Census (in the Bible)

views updated


In the Old Testament the practice of taking a census, though in opposition to the older Israelite amphictyonic traditions, arose with the monarchy in connection with the centralization of military organization; in postexilic times the priestly editors incorporated the census lists into their writings according to certain then-prevalent notions and thus, at times, outside the original historical context of the particular census; in the New Testament Saint Luke mentions two distinct Roman censuses, the first in dating the birth of Christ, the other in alluding to a temporary rebellion led by Judas, the Galilean.

Censuses in the Old Testament. The census lists of the Old Testament represent genuine sources, though colored and interpreted by later redactors according to the latter's understanding and aims. In its historical origin the census served the purpose of ascertaining the military strength of the tribes. When the monarchy began its program of centralizing the nation's military organization by a census, there was religious and political opposition, since the census was understood to be an impingement upon Yahweh's kingship, as well as upon the autonomous liberty of the tribe. The documents, uncovered at Mari, attest the widespread Semitic antipathy to the census (see E. A. Speiser, 2425). The power of the people was in the hands of its god; hence, taking a census implied lack of confidence in the nation's god and incurred guilt. In the light of census-incurred guilt, the law of Exodus 30.1116 is to be understood: each person registered in the census had to pay a half shekel to be used for cultic atonement made to Yahweh. The law shows postexilic redaction in that the sanctuary shekel referred to (Ex 30.13) is of postexilic terminology; also, this law, claiming Mosaic institution, gave additional authority to the Temple tax that was necessary in postexilic times to support the Temple (Mt 17.24). Besides its military motive, the Old Testament census served also as a basis for taxation and the state-imposed corvée (2 Sm 20.24; 1 Kgs 5.13; 9.15; 2 Chr 8.8; 10.18).

Censuses in the Book of Numbers. The Pentateuchal priestly writers used two census lists in the Book of Numbers (Nm 1.146; 26.151) to underline the sacerdotal functions of the tribe of Levi (1.4754) and to preface the allotment of the Promised Land to the individual tribes; "Among these groups the land shall be divided as their heritage in keeping with the number of individuals in each group" (Nm 26.52). The lists follow the tribes (Nm ch. 1) and clans (ch. 26) of Genesis ch. 46 with some slight discrepancies, e.g., Becher, son of Benjamin (Gn 46.21) is said to be the son of Ephraim (Nm 26.35). The only ones alive for both censuses, the one at Sinai and the one on the Plains of Moab 40 years later, are said to be Moses, Joshua, and Caleb (Nm 26.6365). In both censuses the number for half the tribes is more than 50,000. The changes in the numbers of each tribe between the two censuses probably indicates their changing relative importance. The main problem raised by both these censuses is the sum total of more than 600,000 fighting men in each census, which implies a total population well over two million. When one considers that the Israelites subsisted for 40 years in a barren desert, marched as a group (with 25 abreast and a yard apart, as stated, the column would be 44 miles long), could all be summoned by the sound of two trumpets, and could gather at one Tent of Meeting (Numbers 10.2), it is evident that the figure is grossly exaggerated. According to G. E. Mendenhall, the census lists of Numbers are anachronistic in their present context; historically they represent traditions from the time of the amphictyony that record the military. Units ('aùlaøp"m ) of each tribe ready for war in case the common welfare of the tribes is threatened. The original, premonarchical 'elep was the technical term of a subsection of a tribe that the later priestly editor, in his redaction of preexisting sources, interpreted in the light of the later military 'elep of the monarchy that comprised about 1,000 men. Thus the extravagant census figures of Numbers would lie in a postexilic misunderstanding of earlier terminology. W. F. Albright suggests that figures in Numbers may be based on actual figures found in the Davidic census that the priestly writers adapted for their purpose; if the 603,550 of Numbers 1.46 and the 601,730 of Numbers 26.50 represent the total population and not just the warriors, these figures would not be incredible for the time of David. A possible, but unlikely, solution, suggested by A. Bentzen, is that the figures are arrived at by gematria, giving a numerical equivalent to the Hebrew letters for "Sons of Israel. "

Census in the Book of Samuel. The figure of 1,300,000 warriors given for the census of David in 2 Samuel 24.9 is also incredibly high, while the figure of the Chronicler for the same census, reckoned over less territory, is even higher (1 Chr 21.5). These figures can only be due to the exaggeration or misunderstanding of a later age; it would give the semibarren land of Israel a population density twice that of any modern European country. The horror engendered by David's census and the punishment that follows seem to indicate not only the usual Semitic antipathy to a census but also an antipathy for the centralizing policies that came with the monarchy. Previously, Yahweh was king (1 Sm 8.7); great numbers did not matter, since He had led the people in the holy war (Jg ch. 7); but now, under the monarchy, what had been cultic and religious was being arrogated by the civil and military authority. By putting trust in numbers as other kings did (Prv 14.28), David showed a lack of faith in Yahweh. Moreover, the census, administered by a central authority, violated the tribal freedom formerly enjoyed under the amphictyony (see G. E. Mendenhall, 56). The people were reluctant to surrender tribal freedom that David was encroaching upon little by little. A census would also lead to more taxes (1 Sm 8.1018) and forced labor, of which an official was already in charge (2 Sm 20.24). The Chronicler, in his account of the census (1 Chr ch. 21), is interested primarily in glorifying the piety of the king and emphasizing the high price paid for the Temple site. A later theology is reflected in that it is Satan and no longer Yahweh who incites David to take the census (2 Sm 24.1; 1 Chr 21.1).

