Do you remember when you were a youngster how you always counted the days until Christmas? I remember well doing that, not only because of the Christmas tree and the new toys that I would discover under it, but also because there was always a nativity play at church in which I was usually able to land a bit part. I was tall for my age, and so many times I would borrow my dad’s colorful bath robe, don a beard, grab a crooked stick supplied by my church, and just like that, I became a shepherd marveling at the birth of Jesus. Our play, like most, actually combined the two accounts about Jesus’ birth in the New Testament found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Mark and John first present Jesus as a grown man). The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both present Jesus as being the son of Mary and Joseph, born in Bethlehem and then growing up in Nazareth. But beyond these basic facts, their stories about Jesus’ birth are slightly different. These writers obviously used different traditions in the construction of their respective narratives, and while these differences are not at all contradictory to one another, the varying details of each are most interesting.
What are these differences? Both accounts present a rather detailed family tree; Matthew traces Jesus’ roots all the way to Abraham, emphasizing his role as the Jewish Messiah. Luke, on the other hand, traces Jesus’ roots to Adam, emphasizing the universal importance of his life. Luke writes about Shepherds who witness angelic hosts announcing Jesus’ birth, while Matthew describes Magi (wise men) who follow a star that appears in the heavens and guides them to Bethlehem. Luke mentions a manger (a feeding trough for animals), suggesting perhaps a stable or even a cave as the place of Jesus’ birth while Matthew indicates that the Magi “enter the house where he lived.”
The nugget we look at today as the Christmas season approaches is not any of these. Rather it is the journey that Luke suggests Mary and Joseph took to Bethlehem prior to Jesus’ birth. The journey is set in the context of a census that had been ordered by Emperor Caesar Augustus (27BC–AD 14). Males were ordered to register for this census in their home town. The couple traveled to Bethlehem because Joseph was a descendent of King David whose family came from Bethlehem. Josephus, the Jewish historian, confirms that such a census occurred and that it did require registrants to return to their native town to be enrolled.
Nazareth is about 60 miles from Bethlehem, more or less, as the crow flies, but just over 90 miles if one follows either of the established routes. Mary and Joseph may well have joined in with a caravan for this journey out of concerns for their safety and for companionship.
One of these routes would have taken them south across the Jezreel Valley, then through the hills of Samaria into Judea. Even though this route is the more direct, it is probably not the route they took, simply because it is the more physically demanding of the two. That road leads through a series of hills which require extra endurance, and it also passes through Samaria. The New Testament explains that “the Jews [had] no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9). It is said that a devout Jew would be willing to add days to a journey in order to avoid passing through Samaria.
So odds are that Mary and Joseph took the other route that ran southeast across the Jezreel Valley, connecting with the Jordan Valley, then level or slightly downward in elevation all the way to Jericho. From there, they would continue on through the desert to Jerusalem and finally to Bethlehem.
Though I have visited all the areas involved in these routes and have visited villages along the way, I have never walked the route per se, but I have read about individuals who have, and their reports are illustrative of the difficulties and dangers that travelers would face. Normal walking pace, even with a camel or donkey, is about two or three miles per hour. So travelers could cover approximately 20 miles per day, if they really push. At that rate, the journey would have required four or five days of virtual “non-stop” walking. Given Mary’s condition, most interpreters suggest that this couple would have required at least twice that amount of time.
Also consider this: even though we celebrate Jesus’ birth towards the end of December, most scholars have long suggested it is more likely that He was born in September. If correct, Mary and Joseph would likely have journeyed during the extreme heat of late August.
Regardless of the route taken, the journey began in Nazareth and ended in Bethlehem. Nazareth is a small town nestled in the hills of Galilee. Here Mary and Joseph would have arranged for donkeys and sought out others making the journey to the south. Joseph would also have obtained provisions for the journey by purchasing non-perishable items. He would have carried water in wineskins. They would have also certainly carried many loaves of the traditional “hard” bread. The meals along the route would have been simple indeed: Breakfast might be dried bread, lunch might be oil with bread, and herbs with oil and bread would probably constitute the evening meal.
One thing is certain: The world of Mary and Joseph was difficult and dangerous, but these harsh conditions are not described in Luke’s account of the journey. Perhaps the writer simply assumed that his reader would know about these challenges. In truth, two millennia later, we have no idea of what travel was like down through the Jordan River Valley in ancient times. Joseph and his pregnant wife would have encountered one hardship after another from the moment they departed from their home in the northern highlands of Galilee.
They traveled south along the flatlands beside the Jordan River and then west over the hills surrounding Jerusalem would be a grueling trip for anyone – let alone when one traveler is about to give birth!
The uneven trails and harsh weather were not the only hazards Joseph and Mary would have to face on their journey south. One of the terrifying dangers that lurked in the heavily forested valley of the Jordan River were wild animals like lions, bears, and wild boars. Then there were robbers, a common hazard along the major trade routes. Nonetheless, the weary travelers did finally reach Bethlehem in Judea. This tiny, hilltop town is situated on a ridge near the edge of the desert about five miles south of Jerusalem. It was here that the world welcomed its long-awaited Messiah.
The simple truth is neither the author of Matthew nor Luke was intending anything like a detailed, historical narrative about Jesus’ birth, but neither did either author deliberately fudge the historical data, as minuscule as these divergences may be. Rather, in their own way, as God gave them the light to know, each was relating a spiritual truth about an event of central significance, the importance of which could never be expressed by a simple recitation of “facts.”
In both the Jewish and the Greek traditions there are scores of stories about “miraculous” births. This method of storytelling was an accepted and effective way of alerting people that someone important had been born. In our own consciousness, we have known that truth through the years. So we cheerfully ignore the slight, inherent differences between the two accounts and we weave them together into one magical Christmas story – with shepherds and Wise Men and angels and animals and a stable and an angry king. We intuitively know that the story is really being told at a deeper level and that it is at that level that the truth lies.
Next time: “The Smithsonian’s 28 Places to See before You Die”