The Journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem

By Alice Bassett
Kelli Harris
Edited by Kelli Harris

Published January 30, 2022.

Silhouette of Joseph and Pregnant mary on a donkey travelling to Bethlehem

The story of the birth of Christ is significant to Christians as this is where the story of Christmas begins, but what about the events leading up to His birth? The circumstances surrounding the time is not as widely known as the nativity story. Mary and Joseph had to travel far and under dangerous conditions to get from their home in Nazareth to the childhood home of Joseph in Bethlehem. Once they arrived in Bethlehem, they faced further challenges.

Let's take a deeper look at their journey, including why they went to Bethlehem, how they got there, and the events which transpired at the time of their arrival.

Why Did Mary and Joseph Go to Bethlehem?

Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to participate in a census ordered by Caesar Augustus. This was ultimately so that everyone could be accounted for and pay taxes.

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. " - Luke 2:2 (NKJV).

Everyone was to be registered in their own city, so Mary and Joseph had to return to Joseph's home city - Bethlehem in Judea. Bethlehem at the time was called David's city, and Joseph was of descent of David.

Let us remember that all things happen the way they do as it is God's will. While Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census, there was a very particular reason that the decree was given when Mary was as close to childbirth as she was. A prophecy given in Micah 5:2-3 speaks of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.”

It is a powerful passage in our Gospel, as it states clearly where the one true Messiah will be born. It refers to Jesus and confirms the reason for Caesar Augustus issuing the census so close to the birth of Christ.

How Did Mary and Joseph Travel to Bethlehem?

We all know the traditional story of how Mary rode on a donkey while Joseph walked. However, this is down to speculation. Neither the Bible passage that accounts for their journey nor any documentation mentions the infamous donkey. The donkeys included in the Nativity Scene are presumed to be those residing in the manger Mary and Joseph arrived at, not any brought along from their journey.

The speculation does not come without reason, however, as the trip was far uphill, and Mary was heavily pregnant at the time and may very well have required assistance. While the assumption is not entirely far-fetched, it is essential to note that it is merely speculation.

What Route Did Mary and Joseph Take?

Luke 2:4 (NKJV) states that Joseph went up from Galilee into Judea. This is because the city of Bethlehem is elevated at about 2543 feet above sea level (1493 feet higher than Nazareth). Bethlehem is also located in the Judean Mountains, making for rugged terrain during their journey.

They had to navigate foothills in Jerusalem on their way, meaning they had to maneuver up and downhill throughout their journey. Mary and Joseph also took their journey during the beginning of winter, which meant they likely experienced rainfall along the way. To combat the elements, Mary and Joseph probably wore thick coats over their clothes, which added to the load they had to bear. In addition to these obstacles, they would have had to be careful of thieves along the road and dangerous animals in the surrounding woods.

While the exact time their journey would have taken is unknown, educated guesses place the number somewhere between four days and a week.

Arrival in Bethlehem

The relief of arriving at their destination as the city of Bethlehem was short-lived, as it was soon discovered that there was nowhere for the couple to stay. The town was filled with individuals who had come to be registered much as Mary and Joseph had. They made do with what was available and set up in the manger, where Mary immediately went into labor and gave birth to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." Luke2:7 (NKJV).

Their stay in Bethlehem was short-lived, however, due to King Herod's fear of the promised power of Jesus. An angel in the night warned Joseph to leave Bethlehem, and so he took Mary and Jesus and did precisely that. Joseph and Mary's flight to Egypt would start a series of important events in the life of Jesus Christ.