[Please read the very short introduction first, here.]

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.  So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him[1] and was expecting a child. Luke 2:1-5

Nazareth to Bethlehem

While Mary was heavily pregnant with Jesus, she and Joseph travelled about 100 kilometres from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. This journey, at that time, would have normally taken 4 days but could take as long as a week.[2]

Christmas cards often show Mary and Joseph looking like lonely figures, with Mary sitting on a donkey being led by Joseph. However, it is unlikely that Mary and Joseph made the trip alone. It is much more likely they made the journey with other travellers.[3]

It is also unlikely that Mary rode a donkey on her journey. The unexpected jolts and bumps of the ride would have been hazardous to her unborn child. Walking was a much safer option. Furthermore, a donkey would have been in high demand as, all over the Roman world, people were travelling because of the census.

Whether walking or riding on a donkey, the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been tiring and uncomfortable for Mary. I have yet to see a Christmas card showing an exhausted and irritable Mary, dusty and dishevelled from a long day of travelling.

Many situations surrounding the birth of Jesus were difficult for Mary and Joseph. They were people of faith and obedience, but they were also ordinary and real, and some of these situations would have been a struggle. Needless to say, unlike their portraits in many religious artworks, Mary and Joseph did not have halos or an aura of holiness hovering over their heads.

Throughout the Bible we see that God used ordinary people to achieve his extraordinary purposes. God still uses ordinary people, and often there are aspects of the process that are hard, frustrating, and tedious, even if the outcome is glorious. Part 4 »

journey to Bethlehem Nativity Mary and Joseph Luke 2


[1] Joseph had taken Mary into his care as his wife but they didn’t have sex until after Jesus was born (Matt. 1:24-25). In my previous article, there is information about ancient Jewish betrothal customs.

[2] Mary appears to have been a fit and healthy young lady. She had travelled previously from Nazareth to Judea at the beginning of her pregnancy, and returned to Nazareth three months later (Luke 1:26, 39, 56).

[3] People rarely travelled alone in antiquity. It was much safer travelling in groups.

© 8th of December 2010, Margaret Mowczko

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Christmas Cardology Series 

(1) Introduction
(2) Mary’s Scandal and Favour
(4) Was Jesus born in a barn?
(5) When was Jesus born?
(6) The Virgin Mary
(7) The Wise Men from the East