How did the census of the Roman empire set the stage for the Nativity of Christ?

The border between the two Testaments became the day that changed the whole life of Mary.  However, the real line between the Old and the New would lie along the river of Jordan. Christ says: “Before John there is the Law of Moses and the Prophets”. He himself kept silent until the moment the voice of His Forerunner had sounded.

The rabbis were right saying that the messiah would not be recognized for a long time. Jesus Christ remained out of sight for 30 years. However, not everything was the same in that process of preparation. The knowledge we got from the first Christians tells almost nothing about the first years of the Messiah’s life in Nazareth. At the same time, the story of his birth abounds with dramatic events. This contrast can hardly be accidental.

The Kingdom of God grew on earth “imperceptibly”, but the very first moment of the appearance of God could not happen unnoticed at all. When the Heavenly Stone, which had been foreseen by Prophet Daniel, touched the top of our history, he caused rings on its surface. Someone must have responded, felt the mysterious sense of the event, happening in predawn darkness.

The Nativity story by Apostle Luke begins with an epic phrase: “It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” By the “entire world” the Romans referred to their empire, which they were proud to call the “Ecumene” – the Universe. The three censes held by Emperor Octavian were a sum up of his reign lasting for more than 25 years. Analyzing the results of the census he could observe all his lands and tribes with a single look.

It seems, the Evangelist was talking about the census held in 8 B.C. However, it concerned only those  people, who were the citizens of the Roman Empire; but according to Tacitus, later Augustus began to keep record of the enrtire population in all the provinces and satellite states. The latter included Judea as well. As a vassal monarch, Herod had to take care about fulfilling the will of his patron.

Joseph Flavius did not mention the census during the Herod’s reign, but when he mentioned the Jews who refused to swear allegiance to Augustus, he stated that there were 6000 of them. Thus we can say that the king had to organize kind of a registration of the citizens, and it was held soon after the Ecumene census of Augustus.

Apostle Luke continues: “And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.” Such type of registration would make a lot of people flock to the biggest cities. On these grounds the critics hurried to call the Evangelist’s story a fictional one. First of all, they obviously exaggerated the difficulty of the affair. At that time Palestine was a small land with a small number of people, which allowed the Jews to come to Jerusalem each year on Easter. Secondly, it could be that King Herod did not dare to hold the registration by the Roman example, being afraid of uprisings. At that time people reacted aggressively on such measures, as they could lead to new taxes. It would be easier for the king to do it according to the style that people in the East were more accustomed to, which meant gathering reminaing donations collected during the fest of Easter. Another way was to check the books of genealogy, which meant that people had to come to their cities, where those books were kept.

There is a papyrus stating: “Gaius Vibius Maximus, the ruler of Egypt, orders: as far as we are going to register the population, all the people who live outside their homeland have to come back to their native districts to join the census in the usual manner.”  It seems that something of that kind happened in Judea between the years 7 and 6 A.D.

There is only unresolved question remined: how is Roman Emperor Quirinius, mentioned by Apostle Luke, connected with these events? The Evangelist calls the census as the first, perhaps, to differ it from another one, organized in Palestine by Quirinius 12 years later, when King Herod was already dead. It is unclear what position Quirinius had in 7 A.D., but he certainly could be responsible for the affairs in the Herod’s kingdom. Anyway, according to the Romans’ point of view, those censes were insignificant. While preparing for a trip to Bethlehem, Joseph could hardly think about the affairs and plans of the great ones of the world. He had his own worries.

Thus we may see that the Holy History and the Roman politics did not come into contact. But we cannot imagine an event which could become a more suitable background for the Nativity, than the census, which reached all over the largest state of the world. The opposition and connection between two kingdoms – the kingdom of Ceasar and the kingdom of Messiah – is significant by itself. The One, Who was going to announce the brotherhood of people, was born at the time, when the dream of uniting the whole world seemed almost fulfilled. Both kingdoms have the same goal – humanity, which is born from different nations. However, this similarity is shallow. In fact, the “gospel” of Augustus will be an antagonist for the Gospel of Christ forever.

“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth,
into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem;
(because he was of the house and lineage of David:),
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.” (Luke, 2:4-5)

To expose a woman to have such a trip right before labor meant to take a huge risk. What is more, only men were registered in the lists, and Mary could  have stayed in Nazareth. It seems, there were some other reasons which made Joseph come there with his wife. Anyway, Joseph left Nazareth and went on the road, “ascending” to Judea, as it was common to say there.

It was hard for Mary to endure the week-long trip. The years of Her challenges began with that self-exile, in which She shared the fate of all the rejected people. She was ready for this while remaining true to her vow: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word…”

The wayfarers were on their way. During their trip they would have to alternate between coming down the valley ascending the steep hills of the region. They had to get around hostile Samaria, called Sebaste at that time, to pass noisy Jerusalem, until they finally saw Bethlehem – the fatherland of King David -  surrounded by gardens and fields.

It is said that Joseph asked the innkeeper for a place to stay. However, it could be that the word “kataluma” used by Apostle Luke meant a cenacle. Perhaps, the travelers could have stayed with Joseph’s relatives.

“And so it was, that, while they were there,
the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son,
and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” (Luke, 2:6-7)

A manger – a feeder for cattle covered with hay… It was in the cave carved in the rock near the house. It was usually used for keeping sheeps and goats or hitching baggage animals.

It was there, in the darkness of the cave, where a Child, “looking just like all the other children on earth”, saw the world.

Who could expect on that? Who could think that God would appear through His creation so quietly and imperceptible? The Messiah becomes the brother of the deprived people since the first minutes of His life. No Christmas lights and decorations can make us forget this picture: the Mother in exile, deprived of  a normal house, is sitting in the crib with the Child on Her hands. There was no place for Him, for “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” That was how the life of the Son of Man began. That was the beginning of His fight, His sufferings and His victory.

The Divine Love came to the world torn by passions, to the kingdom of spiritual and physical slavery, a place of lies and demagogy, of lechery and inhumanity. The Bethlehem Star appeared in the sky at the time when the civilization was destroying itself again. And it was a real miracle that people did not lose their hope.

They asked: when would He come? They were waiting for a punishing sword of the Avenging God, but found an Infant in the cave. There were no disasters and no scorching fire when He came. Instead of that, Love came under cover of  a Bethlehem night, like a shy guest and a homeless wanderer. Its magnificence turned out to be the defenselessness of a Child, and its majesty - simplified. The Theophany was not about violence caused by people, but it announced about the mystery of freedom and God’s patience…

An excerpt from “History of the Religion, Book 6”