Nine Lessons and Carols: The Sixth Lesson: The Ghost Census

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

My father nearly swallowed his false teeth. “I have to pay it all back by when?”

The tax men had been taking too little, month after month, and my scrupulously honest father called them when he realised what had been happening.

Immoveable, those tax men were. Implacable. Stolid, even. My father must pay it all back. No instalments, just get this small king’s ransom back to the Crown as soon as possible. Quick Smart.

Taxes were not more stringent for those in Syria and the new province of Judea than they were for us. They tended to be as low as 1 per cent, and in times of war around 3 per cent of all owned wealth and property.

But fair? That is a matter of opinion. I have read variously that Roman citizens in Rome did not pay taxes; that was the job of those in the provinces and the reaches of the vast empire they had created. And the Vast Reaches had their own say on whether they thought Roman taxed were fair, starting with Gaul in 27 BC with an uprising in protest. Unrest rumbled through the empire: Pannonia, Cappadocia: and Judea.

The Romans never taxed until they had carried out a census. They held them throughout the Empire. And Romans being Romans, of course there was a record of each census when it took place. 


This one mentioned in the Sixth Lesson of ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’. It’s a puzzlement.

There was a very big census indeed in Judea around the time. Judea was newly added to the province of Syria, and the Roman senator Cyrenius was sent to oversee the whole business, according to a Jewish historian of the time, Josephus. In 6 – 7 bc the head of each household, usually the eldest male, provided details of his property and who lived on it, including family members, employees, lodgers and slaves.

But this business of trekking off, each to his own city. It would have been a nightmare to administer. “The idea of a census requiring individuals to move to the native town of long dead ancestors is hard to credit”, says biblical historian James Dunn. The Romans simply didn’t do that. It was the census officials who moved, not the subjects. As historian Emil Schürer argued: Joseph would never have had to move to his ancestral home, and Mary would not have had to move at all.

And then, there’s Herod. Matthew indicates this all happened in the reign of Herod the Great, who died around eight years before the census took place. As we are still to learn, Herod has an important part to play in this story.

The Gospels don’t agree. They don’t even attempt to make historical sense. They do not collude and connive.

Because this is folklore: tales woven with patches of documented happening, and patches of supposition, and into a great and glorious patchwork story which speaks in the language not of history, but theology. These tales were written to explain a huge body of writing and thinking – the Old Testament -which had come beforehand. They are turgid with symbolism: every tiny detail means something and explains prophecies made earlier.

This, the four writers of accepted accounts say, is how the long winding story of the people of  this particular God comes to its climax. The man from the cross started here, and look: he was a direct descendant of King David and we have a story to prove it.

Was he really born in Bethlehem? In a stable?

Who knows.


20 thoughts on “Nine Lessons and Carols: The Sixth Lesson: The Ghost Census

  1. Timely reminder of what many literally take as gospel is history rewritten to fulfill prophecies. Excellent summary, Kate.

    In answer to your final questions, even Bethlehem (chosen as ‘town of David’) is disputed — there’s apparently two places with this name — and the cave-like stable birth is similar to the birth stories of other deities. So, no and no. Probably.

  2. Based on actual evidence of the time, it didn’t happen at all. Does that invalidate the whole kaboodle? I think not.
    Pity they didn’t have me available to edit for inconsistencies. (I found some beauties in the latest editing job I did.)

    1. Stories and myths have a power all their own, Col, don’t they? Our forebears try to tell us all sorts of things through them.
      Quite. What those four needed was an excellent editor. And don’t get me started on the gospels which didn’t make the grade. Fascinating.

  3. I have never thought of my novel as akin to the Bible until I read this post. I play with history. They played with history. Thank you for this bright spot in my morning, Kate.

    1. Andra, you are welcome. I am a huge fan of story as doing the same job as a dream; uncovering the issues our unconscious is most concerned with. They are like tinted, changed mirrors.
      On which subject, I must scuttle off to write the first episode of my Christmas ghost story 😀 Sometimes it is enough just to write, isn’t it?

  4. I expect it’s all a bunch of malarkey . . . designed to draw Pagans and Heathens into the fold of Christianity and add a feather (and gold) to the caps of the Cardinals, Popes, and Bishops. 😀

    1. I think the latter have used it to their advantage, sometimes shamelessly, in the past, Nancy. But I think like any good story there are still things we can learn here.
      Like: make sure you get the right Mary.

  5. Herod was already deceased? And so he has been maligned all these centuries for nothing. I think he has a libel suit in the making. Was this the Herod with Salome and the head of John the Baptist? I’m afraid most of my religious knowledge harks back to those aforementioned Cecil B. DeMille Biblical technicolor, cinemascope productions in the fifties. Where an amazing number of women had red hair, for some reason, and push-up bras.

    1. Gale, you never fail to brighten my day with your comments, and I have made a small resolution to watch a film over Christmas which incorporates both Herod and a decent push-up bra. From the right era, of course. One could get into some seriously hot water otherwise.

