The Life of Jesus Christ, and the Art He Inspired: The Trip to Bethlehem
Map of the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem
A Glimpse of Bethlehem today
Chapter Four: A Hundred Miles on a Donkey
This is the fourth in my series of hubpages about the life of Jesus Christ, and the art and architecture which have been inspired by His life, miracles and teachings. The nativity story begins with a journey; Joseph, a resident of Nazareth who is descended from King David, must travel with his family to Bethlehem to register for the census. This is a 104 mile journey, which the Holy Family had to make with Joseph on foot and Mary on the back of a donkey. She was nine months pregnant at the time.
The Journey to Bethlehem by Anonymous
Luke 2:1 - 7
2 And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, unto the City of David which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David)
5 to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, who was great with child.
6 And so it was that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Odvádění desátků v Betlémě (Census in Bethlehem) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
Census in Bethlehem (detail)
Meditation: The Difficult Journey to Bethlehem
Here it is, as envisioned by Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The Holy Family has arrived into the bustling village of Bethlehem, where people are hurriedly rushing around, doing their daily work and lining up for the ministrations of the tax collectors. Mary sits serenely on her donkey, looking tired, but relieved to have arrived safely. The snow has been falling, so they must be very cold. How she must be hoping that Joseph will find a place for her to rest soon!
It's a beautiful picture, but probably not entirely accurate. For one thing, while Christmas has long been celebrated in December, this is probably the result of efforts by early missionaries who convinced Roman pagans to turn their Saturnalia festival into an observance of the Nativity of Jesus. There is no record of exactly when the Holy Family actually made the journey, but the shepherds who visited them were more likely to be tending their flocks by night in spring or summer rather than the dead of winter. That, at least, is one mercy for Mary.
However, the journey had to have been quite an ordeal, nonetheless. As the Google map above indicates, it takes about 35 hours to walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem. That is the calculation in modern times for an average hiker using modern roads. Roads in those days were not as smooth as they are now, and it is likely that they had to endure many passages through very rough territory. Bandits were often afoot in the roads of Judea. Mary was astride a donkey, but that could not have been comfortable in her condition. If they traveled an average of 12 hours a day, considering that they had to stop for food and rest, and to care for a very pregnant young woman, then they were probably on the road for at least four days and probably more.
I do not believe I would want to spend four days on a donkey while pregnant.
Josef und Maria auf Herbergsuche by Carl Rahl
The Innkeeper: Villain or Helper?
And what befell them when they arrived? The innkeeper who refused them a room has been widely reviled as one of the villains of this story, as this painting by Carl Rahl indicates. I think it far more likely that the innkeeper was merely one of the many people overworked and overwhelmed by the dictates of the census, and it may have been a great act of kindness for him to find the Holy Family a place where they could at least be at peace as her labor pains began. Peasants of the time were hardier folk than we are now, but consider the conditions anyway - the stable in which Mary delivered her baby must have been filthy, with only straw to lie upon to relieve her suffering. Those of us who have had the benefits of modern medical procedures must remember how good we've got it!
Saddled Donkey by Aleksander Lauréus
Entrance Way to the Church of the Nativity
Modern vacationers can visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a basilica originally built by Emperor Constantine in 339 CE over what was then believed to be the cave in which Jesus was actually born. While Constantine's edifice burned during the Samaritan revolts in the 6th century, Emperor Justinian rebuilt it in 565. It stands today with numerous additions, and is a prominent holy place for both the Christian and Muslim faiths, and thousands of visitors come each year to gaze with reverent amazement at the beautiful artwork that commemorates the birth of God incarnate. However, there may be no part of the holy site that is more appropriate to commemorate the subject of its remembrance than the entrance way. Visitors must stoop to enter through a small, rough door that is reminiscent of the lowly stable that became the birthplace of the King of Kings.
Nave of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
We remember this day the ordeal for both Mary and Joseph that was the trip to Bethlehem. Keep us ever mindful of our comforts and blessings in our daily lives, and make us ever mindful of the needs of those less fortunate than ourselves. Somewhere in the world there is a young woman, or perhaps thousands of them, who must give birth in circumstances that we would consider unacceptable. Let us keep them in our prayers, for they are as Mary was, and we must give them our kindness as we would show to her.
Next chapter in this series
- The Illustrated Life of Jesus: The Nativity
At the Nativity of the Christ, Jesus is visited by poor. lowly shepherds, who represent the downtrodden of Israel. He is also visited by the Magi from the east, who represent the call of the Gentiles.
Previous chapter in this series
- The Illustrated Life of Jesus: The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth
The Virgin Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, and delivers the Magnificat. With paintings by Vicente Masip, Luis de Morales, Rembrandt van Rijn, Nicholas Labbe and Michelangelo Unterberger.
Work of Art
Where it is located
The Journey to Bethlehem
Anonymous, about 110 CE
Cleveland Museum of Art
Census in Bethlehem
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, around 1610
Bonnefanten Museum: Maastricht, Netherlands
Josef und Maria auf Herbergsuche
Carl Rahl, 1865
Aleksander Lauréus, 1823
City of Pori Art Collection