Another supposedly problematic question posed by Bible skeptics is how to reconcile all the “impossible movements” of Joseph and Mary between the accounts of Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s account includes the story about the Magi and the flight into Egypt. Luke’s account has the family returning to Nazareth after Jesus is presented in the Temple. If these two accounts are reconciled, the amount of time needed for all this to take place would be over several months. First, Joseph and Mary would need to travel to Bethlehem. They would register in census at the time Jesus was born. They then had to travel to Jerusalem to present Jesus in the Temple. Then they would travel back to Bethlehem again and encounter the visitors from the east, the Magi. Joseph is then warned in a dream soon after to escape Herod’s wrath by fleeing to Egypt, returning to Nazareth after Herod’s death.
Let’s begin with the question of why Joseph and Mary would be in Bethlehem in the first place. Several records of a worldwide census from 5 to 3 BC tell us only that men were to be registered in their own city where they lived and worked. The Roman businessmen in Paphlagonia did not need to return to their ancestral cities. So the question becomes: Why did Joseph need to take Mary to Bethlehem at an inopportune time in her pregnancy all the way to Bethlehem to register in a census?
First, we don’t know for a fact that Joseph was a resident of Nazareth. We know only from Luke that he was betrothed to Mary who was a resident of Nazareth. It is likely that Joseph was also from Nazareth, but it is also possible that he could have lived and worked in Judea at some time in his life. According to the law of Moses, Jews were to marry within their tribe to preserve inheritance rights. The exception to this was the tribe of Levi who had no land rights. The Gospels have Joseph and Mary both being of the tribe of Judah. We see in Matthew that Joseph returns with Mary to live in Nazareth only because he fears King Herod’s son Archelaus who had become the governor of Judea. This implies that Joseph had intended to settle in Judea and perhaps once had lived there. So Joseph’s marriage to Mary could have been arranged through tribal ties with Judean family members living in Galilee.
Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth … And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her house (Luke 2:39,40,56).
After Mary became pregnant with Jesus, she stayed with her cousin Elizabeth who was six months pregnant. “With haste” means that she went as soon as she knew she was pregnant. This part of the narrative shows that it wasn’t unusual for first century families to spend months at each other’s houses. Shortly before John was born to Elizabeth, Mary returned to Nazareth now three months pregnant herself.
When did Joseph’s dream occur?
If Mary conceived on March 25th and returned to Nazareth after the birth of John on June 24th, then the marriage of Joseph and Mary occurred sometime after that.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS. (Matthew 1:19-25).
Luke concurs that Joseph and Mary were married, but had not consummated the marriage relationship yet when they came to Bethlehem, by indicating that he was “betrothed” to Mary:
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child (Luke 2:4,5).
Joseph’s dream and his marriage to Mary occurred sometime in July or August prior to the fall feast days when they were obligated by law to travel to Jerusalem.
Why did Joseph and Mary need to travel to Bethlehem to register in the census?
There are several ideas given to explain why Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem instead of registering in the census in Nazareth. There are several different facts that could support Luke’s account.
In Old Testament times, a census would take place by tribe. We see this in the book of Numbers for instance. It is plausible that from a simply cultural perspective, Jews would not register in any other way. Even the Herodian family, although Idumeans, had converted to Judaism and were obliged to follow the tradition. Since Joseph was of the tribe of Judah, he would need to go to his own city in Judea to register.
Later Roman records indicate that men were required to return to their homelands to register. A census oath inscription was uncovered from 48 AD, which also records a return of the people to their native land for the census. It reads as follows:
I Thermoutharion along with Apollonius, my guardian, pledge an oath to Tiberius Claudius Caesar that the preceding document gives an accurate account of those returning, who live in my household, and that there is no one else living with me, neither a foreigner, nor an Alexandrian, nor a freedman, nor a Roman citizen, nor an Egyptian. If I am telling the truth, may it be well with me, but if falsely, the reverse. In the ninth year of the reign of Tiberius Claudius Augustus Germanicus Emperor.
The following is a record of a census taken in the year 104 A.D. which contains similar wording to that found in the Gospel:
From the Prefect of Egypt, Gaius Vibius Maximus. Being that the time has come for the house to house census, it is mandatory that all men who are living outside of their districts return to their own homelands, that the census may be carried out.
