Is the Census in Luke's Infancy Narrative Historical or Literary?
Taking a look at the Biblical and Historical evidence
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. 2 This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. 4 ¶ And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born* son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 
In the opening of Luke’s description of Jesus’ birth, Luke begins to assimilate descriptions of the Emperor of Rome at the time, Caesar Augustus. It is important to point out to people in the twenty first century that a political leader during the first century A.D. in Rome was not merely seen as a political leader. As Pope Benedict explains, “Augustus was regarded not just as a politician, but as a theological figure – which shows that our distinction between politics and religion, between politics and theology, simply did not exist in the ancient world. In the year 27 B.C., three years after his assumption of office, the Roman Senate had already awarded him the title Augustus (in Greek: sebastós)—meaning ‘one worthy of adoration’.”
Of course, the Gospel writers incorporated even more of the political speech of the period into their publications. In the first volume of Pope Benedict’s Christological discourse, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism of the Jordan to the Transfiguration, he explains: “The messages issued by the emperor were called in Latin evangelium, regardless of whether or not their content was particularly cheerful and pleasant. The idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message, that it is not just a piece of news, but a change of the world for the better. When the Evangelists adopt this word, and it thereby becomes the generic name for their writings.”
As Luke assimilates the language of the Roman Empire into his Gospel, he forms a narrative that describes God’s plan for salvation, which is quite different from that of Augustus: it is one of raising the lowly and the marginalized of all nations (one of the great themes of the Lucan Gospel) by material and/or spiritual means. It is summarized in the great Magnificat of Mary:
51 He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
52 he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away. 
After examining the historical placement of the infancy narrative by Luke in his Gospel. It is important to look at the evidence of the birth of Jesus to have taken place in Bethlehem. The remainder of the chapter will examine skeptical objections address by St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as the historical evidence for the census recorded by Luke.
Bethlehem – The City of David
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days. 
The first historical mention of Bethlehem is a nonbiblical source is a document written by the King of Jerusalem to Egyptian occupiers in around fourteen B.C. The town of Bethlehem would become famous within Jewish tradition as it would be the town where King David was born. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor in The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide explains that it was through political wisdom from King David realizing from the mistakes of King Saul of locating the capital of his kingdom in the area of his own tribe, he did not make Bethlehem the capital of his kingdom. David’s grandson would fortify Bethlehem – only for it to become an abandoned outpost within two centuries, a fate that was connected to the prophecy of the coming Messiah. 
As Murphy-O’Connor mentions, the Gospel of Matthew assumes that Mary and Joseph are from Bethlehem – in distinction to Luke’s Gospel, which ties the Birth of Jesus to a census where the Holy Family needed to travel to the town. It was political upheaval that led to their relocation to Nazareth. Regardless of the discrepancies between the two infancy accounts, evidence of native residency would bolster any claims of a property tax census, as will be explained later in detail.
Many modern scholars of ancient history claim that Jesus was born in Nazareth, as he was referred to by the name “Jesus of Nazareth”, and that the place of his birth was moved to Bethlehem for theological purposes. The problem with this assertion is that, even if one disregards the census in Luke’s Gospel as a literary creation, it appears from Matthew’s narrative that Joseph is already a resident of Bethlehem. The Gospel of Matthew even indicates that Joseph planned on returning to Bethlehem after the flight to Egypt. Naturally, if Matthew thought Joseph was from Bethlehem, he wouldn’t have any need to explain a reason for the family’s need to travel to that particular location.
There could be several possible theories as to why Matthew didn’t record the census. The first being that there was no census, it was merely a literary invention of Luke’s narrative. The second being that Matthew didn’t know about the census, but Luke’s sources (perhaps Mary?) did know the details of the journey. And there could be any various combinations of those two particular theories.
