Pearce’s Potshots #66: Bethlehem Joseph / Census Issues

Pearce’s Potshots #66: Bethlehem Joseph / Census Issues February 28, 2022

Atheist anti-theist and “philosopher” Jonathan M. S. Pearce runs the blog, A Tippling Philosopher. He has encouraged me to visit his site and offer critiques, and wrote under a post dated 12-14-21: “I even need to thank the naysayers. Some of them have put up with a lot of robust pushback and still they come. Bravery or stupidity – it’s a fine line. But they are committed, and there is something to be said for taking that commitment into the lion’s den. Dave, you are welcome at my new place. Come challenge me. . . . thanks for your critiques of my pieces. Sorry I couldn’t get to more of them.” This echoes his words about me in a post dated 7-20-17, where he said, “well done . . . for coming here and suffering the slings and arrows of atheists’ wrath. . . . I commend him for getting involved and defending himself. Goodonya, mate.” 

Under a post dated 1-27-22, he stated: “I do welcome disagreements because I don’t want [my blog] to [be] just an echo chamber. . . . [S]omeone like Armstrong does give me ammunition for some of my pieces!” Likewise, on 3-18-14 he proclaimed: “Dissenting views are utterly vital to being sure that you are warranted in your own beliefs and views.” And on 7-20-17“I put my ideas and theories about the world out there for people to criticise. . . . I want to make damned sure that they are warranted. I can’t stand the idea that I could . . . believe something that is properly unwarranted. . . . What’s the point in self-delusion? . . . I put something out there, people attack it, and if it still stands, it’s pretty robust and I am happy to hold it. If not, I adapt and change my views accordingly.”

I’m delighted to oblige his wish to receive critiques and dissenting views! The rarity of his counter-replies, however, is an oddity and curiosity in light of this desire. He wrote, for example, on 11-22-19: “[I can’t be] someone who genuinely is not interested in finding out the truth about philosophy, God and everything. If I come up against any point that is even remotely problematic to my worldview, I feel the absolute necessity to bottom it out. I need to reconcile at least something; I have work to do. I cannot simply leave it as it is. . . . I would simply have to counter the arguments, or change my position.” Whatever; this hasn’t been my experience with him; only in short and infrequent spurts. I continue to offer them in any event, because they aren’t just for his sake.

Here’s what he thinks (by the way) of Jesus: “The Jesus as reported in the Gospels is so far removed from the real and historical figure of Jesus, overlaid with myth, story-telling, propaganda and evangelist agenda, that the end result is synonymous with myth. . . . I’d take mythicism over Christianity any day. And they call mythicists fringe as if the position is absurd? Now that’s crazy.” (8-2-14)

Jonathan’s words will be in blue.


In Jonathan’s article, “The hoops the Christian has to jump through to believe the Nativity” (10-29-12), he wrote:

In my book, The Nativity: A Critical Examination, I think I give ample evidence that allows one to conclude that the historicity of the nativity accounts is sorely and surely challenged. All of the aspects and claims, that is. There are problems, for sure, if one accepts that some claims are false but others are true. But the simple fact of the matter is that all of the claims are highly questionable.

Here are the hoops that a Christian must jump through. They are flaming hoops, and the Christian can do nothing to avoid being burnt, it seems. From my book: 

In order for the Christian who believes that both accounts are factually true to uphold that faithful decree, the following steps must take place. The believer must: . . . 

• Find it plausible that people would return, and find precedent for other occurrences of people returning, to their ancestral homes for a census (at an arbitrary number of generations before: 41).

• Give a probable explanation as to how a Galilean man was needed at a census in another judicial area.

• Give a plausible reason as to why Mary was required at the census (by the censors or by Joseph).

• Give a plausible explanation as to why Mary would make that 80 mile journey on donkey or on foot whilst heavily pregnant, and why Joseph would be happy to let her do that.

