Walter Brueggemann: Joseph and Mary: On Becoming a Statistic

The carpenter from Nazareth, Joseph, we may assume, was a modest man who lived a modest life in his village. He did not rock the boat. He did not want to call attention to himself. But then, according to the gospel narrative, he faced two powerful disruptions in his settled life.

The first disruption, according to Matthew, is that the new child of Mary came into Joseph’s life. Because he was “righteous” (socially responsible), he was willing to protect this vulnerable mother-to-be:

Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Matthew 1:19)

No wonder he came to be reckoned as a saint! But then he was alerted by the angel from God that this was no ordinary child but one named “Emmanuel”:

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

Joseph was willing and able to render unto to God what belonged to God, namely, his honor and his family name. This strange intervention in his life is fully acknowledged in our regular Advent-Christmas observance. It is not now my point of interest.

The second disruption, I suggest, has not been so fully considered for the most part. Imagine the stir in the village of Nazareth the day when a local official posted notice, at the behest of the Jewish government in cooperation with the Roman Empire, that required all inhabitants to be counted in the imperial census. They must do so, moreover, to their great inconvenience in the city of their family. The empire does not mind imposing an inconvenience! The posting is reported in the Gospel of Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world [global economy!] should be registered. This was the first registration and was while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own town to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. (Luke 2:1-5)

We may notice in particular two points about this narrative report. First, the report is governed by the term “decree” that in Greek is “dogma.” This is the requirement of the empire, an order well beyond question, debate, or negotiation. It has to be obeyed! It is worth noting that later on, in the Book of Acts, some early Christians are described as disobeying an imperial decree:

“These people who have been turning the world upside down have come from here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decree [dogma] of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” (Acts 17:6-7)

Such resistance, of course, was not in the horizon of Joseph. He is willing to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, namely, his money and his political loyalty. Thus, Joseph is presented as being compliant with both interventions. He is responsive to the mandate of the angel concerning Mary. He is equally responsive to the mandate of the empire that propelled him to Bethlehem.

The second matter we may notice in Luke’s report of the imperial decree is that we get four times the term “register”:

All the world shall be registered. (v. 1)

This was the first registration. (v. 2)

All went to their towns to be registered. (v. 3)

He [Joseph] went to be registered with Mary. (v. 5)

The Greek term for “register” is apographe that has within it the syllable “graph,” thus, “written.” The term “register” means to “be written down,” or recorded for all time in the imperial archives. No resistance to this imperial requirement is noted by Luke as Joseph willingly complies.

We may nevertheless notice that such an act of being “written down” is likely quite foreign to the village inhabitants who intended to remain unnoticed and unrecorded. In their ordinary lives, villagers live in an oral world where there is no need to write things down. It is the special province of the state to proceed in writing.

See two ominous cases of state writing by Jezebel (I Kings 21:8-9) and David (II Samuel 11:14-15). In both cases, the state writing resulted in violent deaths! Thus, the requirement of being “written down” recruited Joseph (and Mary) into a zone of historical reality that was not only new to them, but surely contrary to their social location and self-identity. Village people have no inclination to be written down by the empire. A current case of resistance to being “written down” is the memoir by Tara Westover, Educated, in which Westover details the care her family took to stay off the “books” and to remain out of reach of the “writing” society.

No protest against the imperial census by Augustus is voiced in Luke’s narrative (as Luke has a complex attitude toward Rome). In the older narrative of II Samuel 24, however, the census conducted by King David has immense, destructive fallout. In that narrative, Joab cautiously protests to David about the census suggesting it is unwise: “But why does my lord the king want to do this?” (II Samuel 24:3). It is as though Joab might say to the king, “Why would you want to do such a crazy thing?” Joab nevertheless obeys the king in the implementation of the census. It turns out that the census is judged as an evil for which David receives due punishment. In the escalated account of I Chronicles 21:1-6, the initiation of the census is credited to the pernicious intent of Satan:

Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel. (v. 1)

The census can only be an act that intends evil!

Thus, we may consider why a state would conduct a census only to know the exact number of inhabitants. While the census in our time has come to serve many other subsidiary purposes, at bottom the census intends to serve only two purposes.

On the one hand, it is to establish a clear roster for taxation. On the other hand, the census provides data for manpower resources, that is, for purposes of military conscription. The state needs only two things from its subjects. The state needs tax money to operate (and to fund surplus ease), and it needs manpower to conduct war. It is undoubtedly true that both needs, tax revenue and manpower, are inimical to a villager who did not want to pay taxes and who surely did want to fight state wars. As a result, in the narrative of II Samuel 24, only bad things can come from the conduct of a census:

“Three things I offer you; choose one of them, and I will do it to you.” So Gad came to David and told him; he asked him, “Shall three years of famine come to you on your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there by three days pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to the one who sent me.” (II Samuel 24:12-13)

In the end, David chose as his punishment for the census what he took to be the lightest sentence; and even of that punishment “the Lord relented concerning the evil” (v. 16). But even as David is relieved of punishment, the point is clear. A census is an evil, God-defying act because it permits the state to classify, quantify, and commandeer its members, even to reach into the most remote, vulnerable villages for state purposes.

