How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Was it Roman custom for people to return to their home town for a census?

Read time: 6 minutes

It’s well worth listening to Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook discussing the historical Jesus in their The Rest is History podcast. I plan to write something about how they understand Jesus’ teaching about the “kingdom of God,” but here’s a short diversion before we get to that. It has to do with the reasons for Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem to be registered. Here is my translation of the passage in Luke:

It happened in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole empire should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governing Syria. And all were going to be registered, each to his own city. And Joseph went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he is from the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, the one betrothed to him, being pregnant. (Lk. 2:1-5)

One of several historical problems with this passage that Holland touches on in Jesus Christ: The History is the improbability that the Romans would have required imperial subjects (that’s assuming that Joseph counted as an imperial subject) to return to their ancestral homes in order to be registered. Holland exclaims: “The idea that the Romans would care about the line of descent from someone who lived centuries and centuries before is insane.”

It is much more likely, in Holland’s view, that Luke or his source concocted the story in order to bolster the ideological claim that Jesus of Nazareth was a legitimate Davidic ruler, born in Bethlehem as prophesied (cf. Mic. 5:2; Matt. 2:6; Jn. 7:42).

In a thoughtful counter-podcast, Peter Williams, principal of Tyndale House in Cambridge, points out that Luke does not say that the Romans cared about Jesus’ ancestry a thousand years before. The purpose of the census was to maximise tax revenues, and it was important that it was known where people were from in order to avoid tax evasion. Perhaps Joseph had lands in Bethlehem.

He then presents a papyrus from Egypt dated around AD 104, suggesting that it furnishes evidence that in the Roman Empire people sometimes did have to return to their family home to be registered. Here is my translation of the Greek text. which can be found here:

Gaius Vibius Maximus, prefect of Egypt, says: With the house to house registration having begun, it is necessary that all who, for whatever reason, are living away from home (apodēmousin) from their administrative districts (nomōn) are summoned to return to their own hearths (ephestia) in order both that the customary administration of the registration be completed and that they may apply themselves to any pressing farming needs.

Knowing, however, that our city has need of some of those who are from the rural areas, I want all those who think they have a good reason to stay here to be registered with Boul… Festus, prefect of troops, whom I have appointed for this purpose, from whom also those demonstrating their needed presence shall receive signed permits in accordance with this edict until the thirtieth of the present month…. (PLon 3.904)

The situation envisaged here is one where members of a household are away from home, living outside the administrative district, “for whatever reason.” The verb apodēmeō means to “be or go away from one’s country or district or people (dēmos).” Travellers, migrant workers, et al., are required to return to their own “hearths” for the census so that the officials can get an accurate idea of who would normally be living in that place. The word ephestios is a very homely term, evoking the heart of family or household life. The expectation is also expressed that people returning to their own homes for registration would have agricultural matters to attend to, which suggests that they are only temporarily absent. The exemption for people whose work keeps them in the city likewise assumes that they would normally be living in a remote part of the country. The household to which they belong is elsewhere, in some provincial town or village; they have come to the city to work.

Another document is often cited, though not by Peter Williams, as evidence that it was customary for people to return to their place of origin to be registered—a personal census declaration dated to AD 48:

I the above-mentioned Thermoutharion along with my guardian the said Apollonius swear by Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Emperor that assuredly the preceding document makes a sound and true return of those living with me, and that there is no one else living with me, neither a stranger, nor an Alexandrian citizen, nor a freedman, nor a Roman citizen, nor an Egyptian, in addition to the aforesaid. If I am swearing truly, may it be well with me, but if falsely, the reverse. In the ninth year of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Emperor, Phaophi… (G. Milligan, Selections from the Greek Papyri (1912), 46-47)

I have seen the clause “makes a sound and true return of those living with me” rendered “gives an accurate account of those returning, who live in my household.”[fn]The translation is found in A. G. Roth, Signs of the Cross: the Search for the Historical Jesus: From a Jewish Perspective (2001), 54.[/fn] That is how it got to be used in defence of Luke’s historicity: Thermoutharion is assumed to have included in her census declaration people who have returned for that purpose. But “of those returning” is not found in the Greek text. Here is my translation, which, as you can see, agrees with Milligan’s:

I swear… that assuredly I have in soundness and truth provided the attached documentation of those living with me….

