Did You Know?
What was the census that led to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem?
According to the Gospel of Luke, when Caesar Augustus decreed a census throughout the Roman Empire, “all people went traveling to be registered, each one to his own city.” (Luke 2:1-3) The city of Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, was Bethlehem, and the journey that Joseph and Mary undertook to comply with the decree resulted in Jesus’ being born in Bethlehem. Such registrations served to facilitate tax collection and conscription for military service.
When the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 B.C.E., the census was already a tried and tested feature of Egyptian bureaucracy. Scholars believe that the Romans adopted the Egyptian census system and applied similar procedures to the rest of their empire.
Evidence for one such registration is provided by an edict of the Roman governor of Egypt in 104 C.E. A copy of that edict, now conserved in the British Library, reads: “Gaius Vibius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt (says): Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their districts to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census, and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments.”
Why did Joseph contemplate giving Mary a certificate of divorce when the two were only engaged?
According to Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant while she “was promised in marriage to Joseph” but before they were united. Not knowing that Mary was pregnant “by holy spirit,” Joseph must have thought that she had been unfaithful to him, and thus he intended to divorce her.—Matthew 1:18-20.
Among the Jews, engaged couples were viewed as already married. The two, however, did not begin living together as husband and wife until the wedding formalities had been completed. Engagement was so binding that if—because of a change of heart on the part of the bridegroom or for some other compelling reason—the marriage did not take place, the young woman was not free to marry until she had obtained a divorce certificate. If an engaged woman’s husband died before the wedding, she was considered a widow. On the other hand, if she committed fornication during her engagement, she was considered an adulteress and was sentenced to death.—Deuteronomy 22:23, 24.
Joseph evidently pondered the consequences of Mary’s becoming a public spectacle. Though he felt obligated to bring the matter to the proper authorities, he wanted to protect her and avoid scandal. Thus, he decided to divorce her quietly. A single mother’s possession of a divorce certificate would, after all, indicate that she had already been married.
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Census edict by Roman governor of Egypt, 104 C.E.
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