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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
Commentary: Luke 2:2
“This taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:2)
Roman Law Did Not Require Joseph and Mary to Leave Nazareth
“…when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:2)
(Luke 2:2; R.V., “enrolment”), “when Cyrenius was governor of Syria,” is simply a census of the people, or an enrolment of them with a view to their taxation. The decree for the enrolment was the occasion of Joseph and Mary’s going up to Bethlehem. It has been argued by some that Cyrenius (q.v.) was governor of Cilicia and Syria both at the time of our Lord’s birth and some years afterwards. This decree for the taxing referred to the whole Roman world, and not to Judea alone. (See CENSUS.)
Taxation, in the sense of regular, graduated imposts levied by authority upon wealth, whether in the form of flocks and herds, tilled lands or accumulated treasure, is a comparatively late product of social evolution. The beginnings of this trouble-breeding institution are, of course, very ancient. If in the beginning all wealth was common wealth, all property vested in the family or tribe, making any kind of levies unnecessary, with the rise of individualism, the prorata setting aside, for common uses, of certain possessions held as private property by individuals, which is the essence of taxation, is inevitable. With the advent of more advanced civilization, by which is meant fixed residence, systematic use and cultivation of defined and limited territory, established political organization centering in rulers of one kind or another, regular taxation must necessarily have begun. Throughout history the burden of taxation has kept pace with the elaboration of the machinery of government; kings, courts, ceremonials, legislative and judicial administration, wars, diplomacy—all these institutions spell expense and, consequently, taxation. In a very real sense, the history of taxation is the history of civilization.
Taxing is the rendering, in the A. V., of a Greek word, which occurs in two passages, ἡ ἀπογραφή (Vulg. descriptio, Luke 2:2; professio, Acts 5:37). The cognate verb ἀπογράφεσθαι in like manner is rendered by “to be taxed” in the A.V., while the Vulg. employs “ut describeretur universus orbis” in Luke 2:1, and “ut profiterentur singuli” in ver. 3. In Hebrews 13:23 (πρωτοτόκων ἀπογεγραμμένων ἐν οὐρανοῖς), where the idea is that of the registration of the first-born as citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, the A. V. has simply “written,” the Vulg. “qui conscripti sunt.” Both the Latin words used in the two passages first cited; above are found in classical writers with the meaning of a registration or formal return of population or property (Cicero, Ver. 2, 3, 47; De Qf 1, 7; Sueton. Tiber. 30). The English word conveys to us more distinctly the notion of a tax or tribute actually levied, but it appears to have been used in the 16th century for the simple assessment of a subsidy upon the property of a given county (Bacon, Henry VII, p. 67), or the registration of the people for the purpose of a poll-tax (Camden, Hist. of Elizabeth). This may account for the choice of the word by Tyndale in lieu of “description” and profession,” which Wycliffe, following the Vulg., had given. Since then “taxing” has kept its ground in most English versions with the exception of “tribute” in the Geneva, and “enrolment” in the Rhemish of Acts 5:37. The word ἀπογραφή by itself leaves the question undetermined whether the returns made were of population or property. Josephus, using the words ἡ ἀποτίμησις τῶν οὐσιῶν (Ant. 18:1, 1) as an equivalent, shows that “the taxing” of which Gamaliel speaks included both. That connected with the Nativity, the first step towards the complete statistical returns, was probably limited to the former (Greswell, Harmony, 1, 542). In either case “census” would have seemed the most natural Latin equivalent; but in the Greek of the New Test., and therefore probably in the familiar Latin of the period, as afterwards in the Vulg., that word slides off into the sense of the tribute actually paid (Matthew 22:17; 17:24). SEE CENSUS.