Jonathan makes even more extreme and pointed claims and charges (including his famous / notorious “universal negative” statements) in his related article, “The Nativity Census Challenge: Update” (12-31-17):

Here is my challenge in the form of statements that he has to address:

  1. A client kingdom has never been taxed directly or had such censuses in the history of the Roman Empire.
  2. When Herod was alive it was a client kingdom.
  3. When he died, his son took over for 10 years, made a mess, and Romans took back direct control.
  4. When they did, they held a census for tax reasons due to having a newly added directly ruled region.
  5. There is no example in the history of censuses in the entire world of people returning to their ancestral home.
  6. There is no need for anyone to return to their ancestral home for reasons of tax since this defeat the entire reason for having a census for tax purposes. People would necessarily move out of tax regions to other areas and so you would have no idea of the taxable value of a given region.
  7. One Egyptian census required ITINERANT/MIGRANT workers to return to their ACTUAL homes for reasons of tax pragmatism. This is in no way analogous to the Lukan census. Going back to my actual home is different to going back to where an ancestor lived 41 generations past, no matter where it was.
  8. The Lukan census required Joseph to return to his ancestral home of 41 generations past, no more, no less.
  9. This would have been impossible and utterly arbitrary for everyone to know their 41 generations past ancestors (I don’t know 3 past).
  10. This would also mean the whole of Judea could connect themselves to David.
  11. Not one single human being in the world of apologetics, or the world, has provided a reason, let alone a good one, why people should return to their ancestral homes for a tax census (let alone at 41 generations past).
  12. There would be a month where virtually no one would be able to work. Who would be looking after households as the whole country moved around to their ancestral homes? This would be economic suicide thus negating the whole point of a tax census, losing Romans valuable taxable money.
  13. Women were not required at censuses.
  14. Bethlehem is a different tax area to Nazareth. . . . 

Just answer each of them so that the Lukan account of the census is the most probable theory of claim of reality.

In his article dated 6-17-14, entitled, “Why Return to an Ancestral Town for a Census?”, Jonathan cites his 2012 book,  The Nativity: A Critical Examination:

[O]ne cannot help wondering what advantage there could be for the Roman state in this return, for a single day, of so many scattered individuals, not to the places of their birth, but to the original homes of their ancestors. . . .  The suspicion, or rather, the conviction, is borne in upon us at first sight that the editor of Luke has simply been looking for some means of bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, in order to have Jesus born there. A hagiographer of his type never bothers much about common sense in inventing the circumstances he requires.

He goes on in his attacks on the text of Luke:

If the first option is the case (that the law or due procedure required that one returned to their ancestral home 41 generations past or similar), then we are still within the territory of patently ridiculous. Why would a man have to return to the town of an ancestor particularly 41 generations past? . . . 

This is countered extremely often by apologists (so often that there is no need to reference it other than Marchant below) by appealing to a census which took place in Egypt. I have to admit extreme annoyance with this tactic, and it is employed by many revered apologists. The census in question took place in 104 CE. . . . 

The problem is that this is not a permissible option and should not be used as a precedent (even if it did happen after the 6 CE census) since this required itinerant workers to return to their homes. Not, may I add, their ancestral homes either. This requirement was for workers who happened to be working away from their own house to return to where they lived for purposes of accuracy in taxation and so on. This has nothing at all to do with picking an arbitrary ancestor in your lineage and deciding to return to their home town. Simply put, this papyrus from the 104 CE Egyptian census should never be used to justify the Lucan narrative. It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny but this does not stop Christians rolling it out in virtually every discussion about the census. In logical terms it is a false analogy and therefore fallacious.

Okay! Now I shall offer some explanations and scenarios that do indeed (at least in my humble opinion) answer these charges and provide plausible alternatives. First of all, let’s examine this “ancestral town” business. What does Luke’s text actually assert?:

Luke 2:1-4 (RSV) In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. [2] This was the first enrollment, when Quirin’i-us was governor of Syria. [3] And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. [4] And 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 lineage of David,

Sometimes, things are so obvious that they can be easily (or curiously) overlooked. This text doesn’t assert that one must go to his “ancestral city” but rather, simply “to his own city.” Thus, it plainly means that Bethlehem was Joseph’s “own city”; his hometown. Verse 4 is not necessarily referring to the return to an ancestral town for enrollment, but was merely noting that Joseph was of the lineage of King David (who came from Bethlehem) which explains why Joseph lived there.

Throughout the history of the world (especially before travel became fairly easy), people have tended to live in the general area or specific town or city where their ancestors lived. We mustn’t read into the text what is not plausibly in the text (what is called eisegesis, rather than the proper exegesis). Unfortunately, even reputable commentators have done so with regard to this passage, because of several common misperceptions and partial “myths and legends” built up around it. It’s easy to assume that certain elements are in a biblical text, when in fact, upon closer examination, they are actually absent.

At this point, people may wonder, “doesn’t the Bible say that Joseph came from Nazareth?” Actually, it never does. It only asserts that Mary indeed came from there (Lk 1:26-27, 56), as did Jesus, which is why He was known as “Jesus of Nazareth” (see sixteen instances of this in RSV; cf. statements about His hometown: Mt 2:23; 4:13; 21:11; Mk 1:9; 14:67; Lk 4:16; Jn 1:46; Acts 3:6; 4:10).

