So let’s talk about Joseph — the supposed Father of Jesus (Luke 3:23), betrothed to Mary (Luke 1:27) — Where was he actually from?
Nazareth, right? That’s what everybody thinks. He and his high-school sweetheart Mary, who was prego-by-the-Holy-Spirit with ya-boy J.C. got married and then went to the ancient ancestral home of Joseph’s 900-year-old-great-granddaddy David on a donkey to register for a Roman census. They were guided by a helicopter with a spotlight, or some kind of star thing, and they made it just in time for three guys on camels to throw a baby shower, right? As strange as it sounds when you say it out loud, I actually think this is the ordinary understanding of the casual Christian today.
Since that seems strange, let me ask one small question: Where in the text of scripture does it say that Joseph is from Nazareth?
The Problem of Joseph’s Hometown
The issue of Joseph’s hometown is often brought up to show a problem with the Bible. after all, “everybody knows” that Quirinius was not governor of Syria when Jesus was born (even though it is generally accepted that Quirinius was governor of Syria between 5 B.C. and 2 B.C.).
Additionally, “everybody knows” that it is silly for Joseph to return to his ancestral home of Bethlehem rather than stay in his “real” home of Nazareth. Take this excerpt from a 1987 book quoting a 1947 book on the subject:
Imagine a system of taxation based on people returning to their ancestral homes, going back a thousand years in the case of Joseph. By this time the Jews were spread out all over the known world. Can we seriously believe that the Romans would have required them to come back to Palestine, carrying everything they owned? How would the tax officials have assessed their land? In The Rise of Christianity the former Bishop E. W. Barnes remarks: “The Romans were a practical race, skilled in the art of government. It is incredible that they should have taken a census according to such a fantastic system. If any such census had been taken, the dislocation to which it would have led would have been world-wide. Roman historians would not have failed to record it.” (God, Reason, and the Evangelicals
(Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1987), pp. 145-49 Copyright held by N. F. Gier)
I agree with this point about the Roman census, but it ignores a simple question: How do we know Nazareth is his real home? We don’t!
Evidence for Nazareth as Joseph’s Hometown
Shockingly, as I looked in the Bible, I could not find any indication that Joseph was from Nazareth. We know Jesus is “of Nazareth.” We know Mary is “of Nazareth” (Luke 1:26-27). But nowhere does it say that Joseph was “of Nazareth.” Every description of Joseph is either “betrothed to Mary” (Matthew 1:18), the “supposed” father of Jesus (Luke 3:23), or “of the house and lineage of David.” (Luke 2:3)
Instead, I found that the main reason we believe Joseph hails from Nazareth is the headings in our Bibles like “Return to Nazareth” over Matthew 2:19-23 in the ESV, NIV, and CSB. But remember, the headings in your Bible and the numbers on your verses are not in the original. They are not even consistent across different translations.
Evidence that Joseph is Not from Nazareth
But let’s look at the story of Jesus’s birth from the perspective of Joseph in the gospel of Matthew:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
Now that phrase “before they came together” is taken to mean “before they had sexual relations.” Now, that is true, but this is bigger than that. The original Greek word is sunerchomai (συνέρχομαι) which is used only one other time to refer to sexual relations (in 1 Corinthians 7:5), which is quite coy about the fact. Every other time this word is used in scripture, it is used to describe crowds coming together and assembling. Sometimes it refers to a group’s general agreement on a question of opinion. It is quite rare for this to mean sexual relations, although it can mean that.
But the real kicker is that sexual relations are explicitly mentioned in this passage, but it is expressed differently. We see the term for sexual relations in the later portion of this passage, where Joseph “knew her not” until she had given birth.
Additionally, note that Joseph “took” his wife. What does this mean if he was already betrothed and did not yet “know” her in a biblical sense, if you know what I mean. To answer that question, we need to see where Mary is from. That is shown in the gospel of Luke, which is from her perspective.
