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Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem when his parents, Mary and Joseph, lived in Nazareth?

The primary reason the birth of Jesus took place in Bethlehem was to fulfill the prophecy given by the minor prophet Micah. He stated,

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.

English Standard Version. (2016). (Micah 5:2). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

One of the most fascinating facts about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is how God used the powerful but sometimes brutal Roman Empire, coupled with a Jewish fixation on their ancestors, to fulfill a 700-year-old prophecy! Mary, before she left Nazareth for Bethlehem, was betrothed but had not consummated her marital relationship with Joseph.

  • The couple had to go to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem due to Roman taxation policies.
  • The Roman Empire, from time to time, would conduct a census not merely to count people but also to find out what they owned.
  • It was decreed in the year Jesus was born (5 B.C.) that such a Roman taxation census would be taken in Judea (Luke 2:1 – 4) and the surrounding area.

This information, however, begs a question. Why did the Romans not carry out their census where people lived in Judea and the surrounding area as they did for the rest of the Empire? Why did they need the parents of Jesus to make the more than 80-mile (about 129 kilometers) journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem?

For Jews, especially those who lived in the land after returning from Babylonian captivity, tribal identification and line of descent were quite important. We find in the New Testament the lineage of Jesus traced back not only to Abraham (in Matthew 1) but also to Adam (Luke 3). The Apostle Paul even wrote about his own lineage. The self-righteous Jewish Pharisees used their physical lineage to boast how spiritually superior they thought they were compared to others.

Roman law, in deference to Jewish customs and prejudices (plus the desire to peaceably collect taxes from a subjugated people), stated any census in Palestine would be undertaken based on the town from which a person’s ancestral family belonged. In the case of Joseph, since he traced his lineage to David, who was born in Bethlehem, he had to go to the city for the census.

  • Matthew 2:4–6 (NASB) — 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”
  • Micah 5:2 — 2 “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.”
  • Luke 2:4–7 — 4 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 family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. 6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.