We also have the evidence that Joseph and Mary resided in Bethlehem up to a year or possibly two after Jesus’ birth, at the time of the visit of the wise men (see my article, “Who First Visited Baby Jesus?” for more on why this is believed to be the case, based on solid exegesis). This fits in with the scenario of Joseph returning with (betrothed) Mary to “his own city” for the enrollment and then staying there in a house after they were married.

Thirdly, Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt when they learned of Herod’s intent to kill Jesus the Messiah (Mt 2:13-15), and remained there until Herod the Great died (2:15). When they learned of that fact, they attempted to return to their home in Bethlehem (in Judea), until they discovered that Herod’s successor might also seek to kill Jesus:

Matthew 2:21-23 And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. [22] But when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. [23] And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth,  . . .

That is the time (1-2 years after Jesus’ birth, plus however long they were in Egypt) where the Gospels first say that Joseph “dwelt” in Nazareth, with Mary and Jesus. But he did not at the time of the enrollment, which is the whole point. He may have had temporary residence in Mary’s house, but likely was not registered as residing in Nazareth (knowing that they would move to Bethlehem after they married: see the next section below). As far as the Roman records were aware, he lived in Bethlehem with his larger family.

Perhaps he had property that he sold, after he met Mary and lived for a time in Nazareth, or he simply moved out of his parent’s house. Many scenarios are possible. In any event, his parents and kin would have been known to be residents in Bethlehem, in which case he would be required to register there: it being his last known “official” residence, as far as Rome was concerned.

Fourthly, we have the data regarding when and where Mary was betrothed and when she was married:

Joseph went up to Bethlehem ‘with Mary, his betrothed’ (2.5, σὺν Μαριὰμ τῇ ἐμνηστευμένῃ αὐτῷ). According to Luke, Mary was still betrothed on the way to Bethlehem, but by the time she gave birth to Jesus in v. 7, she was cohabitating with Joseph. According to Jewish practices in antiquity, marriages were initiated by a betrothal (אירוסין) and finalized by a ‘home-taking’ (נישואין) in which the bride is taken to her husband’s house. [Footnote 52] Both events were celebrated by a public feast, the former at the bride’s house and the latter at the groom’s house. Accordingly, in the logic of the narrative, the point that Mary was still betrothed upon her arrival in Bethlehem (v. 5) but later cohabited with him there (v. 7) means that Bethlehem was the site of their wedding, when Joseph concluded the betrothal period by taking her into his home.

Footnote 52: There is also much literature on ancient Jewish marriage customs. Some of the most useful modern treatments include: Michael L. Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University, 2001); Tal Ilan, ‘Premarital Cohabitation in Ancient Judea: The Evidence of the Babatha Archive and the Mishna (Ketubbot 1.4)’, HTR 86 (1993) 247-64; and Léonie J. Archer, Her Price is Beyond Rubies: The Jewish Woman in Graeco-Roman Palestine (JSOTSS 60; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1990). (Stephen C. Carlson, “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7”, New Testament Studies, 56, pp. 326-342. © Cambridge University Press, 2010)

The next question then, raised by Jonathan, is whether such an enrollment (or census?) took place when Luke said it did, and whether Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to his hometown of Bethlehem to register in it.

Jewish / Roman historian Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews — Book XVII [“Containing the interval of 14 Years. From the death of Alexander and Aristobulus [7 BC], to the banishment of Archelaus [6 AD]”] refers to an event where “all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good will to Cæsar, and to the King’s government”. But he notes that some of the “Pharisees: who were in a capacity of greatly opposing Kings . . . did not swear: being above six thousand.” According to Josephus, Herod the Great was still alive when this happened.

There is much dispute about the date of Herod’s death (see my collection: Quirinius & Luke’s Census: Resources on the “Difficulty”). Without digressing into that thorny question (and I deferred to others in that paper), I submit that this swearing or oath had to do with Caesar Augustus being declared by the Roman Senate Pater Patriae (“Father of the Fatherland”) in 2 BC. Roman Christian historian Orosius (c. 375/385-c. 420) referred to this event:

The greatness, novelty, and extraordinary character of the blessings in which that year abounded must, I think, surely be well enough known without my repeating them. One peace reigned over the whole earth as a result of the fact that wars had not merely ceased but had been totally abolished. After the causes of war had been wholly removed rather than merely checked, the gates of twin-faced Janus were closed. The first and greatest census was then made. The great nations of the whole world took an oath in the one name of Caesar and were joined into one fellowship through their participation in the census.  (Histories Against the Pagans: Book VII: 2; adapted from the translation by I. W. Raymond [1936]