Postexilic Census Lists. The census lists found in Ezra 2.167 and Nehemiah 7.669 are almost identical. The one in Nehemia, used for underscoring the importance of having pure Jewish ancestry, seems to be original and apparently shows the actual population at the time of nehemia (2d half of the 5th century b.c.). As reused in Ezra, it has for its purpose to make it appear that vast numbers returned immediately after the edict of Cyrus. Neither here nor in the apocryphal 3 Esdras do the figures add up to the given total of 42,360 (Neh 7.66; Ezr 2.64). The list contains, not only personal names, but also names of clans and cities, and in some cases it is difficult to say which is which.

Censuses in the New Testament. Saint Luke mentions two Roman censuses: the first in connection with the birth of Christ, which took place when Cyrinius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria (Lk 2.2), the other as occasioning the short-lived rebellion led by Judas the Galilean (Acts 5.37). Josephus (Bell. Jud. 2.8.1; 7.8.1) makes explicit mention of Judas's rebellion against Rome, when the Romans, upon reducing Judea to the status of a province in a.d. 6, took a census. Also, according to the chronological date of Josephus (Ant. 18.1.1, 2.1;17.13.2), Cyrinius was governor of Syria in a.d. 6, and seemingly for the first time.

The difficulty caused by the reference to the census of Cyrinius in Luke's Gospel lies in the fact that in profane sources there is no explicit record corroborating his statement that Cyrinius was legate in Syria when a census was taken in Judea before the death of Herod the Great (4 b.c.). According to Josephus, Cyrinius held power as a legate, with authority over Judea, c. a.d. 6 to 7. Yet, the nativity narratives place Christ's birth in the reign of Herod the Great. A possible solution may lie in the fact that Cyrinius was in Syria with special powers waging the Homonadensian War also between 12 b.c. and 9 to 8 b.c. at the time when Saturninus was the legate there (see Tacitus 3.48; Strabo 12.6.5). Tertullian (Adv. Marc. 4.19) dates the birth of Christ by a census that he says took place under Saturninus (see W. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery , 24345). Thus, Cyrinius, in Syria with Saturninus at this time, could very well be credited with carrying out or at least initiating a census at the earlier date (perhaps completed only in a.d. 6 when he became legate). This would be compatible with the thought of most scholars that Christ was born c. 87 b.c. A frequent objection that Rome would not take a census in Herod's territory is not compelling when it is remembered that Herod, though a rex socius, held his authority and its exercise at the discretion of the emperor. Although no extra-Biblical record mentions this census (if it is completely distinct from that of a.d. 6), there is evidence of periodic Roman census-taking in Egypt and Gaul during the 1st Christian century (see W. Ramsay, Was Christ Born at Bethlehem?, 13148). The "census of the whole world" does not mean that it was accomplished in all parts of the empire simultaneously. Although a return to the place of family origin is unknown in other Roman censuses, it is a fact that the Romans respected the customs of subjugated peoples, and to the Jews, one's tribe and place of origin had great importance. Despite these concurrences, Luke's citation still raises questions. He calls it the first under Cyrinius and feels that it is so well known, that he can date the birth of Christ by it. Yet, there is no notice of it in Josephus, who is rather detailed for the reign of Herod. Josephus calls the census of a.d. 6 "the first. " The attempt to solve the discrepancy by giving the adjective πρώτη a comparative force and translating: "This census took place earlier than that which occurred when Cyrinius was governor of Syria" is not supported by any similar use of πρώτη in Luke (see A.N. Sherwin-White, 171). Other possible solutions are that Josephus had gotten his facts wrong, or that Luke, knowing the early Christian tradition that the Davidic origin of Christ had been established by an official census, took it for granted that the census was at the time of his birth, when actually it was the same census of a.d. 6, which he already shows himself familiar with in Acts.

Bibliography: g. a. buttrick, ed., The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 1:547. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 33538. r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 6567. e. a. speiser, "Census and Ritual Expiation in Mari and Israel, " The Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 149 (1958) 1725. g. e. mendenhall, "The Census Lists of Numbers 1 and 26, " Journal of Biblical Literature 77 (1958) 5266. w. f. albright, "The Administrative Divisions of Israel and Judah, " The Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society 5 (1925) 2025. a. bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament, 2 v. (2d ed. Copenhagen 1952) 2:34. w. m. ramsay, Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? (3d ed. London 1905); The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (4th ed. London 1920). m. j. lagrange, "Oè en est la question du recensement de Quirinius?, " Revue biblique 18 (1911) 6084. a. deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, tr. l. r. m. strachan (rev. ed. New York 1927) 27071. t. corbishley, "Quirinius and the Census, " Klio 29(1936) 8195; "The Date of Our Lord's Birth, " Scripture 1 (1946) 7780. a. n. sherwin-white, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford 1963) 16271. h. u. instinsky, Das Jahr der Geburt Christi (Munich 1957).

[s. c. doyle]

About this article

Census (in the Bible)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article