Luke, Taxes, and the Birth of Jesus (85)

Saint Luke

In the Gospel of Luke (2: 1-7) it is stated that the reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem was because his parents were ordered by Emperor Augustus to return to their ancestral village at a time when Mary was pregnant, thus linking the founding story of the Christian religion with Roman imperial economic policy:

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David)

5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

Luke and Matthew give two quite different accounts of the birth of Jesus. In Luke, Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem is undertaken in order to satisfy an imperial command that all individuals return to their ancestral towns “that all the world should be taxed.” Since Mary was pregnant with Jesus at the time the command had to be carried out, this explains why Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem and not in the town where his parents lived. In this way the founding story of the Christian religion is linked to the taxation policy of the Roman empire. Historians have noted that there is no historical record of Emperor Augustus ever giving such an order, that Quirinius (Cyrenius) was not governor of Syria at the time the birth was supposed to have taken place, and that there were insurmountable logistical problems if everybody in the Roman Empire had to travel to their ancestral towns in order to be accounted for and to pay their taxes. Nevertheless, the story Matthew and Luke related have become incorporated into a composite story about the birth of Christ which is related every Christmas. A very interesting depiction of this story is the painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “The Numbering (Census) of the People of Bethlehem” (1566) in which he switches the location from Bethlehem to a 16th century Flemish town.