A Survey of Schürer’s Challenges to the Lukan Census – 5

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series A Survey of Schürer’s Challenges to the Lukan Census

4.  Josephus doesn’t mention a Roman Census before 6 CE

Schürer, in his fourth challenge, rightly observes that Josephus does not mention a Roman census during Herod’s reign. Moreover, Schürer points out that Josephus referred to the Quirinian census of 6-7 CE as a “new and previously unheard of” event in Judea1

Some scholars suggest that Herod did conduct censuses, but according to Jewish models2—not Roman—to avoid upsetting Jewish religious and traditional sensibilities.3 The elaborate taxation system under Herod is often referenced as support here.45 Also of interest is the annual per capita (i.e. poll) tax imposed during Archelaus’ reign,6 which strongly indicates census activities under a Herodian ruler in pre-provincial Judea. It is currently unknown whether Archelaus’ poll-tax was a continuation from his father’s reign. The New Testament scholar, Armand Puig i Tàrrech, believes this to be the case, further arguing this poll-tax may have had its origin as far back as the Ptolemies.7

One last point of interest is the frequency of such Herodian censuses, if they did occur. Opinions range from six, seven, or fourteen years.8, with some commentators pointing to Josephus’ references of Herodian tax amnesties and required oaths as possible census dates.9  While Josephus does not refer to these events as censuses, it is possible that the two oaths, at a minimum, were in some way linked to census activities because of the need for personal inscriptions from the populace.10

4a. What did Josephus mean by “new and previously unheard of”?

The second part of Schürer’s fourth challenge argues that Josephus, in calling the Quirinian census “new and previously unheard of”, was referring specifically to the assessment of a Roman tax in Judaea.11 This makes the Lukan census—which Schürer insists was a Roman one—suspect, since it would render the Quirinian census only 12 years later neither “new” nor “previously unheard of”.12 As noted already, Schürer’s insistence on the registration in Luke 2:1 being of Roman design and administration is unnecessary.

Some scholars alternatively suggest that Josephus was not referring simply to the imposition of a Roman tax, but specifically to the introduction of the tributum soli (property tax)13 and/or the establishing of direct Roman rule, as what was new and previously unheard of.1415 These would have stood in stark contrast to Herod’s policy of opaque Roman rule under the guise of Jewish tradition.1617

Without more detail from Josephus, scholars admit they can only speculate on what exactly he meant. Also to be considered when dealing with Josephus, according to scholars, is the underlying motivation for his historical perspective.18

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  1. ‘History’, p. 127. []
  2. See Tàrrech, ‘Journey’, pp. 83-8, for more on “Jewish models”. Tàrrech argues that evidence of censuses in Judaean history (e.g. Exod 30:12-15; Num 1, 26; Ezra 2; Nehemiah 7) emphasizes how the Jews considered the land of Israel theirs by decree of God, apportioned to them by divine command. This, according to Tàrrech, explains the Jews’ grievance over the Quirinian census (see Josephus, Ant. 18:2, 9); Schürer disagrees (‘History’, p. 130)—for Tàrrech’s response, see ‘Journey’, p. 88, f54. []
  3. Bock suggests, ‘[A] previous census patterned after Jewish models most likely produced no reaction and may not have been worthy of Josephus’s attention.’,  ‘Luke’, p. 905; Tàrrech: ‘Herod’s census and taxation system was not an exact copy of the Roman census system nor did Herod need to fit his into this system. The Jewish sovereign had freedom to plan and act when dealing with his subjects…’ Journey’ p. 74. Schürer agrees that Herod did in most cases attempt to respect Jewish sensibilities, though he rejects Herodian censuses (‘History’, p. 42). []
  4. Pearson, ‘Revisited’, p. 269 and Tàrrech, ‘Journey’, p. 75. A good example is Josephus’ reference to Herod’s finance minister, Ptolemy, whose ability is seen in the up-to-date records he provided during Augustus’ execution of Herod’s estate. (Ant. 17.229) Schürer and Brown maintain that existence of such records does not have to mean censuses occurred. Pearson disagrees: ‘It seems implausible, therefore, to assume that Judaea had been without the practice of census taking prior to the establishment of direct Roman rule.’ ‘Revisited’, p. 266. []
  5. Tàrrech, Journey’, p. 77, f26. Cf. Pearson, who provides examples from Egyptian papyri of these scribes’ duties concerning censuses, ‘Revisited’, p. 271. Carrier rejects Pearson’s position but provides little support in his counter claim, ‘Nativity’, sect. 3 []
  6. Josephus, Ant., 17.308. []
  7. Tàrrech, ‘Journey’, p. 77. Cf. Josephus, Ant., 12.142. []
  8. ibid., p. 78 []
  9. These dates are 20/19 BCE, 14 BCE, and 8/7 BCE. The first two dates coincide with tax amnesties granted by Herod, while the first and last with required oaths to be taken by the Jews in 20 BCE (an oath of fidelity to Herod) and 8 BCE (an oath of allegiance to Herod and Augustus). Of interest is that of these three censuses, only the 8 BCE decree was solely by Augustus. The 28 and 14 BCE censuses were jointly decreed by Augustus, Agrippa and Tiberius, respectively—Tàrrech, Journey’, p. 80, f33. How that relates to Luke 2:1 is uncertain: ‘Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes’. See also Tàrrech, ‘Journey’, pp. 78-82, who gives a detailed account—drawing on other scholars—of circumstances surrounding each of the proposed censuses by Herod. []
  10. ibid., p. 82. []
  11. ‘The offensive thing, therefore, was not the taxing of property, or the form in which it was carried out, but the Roman taxation as such.’  ‘History’, p. 131. For a short critique of Schürer on this point, see Tàrrech, ‘Journey’, p. 88, fn. 54. []
  12. ‘History’ p. 130. Schürer suggests a census—which goes hand-in-hand with a poll-tax—would have occasioned “a rebellion” as with the Quirinian census. []
  13. Tàrrech suggests the key difference between Herod’s and Roman censuses was the Roman imposition of the property tax: ‘[T]he key aspect to a fiscal policy that would not upset the Jewish sensibility would be the equal application of a tributum capitis, instead of the tributum soli. This is the essential difference between a Jewish census (such as Herod’s) and a provincial Roman census (such as Quirinius’). […] Whilst the former is based on the registration of individuals and is designed for the collection of the per capita tax, the latter is based on the valuation of property and introduces an element, the taxable value of land, that goes against the sensibility of the Jewish religion.’ ‘Journey’, p. 87. []
  14. Bock combines the two: ‘Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.1 §§3–4 speaks of taxation as the problem, but only as an indication of Israel’s absence of liberty’, ‘Luke’, 905, fn. 14. []
  15. Bock suggests the revolt in 6/7 CE drew Josephus’ attention because it openly displayed direct Roman sovereignty over the former kingdom: “Such a negative reaction to the A.D. 6 census should not be surprising if Roman authority was emphasized and the Roman model of census-taking was followed’, ‘Luke’, p. 906. []
  16. Tàrrech, ‘Journey’, p. 87. Cf. Schürer (‘History’, Vol 1: pp. 437-8) for examples of Herod’s policy in this regard. []
  17. In other words, it is not that Roman censuses and taxation did not occur prior to Quirinius, but rather that Herod shrewdly incorporated such activities into his administration. []
  18. Not considered here is the historical reliability of Josephus, though much has been written on this topic. Witherington, citing other scholars, suggests, as a result of Josephus’ known historical inaccuracies, that he be cited critically and with close scrutiny; at least to the measure of scrutiny given to Luke. The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary’, p. 237 (1998). []

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