A numbering of the people. Several cases are given in the Bible. The first mentioned is that in Num. i. (from which the book receives its name), when the males—i.e., men capable of bearing arms—numbered 603,550 at the Exodus. Modern critics, foremost among them Bishop Colenso ("The Pentateuch and Joshua," pt. I. ch. v.), have pointed out the difficulties attached to such a number arising in four generations from the twelve sons of Israel, not to mention the commissariat required for at least four times that number. The numbering was again gone through six months later, according to the account of Num. xxvi.-xxvii., with exactly the same result. On these occasions, the numbering was done indirectly, half a shekel being given to the sanctuary by each person of the proper age, and then the half-shekels, and not the persons, were counted. This expedient, according to the critics, was resorted to by the writer of Numbers owing to the superstition which had arisen against a census through the experience in David's reign. After David had organized his kingdom he found it necessary, for military purposes, to know exactly how many men, of an age suitable for bearing arms, he could depend upon; and he determined to take a census (II Sam. xxiv.). Notwithstanding the remonstrances of Joab, David persisted in carrying out the numbering of the people. It appears to have been a laborious operation, as it took no less than nine months and twenty days to complete it. Unfortunately, the numbers given in the Biblical text arediscrepant; the Book of Samuel giving 800,000 for Israel and 500,000 for Judah, whereas I Chron. xxi. raises the former to 1,100,000 and reduces the latter to 470,000. As these numbers included only the fighting men, they would imply a population of probably 5,000,000 for Israel and 2,000,000 for Judah. The Assyrian practise of counting captives shows that such a census was not uncommon at the time. The figures recorded are, however, regarded by Biblical critics as doubtful for various reasons, apart from the uncertainty of the text, which Budde would emend to 100,000 for Israel and 70,000 for Judah ("S. B. O. T." ad loc.). A pestilence appears to have occurred shortly after the census, and confirmed the people in the superstition, common among primitive nations, against being numbered. In the Biblical text David's action in ordering a census is regarded as sinful.Census of Quirinius.
It is possible that this objection to being numbered had something to do with the uprising, led by Judas the Galilean, against the census undertaken by Quirinius (Cyrenius) in the years 6-7 (Luke ii. 2; Acts v. 37). This census, or rather the taxation which was the outcome of it, is mentioned by Josephus ("Ant." xviii. 1, § 1); and Luke connects with it the date of the birth of Jesus. But it has been conclusively proved by Schürer ("Gesch." i. 508-543) that such a census could not have been undertaken by a Roman official while Herod was still reigning. No details are known with regard to this census of Quirinius.
In modern civilized states, since the periodical taking of a census has been regarded as a necessary part of public policy, the number of Jews has been determined either by estimate or by actual count—in Hungary, for instance, since 1720; in Prussia, since 1816; and in Poland, since 1825. Custom varies in different countries with regard to the inclusion of the numbers of adherents to the several creeds in the census returns. At one time France included them, but no longer does so. Almost all the British colonies do so, as does Ireland; but England, Scotland, and the United States do not. In consequence, an exact enumeration of the Jewish population of the world is impossible.
- Commentaries on II Sam. xxiv.;
- Schürer, as above.