SermonIndex Audio Sermons
Evan Roberts Quote : Christian Books : CHAPTER 8 THE SYRIAN ENROLLMENT IN 8 BC

Was Christ Born In Bethlehem by Sir William Mitchell Ramsay


IN the preceding chapter we have seen that, in all probability, Augustus inaugurated a series of enrollments in Egypt. Now, according to Luke, Augustus laid down the principle that |enrollments| should be made over the whole Roman world; and this assertion stands on a very different level of probability from that which it occupied before the Egyptian discovery. If Luke be wrong, his error has been to extend over the whole Roman world a practice which Augustus established in Egypt. Every one must see that such an extension is not likely to have been made without some justification by the author of Acts, whoever he was. If there is anything certain about him it is that he had neither connection with Egypt nor interest in it, and that he was entirely uninfluenced by Alexandrian thought or Egyptian ideas; he even omits from his Gospel the incident of the flight into Egypt, which a writer connected with Egypt would be most unlikely to do. Such an author is not likely to have known about institutions peculiar to Egypt; and, if he thinks that the system of periodical enrollments, which existed in Egypt, was also found in other parts of the Roman world, there is a strong presumption that such was the case at least in those parts of the world which were best known to him. The reasons stated above, chapters 6 and 7, confirm this presumption.

Other considerations, also, prove that some attempt was made in Syria, whether systematically or sporadically, to number the population Such enumerations can be traced back to the reign of Augustus and to the government of Syria by Quirinius.

An inscription, which was long the subject of keen controversy and was condemned by Mommsen and many others as a forgery, was recently found to be genuine, when half of the long-lost stone on which it was engraved was rediscovered in Venice. In that inscription, which records the career of Q Aemilius Secundus, a Roman officer, who served under Quirinius when governor of Syria, it is mentioned that by the orders of Quirinius he made the |census| of the population of Apameia, enumerating 117,000 citizens. The emphasis laid on the number suggests (though it does not demonstrate) that the numbering of the total population was the chief object of the Apamean |census|; in that case it would correspond to the periodic enrollment by households in Egypt rather than to the annual valuation.

The inscription leaves it uncertain whether the Apamean numbering occurred in the first or second administration of Syria by Quirinius. He is called legatus Caesaris Syriae, without iterum, but there was no need for expressing in the inscription that he had held the government of Syria on two separate occasions. Our opponents, who hold that there was only one census under Quirinius, are justified in maintaining that this inscription refers to a numbering of the population of Syria, made by Quirinius in AD.7 concurrently with his census and valuation in Palestine. We, on our side, are, for a different reason, bound to maintain that Quirinius ordered this enrollment of Apameia (and of all the other states of Syria) to be made in AD.7, as will appear in chapters 9 and 11.

Again, Suidas mentions that Augustus numbered the population of the territory that belonged to the Romans, and it was found to be 4,101,017 men (andres). It is obvious that Suidas did not simply invent this number, but had access to some other authority besides Luke (whom he quotes in one of the two places where he refers to this enumeration of the Roman world). The question is how far any confidence can be placed in that other authority. Had he real knowledge at his command?

The number seems so small as to be absurd. Josephus gives the population of Egypt, Alexandria excepted, as 7,500,000. Adding 500,00 as the population of Alexandria, we have the total Egyptian population, 8,000,000. But, according to Suidas, the population of the entire Roman world would not be much more than 21,000,000. Probably the populous countries of Syria and Asia Minor alone contained more than 21,000,000 inhabitants, though we must remember that no slaves were counted in the enrollments.

The most probable supposition is that Suidas is giving an inaccurate account of the total of Roman citizens. A numbering of Roman citizens was three times made by Augustus -- 28 BC., 8 BC. and 14 AD. -- and the total was in each case between 4,000,000 and 5,000,000. The liability of numbers to corruption is exemplified in the result of Augustus's first 80 census. The Latin text of the Monumentum Ancyranum, expressed in Augustus's own words, gives the total as 4,063,000, but the Greek translation gives 4,603,000, while Eusebius has it as 4,164,000. In the third census, Eusebius probably gave the correct total; but Jerome in his Latin version and the Armenian translator have both gone wrong in rendering Eusebius's words. Suidas, finding this total in Eusebius, took it as representing the total population of the empire, instead of the sum of cives Romant, an error which was easily made after the time of Caracalla, when all free citizens of the empire were cives Romani. Further, like Jerome, he misunderstood the numbers in Eusebius. Syncellus gives the total in still another form.

