Luke 2:1 "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world." (NIV)
Luke 2:1 - 7
ESV - 1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
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I can't quote it exactly, but in his book The Day Christ Died (an hour-by-hour account of the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday), the author Jim Bishop included a section on the life of Jesus in which he said that Augustus decreed the census as a means of having a sound basis for imposing taxes on the various sections of the Roman Empire. (As some Bible versions translate the verse cited in the question, the word "registered" is rendered as "taxed".) This has always served for me as a remarkable example of God's control of world events (even among unbelievers) in order to fulfill prophecy. It is hard for me to imagine anything other than such an imperial decree (which Augustus issued with no knowledge of the prophecy in Micah 5:2 as to where the Messiah would be born) that would (or could) have motivated Joseph and Mary to undertake the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in her advanced state of pregnancy.
There was this particular census, in my opinion, to fulfill prophecy, specifically the one in Micah 5:2: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Besides this particular prophecy, there are others, as well. It was important that Jesus be born in Bethlehem. However, other prophecies pointed to Him being from Nazareth (where His parents hailed from originally, and where He eventually grew up) and foretold that He would be called out of Egypt (where they fled to escape Herod’s executions). Thus, the census bringing Jesus to Bethlehem, but only temporarily, was an incredibly specific way for all of the prophecies to be fulfilled. “Caesar Augustus was fond of censuses. It took a lot of taxes to keep the enormous Roman army going, to build roads, and to finance military campaigns to continue conquering the known world. Caesar Augustus was also just generally a luxurious emperor. He recorded in his ‘Res Gestae Divi Avgvsti’ (“The Deeds of Divine Augustus”— quite a fancy name for a diary) that he ordered widespread censuses of Rome at least three times in 28 B.C., 8 B.C., and 14 A.D.” --Alyssa Roat, biblestudytools.com
The answer to this question is not given in the Bible. All that is recorded is the fact that there was an empire-wide decree for a census decreed by Caesar Augustus and that it took place while Quirinius was governing Syria, Luke 2:1, 2. However, history fills in the blanks on this. In 2 BC, Rome celebrated its 750th anniversary and the 60-year-old Caesar Augustus celebrated his Silver Jubilee marking the 25th anniversary of his reign from the time of the restoration of the Republic and when he was sole leader and given titles of ‘Augustus’ and ‘Princeps’ (‘the first head’) in January, 27 BC. On February 5, 2 BC, in honor of this milestone in Augustus’ career, the Roman Senate bestowed on him the title ‘Pater Patriae,’ which meant ‘Father of the Fatherland’ or ‘Father of My Country.’ Augustus wrote in his autobiography, the “Res Gestae” (“Achievements Done” or “Deeds Done”), “While I was administering my thirteenth consulship, the senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title ‘Father of my Country.’” In anticipation for this epochal year, Augustus decreed an empire-wide census in 3 BC. It was an enrollment combined with a loyalty oath to be conducted in every province. It is recorded in such places as Armenia and Paphlagonia where it was called an ‘oath.’ This registration was not for taxation. The Greek word has the sense of writing into the records. In fact, some form of the word appears four times in the first five verses of Luke 2. There is no hint of taxes. There were Roman censuses that were combined with taxation every twenty years, and those years were 28 BC, 8 BC, and AD 14. At any other time, any taxes would not have been to Rome anyways, but to Herod for his kingdom. After Herod died, the Jews asked his successor, Archelaus, to relieve them of the heavy tax burden. This registration decreed by Augustus was instead a census or an enrollment, an official list of the people, combined with an oath of allegiance. Luke 2:2 states the registration was while Quirinius was first governing Syria, which figures to be from 3-2 BC. The second took place in AD 6-7, which is alluded to in Acts 5:37. This registration or census, by the decree of Augustus, brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, Luke 2:4-7. It was while they were there that Mary brought forth her firstborn Son, Jesus, who would be the Messiah. 3 BC was also the 41st year from the beginning of Augustus’ total years of reign starting at the battle of Actium, 31 BC. Tertullian said Christ was born in this 41st year. Tertullian further stated that Augustus died in AD 14, 15 years after the birth of Jesus. The marking of the 750th anniversary of Rome and Silver Jubilee of Caesar Augustus was the reason for the census and registration that led to the birth of Jesus.
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