Why Did Joseph Go to Bethlehem?

Bethlehem - Vasily Polenov, 1882

In a previous article, I suggested that the ruling descendants of David had migrated from Babylon to Nazareth. It is also possible that some of the descendants of David first moved to Bethlehem—David’s original home town—and then later migrated to Nazareth, perhaps joining other family members who had come from Babylon. Or perhaps they had all come, more recently, from Bethlehem.

When Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for a census (Luke 2:1), it is unlikely that they returned to Bethlehem simply because David had been born there a full thousand years earlier. Luke’s brief summary for the reason of their journey to Bethlehem is just that: a brief summary of what might otherwise be an involved (and tedious) explanation.

For centuries after David, his descendants lived in Jerusalem (called the “city of David” in the Old Testament, see 2 Samuel 5:7 for an example), not Bethlehem (called the “city of David” by the Christmas angel, Luke 2:11). Keener comments:

Pottery samples suggest a recent migration of the people from Bethlehem area to Nazareth around this time; Joseph’s legal residence is apparently still Bethlehem, where he had been raised (Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament, p. 183).

A later census schedule, beginning in 6 AD, required land owners to return to their home towns (where they owned land) every 15 years for purposes of taxation and accounting. In light of this, we can postulate that Joseph owned land—probably inherited—from when his forefathers (well after the return from Babylon) lived in Bethlehem (see Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament, and also G.K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 266).

Behind the logistics and movement of the Davidic line was the obvious hand of God whose sovereign hand not only foreknew the future, but determined that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. (Micah 5:2 ESV)

Ed Vasicek Bio

Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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