That God inspired Caesar Augustus to conduct the census at the time of Christ’s incarnation
John Chrysostom (c. 349-407 CE), born in Antioch, and the son of a high-ranking military officer (his mother is described variously as a pagan and a Christian; the latter is favoured by Wendy Mayer and Pauline Allen, John Chrysostom, p. 5) was the archbishop of Constantinople, and a celebrated ascetic and preacher. Indeed, the epithet Χρυσόστομος (Chrysostomos), meaning “golden-mouth” in Greek testifies to his ability as an orator. He was educated under the pagan teacher Libanius, and became skilled in rhetoric. John Chrysostom’s homiletic works are numerous, and in addition to exegetical sermons on both the Old and New Testament, he also wrote about concerns arising from the social context in which he lived, instructing Christians to avoid pagan activities such as festivals, theatrical shows, and races, in addition to Jewish festivals (see Robert Wilken, Rhetoric and Reality, p. 30). Indeed, sermons warning against Judaising Christians formed a significant portion of his sermons between 386 and 387 CE, when Chrysostom was a presbyter in Antioch. The above extract from Chrysostom’s homily regarding the date of Christ’s birth was preached by John Chrysostom in Antioch at Christmas, where the date of the 25th of December for the celebration of the nativity had been recently introduced, and was still a matter of confusion among the Christians there (see Wendy Mayer and Pauline Allen, John Chrysostom, p. 23). The homily argues in favour of this date for the nativity by claiming that it had a long tradition which had begun in Rome, and had now become widely accepted. Moreover, John Chrysostom argues that the public records in the city of Rome prove that the date of the census at the time of Christ’s birth, described by the Lukan evangelist, was the 25th of December (for more details on the argument presented surrounding the date, see John Kelly, Golden Mouth, p. 68-69). In the present extract, we will see that this discussion surrounding the date of Christmas also has important implications for the way in which the relationship between Rome and Christianity was perceived by the author.
In this passage, John Chrysostom joins various other Christian authors who interpret Christ’s birth at the time of the Roman census ordered by Caesar Augustus (see Luke 2:1-3) as an event that was deliberately timed and instigated by God in order to help bring about his greater plan for humanity. The Lukan description of Christ’s incarnation during the time of the census provided early-Christian authors with an opportunity to reflect upon the connection between the Roman empire and Christianity, and for authors such as Chrysostom, writing post 212 CE, when Roman citizenship was granted to most free inhabitants of the empire, this added an extra dimension to the discussion. For the author of the Commentary on Daniel IV.9, the census had the effect of distinguishing between those who pledged allegiance to “a king of the earth” (these would take the name of “Roman”), and those who chose to follow the “king of heaven” (these would take the name “Christians”). The author of this latter text makes clear that Christians and Romans are both distinct and incompatible. Taking the opposite position, Orosius in his Seven Books of History Against the Pagans VI.22 makes the bold claim that Christ himself was a Roman citizen due to his entry onto the census list. Historically, of course, being registered in the census did not mean that one was a Roman citizen, but this does not seem to matter to Orosius, whose main point in his work as a whole was to present Rome as God’s chosen empire. Claiming that Christ was a Roman citizen was therefore a powerful illustration of this.
Another reflection on this subject is found in Origen’s Homily 11 on Luke 1.80–2.2. Similarly to John Chrysostom, Origen rhetorically poses a question from a curious individual who asks why the details provided by the Lukan author regarding the census are helpful to the reader of scripture at a later point in time. Origen says of the census:
“To one who looks more carefully, a mystery seems to be conveyed. It is significant that Christ should have been recorded in the census of the whole world. He was registered with everyone, and sanctified everyone. He was joined with the world for the census, and offers the world communion with himself. After this census, he could enrol those from the whole world ‘in the book of the living’ with himself. Whoever believed in him would be later ‘inscribed in heaven,’ along with his saints.”
Origen concludes that the census had a theological and allegorical meaning, and removes the connection between citizenship and war that is made in the Commentary on Daniel IV.9, interpreting the census instead as a “figure of universal salvation” which is linked with the book of the living from Isaiah 53:13 (see Hervé Inglebert, “Christian Reflections,” p. 102). A similar interpretation is also found in the mid-fourth century Hymns on the Nativity by Ephrem of Nisibis (see V.12 and XVIII.2). Also written in the mid-fourth century, the Syriac text On Wars XXIV by Aphrahat asserts that due to the fact that Christ was enrolled among those who paid the poll-tax to the Romans, he was one of them, and as such supported the Roman armies in their campaigns. However, it should be noted that Aphrahat’s attitude towards Rome is much less negative than that of the author of the Commentary on Daniel, who see the empire and Christianity as fundamentally opposed.
In the present text, similarly to Origen, John Chrysostom is keen to emphasise that the precise dating of the census are vitally important for Christians to understand. If one wishes, the records can be viewed in Rome, it is claimed. The Lukan author has not detailed the Roman historical context of the incarnation for nothing, and has not merely “indicated” it, but been specific regarding the events in order to make clear that God’s will was firmly linked to Roman political actions. It is important, therefore, that Caesar, even if he was not aware of it himself, did not decide to call the census of his own volition, but was rather inspired by God to do so. In this sense, his decree is not solely his, but God’s, and that Roman policy and the divine purpose—referred to as the “economy/plan (οἰκονομία, oikonomia) of God” by John Chrysostom— are directly connected in this way makes a strong statement that the two are not opposed, but working in harmony towards a specific purpose; in this case, the coming (παρουσία, parousia) of the “only-begotten (μονογενής, monogenēs)” son of God.
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