Luke 2: 1-2: Augustus, the Census and Rome

Rome © 2018 Simon Peter SutherlandWell, the Christmas season is upon us! Yet recent months and hours have been a strange time for the people of Britain. England is politically divided and chaotic, the country appears to be tearing itself apart and it is difficult for the average person to see any bright future? However, I have repeatedly stated that an East Wind is coming, and I believe it is. But I know that God is in control.

Sometimes in this wicked world, it is necessary for a person to set himself apart and come away a while. In November I visited Rome. This was my third visit. Rome is a bustling busy city, and being there is like walking through an outdoor museum. The streets are filled with ancient rubble. A person who visits Rome is walking in the footsteps of historic giants.

Rome Forum © 2018 Simon Peter SutherlandThe Roman Forum is by far one of my beloved areas of Rome. Here I can bathe myself in Biblical history and bring myself back to what really matters. Biblical Truth! Here stands The Arch of Titus, The Temple of Caster and Pollux, The Curia Julia, where Paul stood trial. The location of the conflict between Peter and Simon Magus.  The Mamertine Prison, where tradition claims Peter and Paul were imprisoned.

Across the way from the Mamertine, there stands the remains of the ancient Forum of Augustus. This forum was inaugurated in 2 BC by the man who decreed the census to be taken around the time when Jesus was in the womb of Mary.

In Luke 2: 1-2 it reads: “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.” (NKJV)

By Luke’s reference to “all the world” I take that to mean all the Roman world. The Greek (G3625) is with special reference to a part of the globe, “specifically the Roman Empire”. However, the facts surrounding the census are still a matter of much debate.

Yet in The Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome, there once stood Bronze pillars which had an engraved reference to a Census of Augustus. This funerary inscription is known as “Res Gestae Divi Augusti“. It was upon this inscription where Augustus recorded the achievements he had made during his life. One such achievement reads “CENSVM-POPVLI”. This when translated reads ‘I did a census‘.

Dates for this census are well established, but my question is; could this reference be remotely related to the census written about by St. Luke? After three visits to Rome I have concluded that Luke probably wrote his Gospel from this ancient City of Seven Hills. However, some modern scholars claim there is no historic evidence for the census of Luke 2: 1-2. Yet in claiming this they assume Luke’s narrative is not a reliable source. Likewise, they sometimes fail to explore the possibilities of other arguments and views that differ to their own. They often likewise ignore the possible translations issues concerning the correct rendition of (G2958) and the possibility of a continued or repeated census.

In a pause of reflection, what strikes me about Augustus and the “Gestae Divi Augusti” is how historically absolute it is that this Roman Emperor was distinctly associated with a census. Whichever way we look at it, we cannot dismiss that Augustus was known for a census of the Roman world.

What Luke was communicating was a fulfilment of the Scripture that a ruler over Israel would come out of Bethlehem (Micah 5: 2). That the ancestral home of Joseph was Bethlehem. Yet, when Augustus Caesar did his census, he thought he was bringing this about of his own power. But Luke was communicating that it was God who was bringing it to pass, not man.

Here we can learn. The world is a mess. People are sinful and depraved. Does that mean that Christ is not reigning or a Ruler? Has God lost control of His universe? On the contrary. There is no greater way to cause people to change their ways than pain. In the Scriptures God often hands nations over to corrupt leaders to teach them and bring them to repentance. Yet He must have been reigning in order to have done such things.

It is Christ who holds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1: 3) there is no governing power outside of Him. By bringing about a Census, Augustus was doing the will of God, not the will of man. We all must learn from that. Christ is in control.

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  1. Tertullian and the Census of Luke 2: 1-2 | Simon Peter Sutherland

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