Lk. 2:1-5 Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem in Judaea, where Joseph’s family live (see 1 on Map 4). The journey takes four or five days as Nazareth is 65 miles / 105 km north of Jerusalem (in a straight line), while Bethlehem is a hilltop town situated on a ridge near the edge of the Judaean desert, 5 miles / 8km south of Jerusalem.
Map 4 The Birth of Jesus
The Roman Census
Luke, writing his gospel in 60-62AD for a Roman audience (see Luke 1:3), gives the census ordered by Augustus Caesar (who was emperor from 27BC to 14AD) as the reason why Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus (see Luke 2:1-3 and 1 on Map 4). He explains that, as men had to register at their home town (so they could be taxed by the Romans), Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because Joseph was a descendent of King David and Joseph’s family came from Bethlehem (see Matthew 1:1 & 1 Samuel 16:1&13). Luke states that the census took place when Quirinius was the Roman governor of Syria.
The Jewish historian Josephus confirms that a general taxation was indeed overseen by Cyrenius (Quirinius). He notes, however, that Cyrenius was appointed as Governor of the province of Syria when the Romans deposed Archelaus (Herod the Great’s son) as ruler of Judaea in 6AD. Judaea was then taken under direct Roman rule and incorporated into the Roman province of Syria. This resulted in a revolt led by Judas of Gamala (‘Judas the Galilean’), a Jewish zealot (see Acts 5:37).
As Jesus was born in 6 or 5BC, this Roman census occurred eleven or twelve years after his birth. As Jesus was born while Herod the Great was King of Judaea, no Roman governor of Syria would have had the jurisdiction to organise a census and general taxation in Judaea at the time of Jesus’s birth.
It appears, therefore, that Luke was mistaken when giving this Roman census as the cause of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Whatever the reason, Joseph made the decision to return to his family home in Bethlehem in time for his newly betrothed wife to give birth amongst his close relatives.