The census was a Roman taxation tool. Every able-bodied male and female between the ages of 14 and 62 throughout the empire was required to register in order to be counted in the head-tax. Perhaps Mary just made the cut since Jewish girls at the time usually got engaged between 12-14 years of age, when they were just old enough to bear children.
The head-tax was one silver denarius per person. It was the same tax that the Pharisees asked Jesus whether or not it was lawful to pay. The silver denarius used to pay the tax was the coin that bore the emperor’s likeness which prompted Jesus to offer his famous dictum “render unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s.”
The denarius or two in Joseph’s pocket as he traveled from Nazareth to his native Bethlehem would have bore the likeness of Emperor Augustus. A lot could be said about Emperor Augustus. His reign was one for the record books. He was born Gauis Octavius Thurinus until he was adopted by his great uncle Julius Caesar, and became Gauis Julius Caesar. Later, in 27 BCE the senate would bestow upon him the honorific title ‘Augustus.’ Augustus means “revered one.”
He began his reign as part of a triumvir. Two others ruled with him, Marc Antony, and Marcus Lepidus. Augustus eventually consolidated power under his sole rule. It was a messy affair. Marcus went into exile. Marc Antony committed suicide after losing in battle. So it goes.
To his credit, Augustus restored the Roman Senate. But it was all for show. He controlled the army which was loyal to him to a fault. The senate, aware of the ever present military threat, was Augustus’s lap dog. So while Augustus’s rule appeared to be a republic, his rule was in effect autocratic. This had its advantages. Unilateral decision making is efficient. Augustus enlarged the empire dramatically. He brought peace with the Parthians–the Pax Romana began as a result. He developed a network of roads. He set up a courier system. He established a standing army and the Praetorian guard. He instituted police and fire services in Rome. He rebuilt a good portion of the city, along with countless other settlements across great portions of his empire. He ruled for over 40 years. No wonder, that upon his death in the eighth month of the Roman calendar in the fourteenth year of the common era, the senate declared him a god to be worshipped by the Romans. The eight month of the Roman calendar, the month I was born in, previously named sextilis, was changed to Augustus (August in English) in his honor. Augustus is considered the first true emperor of the Roman empire, and his veneration began what came to known as the imperial cult, a dangerous conflation of state and religion which held sway on the allegiances and superstitions of Romans for centuries.
By the time Luke wrote his nativity the imperial cult with its nationalist propaganda had a foothold across the Roman world. Such was the climate that unknowingly welcomed the first Christmas in the tiny town of Bethlehem. With that as a backdrop its easy to see the irony with which Luke writes.
“In those days” says Luke, “a decree went out from Emperor Augustus [the ‘god’] that all the world should be registered.” This begins the story of Jesus–the King of Kings and Lord of Lords–the one whose followers will eventually deal a death blow to the imperial cult when Christianity becomes the state sponsored religion of the Roman empire. Augustus had no idea that his program to register people (for revenue projection and collection purposes) was setting in motion events that would lead to the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy, and the ousting of the imperial cult–”But, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans[a] 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.”
He also had no idea that he, Augustus the false god, was giving us the Christmas that is commemorated and symbolized in the various nativities on display throughout the world. As a descendent of the house of David, Joseph, along with pregnant Mary, traveled to the city of Bethlehem (the hometown of David) in order to be counted for the head-tax. Because hoards of others were, for similar reasons, traveling the roads in obedience to Augustus’s decree there was no room in the local inn. Therefore Mary and Joseph took up residence in a manger, and there, amid the chaos of the bleating animals, feeding troughs, and hay strewn floor, Mary delivered her child, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and named him Jesus. If not for the monetary needs of the Rome, and Augustus’ nation building agenda, Mary would have birthed the Christ in a little hovel in Nazareth, and “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie, above the deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by” would have never made it as a Christmas carol.
There are other nifty events that became part of the tale as a result of the head-tax. For “in that region”, near Bethlehem that is, “there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Would there have been shepherds near Nazareth? It’s hard knowing. These Bethlehem shepherds receive the angelic proclamation, “Do not be afraid, for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” You have to admit that “to you is born this day in the city of David” sounds a lot better than “to you is born this day in the little back water of Nazareth.”
And here is your sign, says the angel, “you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” A Nazareth birth would have had no accompanying sign, just an address: 68 main street, apartment B, just above the laundry mat–knock three times, and wipe your feet. The Christ family doesn’t want any sheep dung on the new throw rugs. What kind of nativity would that have been?
The providence of God is in the details. What makes a good nativity? Ancient prophecy, humble Mary, arrogant kings, oppressive empires, animal littered nativities, shepherds, angelic proclamations, irony. Luke takes us from the height of power, to the complete absence of power, from Emperor Augustus ordering the movement of an entire empire for tax purposes, to the nomadic shepherds of the field who work ‘off the books.’ The height of power is used by God to fulfill the prophecies of old, but it is the absence of power that receives the good news of the prophecy’s fulfillment. The heavenly choir’s song of praise sung in the presence of the shepherds–”Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”–is more than a kind Christmas card saying. By calling for peace for Israel the hosts of heaven were making a political statement. You can drag the in-utero Christ child to Bethlehem so his poor parents get registered for the tax, but know this: the one who will be born there will bring about the kingdom of God, and change the fortunes of God’s people and there is nothing ‘god Augustus’ can do about it. For if Bethlehem mangers teach us anything, it’s that God is the one who brings down the mighty, and exalts the humble. Mary, nursing the savior of the world, will sing about this a few verses later in her famous magnificat “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
So thanks for Christmas Augustus. It wouldn’t be the same without you. As for empires, and false republics, and demigods, and demagogues, and taxes–let’s make a deal this holiday season. We’ll give to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and we’ll give to God the things that are Gods.
Welcome Jesus, the savior of the world. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!