So the text has no relevance for the debate about Luke’s census. The woman merely provides the officials with an accurate account of the three people (listed in the “attached documentation”) who were “living in the house which belongs to me in South Lane….” She has even included a rather touching self-description: “a freedwoman…, about 65 years of age, of medium height, dark-complexioned, long-visaged, a scar on the right knee.”

In any case, this is not the situation described in Luke’s Gospel. Joseph and Mary normally lived in Nazareth in Galilee. Mary visited her relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah, who lived in a town in the Judean hill country, and stayed with them for about three months; but then “she returned to her home” (Lk. 1:56). After the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary “returned to Galilee to their own city (polin heautōn) of Nazareth” (Lk. 2:39-40). Presumably, during the next thirty years, they travelled south only for the festivals (Lk. 2:41).

So, much as I would like to think that Joseph and Mary really did travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered when Quirinius was governor of Syria, it cannot be said that their action conformed with the practice described in the two texts cited. We have evidence that people in Egypt who were away from their normal domicile, even for long periods of time, were required to go home, rejoin their households, return to their hearths, for an imperial census, and to do a bit of gardening while they were at it. We do not have evidence that a person would leave his normal home in order to be registered in his ancestral city. The need was only to establish accurately and for practical legal purposes who lived in a household.

Perhaps in a small country with a strong sense of tribal origins things were done differently, but as far as I am aware, there is no positive way to corroborate the historicity of Luke’s account on this point.

David Wilson | Fri, 12/30/2022 - 12:28 | Permalink

One omission from Luke’s Gospel account of the early years is the ‘excursion’ to Egypt. Matthew gives the reason why Joseph and Mary did not return to Bethlehem, but went to Nazareth which thereby became their “own town”. But if one’s “own town” was where one lived — as in v39, then v3 means that one needed to travel to one’s home town for the census and not one’s “ancestral town.” It seems to me that v4 is then saying that Joseph is travelling to his home town. There is no indication in the text that Joseph home was Nazareth at the start of chapter 2.

Joseph is travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem with his betrothed — not his wife. They were not yet married. Culturally, under what circumstances could they be travelling together in their period of betrothal? One definite answer is that this journey was that from the bride’s home to the groom’s home, where the nuptuals would be completed.

Is it surprising that Joseph of Bethlehem is marrying Mary of Nazareth? Not if you remember that Mary has relatives who live near Bethlehem.

Thanks for this, David. Interesting. I can see that it would make sense that in Luke 2:1-5 Joseph was in Nazareth, away from his normal home, and returned to Bethlehem with the pregnant Mary for the registration according to custom.

There is no indication in Luke 1:26-27, however, that Joseph was not from Nazareth; and the words “they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” (2:39) rather suggests that Luke thought that they were both from Nazareth and were going home. Luke does not say that he went to his home town. Perhaps Joseph is transitioning from his old household in Bethlehem to a new household in Nazareth, but this seems to be reading a lot into the text.

In Matthew’s account, it appears that after returning to Egypt they planned to go into Judea, to their own town of Bethlehem, but feared Archelaus and withdrew to Galilee (Matt. 2:22). The statement about going and settling “in a city called Nazareth so that the word through the prophet might be fulfilled that he will be called a Nazarene” seems to me to imply that the association with Nazareth was new to Matthew at this point.

Your proposal is perhaps coherent and may be historically plausible, but it is not clear to me that either Matthew or Luke understood the situation in that way.

The core point is that v3 and v39 have basically the same phrase:

v3 each to his own town (eautou polin)

v39 to their own town of Nazareth (polin eautōn)

If ‘own town’ means ‘ancestral town’, then how has this shifted to Nazareth, for surely the couple’s ancestral town would be that of Joseph?

If ‘own town’ means ‘town where you live’, then Joseph’s home town has changed, which Luke fails to explain, but is understandable.

If Nazareth was already Joseph’s ‘own town’ at the start of chapter 2, then what needs to be explained is why he is travelling to Bethlehem in vv4,5 in apparent violation of v3.

There may be something in this, but it still seems odd that in Luke 2:39 they go to “their own city Nazareth.” In 2:3-5 we are told that everyone in the empire went to his own city to be registered, “but/and Joseph also went up” to Bethlehem, as people went up to Jerusalem from Galilee, “because he is from the house of David, to be registered with Mary… who is pregnant.” The implication could almost be that he went to Bethlehem not because it was “his own town,” or because he couldn’t be registered in Nazareth, but because he wanted the child to be registered by the Romans, in response to the decree of Caesar Augustus, in the city of David.