Orosius stated that “In the seven hundred and fifty-second year of the City, Christ was born.” The “City” is, of course, Rome, which was said to have been founded in 753 BC, so that Christ was born in 1 or 2 BC. 2 BC is also the year of the proclamation of Pater Patriae. Moreover, Orosius wrote that “Toward the close of the forty-second year of his [Caesar Augustus’] imperial rule . . . Christ was born”. Augustus took power in 44 BC, after Julius Caesar was murdered. So, 42 years after that also comes out to 2 BC. I am submitting that this “census” or “swear[ing]” is what Luke 2:1 refers to. It was not necessarily for taxation purposes. Rather, as Luke says, “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.”

K. B. Vogelman describes this year and its events:

Rome was in the height of its glory commemorating the 750th anniversary of its founding and was the same year as the Silver Jubilee reign of Caesar Augustus [i.e., of his becoming emperor in 27 BC].

Inspired by the circumstances of 2 BC, the Senate bestowed upon their emperor the honor of Pater Patriae. Augustus considered it to be one the highlights of his reign as listed in The Deeds of Divine Augustus. To underscore this honor, prompted by the Senate, Augustus decreed a “registration” to be taken of the entire Roman Empire claiming allegiance to him as Pater Patriae. . . .

Caesar’s motivation for the “census” was to quantify the entire resources of Rome as part of his breviarium totius imperii eventually to be read at his funeral along with the unveiling of his Res gestae divi Augusti (The Deeds of Divine Augustus). (“An Unusual Roman Census Decree By Caesar Augustus”, The Odds, 8-5-18)

Would this entail Joseph traveling some 90 miles to Bethlehem (its having been established above as his hometown)? Yes. We have two pieces of evidence showing that this was standard procedure with regard to a Roman census or registration. Gaius Vibius Maximus, the Roman prefect of Egypt, which was under Roman jurisdiction from 30 BC to 641 AD. In other words, Egypt was in a similar situation as 1st-century Judea or Israel. Vibius’ decree, dated 104 AD and discovered in 1907, read:

As a house-to-house registration has been authorized, it is necessary to order all persons absent from their homes for any reason whatsoever to return to their homes that they may perform the customary business of registration and may apply themselves to the cultivation of the land, as is their proper duty. [see also an alternate English translation] (from the British Library Papyrus 904)

The second evidence is called Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 255, discovered in 1897 and dated to 48 AD. It reads:

I Thermoutharion along with Apollonius, my guardian, pledge an oath to Tiberius Claudius Caesar that the preceding document gives an accurate account of those returning, who live in my household, and that there is no one else living with me, neither a foreigner, nor an Alexandrian, nor a freedman, nor a Roman citizen, nor an Egyptian. If I am telling the truth, may it be well with me, but if falsely, the reverse. In the ninth year of the reign of Tiberius Claudius Augustus Germanicus Emperor.

This backs up Luke’s contention that “all went to be enrolled, each to his own city” (2:3). Most of Jonathan’s accusatory claims are, therefore, already refuted. This wasn’t technically a Roman census, and so wasn’t directly about taxes. But the general principle would seem to apply: that people had to travel to their hometowns to participate in enrollments, registrations, oaths, etc. It has nothing to do with “ancestral homes”: so that whole line of histrionic rhetoric from Jonathan is one long (albeit rather entertaining) non sequitur.

The next question raised by Jonathan and atheists and skeptics in general, is whether Mary would have been required to go with him. I would say she clearly wasn’t (in a legal sense), since her home was Nazareth, and she could participate there. But, as noted above, she was betrothed to Joseph, so she essentially had no choice but to go to Bethlehem with Joseph, since he was required to, and since that was where their marriage ceremony was to be held. It could also be noted that potentially many in Nazareth who didn’t understand the virgin birth, would have insulted and ostracized Mary, the longer she was pregnant and “showing” more and more: and with no Joseph around to defend and protect her.

But how about an almost-ready-to-deliver Mary making such a trip (some 90 miles on a donkey)? Is that not cruel and heartless, if she wasn’t required to go? This is where we must, again, look at the biblical text more closely:

Luke 2:5-6 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. [6] And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered.

