the original language.

On a final note, I would like to suggest that despite concrete evidence from the historical record or confusion over what sort of act St. Luke describes in his Gospel, we need to keep a basic fact of the early Church’s proclamation of the Gospel in mind. One of the key tactics that evangelizers used in proclaiming Christ was to stress the historical fact of the life of Christ. St. Paul in his defense before going to Rome makes this bold statement, “I am not mad, most excellent Festus; I am speaking words of truth and reason. The king knows about these matters and to him I speak boldly, for I cannot believe that (any) of this has escaped his notice; this was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:25-26). With this in mind, I would advocate giving more credit to the Gospel’s account because they have more to lose if they are not being forthright and accurate. After all, these things didn’t happen in a corner, did not happen on the periphery of society, but rather happened in broad daylight. If the evangelists are not telling the truth to their prospective audiences, then they doom the effort to bring all people to Christ, thus bringing shame upon themselves.

If you would like to read more on the question of biblical skepticism, there are a pair of articles available on the Catholic Answers website (http://www.catholic.com). They are available free of charge.