“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” (Luke 2:1)
Caesar Augustus, or to give him his full name, Imperator Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius Divi Filius Augustus, was effectively the founder and first Emperor of the Roman Empire. Born September 23rd 63 BC he became Emperor on 16th January 27 BC, and his reign initiated an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana, which would see the Mediterranean region living in this peace for over two centuries. During this time the Roman Empire was expanding on several fronts, from Egypt in the south to Germany and Spain in the north and west. Syria to the north of Judea marked the eastern boundary of Rome’s conquest under Augustus.
Caesar Augustus was one of Rome’s few benevolent Emperors, and the longevity of his reign was a significant contributory factor to the legacy of prosperity and peace in the Roman world at that time. He laid the foundations of a governmental system that stood the Empire in good stead for the next 200 years, and was the basis of the Republican framework for the Western Roman Empire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. He transformed the city of Rome with the first institutionalised police force, an organised fire-fighting force and the establishment of the municipal prefect (a kind of local government officer).
Augustus, as most Romans of his time, was a pantheist, worshipping multiple gods. He was instrumental in the restoration of many temples, seeking to encourage the people back to the worship of the ancient Roman gods, especially Juno. He sought to revive the old morality and simple life of the past, and to restrain the vices which were destroying the population of Rome. He discouraged the introduction of foreign deities. He felt particularly strongly about discouraging adultery, making it a civil crime (ie a crime against the state) instead of a personal crime, and he politically and financially rewarded families with three or more children, especially sons, believing that there were too few “legitimate” children born of legalised marriages. Conversely he imposed an additional tax on unmarried men over 38 years old.
It was this concern over his perceived decline of the “legitimate” population of the Roman Empire that draws Caesar Augustus into being involved in our journey that culminated in the birth of Yeshua in Bethlehem. Luke tells us that “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered”. So what was it that Caesar Augustus decreed? In effect, what Luke is here referring to was a general census of the population of the Roman Empire (all the world). Whilst its secondary purpose may have been to raise revenue in the form of taxation, it is far more likely that the main purpose of the exercise was to monitor and provide data on population growth, in much the same way as our modern 10-yearly censuses do in the UK. We know from other historical records (ie Augustus’s own records: Res Gestae –“The Deeds of Augustus”) that Augustus inaugurated three universal censuses during his time as Emperor – in 28 BC, 8 BC and 14 AD. Now, we also know from other records that Yeshua was probably born in the Autumn of 6 BC (how this date is calculated was covered earlier in this series). So why the two year discrepancy?
At this time, Judea was a Roman province, but not officially part of the Roman Empire. It was effectively an annexed state of Syria, but was strategically important to the Romans because of its position geographically as the gateway to the Nabatean region. The governmental responsibility lay with King Herod as a puppet-king of the Roman Empire – we will look more closely at him later in this series. Priority would have been given to obtaining census data from the more central and readily accessible parts of the empire first, and it would have taken anything up to two years for the census-takers to travel to the more distant outposts of the empire. So although the decree may have been issued in 8 BC, it perfectly fits the timeframe for the birth of Yeshua in 6 BC.
Amos tells us that God does nothing without first telling the prophets. The prophet Micah clearly prophesied that the birthplace of Yeshua would Bethlehem: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2). God already had a plan, and it included a Roman Emperor with a concern for family life to be instrumental in arranging the circumstances of Miriam and Joseph being in Bethlehem when the time came for Yeshua to be born.