Bible Articles on the Topic of Census

The following articles have been compiled and indexed by inWORD Bible software.

Large Numbers in the Old Testament

The exceedingly high numbers of the able-bodied men over the age of twenty conscripted into the armies of Israel, as recorded in Numbers 1:26, continue to trouble modern scholars. The numbers of soldiers in each listing total in excess of 600,000 (603,550 in Numbers 1:46; 601,730 in Numbers 26:51). These numbers of men mustered for warfare demand a total population in excess of 2 million. Indeed, perhaps a population of 3 or 4 or even 5 million might be required to supply a conscripted army of 600,000 able-bodied men over twenty years old. Such numbers are exceedingly large for the times, for the locale, for the desert wanderings, and in comparison to the numbers of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan whom the Israelites set out to conquer.

A Roman Census in Judea?

[The nineteenth century theologian Emil] Schürer notes that a Roman census with the purpose of imposing a Roman tax would not have occurred in Judaea. For Schürer, the sovereignty extended to client kings precluded direct Roman intervention over administrative matters. ¹¹², ¹¹³ However, a number of scholars question Schürer, pointing out that evidence from Josephus strongly suggests Augustus exercised considerable control over Judaea, displaying a personal interest in Herod’s affairs and interceding when he was displeased, or concerned, about Herod’s actions.¹¹⁴

An Empire-wide Census?

[The nineteenth century theologian Emil] Schürer interprets Luke 2:1 as describing a single, empire-wide Roman census ordered by Augustus around 6 BCE. There is currently no historical evidence of any such imperial edict.

Did Joseph & Mary Have to Go to Bethlehem?

[The nineteenth century theologian Emil] Schürer argues that Roman censuses did not require travel for registration purposes, pointing out that Rome would have considered such activities ‘troublesome’ and ‘inconvenient’, as well as outside the normal structure of a Roman census.¹

Josephus Doesn’t Mention A Roman Census Before 6 CE

[The nineteenth century theologian Emil] Schürer . . . rightly observes that Josephus does not mention a Roman census during Herod’s reign. Moreover, Schürer points out that Josephus referred to the Quirinian census of 6-7 CE as a “new and previously unheard of” event in Judea.¹

Counting The Unmeasurable

“And the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand of the beach which cannot be measured nor counted.” (Hosea 1:10)

Enrollment By Households In Egypt

Recently, three different scholars announced about the same time, and independently of one another, the discovery that periodical enrollments were made in Egypt under the Roman empire, and that the period was not of fifteen years, as in the later system of indictions, but of fourteen years. The same Greek term is used in the Egyptian documents and in Luke to indicate the census: they were called “Enrollments,” Apographai.

Luke’s Knowledge of Roman Enrollments

The book of Prof. Ramsay, “Was Christ Born at Bethlehem?” deserves special mention because it gives a new datum for our historical investigations.

The Syrian Enrollment In 8 B.C.

In the preceding chapter we have seen that, in all probability, Augustus inaugurated a series of enrollments in Egypt. Now, according to Luke, Augustus laid down the principle that “enrollments” should be made over the whole Roman world; and this assertion stands on a very different level of probability from that which it occupied before the Egyptian discovery. If Luke be wrong, his error has been to extend over the whole Roman world a practice which Augustus established in Egypt. Every one must see that such an extension is not likely to have been made without some justification by the author of Acts, whoever he was. If there is anything certain about him it is that he had neither connection with Egypt nor interest in it, and that he was entirely uninfluenced by Alexandrian thought or Egyptian ideas; he even omits from his Gospel the incident of the flight into Egypt, which a writer connected with Egypt would be most unlikely to do. Such an author is not likely to have known about institutions peculiar to Egypt; and, if he thinks that the system of periodical enrollments, which existed in Egypt, was also found in other parts of the Roman world, there is a strong presumption that such was the case at least in those parts of the world which were best known to him. The reasons stated above, chapters 6 and 7, confirm this presumption.

Commentary: Luke 2:2

“This taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:2)

Every Male Over 20 Perished in the Wilderness?

Are we correct in stating that every male Israelite over 20 years of age that came out of Egypt perished in the wilderness? God’s edict applied to “all that were numbered.”¹ The details of this numbering are found in the first chapter of Numbers, and we see from verse 3 that it applied to “men of war” only, and that the Levites were not numbered (verse 49). Of the 12 men who were chosen to represent the children of Israel in the spying out of the land of Canaan there was no representative of the tribe of Levi, because the Levites were to have no inheritance in the Promised Land. This was confirmed by Moses and Eleazar in the plains of Moab at the second census.² Moses, in his recapitulation at the end of their wanderings twice refers to “the men of war” being consumed from their midst.³

Roman Law Did Not Require Joseph and Mary to Leave Nazareth

“…when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:2)

Parshat Bemidbar: Easier to Be Numbered as a Slave

Lets dig into the statistics of the Israelite census in the book of Numbers and learn some interesting stories about the people who were wandering in the desert—and much more than just their ages and occupations. Learn how it was easier to be a slave than to be free, and how maturing into a people of God is much harder than making mud bricks in Egypt.


There are five instances of a census of the Jewish people having been taken.


A numbering of the people. Several cases are given in the Bible. The first mentioned is that in Numbers 1 (from which the book receives its name), when the males—i.e., men capable of bearing arms—numbered 603,550 at the Exodus. Modern critics, foremost among them Bishop Colenso (“The Pentateuch and Joshua,” pt. I. ch. 5), have pointed out the difficulties attached to such a number arising in four generations from the twelve sons of Israel, not to mention the commissariat required for at least four times that number. The numbering was again gone through six months later, according to the account of Num. xxvi.—xxvii., with exactly the same result. On these occasions, the numbering was done indirectly, half a shekel being given to the sanctuary by each person of the proper age, and then the half-shekels, and not the persons, were counted. This expedient, according to the critics, was resorted to by the writer of Numbers owing to the superstition which had arisen against a census through the experience in David’s reign. After David had organized his kingdom he found it necessary, for military purposes, to know exactly how many men, of an age suitable for bearing arms, he could depend upon; and he determined to take a census (2 Samuel 24). Notwithstanding the remonstrances of Joab, David persisted in carrying out the numbering of the people. It appears to have been a laborious operation, as it took no less than nine months and twenty days to complete it. Unfortunately, the numbers given in the Biblical text arediscrepant; the Book of Samuel giving 800,000 for Israel and 500,000 for Judah, whereas 1 Chronicles 21 raises the former to 1,100,000 and reduces the latter to 470,000. As these numbers included only the fighting men, they would imply a population of probably 5,000,000 for Israel and 2,000,000 for Judah. The Assyrian practise of counting captives shows that such a census was not uncommon at the time. The figures recorded are, however, regarded by Biblical critics as doubtful for various reasons, apart from the uncertainty of the text, which Budde would emend to 100,000 for Israel and 70,000 for Judah (“S. B. O. T.” ad loc.). A pestilence appears to have occurred shortly after the census, and confirmed the people in the superstition, common among primitive nations, against being numbered. In the Biblical text David’s action in ordering a census is regarded as sinful.


Census, a term that does not occur in the A. V. (although it is found in the original text of the N.T. in the Greek form κῆνσος, “tribute,” Matthew 17:25, etc.), while the act denoted by it is several times referred to both in the Hebrews and Gr. Scriptures (מַפקָד, or פּקֻדִּה, “numbering” combined with lustration, from פָּקִד, to survey in order to purge, Gesenius, Thes. p. 1120; Sept. ἀριθμός; N.T. ἀπογραφή); Vulg. dinumeratio, descriptio). SEE POPULATION.