First of all, I would like to point out that this question should be able to be answered without getting into matters of the validity of Luke. Unfortunately, the question itself expands past the basic question to inquire about Luke's account, though this is an entirely separate question than the main title question given.
Current answers have swapped the main question and sub-question and seem to make the validity of Luke their starting point. It is my intention to first address the question of the procedure for a census. I will then proceed in my second section to address the issues in Luke (which should be an entirely separate question and answer but I will put two answers in one). I will also address the many misunderstandings, incorrect assumptions and faulty logic provided in the other answers about Luke and Matthew's accounts.
We should make it clear that we have little to no information for how the Romans actually performed their censuses. We do have some information on the censuses themselves, their time and results, many times one without the other (a year with no result or a result with no year). But while we have details on how the Romans did it very early on, with ceremony, centuries later and for censuses in foreign provinces we have little information.
Romans began having censuses as far back as the 5th century BCE under Servius Tullius, king of Rome. Wiki
the following passage of Cicero:...can be translated as: "The Censors are to determine the generations, origins, families, and properties of the people; they are to (watch over/protect) the city's temples, roads, waters, treasury, and taxes; they are to divide the people into three parts; next, they are to (allow/approve) the properties, generations, and ranks [of the people]; ..." Wiki
This is referring to earlier censuses of the Romans themselves (Cicero lived in the early first century 106-43 BCE), but it gives us some insight into the far reaching purposes behind the census.
After a citizen had stated his name, age, family, etc., he then had to give an account of all his property, so far as it was subject to the census. Wiki
Again, we can see the emphasis not simply on wealth, but on the value of property.
By the time of the birth of Jesus, the ceremony of the door to door census was long gone. Certainly not outside Rome itself among the provinces. Wiki
A census was sometimes taken in the provinces, even under the republic. The Emperor sent into the provinces special officers called Censitores to take the census; but the duty was sometimes discharged by the Imperial legati. The Censitores were assisted by subordinate officers, called Censuales, who made out the lists, &c. In Rome, the census was still taken under the empire, but the old ceremonies connected with it were no longer performed, and the ceremony of the lustration was not performed after the time of Vespasian.[Died in 79]
A census edict for Roman Egypt in 104 CE tells us three things:1
- That it required people to return to their homes.
- That "registration" was involved.
- That the prefect appointed a military commander.
All three of these may apply directly to Luke's account as we will see below.
After many of years of civil war in the first century BCE, the practice of regular census and censor appointments had been neglected. However, Augustus changed that,
During the civil wars which followed soon afterwards, no censors were elected; it was only after a long interval that they were again appointed, namely in 22 BC, when Augustus caused Lucius Munatius Plancus and Aemilius Lepidus Paullus to fill the office.
Compare that to Luke 2:1 (ESV)
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.
In the wider historical context, it seems clear that this decree by Augustus in Luke does not necessarily refer to a singular massive census, but to the reinstatement of regular censuses which had fallen out of practice. At the same time it does give us cause for the specific census by Quirinius mentioned in Luke 2:2. After all, if it was one massive "Augustus' Census" then why would Luke need to specify any further?
Luke's language of "in those days" is idiomatic of an era or period, not of literal days leading up to his account. It may have been Luke's attempt to borrow language from other historical narratives in the Hebrew Torah. See Genesis 6:4, Judges 17:6, Judges 20:27 for cases where "in those days" clearly involves years, not days. It can also mean literal days of course, but such a literal requirement is unwarranted.
Ultimately we can conclude that:
- Augustus' decree can see in a larger historical context
- Registration of some form would indeed require one return to one's own town.
Do note here that in the Jewish culture, the man's family line takes precedence over the woman's. So the registration would have been for Joseph's home, not Mary's.
Luke 2:2 ESV
This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
If we suppose that Quirinius was taking over the entire province of Syria in the common date of AD 6, he must have held several lesser positions prior in order to be eligible for such a position. 2 The title of Hegemon given to Quirinius here does not demand he be Legatus of the entire province. Perhaps he was serving a lesser position in the area at the time and was involved in the census. His later elevation to Legatus would make him a known name for Luke to reference. At the same time, it would then make sense for Luke to stipulate that this was the first registration by Quirinius.
