We know from Luke 2 that each person (or, certainly, adult male) was required to register to his own town. We also know that Joseph travelled (with Mary) from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that they could be registered there:

3 And all the people were going to be registered, each to his own city or town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the town of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David

--Luke 2:3-4 (AMP), emphasis mine

The common assumption is that everyone had to be at their ancestral home for the census, however the passage doesn't exactly say that. It states that people would be registered to their own city or town - presumably, the city or town they happened to be in at the time of the registration - and that Joseph went to Bethlehem because he was of David's line.

Since genealogy was so important to that culture, could it be that Joseph travelled to Bethlehem of his own volition to emphasise his ancestry on his official registration, as opposed to being required to go there by the authorities? Is there any evidence that people were required to travel to their ancestral homes as opposed to many Jews choosing to do so?

(By "evidence" I don't mean original documentation as that's obviously going to be pretty hard to come by; I'm really wondering if this has been discussed by subject matter experts and what conclusions, if any, have been drawn.)

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    I've just realised that I've missed a great punning opportunity here, in asking for scholarly concensus – Waggers Dec 17 '13 at 11:49
  • It could simply mean that someone's "own city" was their own because of the ancestral connection, and that your interpretation that there is a choice about which is their "own" is not correct. Thus Luke 2:3-4 is entirely consistent. – Andrew Leach Dec 17 '13 at 11:52
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    Everyone certainly would not have to travel, as many people still lived in the place of their birth. – Narnian Dec 17 '13 at 13:05
  • @Narnian True- that's not really what I'm asking though (despite the title) – Waggers Dec 17 '13 at 20:45
  • I've now updated the question text to try and avoid that confusion – Waggers Jan 6 '14 at 12:28

It is possible that Joseph's home was in Bethlehem and he had only temporarily moved to Nazareth because he was working on a construction project. I don't know of any case where an ancient government required the majority of people to travel a long distance for a census.

If we read Matthew's account of Jesus' birth, we find that Joseph and Mary intended to make Bethlehem their home upon returning from Egypt, but were persuaded that Jesus' life would be endangered if they settled in Archelaus' realm. Nazareth is not mentioned in Matthew until the family "turned aside" to go there in Mat 2:22-23.

Joseph's trade is specified as 'tekton', which has traditionally been translated as 'carpenter', but is a fairly general term for 'builder'. He may have been a construction worker at the time, moving around from place to place to find work. If so, he might have met Mary while he was working on a building project near her home town, Nazareth[1].

Here's a sermon, United Methodist but probably typical of Protestants who study the story closely:


"if we do a careful study of these two Gospel accounts, we’ll find that Nazareth was Mary’s hometown … and I’m pretty sure Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown"

Once Joseph had decided to accept Mary as his wife even though she was pregnant, the most natural thing for him to do would be to take her to Bethlehem, his home town. Doubtless the census encouraged the timing of the trip, as Bethlehem would be the ideal place for Joseph to register, if it was his permanent home. It may or may not have been mandatory for him to go there.

Joseph may indeed have been motivated by desire to register in the town of his ancestors, whether or not it was he thought of it as his hometown at the time. If Joseph's home was in Bethlehem, it may have simplified the registration process also. But even without the census, Joseph had reason to bring his new bride to Bethlehem, and perhaps find work that did not require as much travel.

[1]: Work opportunities

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    Welcome to C.SE. Admittedly, I haven't heard this view before. Do you have any evidence to support the claim? When you get the chance, please check out our tour and specifically How we are different than other sites. – Affable Geek Jan 29 '14 at 18:00
  • @Affable Geek, Thanks. I found a relevant sermon and hope I can improve it more, preferably including scholarly sources, as requested. Is there a place where longer discussions of sources and issues is on topic, like a talk page or user page? – Bit Chaser Jan 31 '14 at 18:23
  • (Now I can +1!) When you get to 20 rep, there is a chat room that is the best place for this. One more vote, and you're there :) – Affable Geek Jan 31 '14 at 18:27
  • Also, this post What makes a good supported answer? may help. – Affable Geek Jan 31 '14 at 18:28

