Problem: Everyone went to their own towns to be registered
Verses: Luke 2:1-4; Status: Serious

Luke introduces a serious historical implausibility into his account of the birth of Jesus, when he explains why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem. This is Luke 2:1-4:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David (ESV)

From the actions of Joseph, we understand "his own town" to mean "the town of his ancestors" or at least "the town of his birth" (the NIV Study Bible agrees that it means the former). But it's absurd to think that everyone had to make such a journey for the purposes of a census. The entire Roman Empire would have been seriously disrupted by such a requirement. In addition, consider the following point from Robert Lane Fox's book The Unauthorised Version:

Roman censuses cared nothing for remote genealogies [...] they were based on ownership of property of the living, not the dead. [...] A Roman census would not have taken Joseph to Bethlehem where he and Mary owned nothing and were therefore assumed to have needed to lodge as visitors at an inn.

So, why is Luke making this claim? I now quote The Straight Dope:

Luke wanted to report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the City of David, in order to fulfill various prophetic interpretations. On the other hand, he also wanted to report that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, presumably for historic reasons.

One example of such prophecies is Micah 5:2. Because of verses like that, Luke had to place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Matthew did the same thing in his own way, but there is very little overlap between Luke and Matthew's accounts.

Updated: Summer 2008

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