The Life of Christ

Mgr. E Le Camus




MEANWHILE the ninth month from the message of the Angel was approaching, and the pious couple, full of faith and hope, could foresee that hour wherein the Child of the promise should be born. Even though a child conceived during the time of betrothal was legitimate according to the law, there was for Mary a profound humiliation in becoming a mother before nine months of married life had passed and amid surroundings where she was observed of all. The elect of the kingdom of the Messiah must, to be sure, be able to submit with resignation to public scorn and to most unjust accusations in order to merit their spiritual rehabilitation; but it could not be part of the plan of divine Providence to permit even the slightest stigma to be attached to the reputation of Mary or of Jesus. God, Who directs men and events according to His will, provoked a political measure the result of which was to withdraw Mary and Joseph out of Nazareth, and put them amid new surroundings wholly indifferent to the apparent prematureness of a child's birth. The census of Palestine safeguarded the honor of the Holy Family and, at the same time, insured the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies by locating the cradle of the Messiah in Bethlehem, and not at Nazareth.

At that time, says St. Luke, Caesar Augustus published an edict for the enrollment of the whole Roman world.

The time was favorable. For the first time the empire was in the enjoyment of universal peace, the temple of Janus was closed, and Augustus, at the very apogee of his power, was enabled to busy himself advantageously with the organization of his vast estates.

Already, under the consulate of the first Caesar and of Marcus Antonius, 44 B.C., a decree of the Senate, dividing the empire into four parts, had sent out surveyors in all directions to measure the provinces and to make complete records of the survey of lands. This work, which lasted thirtytwo years, was completed only under Augustus. It was then that Balbus, according to the carefully collected results, outlined the configuration of all the provinces, and the agrarian law was everywhere proclaimed.1

The census of the population was the natural complement of the first work of surveying. In fact the Breviarium of the empire, written entirely under the hand of Augustus and read in the senate after his death, seems to indicate that this census had been already taken. We find there in detail all the revenues of the state, "the number of citizens and of allies in arms, the number of fleets, of kingdoms, and of provinces, the tributes and the feudal services."2 How explain this precious nomenclature without admitting a previous inquiry concerning the lands not only of the empire properly so called, but also of the allied peoples? Now Herod's kingdom was of the number of the regna reddita which were to be subjected to this measure.3 Since the taking of Jerusalem by Pompey, Judea was tributary to Rome, and paid both headtax and landtax. During the latter years of Saturninus, according to Josephus, the Jews were forced to pledge by oath their fidelity to the emperor Augustus.4

When, therefore, Caesar wished to have the census taken according to rule, he had only to speak; the vassal obeyed. For the census here spoken of seems to have been taken by the local authorities and according to Jewish customs. That is why Joseph went to be enrolled, not in Nazareth, his domicile, as the Roman custom5 would demand, but, following the national custom, in Bethlehem, the place where his ancestors were born. The entire organization of the Jewish state was based upon the distribution of Israel into tribes, races, and families. If one desired to determine the number of citizens with order and exactness, it was necessary to attach each individual to his family, each family to its race each race to its tribe. The Twelve Tribes constituted the entire genealogical tree of Israel, and each one thus brought its contingent to the formation of the whole population.

Women were inscribed upon the public registers only when, having no brothers, they inherited the paternal property.6 As we read nowhere that Mary had any brothers, it was probably under the title of heiress that she went to be enrolled with Joseph.

Some have asserted, not without some semblance of truth, that Mary took part in this enrollment, not by privilege, but because the obligation extended to all the women of Israel. We know,7 in fact, that the law subjected to the personal tax all women between the ages of twelve and sixty years; and it is not surprising that, in order to determine their age, they should be obliged to present themselves even in a purely preliminary census, which was preparatory to a redistribution of the tax. After all, it may be that, in taking his spouse to Bethlehem, Joseph simply had the intention of seeking there a new domicile, if perchance his family relations should promise him employment and a modest degree of comfort. But the reasons that soared above all human views were those of Providence: God wished officially to prove the authentic ties by which Mary's son was connected with David, the great king of Israel.