Note that the text never says 1) that she was 8-9 months pregnant on the journey, or 2) that she delivered the baby Jesus as soon as they arrived in Bethlehem (like all the movies assume). All we know from these two verses is that 1) she was pregnant while making the journey, and 2) she delivered the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.  We know not a thing about how far along in her pregnancy she was, or how long they were in Bethlehem before she bore baby Jesus. It’s all mere groundless assumptions and speculations. So Jonathan can stop all the crocodile tears over this alleged event.

It still remains, however, to explain how it is that Mary and Joseph couldn’t simply stay with his kinfolk once they arrived in Bethlehem. What is this business of “no place for them in the inn”: as most translations describe it? Well, amazingly enough, maybe they did stay with relatives, and maybe the text doesn’t rule that out. Stephen C. Carlson (cited above) makes the case:

[N]either the Greek term κατάλυμα [kataluma] in Luke 2.7 nor even its Vulgate rendering diversorium necessarily means an ‘inn’ as evident from the use of the same term in Luke 22.11 referring to an upper room. Moreover, there would have been no need for an inn, . . . because Joseph had to return to his own town according to the decree, so he must have had family—if not his own house—in Bethlehem where he could stay. . . . [Nor] would [there] have been a throng of census registrants descending upon Bethlehem because subjects did not need to register on a specific day. . . .

The NT usage of κατάλυμα apart from Luke 2.7 coheres with its having a broad meaning. At both Luke 22.11 and its parallel at Mark 14.14, Jesus instructs his disciples to ask a man carrying a jar in Jerusalem about accommodations for eating the Passover: ποῦ ἐστιν τὸ κατάλυμα. Translations usually render this instance of κατάλυμα rather specifically as ‘guest room’, but the generality of κατάλυμα is evident from the further specification in both Luke and Mark that the place to stay is a ‘large, furnished upper room’ (ἀνάγαιον μέγα ἐστρωμένον). We know that κατάλυμα refers to a ‘guest room’ in this context, not because the sense of the word is so specific, rather because the context makes its reference specific. Moreover, when Luke wanted to be specific about an inn, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the author used a precise term, πανδοχεῖον (Luke 10.34). . . .

A translation faithful to the sense of κατάλυμα should be satisfied with merely stating that it was a ‘place to stay’ or ‘accommodations’. . . .

The problem facing Joseph and Mary in the story was not that they were denied a particular or well-known place to stay when they first arrived, but that their place to stay was not such that it could accommodate the birth and neonatal care of the baby Jesus. . . .

[T]he entire clause should be rendered as ‘because they did not have space in their accommodations’ or ‘because they did not have room in their place to stay’. This clause means that Jesus had to be born and laid in a manger because the place where Joseph and Mary were staying did not have space for him. . . .

In accordance with contemporary norms of hospitality, Luke’s audience would have expected Joseph’s relatives in his own town to have provided a place to stay for him and Mary if he had no house of his own. . . .

[M]angers were also found in the main rooms of first-century Judean village houses. Typically, the main room was divided into two sections at different elevations separated by about a meter. The animals were housed in the lower section, the people slept in the upper section, and mangers were located between them. These village houses, moreover, could have a small room, either on the roof or on the side, which accommodated family members and guests. . . .

Accordingly, the element of Luke’s narrative that the place where Joseph and Mary were staying had no room to accommodate a newborn or a manger (v. 7) suggests to the reader that they had been staying in one of these small rooms built on top of, or onto the side of, a village family home, and that delivery itself took place in the larger, main room of the house. (Carlson, ibid.)

With this explanation, which I find entirely plausible and in accord with the biblical text, Jonathan’s collection of insults of the biblical text (and those who believe them) are, I believe, successfully refuted.

I learned so many things during the course of this research. I love that about apologetics: we apologists learn while we are seeking to reply to critics of Christianity, and to give aid to Christians and others who wonder about the same things. We learn and then share. I suggest and highly recommend that Jonathan learn from these arguments, too, and retract what has been shown to be false in his presentation on the Nativity. He only gains by that, as anyone does by following truth and facts wherever they lead. It’s a “win” and not a “loss” for someone to be corrected. I’m certainly very grateful when someone corrects me. The last thing I want to do is convey false information.


See also the excellent related article by Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin: “The Enrollment of Jesus’ Birth” (Jimmy, 3-9-22).


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Photo credit: St Joseph with the Infant Jesus, by Guido Reni (1575-1642) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: Atheist Jonathan MS Pearce unleashed a host of accusations regarding Bethlehem Joseph / Census Issues. I believe that I have refuted them one-by-one.

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