The Road to Bethlehem


I recently walked the road that took Mary and Joseph on that momentous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

For centuries, Jews awaited the fulfillment of Isaiah’s great Messianic promise that a virgin would conceive and bear a son, and that His kingdom would be established upon the throne of David forever. (See Isa. 7:14; Isa. 9:6–7.)

It was to the obscure Galilean town of Nazareth that the angel Gabriel came to announce the fulfillment of the prophecy—to herald the greatest birth in the history of the world. Gabriel announced that the God of heaven would father a Son in this mortal world, and that Mary would be the mother of God’s Son. (See Luke 1:35.)

It was prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Nazareth (see 1 Ne. 11:13–21) and be called a Nazarene (see Matt. 2:23). Jesus was conceived and grew up in Nazareth in fulfillment of prophecy.

Yet another prophecy must be fulfilled. It was well known that the promised Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judaea. (See Micah 5:2 and John 7:42.) Since Mary was about to have her first child and would be particularly anxious to be at home near her own mother and family, how could the prophecy of the birth be fulfilled in Bethlehem—nearly one hundred miles away? It was not by chance that Roman administrators decided to conduct an enrollment for the purpose of taxation, which sent thousands throughout the country back to their ancestral hometowns.

Joseph and Mary had to set out on a long and arduous journey south to Bethlehem. We have only a single passage of scripture describing their travels:

“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

“To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child” (Luke 2:4–5).

They would probably have made the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem by one of two routes. One would have taken them south across the Jezreel Valley, then through the hills of Samaria into Judaea. This is the more direct route in straight-line distance—but there are two reasons it probably was not the way Joseph and Mary went: It is physically demanding, with constant ups and downs through the hills—and it took the traveler directly through Samaritan country, and “the Jews [had] no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9).

The other possible route is the one Joseph and Mary more likely traveled. It would have taken them southeast across the Jezreel Valley, connecting with the Jordan Valley, then level or slightly down in elevation all the way to Jericho, then up through the Judaean Desert to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

To discover for myself what each of the routes would have been like, I recently walked both of them. Both routes are about ninety-two miles long. Normal walking pace, even with a camel or donkey, is three miles per hour. So a traveler can usually walk between seventeen and twenty-four miles each day. Each route took me about thirty hours to walk—seventeen to twenty miles a day for five days.

At that rate, the journey would have taken Joseph and Mary at least four to five days. We wonder where they stayed each night, where and with whom they camped along the way. It would have been a wearying journey for anyone, but especially for a pregnant woman soon to give birth. It was early spring, which could still be very chilly at night in the hill country. But in the Jordan Valley—which is below sea level—the temperatures would have been mild and pleasant.

The last leg of the journey was hardest of all. Jericho is the lowest city on the globe, and Jerusalem and Bethlehem are situated right in the top of the hills. From Jericho through the desert to Bethlehem is an uphill hike of 3,500 feet. How exhausted Mary must have been! How anxious Joseph must have been to find a comfortable room in the inn!

Desperate to find adequate shelter, they may have resorted at last to a limestone cave used for a stable. Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, the oldest church in Christendom, is built over just such a cave. It is accepted by many Christians the world over as the spot where Jesus was born.

On that sacred night, an angel announced to shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem that the birth had actually occurred: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

Announcement of a Savior would have come as no surprise to the shepherds, or other Judaeans, because they were eagerly awaiting a Savior to deliver them from Roman oppression. Nor would the announcement of a Christ have surprised them. The word for Christ is the exact Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Messiah—meaning “the Anointed One.” Jews had long awaited their Messiah.

But the word Lord may have caused those shepherds some solemn reflection. Lord was a title for Jehovah, the Creator, the One who gave the law to Moses on Sinai, the God who was worshiped in the Temple just five miles away.

The great Jehovah was born as a babe in Bethlehem.

[photo] Shepherds’ fields outside Bethlehem. In Hebrew, Bethlehem means “house of bread”—an appropriate name for the birthplace of Christ, who was the “bread of life” (John 6:35). Christ’s ancestor David was also born here, cared for his father’s sheep here, and proclaimed “The Lord is my shepherd.” (Photograph by Brian Kelly.)

[photo] A reconstructed house in Galilee from the time of Joseph and Mary. In a room such as this, Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear the Son of God. (Photograph by Denis Waugh.)

[photo] The Jezreel Valley. Joseph and Mary likely walked southeast from Nazareth for about sixteen kilometers across this valley. Many earlier biblical events had occurred here: Gideon selected his 300 men, Saul was killed in battle, and Elijah prophesied against Ahab and Jezebel. (Photograph by D. Kelly Ogden.)

[photo] Midway down the Jordan Valley. Joseph and Mary would have walked southward for about eighty kilometers in this valley. Their path ran parallel to the Jordan River, which cuts a trough through the middle of the valley and is not visible in the photo. Jesus was later baptized in the Jordan River east of Jericho. (Photograph by D. Kelly Ogden.)

[photo] The Judaean Desert, with the Mount of Olives on the horizon. From Jericho to Jerusalem is a distance of twenty-seven kilometers—and an arduous 1,070-meter climb. Jesus later fasted forty days and nights in this wilderness. (Photograph by Neil Folberg.)

[photo] Kelt Springs in the Judaean Desert. Joseph and Mary likely paused partway up through the desolate wilderness and found cool refreshment here. (Photograph by Neil Folberg.)

[photo] The temple site. A Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock, now sits where King Herod had earlier rebuilt the temple. Joseph and Mary passed through Jerusalem enroute to Bethlehem. (Photograph by Neil Folberg.)

[photo] Monumental stairway leading up to the temple from the south. Five to six weeks after Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary brought him to the temple to be blessed. Jesus may have later taught on these steps. (Photograph by Denis Waugh.)

[photo] A cave or grotto used for stabling animals at Bethlehem. We can hardly conceive of more humble circumstances in which the Son of God and Creator of the world could have been born. (Photograph by Denis Waugh.)