Thus Suidas, when we trace him back, is found to have been using a distinct and good authority, but to be misunderstanding and misrepresenting it. He throws no light on Luke's statement.

Further, there is a certain amount of positive evidence that |Enrollments| according to the Fourteen-Years'-Cycle were made in Syria and elsewhere. According to Luke, the first enrollment was made a few years BC. in the unknown year of Christ's birth, which is variously fixed, and must have been somewhere between 8 and 3 BC.. On the system that obtained in Egypt, the year 9 BC. would be the beginning of the second period; and the scanty evidence that exists about the general survey of the empire, shows that any enrollment according to the Cycle is not likely to have been made until the beginning of the second period. We find, then, that the year 8 BC. was the one in which the first |enrollment| would naturally begin to be made, if a Cycle was observed; for this enrollment was intended, as has been stated already, to include all children born in 9 BC. Now Tertullian declares that an |enrollment| was made by Sentius Saturninus, who was governor of Syria from about 9 to 7 BC. It is obvious that Tertullian did not make this assertion on Luke's authority, nor with the intention of bolstering up Luke. On the contrary, it has always been a serious problem how his statement can be reconciled with Luke's words. It can hardly be doubted that Tertullian was aware of the discrepancy between his own words and those of Luke; but he remains true to his own principle that |this world's things must be tested by its own documents|. He had the authority of Roman documents that Sentius Saturninus was the governor in question; and he prefers to follow |this world's documents|. The discrepancy with Luke would not trouble him; his belief was too robust-to be affected by trifles of that kind; but whether or not he understood how the apparent discrepancy arose, he at any rate followed his Roman authority in this detail.

Tertullian's procedure was probably this: he knew that an enrollment period fell in 9 BC. which was the first enrollment; and Roman authorities, either official documents or historians, showed him that Sentius Saturninus was governor of Syria at that time. The only other alternative seems to be that he investigated Roman documents, and found evidence that a census of Syria had been held by Saturninus. In the former case he was aware of the Fourteen-Years'-Cycle; in the latter case he knew of a census of Syria about 9-7 BC. and in either case he is an important yet independent witness in favor of Luke, so far as concerns the reality of a Syrian enrollment about 9-7 BC.

We must observe that it was possible for any one living in the first or second or third century to discover for himself the facts about any of these early enrollments, if he were willing to take a little trouble and show a little care. Accurate observation, registration and preservation of all facts formed the basis of Roman Imperial administration. We know from Pliny that the facts obtained at every census were so carefully preserved that in 48 AD. Claudius could verify from the records of earlier numberings the statement, which a citizen of a small Italian town made about his age; and there can be no doubt that similar careful preservation was the rule everywhere, as is proved in Egypt. Abundant material existed on which, the historian who was willing to take trouble could base an accurate narrative of facts. With an author of ordinary ability and care, serious error could hardly arise except from intention to mislead; though, of course, a slip in some unimportant detail may be made by any man, however careful, and probably none are free from them, not even Mommsen himself, whose grasp of detail is so marvelous.

The discrepancy between Tertullian, who seems to connect the birth of Christ with the enrollment of Saturninus, and Luke, who connects that event with the enrollment of Quirinius, will engage our attention in chapter 11. For the moment our purpose is to show that the Egyptian enrollment periods were observed in Syria and elsewhere. But the existence of such a discrepancy is the conclusive proof that Tertullian had good evidence to trust to. He would never have contradicted Luke as regards the name, unless he had obtained the fact on undeniable authority.

In the same year 8 BC.., in which |enrollments| seem to have been made in Syria and in Egypt, Augustus, as he mentions in his official review of his own life, made a census and found that the total number of Roman citizens in the whole empire was 4,233,000. A similar numbering of Roman citizens had been made by him in 28 BC.

The fact that Augustus's first two enumerations show an interval of twenty years forms no argument against our theory of a Fourteen-Years'Cycle. The first enumeration was made before the plan was initiated, and the second, the initiation of the plan, was fixed according to the epoch of 23 BC.

At any rate, 8 BC. was a marked year in the administration of the city of Rome. In that year, Augustus gave Rome a new municipal organization, dividing it into regions and quarters; and in a certain class of Roman city inscriptions, it is reckoned as the year 1 of an epoch which remained in use for a time. It was not an Imperial epoch; it was merely used in dating some documents connected with the new Roman municipal system, and the year I did not agree with the first of the Fourteen-Years'-Cycle, but was taken at, the: first year in which the new municipal system was actually in existence.

The next periodic year was 6 AD. and the enrollment would, therefore, naturally be taken in the following year, 7 AD. Quirinius was governor of Syria for the second time in 6 and the following years; and he held |the great census| and valuation of Palestine, as Josephus records. Judea was now incorporated in the empire, administered by a Procurator, and connected with the Province Syria; and a complete set of statistics of the new territory was required as the basis of the Roman organization. |The great enrollment| might, it is true, be plausibly explained as due merely to the necessities of administration in a newly incorporated part of the empire. But it is, at least, an interesting coincidence that it should tally with the beginning of a new Cycle. Moreover, it is practically almost certain that Quirinius made a numbering of the population of Syria in 7 AD. as we have gathered from the inscription of Aemilius Secundus, previously qouted. The natural inference from the known facts is that two operations, one corresponding to the Egyptian periodic enrollment and one corresponding to the Egyptian annual census and valuation, occurred in Palestine in 7 AD.; and that the periodic enrollment at least, if not the other also, was made throughout the province of Syria.

The Cycle beginning 6 AD. seems not to have been observed by Augustus himself in Rome. It is well known that, as he grew old and feeble, his administration became more lax. Possibly, as Luke declares, he intended in 9 BC. to begin a series of |enrollments| for the empire; but, if he had that intention, the idea was too great for the time and was not fully carried into effect. The administrative machinery of the empire was not as yet sufficiently perfect and smooth-working to be able to carry into regular execution such a great idea; and Augustus postponed the next numbering of Roman citizens, until Tiberius was associated with him in the government, when 4,937,000 Roman citizens were numbered, 14 AD. Dion Cassius indeed mentions that in 4 AD. Augustus made a partial census; but that would be two years too early; and, as Mommsen and others have shown, Dion Cassius's account of the various numberings made by Augustus is wrong in almost every case, and his assertion about a census in 4 AD. cannot be credited on his sole authority. Mommsen, therefore, rejects it as an error of Dion's.

The next periodic year fell in 20 AD.; but no evidence survives to show that it was observed in any part of the Roman empire. Perhaps after the numbering of Roman citizens in 14, it was considered unnecessary by Tiberius to hold another in 20; and our authorities hardly ever mention any numberings except of cives Romani.

The following census period began with 34 AD.; and it would appear that the numbering was held in the Province Syria in 35, as was usual. This we gather indirectly from the fact that an attempt was made by King Archelaos to enforce a census after the Roman style in his kingdom of Cilicia Tracheia. Now this kingdom was always considered as a dependency of the Province Syria; and, when any Roman interference in its affairs was needed, the Syrian governor marched an army into the Tracheiotis. Archelaos's attempt, therefore, implies that the census of Syria was taken in 35, and was observed also in the dependent kingdom of Tracheiotis. It may be regarded as obviously true that Archelaos acted under Roman orders, for the imposition of a Roman custom on the free Cilicians, as if they had been inhabitants of a Roman province, was a curtailment of his rights, which he was not likely to initiate of his own accord, and which a monarch would not allow except under compulsion. But nations which were not thoroughly Romanised strongly objected to the census as a mark of subjection to the foreigner and as a serious step forward in the process of Romanising their country. King Archelaos was considered by his subjects to be weakly helping to impose on them the Roman yoke with his own hand. Disturbances broke out among the Kietai, the leading people of Cilicia Tracheia; and, after the power of King Archelaos had proved insufficient to quell their, rebellion, the presence of Roman troops was required; and finally, in 36 AD. Vitellius, the governor of Syria, sent an army to his aid.

As in |the great enrollment| of Palestine in 7 AD., there was made in Cilicia in 35 AD. both a numbering of the population and a valuation of their property. A simple numbering of the people might not be felt so grievous, but a valuation of property seemed to be the beginning of incorporation in a province.

Some scholars understand that the census among the Kietai was held because they had been subjected to the Roman authority and incorporated in the province. But Tacitus distinctly states that they were subject to Archelaos, and continued to hold out against his troops. His language is quite explicit, and could be misinterpreted only through prejudice. Moreover, if the Kietai had been incorporated in the province, that would show even more conclusively that an enrollment of the province was made in 34-5 AD.

The next periodic year fell in 48; and Tacitus mentions that the Emperor Claudius held a census of the Roman citizens in that year, and numbered 6,944,000. He was personally engaged as censor in the operations at Ostia in the middle of October, 48 AD. The individual householders recorded their age in these numberings, just as they did in the Egyptian enrollments, for Pliny mentions that a citizen of Bononia stated his age as 150; Claudius thereupon ordered that his record in previous census should be examined, and his statements were found to be consistent. This fact, mentioned incidentally by Pliny, proves that several census had previously been taken, and suggests that there was a system and a definite plan in the enumerations. No one who considers the method of the Romans and the orderly character of all their work, will regard it as probable that the taking of these general numberings was left purely to the caprice of the emperor. Some plan and order must have been aimed at, though the weakness or caprice of the emperors might occasionally disturb the order. The existence of some underlying plan is inexorably demanded; and if the plan which existed in Egypt was not common to the whole empire, one asks what was the plan elsewhere, and why the empire followed separate plans in different regions.

Claudius evidently made his numbering a few months too early, before the periodic year was ended.

The succeeding census period, beginning in 62 AD. is not known to have been observed in any part of the Roman world except Egypt (where Mr. Kenyon's new discovery has revealed it); and the Subsequent one, 76 AD. was anticipated in Italy by two years, for Vespasian and Titus held the censorship in 73 and 74, and made all enumeration of Roman citizens.

These facts, most of them only slight in themselves, establish in conjunction a strong case that the periods of the Egyptian enrollments were frequently coincident with the holding of census in some other parts of the empire; and thus the presumption is strengthened that the Egyptian Fourteen-Years'-Cycle has its root in a principle of wider application. This brings us very near to Luke's statement that Augustus laid down a general principle of taking census of the whole Roman world. The supposition that his statement is true has now ceased to be out of keeping with extra-scriptural evidence. On the contrary, Luke's statement supplies the missing principle which holds together and explains and makes consistent all the rest of the evidence. When Luke's evidence is held correct, the other recorded facts fall into line with it, and are seen to be the working of one general principle. Though weakness sometimes failed to carry out the principle, and though in other cases the time was anticipated a little, yet the recorded facts show a clear tendency to conform to the Cycle.

In a number of cases nothing except the census of Roman citizens is recorded. Almost all Romans, with characteristic Roman pride, regarded a census of the subject population as beneath the dignity of historical record. Augustus himself, in that famous record of his achievements, which is commonly known as the Monumentum Ancyranum, mentions only his census of Roman citizens. Distinct evidence exists that the first and second periodic enrollments were carried out in Syria; but the Emperor thought them unworthy of notice in his review of his services to the State. Similarly it is only by indirect inference, through the accident that a rebellion was provoked, that we learn of the fourth enrollment in Syria. The Romans of that period did not agree with our estimate of what was most important in their history; and we must be very chary of drawing negative inferences merely from their silence. Evidence about the details of the Augustan system of provincial administration had almost completely perished, until inscriptions began to reveal a few isolated facts.

Hence the silence of Augustus about the scheme of an Imperial census affords no argument against his having projected such a scheme. In his review of his career, Augustus says nothing about the reorganization of the. provincial administration (which, to our judgment, is almost the most important fact in his career); he mentions nothing about the provinces except the colonies which he founded in Pisidia, Gallia, etc., and the colonies are mentioned simply because they were settlements of Roman citizens. He therefore could not, ill accordance with his own plan, mention the scheme of numbering the subject population; he only speaks of the numbering of the Romans. Moreover, the principle of periodic enrollments appears not to have been, perhaps, carried out completely, and could not claim a place in the list of the emperor's achievements.

The most important fact is that we have clear evidence, quite independent of Luke, that the first, second and fourth periodic enrollments were observed ill the Province Syria. The evidence for the first is Christian, and is therefore commonly set aside, except when the |critical| -- or rather uncritical -- theologian desires to bring out that these Christians don't even agree with one another: then he quotes Tertullian.

The evidence for the second. periodic enrollment in Syria lies in the chance preservation of an inscription, ill which a Roman officer recorded his service at Apameia; but this evidence was long discredited as a forgery, made in modern times by some person who wanted' to illustrate Luke, and pretended to have copied the inscription from a stone. The demolition of a house in Venice revealed the stone, and justified the inscription.

