Friday, December 11, 2015

The Aftermath of a Roman Census

I haven't updated this blog in over a year, as blogging is something that I rarely have time to do, but Below is a Christmas skit that I composed for a Christmas banquet that we're holding at my church this year, with some additional background information about the significance of the census in Luke for anyone who is interested. It brings to focus an under-appreciated detail in the Christmas story, and also seeks to make some poignant connections with political climate in the United States, as we discern how to respond to terrorism.

 The Aftermath of a Roman Census
A Christmas Skit by Brian Bither

Luke 2:1-5, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child."

Context: This skit follows Quirinius, the governor of Syria, one year after the census was issued that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

Quirinius:       [Sitting at a desk looking at census papers.] Oh this is much harder than I thought. Here I thought Caesar was bestowing an honor upon me, but I had no idea how complicated governing Judea would be.
Centurion:      [Arriving] Governor Quirinius, you called for me, sir?
Quirinius:       Yes. What news do you have about that Jewish terrorist group? Have we captured their leader yet?
Centurion:      Not yet, but we’re closing in on him. We know that Judas and his followers are hiding in the mountains. We don’t have their exact location at this time, but sooner or later, someone will be show up on our radar, and then we’ll have them.
Quirinius:       Oh, I just want this to be over. But at least we’ve driven them out of the cities. Are their any more reports of violence against our soldiers in Jerusalem?
Centurion:      Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped yet. It seems that Judas inspired a lot of people, who are now calling themselves “Zealots.” The problem is, they are religious extremists who don’t have a central leadership structure. So even if we take out Judas and his sons, there is nothing to stop a radicalized Jew from taking it upon himself to commit some act of terror against some of our soldiers.
 Quirinius:      That’s so crazy. Why are they even doing this? What have we ever done to them?
Centurion:      From the best I can tell, it all goes back to when you first became governor of Syria, and Caesar had you issue that census...
Quirinius:       I know that, but it doesn’t make any sense! Why would anyone object to a census being taken? Why do the Jews hate us Romans?
Centurion:      Well, to be fair, their Scriptures say that the Jewish God punished one of their own kings for taking a census, so I think that this is a little more complex than Jews hating Romans.
Quirinius:       Excuse me, are you defending them? Surely you don’t think these Zealots have any right to kill Romans!
Centurion:      Of course not, sir. Their actions are heinous, fruitless, and inexcusable. I just think it’s advantageous to try to understand their motivation.
Quirinius:       Ok then, so what’s the motivation? Why would the Jewish God be upset with a government for taking a census? We have to have documentation, records of citizenship, and walls in order to keep people safe and preserve the peace of Rome.
Centurion:      Sir, I am not an expert on these matters. But I had a conversation with a moderate Jewish priest who showed me the text in their chronicles when King David issued a census and was punished for it. According to him, God was rebuking this king because he tried to take matters into his own hands. Apparently, their Scriptures are insistent that the Jewish people must depend on God alone for security. By issuing a census, David seemed to be depending on the might of his military rather than the faithfulness of their God to get them through a national crisis.
Quirinius:       So let me get this straight: the Zealots are shouting the slogan, “God Alone is our King” and then they’re trying to prove it by fighting us with their own strength? Doesn’t that seem to contradict their point?
Centurion:      I certainly think so, and actually, so did the priest I was talking to.
Quirinius:       He did, huh? Well, I guess it’s good to know there are some reasonable Jews out there. What is his name? Is he pro-Roman?
Centurion:      His name is Zechariah, and he’s an intriguing person, but I wouldn’t call him pro-Roman. When I pressed him on the issue, he agreed with the zealots that we were wrong to issue a census. However, he didn’t agree with the way the Zealots were responding to the census. In his view, all that could come out of the zealot revolt was more violence. He foresees the Romans continually suppressing the Zealots, and the Zealots responding by continually terrorizing the Romans, and he fears that this cycle of violence could eventually lead to a full-scale rebellion, resulting in their temple being destroyed again. So, from his perspective, both we and the zealots are agents of violence.
Quirinius:       We are agents of violence? Are you kidding me? We’re the ones trying to stop the violence. You can’t have peace if you don’t stop the bad guys. What better solution does this Zechariah person have?
Centurion:      I don’t know; he wasn’t making a lot of sense at this point. He said something about God showing up right in the midst of violence and proclaiming peace. He said that peace wouldn’t come either from politicians or military leaders, but it would emerge from among the poor and the oppressed. He said something about a Messiah who would do things differently, he would conquer hate with love and overcome evil with good. He said that this Messiah would be able to turn the world inside out, so that even evil things – like the census that you issued – could be used for the glory of God.
Quirinius:       That's ridiculous. I’ll believe that when I hear it announced by angels.

This skit has no copyright, is free and is available for public use.

Additional Historical Information

This skit is what you might call a “historical fiction.” Of course, the actual conversation never happened, but the basic plot – in which Governor Quirinius had to deal with the zealot rebellion led by Judas the Galilean – is historical. (The primary source for this event is the Jewish Antiquities, Book XVIII, Chapter 1, by Josephus, which you can read online at If you read this translation, note that Cyrenius = Quirinius.) Of course, the language the skit uses of “terrorism” and “documentation” is anachronistic, but it is used to highlight parallels between a crisis the Romans faced in the first century and one that U.S. government faces in the twenty-first century. I also tried to draw other themes and characters from the gospel of Luke for the sake of consistency.

When Biblical scholars analyze Luke 2:1-5, most of the discussion usually revolves around the historicity (or lack thereof) of the census. However, the mention of the census issued under Quirinius serves a greater purpose that just to assign a general date for Jesus’ birth. Instead, Luke is drawing a connection between Jesus’ birth and the zealot movement, describing them as parallel movements that went in slightly different directions. The census under Quirinius marked the beginning of the zealot movement, as well as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. These parallel movements continue to intersect and diverge throughout the rest of Luke and even into Acts.

In Luke 4, the crowds with whom Jesus spoke were supportive of Jesus when his words indicated that he would bring healing to Israel, but they turned on him when he indicated that Gentiles would be saved. This indicates that the crowds who followed Jesus had zealot leanings. In Luke 6, when Jesus calls his twelve apostles, they include “Simon who was called the Zealot” and “Judas Iscariot.” Simon was clearly affiliated with the Zealot movement, and it’s quite likely that “Iscariot” indicates that Judas was affiliated with the Sicarii, a particularly violent offshoot of the Zealot movement. In Luke 23, when Jesus is brought before Herod, he is presented to them as another Zealot agitator: the chief priests say that Jesus was perverting the nation, forbidding the people to pay taxes, and describing himself as a king, which were all things that Judas the Galilean did. And even after Jesus had risen from the dead, in Acts 5 (which was also written by Luke), the high priest Gamaliel reflected on how to respond to his movement by explicitly comparing it to the zealot movement, noting, “Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got the people to follow him.” These connections can’t be coincidental.

By putting these two movements in parallel, Luke was able both to compare and contrast them. Yes, Jesus wanted to invoke the year of the Lord’s favor in Luke 4, but he also wanted to include Gentiles. Yes, he included zealots among his disciples in Luke 6, but he taught them to love their enemies in that same chapter. Yes, he was the Messiah, as mentioned in Luke 9, but he would be turned over to the Gentiles. He foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem in Luke 21, the result of the zealot movement, but he noted that this would not mark the end. Unlike the zealot movement, which would fizzle out and die after 70 C.E., his would last to the end of the age.