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.) Luke 2:1-2
Caesar Augustus was a larger-than-life figure in Roman history. The Senate acclaimed him “Augustus” (most revered), and he ruled as Rome’s first “emperor” from 27 BC to 14 AD. All the same, he was not destined for greatness from birth. Julius Caesar adopted young Octavian (his given name), who was his grand-nephew, as his heir. Octavian then won support from important military and political leaders who helped him gain power and authority after Julius Caesar’s assassination. His impressive legacy was largely the result of status that he carefully crafted.
In keeping with the pattern of Roman control of conquered territories, Augustus issued a census decree. This was common custom. The reach of Rome’s empire required a counting for the purpose of taxation and management. Luke adds another detail regarding the timing: A man named Quirinius had a leadership role in the Roman province of Syria at the time.
Clearly, there was purpose behind Luke’s unique recounting of Jesus’ birth. He was locating Jesus in historical time and place. The birth of Jesus, true God who took on human flesh, was not some sort of myth. The context was genuine. Additionally, Roman census methods required registration at the place of family origin. This meant that Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary, would need to head south from Galilee to Bethlehem—in fulfillment of a prophecy from Micah (5:2). God’s plans happened as he said they would.
No doubt, however, you have heard that piecing together the details from whatever remains of the ancient evidence is not an easy task. This much can be verified: Caesar Augustus issued several census decrees during his reign; the biblical description fits what we know about Roman procedure; Quirinius served as a leader in Roman Syria. The exact chronological sequencing is difficult to order with precision based on the human records available. By faith, we trust that we have an accurate account.
That’s the history lesson. And then consider the legacies. Caesar, a human, claimed divine status. Jesus, God from eternity, humbled himself to be born in time and die as a human to save humans from their sin. Augustus looks humanly impressive; Jesus appears humanly defeated. Appearances can be deceiving. Faith grasps the truth.
Lord, sanctify us by the truth; your Word is truth. Amen.
Rev. Paul Koelpin serves Martin Luther College as a professor of theology and history.