Nazareth to Bethlehem

Luke 2:4 indicates that Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to participate in a census. What kind of trip would that have entailed?

Nazareth is located in the hills along the northern edge of the Jezreel Valley. In the days of Jesus it was a small, back-water village. Archaeologists estimate it had a population of not more than 200 people, meaning Mary would have known everyone in town. It was located near a fresh-water spring that in later days became known as the place where the annunciation was made to Mary.

Mary’s well as it may have looked in the 1st century AD, by Vasily Polenov.

Bethlehem was located far to the south, in the region of Judah. It was also a small town, located on a hill about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. It was likely about the same size and population as Nazareth.

Aerial photo of Bethlehem, 1931.

There are two reasonable routes that Mary and Joseph could have taken to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The shortest route would have been to go directly south. This route would have crossed the Jezreel valley and then followed the ridge southward toward Jerusalem. This route would have covered about 70 miles. The drawback of this route was that it took travelers through the heart of Samaria, a region that was home to the half-Jewish Samaritans. In fact, this road passed between the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim near Shechem; the Samaritans had built a temple atop Mount Gerizim that was a copy of the temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritan woman at the well that talked to Jesus even pointed to that temple, asking Jesus whether God should be worshiped there or in Jerusalem (John 4).

The alternative was to bypass Samaria on the east. This required traveling along a road that moved down the Harod valley to the Jordan valley on the east, moving south to Jericho, and then climbing up the road to Jerusalem. The drawback of this route is that it was closer to 90 miles in length. Also, the ascent from Jericho to Jerusalem was steep and passed through some rather rough country (this is where the Jewish man fell among thieves, to be rescued by the Good Samaritan, Luke 10). These two routes are plotted on the map below, which is adapted from the ESV Bible Atlas, map 101.

Possible routes taken by Mary and Joseph as they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem; adapted from the ESV Bible Atlas, map 101.

The text does not state which route Joseph and Mary took. Either would likely have taken about a week. Incidentally, although it is common for artists to depict Mary and Joseph making this journey alone (see below), this seems highly unlikely. A woman as far along in pregnancy as Mary would surely have been accompanied by several female relatives to help her and assist in the birth, should that be necessary. Although these companions are not specifically mentioned in the text, it is nearly inconceivable that they were not there.

The Road to Bethlehem, by Joseph Brickey.

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