Why Did Mary And Joseph Have To Go To Bethlehem?
May 3, 2009 5:40 PM   Subscribe

What technology would have been available to Biblical census-takers?

In Luke 2:1-7, everyone had to go back to their town to be registered. Assuming that these were actual events—and I know that the history is sketchy at best—why would a Roman/local regulation have mandated people to go back to their birthplaces for counting, instead of simply counting everyone in place with their birth details, as we do?

Is there a technological up-side to uprooting large numbers of people for a head-count?
posted by Fiasco da Gama to Religion & Philosophy (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
That bit almost certainly wasn't historical. Narratively, it's Luke's way to get Jesus born in Bethlehem, to strengthen the parallels between Jesus and King David. No credible article I've ever read showed a plausible advantage for the Romans to making people go back to their ancestral home.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:12 PM on May 3, 2009

"Census of Quirinius" is the popular name of this event. The dislocations you mention is one of the objections to its historicity.
posted by Sova at 6:20 PM on May 3, 2009

Ditto all the above. Also, as Ehrman points out (rightly, in this case), because the census required Jesus' family to go back "to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David," (KJV) with no real implication that Joseph or his ancestors resided in Bethlehem more recently, this would mean that everyone would have to go back to their homeland from a thousand year ago--a bureaucratic nightmare. The inference that Joseph must have lived there is just an inference: there is no mention anywhere in the canonical gospels as to his birthplace, Bethlehem, Nazareth or otherwise. Combined with the lack of a record of any such census, it really seems to be more of a pretext to drop the Davidic line and Bethlehem into Jesus' birth narrative, as Pater Alethias said.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 6:56 PM on May 3, 2009

My Bible has a footnote: "This specific registration has proved hard to establish historically (see Acts 5.37), but the Romans regularly used this means to establish control of taxes, lands, and military conscription."

So, there were censuses. What more technology would they need than an ability to count and write?
posted by Houstonian at 6:09 AM on May 4, 2009

When Gaius Octavius (Emperor Augustus) died, the Acts of Augustus was put on his temple. These were bronze plaques that outlined his achievements. That he oversaw three censuses is number 8 on the list.

It does not mention migrating people to their family towns. But, it does tell of big censuses:
- His first census: 28 BCE, 4,063,000 Roman citizens.
- His second census: 8 BCE, 4,233,000 Roman citizens
- His third census: 14 ACE, 4,937,000 Roman citizens
posted by Houstonian at 6:30 AM on May 4, 2009

Your not debating the accuracy of this. I see right off the bat (and right on par with the "educated" people here at the illustrious Metafilter) your getting people attacking the bible yet no one addressing this issue.

Ill be brief here. If you wanting to know the technology, b1tr0t is pretty right on. I mean, we're not talking about cave men here.
To get a deeper understanding of the nuts and bolts, i will refer you to Alfred Edersheim's 'The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah' and The Works of Josephus, more precise, Antiquities 18.1.1 (brings into focus a bit more off what Houstonian is mentioning with regards to Acts 5:37).
Also, the Book of Luke is regarded as a thing of beauty to Christians AS WELL as secular historians. For example, Luke mentions in Acts (in case its not known, Luke is the writer of Acts as well) as stated above in 5:37, about a census under Cyrenius, roughly ten years later...then go to Luke 2:2 and notice how unnecessary it is to the narritave that the Cyrenius census is again mentioned...UNLESS luke was trying to point out a specific event, perhaps a benchmark. (More details from Edersheim if your interested on why this is important).

Lastly, Augustus would have made registers of the Roman Empire, thereby forming tributary states. I mean, this is how you get a good count of how much each STATE should be paying to the empire. Its really capricious talk for some one to negate the historic truth of this issue, when more outside the bible supports this event that within...
posted by TeachTheDead at 10:32 AM on May 4, 2009

Best answer: You can find a description of how Roman censuses were taken here. To answer the technology or how-to question, in part it says:

"In ancient Rome there was a Registration Department for taking the Census. The Census at Rome was a numbering of the Roman people and also a valuation of their property. It was held in the Campus Martius after the year B.C. 432. Every Roman citizen was obliged, upon oath, to give in a statement of his own name and age, and of the name and age of his wife, children, slaves, and freedmen, if he had any...."

"The census was so perfect, that throughout the wide extent of the Roman empire every private estate was surveyed. Maps were constructed, indicating not only every locality possessing a name, but so detailed that every field was measured. And in the register connected with the map, even the number of the fruit-trees in the gardens, the olive-trees in the groves, and the vines in the vineyards, was set down, the cattle were counted, and the inhabitants, both slaves and free, were individually inscribed in this register. Not only every Roman province, and especially every Roman colony, but even every municipality, was surveyed with this extreme accuracy. A plan of the district was engraved on brass, and deposited in the imperial register-office; while copies were placed in the hands of the local administrations and in the provincial archives. The fact that these plans were' engraved on plates of brass is mentioned by Hyginus, and the practice of multiplying copies of these brazen plates on linen is incidentally recorded in the Theodosian code."
posted by Houstonian at 2:38 PM on May 4, 2009

So, I just want to get this straight: bearing in mind Houstonian's impressive find, is it possible the Romans forced everyone to go to their "official home town" because they were so anal about the census?
posted by metastability at 6:12 PM on May 4, 2009

What I mean is: Given the above, it is not hard to imagine the Romans requiring people to go back the their "official residence" for counting. The official residence is not necessarily the same thing as the place they were born, or where their ancestors were born. I'm just playing devil's -er, Jesus'- advocate here.
posted by metastability at 2:44 PM on May 5, 2009

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