The evidence for the fourth periodic inscription is, found in Tacitus. Had the authority been a mere Christian, his words would have been ridiculed and disregarded.

But three occurrences are sufficient to show what was the law of recurrence. If the other evidence is enough to suggest that some system was recognized in Syria, then the three dates show that the Fourteen-Years'-Cycle was the system which was followed there.

Further, we observe that in all three cases it is only by a mere accident that we learn about the occurrence of a census -- a casual reference in Terullian's disputation against a heretic: the chance preservation of an inscription in Venice: the fact that a disturbance in a dependent kingdom was too serious for the king's strength, and required the intervention of the Roman arms, and thus rose to the level of dignity required for mention in Tacitus's Annals. The ordinary class of inscriptions on stone does not mention events of this kind, except through an occasional chance, as, e.g., that some private: individual was specially concerned with the taking of a census (like Aeimilius Secundus). But we cannot expect many such chances, as have preserved the memory of the three enrollments in Syria.

In Syria there existed the same reasons which are considered by Wilcken to have required the periodic enrollment by households in Egypt. In both countries there existed a poll-tax (which was not a general Roman institution): conscription and imposition of various burdens in the State service were common to all parts of the empire: hence the periodic enrollments would enable the machinery of government to work with much greater ease and certainty in Syria.

Any rational and scholarly criticism must accept the conclusion: There was a system of periodic enrollment in the Province Syria, according to a Fourteen-Years'-Cycle (in the modern expression -- Fifteen-Years'-Cycle in the Roman form), and the first enrollment was made in the year 8 BC. (strictly the Syrian year beginning in the spring of 8 BC.).

The fact that there exists no evidence of such frequent taking of census in Syria, as we suppose, constitutes no disproof of our theory. The evidence has perished. Twenty years ago no one dreamed to what a degree of minuteness and perfection the registration of inhabitants, property and values in Egypt was carried by the Romans. The evidence seemed to have perished. Now the graves and rubbish-heaps of Egypt have begun to give up their evidence; and our knowledge of Roman provincial administration has entered on a new stage. But elsewhere we cannot hope for such discoveries as in Egypt, for other climates are too moist to allow paper to survive. But the analogy of Egyptian administration is a strong argument as regards Syria; and, if Augustus instituted periodic enrollments in Egypt, the evidence of Luke, implying that he ordered a similar system in the whole empire, and that the system was carried into effect in Syria, has every probability in its favor and will be accepted by every candid historian.

We have the evidence of Justin Martyr a native of Syria, writing about 150 AD., that the tabulated information gathered from the periodic enrollments of the province was preserved, and might be consulted by any who doubted the evidence of Luke. Writing to the emperor, the Caesars, the senate, and the people of Rome, he tells them that they can learn the facts regarding the birth of Christ from the registers made under Quirinius. It is obvious that Justin had not himself consulted the registers. He merely knew that they existed and might be consulted. The facts he takes from Luke, and challenges all to disprove them by appeal to the registers.

Similarly Tertullian appeals to the letter of Marcus Aurelius, in which he had informed the senate of the important service rendered by Christian soldiers in the German war. He had not seen the letter himself, but he knew that all such documents addressed to the senate were preserved, and challenged his readers to consult the letter for themselves.

It would be quite fair to quote Tertullian as evidence (if any evidence were needed) that such Imperial letters were preserved in official records; and similarly it is quite fair to quote Justin as evidence that the registers of the Syrian enrollments were preserved and might be consulted by those who wished.

Mr. Kenyon writes that natives of Egypt refer to previous enrollments as evidence of relationship, etc. Josephus, Vit., 1., apparently is quoting similar enrollment-registers, when he speaks of the evidence for his family history.

Justin himself had no desire or need to consult the registers in order to be convinced. It was quite enough for him that Luke recorded the facts; and he asked no further evidence. As to questions of date and officials he felt no interest. Perhaps he may have interpreted Luke's words as referring to Quirinius's second government of Syria in 6-7 AD.; but he styles him procurator of Palestine, which does not suit that or any office held by him, for the procuratorship was an equestrian position, while Quirinius was of senatorial rank. But it tended to convince the Romans that the Gospels as a whole were true, if these little details were found to be correctly stated; and therefore he challenges his readers to verify them for themselves.

<<  Contents  >>

Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival.
Affiliate Disclosure | Privacy Policy