This entry is part 65 of 121 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 15:16 – ‘The sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit’
- Genesis 19 – What was the sin of Sodom?
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 – homosexual acts prohibited?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Deuteronomy 23:6 – ‘Never be kind to a Moabite’?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 1 Samuel 28:7-14 – Did Samuel visit from the grave?
- 2 Samuel 1:26 – ‘More special than the love of women’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:22/Luke 9:60 – ‘Let the dead bury their dead’?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Mt 10:28/Lk 12:4f – Whom should we fear?
- Matthew 10:28 – ‘destroy’: annihilation or everlasting punishment?
- Matthew 10:34 – ‘Not peace, but a sword’?
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Mt 12:30/Mk 9:40/Lk 11:23 – For, or against?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Mt 16:28/Mk 9:1/Lk 9:27 – “Some standing here will see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 2:39 – No room for a flight into Egypt?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- Luke 14:26 – Hate your family?
- Luke 22:36 – ‘Sell your cloak and buy a sword’
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- Mt 21/Mk 11/Lk 19/Jn 2 – When (and how many times) did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 10:8 – “All who came before me were thieves and robbers”
- John 10:34 – “You are gods”
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 10:4 – ‘Christ is the end of the law’
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- Romans 16:7 – ‘Junia…well known to the apostles’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 1:4 – ‘Partakers of the divine nature’
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
It is generally supposed that Joseph, like Mary, came from Nazareth. At the time of the census, he travelled, with his wife-to-be, to Bethlehem, his ancestral home. After Jesus’ birth he took his little family to Egypt, in order to escape the threat of Herod. And then, after that threat subsided, they returned to their hometown of Nazareth.
Stephen Carlson argues that Bethlehem was Joseph’s actual family home, and not just his ancestral home. Two reasons: (a) the is no record of a census requiring a man to return to his ancestral home; (b) Lk 2:39 (‘…to a town of their own’) implies that Joseph and Mary made Nazareth their home after the birth. It would have been usual for a woman to travel to the man’s home town to complete the betrothal ceremonies.
Carlson cites G.H. Box (writing in 1916):
‘If Joseph’s home was in Bethlehem, by taking Mary, his betrothed, with him when he left Nazareth for his home-town, he was performing the central and public act which proclaimed the marriage’.
Then they made their home in Mary’s own town.
So, to investigate further:
It is clear enough that Mary herself hailed from Nazareth:
‘The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.’ (Lk 1:26f)
But what about Joseph? At the time of the census:
‘Everyone went to his own town to be registered. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David. He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, and who was expecting a child.’ (Lk 2:3-5)
The usual way of interpreting this is to say that Joseph too lived in Nazareth, and that he had to return to his ancestral home of Bethlehem for the purpose of the census. The problem with this is that there is no evidence that people were required to travel to their ancestral homes in order to be registered.
Look again at Lk 2:3 – ‘Everyone went to his own town to be registered.’ This rather strongly implies that Bethlehem was Joseph’s ‘own town’; i.e., his home town.
The clause translated, ‘because he was of the house and family line of David’ is not necessarily explanatory. It could just mean, ‘being of the house and family line of David.’ In other words, that phrase does not indicate a special reason why Joseph had to make the journey, but simply states a fact that is significant for other reasons (underlining the royal lineage of both Joseph and Jesus).
What, then, was Joseph doing in Nazareth, if he didn’t live there? He was there to care for his wife-to-be, with a view to taking her to his own home town in order for them to live together there as man and wife. Note that betrothal was a closer and more binding tie then than it is now, and that the custom was for a married couple to make their home in the husband’s locality, not the wife’s.
All of this sheds some light on the famous words of Lk 2:6f
‘While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.’
I have explained elsewhere that the probable meaning is that Mary ‘laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the place where they were staying.’ In other words, they were staying in the guest room of the house of Joseph’s family, but due to the cramped conditions the new-born baby had to be laid in a feeding-trough (which may well have been situated between the guest room and the place where the animals were kept overnight). The significance of the manger is not to suggest (contrary to tradition) that Jesus was born in a stable, but rather to prepare the way for the ‘sign’ that the angels would shortly give to the shepherds:
Lk 2:12 “This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.”
