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Census at the Birth of Jesus


The census happened at a peaceful time. The Roman Empire was vast and composed of the most known world. Hence, “the whole world” can also mean all people in the emperor’s domain. The emperor took a periodic census every 14 years for taxation and also to count those eligible for military service.

This first census was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Lk 2:2). Quirinius did a second census nine years after Jesus’ birth, when Judaea was only a Roman province. The evangelist specifies that Jesus was born during the first enrolment, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria and not during his second census.

Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because of the universal census taken under the order of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. That fulfilled the prophecy in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the City of David. The prophecy would have failed if the emperor had not introduced the census or if Joseph and Mary had delayed their journey to Bethlehem.

The Roman custom was to register in one’s own domicile because the pagans did not care about their ancestry whereas the Israelites kept their genealogy tracing back to the 12 sons of Jacob. Since they had to register the census according to their tribes and clans, they had to go to their own native land.

Since the ancestors of Joseph and Mary were from Bethlehem, the birthplace of David, they had to go there for the census. They travelled over 150 km from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey that would have definitely taken many days.

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