St. Thomas Aquinas develops two particular objections to the assertion of Christ being born in Bethlehem. It’s important to note that Aquinas’ objections are not his personal objections but rather are arguments which he was aware of or developed to examine their errors. What is also interesting is that in Aquinas lists both the objections presented by modern scholars – that Jesus’ birth needed to be transferred to Bethlehem and that his name indicates his place of origin. Aquinas writes:
Objection 1. It seems that Christ should not have been born in Bethlehem. For it is written (Isa. 2:3): The law shall come forth from Sion, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem. But Christ is truly the Word of God. Therefore He should have come into the world at Jerusalem.
Obj. 2. Further, it is said (Matth. 2:23) that it is written of Christ that He shall be called a Nazarean; which is taken from Isa. 11:1; A flower shall rise up out of his root: for Nazareth is interpreted a flower. But a man is named especially from the place of his birth. Therefore it seems that He should have been born in Nazareth, where also He was conceived and brought up.”
What is to be learned from the objections raised by Aquinas is that the Old Testament was filled with prophecies that relate to all over the region of Judea, so there would be no need for the Gospel writers to have to invent the birth taking place in Bethlehem. Naturally, this doesn’t prove that Christ was born in Bethlehem as opposed to Nazareth. It does, however, stress that the necessity of the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem may be from the Gospel writers’ own intention, rather than a need for pure invention because of other source material.
Evidence for the Census
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. 2 This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. 4 ¶ And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,
Luke in the opening description puts his narrative onto a historical footing by citing a census during the period. The census serves both a theological role and a historical role within the framework of the narrative. It’s important to emphasize that stating one doesn’t render the other one false. This is explained by Raymond Brown: “Naturally, the First century early Christians, who were mostly Jewish, would be reminded of bondage during the Babylonian exile and being under the yoke of a foreign occupant. Early Christians would be familiar with 2nd temple teachings and stories such as 1 and 2 Maccabees. Luke is naturally framing the coming of the Messiah within the organic framework Judaic history, a reminder of earthly oppression and God’s deliverance.”
Naturally, our skeptical age begs the question, what is the historical evidence for such a census? Paul L. Maier writes in his work In The Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church, “That Mary ever had to endure the rigors of this eighty-mile journey on the back of a jogging donkey while in a state of very advanced pregnancy has been doubted by some scholars. Rome never required her subjects to return to their original homes for such enrollments, they claim, and Luke must have garbled the facts. But this view has been disproved 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.”
Raymond E. Brown writes on the topic in his work Birth of the Messiah:
Would a Roman census have sent people back to their tribal or ancestral homes to be enrolled, as Luke describes in the case of Joseph? We have no clear parallel for such a practice. Since enrollment was primarily for taxation purposes, the general Roman pattern was to register people where they lived or in the nearby principal city of a district (the city from which the tax would be collected). A papyrus (Lond. 904, 20f.) describes a census in Egypt in a.d. 104 wherein a temporary dweller, in order to be enrolled, had to go back to the area of his regular domicile where he had a house. (Sometimes this is referred to as a kata oikian census.) Obviously this ruling was motivated by tax considerations about property and agriculture; and it offers little support for sending Joseph from Nazareth where he permanently resided.
Many skeptics argue that historians simply do not possess any type of evidence that indicates a census or a tax census during the period that Luke records in his Gospel account. Therefore, they contend, Luke’s account did not occur as it is recorded in his Gospel or the very least he made a mistake. Without some government document to corroborate Luke’s account, however, it doesn’t follow that the census didn’t happen because the likelihood of finding any existing Roman administrative documents is slim.
The scholar Saskia Hin and others explain that the evidence we have on Roman censuses mainly relates to the first and third centuries A.D., with the earliest from the reign of Augustus. These censuses are primarily from Egypt and have been preserved in the dry climate. They also explain that scholars don’t really know how the Roman Empire attempted to gather information for censuses: “Many details regarding the execution of these censuses remain obscure, including whether and to what extent temporal variation in the aims of these censuses affected recording procedures and the nature of transmitted census figures.”