What, then, of Lk 2:39? –
‘When Joseph and Mary had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.’ (Italics added)
Now, this is the usual way of translating the italicised words. But the earlier and manuscripts lack the article, and so the meaning is not, ‘They went to the town of their own, Nazareth, but rather,
‘They went to Galilee, to a town of their own, Nazareth’, or, in more idiomatic English, ‘They went to Galilee, and made their home in Nazareth.’
We have some corroboration from Matthew:
‘When [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. After being warned in a dream, he went to the regions of Galilee. He came to a town called Nazareth and lived there.’ (Mt 2:22f)
As previously stated, the usual procedure would be for a new family to live in the locality of the father. Joseph’s intention to take Mary and Jesus to Judea (presumably, to Bethlehem in Judea) would make best sense if he himself came from Bethlehem.
Carlson quotes Brown as noting the suggestion that Joseph was returning to his own home town after having visited Nazareth to claim Mary has his bride. Brown objects that ‘These suggestions run against the reference to Nazareth as ‘their own city’ in Lk 2:29 and against the indication in that Joseph had no place to stay in Bethlehem in Lk 2:7. But, as Carlson points out, these objections are not conclusive, for Lk 2:29 can be understood as the couple making a home of their own in Nazareth (with no implication that it was the home of town of both of them), and Lk 2:7 does not say that the family had no place to stay, but rather that there was no place to accommodate their newborn baby.
Joseph took his betrothed Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Lk 2:5). Bethlehem was his home town (v. 3) and, in accordance with the patrilocal marital customs of the day, it must also have been the place where they finalized their matrimonial arrangements by bringing her into his home. As a newly married man, he no longer would have to sleep in the main room of the village house with his other relatives, but he and his bride could stay in a marital chamber attached to the house until they could get a place of their own. They stayed there for some time until she came to full term (v. 6), and she gave birth to Jesus in the main room of the house rather than in her marital apartment because it was too small, and she laid the newborn in one of those mangers (v. 7) common to the main room of an ancient farmhouse. After staying at least another forty days in Bethlehem (v. 22; cf. Lev 12:2-8), Joseph and Mary eventually moved to Nazareth to make their home together in her family’s town (v. 39; cf. Lk 1.26-27).
One question that arises from Carlson’s discussion if this: if Mary was from Nazareth, and Joseph from Bethlehem (90 miles away), how did they meet? A hint is found in Lk 1:39, when we learn that Mary had relatives ‘in the hill country of Judea’. Alternatively, Joseph’s work as a carpenter/builder/stone mason may have taken him up to the Nazareth area, where nearby work was to be had.
A plausible scenario would be:
- Mary’s home was in Nazareth in Galilee (Lk 1:26f).
- Joseph’s actual (as well as his ancestral) home was Bethlehem in Judea (Lk 2:1).
- They may have met either during Mary’s trips down to visit her relatives in Judea (Lk 1:39) or while Joseph was in the Nazareth area. Joseph, being a builder, carpenter or stone-mason, may have moved there temporarily to undertake work at Sepphoris, just 6 km away.
- The census (Lk 2:1) was before the better-known one that took place under Quirinius (Lk 2:1). When people were summoned to their home towns, Joseph returned to Bethlehem. He took Mary with him, partly to protect and care for her, and partly because they intended to make Bethlehem their home.
- When they reached Bethlehem they stayed in the house of Joseph and his family or relatives. There was insufficient space in the guest room for Mary to give birth and care for her baby, (and to accommodate the midwife and others who would have been in attendance). So Mary gave birth downstairs, near to the animals’ night quarters (Lk 2:7). The baby was laid in the animal’s feeding trough, and this was the ‘sign’ to the shepherds confirming the angel’s message (Lk 2:12).
- The family made to short distance to Jerusalem for the purification rites (Lk 2:22), and then returned to Bethlehem. There, as mentioned, they intended to make their home.
- After some months the magi arrived at ‘the house’ and saw ‘the child’, leaving their precious gifts (Mt 2:11). But King Herod had learned from the Magi about the birth, and determined to kill the young ‘pretender’ to his throne (Mt 2:8).
- Joseph, having been warned in a dream, took his family to Egypt, where they would have been made welcome by the large Jewish community there, and where he would have been able to find work. The gifts of the Magi would have helped to defray the costs of travel and so on.
- After a year or so, news came that Herod was dead. Joseph would have intended to take his family back to Bethlehem, and settle there. But Archelaus, who was now reigning in Judea, was just as dangerous as his father. So they made their home in Nazareth (Lk 2:39).
See also this by Ian Paul.