Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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

Mary was heavily pregnant with Jesus when 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]

Nazareth to Bethlehem

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

Scholar George Athas suggests an interesting reason for Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. It is posted on his Facebook page here.

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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

8 thoughts on “Christmas Cardology 3: Nazareth to Bethlehem

  1. Though it is a nice worldly thought, Mary and Joseph NEVER consummated their marriage. Mary and Joseph both vowed to remain virgins their entire lives. Thus, they are the HOLY family. We know this to be true because Jesus told John to take Mary, his mother, into his care not a sibling. Who is my brother, sister or mother? Anyone who does the will of my father. Peter, your are rock and upon this rock I build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

    1. Hi Ginger, the Bible makes gives no indication whatsoever that Mary and Joseph made any vows of virginity or celibacy. In fact, it indicates the opposite. See Matthew 1:24-25.

      I’m not understanding the meaning or intention of all of your comments but your question reminds me of Jesus’s similar question: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Matthew 12:48).

      Jesus answered his own question: “Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:49-50).

      This concept that all true followers of Jesus are members of his family is echoed in several other New Testament Scriptures.

    2. Matt. 1:25 says, “But he (Joseph) did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son.”

  2. It’s fun to speculate about the birth of Jesus. One thing I think is unlikely, is that Mary was heavily pregnant on the trip. If she was, I think she would not at all have started. I have no doubt that she was quite tough and unafraid of walking long distances, but there would be limits, even for her.

    To me it seems more reasonable to assume that she had several months left of her pregnancy. If so, the couple also stayed several months in Bethlehem before the birth took place.

    I also find the map you have included a little dubious. I think they would either have taken the straightest route through the mountains, or turned towards the Jordan valley much sooner.

    1. I appreciate your thoughts, Knut.

      I’ve also had doubts about how pregnant Mary was. Why would a woman travel when she was nearly 9 months pregnant? However, it does seem as though the couple hadn’t yet found proper accommodation when Mary did give birth (Luke 2:7).

      About the map. Some scholars are beginning to cast doubt on the commonly held idea that Jews typically travelled around Samaria, rather than taking a more direct route through Samaria. On the other hand, travelling along the river basin rather than tackling the rugged Judean hills, which were heavily forested in Jesus’ day, does make some sense. So I’m not sure one way or the other if the map may is correct.

      I agree that it is fun to speculate.

      1. I don’t think you should take the manger as a sign that they hadn’t found proper accomodation. My guess is that they were in a simple, ordinary house, with a main room and a guest room. Joseph and Mary might have been living in the main room, together with the family who owned the house. If that sounds too intimate to us, it probably wasn’t to them.

        The main room had space for animals at one end, and there were mangers at the dividing line between the animal part of the room and the human part. So the mangers were accessible from both sides. And we should read Luke 2:7 as saying: «she laid him in a manger in the main room, because there was not enough space for them in the guest room.»

        1. I wasn’t actually thinking about the manger in my reply, though it is a significant feature of Luke’s account.

          I can’t see that Luke 2:7 refers to not enough space or volume. Rather, “there was no ‘place’ (Greek: topos) for them in the guestroom.” Topos usually doesn’t refer to space but to a location. Nevertheless, I have heard others suggest lack of space, rather than no place, was the issue. It’s one idea mentioned in this good article: https://www.ucg.org/the-good-news/was-there-really-no-room-in-the-inn

          1. I read the article you linked to, and I found myself saying «yes! yes! yes!» all the time. Then, I had already read what K. E. Bailey says in his book Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. I found him very convincing. But I take it that you are not quite convinced, because of the word «topos». And you are certainly the greek expert. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking some thoughts about this word. I’ll present them in a new comment under your «Card 4».

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