The first character in Luke’s Christmas account to be mentioned is not Mary, Joseph, a shepherd, or even wise men for that matter. It was Caesar Augustus. But why? Scholars see this as typical of Lukan writing since he often attempted to anchor down his material with the secular history of his day.
In his book In the Fullness of Time, Paul L. Maier, the professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, believes that Augustus was a religious reformer. Yet, in what sense. Maier states:
Had he not been the emperor, Caesar Augustus might well have gone down in history as a religious reformer, for he tried to revive the drooping interest in Rome’s state religion. By his day, the average Roman had abandoned any belief in the gods of Greco-Roman mythology, and philosophical skepticism was growing, while the more credulous joined the foreign mystery cults that had invaded the Empire. Augustus, however, felt that this neglect of the gods was demoralizing Roman society and that only a full restoration of the old republican piety would preserve its greatness (p.6).
As a result of this conviction Augustus restored eighty-two temples (in Rome alone) thereby refreshing the cult system within the city.
One way that the lack of an organized cult system was contributing to the decay of society was through the marriage system of Rome. Because of the lack of religious influence, many men became increasingly promiscuous. This led to a fast dive of the marriage and birth rates, which consequently would have an adverse effect on the progression of the glorious empire.
One day, being in a foul mood, Augustus stormed into a forum and separated the men into two groups, bachelors and married men. The group of husbands was significantly smaller and he launched into a verbal tirade:
What shall I call you? Men? But you aren’t fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether!…What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? …You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants (p.6)!
As a result of this, Augustus began to enforce marital stipulations throughout the empire (and even conferred political advantages on a father of three children). Bachelors who shirked the “duty of marriage” were penalized in their right to inherit, and they could not even secure good seats at the games!
What does all of this have to do with the birth of Jesus? Maier posits that it is possible that in order to gague his success in raising marriage and birth rates he became overly interested with the imperial census. The Romans normally required a census every fourteen years. It was exactly this sort of a citizen’s census that occurred in 8 B.C. (though there is evidence that they were prevented from taking the census until 5 B.C. b/c of a lack of manpower and equipment needed to complete it) that would have required Joseph and Mary to make the 80-mile trek.
Why would a couple in Palestine have to take a Roman census commanded by a distant caesar? Roughly sixty years prior to the birth of Christ Palestine had been conquered by the Roman general Pompey and the land was brought into Roman rule. Palestine was ruled by a client-king, Herod the Great, who was directly responsible to the Emperor and would have been required to enforce the census.
Some scholars object that Mary and Joseph would not have been required to take this census on the grounds that subjects were never forced to return to their hometown to take the census. Yet, Maier sees this to be disproven by the discovery of a Roman census edict from 104 A.D. in neighboring Egypt, in which taxpayers who were living elsewhere were ordered to return to their original homes for registration.
What is perhaps most interesting about this entire historical situation is that as a result of the census and Luke’s drafting skill his writing is attached to a historical event (in other “divine texts” there is a serious lack of any engagement with secular history of the day). Further, Augustus was attempting to prolong the glory of the Roman empire by revamping the cult system for religious influence on the people. However, the consequent spread and growth of “the Way” (another name for the early Christian movement), actually prohibited the cult system and eventually dominated the religious climate of Rome by the fourth century. Certainly Augustus never could have imagined any such situation arising!