The census of Quirinius was called because Rome had taken Judaea (which was to include Samaria and Idumaea) under its direct rule after deposing Archelaus in 6 CE because of incompetence. Under Herod and Archelaus, Rome had not been interested in the populations of these territories because the people did not pay tax direct to Rome, but now the empire needed to know what what tax it could expect to collect. The census did not include Galilee, as it remained under autonomous rule by Herod Antipas. Josephus tells us of the census:

Quirinius, a Roman senator who had proceeded through all the magistracies to the consulship and a man who was extremely distinguished in other respects, arrived in Syria, dispatched by Caesar [Augustus] to be governor of the nation and to make an assessment of their property. Coponius, a man of equestrian rank was sent along with him to rule over the Jews with full authority. Quirinius also visited Judaea, which had been annexed to Syria, in order to make an assessment of the property of the Jews and to liquidate the estate of Archelaus.(Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, i, 1)

John Shelby Spong tells us, in Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus, page 142:

  • There is no record of any Roman census when people had to return to their birthplace. Each person had to be counted where he earnt his living, because that was where tax would be assessed.
  • Wives would not have to return, because they would not be counted

Uta Ranke-Heinemann says, in Putting Away Childish Things, page 10, Joseph might have been required to travel to Bethlehem if he was an absentee landlord, with property in Bethlehem. If he had no real estate, as an inhabitant of Galilee under the tetrarch Herod Antipas, he would not have been affected by the order of the Syrian governor Quirinius. We can assume that Joseph was not an absentee landlord, because Luke 2:24 says he sacrificed two pigeons at the Temple, as a thanksgiving for the birth of Jesus, but only the very poor were permitted to make such a paltry sacrifice.

Since Joseph lived in Galilee and paid taxes to Herod, he would have been foolish to go to Bethlehem merely to emphasise his ancestry, thereby agreeing to pay Roman taxes as well. Ian Wilson says, in Jesus: The Evidence, page 47, there is an unavoidable inference that the Luke’s author may have been trying to make it appear that he knew more about Jesus’ birth than he actually did.


What this is referring to is that original promise God made to Abraham to give him and his seed the land of Canaan.

Genesis 17:8 KJV And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

That promise gave the land to not only Isaac, but also to Ishmael.

We follow the progeny of Isaac through the Bible, but that of Ishmael are the Arabic Nations including the Palestinians, and is the reason for the dissention now, since they feel that Ishmael being the eldest son of Abraham inherited the land and it does not belong to Israel.

But then that's another story.

When God directed Moses to bring Israel out of Egypt, He told him to take them to the land he had promised to Abraham.

Exodus 33:1 KJV And the LORD said unto Moses, Depart, and go up hence, thou and the people which thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt, unto the land which I sware unto Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, Unto thy seed will I give it:

This was a permanent division of the land even to the point that it could not be sold permanently, or ownership transferred when a woman land owner married. The land had to always stay in that family.

Exodus 32:13 KJV Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.

If the land was sold it was only sold for a number of years, and had to be returned to it's original owner every 50 years.

Leviticus 25:10 KJV And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

God further told how the land should be divided.

Num 26:55 Notwithstanding the land shall be divided by lot: according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit.

We do not know if the census was taken during one of the jubilee years, or if the Romans just required that they return to their Family inheritance in order to account for them by tribe or not. However it would seem more plausible that it was a year of jubilee, since there was fairly widespread disobedienc to Roman rule.

  • This is truly an amazing answer in that it explains the underlying problem. – gideon marx Dec 18 '13 at 16:24
  • @ Gideon marx I have been trying to figure out if your comment is a compliment or a tongue in cheek dig. – BYE Jan 2 '14 at 20:02
  • @CecilBeckum how does this relate to a Roman census? – wax eagle Jan 31 '14 at 21:52
  • @waxeagle That is an explanation to the following part of the question 'The common assumption is that everyone had to be at their ancestral home for the census, however the passage doesn't exactly say that. It states that people would be registered to their own city or town - presumably, the city or town they happened to be in at the time of the registration - and that Joseph went to Bethlehem because he was of David's line.' perhaps I placed too much emphasis on that part of the question, to the detriment of his emphasis on choice as opposed to requirement for travel. – BYE Feb 3 '14 at 0:08

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