Evidence About Mary’s Hometown of Nazareth
We know the gospel of Luke is from Mary’s perspective, because we get two explicit mentions of this fact:
But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)
And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:51)
So let’s see what we are told about where Mary is from:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1:26-27)
We also know Mary then went to the house of Elizabeth, which is described this way:
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah (Luke 1:39)
And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. (Luke 1:56)
Therefore, Mary is definitely from Nazareth. But notice that connection of “hill country” to Judah. It will be relevant later. Mary stays for three months until the birth of John. Then we are told:
Therefore, Mary is from Nazareth, and Nazareth is not “hill country.”
The One Line of Scripture Connecting Joseph to Nazareth
As far as I can tell, there is one single line of scripture connecting Joseph to the city of Nazareth. It comes from the gospel of Luke, which is from Mary’s perspective.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. (Luke 2:4)
The evidence here is that Joseph’s journey was from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Therefore, Joseph must be from Nazareth, and he must be returning to his ancestral home of Bethlehem, right?
WRONG!!!! LOOK AT THE TEXT!
The order is that each person should go to “HIS OWN TOWN” and not the 900-year-old-ancestral-home of your great-to-the-14th-power-granddaddy. This means it is quite explicitly stated that Joseph is FROM BETHLEHEM. Just like today, you must pay taxes and vote in your place of residence, Joseph also had to register in his actual home town.
Alright, so I’ll be more explicit. How do we know Joseph is from Bethlehem? Joseph is not only described as being of the “lineage” of David (his ancestry), he is also described as being “of the house” of David. If we have already established that Joseph’s ancestry is in the house of David, what is the point of stating that he is “of the house” of David?
Therefore, Joseph is from Bethlehem.
But Why was Joseph in Nazareth?
And while I am not an expert on 2,000 year old wedding practices, I do know something from reading the Bible and about getting married. Whenever marriages are described in Jesus’s stories, the man is always described as going to the woman. This is reflected in Genesis where it describes marriage in this way:
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
Additionally, in Jesus’s parable of the ten virgins who go out to meet the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13), it is clear that they gather in a particular place to meet the bridegroom. But even though they go out to a particular place, the parable is about how they wait and wait and wait. That’s the key plot-point of the parable. The pattern of movement in weddings is that the male Bridegroom goes to the female Bride.
Even in my own wedding in 2018, I went to the hometown of my wife in Dallas. But if someone were to think that this means that I’m from Texas, I would simply assert my roots by saying “Who-Dat think dey know what dey don’t know?”
Remember the movement of Mary. She was in Nazareth. She went to the hill-country of Judah (Luke 1:39), which is near Bethlehem. Then she returns to her home in Nazareth (Luke 1:56). Therefore, Joseph had to go to Nazareth to “take” his wife. (Matthew 1:24). Then he had to return to Bethlehem to register in the census. (Luke 2:4)
But Why Does it Say Joseph “Went Up” From Nazareth?
Remember that Nazareth is not “hill-country.” When we think in terms of elevation, to “go up” from Galilee is to go anywhere other than the valley of the Jordan (which is down).
The Bible makes frequent use of the “up” and “down” elevation of Judea when talking about traveling. Here’s a short list from the gospels:
- And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath (Luke 4:31).
- Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. (Luke 10:30)
- Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. (Matthew 5:1)
- And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. (Matthew 14:23)
- And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. (Mark 3:13)
- And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. (Mark 6:46)
- After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. (John 5:1)
- When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea (John 6:16)
The place where “mountain” is used, makes the elevation obvious. But when they are place names, it is not as obvious. So let’s fix that.
- The elevation of the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum is 700 feet below sea level.
- The elevation of Jerusalem is 3800 feet above sea level
- The elevation of Jericho is 864 feet below sea level.
- The elevation of Bethlehem is 2,543 feet above sea level.
- The elevation of Nazareth is 1,138 feet above sea level.
Therefore, when Joseph “went up from Nazareth” (Luke 2:4), this is simply the normal way that the Bible talks about traveling from one place to another in Judea. Joseph did not depart from his hometown. He climbed over 1,000 feet of elevation to get to Bethlehem (and 2,600 feet if he came through Jerusalem, which is five miles north of Bethlehem).
This detail of a elevation might seem irrelevant, strange, and non-obvious today when we normally travel in cars or planes. But let me assure you as a former cross-country runner and road-bike rider and casual hiker in the mountains of Virginia, you feel every INCH of elevation when you travel by on foot.
Further Evidence that Joseph is from Bethlehem
Let’s also notice what happens when Mary and Joseph come back from Egypt to avoid Herod’s attempted murder of Jesus:
Now when [the Magi] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.
. . .
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:13-15 and 2:19-23)
So the census is over. They’ve registered. But Joseph’s first instinct is to go to BETHLEHEM. Why? Because he’s from Bethlehem.
Also notice that even though the gospel of Matthew is told from Joseph’s perspective, it never refers to Nazareth as Joseph’s hometown. Instead, it is called “a city called Nazareth.” That is extremely suggestive that Nazareth is not Joseph’s hometown. But when he is afraid to go there, he went with his plan B: live in Nazareth. Why did he go there? Because Mary is from Nazareth, not Joseph.
So let’s review the movement. Joseph “took” his wife who lived in Nazareth, by arriving as the bridegroom. This was the first time they had ever “assembled.” Joseph and Mary then went to Bethlehem so they could be registered with the household of Joseph in the Roman census. He never had sexual relations with his very pregnant wife until after she had given birth.Joseph (nor any Jew or any person in the entire Roman empire) ever went to their 900-year-old ancestral home to be registered in the Roman census. Instead, he (and everyone in the census) went to their CURRENT place of residence, just like we do today. Therefore, Joseph is from Bethlehem.
My interpretation (which is correct, by the way) is that the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke are quite consistent. Mary is from Nazareth. Joseph is from Bethlehem. Joseph was betrothed to Mary, and they had never “assembled”sunerchomai (συνέρχομαι) before Joseph arrived as the bridegroom in Nazareth. They returned to Bethlehem to be registered in the census.
But why was it written this way between the two gospels? Well, let’s remember what we know about the authors.
Matthew, as a disciple, was around both Jesus and the family of Jesus before Luke was. Matthew may have had an opportunity to talk to Joseph himself. If Matthew begins following Jesus when Jesus is 30, then Joseph could have been anywhere from 50 (20 years old at the marriage) to 65 years old (35 years old at the marriage) during this time, though we really don’t know. What we do know is that we read of Joseph’s internal struggle about divorcing Mary. We learn about his dreams and the interactions with the Magi. We also know Matthew is also writing to a Jewish audience trying to show Jesus is the heir of David, so maybe that’s a good reason to get Joseph’s perspective as well.
Meanwhile, Luke was a companion of Paul, and therefore likely came into the investigative history business several years later. As we get explicit mention’s of Mary’s memory, it is very likely he spoke to Mary, who was likely much younger than Joseph. Joseph is likely dead at this point, too (this is why Jesus assigns one of his disciples to be the caretaker of Mary on the cross, see John 19:25-27). Therefore, Luke spoke to Mary who gave her perspective. From Mary’s perspective, the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem began in Nazareth, even though for Joseph, it was a two-way trip. Luke is able to share Mary’s perspective of her encounter with Gabriel, her hasty trip to Elizabeth’s house, and her return to Nazareth.
When you add the two together, it’s a great story. We see two people doing their thing, trying to make the best of an arranged marriage and a long-distance relationship. But then things get crazy when God himself decided to crash the wedding. Mary in shame runs to her cousin. Joseph in shame thinks about quietly divorcing his betrothed. God steps in, keeps them safe, and elevates them to the central figures of our favorite holiday 2000 years later.
So go back and read it again. Study it. This is not easy. But the next time someone points out the “problem” of the census or the “contradiction” of Matthew and Luke, don’t be alarmed. Instead, just point out that the simple fact that they simply do not understand the great story that God has told us in his word. It’s not a fairy tale. It’s real.