Would Joseph really have had to travel to Bethlehem for a census?

by Luke Wayne

It is commonly claimed by critics of the New Testament that the gospel of Luke is in error when it claims that Joseph had to travel back to Bethlehem to register for a census. They insist that, in every Roman census, a person would simply register where ever they happened to reside at that time. As is so often the case, however, a subsequent archeological discovery has vindicated Luke and proven yet again that mere assumptions and arguments from silence are a poor substitute for genuine critical thinking.

The Argument

The passage in question reads:

"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," (Luke 2:3-4).

Some critics accuse Luke of a historical blunder here, claiming that Romans could simply register where ever they lived and would not have had to travel to their family's native homeland. They insist that it would be impractical to require people to travel to their place of origin for a census and that Roman rulers would never have demanded so ridiculous a thing. They go on to assert that Luke invented the requirement as an excuse to get Joseph from Galilee down to Bethlehem simply to make Jesus fulfill the prophecy of Micah:

"But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity," (Micah 5:2).

The skeptics thus assume that Luke made up Jesus' birth in Bethlehem to create a fulfillment of prophecy and that he subsequently made up the requirements for the census to explain why this family from Nazareth would have been in Bethlehem for Jesus to be born there. The problem, of course, is that this argument is not actually built on any documentary evidence. When we do look at the evidence, a different picture emerges.

Another Provincial Census

A papyrus was discovered in Egypt containing the text of a proclamation from 104 AD regarding a local census. In it, Gaius Vibius Maximus, prefect of Egypt, commanded the men of the province to return to their "place of origin" to be registered.1 From this information, Jo-Ann Shelton, Professor of Classics at the University of California (Santa Barbara) explains:

"Poll taxes were based on census returns, and heads of household were expected to return to their place of origin to declare their census information."2

This information fits quite well with what Luke describes in his account. The early church father Justin Martyr likewise explained that:

"on the occasion of the first census which was taken in Judæa under Cyrenius, he went up from Nazareth, where he lived, to Bethlehem, to which he belonged, to be enrolled; for his family was of the tribe of Judah, which then inhabited that region."3

Justin describes Joseph traveling from where he "lived" to where he "belonged." Joseph was a Judean, and the Roman government expected him to register for tax purposes in his town in Judea rather than in Galilee, where he then resided. This is in perfect keeping with what Luke and the archeological evidence say. In fact, Justin elsewhere says that, in his day, the records of the census still existed! He urges his readers to go look up Joseph's name in the register if they don't believe him!4 Thus, the details Luke provides on Joseph's return to Bethlehem for the census actually fit quite well with all the other evidence we have.




  • 1. Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History - 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 1998) 143-144
  • 2. ibid
  • 3. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 78
  • 4. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 34