Luke 2:1. And it came to pass in those days That is, about the time in which John the Baptist was born, and Christ conceived, in the manner related in the preceding chapter; there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, that all the world should be taxed the word οικουμενη , here rendered world, “means strictly the inhabited part of the earth, and therefore, πασα η οικουμενη , all the world, in the common acceptation of the phrase. But it is well known that this expression was, in ancient times, frequently employed to denote the Roman empire. It was probably a title first assumed through arrogance, afterward given by others through flattery, and at last appropriated by general use to this signification. That it has a more extensive meaning in this place is not pretended by any. But there are some who, on the contrary, would confine it still further, making it denote no more than Judea and its appendages. Of this opinion are several of the learned; Beausobre, Doddridge, Lardner, Pearce, and others. In support of it they have produced some passages in which this phrase, or expressions equivalent, appear to have no larger signification. But, admitting their explanation of the passages they produce, they are not parallel to the example in hand. Such hyperboles are indeed current, not only in the language of the evangelists, but in every language. In those cases, however, wherein they are introduced, there rarely fails to be something, either in what is spoken or in the occasion of speaking, which serves to explain the trope. For example: the term, a country, in English, denotes properly a region, or tract of land, inhabited by a people living under the same government. By this, which is the common acceptation, we should say that England is a country. Yet the term is often used without any ambiguity in a more limited sense. Thus an inhabitant of a country town or parish says to one of his neighbours, speaking of two persons of their acquaintance, ‘All the country says they are soon to be married;’ yet so far is he from meaning by the phrase, all the country, all the people of England, that he is sensible not a thousandth part of them know that such persons exist. He means no more than all the neighbourhood. Nor is he in the smallest danger, by speaking thus, of being misunderstood by any hearer. But if he should say, ‘The parliament has laid a tax on saddle-horses, throughout all the country,’ nobody could imagine that less than England was intended by the term country, in this application. Here the term must be considered as it stands related to parliament; in other words, it must be that which, in the style of the legislature, would be named the country. In like manner, though it might not be extraordinary that a Jew, addressing himself to Jews, and speaking of their own people only, should employ such an hyperbole as, all the world, for all Judea; it would be exceedingly unnatural in him to use the same terms, applied in the same manner, in relating the resolves and decrees of the Roman emperor, to whom all Judea would be very far from appearing all the world, or even a considerable part of it. Add to this, that the Syriac interpreter (as also all the other ancient interpreters) understood the words in the same manner: all the people in his (the emperor’s) dominions.” Campbell. The chief, if not the only objection to this sense of the expression is, the silence of historians. But what Grotius observes, greatly lessens the force of that objection; “I do not so understand the evangelist,” says he, “as if a census were made through the whole Roman world, at one and the same time; but when Augustus wished thoroughly to know the whole power of the Roman empire, he appointed a census to be made through all the kingdoms and provinces subject to it, at one time in one part, and at another in another. Thus Dion, επεμψεν αλλους αλλη , τα τε των ιδιωτων και τα των πολεων απογραψομενους , he sent some persons one way and some another, who might take an account of the property, as well of private persons as of cities. Of the census made through Gaul by order of Augustus, Claudius, in an oration which is preserved at Ancyra, the abbreviator of Livy, and Dio, have made mention.”
Should be taxed Greek, απογραφεσθαι , enrolled: that is, that all the inhabitants, male and female, of every town in the Roman empire, with their families and estates, should be registered. Many of the modern translations, particularly those into Italian, French, and English, have rendered the word taxed: and as registers were commonly made with a view to taxing, it may, no doubt, in many cases, be so rendered with sufficient propriety: but, “as in this place there is some difficulty, it is better to adhere strictly to the import of the words. For though it was commonly for the purpose of taxing that a register was made, it was not always, or necessarily so; and in the present case we have ground to believe that there was no immediate view to taxation, at least with respect to Judea. Herod, called the Great, was then alive, and king of the country, and though in subordination to the Romans, of whom he may justly be said to have held his crown, yet, as they allowed him all the honours of royalty, there is no ground to think that, either in his lifetime, or before the banishment of his son Archelaus, the Romans levied any toll or tribute from the people of Judea. Nay, we have the testimony of Josephus, that they did not till after the expulsion of Archelaus, when the country was annexed to Syria, and so became part of a Roman province.” Campbell. The reader will observe, such a census, or account, as that here spoken of, “used to be taken of the citizens of Rome every fifth year, and they had officers on purpose appointed for it, called censors. Their business was to take an account, and make a register, of all the Roman citizens, their wives and children, with the age, qualities, trades, offices, and estates of them all. Augustus first extended this to the provinces. He was then at work on the composure of such a book, containing such a survey and description of the whole Roman empire, as that which our Doomsday-book doth of England. In order whereto, his decree for this survey was made to extend to the depending kingdoms, as well as the provinces of the empire: however, taxes were only paid by the people of the provinces to the Romans; and those of the dependant kingdoms to their own proper princes, who paid their tributes to the Roman emperors. Three times during his reign he caused the like description to be made. The second is that which St. Luke refers to. The decree concerning it was issued out three years before that in which Christ was born. So long had the taking of this survey been carrying on through Syria, Cœlo-Syria, Phœnicia, and Judea, before it came to Bethlehem. No payment of any tax was made (on this survey) till the twelfth year after. Till then Herod, and after him Archelaus his son, reigned in Judea. But when Archelaus was deposed, and Judea put under the command of a Roman procurator, then first were taxes paid to the Romans for that country.” Prideaux.
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