This is the second part of my series looking at the Life and Journeys of Jesus and his family. In this part we look at Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, prior to the birth of Jesus.
We saw in Part 1 that all these events are likely to have taken place around 8BC; Caesar Augustus decreed in 8BC that a census should be taken, and according to other historical records we can surmise that it was at least 7BC by the time the census was actually in full flow. Taking a census of an entire empire was no easy job, and wasn’t going to happen overnight, so it’s likely that it would have been done in stages, with clearly defined timescales for people to arrange their lives around – after all, everyone had to go to their own home town to register, which could be hundreds of miles travel and would mean leaving everything behind for a significant period of time. The Romans would have known that they would have to allow a significant amount of leeway to allow people to register without losing their jobs and completely ruining the economy. It had to be as painless as possible.
With that in mind, how likely is it that Mary and Joseph would have left it until the last moment to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem, knowing that Mary was pregnant? Even back then they were all too aware of how long the gestation period was, and Mary would have had a fairly good idea of when the baby was due to be born. Would they really have set out from Nazareth, knowing that they would only just arrive in time?
To put everything in its proper geographical context, let’s take a look at a map:
Nazareth is up there on the border between Galilee and Samaria, and following the main roads south seems to be the most natural route to take, going past Jerusalem on their way to Bethlehem in Judea. It’s about 70-80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which would take about an hour in the car, a few of days by bicycle, maybe a couple of weeks by foot, add a another week if you’re pregnant. At most it might take them a month to get there. If Mary had been 8 months pregnant, would they really have set off there and then, or would they have waited another month for the baby to be born in Nazareth and go to Bethlehem with the baby a couple of weeks later? Or, if they were even slightly aware of what was going on, would they have travelled much earlier in the year while Mary was not so heavily laden? No precise details about this are given in the Biblical accounts, and these are mostly hypothetical questions I’m asking, but the questions themselves put what we know into a new light.
Another question I want to ask is regarding how they physically got to Bethlehem. We all assume, at least from the traditional Christmas cards, that Joseph walked and Mary went on a donkey. Firstly, there is no mention of a donkey in the Biblical accounts of the Nativity. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t one, nor that there definitely was one. It just doesn’t specify. In fact, if Mary was on a donkey, I’m sure that would have sped up their journey considerably! But what about all their belongings? Was this hypothetical donkey carrying all of those too? Or did they travel with absolutely nothing?
Allow me to introduce another factor into the mix. Joseph was a carpenter. He made things out of wood. Everyone needed carpenters, for everything from furniture to house-building components to temple gates to battle gear. And carts. Is it possible that Joseph, with his knowledge of carpentry, could have made a wheeled cart for them to use for the journey? Pulled by a donkey, camel or horse (depending on what they could afford), the cart would have taken Mary, Joseph, and all their essential belongings. After all, no mother-to-be is going to make any significant journey without extra blankets for the baby and whatever gifts their families might have given them.
This also leads me on to challenging our perception of Joseph, and how wealthy or poor he was. It is generally taken that Mary and Joseph were poor. For a start, Jesus was born in a stable, not a proper house. And when they took the baby Jesus to the temple they took two doves rather than the goat that was required, which complied with Levitical law about purification after childbirth:
“If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.” Leviticus 12:8
Mary brought two doves, which shows them to be poor. At least, at that moment they were poor. By the time the Magi arrive, Mary and Joseph have their own house, which leads us to suspect that Joseph had a job by then and was earning a good living. Indeed, I suggest that Joseph would have had to have had a reasonably good standard of living back in Nazareth in order to be eligible for marriage in the first place. If he had been poor, it might have been a different story altogether. For Mary to be arranged to be married to this young(ish) man, he would have had to prove he was able to provide for her, and whatever family they intended on raising. Which means he may not have been as poor as we might have thought. Sure, they were poor by the time they arrived in Bethlehem, they had just travelled 70 miles and left most of their significant belongings in Nazareth to lighten the load, but they didn’t stay that way – Joseph had a reliable profession to keep the money coming in.
With that in mind, Joseph might easily have been able to afford a donkey and cart to take them to Bethlehem. I might also add that Matthew 2:7 says that “while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born”. It does not say that she gave birth the same night they arrived. They clearly didn’t have anywhere permanent to live though, hence the stable, but given the sudden influx of visitors I doubt it would have been easy to find an available house to move into, and it’s conceivable that they could have been living in the stable for quite some time before they found a house of their own.
I would therefore like to suggest that Joseph wasn’t poor. At least, not as poor as we usually think. He was a skilled labourer, at the peek of his career, rudely uprooted by the government. And I think it highly unlikely that they left it until the baby’s birth was imminent before setting off from Nazareth. They may not have had degree-level educations, but they weren’t stupid – Mary would have been putting her child’s best interests at heart, and wouldn’t have dared put him in any unnecessary danger. Of course we can’t be certain about any of this, but I think it quite possible that they could have travelled by donkey and cart all the way, taking some of their essential belongings with them, at least a month before Jesus’ birth. Not your traditional Christmas card story!
Matthew has long had a strong involvement with Christian websites. He was a keen contributor to the original Crossring site, and subsequently launched his own website, Focus On Faith. Focus On Faith was incorporated into Crossring in September 2009, and Matthew took on the role of lead writer for the site. Matthew works as a web designer, and lives in the West Country with his wife, Ellie.
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