Within the period of the reign of Augustus, Luke endeavors to date the birth of Jesus more closely by noting “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1, emphasis added). “All the world” is a rendering of the Greek expression pasan tēn oikoumenē, which in the Hellenistic period had come to mean the entire “civilized” (i.e., Greek) world but by Roman times meant those lands under the control of the empire. “Should be taxed” is the English translation of apographesthai, which actually means “be enrolled” and is probably a reference to a census and property evaluation done in advance of taxation. Luke then identifies this enrollment and registration by writing, “And this taxing (Greek apographē) was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2, emphasis added). Despite Luke’s apparent precision, this dating actually presents a historical crux, or problem. Sources from the period establish that the governorship of “Cyrenius,” whose proper Roman name was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, began in A.D. 6, but the date of Herod’s death was in 4 B.C., some ten years earlier. That Jesus’ birth was, in fact, in the last years or months of Herod’s reign and not during Quirinius’ governorship is established not only in Matthew 2:1 and Luke 1:5 but also by Luke’s date references in Luke 3:1–3, which begins the story of John’s baptizing of Jesus.
|With my family at the Basilica of the Nativity, Christmas Eve 2011|
Nevertheless, just because we do not have historical documentation, it does not mean that this registration or taxation did not happen. As one observer has noted, we should carefully avoid “too easy acceptance of the conclusion that Luke has gone astray here; only the discovery of new historical evidence can lead to a solution of the problem.” It is possible, for instance, that Herod might have instituted his own census of his kingdom along the lines of what he saw occurring elsewhere in the empire. Another possibility is that Luke might have mistakenly associated a memory of the census that did occur when Judea and other portions of the Herodian kingdom were converted into a Roman province in A.D. 6, when Herod’s son and successor Archelaus was deposed. As we wait for new documents to surface that might help resolve the question of Luke’s dating, it is more useful to understand what Luke tries to accomplish with his reference to the census. In addition to providing comparison and contrasts with Augustus and putting the story of Jesus in a world-wide context, Luke also used the census to explain how and why Mary, a virgin from Nazareth in Galilee, was in Bethlehem at the time that Jesus was born.
Regardless of who ordered the census or exactly when it was held, Luke seems to suggest that its requirements obligated both Joseph and Mary to be present in Joseph’s ancestral city. Whereas the expression “city of David” is most often applied to Jerusalem, David’s later capital, the original home of David was Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:1–13; 20:6, 28–29), a fact that Luke emphasizes by saying that Joseph went “unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4). While suggestions that such a registration in one’s ancestral city was done in accordance with either Jewish or regional practice are not well-supported, it is possible that Joseph, or his extended family, had holdings in Judea because heads of households usually registered where they owned property. This requirement would generally not demand that a man’s wife be present, leading some to suggest that either Joseph did not want to be separated from his wife so close to the birth of her firstborn child or that perhaps Mary, too, as a possible member of the House of David, owned property in that area and needed to register there. Either way the couple’s compliance reveals that they were not only righteous Israelites who kept the Law of Moses, but also that they were law-abiding subjects to temporal authority. Another possibility, suggested by Matthew’s account, is that Joseph was from Bethlehem all along, while Mary, perhaps a relative, lived in Nazareth. If their marriage had been arranged, with the betrothal occurring when they were much younger, Joseph may have “found that she was with child” when he went to Nazareth to bring his new bride home to Bethlehem. Luke, not aware of this, may have simply used a misplaced memory of a later census to explain the couple’s movement from Galilee to Judea.
 Marshall, Gospel of Luke, 98–104; Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 304–305; R. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 395–396, 547–555; Vermes, Nativity, 81–87.
 I. Howard Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1971), 69 n. 5.
 Holzapfel, Huntsman, and Wayment, Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament, 36.
 R. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 396.
 R. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 548, contra Frederic Farrar, The Life of Christ (Portland, Ore.: Fountain Publications, 1964), 35–36, who repeated an earlier assumption, based on little more than the text of Luke itself, that “in deference to Jewish prejudices . . . [the census] was not carried out in the ordinary Roman manner, at each person’s place of residence, but according to Jewish custom, at the town to which their family originally belonged.”
 S.K. Brown, Mary and Elisabeth, 38–39.
 R. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 416.