Why did Mary need to travel with Joseph if women were not counted in the ancient Roman census?
First, Matthew gives no indication as to the whereabouts of Joseph and Mary prior to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. He writes only that they chose to go to Nazareth after he learned that Herod’s son had taken over the governorship of Judea.
But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:22,23).
It is Luke who gives us the reason for the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.
A few things are implied here. Being of the “house and lineage of David” meant that Joseph (Matthew 1) and Mary (Luke 3:23-38) were in fact the heirs of kings. Herod had a history of antagonism toward the Davidian line and that may have been one reason that Mary was required to register as well. If Mary had no brothers and she was the oldest daughter, then by the Law of Moses, she would be the heir to her father and the line of David would pass directly through her. In fact, Salome, the sister of Mary, is mentioned a few times in the Gospels (Matthew 4:21;27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25). Elizabeth is mentioned as her cousin, but Mary had no brothers.
Joseph came to Bethlehem to register after the fall feast days, when he was required to be in Jerusalem. He also took a year long sabbatical from all work probably planning to stay among family members in Bethlehem. One tenet of the Law of Moses was that men were also obligated to take one year after marriage in which no work could be done.
When a man has taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war or be charged with any business; he shall be free at home one year, and bring happiness to his wife whom he has taken (Deuteronomy 24:5).
Luke explains to his Gentile audience these obscure Jewish laws including why Jesus’ parents were in Jerusalem each year during the feasts.
His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover (Luke 2:45).
A recurring them of Luke is that Joseph and Mary “performed all things according to the law.” All Jews were required to appear before the Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-34). Jews were required to appear for three more feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Exodus 23:14-17; 34:18-23; Deuteronomy 16:16). There were different requirements for men and women, but according to Luke the whole family of Jesus traveled to the feasts each year.
The Law of Moses also made provision for saving money to bring to the feasts. This was a second tithe in addition to what the Jews were required to pay to the Levites for the maintenance of the Temple. But while the Day of Atonement was a day of fasting and humility in remembrance of sin, the Feast of Tabernacles was a celebration that God himself commanded.
And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household (Deuteronomy 14:26).
The Feast of Tabernacles commemorated the time when the Jews sojourned in the wilderness with Moses living in tents for forty years before entering the promised land. All Jewish men were commanded to appear in Jerusalem and dwell in tents for eight days. So it is logical that if Joseph was required to register in a census in Jerusalem in 5 BC — the same census under Herod mentioned by Josephus in Antiquities — that he would use the time after the feast to come to Bethlehem to register. It also stands to reason that Joseph took time to remain in Bethlehem until Mary’s delivery.
It is also unlikely that the census took place only during the exact week of Jesus birth. More likely Joseph had already planned on staying in Bethlehem for three to six months after the Autumn Feast Days as part of Joseph’s sabbatical and the census was around that time too.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (Luke 2:4).
Note that the text tells the starting point and the final destination, but doesn’t necessarily exclude time in between. Many have imagined a Nativity story with Joseph traveling straight from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in a census with Mary in her ninth month of pregnancy under duress literally feeling the labor pangs as they entered the village finding “no room at the inn” (Luke 2:7). We get this impression not from what the Gospel literally says, but from Christmas carols, artwork and other stories. Jesus is portrayed as an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes in a rustic barn surrounded by farm animals, shepherds and wise men all at once.
The reality of the texts is quite different. Without going into exhaustive detail, the word translated “manger” refers probably not to a barn for animals, but a small addition built directly onto the outside of a house. If Bethlehem was a small village of about 1000 people, then it’s not hard to imagine that there was no room available for travelers in late December, which just happened to be the week of Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, in 5 BC. This was a minor feast day on the Jewish calendar, but one that would have brought many visitors to Jerusalem and its surrounding villages.
It’s not hard to imagine that when Joseph, although he had saved enough money for a year’s sabbatical, found no lodging place for rent, that he simply set up the “tabernacle” or the tent he had used a few months earlier next to the house of the closest family member of the “House of David” still living in Bethlehem. In fact, some scholars think that John 1:14 may be a veiled reference to the Nativity speaking of the tent-like “manger” in which Jesus was born, “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” The word for usually translated “dwelt” is literally the verb form for tabernacle or tent.