A Survey of Schürer’s Challenges to the Lukan Census – 2

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series A Survey of Schürer’s Challenges to the Lukan Census

The Five Challenges

1. An Empire-wide Census?

Schürer interprets Luke 2:1 as describing a single, empire-wide Roman census ordered by Augustus around 6 BCE. There is currently no historical evidence of any such imperial edict.

Current scholarship agrees, however, that Augustus did conduct numerous and varied census activities throughout the empire and its provinces.1 Because of this, scholars on both sides of the discussion suggest Luke was not referring to a general, imperial census as Schürer posits, but to a currently unidentified registration activity2 that affected Judaea in some way.

Luke’s words may intend no more than to express simply the fact that the census in Palestine took place as part of a coordinated empire-wide policy of Augustus.3

Luke’s description (2:1) that such an edict is empire-wide may simply reflect the ongoing census process of this period.4

The biblical scholar R. E. Brown, a noted critic of the Lukan Census, accepts this position.5

Did Augustus ever issue an edict that the whole world, i.e., the Roman Empire, be enrolled in a census? Certainly not in the sense in which a modern reader might interpret the Lucan statement! In the reign of Augustus there was no single census covering the Empire; and granted the different legal statuses of provinces and client kingdoms, a sweeping universal edict seems most unlikely. But Luke may not have meant a single census. […] what Luke may be telling us in an oversimplified statement is that the census conducted (in Judea) by Quirinius as governor of Syria was in obedience to Augustus’ policy of getting accurate population statistics for the whole Empire.


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  1. Scholarship is unanimous here. Schürer concurs: ‘The conclusion which we reach is simply this, that in the time of Augustus valuation censuses had been made in many provinces. […]  Augustus regarded it as his special task to restore matters to an orderly condition.’ ‘History’, p. 120. []
  2. The Biblical scholar I. H. Marshall states that Luke is using ἀπογράφομαι, which refers to an enrolment—most likely for taxing purposes, but not an actual taxing activity, Marshall, ‘The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text’, p. 98 (1978). Schürer agrees: ‘The verb ἀπογράφειν means first of all only ‘to register,’ and is therefore more general than the definite ἀποτιμᾶν, “to value.”‘, ‘History’, p. 112. []
  3. Nolland, ‘Luke 1:1–9:20 35A’, p. 99 (2002). [Emphasis in all quotes in this article is my own.] []
  4. Bock, ‘Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50’, p. 903 (1994). []
  5. Brown, ‘The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke’, pp. 548-9 (1993). []

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