Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
governor of Syria, Luke 2:1-2 . Great difficulties have been raised on the history of the taxing under Cyrenius, for the different solutions of which we must refer to the commentators.
It may be observed on the passage in Luke 2:1-2 , That the word οικουμενη , rendered all the world, sometimes signifies the whole of a country, region, or district, as perhaps— Acts 11:28 , and certainly Luke 21:26 . The expression, "all the country," is peculiarly proper in this place, because Galilee, as well as Judea, was included, and perhaps all other parts in which were Jews. The word απογραφη , which is rendered taxing, should have been translated enrolment; as a taxation did not always really follow such enrolment, though such enrolment generally preceded a taxation. The difficulty of the passage is in the word πρωτη , first, because, ten or eleven years after, there was actually a taxation, which, as a decisive mark of subjection to the Roman power, was very mortifying to the Jewish nation. To this taxation Gamaliel alludes, "Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the taxing," Acts 5:37 , when mobs and riots were frequent under pretence of liberty.
The narrative of St. Luke may be combined in the following order, which is probably not far from its true import: "In those days Caesar Augustus,"
who was displeased with the conduct of Herod, and wished him to feel his dependence on the Roman empire, "issued a decree that the whole land" of Judea "should be enrolled," as well persons as possessions, that the true state of the inhabitants, their families, and their property, might be known and recorded. Accordingly, "all were enrolled," but the taxation did not immediately follow the enrolment, because Augustus was reconciled to Herod; and this accounts for the silence of Josephus on an assessment not carried into effect. "And this was the first assessment (or enrolment) of Cyrenius, governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city;" and, as the emperor's order was urgent, and Cyrenius was known to be active in the despatch of business, even Mary, though far advanced "in her pregnancy, went with Joseph, and while they waited" for their turn to be enrolled, "Mary was delivered of Jesus." It is not, however, improbable, that Mary had some small landed estate, for which her appearance was necessary. Jesus, therefore, was enrolled with Mary and Joseph, as Julian the Apostate expressly says.
An officer being sent from Rome to enrol and assess the subjects of a king, implied that such a king was dependent on the Roman emperor, and demonstrates that the sceptre was departed from Judah. This occurrence, added to the alarm of Herod on the inquiry of the Magi respecting the birthplace of the Messiah, might sufficiently exasperate Herod, not merely to slay the infants of Bethlehem, but to every act of cruelty. Hence, after such an occurrence, all Jerusalem might well be alarmed with Herod, Matthew 2:3; and the priests, &c, study caution in their answers to him. This occurrence would quicken the attention of all who expected temporal redemption in Israel, as it would extremely mortify every Jewish national feeling.
The overruling providence of God appointed, that, at the time of Christ's birth, there should be a public, authentic, and general production of titles, pedigrees, &c, which should prove that Jesus was descended from the house and direct family line of David; and that this should be proved judicially on such a scrutinizing occasion. This occurrence brought about the birth of the Messiah, at the very place appointed by prophecy long before, though the usual residence of Joseph and Mary was at Nazareth.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Cyrenius'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/c/cyrenius.html. 1831-2.