The research of Hin and others indicates some information about censuses found outside of Egypt, relating to the Edict of the Fasti Ostiensis. “This edict was issued by Augustus; the copy through which we know it was found in current Libya, and it describes how (in Cyrene) he had counted all people he had wanted to count .” 
What is to be learned from this edict is that Augustus did count people throughout his empire. It fits in with the Egyptian censuses, although it’s not entirely known how such censuses were promulgated. The difficulty for scholars is that for various reasons, including climate, many census documents simply haven’t survived for modern research. The few Roman census and tax records that scholars do possess are highly valuable to the understanding of how the Romans may have employed censuses throughout the entire empire. The Bacchias census in 119 A.D. and the one mentioned earlier discovered in Roman Census Edict of 104 A.D. are, in fact, rare finds and must be used to understand the entirety of the empire.
It appears entirely possible that the type of census Luke records may have existed. Furthermore, in regards to Luke’s particular census there could be something simply lost in translation from the Greek. Scholar John Thorely asserts:
What Luke is surely saying is Augustus decreed that registration for census purposes, practised some centuries in Italy and more recently employed in provinces, should be extended until it embraced all parts Roman world, presumably including client kingdoms Judaea . . .
The New English Bible offers 'This was registration of its kind; it took place when Quirinius of Syria'. Why 'of its kind'? Luke does not say this, and this census was, it was certainly not the first of its kind absolute sense. It may have been the first census in Judaea, this is what Luke was saying he would surely have been an ambiguity in stating that it took place when Quirinius governor of Syria, since Quirinius was also governor of A.D. 6, when he was again responsible for taking a census on its annexation as a Roman province. Luke himself refers event in Acts 5:37, and he can hardly have been unaware Quirinius' involvement, nor indeed can he have believed Nativity took place on the occasion of the Census in AD 6.
According to Raymond E. Brown, the type of Egyptian document presented by Maier, in fact, does not prove the necessity for Joseph going to Bethlehem because the Gospel of Luke indicates itself that Joseph had no property in the region which is the qualification indicator in the Egyptian document for travel: “7And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” 
Brown ultimately comes to the conclusion that, due to the inconsistencies of where the Holy Family was staying prior to and after the birth of Christ, scholars and theologians have to look at the theological implications of the author’s written work. “Now biblical scholarship seems to be moving into a more fruitful stage of research as it seeks to recover the value of the infancy stories as theology. In the last twenty years in general Gospel research, attention has shifted away from the pre-Gospel history of narratives and sayings about Jesus to the role of those narratives and sayings in the finished Gospels. What message is the evangelist trying to convey to the Church through them?”
Pope Benedict XVI in his work on the infancy narratives, however, gives a long rebuttal on the skeptical approach of Brown and other scholars. Brown stresses in his work the error in the dating due to Herod the Great dying 4 B.C. Pope Benedict XVI, writing a decade, later gives further support to Maier’s argument by drawing attention to recent scholarship pointing to an error in the dating system by Dionysius, as well as by indicating that although Quirinius was not the governor during the period, records show that he could have been in the region during the birth of Christ around 4 B.C.
A monk by the name of Dionysius Exiguus when attempting to calculate the date of Christ’s birth miscalculated the date. The date of Christ’s birth according to the narrative should correspond to a closer date to the death of King Herod the great which occurred in 4 B.C. Naturally, this places the beginning of Anno Domini (year of our Lord) in our current Gregorian calendar too late.
Josephus indicates that the census would have taken place in the 6 A.D. under the governor Quirinius, which Luke records to be the governor in his Gospel. It was this census that led to the unease in Judea which would lead to the unrest of Judas the Galilean in Acts 5:37. The two sources appear to be in complete contradiction as Josephus records that Quirinius was active in the region during that later period. However, as Pope Benedict XVI explains, “Yet these claims in their turn are uncertain, At any rate, there are indications that Quirinius was already in the Emperor’s service in Syria around 9 B.C.” 
