Non Issues in the Lukan Birth Narrative -- Registration in Bethlehem

The next Non Issue in Luke’s birth narrative is Joseph’s return to his ancestral home, Bethlehem, to register for the census. (I deal with the first Non Issue -- the scope of the Augustun decree --, here). Many commentators are completely dismissive, conjuring up images of an empire-wide census requiring everyone to return to the city of their ancient ancestors. E.P. Sanders, for example, claims that "the entirety of the Roman Empire would be uprooted by such a decree" and asks, "Why should Joseph have had to register in the town of one of his ancestors forty-two generations later?" The Historical Figure of Jesus, pages 86-87.

Paying closer attention to the Gospel of Luke itself, however, reveals that the author is careful not to describe the census itself as requiring registration in one's ancestral home. Rather, Luke only references any ancestor when noting that Joseph registered in Bethlehem because he was of the House of David. When referring to the census itself Luke notes that in response to the decree people were returning to each one's "own city."

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.
Luke 2:1-5.

Luke does not say that everyone has to return to the home of their distant ancestors. Rather, he says that each person was registering in “his own city” and that Joseph registered in Bethlehem, “because he was of the house and family of David.”

A close reading of Luke reveals that the premise upon which Sanders bases his reconstruction is without foundation in the text. Nowhere does Luke say that the census of Quirinius required people to travel to the home of their ancestors. On the contrary, the text reads, "the decree went out . . . that the whole world should be registered.” It does not say how or where. . . . There is nothing in the narrative of Luke which departs from common practices. Rather, he simply describes the perfectly normal response of the people to the decree: "All went to their own towns to be registered."

Mark D. Smith, "Of Jesus and Quirinius," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62 (2000), page 289.

If Joseph was not required to travel to Bethlehem by the mere fact of his blood line, why did he? What was it about being of the House of David that would have made Bethlehem his "home city" in some way, assuming Luke considers that description to apply? Luke does not specify the connection. For his story, the important point he wanted to emphasize is that Joseph was a descendant of King David. A plausible, perhaps likely, answer seems to be that because of his family's association with Bethlehem, Joseph owned property in or near Bethlehem.

One of the deans of Lukan studies, I. Howard Marshall, reaches this conclusion.
Although Luke does not make it clear, it must be presumed that Joseph had some property in Bethlehem. It is unlikely that everybody would have been compelled to return to their ancestral homes, but in view of Joseph’s Davidic descent, which is more important for his story, Luke has stressed this aspect of the matter.

I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, NIGTC, page 101-03.

Dr. Richard Carrier of the Secular Web and reaches a similar conclusion: that Luke means to suggest that Joseph had some property in or near Bethlehem.

[I]t is very doubtful that Luke would use a system of census taking that his every reader would know didn't exist--certainly, his apologetic aims would fail if his "explanation" held no water. Therefore, there must have been something to it--for even if fiction, it had to play on some fact or else the lie would be obvious to everyone. At the very least, we can suppose many Jews believed they could trace a lineage to some ancestor in the town of their family land, so as to justify their belonging there and to secure their claim in perpetuity, not to mention the mere glory of tracing one's line to some tribal hero (many Greeks and Romans did just the same). We can suppose that Luke believed (or wanted his readers to believe) that Joseph had family land in Bethlehem, and that this was because it was a portion of David's land, and since Jewish Law required the return of sold land every fifty years (Lev. 25:10-28), it was impossible to ever be dispossessed of it--thus, it might have seemed obvious to every Jew that any family plot could be traced to an ancient owner, even if this really wasn't the case. And as noted in the text above, residing outside the taxed area would not exempt any landowner from taxation or the related census so long as he held any property or citizenship in the taxed region.

Those who assume that Luke describes a census that requires everyone to travel to the home town of their distant ancestors is paying insufficient attention to the text. Luke deliberately moves from the general to the specific. He describes a census requiring people to be registered. He then notes that in general people were returning to their "own city" to register. He then notes that Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to register. It seems the general rule is that people be registered in their own town and that is what they did. For Joseph, because he was of the House of David, he chose to register in Bethlehem. Whether this is because he had grown up there, had an interest in property in or near there, or wanted to maintain his status in good standing as a descendant of King David, Luke does not specify. This is hardly surprising as the connection itself is of no consequence. What is important to Luke and his readers is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that his legal father, Joseph, was a descendant of King David.


I'm trying to establish exactly when and where this idea that the census in Luke is an ancestral city census comes from.

It is already found in D. F. Strauss (1st ed. 1835; 4th ed. 1864; trans. George Eliot) p.155 who argued (without citation) that the census must have happened according to the Jewish custom, instead of the Roman custom. Olhausen (1830; trans. 1863) argued the same. On the other hand, Paulus (1830) argued Bethlehem was Joseph's residence.
Layman said…
That is an ambitious undertaking. Are you focusing on all commentary or the more academic?

The Infancy Gospel of Matthew may have a relevant reference, though I don't have the resources to figure out if "native place" is innocuous or something akin to "ancestral home."

And it came to pass some little time after, that an enrolment was made according to the edict of Cæsar Augustus, that all the world was to be enrolled, each man in his native place. This enrolment was made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria. It was necessary, therefore, that Joseph should enrol with the blessed Mary in Bethlehem, because to it they belonged, being of the tribe of Judah, and of the house and family of David.

Whatever its origins, the idea certainly caught on. In addition to E.P. Sanders above, Luke T. Johnson and Joseph Fitmyer are surprisingly dismissive and curt about the passage in accepting the idea that Luke states the census required registration at the city of one's ancestors.
I'm writing a paper on the so-called "inn" in Luke 2:7 and I'm trying to nail down the various interpretations.

Another thing that is going on is that if κατάλυμα in Luke 2:7 is misconstrued as "inn," then interpreters tend to think that this implies that Joseph could not have been a resident of Bethlehem, because otherwise he would have had a house there. That's Raymond Brown's argument.

The New Schuerer (ed. 1973 by Vermes and Millar) after giving a detailed and informed treatment of a Roman census, just defaults on the exegesis of Luke: "The intention was for people to return to their normal places of residences and work. Luke’s own narrative represents this as having been Nazareth (2:4, 39)." But Luke 2:4 does nothing of the kind (in fact, the opposite), and v. 39 narrates moving back to Mary's hometown, which Joseph adopts.

This then feeds into the idea that Jesus was born in a cave, attested as early as Justin.

The infancy gospel of Matthew gets that passage from the infancy gospel of James. What seems to be going on in that text is that Joseph is a resident of Bethlehem but was working in Jerusalem, where he picks up Mary. On the way back to the town for the census, Mary needs to give birth so they go to a cave on the outskirts of the town.

It's all very curious how this interpretation of Luke came about.
Layman said…

Sounds like fun. Seriously.

I've been wondering why so many good scholars get so much wrong on these early parts of Luke and am coming to the conclusion that it is a somewhat ironic combination of 1) growing up with popularized Christmas nativities and stories about Jesus' birth, and 2) an overbroad reaction to Luke's perceived statements about Quirinius and the Census.

The "inn" issue is an interesting one. I just finished reading Kenneth E. Bailey's chapter on Luke 2 in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. He rejects the "inn" understanding of the passage and make some interesting points.

And thanks, as always, for dropping by.
Yes, Bailey is one of the best on this issue. His 1979 article in Near East Theological Review is more detailed. Before him, Pierre Benoit is also very good.

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