Christmas Crackers: Why Return to an Ancestral Town for a Census?

Since this has come up in a recent thread, where Christian commenter and biblical accuracy asserter See Noevo has been defending it, I thought I’d run through some of the many myriad issues with the Lukan census.

This excerpt is taken from my book, The Nativity: A Critical Examination, and details why Joseph returning to his ancestral town for a census, as according to Luke is a ridiculous idea.

I have only quoted a portion of the chapter. The notion of such a movement is insane. Get the book to read a fuller account!

It is all outside the plane of reality…. It is incredible that such an unusual and disturbing proceeding, as the census spoken of by Luke must necessarily have been, should have escaped all notice in Josephus….

We will not unduly stress the peculiarity of the mode of census taking implied in our text, but it is to be noted that it is a very strange proceeding. The moving about of men and families which this reckless decree must have caused throughout the whole of the Empire is almost beyond imagination, and one cannot help wondering what advantage there could be for the Roman state in this return, for a single day, of so many scattered individuals, not to the places of their birth, but to the original homes of their ancestors. For it is to be remembered that those of royal descent were not the only ones affected by this fantastic ordinance, and many a poor man must have been hard put to it to discover the cradle of his race. The suspicion, or rather, the conviction, is borne in upon us at first sight that the editor of Luke has simply been looking for some means of bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, in order to have Jesus born there. A hagiographer of his type never bothers much about common sense in inventing the circumstances he requires.[1]

I could just leave it at that since it is a marvellous quote! However, let us look critically at the evidence, or lack thereof. One of the most difficult pieces of information to harmonise in the whole census debacle is the idea that Joseph (and betrothed) had to return to “his own city”. According to Luke’s genealogy, Joseph was of the Davidic line. He was, by reckoning of said genealogy, some 41 generations separated from David. A generation in the Bible was normally seen as spanning 40 years. This amount of time between David and Joseph was a very long time, whether a forty year generational period or not. What makes little sense here is the rationale behind what is one’s “own city”. Joseph has two options here:

1)                    the law or due procedure was to return to the town of your ancestor 41 times removed (generationally)

2)                    you could choose which ancestor you wanted and return to their town.

If the latter, and rather ridiculous, idea held then every Jewish man worth their salt would be trying to connect themselves to David. Bethlehem would have swollen to the size of a large city in a matter of days around the time of the census! It also raises the question as to what genealogical line you follow. Is the line in Luke only through the eldest son? Is it purely patrilineal? Five women are included in Luke’s genealogy. It all seems rather random and ad hoc as to how Joseph has decided that his ancestor, whose town he must attend, is David.

What makes matters incredibly far-fetched (and downright silly, in all honesty) is the notion that you would get to completely arbitrarily select which ancestor you wanted. What I mean by this is the fact that one person (Joseph) has 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents and so on. To trace ones lineage back 41 generations, one realises that he would have to choose David out of 2,199,023,255,552 people. For male ancestors I concede that we can cut the number in half to around just over 1 trillion (these numbers would be reduced, quite clearly, by crossover and repetition of ancestors since there were obviously not that many people on earth, but the point is clear). Just on face value of doing a simple doubling calculation, we have David picked out of two trillion ancestors. Let us imagine, then, that since there would have been a great amount of crossover, the number would simply have been very large. This is staggeringly ridiculous. It is not just the arbitrariness of the selection of generations (41) but the cherry-picking of the particular ancestor. It is this same application of statistics which is used to claim that 80% of people are related to Genghis Khan, or 75% of US Presidents are related to the French King Charlemagne and Alfred the Great, as according to Burke’s Peerage, the Bible of aristocratic genealogy, based in London.[2] If this is the case, then we are left with sheer folly in apologists claiming that there was some kind of Jewish system in place by which people had to return to their “own city” by using family trees etc. The whole of Syria would have been connecting themselves to David, and would have been descending en masse on Bethlehem (given that they could actually research such a huge number of ancestors accurately).

If the first option is the case (that the law or due procedure required that one returned to their ancestral home 41 generations past or similar), then we are still within the territory of patently ridiculous. Why would a man have to return to the town of an ancestor particularly 41 generations past? Firstly, most Jewish people would simply not know this information. Secondly, even if they did, and even on a conservative migration statistic, Syria would have been sent into chaos and turmoil (as hinted at earlier).

