CENSUS. A numbering and registration of a people. The OT tells of three different occasions when a formal census was taken. The first was at Mount Sinai, soon after the Israelites left Egypt (Num.1.1-Num.1.54). The second was at Shittim near the end of the forty years’ wilderness wandering. The third was made by David (2Sam.24.1-2Sam.24.9; 1Chr.21.1-1Chr.21.5). The exiles who returned from Babylonia with Zerubbabel were also numbered (Ezra.2.1-Ezra.2.70). Shortly before the birth of Christ, Emperor Augustus ordered an enrollment in his empire (Luke.2.1).

CENSUS (פְּקוּדִים, H7217, mustering; מִסְפָּר, H5031, number; Gr. ἀπογραφή, G615, enrollment).

Old Testament.

The numbering of the people was a regular feature of Israelite life. The fourth book of the Bible (Num.) takes its modern title from the LXX, which derived it from the fact that a mustering of the host, or a special census, is mentioned both at the beginning of the book and at the end (Num 1:2, 46; 26:2-51). The large numbers recorded have caused comment, and it is possible that the word “thousand” signified a tribal group rather than a definite number. It must also be remembered that, in the nomad period of her history, Israel was spread widely over a great tract of wilderness. Indeed, one purpose of the census may have been to practice mobilization as well as to enumerate. David’s census, also a military muster (2 Sam 24; 1 Chron 21), earned rebuke and chastisement because it was a manifestation of personal pride and perilous arrogance. There are several explanations of the discrepancy of totals between the two accounts. Perhaps the lists in 2 Samuel 24 do not contain Benjamin and Levi; perhaps Chronicles includes non-Israelite soldiery (e.g. Uriah the Hittite); perhaps Chronicles includes the regular army, or the picked 30,000 (1 Chron 11:25), excluded by the other account. Any of these explanations will meet the facts, apart from the possibility of textual corruption to which Heb. numerals, and, to a less extent, Gr., are susceptible. Ezra (ch. 2) also mentions an enumeration of the exiles who returned from Babylon under Zerubbabel.

New Testament.

The Romans, with their flair for organization, were the inventors of the census in European contexts. A national register of those eligible for military service was prepared in Rome even in the days of the half-legendary kings. The consuls inherited this duty from the foundation of the Republic, and censors assumed it from 443 b.c. Under the later Republic the census appears to have been taken irregularly, but it was revived by Augustus as part of his detailed organization of the Empire. He held it, he wrote (Res Gestae 8), three times. With the exemption of Italians from taxation and from compulsory military service, the census became unnecessary in Italy, where the last regular census was held by Vespasian and Titus. In the provinces, a census was held sometimes in Republican times (Cicero, Verr. 2.131), but again it was Augustus, the diligent organizer and administrator, who organized the provincial registration. The famous phrase in Luke (2:1) speaks of the census (the apographē, or enrollment) of Judaea, which appears to have been the census of 7 b.c. held tardily in the turbulent Jewish province, because of the covert resistance of Herod. (See E. M. Blaiklock, The Century of the New Testament, pp. 147-151.) A second census is mentioned in Acts 5:37, an event which led to insurrection in Galilee. This was in a.d. 6, and was connected with the incorporation of the region into the Rom. system of provincial rule, under which tribute lists were necessary. There is considerable documentation in the Egyp. papyri to illustrate the NT nativity narratives which were tangled with the taking of the periodic census. For example, there is the implied requirement (Luke 2:3) that each man was directed to enroll in his home town. A public notice from Egypt, dated a.d. 104, whose ending is lost, runs: “Gaius Vibius, chief prefect of Egypt: Because of the approaching census it is necessary for all those residing for any cause away from their own districts to prepare to return at once to their own governments, in order that they may complete the family administration of the enrollment, and that the tilled lands may retain those belonging to them. Knowing that your city has need of provisions, I desire....” (Gr. Papyri in the British Museum, vol. 3. Edd. F. G. Kenyon and H. I. Bell [1907], p. 125, no. 904.)

A census paper dated a.d. 48 shows the detail which was recorded: “To Dorion chief magistrate and to Didymus town clerk, from Thermoutharion, the daughter of Thoonis, with her guardian Apollonius the son of Sotades. The inhabitants of the house belonging to me in the South Lane are: Thermoutharion a freed-woman of the aforesaid Sotades, about sixty-five years of age, of medium height, with honeycolored complexion, having a long face and a scar on the right knee...” (a line is missing here which describes a second woman). “I, the aforesaid Thermoutharion” (the document continues with an affidavit), “with my guardian the said Apollonius, swear by Tiberius Claudius Caesar Emperor, that I have assuredly, honestly, and truthfully presented the preceding return of those living with me, and that no one else lives with me, neither a stranger, Alexandrian nor freedman, nor Roman, nor Egyptian, except the aforesaid. If I were swearing truly may it be well with me, if falsely the opposite.”


A. H. J. Greenidge, Roman Public Life (1896); W. M. Ramsay, Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? (1898); E. M. Blaiklock, The Century of the New Testament (1962); The Archaeology of the New Testament (1970).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


See David; Quirinius.