After such a long, dangerous and grueling trip, Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, a name which means “house of bread.” It is fitting that the Christ-Child born there is the bread of life who gives himself—his flesh and blood—as food for eternal life.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
12 January 2019
When we think of Christmas, we often think of Mary and Joseph making the journey to Bethlehem, the city of David in which Jesus was born. The pregnant and delicate Mary riding on a donkey, Joseph confidently leading the way as her husband and protector with staff in hand, the demanding and dangerous trip to Bethlehem, finding no room available at the inn upon their arrival and thus giving birth to Jesus in a cave that served as a stable. But what would the trip to Bethlehem have been like for Mary and Joseph and the Child in her womb?
To answer that question, we have to begin by considering what Mary was like. When we think of her, we often think of pious images of a delicate, light-skinned woman adorned in unblemished, ornate robes whose hands never saw a day of laundry. As wonderful as these sacred images are, they cannot possibly convey accurately the real Mary as a poor first-century Palestinian Jewish girl—albeit a singularly extraordinary one.
There’s no reason to think Mary was anything but intimately familiar with long days of hard work, as were other Jewish women of her place and time whose daily lives entailed various challenges far removed from technologically advanced, modern-day lives in first world nations. Mary likely began her day at sunrise by preparing a meal, perhaps of bread and olive oil with dried fish. Water needed to be carried and stored for drinking, cleaning, bathing and washing clothes. Food, such as ground wheat-flour, had to be collected and prepared; firewood gathered for cooking and providing warmth in winter; clothes laundered. Consequently, Mary’s work-day was perhaps ten hours long. To keep up, she had to be strong and efficient.
Joseph would be no less familiar with tough times and demanding labor. His days as a tradesman—a carpenter—began at sunup and continued until the light had gone or nearly so. He was strong and resilient, with rough, calloused hands.
It’s likely neither Mary or Joseph were literate, as was typical of the majority of people in their day. They would have spoke Aramaic and had a familiarity with Latin and Greek. Some historical scholars believe that, in Nazareth, Mary and Joseph lived in what might be described as a small housing complex, as was often typical. It consisted of perhaps four small, one-room houses made of stone with dirt floors, connected by a central courtyard used for cooking and gathering. It was often the case that family members or kin shared these complexes, which helped them—especially the women—to share the heavy load of daily tasks.
Mary and Joseph, of course, lived under the burden of Roman judicial and military rule. They were taxed by both Temple and Rome; they had firsthand experience with the painful gap of inequality between rich and poor, and the oppressive economic and social policies of the Roman Empire:
The social and economic policy of the Roman Empire could well be summarised in a phrase: “the Roman system of inequality.” Governing the entire Mediterranean world, Rome maintained its domination through judicial institutions developing legislation concerning property ownership and labour control – and through the use of brutal force. The whole system was based heavily on the inequality of people, which was thought to be either natural or at least inevitable, in order to secure peace and stability in the society.Häkkinen, Sakari. (2016). Poverty in the first-century Galilee. HTS Theological Studies, 72(4), 1-9.
Yet the society in which Mary and Joseph lived was not at all stable, let alone peaceful. All of this serves as a backdrop for the 90 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem—initiated by Joseph’s requirement to participate in a Roman census. Mary and Joseph were familiar with hardship, which means the journey, as difficult and grueling as it was, would not have greatly intimidated the Holy Family.
But what was it like? Do we really have any idea? Probably not. It was difficult, strenuous and highly dangerous. The gospels fail to convey just how challenging it was. James Strange, a New Testament and biblical archeology professor, had this to say: Writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke “are so laconic about the [Nativity] event because they assume the reader would know what it was like. [W]e have no idea how difficult it was.”
How long would it have taken to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem? People could perhaps travel about twenty miles a day. However, given Mary’s late stage of pregnancy, that number would have been much less, perhaps around ten miles a day. This means their journey likely took place over a ten-day period.
The hazards were many. Wild animals, bandits, desert robbers—all these and more factored into the nature of the trip. The valley of the Jordan river was a forested refuge for lions, bears and wild boar. Archeologists have uncovered signs warning travelers of these kinds of dangers (Ibid.).
Assuming the Holy Family traveled in winter and Jesus was born in December (there’s no hard evidence indicating he was not), it’s possible the Holy Family may have encountered cold temperatures. The record low for Bethlehem is 25° (since these records have been maintained, which is only recently). However, severe weather in the area of Nazareth and Bethlehem is rare. Normally in December and January, lows are around 41° with highs into the upper 40s and above (temperatures can reach into the 70s). Nevertheless, their travel experience was far different than it is today, lacking, as it did, modern-day conveniences made possible by a broad network of paved roads and automobiles. Consequently, warm clothing would be required for nighttime temperatures and a fire would need to be lit for warmth and to help stave off hungry predators. Additionally, rain is possible in the wet season, which runs from October through April.
For provisions, Mary and Joseph would have relied on bread, herbs and oil, with perhaps some dried fish as an extra protein-boosting treat. Water would need to be carried, perhaps in wineskins.
After such a long, dangerous and grueling trip, Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, a name which means “house of bread.” It is fitting that the Christ-Child born there is the bread of life who gives himself—his flesh and blood—as food for eternal life. But, due to the census, Bethlehem is overcrowded. There is no room in the inn. There is no room for Mary and Joseph anywhere, except in a cave used as a stable to house animals, probably the very animals travelers had relied upon to get to Bethlehem, travelers who perhaps had arrived earlier and had booked a room at the inn.
The omnipotent Creator of the universe assumes human flesh and is born of a poor, young Jewish virgin named Mary, birthed in a stable and laid in a manger of poverty. Heaven comes down to earth. The light of humanity enters the world through the womb of Mary, the Mother of God, where men shun and reject him. God becomes man and takes the form of a slave in service to all. And, all the while, the cross stands erect on the horizon of his earthly life as Jesus of Nazareth.
All of this takes place in order to restore humankind to communion with God. What mystery. What love!
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Photo Credit: Pixabay, free use photo.
This post was updated on 14 January 2019 to better reflect temperature conditions in the areas of Nazareth and Bethlehem.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.