There is an old Slavic proverb that the only place you can go to on your own is to hell. Ancient people did not have a concept of the autonomous individual except as some kind of horrific disaster. To our ancestors, we are made up of our connections to others—formed by our place in the web or hierarchy of kinship and grounded in a shared transcendent source of life. To be separated from others was to be robbed of all potency and rendered entirely vulnerable to a multitude of outside forces—either accursed or claimed by the gods. Census taking was therefore considered a terribly dangerous activity because it identified or singled out each person.
Hebrew scholar and Old Testament translator Robert Alter explains:
It was a belief common to Israel and to the Mesopotamian cultures that it was dangerous for humans to be counted. Perhaps it was felt that assigning individuals in a mass an exact number set them up as vulnerable targets for malefic forces. The story of David’s ill fated census in 2 Samuel 24, which triggers a plague, turns on this belief. The danger of destruction inherent in census taking could be averted by the payment of a ‘ransom’ for each threatened life as a donation to the sanctuary. The supposed danger of the census thus becomes the rationale for the institution of a poll tax, which in turn will be an important source of revenue for the maintenance of the sanctuary and its officiants.
The oldest recorded censuses, however, are tools of civic authority (although civic and sacred authority were mixed and overlapping realms, of course). As Ireland’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) summarizes on their website:
The first known census undertaken nearly 6000 years ago by the Babylonians in 3800 BC. There are records to suggest that this census was undertaken every 6 or 7 years and counted the number of people and livestock, as well as quantities of butter, honey, milk, wool and vegetables.
The oldest existing census in the world comes from China during the Han Dynasty. This census was taken in the year 2 A.D. and is considered to be quite accurate. It recorded the population as 59.6 million, the world’s largest population.
This census in China would have taken place close to the same time as that famous account of “a decree that went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” and how “this was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Although there is significant debate over the timing of this census in relation to Christ’s birth and Herod’s death, we know that the census was a key tool of Roman administration and that it was conducted every five years in a rotation across regions to maintain a register of citizens and their property. Our word census originates from the Latin word ‘censere’ which means ‘estimate’.
This connection of census taking with kingly power throughout the Old Testament and all of human history is a critical element in the story of Jesus Christ entering the world as a helpless baby who was destined to confront the power of Emperor Augustus and all earthly princes. Christ’s power, however, is never manifested as we would expect. There is no place for Christ in the inns or the royal palaces of this world. His power is manifested in human hearts—in the faithfulness of his virgin mother and of her wise and attentive husband who listens to the visiting angels in his sleep rather than to the threats and demands of this world.
When Jesus faced Roman power as a grown man, his focus was equally singular. Like his mother and his earthly father, Jesus was concerned only with the will of his Father in Heaven. Caesar’s heart no doubt matters to King Jesus (who was particularly demanding regarding human hearts), but Caesar’s will had no bearing on Christ’s own conduct: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
This entirely other-world locus of Christ’s reign, however, has shown up within our sad history as flickers of the beautiful light from around Christ’s heavenly throne. That baby who drew three kings to worship him by the light of a star has cast light into other kingdoms long after his ascension to the throne of God. After all, while the powers of state have not been entirely tamed and the secular nation state has arguably taken more human lives per capita than most previous (and supposedly less enlightened) forms of government (see the first two images here), we do see censuses being put to many good uses following the witness to the light that we have in the infant Christ’s escape from Herod and later confrontation as a man with the power of Rome.
I’ve obviously not done the rigorous historical research that would be required, but I strongly suspect that the evidence would bear this fact out over the course of human history. Census taking had many good and valuable uses before Jesus Christ, but the change in approach and purpose for census taking in the years following the spread of the Christian faith is notable and even beautiful despite it’s lack of consistency or perfection in goodness. I’ve posted on this blog once before regarding the most dramatic example of this reversal in the example of Saint (and Emperor) John III Doukas Vatatzes the Merciful. His remarkable example stands as a tribute to the power of baby Jesus: a Christian emperor who ordered a census for the express purpose of giving a piece of land to the 7000 poorest people in his empire. And this was no emotionally-driven whim. By all accounts, this was a sound plan with positive a economic outcome for the empire. Although I’ve not heard this story told or celebrated very widely, it is a powerful testimony to the influence of a helpless baby born centuries earlier in the midst of a mighty empire and its management of human populations.
Emperor John the Merciful, pray with us this nativity that Christ would reign in our hearts in all of our dealings with each other.