YHWH, in the Samuel narrative, will have none of it, as David begins to practice statecraft in a way that his son, Solomon, would carry to self-destructive extremes. Joseph, however, does not resist the imperial decree. He docilely obeys! In his docile obedience, nonetheless, Joseph has become an imperial statistic. He is now numbered among the tax-paying Galileans!

I suggest that in Advent and Christmas we may ponder, on the one hand, what it was like for Joseph and Mary to be “written down” by the empire. In the narrative itself, no good comes of it. King Herod had a list of all the families and all the new baby boys (Matthew 2:16). Joseph and Mary had to flee from the threat of the state once they had been written down (Matthew 2:13-15). It is a dangerous thing to be written down by the state.

We are almost everywhere familiar with undocumented immigrants among us who take great care not to be written down … not to claim any reportable income, not to be noticed by the state. David Graber (Debt: The First 5000 Years) in his daring book on the history of debt, has observed how peasant revolutions regularly want to storm the offices and burn tax records; tax records constitute a primary way in which the state pursues the vulnerable. Thus, the destruction of state files is an act of defiance and emancipation. Once we are written down, one’s name is forever in the unforgiving memory of the state.

On the other hand, we may ponder what it is like to be a state statistic. The state is a quantifier that counts and lists and administers. In our recent election, we have seen how campaigns are conducted and propelled on the basis of quantification. Only an occasional media vignette pauses long enough to listen to a potential voter with a specific story. The state has no interest in specific stories. The state does not notice that a villager from Nazareth who went to Bethlehem to be “written down” not only has a name (long before being written down) but has a family as well, an occupation, a role in the village, a known identity. So we are back to the old sociological distinction between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, or in the parlance of Martin Buber, “I-Thou” and “I-It.” Joseph has just become an “It” in the Roman system.

In our current political climate (and no doubt in ancient Rome), it took a lot of money to be known by name. All the rest of us are mere statistics!

The purpose of the church in this regard is to refuse to settle for being written down as a statistic and to insist upon the immediate oral practice of face-to-face contact with all of the distinctiveness of every person: every member, every stranger, every person in need. Thus, we provide names in the sacrament of Baptism wherein we commit an act of resistance against any reduction to a statistic. When the priest or pastor says, “What is the name of this child?” something of cosmic significance happens. The new name is uttered; the new person is called into being, blessed and recognized. That new person, and then every person, is named in a thickness that is occupied by memory and hope, by pain and joy, by fear and possibility.

That, no doubt, is how Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, filled with memory and hope, with pain and joy, with fear and possibility. None of that mattered, however, to the cynical officials who occupied the village of Bethlehem. They had no interest beyond signing Joseph up as a statistic. David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and The Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, characterizes the statistic-producing enterprise and the damage it does to human personhood:

All rich countries now employ legions of functionaries whose primary function is to make poor people feel bad about themselves. But the culture of evaluation is if anything even more pervasive in the hypercredentialized world of the professional classes, where audit culture reigns, and nothing is real that cannot be quantified, tabulated, or entered into some interface or quarterly report … [The bureaucratic system] begins with the irritating caseworker determining whether you are really poor enough to merit a fee waiver for your children’s medicine and ends with men in suits engaged in high-speed trading of bets over how long it will take you to default on your mortgage. (41-42)

That must have been the atmosphere in Bethlehem. All of that is operative in the innocent-looking narrative of Joseph with the “decree” to be “registered.” It turned out that the process of registration was an enemy from which Mary and Joseph had to flee. It belongs to the church to be a haven for those who fear being “written down.” It belongs to the church to gather all of the baptized, but beyond them all of those with names who refuse to become statistics. It is no wonder that Peter later on mustered enough boldness from his community of the named to assert:

“We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29)

None of that was on the horizon of Joseph as he made his way to Bethlehem; it was, however, in the purview of the subsequent church in the book of Acts. The church is a statistic-defying community where we are all named, noticed, protected, and nurtured.

We will no doubt continue our Christmas pageants with winged angels who re-perform the angelic intervention into the life of Joseph. We should not, however, neglect the second intervention into the life of Joseph, the way in which the empire (or now the global economy!) seeks to reduce a village peasant to a statistical cipher devoid of identity and denied any viable future. Christmas is a mighty protest against that reductionism. It refuses the quantitative dismissal of those among us who must be fearful of being written down!


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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