The Census in Bethlehem
Pieter Breughel 1566Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels
Read : Luke 2. 2
This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Breughel’s painting of the Census in Bethlehem is set in his own Flemish landscape. A crowd of people (bottom left) are waiting to pay their taxes in the snowy landscape of an ordinary village. In the midst of all the pushing and shoving , a man leads a donkey, with a woman seated on it. Mary and Joseph are just insignificant members of the crowd, who have had to respond to the order of the Governor, Quirinius. He has never met them, and they have never met him, but his decision, according to Luke, has propelled them on a journey which will change the lives of many. Luke may have been drawing on folk memory of a very unpopular census ordered by Quirinius in around 6 AD, slightly after Jesus’ birth. The census had made Quirinius very unpopular, as Jewish law forbade censuses (1 Chron 21). Censuses could be very disturbing and worrying events in an oppressed nation, and this one had led to revolts. Luke set Jesus’ birth against this background to emphasize the uncertain times in which he was born. Rulers tend to want to count people so that they can tax them, or press them into service, and when the rulers in question were Roman it was usually better to try to keep your head down and remain unnoticed!
- Has your life been affected by decisions and events made by people you will never meet? (War, political and economic changes, etc)
- Pray for those who are most powerless in the face of things like climate
change and international dispute – those who are already poor and vulnerable.