The understanding of Quirinius already in the service of the Emperor in Syria appears to originate from a synthesis from an early Church Father, Tertullian. Tertullian argues that the governor during the period of Luke’s Census is Sentius Saturnus; however, Quirinius did partake as a commissioner in Syria during the period of Saturnus’ governorship .
A good way to understand this particular claims would be similar to writing a statement saying, “President Obama lived in Illinois during September 11, 2001 attacks.” During that current period, President Obama would have been Illinois State-Senator Obama, but it would be rather natural to refer to him in the past as his most prestigious position office
Scholars such as Alois Stöger have explained how these censuses from Caesar would have taken place within the Roman empire. Stöger indicates that it would have occurred over several years and “was a slow process in the conditions of the time, dragging on over several years.” The census would have occurred in two phases. First, there would have been a recording of all owned land and property. Secondly, the empire would have assessed these records for appraisals and billing to determine the revenue to collect. Pope Benedict explains that the The first phase would have occurred during the period of Jesus’ birth, whereas, the second during the Roman-Jewish war
Pope Benedict does note that some scholars have objected to the census arguing that there would be no need for this particular census described in the Gospel of Luke. Nonetheless, as indicated in the research from Hin and others that these census have been found to exist issues by Caesar Augustus for those to travel to places where they owned property. Pope Benedict confirms this by explaining “we also know from various sources that those affected had to present themselves where they owned property. Accordingly, we may assume that Joseph, of the house of David, had property in Bethlehem, so that he had to go there for tax registration.”
Another argument presented by Raymond E. Brown against the Egyptian tax census documents being evidence for Joseph traveling to his family’s home in Bethlehem is that there “was no place for them in the inn”. One of the problems with Brown’s assessment is that it appears he uses only our English understanding of the term “inn” and doesn’t allow for the broad spectrum of the use of the word katalyma in Greek. Edward Sri of the Augustine Institute illuminates the use of this particular word in Greek: it can “refer to a guest room, a house, an inn or simply ‘a place to stay’. It is best to translate this word simply a ‘lodging’ to keep open the various possible settings in which Christ may have entered the world.”
Of course, there could be several different possible explanations. One that he alludes to is the fact that even if Joseph owned property in Bethlehem, Joseph was still of the lower class in which all family and animals slept in one space. Furthermore, after child birth, a Jewish woman would have been considered “unclean” until she and the child were presented in the temple. Another is that Joseph and Mary could not stay with any particular family members.
An examination of the supportive, or ancillary, historical evidence surrounding other Roman provinces like Egyptian tax censuses which would have a likelihood of surviving to the present day with the lack of evidence from Roman administrative documents overall suggests that the historical possibility of the census found in Luke’s gospel is a possibility in the literal context. If Luke did use an earlier or later census from the cultural memory as a literary device, such a detailed analysis of the biblical text, suggests a writer concerned with writing about Jesus Christ who is the saviour of both the Jewish people and the gentile people of the world. Nonetheless, the historical examination suggests there is a strong argument for the historical point of view.
 Lk 2:1–7 RSV
 Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 60.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism of the Jordan to the Transfiguration (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 46-47.
 RSV Lk 1:51–53.
 RSV Mic 5:2.
 Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 229.
 Ibid, 230.
 Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 164-165.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, [n.d.]).
 RSV Lk 2:1–4.
 Paul L Maier, In The Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church ( Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1991), 4.
 Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, New Updated Edition. (New York; London: Yale University Press, 1993), 549.
 S. Hin, D.A. Conde, and A. Lenart, “New light on Roman census papyri through semi-automated record linkage,” Historical Methods 49, No. 1 (2016), 50-65.
 Thorley, John. "The Nativity Census: What Does Luke Actually Say?" Greece & Rome 26, no. 1 (1979): 81-84. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.uis.edu:2048/stable/642500.
 RSV Lk 2:7.
 Brown, 37–38.
 Pope Benedict XVI, The Infancy Narrative, 62-63
 Theissen and Merz, 154.
 Pope Benedict XVI, The Infancy Narrative, 62-63
 ibid, 74.