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The Trip to Bethlehem

Mary was now very close to her delivery date. The proud parents to be probably placed a wooden crib built by Joseph in their bedroom and had selected a village midwife to be on call. Now it was just a question of counting off the final weeks until the much-anticipated arrival of their firstborn son. The angel had told Mary that she was to name the child Jesus. Jewish tradition dictated that the father always named the child. But since God was the biological father of Jesus, He named the child. The angel also told Mary that the Lord God would give Him the throne of David, that He would reign over the house of Jacob forever and of His Kingdom there would be no end (Luke 1:31-33). With all this in mind, just imagine the shock of horror when they learned that the Emperor of Rome, ruler of the entire known world, had ordered a census and taxation that would require both of them to report to Joseph’ home town of Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-5).

Scripture does not tell us how pregnant Mary was when this announcement was made. But the couple had two options. They could go immediately to Bethlehem, pay the census tax and return. Or, they could wait until the birth of Jesus and then make the trip. It all depended on the taxation deadline. It appears they decided to wait until the birth and then go to Bethlehem. But as the deadline drew nearer and nearer, it was clear that Jesus would apparently be born after the date. To miss the tax payment deadline would draw the attention of Rome along with late payment penalties. Joseph had a number of good reasons why he did not want to have to deal with any of these issues if at all possible. So, with only perhaps little more than a week or two until the tax deadline, he and Mary were forced to leave for Bethlehem some seventy miles South East of Nazareth.

Scripture tells us that the decree was made by Caesar Augustus also known as Octavius (9.23.63B.C.- 8.19.14B.C.) during the time that Quirinius served as Governor (Luke 2:2).  Quirinius actually served as Governor for two separate terms in 5B.C. and again in 1 B.C. and died in 21 A.D. Thus, this Scriptural information is little help in discovering the exact date of the taxation and Jesus’ birth. For more, read paper: "Accurate Date of the Birth of Jesus". Octavius was determined to set himself above all other past Roman rulers. So, he created a title and was crowned Augustus meaning more than human by the Roman senate in 27B.C. He demanded that a month be named after him which today we know as August. He also demanded that it include one day more than the other months.

The Accurate Date of the Birth of Jesus
The exact date of Jesus’ birth has eluded Biblical scholars for the past 2,000years. The first mention of December 25th as being the date of His birth wascirca 200 A.D. And the first celebration of December 25th as Christmas wassometime between 250A.D. - 300A.

The story of the journey to Bethlehem simply states the couple complied with the decree of Caesar and that they left Nazareth at a time when Mary was “great with child”, or about to deliver. But why did this taxation suddenly crop up and why would Joseph be so inconsiderate as to take his pregnant wife with him on a seventy mile, seven-day journey to Bethlehem.  And, why even go to Bethlehem in the first place?  Why not just pay the tax in Nazareth? Here’s why.

Caesar had three very important reasons for the decree. First, he needed to know the number of people in each country or province under his rule as well as their wealth to include children, livestock, house, land etc. in order to levy tax rates just as we do today. Second, that particular year, Caesar was celebrating his 25th Anniversary as Emperor of Rome. And, this event also happened to coincide with the 750th Anniversary of the founding of Rome. This would call for massive celebrations which would in turn create the need for large amounts of quick cash to fund the public and private events. Third, the census and taxation event created an opportunity to also require a pledge of allegiance to Roman rule. The pledge was a way to insure that the subjects did not commit acts of sedition against Rome. And this in turn helped keep peace in the Roman Empire. Thus the famous motto of Rome “Pax Romana” or, the Peace of Rome. Roman rule was spread far and wide across Europe and the Middle East. The army was stretched thin, so a peaceful Roman Empire was a good Roman Empire that required fewer military expenses. Caesar did not want nor tolerate any civil unrest.

This pledge event was known as a head tax. The male head of the household, was required to take a coin with the image of Caesar on it, hold it to his forehead and swear an oath of allegiance to Rome. This pledge stated that he and his family would take no part in civil insurrection under penalty of death. This pledge also included that neither they nor any family member would declare or support another ruler. There was only one kingdom and it was Rome. And there was only one king and it was Caesar! This issue of sedition would ultimately be the Roman charge brought against Jesus and the reason for His execution (Matthew 27:37). Since Joseph and Mary were both direct descendants from the lineage of King David, they would both be required to take this pledge thus scripture reads, “… Joseph…went to be taxed with his wife Mary…” (Luke 2:5).

However, there was technically no real reason for Joseph to take this pledge. His line to David carried a curse that made it impossible for him or any of his descendants to be a claimant to the throne of Judea. Joseph’s great, great grandfather Jeconiah was a very wicked ruler of Judea. He was so wicked that the Prophet Jeremiah was told by God to declare a curse on his bloodline so that none of his descendants could ever rule Judea (Jeremiah 22:28-30).  However, Rome would have ignored this Jewish curse and still made Joseph take the oath of allegiance. Mary, on the other hand, was a direct descendant of David through his son Nathan. Thus, Mary was required to personally take the oath as her offspring would be a legitimate claimant to the throne. Mary would not only do her part in providing half of the required chromosomes to produce Jesus, but at the same time she would ensure that his bloodline made him a bonified heir to the throne of David. In fact, while the Jews had many evil things to say about Jesus, not one time did they ever question his blood line to David. The Jews kept exact records of David’s descendants up until the time the records were destroyed in 70 A.D. when Rome burned the Temple at Jerusalem.

