Reflection: Luke 2: 1 – 5
Here Luke indicates the historical circumstances that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus had decreed that all the world, i.e. the whole of the Roman Empire, should be taxed. This Caesar reigned from 30 b.c. to 19th August, a.d. 14. After he had, by political astuteness and military strength, put an end to the terrible civil wars which had raged for many years throughout the Roman world and to all resistance that was offered to him, he reigned for forty-four years as absolute monarch over the Roman Empire. Through a peaceful and mild rule he gave to the world a period of unprecedented outward calm and to his huge empire a permanent organisation which afterwards facilitated the spread of Christianity. In this, and also in the fact that through his command (verse 1) the prophecy of Micah 5:1 was fulfilled, he was an instrument in the all-guiding hand of God.
In such a census as had been commanded by Augustus the name, occupation, property and kindred had to be entered in the public registers. In this instance the census probably took place with a view to the levying of taxes. Luke describes this taxing as “the first” and states that it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria for some time in the first decade b.c. as well as from a.d. 6 to 9. He calls it “the first enrolment” to distinguish it from the well-known enrolment in a.d. 6 of which he makes mention in Acts 5:37.
Thus it came about that Joseph, who was of the house of David, had to go to Bethlehem. Here David had been born about a thousand years previously. Originally the town had been called Efratha (Gen. 35:19). It is situated about six miles to the south of Jerusalem. That Joseph, a carpenter, knew his Davidic lineage and could prove it is something quite natural. The Jews from earliest times kept their genealogical tables in order with amazing fidelity.
At a Roman census a woman also had to pay taxes, but it was not necessary for her to go and do so in person. There were, however, several considerations that made it necessary for Joseph to take Mary with him to Bethlehem. Because the time was already close at hand when she was to be delivered of her firstborn, Joseph did not want to leave her behind in Nazareth, since she would probably, when the child came to be born, be treated with insult and distrust, as the people knew that she had been married to Joseph for considerably less than nine months (cf. 1:56). Luke still speaks of Mary as “betrothed” to Joseph, although it appears in Matthew that Joseph had already married her (after her return from Elisabeth). He does this to show that although they were already married they were still all the time living merely as espoused persons (Matt. 1:25) and that she was pregnant not through him but through the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost.
Geldenhuys, N. (1952). Commentary on the Gospel of Luke: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes (pp. 99–101). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.