Censuses in the Scriptures

census at bethlehem brueghel the younger                       Census at Bethlehem -Brueghel the Younger

The word ‘census’ comes from the Latin, censure, ‘to estimate’. Census-taking had been a regular part of the ancient world from as early as 3800BC.  The first official census as we would recognise it was in 1841, but the principle of trying to record data on a region is well documented in the Bible.  The Book of Samuel tells us in the Old Testament that King David ordered a census of Israel and Judah for military reasons, against all advice – and induced the wrath of God.  In Numbers 26 we are told of a census of the entire Israelite community by their ancestral houses of those 20 years old or more who could serve in Israel’s army.  There are many other recorded instances of conducting a census for military or monetary reasons – Exo 30; Num 1,2,3,4,7,14,31; 1 Chron 21,23,25,27, to mention but a few.

In the New Testament, the Romans required censuses to count individuals and their properties for taxation purposes, to sustain their Empire.  By the time of Jesus, Israel was generally considered a backwater Roman province full of people with strange religious beliefs. The Jews had very little autonomy, though they clung to their religion and customs. Some Jews were Roman citizens (like the apostle Paul) and thus had certain rights and privileges, but most were not.

Responding to the Roman census was quite an undertaking. According to St. Luke, the reason Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary had to make the arduous journey to Bethlehem, the home of Joseph’s ancestors, was that everyone had to be counted under a decree ordered by Emperor Augustus.  Luke 2:3 records that for the census, everyone went to their own town to register. Thus, Joseph & Mary had to travel 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem in Judea because Bethlehem was the town of David, and Joseph was of the line of David.  Incidentally, Mary was also of the lineage of David.

Some random census facts from history:

  • The oldest census still in existence that lists population, age and occupation, with over 50,000 people recorded, was done in Iceland in 1703.
  • Oliver Cromwell commissioned a census of Ireland because he wished to seize land from Irish Catholics and give it to English Protestants.
  • In 1753, the first Bill was introduced into Parliament suggesting a census of all those living in Britain. It was defeated. People feared their information would be used against them.
  • The artist JMW Turner was said to have rowed into the Thames for the night to escape being counted in 1841.
  • Pets have sometimes been recorded as family members. 8 year-old “Tom Cat” was listed by one family in Birkenhead in 1911, with the profession of “mouse-catcher”.
  • The “infirmities” section of Victorian Censuses were often filled in with entries such as “bad-tempered person”. In the 1880 US census, a 15-year-old girl had her occupation recorded as “does as she pleases”.

This is the first census that we are expected to answer online and it must be filled in this Sunday, 21 March by law, or as soon as possible thereafter. Paper questionnaires are available for those who need them. There’s a wide range of support services such as language and accessibility support.

To find out how to get help, visit census.gov.uk or call the contact centre on 0800 141 2021.