But, why did Joseph have to take Mary to Bethlehem?  Why not just pay his tax where they lived? The Romans were willing to take the census and taxes where the individuals lived. However, the Jewish authorities got permission from Rome to required that the census be conducted in the capitol city of the male’s tribal territory. These territories were established by Joshua when he divided the Promised Land among the twelve tribes of Judah. In this way, the Temple would receive from the Roman census an updated and accurate population count for each tribe. This in turn would allow them to better enforce the correct Temple Tax amounts owed by each tribe. The Temple had an enforced 10% base tax on all worshipers. But due to feast taxes, sacrificial fees and a double tax every seven years, the total tax percentage could be as high as 40%. That did not include the tax owed to Rome! The Christian tradition of tithing from the heart was seen as incredible and unheard of by the religions of the first century.

Since Joseph and Mary were both from the tribe of Judah, they would have been required to report to Bethlehem whose name translates in Hebrew House of Bread, and is the capitol of the region or tribe of Judah (Isaiah 7:14). Thus Caesar Augustus, the most powerful pagan on earth, had unknowingly created a decree that would force Jesus to be born exactly where the prophet Micah said he would be born some 740 years earlier.

Scholars today believe that the average person in the first century would travel about 17 miles per day. But because Mary was in her final weeks of pregnancy, they would have probably only traveled about 10 miles per day. Thus, the trip would have taken about a week. Joseph would have no doubt known the prophecy by Micah concerning the Messiah of Israel being born in Bethlehem whose ancient name was Ephrathah (Micah 5:2; Genesis 35:16). But why would Joseph try to stay at the Inn at Bethlehem?

Written accounts state that while there were many inns in first century Judea, they were generally known as being bug infested, dirty, smoke filled and serving greasy food to a wine filled rough and rowdy cliental. This would not be suitable lodgings for a devout Jew with a young pregnant wife. People of wealth stayed in rented homes known today as Air B&B’s or they would pitch large tents in the fields just outside Jerusalem known today as RV parks. The last place they would stay would be in a public inn. But there may have been 3 motives behind Joseph’s questionable choice of lodging. First, the Inn at Bethlehem may very well have been clean, quiet and serve good food with soft beds. Or, because Mary went into labor just as they entered the village, the inn may have been the quickest solution to a sudden emergency. But to better understand a third motive, we need to look at the history of Bethlehem and the owners of the Inn.

"Boors Drinking & Making Merry in an Inn” by Adriaen Brouwer

Bethlehem is first mentioned in the Book of Genesis as the place where Rachel, the wife of Jacob, died giving birth (Genesis 35:16). She was the mother of Joseph who, according to the Midrash, was 7 years old at the time of her death and the first to pray at her grave site. Isaac was on his way south to Hebron when she went into labor just one mile north of Bethlehem. She gave birth literally on the side of the main road from Jerusalem south to Bethlehem. Jacob buried her where she died and set a pillar to mark her grave (Genesis 35:19). The Jews consider this their third most Holy site after the Temple Mount and the Cave of the Patriarchs located in Hebron. The simple grave was covered by a dome structure in 1620. Bethlehem has grown and the site is now at its center still just yards off the same main road that continues to be used. The city is now located in Palestinian territory or what is called the West Bank. But Biblically this area is known as the land of Judah. However, Israel retained control of the grave site and erected a protective enclosure around it in 1996. Before that time, the grave was constantly being vandalized by Palestinians during uprisings. A 15’ tall three-foot-thick solid reinforced concrete wall now encloses the tomb site. The walls contain two-armed guard towers surrounded by barbed wire. To visit the site, pilgrims must ride in special bulletproof busses accompanied by Israeli military forces.

The reason Joseph may have intentionally tried to have Jesus born at the Inn has todo with the lineage of its ownership starting with Salmon who married Rahab an innkeeper in Jericho during the Jewish Exodus out of Egypt. Rahab gave birth to a son named Obed. He would be the great grandfather of King David. David would come into possession of the estate and gift it to the son of a man who saved his kingdom.

On a closing note, there is a prophecy by Jeremiah concerning “Rachel weeping for her children” (Matthew 2:16-18; Jeremiah 31:15). Prophets often prophesied without having any idea about what God was referring to. The meaning was often made clear hundreds if not thousands of years later. The Jews believe this prophecy was literally realized by the destruction of Judah followed by a mass exile into Babylon which started on March 16th 597 B.C. But in fact, the prophecy was more likely concerning Herod murdering the babies of Bethlehem in a failed attempt to kill Jesus, the prophesied King of Judea (Matthew 2:16-18). This is what caused Rachel to weep. She wept for the children of Bethlehem where she died giving birth to her last son Benjamin and was buried. These babies were the first to be martyred because of Jesus. Thirty three years later, Jesus would sacrifice Himself so that they could have eternal life!

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