A Survey of Schürer’s Challenges to the Lukan Census – 3

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series A Survey of Schürer’s Challenges to the Lukan Census

2. Did Joseph have to go to Bethlehem?

Schürer here argues that Roman censuses did not require travel for registration purposes, pointing out that Rome would have considered such activities ‘troublesome’ and ‘inconvenient’, as well as outside the normal structure of a Roman census.1

There is evidence, however, that Rome did adapt its governance to local customs of vassal states, to include allowing the continuation of former regime administrative practices.2 These adaptive practices extended to census activities, as we have come to know from papyri discovered (c. 1905) documenting an Egyptian provincial census conducted in 104 CE that required travel to familial homes.3 Scholars cite this as favorable for Luke, removing the logistical impracticability posed by Schürer.4

Ever since the discovery of papyri recording house-to-house censuses at fourteen-year intervals in Egypt…we can be sure that a hard core of historical fact lies behind the passage from Luke, even if we cannot reconcile the time of the census with the traditional date of Jesus’ birth.5

2a. Did Mary have to go to Bethlehem?

Schürer contends that Roman censuses would not have required Mary to travel with Joseph, suggesting that women were not required to personally register,6 though he does concede that in some parts of the empire women were liable for the poll-tax.7 However, recent discoveries8 of registration documents from an early second century CE Arabian provincial census detail a woman traveling to her administrative district to personally register her property.9  While some details differ between the Arabian registration and Luke 2:5, this new evidence provides a historical context for Mary’s travel.10

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  1. Schürer, ‘History’, p. 120. []
  2. Non-Judean examples include pre-provincial Dura and Nabataea; see Cotton, Cockle, and Millar, ‘The Papyrology of the Roman near East: A Survey’ JRS 85, pp. 214–35 (1995). []
  3. ‘Gaius Vibius Maximus, the Prefect of Egypt, declares: The census by household having begun, it is essential that all those who are away from their nomes {A nome was an Egyptian administrative district -author} be summoned to return to their own hearths so that they may perform the customary business of registration and apply themselves to the cultivation which concerns them…’ Hansen, ‘Census Edict for Egypt’, http://www.kchanson.com/ancdocs/greek/census.html []
  4. Even Luke’s critics agree: ‘We do know that censuses could have such requirements for travel, not only from papyri but also from common sense: it is a well-known fact that even Roman citizens had to enroll in one of several tribes to be counted, and getting provincials to organize according to locally-established tribal associations would be practical…’, Carrier, ‘The Date of the Nativity in Luke’, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/quirinius.html; ‘[O]ne cannot rule out the possibility that, since the Romans often adapted their administration to local circumstances, a census conducted in Judea would respect the strong attachment of Jews to tribal and ancestral relationships.’, Brown, ‘Messiah,’ p. 549. []
  5. Cotton, ‘The Roman census in the papyri from the Judaean Desert and the Egyptian κατ οικιαν απογαφη‘ in ‘Semitic Papyrology in Context’, pp. 105-122 (2003). []
  6. Schürer, ‘History’, p. 121. []
  7. Specifically mentioned is provincial Syria. Schürer cites the Roman jurist Ulpian here, ibid, p. 111, f13. Scholarship is divided on the interpretation of Ulpian, specifically on whether or not women were required to personally register, though the requirement of their registration is undisputed. Schürer suggests the male head of the family registered the women, though he admits basing this claim on ‘assumptions’ of earlier scholars (p.121 and f51 respectively). Others are not so convinced, suggesting women personally appeared to register, Tàrrech, ‘Jesus: An Uncommon Journey: Studies on the Historical Jesus’, p. 77 (2010); cf. Nolland, ‘Luke’, p. 100; Marshall, ‘Luke’, p. 102. []
  8. ‘Cave of Letters’ discovery of 1960-61. []
  9. Cotton, ‘Papyrology’, pp. 112-3. []
  10. Even though Luke does not go into detail, commentators do habitually ascribe legal obligations to Mary’s travel. Not considered here, though worth mentioning, is that alternative explanations exist. For example, it may be as simple as Mary wishing to be with Joseph, perhaps specifically during the time of her delivery. Stein, ‘Luke’, p. 105 (1992). []

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