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Religion & Spirituality

Why did Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem for the census?

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December 22, 2011 5:06AM

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The story of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem for the census occurs only in Luke's gospel, as the author of Matthew's Gospel was entirely unaware of it. Luke 2:1 says that Caesar Augustus decreed that there be a census of the entire empire. Luke 2:4 says that Joseph went to Bethlehem because he was a descendant of David and was therefore required to go there to be counted. On this, Steve Mason (Josephus and the New Testament) says that the census of 6 CE must have been the first census undertaken by Rome in the region - yet Luke says that Herod was still alive. Raymond E. Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament) says the best explanation is that, although Luke likes to set his Christian drama in the context of well-known events from antiquity, sometimes he does so inaccurately. Uta Ranke-Heinemann (Putting Away Childish Things) says that since the author of Luke handles the facts arbitrarily, the facts themselves refute him, because no Roman emperor ever issued such a senseless command.

As for Mary's presence at a tax assessment, Ranke-Heinemann says this was not in the least required, since only heads of families were obliged to register. Since they would have passed through Jerusalem, Ranke-Heinemann finds no explanation for Joseph not to leave Mary at the home of her cousin Elisabeth, instead taking her at such a late stage of pregnancy to Bethlehem, where they knew no one and could not even find accommodation.