An Arduous Journey
I am a petite woman towering to only 5' tall. When I was pregnant with my children I would gain over 50 pounds. I grew by a third! This made life miserable near the end of each pregnancy. I'd get to about 7 months and I waddled like a duck. My feet and hands swelled. I developed carpal tunnel syndrome in my hands and had to wear braces on both hands. I'd drop something on the floor and just look at it and think how on earth am I going to get that? I couldn't bend. I had to sleep sitting up. I was miserable.
As we read the biblical account of Mary and Joseph traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem the difficulty of this journey really doesn't hit us. How pregnant was Mary at this time? We have heard she was "great" with child. Does the text say that? How did they travel? How far was it? Was it a difficult journey especially with her being pregnant?
The record of Jesus' life and ministry is recorded in the four gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The authors of each gospel had a specific audience they were writing to and a purpose for their gospel. The early time period of Jesus' life is only recorded in two of the gospels - Matthew and Luke. Matthew briefly records the conception and birth of Jesus Christ. Then the biblical text moves on to the visit of the magi a time period after Jesus was born.
The actual events surrounding the birth of Jesus are more detailed in the gospel of Luke. So let's turn there to see what the biblical text says. Luke was a medical doctor by profession and was a detailed historian.
When the virgin Mary became pregnant with Jesus she lived in the city of Nazareth in Galilee. See Luke 1:26. Her relative Elizabeth was six months pregnant (verse 36.) [I have heard that Elizabeth was Mary's cousin. The Greek word in the manuscripts is best translated "relative." It is unknown whether Elizabeth was a cousin, aunt or other relation.] The biblical text says Mary went to visit Elizabeth "at this time" (Luke 1:39). Elizabeth lived in the hill country in a city of Judah.
Mary stayed three months with Elizabeth and Zacharias (presumably until their son, John the Baptist, was born) and then Mary returned home.
How far apart were Nazareth in Galilee and this city of Judah? What Luke refers to as the hill country is considered the Judean mountains. The village of Ein Karem is considered the traditional birth place of John the Baptist. Ein Karem is situated on the western slopes of Jerusalem. Ein Karem is approximately 5 miles southwest of present day downtown Jerusalem. It is approximately 80 miles from Nazareth. Luke implies Mary traveled alone, but most likely she traveled with a caravan for safety. All references I looked at said people covered about 20 miles a day walking. And remember Jews were prohibited from traveling on the Sabbath. So we can assume it took approximately 4-6 days for Mary to travel from Nazareth to Ein Karem.
Picture of the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Ein Karem.
Mary was newly pregnant when she went to see Elizabeth and about 3 months when she returned to Nazareth. This travel would not have been an easy walk. I'm thinking about my own bouts of morning sickness during that time period of my pregnancies!
Sometime after Mary returned from visiting Elizabeth she and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem. What do we know about this journey?
Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus ordered a census be taken. This census was for tax purposes. Each person had to travel to the place of their ancestral origin. King David was born in Bethlehem (see 1 Samuel 17:12 and 20:6). Both Joseph and Mary were of the house of David so they had to travel to Bethlehem for the census. Mary was betrothed to Joseph (Luke 2:5) and would be required to travel with him. Did other relatives travel with them? We don't know.
Notice Luke, the excellent historian, is relating his account to dates of world history. God used this decree of a pagan emperor to fulfill the prophecy in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
Also note in Luke 2:4 the text says they traveled "up" referring again to the Judean mountains. Both Bethlehem and Jerusalem are located in this mountain range. Bethlehem is about 7 miles south of Jerusalem.
We do not know the route Joseph and Mary took from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The shortest route would have been to go the trade route through the center of the region. However, this route is quite strenuous and cut through Samaria. Given the fact that Jews and Samaritans didn't get along and this route has steep inclines and declines, and Mary was pregnant at the time they traveled, they may have traveled a longer route through the flatter Jordan River Valley. This route is approximately 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Again, they most likely traveled with a caravan for safety or a large group of others traveling for the census.
Nowhere in the biblical text does it mention a donkey. All the images we have of this journey depict Mary on a donkey. Donkeys are ornery animals. Not really meant to be ridden for long distances. Even if they did have a donkey, they most likely walked the distance. Walking 90 miles with a pregnant wife up to the Judean mountains - guessing it took 7 or 8 days, or longer.
How pregnant was Mary when she made this journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem? Luke 2:6 says: While they were there [in Bethlehem], the days were completed for her to give birth. The text does not say how long they were in Bethlehem before she gave birth. So we really do not know. Somewhere past 3 months pregnant because she returned at 3 months pregnant from visiting Elizabeth. Most people assume they weren't in Bethlehem that long before the census because they could not find a place to stay. So she probably really was big and pregnant. We have heard that she was great with child, but Luke 2:5 just says Joseph was with Mary and she "was with child." It doesn't say "great" with child. After the birth of Jesus when the magi came to visit them, according to Matthew 2:11, Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus were residing in a house. How long between the birth of Jesus before they moved into that house? We don't know.
By this point you are realizing there are a lot of details the biblical writers don't give us. We are an analytical group, aren't we? We want to know all of the details! At least I do. There is a lot about what happened that we just do not know. At some point I realized I just had to accept that the Bible only tells us what we need to know.
We do not know how far along Mary was pregnant with Jesus when she and Joseph made that arduous 90 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Most likely she was near her delivery date. We do not know if they had a donkey with them. Typically it is better to walk than to ride an ornery donkey. Any woman who has been pregnant will tell you it would have been a difficult journey to make to say the least! I can't imagine as big as I was when I was pregnant and it being exasperating to even pick something up off the floor; to have walked 90 miles up into the mountains!
We just don't know the details.
But what we do know is that blessed virgin Mary, the mother of our Lord, was an obedient servant to God. And that is enough.
Perhaps God encouraged Mary that she was Almost There (link to beautiful song by Michael W. Smith featuring Amy Grant.)