A Long, Cold Road to Bethlehem :
‘Nativity accounts’ of Mary and Joseph’s journey gloss over the arduous reality of life and travel in ancient Galilee.
A newly betrothed couple is forced to register for a census in a town far away. The woman is nine months pregnant. When they finally reach their destination after an arduous journey, there is no place to stay. The woman gives birth in a stable.
Scholars and clergy differ on whether the Nativity stories in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew are historical accounts or symbolic narratives of Christianity’s beginnings.
But one thing is certain: The world of Mary and Joseph was a difficult and dangerous place, one whose harsh conditions were not fully chronicled in the Gospel accounts of their travails. 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. Today, we have no idea how difficult it was.
Joseph and Mary’s hardships would have begun more than a week before the birth of their son, when the couple had to leave their home in Nazareth, in the northern highlands of Galilee, to register for a Roman census.
They had to travel 90 miles to the city of Joseph’s ancestors: south along the flatlands of the Jordan River, then west over the hills surrounding Jerusalem, and on into Bethlehem.
It was a demanding trip. In antiquity, the most we find people travelling is 20 miles a day. And this trip was very much uphill and downhill. It was not simple. Joseph and Mary likely would have travelled only 10 miles a day because of Mary’s impending delivery.
And the trip through the Judean desert would have taken place during the winter, when it’s in the 30s during the day and rains like heck. It’s nasty, miserable. And at night it would be freezing.
To protect themselves during inclement weather, Mary and Joseph would likely have worn heavy woollen cloaks, constructed to shed rain and snow. Under their cloaks, the ancient residents wore long robes, belted at the waist. Tube-like socks and enclosed shoes protected the feet.
And the unpaved, hilly trails and harsh weather were not the only hazards Joseph and Mary would have faced on their journey south.
One of the most terrifying dangers in ancient Palestine was the heavily forested valley of the Jordan River. Lions and bears lived in the woods, and travellers had to fend off wild boars. Archaeologists have unearthed documents warning travellers of the forest’s dangers.
And ‘bandits, pirates of the desert and robbers’ were also common hazards along the major trade routes like the one Joseph and Mary would have travelled. The threat of outlaws often forced solitary travellers to join trade caravans for protection.
Mary and Joseph had to bring their own provisions. In wineskins, they carried water. And they carried a lot of bread. . . . Breakfast would be dried bread, lunch would be oil with bread, and herbs with oil and bread in the evening.
The hardships did not end when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem.
Under normal circumstances, the pair would have expected to stay in the spare bedroom of a relative or another Jewish family. However, an overcrowded Bethlehem would have forced Joseph and Mary to seek lodging at a primitive inn.
It is widely agreed that Jesus was born in a cave used for housing animals. But how realistic are the Renaissance images of Joseph, Mary and the newborn Jesus surrounded by a menagerie of camels, oxen, cows, chickens, pheasants and peacocks?
Not very. Since the stable was part of the inn, the only animals likely to be found there would have been donkeys used for travel–and perhaps a few sheep. The overcrowded conditions in Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth would have resulted in others being close at hand during Mary’s delivery. There were others present at the birth of Jesus. It’s human nature to help somebody.
There’s another account of the Nativity . . . where it says that when it was time to have the baby, Joseph went out looking for a midwife, referring to a non-canonical gospel written either by James, considered the brother of Jesus, or James the apostle.
Even though Mary could have had help and the cave may have provided some protection from the elements, the ‘noisy and dirty’ conditions under which Jesus was born would have made the event anything but ‘warm and wonderful and sweet and comfortable’.
A Long, Cold Road to….. what would follow here for you or your families and friends or colleagues or countries you think of as home …..
and is there any strength, any courage, any hope, any comfort,
to be drawn from the ‘Long Cold Road to Bethlehem’ for our journey on our ‘Long Cold Road to….’?
may Advent Blessings be yours