Census, Cradles, and the Cross

cross of light in front of Christmas lightsIn those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Luke 2:1-4)

There are a lot of interesting things about this census that Luke mentions. On it’s face it is merely the means by which Jesus ends up being born in Bethlehem, the ancestral city of King David, but on closer examination there is more going on.

Scholars like to use the census to date the birth of Jesus in history. External historical sources conclusively place the census of Quirinius in year 6 C.E.; yet King Herod, whom Luke references in chapter 1, died in 4 B.C.E. Since Herod plays such a large role in Matthew’s birth account, the consensus is that Jesus was born 6-4 B.C.E. and Luke, who was not from the area, was simply confused.

Luke was not confused. He had his reasons for associating Jesus with this census, even beyond the Bethlehem connection.

Taking a census was forbidden for the Jewish people. In the ancient world a census was taken for two reasons: taxation and a military draft.

Taxes weren’t used to build better roads and ensure safe meat for the benefit of everyone; taxes were used to enrich the ruling class and control the lower classes. If money is power, then if people don’t have much money they can’t amass the power to challenge the rulers.

Similarly, a  draft was used to force the lower classes to fight the ruling class’s wars. A census then was a means of exploitation. Samuel had warned the Israelites that this is what kings do.

“He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.” (1 Samuel 8:14-17)

In 2 Samuel 24 David ordered a census of all Israel. The commander of his army, Joab, tried to talk him out of it to no avail.

As soon as it was complete, David regretted it. “But afterward, David was stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people.

“David said to the LORD, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly.’” (2 Samuel 24:10)

So strongly did the Israelites feel about this that the Chronicler, in his telling of this story, states that David was incited by Satan to order the census. (Cf. 1 Chronicles 21:1)

By associating the birth of Jesus with this census, Luke is highlighting that this census ordered by Caesar Augustus, who had proclaimed himself the divine son of God and took a royal name that means, “Lord Most High,” was in fact a demonic power of oppression.

That would be enough, but there is more. When the decree for the census went out in 6 C.E., a zealot by the name of Judas of Galilee led a resistance to it, encouraging the Jews not to submit to it. According to one source his followers burned the houses and stole the cattle of those who did.

Thus were common Israelite peasants like Joseph stuck between a rock and a hard place: an oppressive Roman regime from without, a violent revolutionary movement from within.

Two choices, neither good, like being crushed between the jaws of a vice.

Jesus was born within this oppressive vice and grew up to challenge it. He , rejected both alternatives and presented a third way. He stood up for the lower classes but did so without the violence and oppression of the Jewish rebels.

So even from the cradle the cross was never far from Jesus.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo / MarjorieB

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