  6. How, when, where, who, what? I have never read the Bible as a literal history, but as a collection intended to inform us otherwise and in other ways. However, I cannot help but point out that man’s record for recording facts and history is, ironically, historically inaccurate. . .maybe. I look back on all the histories that have been written – some I have read, most I have not (nor will I probably, ever) and have learned a few things. The world is flat, gravity is a “pulling” force only, the earth is the center of the universe, and many other bits of humanly recorded facts and trivia. We are so much human. I am happy to say I am a devoted Christian, especially having found no better way to live, but I also understand a bit of the effect of hermeneutics on the Bible, indeed on any writing, or anything that is filtered through or interpreted by humans. No matter how divinely inspired (and I believe it was so inspired, the Bible is also a human document. As far as I know and believe, Jesus Christ is the only human who managed to be both fully human and fully divine – capable of human error, but making none. If He had been only divine, what would be the point of trying to follow and be like someone that we could never be? (Except me of course I failed to mention that I, too, am perfect – wait – does that failure make me imperfect?)

    In any event, and I am quite sure that this discussion could (and probably has/will) last forever, I do believe that something so extraordinary and so amazing, and to many still so completely unbelievable, really happened about 2,000 years ago somewhere on earth, that still stirs hearts and changes lives for the good. The fact that the event is (perhaps) not provable by today’s standards changes absolutely nothing for me. I don’t believe that I have something, some superior knowledge or understanding, inside of me that others can’t or don’t. I just know that I have something inside of me that for a while I did not, and now that I have it, I am eternally grateful. It is also an event that many have used for their own purposes, the telling of which that many have so completely fouled up (you can use your choice of f-word there, and I feel sometimes that God at least feels like using a different one), that the essential message of Christianity has been lost on many people, and by those standards, rightfully so. None of the Christians I know and work/live with would follow a God so poorly and ruthlessly presented. I do know it’s possible to live a life that becomes (flatters) the Gospel, because I have known and know those that have so lived, and do. Such is my own quest.

    My, such a treatise. . .wonder how long it will last, and how it will be interpreted? Remains to be seen, I guess, but in the meantime, Kate, thanks so much for such a beautifully written, and truly thought-provoking post. It feels good to be visiting after such a long absence. I’ve missed being here! (I’ll go back and check out the earlier posts connected to this one.)


    1. Paula, what a fabulous comment, thank you. You sum up a set of dilemmas. Growing up surrounded by theology and the learned, I know some of the learned arguments and discussions which surround these stories. I was determined to approach these lessons and carols in the same way as I approach all the stories I have read, from the Icelandic sagas to Gilgamesh. I wanted to look at it all afresh, just as stories.
      It has been an eye-opening journey for me 🙂 Lovely as always, to hear your voice. Have a great Christmas you and that wonderful family of yours.

      1. You realize, of course, Kate, that what you are attempting to do is impossible. I wish it were not. I wish that I could read something with a totally unaffected mindset. It would make my favorite stories something altogether new. Perhaps my at age today, were it the first time to read the Bible, would look at it and interpret it totally differently. Likely it would, because I cannot fail to see something new almost every time I read certain scriptures. Part of the mystery of the Gospel. and perhaps the mystery of the human mind. What’s the old line?…”You only have one chance to make a first impression.”

        For my part, I am glad there are many people who have given or give me the opportunity to make a better impression than the first. and I am also glad I chose to read many things more than once. Reason being, something is almost always added, and what is taken away can make the story better, at least sometimes.

        Merry Christmas, Happy 2014 and beyond, and please, for all our sakes, keep writing! God bless you and your family (esp. John and June!) 😆


      2. I should have said “re-read” in the third sentence. Although, when I think of it, even reading the first time, we are interpreting from what we already “know”, or have read elsewhere or heard about. . .Sigh. . .life can be so complicated! 😆

  7. Intriguing. I know that literalists will not be thrilled with your take on this. But, I believe, that the Bible is filled with analogies and parables because it is stories that people remember. What better way to impart a message than thru a memorable story?

    In “The Catholic Faith & Family Bible,” it states: “The Bibles does not need to be without error in regard to historical and scientific facts in order to teach us what we need to know about salvation. The point here is not to ask, “Is the Bible true?” but rather to ask, “How is the Bible true?” And the answer is that the Bible is true to what we need to know to be in right relationship with God, with one another, and with the earth – what we need to know for our salvation.”

  8. That’s new to me about Herod already being dead. I’m intrigued by that and wonder what his placement into the gospel narrative was intended to prove–or perhaps he was just used to move the story forward. Biblical literalism is very familiar to me, since that’s the Christian tradition I was raised with. You can imagine my “shock and awe” when I went to college and began to study other traditions and found the same stories. I find Scripture beautiful literature that enhances a deeper spiritual life because of the mysteries; it doesn’t require a perfect blueprint.

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