Using some crude statistics I have worked out some figures to illustrate the problems. At an arbitrary migration factor of 1%, meaning that if you had 100 people alive in one generation then only one of them would leave town in their lives, then after 41 generations, roughly a third will have migrated of that ‘original 100’. With a higher rate of 3% of a generation migrating away from their home town in their lives, then a considerable number of around 71-2% would have migrated. That means that if migration levels were around 1-3% then a sizeable chunk of the population of the area would have migrated.[3] This means that the majority of the province would have been removing themselves from the habitual abode and travelling to somewhere else to take part in a census. Even if we halved these figures, the numbers would have caused substantial issues.

As former Bishop E.W. Barnes notes in The Rise of Christianity (1947, p. 75):

The Romans were a practical race, skilled in the art of government.  It is incredible that they should have taken a census according to such a fantastic system.  If any such census had been taken, the dislocation to which it would have led would have been world-wide.  Roman historians would not have failed to record it.

At the time of the census, Jews were spread out all over the known world. Imagine if you had to do that today for a census. Even with cars and public transport, the country would shut down. A majority of people would have to stop their jobs for the time it took them to move to their ancestral town to register. This would be utterly inconceivable and totally counterproductive for the very purposes of a census. Taxation is improved when productivity is higher. Something like this kind of census, requiring the workforce to shut down and take a three week census holiday, would cause the economy to go into a meltdown. Who are the people tending the fields? Who are the landlords running the inns needed to put such people up? Who are the workers stocking the market stalls? Who is out fishing? And so on. I cannot think of a more incredibly dubious and downright silly idea as a census like this. Which is why it never happened like it was claimed by Luke. As sceptic Tim Callahan states in The Secret Origin of the Bible (2002, p. 388):

Since most of us are taken by the charm of the Christmas pageantry, we miss the absurdity of this situation. The Romans, while not terribly efficient in their methods of taxation, were at least pragmatic. The idea that one would have to go to their place of origin to be taxed would mean, in modern terms, that since my parents came from Kansas, I would have to return from California to that state in order to pay taxes. While we can be sure that the Romans never indulged in such foolishness—there is certainly no historical record of such a decree—even had such a policy been instituted it would not have affected Judea.

This is countered extremely often by apologists (so often that there is no need to reference it other than Marchant below) by appealing to a census which took place in Egypt. I have to admit extreme annoyance with this tactic, and it is employed by many revered apologists. The census in question took place in 104 CE. As Marchant (1980) states:

We do have one historical parallel, found in a papyrus copy of an edict of C. Vibius Maximus (c AD 104), eparch of Egypt. This order (see Appendix) was issued to prepare the people for an upcoming census and reminded them that everyone who was away from “his own place” was required to return home for purposes of the census. Although we cannot say that the Egyptian procedure necessarily held for Palestine, it is clear that it was at least a permissible option for the praefect to use in taking a census.

The problem is that this is not a permissible option and should not be used as a precedent (even if it did happen after the 6 CE census) since this required itinerant workers to return to their homes. Not, may I add, their ancestral homes either. This requirement was for workers who happened to be working away from their own house to return to where they lived for purposes of accuracy in taxation and so on. This has nothing at all to do with picking an arbitrary ancestor in your lineage and deciding to return to their home town. Simply put, this papyrus from the 104 CE Egyptian census should never be used to justify the Lucan narrative. It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny but this does not stop Christians rolling it out in virtually every discussion about the census. In logical terms it is a false analogy and therefore fallacious.

However, the prognosis deteriorates for the theist who adheres to the notion that Joseph and Mary would have had to migrate from Nazareth to Bethlehem for such a census. To make matters worse, at the time of the 6 CE census, Judea (where Bethlehem was situated) was indeed required to take part in the census, but Galilee was not under the same requirements. Galilee was where Nazareth was situated and so Joseph would not have been required to go to Bethlehem to take part in the census. Callahan (2002, p. 388) agrees:

There was a census, however, when Quirinius was legate in Syria that is mentioned in Lk. 2:2. But, as I have already noted, in Lk. 1:5 the birth of John and Jesus is said to have taken place when Herod was king of Judea. This would be Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE, whereas the actual census took place in CE 6, ten years later. This again is part of Luke’s garbled history. Nor can this census have affected Joseph and Mary any more than if it had happened when Herod ruled Judea; for though Judea was now a Roman province, Galilee, where Nazareth is located, was still a protectorate ruled by Herod Antipas. Certainly, unless he were compelled to do so, Joseph would not have made the trek to Bethlehem.


[1] Guignebert in Jesus, (1935, p.99-101).

[2] As reported by David Icke in “The Windsor-Bush Bloodlines”, found at: http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/merovingians/merovingios_02.htm (retrieved 03/03/2012)

[3] These figures are incredibly crude in that we don’t know the migration rates and it is not taking into account migration of potential incoming migrants or returning migrants etc. The point is basic—41 generations would infer a substantial amount of migration.

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