Taxes…With a Purpose

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

Luke 2:1-5

TAXES! To most people they are a scourge—the scourge of the human race. Actually taxes are as old as civilization itself and its most unpopular part no doubt.

Originally taxes were very subtle. They were called gifts, and sometimes they really were. So we are told in Genesis that Abraham gave tithes of all that he possessed to Melchizedek king of Salem. This was a willing gift presented by Abraham because he recognized that Melchizedek was a priest of the most high God. His gift was recognition of the fact that all he possessed was his only by the goodness of the God whom Melchizedek represented. And there may well have been other instances also when gifts were given to the heads of other nations or tribes merely as expressions of friendship or gratitude.

Usually, however, when these early gifts of tribute were rendered, there were other, ulterior motives behind them. The gifts so given almost inevitably flowed from the less powerful tribes to the more powerful ones. There were reasons for this. The small and weak tribes were always conscious of their inability to defend themselves from invaders. For them it was a matter of practical importance to establish friendships with more powerful neighbors who could stand by them and help them should an enemy appear.

It did not take long for the mightier rulers to discover that this could be a very lucrative source of wealth. As times went on, the stronger tribes and nations more and more sent forth their armies into neighboring lands to exact from them such tributes or to threaten them with complete destruction. It became a way of life. Perhaps the most successful practitioners of this sort of taxation were king David of Israel and Solomon his son. Under the armies of David the boundaries of Israel and its tributaries were extended from the Nile to the Euphrates River. It was by far the largest kingdom and the most wealthy that the world had seen until that day. Each nation subdued by David’s armies was compelled to present a yearly gift or tribute to the nation of Israel. It was from the great wealth so gathered that the famed glory of Solomon’s great kingdom was constructed. And, although the strength of Israel was undermined by the division in the kingdom, this method of conquest and taxation continued to dominate the world for many centuries.

It was not, however, until the Romans were ruling the world that an entirely new concept in taxation was introduced. It happened during the reign of Caesar Augustus while Cyrenius was governor of Syria. At that time there was levied a tax, not just upon the conquered nations as a whole, but upon every subject of the Roman Empire individually, no matter to which nation he belonged. This was a tremendous, epoch-making event in the history of taxation. It meant that Romans had to go out and make records of every individual person in their realm. It meant that every individual person had to be contacted and the collection of his taxes had to be enforced. The complexity of that task must have been almost beyond comprehension in that day when it was introduced. This was perhaps the most significant innovation that was ever made in the long history of civilization and its taxations.

Unto this day the world still feels the effect of that innovation made by Caesar Augustus when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. There has hardly been an empire or kingdom since that time which has not followed this new method of taxation. Almost every person everywhere who has lived within the pale of civilization has been required to register for taxation after that method first devised when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. Although little is known about it, this was one of the great precedent practices of all time.

Oh yes, there is one other event which we should mention concerning that registration which was introduced by Caesar Augustus. Actually, of course, at the time it could hardly have seemed important. It was just one of those regrettable inconveniences which were bound to take place under a command as far reaching as that.

It appears that in Palestine all Jews were required to make their registration in the city of their fathers, regardless of where they happened to live at the time. This was an awkward requirement that meant that everyone who had moved into another territory had to travel back to the city in which his fathers lived. Sometimes this distance was considerable and the hardships could be very great. An instance of this was the case of a man who had to travel to Bethlehem in Judaea all the way from Nazareth in the province of Galilee. And what made this journey especially difficult was that his wife who traveled with him was about to give birth to a child.

We do not know any of the details of their journey, only that they came to the city as complete strangers unwelcome and unknown. Actually they were both people of rather impressive backgrounds. They were both of the family of David, and the young woman was from the line of Israel’s kings. She represented the line from which according to promise the Messiah was to come forth. But in that modern day people, regardless of how religious they professed to be, were quite satisfied with things as they were and really did not care whether the Messiah would ever come. The line of David’s promised seed was ignored and forgotten. The young couple came to the city of David and no one cared. Because of the registration, the city was crowded when they came. They went from door to door, but wherever they went there was no room until finally they were left with no choice but to spend the night with the cattle in a public stable. It was during that night that Mary’s son was born.

This was one of the more unpleasant consequences of that new form of taxation which was introduced. In itself it was incidental and did not reflect upon the value of this form of taxation as such. And yet, if it were not for that birth, the tax innovation of Augustus during the governorship of Cyrenius would no longer be remembered. Although neither Caesar nor Cyrenius could have realized it, it was actually their epoch-making form of taxation that was really incidental. Finally, it was only a means to bring Mary to the city of her fathers that according to prophecy she might there give birth to her firstborn son.