About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."


The census when Quirinius was governor of Syria

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
This was the first registration which happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Those are familiar and well loved words opening the Christmas Story in the Gospel of Luke. They are associated with the joy of Christmas but behind these words is hidden a major and violent upheaval. What seems like an innocuous dating remark about a census was actually a bitter grievance which triggered a decades long guerilla war. It was started and led by Judas the Galilean and his resistance movement which became known as the Zealots.
    How could a census lead to a guerrilla war? Because an ancient census was not primarily about better governance but about collecting taxes. In fact one of the most unjust forms of taxes - per capita tax (a head tax). Some time ago I explained it to the children in our Sunday School with pieces of pasta.
It is a per capita tax, everyone pays the same. A rich person pays ten pieces from his several boxes of pasta, and a poor person also pays ten pieces from his one handful of pasta. Both payed exactly the same. It looks just, but the rich guy has plenty left, while the poor lost a third of his dinner! 
     These are the tricks which some politicians play with taxes. It looks like a just arrangement, it looks like a good deal. All pay the same or, for instance, all receive a tax cut - but in fact it is utterly unjust and unfair. Judas the Galilean quite rightfully protested calling this tax “not better than slavery and a means to take away the nation’s liberty.” And because of this census and taxation injustice he started a seventy years long guerilla war against the Romans and their unjust ways.
    And this is something you might not know about the Christmas Story. 

In worship this Fourth Advent Sunday we will search for hope in the midst of such injustice and bureaucratic abuse of power and we will look for it from the perspective of pregnant Mary traveling to Bethlehem in her third trimester.

Fragment of a tomb inscription, probably belonging to Quirinius.

And for those who read this far here are few more details:
The Gospel of Luke is referencing historical figures and events, but their rendition is historically inaccurate and outright implausible.
1) Caesar Augustus did begin the practice of a regular and periodic count (Lat census, Gk apographe) of the population of the provinces of the Roman Empire but it never was a universal census of the entire empire, as described in the Gospel.
2) Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (c. 51 BC – AD 21) was a Roman aristocrat and a successful politician/administrator. He indeed was a governor of Syria
, but this dating does not fit with the rest of the Gospel of Luke by about a decade. 
3) Roman census involved the counting of
the population and valuation of individually and corporately held property. It did not require a return of individuals to their ancestral homes.

The primary reason of this text is theological. Biblical prophecies predicted, that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem. Jesus was known to come from Nazareth. The Evangelist Luke therefore created this story about the census travel to explain why and how Jesus of Nazareth could come from (be born in) Bethlehem and thus fulfill the ancient prophecies. The author of the gospel of Matthew had the same problem and solved it differently - Jesus' family was originally from Bethlehem, but escaped via Egypt to Nazareth. 

Thus indeed the primary focus of these nativity stories was theological. They confirm the fulfillment of biblical prophesies and rebuff adoptionism - Jesus was not adopted to be the Son of God at any later stage because of his special character or spiritual perfection, he was the Messiah from the moment (or even from before) of his birth. 

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