Furthermore, we have an inscription which speaks of an unnamed official who received many commendations to accompany military success, was proconsul of Asia and was governor of Syria twice.12 Unfortunately, the name of this official is lost, but it very well may have been Quirinius as he fits many of the descriptions. He was well liked by Augustus, had many military successes and was one of four known men to be governor of Syria around that time. There is a time frame unaccounted for from 4-1 BCE which would likely be the duration of this second term. 3 This just so happens to be the prime time frame for the birth of Christ. (Readers who object to this based on Herod's death in 4 BCE should consider that such a date may be a typesetting mistake and the previously traditional date of 1 BCE may be accepted.) 4
Not only that, but we have Roman records placing Quirinius in Asia minor (Rhodes and Armenia) during this time as a military commander, 14 and another record showing that he appointed one of his own men to do a census as far south as Apamea (in Syria). 13 This matches with what we read in the earlier section that military commanders were often assigned this duty. That he also commanded or oversaw a census of Judea with Herod at this time is not beyond reason.
But what about Josephus' date of 6 CE? There is good reason to think that Josephus may have been incorrect to initially accepted the date of 6 CE and later, despite its inconsistancies, continued to support it. In his article JOSEPHUS MISDATED THE CENSUS OF QUIRINIUS, John H. Rhoads makes a compelling argument based on internal evidence from Josephus' writings for the governorship, and census, of Quirinius during the reign of Herod the Great. 6 If Rhoads is correct, a number of these issues would be resolved.
Joseph's return to Bethlehem
3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David...
Returning to the main question, as we saw in my earlier section, Joseph would have had to return to Bethlehem for a number of possible reasons. The first being that he may have been the primary representative of his family's holdings in Bethlehem. The second being that he was born there (not just some long dead family from there, but Joseph himself). And lastly, the strong possibility that he resided there himself. It was his own town.
Note that this does not mean that Joseph did not "live" in Nazareth as well. Many people have official residencies in one place, but actually live most of the time elsewhere. This is common when it is connected with family, property, or nationality, all of which could apply to Joseph and Bethlehem. I am reminded of a few Canadians I know who live much of the year in the US but maintain their Canadian citizenship. To do so they must return to Canada for a portion of the year. Joseph also would have been legally obliged to return to Bethlehem for a census.
But if Joseph lived there, why did they leave from Galilee?
Quite simply, they were in Nazareth because Mary was from Galilee. Luke 1:26, 27 says,
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth,
27to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.
Joseph and Mary had only just consummated their marriage, as wedding feasts typically happened in the fall and at the bride's home.7
In Matthew's testimony we read that Joseph learned of Mary's pregnancy during their betrothal period (the roughly year between "engagement" and "consummation") and was considering a quiet divorce/annullment. But after the Angel's visit, Joseph decided to take her as his wife anyway, meaning Mary was likely at least her second trimester by then if Jesus was born between December-February. After the wedding feast the groom would take his new bride home. But considering Mary's condition and the distance to Bethlehem from Nazareth, it is reasonable they did not leave immediately. Perhaps the child was late and they had expected him before they had to travel. Perhaps they needed to wait for spring and the roads to be repaired? We do not know.
Also, we see in Matthew that the family stayed and lived in Bethlehem for up to as many as two years after Jesus was born. Perhaps this was not planned and they just stuck around while Jesus was an infant with Joseph's family around and ended up staying. Or perhaps this was where Joseph had planned to live with his family all along. It is curious to see that after their return from exile to Egypt their first instinct is to return to Bethlehem! It is only because of Archelaus they do not. And so they stay out of Judea and go to Galilee, to Nazareth. Nothing could be more natural, as that was Mary's home town!
So we see that there is nothing unusual about Joseph returning to Bethlehem. There are numerous explanations that fit the chronology and the details given by both Matthew and Luke.