The date of this journey would be precious if it were well determined, for it would mark the exact epoch when the Savior of the world was born. But it is difficult to explain the passage in which St. Luke gives his chronological data. Does he say that the census was conducted by Quirinius who, at that time, was quaestor, and not governor of Syria?8 Some assert that he does, and they are supported by a certain appearance of truth.9

Does he say that this enrollment preceded or prepared that of Quirinius, as others understand it?10

In neither case have we the precise date. We are reduced to simple conjecture. Each one must be content to take this general information in the sense that he may judge best. St. Luke's narrative still retains all its authority, and we shall find a peculiar charm in devotedly following its details, which are as beautiful as they are true.

To be continued.


1 Frontin. de Coloniis, ed. Goes., p. 109.

2 Tacitus Annales, i, ii. Cf. Suetonius, August., xxviii, 101, and Dion Cassius. liii, 30; lvi. 33.

3 It is thought that the ninth and tenth lines to the right on the second tablet of the monument of Ancyra prove that the enrolment under Augustus included also the provinces which. were allied with Rome. Cf. Huschke on this question, compare Wieseler in his Synopse. Tertullian (adv. Marc., iv, 19) appeals to the public documents which prove historically that the census was taken under Augustus by Sentius Saturninus. The testimony of Cassiodorus (Var., iii, 52) and of Suidas under the word apografh though of later date, are not without real value, as is proved by their independent character.

4 Antiq., xviii, 24. Six thousand Pharisees refused to take the oath; therefore they had kept account by registering those who gave or refused this homage.

5 It is not, however, absolutely certain that the Roman law ordained that the enrollment of persons should be made in the place of residence and not the place of origin. We see in all times that the Latins residing at Rome were obliged to repair to their respective municipalities at the time of a census (Livy, xlii, 10). Since every native of Italy was a Roman citizen, it was decreed that each one should go to be enrolled in the city of which he was a citizen, that is, where he was born, where he had been adopted, or where he had been enfranchised; in other words, to his place of origin, whether natural or moral. (Cf. Zeller, Choix d'Inscriptions Romaines, p. 275: "Quae municipia." )

6 Numbers xxxvi, 89.

7 Ulpianus, D. L., xv, De Censibus

8 We know from Josephus, Antiq., xviii, i, i (cf. B. J., ii, 8, 1, etc.), that Quirinius, as governor of Syria, ten years later, took the census of Judea. This cannot be the one referred to here, unless we attribute a serious error to St. Luke.

9 They believe with Tacitus (Ann., 3, 48) that Quirinius, who was highly esteemed by the Emperor and deeply engrossed in the affairs of the Cast might have had the financial administration of Syria at the same time that Varus held the military government there, beginning in the year 748 A.U.C.; Josephus (Antiq., xvi, 9, 12, and Bella Jud., 1, 27, 2) assigns to quaestors as well as to governors the title hgemones; St. Luke's information, therefore, would be absolutely correct. Mommsen (Res. Gestae Augusti) has tried to prove from a tomb inscription found at Tivoli that Quirinius held the double administration of Syria. Zumpt (de Syria Romanorum Provincia) defends the same position, but relies on different arguments. Cf. Zumpt, Das Geburtsjahr Christi (1869), pp. 190. M. Bour published a remarkable work in Rome in 1897: L'Inscription de Quirinius et le recensement de S. Luc. See also in the Expositor, AprilJune, 1897, an excellent study by Prof. Ramsay: The Census of Quirinius.

10 Grammarians, long ago, in order to deliver apologists from a difficult and embarrassing text, translated this verse of St. Luke, "This enrollment took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria." Prwth is thus made a comparative preposition. It is not a rare thing indeed for a preposition to enter into the composition of a word and without repetition to govern all the words that follow. In St. John we read, ch. i, v. 15, Prwtos mou hn. (See also xv, 18.) Profane authors also have similar constructions. Others translate the egeneto as meaning "was completed," and the entire sentence reads: "This entire enrollment, commenced at that time, was completed under Quirinius." See Schanz, in Luc., ii, 2.

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