Those who know the story of the birth of Jesus, know it took place in Bethlehem, in humble circumstances, because Mary and Joseph, were required to travel to the town of his forefathers because of a taxation census being held at the order of the Roman Emperor Augustus. A million sermons have been preached around these facts. Luke puts it simply:
LK 2:1-7 "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."
Historians love to debate the question of dating: which Caesar? Which Governor? Which Census? The actual birth narrative of Jesus is brief. Luke stresses three things: (1) the political situation to explain why Jesus' birth took place in Bethlehem; (2) the geographical location at Bethlehem, the town of King David, to stress Jesus' claim to be the Messiah; (3) and the humble circumstances of Jesus' birth to stress the identification of Jesus with the poor of the land. But the questions still remain:
1. WHICH CAESAR?
Luke clearly secures the historical and chronological moorings of Jesus' birth during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Originally Caesar was the name of the dictator Julius Caesar. On his death, his heir and adopted son Augustus added Caesar's names to his own. It was the custom for a person, when he was adopted, to take most of his name from his adopter. Subsequently, Caesar was given to those whom Augustus adopted and to their direct descendants, including the emperor Tiberius. Later, Claudius, Nero and others used it too as an imperial title although they did not belong to the same family.
The mention of Caesar Augustus not only gives historical background but also contrasts the human with the divine decrees. A mere Galilean peasant is forced to travel to Bethlehem at the decree of the Roman emperor far away in the marbled halls of Rome. Caesar did not know his order fulfilled God's plan and scriptural prophecy. Luke does know and so used must to describe what is done. Which Caesar is clear: it was Augustus. But Caesar Augustus was the tough autocrat who ruled the Roman Empire for 57 years, from 43 BC to 14 AD. When during this time was Jesus born? To answer that, we need to know who was the local regional governor of that time.
2. WHICH GOVERNOR?
Luke is clear. "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) Syria was the whole region under the governor.
Quirinius is well known to historians. He lived in Syria and did conduct an infamous census. The distinguished career of Quirinius is well documented from contemporary inscriptions as well as Latin and Greek historical writers, chief among them Josephus. In the five passages written by Josephus about Quirinius, each is about taxing Judeans and its consequences. In one passage Ant 18.26 Quirinius' census is set in the 37th year after the defeat of Mark Antony by Augustus. This notorious census took place in the year 6 AD, ten years after the birth of Jesus. So many scholars argue that Luke is wrong. He is right about the census but wrong about the name of the governor at the time.
But Luke knows about this notorious census that led to political rebellion. He refers to it later as the census Acts 5:37 When he refers to the census at the time of the birth of Jesus he refers to it as the first or former census. 2:2
As Jesus was born while Herod was alive, and as Herod died in 4BC, it is likely that the date of the birth of Jesus was between 6 and 4BC. We are helped by the reference that Jesus was about 30 years of age 3:23 in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar's reign which was in 27 AD. This dates the birth of Jesus in 4 BC. In other words, the third millennium started four years ago in 1997! Intriguingly, there is an inscription, now in the Vatican Museum, which refers to a nameless Roman who was twice governor of Syria, once at the time of the birth of Jesus and once at the time of the universal census in 6AD. This, almost certainly, was Quirinius.
3. WHICH CENSUS?
Caesar Augustus was the great Roman administrator. He began a regular and periodic count of the population of all the provinces of the Roman Empire, and a valuation of individually and corporately held property for the assessment of tax liabilities. He ordered a fresh census every fourteen years. Revenues which the imperial government extracted from the provinces included taxes on land, variable-rate taxes on goods, a fixed tax on each liable individual, rents on imperial and public property, percentage taxes on Roman citizens, and extraordinary levies. The Romans would have wished for a simple G.S.T.!
Augustus sold the rights to collect taxes to tax-collectors who frequently became powerful and corrupt. It was customary to return to one's original home for such a census. Luke, careful researcher that he was, 1:14 stressed the census for good historical reasons. Luke does not say why Joseph took Mary with him. It is possible that he used Caesar's order as a means of removing Mary from gossip and emotional stress in her own village. He had already accepted her as his wife Matt 1:24 but apparently they continued as v5 "pledged to be married" till after the birth. The text does not say the couple arrived in Bethlehem just as the baby was about to be born. Luke simply states that the birth took place "while they were there". v6 Mary had stayed three months with Elizabeth early in her pregnancy, so it is probable that Mary went down during her last trimester of pregnancy, to avoid social stigma in Nazareth. How long the birth was after their arrival is unknown.
The word "inn", v7 meant a place where people stayed: soldiers, traders and travelers. Luke states the simple fact that when Mary's time came, the only available place for the little family was one occupied by animals. A stable is not mentioned. It may have been a cave or some part of a house or inn. Even today in many places around the world, farm animals and their fodder are often kept in the same building as the family quarters. The eating trough, or "manger," was ideal for use as a crib. Luke contrasts the rights of the Messiah in his own "town of David" and the very ordinary and humble circumstances of his birth. Luke realistically presents Jesus' humanity and poverty.
There is one other point to note. Relations between Augustus and Herod deteriorated towards the end of Herod's rule, that is, near to the time of the birth of Jesus. Augustus threatened to treat Herod as no friend but a vassal. The ensuing political tensions would have provided an opportunity for Rome to remind Herod who was boss by ordering a fresh census and higher taxes. We do not have the evidence to support this at this stage. But Luke declares the first census was held while Herod was still alive.
What can we learn from all this?
History is fascinating and all new pieces of evidence help us understand the total picture. History is really "His story", the story of what God is doing in the lives of people. We never need be afraid of searching out the details of any Biblical account, because the results of continuous archaeological discovery, fills in the gaps and removes apparent contradictions.
No discovery yet has contradicted anything of importance in the scriptures, but every discovery helps colour in the total picture.
The Christmas story is based in fact, real people, real places, real events. The authors, Matthew and Luke, are good historians, tying the events in the life of Jesus to secular historical events, which enables us to date them despite the absence in that time of a fixed calendar. Luke tells us, Luke 1:1-4 "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught."
Politicians make edicts that change our lives. Caesar Augustus passes laws in Canberra, Washington or Moscow, and people half a world away have their plans changed and their hopes dashed. But God is still in control. God works through them to achieve His purpose. The Old Testament said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah. It was a small, insignificant town, but it was the place the great King David made his own. One of his descendents would be Messiah and would be born there. Joseph had neither the money nor the inclination to go there from Nazareth where he had his home and carpenter's shop. But Caesar Augustus sent down the decree that the Empire needed to be re assessed for tax purposes.
Perhaps as a punishment to Herod. Perhaps Judah was among the earliest to be taxed. But for whatever the reason, Joseph had to return to the town of his forefathers, to his ancestral village, and he took Mary with him. So the decisions of men can fulfill the will of God.
That gives me a lot of comfort. Too often I think of only the decisions of some powerful people and how they shall impact upon the lives of the poor and powerless. Then I remember God is still in control! The Apostle Paul, traced the divine hand working down through the ages in fulfilling His purpose for the salvation of the world. He concluded: Rom 8:28 "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." In all things! Even these hard, political, cruel, uncomfortable things, God works for good for those who love Him!
I must just place my life in line with His will. Then it does not matter what Caesar Augustus may decree, God has His plan and He is working His purposes out. My sole responsibility is to get my life right with God through the forgiveness of my sins and my acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Saviour who died that my sins might be forgiven. With Christ as Saviour, I am right with God, and when I am right with God, it does not matter the Caesar, the Governor nor the census! When I am within the will of God, I rest in the palm of His hand knowing that all things will work for good for those who love God.