Luke and Matthew do not contradict each other. They certainly focus on different details, but all narration does. All narration also includes time compression, which is how Luke can skip from the Temple to moving to Nazareth while Matthew records a few years worth of events during that time.
Luke includes details about Jesus as a 12 year old, but Matthew does not. Should we then conclude that either Jesus was never a 12 year old or Matthew is wrong? This is clearly not logical! And yet it is the exact same logic used in many criticisms. We would not have a complete picture without both witnesses.
The only real argument, such as the other answers here, that critics have of Luke and Matthew have is an Argument from Silence.
Claiming that we, 2000 years later with limited records and no first or second hand knowledge, know more about the details around the census than Luke did more than 1900 years ago (roughly 70 years later) makes even less sense than a teenager doing some internet research on the Nazi Holocaust (not even 70 years ago) and concluding it was a misunderstanding. 9
I am not necessarily arguing for any one set of the possible solutions I have given. So I understand it may seem confusing when I give multiple possibilities. My objective is to make the readers aware that there are other options besides going out of our way to find things to criticize. I am arguing for a position of caution, of awareness of our ignorance.
In (SERIOUS PROBLEMS WITH LUKE'S CENSUS)10 the author, N. F. Gier, makes a number of false assumptions and then bases much of his arguments on them.
There is no record of Caesar Augustus' decree that "all the world should be enrolled" (Lk. 2:1). The Romans kept extremely detailed records of such events.
Such a reading of Luke 2:1 would make even the strongest Literalist interpreter cringe. As I showed at the beginning, Luke's phrase "in those days" is idiomatic for a much larger range of years and could easily include Augustus' initial restart of the census program in 22 BCE.
But an Egyptian papyrus recording a census in 104 C.E. explicitly states that "since registration by household is imminent, it is necessary to notify all who for any reason are absent from their districts to return to their own homes that they may carry out the ordinary business of registration...."
Geir only quotes Luke, and selectively at that, when it helps his case. Luke 2:3
And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
Geir ignores that fact that Luke's language here is identical to the evidence he is presenting against him. If Joseph's home was Bethlehem this objection crumbles. So Geir makes an effort to disqualify the possibility of Bethlehem being Joseph's home by quoting Luke 2:39.
And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
Luke skips over Matthew's account of staying in Bethlehem for a time and then fleeing to Egypt. This claim of Nazareth being their "own town" is no stronger than the claim of Luke 2:3 that Bethlehem was Joseph's "own town". One can only suspect why Geir takes 2:39 as conclusive but not 2:3. Also, as was said, Mary's own home was in fact Nazareth, and after a couple of years it became their family's home indefinitely. Looking back in history, it would be natural to refer to Nazareth as their home, because it was, why would Luke need to qualify whether it was both their homes in that year?
Geir attempts to support his dismissal of Luke by saying,
Unlike Matthew, who does not mention a census nor Nazareth as Mary and Joseph's home, Luke describes Nazareth as "their own city" (Lk. 2:39). If the rules of this Egyptian census applied to Palestine, then Joseph and Mary should have stayed in Nazareth to be enrolled.
He claims this despite the fact that Matthew does indeed give Nazareth as the eventual home of Mary and Joseph, after their exile, attempted return to Bethlehem first, but fleeing to Nazareth. (Matt 2:23 "And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth")
Geir continues to display his poor biblical hermeneutics when he cites John 7:41 as proof John did not think Jesus was born in Bethlehem. John is actually recounting what some of the people were saying about Jesus. That they thought of him as from Galilee while knowing the messiah should be from Bethlehem does not indicate John did not know Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It means John was recounting the words of people who did not. That's all. As it says in 7:43 "So there was a division among the people over him." What it does indicate is that Jesus had been living in Nazareth since he was around 2 years old. My mother was born and lived in Puerto Rico for a few years. She is not "from" Puerto Rico. If you ask her she will say she's from a town in California, which is where she grew up.