Censuses were used especially to evaluate taxation requirements. A tax census instigated by the revered emperor Augustus here begins the narrative’s contrast between Caesar’s earthly pomp and Christ’s heavenly glory. Although Egyptian census records show that people had to return to their homes for a tax census, the “home” to which they returned was where they owned property, not simply where they were born (censuses registered persons according to property). Joseph thus must have still held property in Bethlehem. Betrothal provided most of the legal rights of marriage, but intercourse was forbidden; Joseph was courageous to take his pregnant betrothed with him, even if (as is quite possible) she was also a Bethlehemite who had to return to that town. Although tax laws in most of the Empire only required the head of a household to appear, the province of Syria (then including Judea) also taxed women. But Joseph may have simply wished to avoid leaving her alone this late in her pregnancy, especially if the circumstances of her pregnancy had deprived her of other friends.
The “swaddling clothes” were long cloth strips used to keep babies’ limbs straight so they could grow properly. Midwives normally assisted at birth; especially since this was Mary’s first child, it is likely (though not clear from the text) that a midwife would have been found to assist her. Jewish law permitted midwives to travel a long distance even on the Sabbath to assist in delivery.
By the early second century even pagans were widely aware of the tradition that Jesus was born in a cave used as a livestock shelter behind someone’s home. The manger was a feeding trough for animals; sometimes these may have been built into the floor. The traditional “inn” could as easily be translated “home” or “guest room,” and probably means that, since many of Joseph’s scattered family members had returned to the home at once, it was easier for Mary to bear in the vacant cave outside.
Many religious people and especially the social elite in this period generally despised shepherds as a low-class occupation; but God sees differently than people do. Pasturing of flocks at night indicates that this was a warmer season, not winter (when they would graze more in the day); December 25 was later adopted as Christmas only to supercede a pagan Roman festival scheduled at that time.
Pagans spoke of the “good news” of the emperor’s birthday, celebrated throughout the empire; they hailed the emperor as “Savior” and “Lord.” They used choirs in imperial temples to worship the emperor. They praised the current emperor, Augustus, for having inaugurated a worldwide “peace.” But the lowly manger distinguishes the true king from the Roman emperor; Jesus is the true Savior, Lord, bringer of universal peace. God is not impressed with human power or honor; he came as the lowliest of all among the lowliest of all, revealing God’s special heart toward those who most depend on him for their help.