The primary reason the birth of Jesus took place in Bethlehem was to fulfill the prophecy given by the minor prophet Micah. He stated, "And you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, you being least among the thousands of Judah, out of you He (Jesus) shall come forth (be born) to Me, that is to become Ruler in Israel . . ." (Micah 5:2, HBFV throughout).
One of the most fascinating facts about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is how God used the powerful but sometimes brutal Roman Empire, coupled with a Jewish fixation on their ancesters, to fulfill a 700-year-old prophecy!
Mary, before she left Nazareth for Bethlehem, was betrothed but had not consumated her marital relationship with Joseph. The couple had to go to Joseph's ancestral home of Bethlehem due to Roman taxation policies.
The Roman Empire, from time to time, would conduct a census not merely to count people but also to find out what they owned. It was decreed in the year Jesus was born (5 B.C.) that such a Roman taxation census would be taken in Judea (Luke 2:1 - 4) and the surrounding area.
This information, however, begs a question. Why did the Romans not carry out their census where people lived in Judea and the surrounding area as they did for the rest of the Empire? Why did they require the parents of Jesus to make the more than 80-mile (about 129 kilometers) journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem?
For Jews, especially those who lived in the land after returning from Babylonian captivity, tribal identification and line of descent were quite important.
We find in the New Testament the lineage of Jesus traced back not only to Abraham (in Matthew 1) but also to Adam (Luke 3). The Apostle Paul even wrote about his own lineage (Romans 11:1). The self-righteous Jewish Pharisees used their physical lineage to boast how spiritually superior they thought they were compared to others (John 8:33 - 39, Matthew 3:9).
Roman law, in deference to Jewish customs and prejudices (plus the desire to peaceably collect taxes from a subjugated people), stated any census in Palestine would be undertaken based on the town from which a person's ancestral family belonged. In the case of Joseph, since he traced his lineage to David, who was born in Bethlehem (1Samuel 17:12), he had to go to the city for the census.
What time of the year did the Roman census take place which forced the family of Jesus to travel to Bethlehem? Was it in the middle of winter as is depicted in many Christmas scenes?
The Holy Bible Faithful Version offers interesting insight in regard to when such travel to Bethlehem took place. It states, "The taxation and census decree by Caesar Augustus was carried out according to the Jewish custom which required that such taxes be collected after the fall harvest. Thus, Luke's record of this taxation reveals that the birth of Jesus took place during the Autumn" (Appendix E).
The Romans conducted censuses in Palestine during the fall so that they could maximize the amount of tax revenue they collected from the people.
Barney Kasdan, in his book "God's Appointed Times," wrote regarding Rome that they took censuses at a time convenient based on local customs. In short, it was far better for the Romans and Israelites to handle taxes in the fall of the year, when it was easier to travel (e.g. Nazareth to Bethlehem) as opposed to the middle of winter.
God used Rome's desire to collect as much tax revenue as it could, coupled with a Jewish fascination of their ancestors, to fulfill an awesome prophecy concerning the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem!