Wise Men HeaderNativity.

By Rev. Phil Greetham. © Copyright 1996. This Version, 2012.

2: Joseph & Bethlehem
Bethlehem is 5 miles/8 km south-west of Jerusalem It stands at an elevation of about 2,550 feet above sea level, thus about 100 feet higher than Jerusalem. It was the birthplace of King David. Its earlier name was Ephrath or Ephrathah. This name is occasionally found in the Old Testament.
For more geography see here.
Joseph's Home Town
We are told that Joseph went to Bethlehem to register in his own town. We are then told that Joseph was a descendant of King David, whose home town was Bethlehem. What exactly is the definition of ones', 'own town'? The Bible seems ambiguous here. Luke is clearly wanting to link Joseph with King David and at the same time explain why they had to go to Bethlehem. The answer is that it is both the place his immediate family came from and also the home of his ancestors going back to King David.
Dio Cassius, a Roman writer mentions there were taxes levied during this decade. This involved going back to one's home town to work out what had been left you as an inheritance, and then taxes were demamded based on its value . (However, Dio Cassius does not help us with the dates of these taxes).
If Joseph was just visiting Nazareth, say in the run up to his wedding, or had left a few years earlier then he would now have to journey back to Bethlehem to account for his inheritance - or risk losing it. The authorities would want each person to return to the place they were already listed as having property or assets. This suggests that Joseph was born in Bethlehem and had family and assets there. Therefore the Bible says it is his own town and it also wants to say that he is part of an old Bethlehem family going back to the time of King David. That last part is not the reason why he had to go back to Bethlehem but it elaborates on the reason - that he is personally associated with the village.

So the idea of Mary and Joseph going temporarily to a strange crowded village doesn't seem to make the most sense. It seems certain that Joseph hadn't intended returning to Bethlehem for at least some while but now was being forced to prematurely. Therefore when he went to Bethlehem it was not to his own house and business but possibly to a home of one of his relatives. How this fits in with the rest of the Biblical account can be found here.
This explains very well how Mary and Jospeh were able to stay in Bethlehem for up to 2 years, at which point the Magi visited them.
The Journey to Bethlehem
The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is 70 miles as the crow flies and the journey would have been via a fairly direct route once they had got on the main route to Judea from the north. Three or four days of travelling would have brought them to Bethlehem although it might have taken as long as a week. The route would have taken them through various towns. Megiddo, Ibleam, Shechem, Shiloh, Ai and Jerusalem would have provided potential stop over points along the way.
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