11 Dec. Luke 2:1-5

11 Dec. Why did Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem?

"At that time, Augustus Caesar sent an order that all people in the countries under Roman rule must list their names in a register."

"This was the first registration; it was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to their own towns to be registered."

"So Joseph left Nazareth, a town in Galilee, and went to the town of Bethlehem in Judea, known as the town of David. Joseph went there because he was from the family of David."

"Joseph registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was now pregnant."

          (Luke 2:1-5)


In his account of the Christmas story, Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judaea, where Joseph’s family lived. The journey would have taken four or five days as Nazareth is 65 miles / 105 km north of Jerusalem, while Bethlehem is a hilltop town situated on a ridge near the edge of the Judaean desert, 5 miles / 8km south of Jerusalem.

Luke, writing his gospel in 60-62AD for a Roman audience (see Luke 1:3), gives the census ordered by Augustus Caesar (who was emperor from 27BC to 14AD) as the reason why Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus (see Luke 2:1-3).

He explains that, as men had to register at their home town (so they could be taxed by the Romans), Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because Joseph was a descendent of King David and Joseph’s family came from Bethlehem (see Matthew 1:1 & 1 Samuel 16:1&13). Luke states that the census took place when Quirinius was the Roman governor of Syria.

The Jewish historian Josephus confirms that a general taxation was indeed overseen by Cyrenius (Quirinius). He notes, however, that Cyrenius was appointed as Governor of the Roman province of Syria when the Romans deposed Archelaus (Herod the Great’s son) as ruler of Judaea in 6AD. Judaea was then taken under direct Roman rule and incorporated into the Roman province of Syria. This resulted in a revolt led by Judas of Gamala (‘Judas the Galilean’), a Jewish zealot (see Acts 5:37).

As Jesus was born in 6 or 5BC, the Roman census ordered by Augustus Caesar and organised by Quirinius actually occurred eleven or twelve years after Jesus's birth. Furthermore, as Jesus was born while Herod the Great was King of Judaea, no Roman governor of Syria would have been able to organise a census and general taxation in Judaea at the time of Jesus’s birth as Judaea was not under Roman rule at that time.

It appears, therefore, that Luke was mistaken when giving a Roman census as the cause of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. It is more likely that, as the Bible tells us that Joseph's family came from Bethlehem, he went to visit his parents to introduce them to his new wife.

Whatever the real reason, Joseph made the decision to return to his family home in Bethlehem in time for his newly betrothed wife to give birth amongst his close relatives.

The photo shows the interior of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem.

You can see a map of Mary and Joseph's journeys @ https://www.thebiblejourney.org/the-bible-journey/3-jesuss-childhood-journeys-b/mary-joseph-go-to-bethlehem/

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