Journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem - 1


"Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David's family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?" (John 7:42).

In the footsteps of Mary and Joseph (the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem)...

First, a reading from the oft-memorized birth narrative in Luke's Gospel:

"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child" (Luke 2:1-5).

Luke gives no details about the route followed by Mary and Joseph and their traveling companions (people seldom went alone because of the danger from bandits) from their home in Nazareth in Galilee. However, contemporary Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote:

"It is the custom of the Galileans at the time of festival to pass through the Samaritan territory on their way to the Holy City."

He thus identified the most direct route which took them southward across the Jezreel Valley, then up along the ridge of rounded hills and weathered peaks (2,625-3,380 feet) that forms the backbone of the country. The Samaritans sculpted them with terraces where they nurtured olive trees, fig trees and grapevines. In the small valleys they grew barley and wheat. The modern-day equivalent of the "highway" they followed is designated Road 60, traversing the northern part of the Israeli-occupied "West Bank" ("Shomron" to Jews; "Palestine" to Arabic-speaking inhabitants).

Terraced hills of Samaria between Galilee and Jerusalem (above left); Plain of Lebonah, between Shechem (modern Nablus) and Jerusalem (above right).

Under normal conditions, driving this route today would take about four hours. But, for the 2.2 million Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and East Jerusalem travel through this area is hardly normal. Most are effectively barred from much of Road 60 along with many other roads carefully engineered for the use of the 376,000 Israelis who have settled in the West Bank over recent decades. Palestinians contemplating the 25-mile journey from Ramallah to Jericho, for example, must be prepared to spend an entire day, sometimes days, negotiating Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints.

The many peoples who have lived on this land in past ages have not always been at odds. Forty years ago a cache of letters was uncovered in a cave in the Judaean desert on the southern fringe of the West Bank chronicling the daily life of Babatha, a second-century Jewish woman. Babatha describes Jews and Arabs coexisting without friction. Just a hundred years ago Jews, Christians and Muslims living in Jerusalem routinely attended each other's religious festivals. That kind of harmony eroded and disappeared in the 20th century with the rise of Jewish and Arab nationalism in the region.

Heading south to Bethlehem, Road 60 passes through or near several important Old Testament sites:

From Nazareth, Road 60 heads south across the Jezreel Valley and passes through Afula. Soon it crosses the so-called Green Line, marking the West Bank's border with Israel, and enters the unexceptional Palestinian town of Janin. Mentioned in the Bible as En Gannim ("fountain of the garden"; see Joshua 15:34, Joshua 19:21, Joshua 21:39), Jenin enjoys a strategic position on the crossroads between the Jezreel Valley and the central Palestinian mountains. However, over several weeks in 2002, Jenin became the most infamous city in the region because of a much-publicized battle that resulted in the destruction of much of Jenin Camp, a refugee camp on the outskirts of the city. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) moved their tanks into the city, claiming it had become a breading ground for terrorism and suicide bombers.

Some 6 miles further south, Mary and Joseph would have noticed the prominent mound of the ancient city of Dothan (right) in the northern Samaria Hills on the eastern side of the Dothan Valley (photo from

Here, as related in Genesis 37:12-28, Joseph found his brothers during their wanderings with their father Jacob's flocks. According to the narrative, Joseph was sent north by Jacob (Israel) from the Hebron area to find his brothers in the region of Shechem but learned that they were tending the flocks in the area of Dothan. Thereafter, the narrative describes the intrigue that led to Joseph's being sold by his jealous brothers to a caravan of Ishmaelites (or Midianites) who were traveling to Egypt via Dothan from Gilead.

Another 6 miles south, on the left, Mary and Joseph would have noticed an isolated summit where, some 20 years earlier (around 30 BC) King Herod constructed the magnificent Greek-Roman city of Sebaste , honoring his patron Augustus Caesar (Sebaste is Greek for the Latin name Augustus). From a distance the couple must have seen its column-lined streets and the ridge of the Temple of Augustus, dedicated to the ruler whose census-edict made this journey necessary.

 Hill of Samaria (above left) (photo from; column-lined main street of Herodian-era Sebaste. (Above right) Six hundred columns lined the half-mile street of Herodian Sebaste.

Foundations of the Augusteum (above left), the temple of Augustus, built by Herod over the palace of Omri at the summit of the acropolis. The monumental steps date to a rebuilding of the temple during the reign of Septimus Severus (193-211 AD); Roman-era wall (above right)

However, Sebaste was not the first city to occupy this well-protected mountaintop location. Herod's city lay partly over the ancient city of Samaria (Hebrew Shomron, "watch mountain"), the third (and last) capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, founded 887 BC by Omri, the sixth king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He and his infamous son Ahab built magnificent palaces and temples inside a circular protective wall. During his reign Ahab incurred the wrath of God by adding temples to Baal and Astarte, cult figures favored by his infamous wife, Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon in Phoenicia. In modern times the site is partially occupied by the Arab village of Sebastiyah (or Sebastia).

Remains of Israelite palace (above left); Hellenistic tower (above right)

At this point Mary and Joseph were some 30 miles north of Jerusalem. Past Sebastiyah, Road 60 heads in a more easterly direction. Some nine miles further on Mary and Joseph would have passed through the valley between the historic peaks of Mount Gerizim (left in below photo) and Mount Ebal (right), then came to Sychar, successor to the important Old Testament city of Shechem.

Mount Gerizim (left) and Mount Ebal (right) with modern Nablus in the valley between.

After the Hebrew conquest, Joshua built an altar on Mount Ebal and there read the "words of the law" to the people (Joshua 8:34). In Genesis Shechem is mentioned as "the site of the great tree of Moreh" where Abram/Abraham was told by God, "to your offspring I will give this land" (Genesis 12:7). There he built an altar before heading south. Here too, Jacob purchased a plot of land and pitched his tents upon his return from Paddan Aram in Mesopotamia. Moreover, as related in Joshua 24:32: "and Joseph's bones, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem" on the same tract of land purchased there earlier by Jacob.

After the biblical era, in 70 AD, Shechem was demolished by the Romans and replaced by Neapolis (Greek new city) in 72 AD. After the Arab conquest its name became corrupted to Nablus (there is no "p" sound in Arabic) and today it is the largest city in the West Bank with a population of over 100,000. Entering Nablus today, you hear a cacophony of sounds, including honking horns and the voice of a mu'ezzin blaring from minarets calling the Muslim faithful to prayer.

Further south, Mary and Joseph passed by the site of Shiloh, where the main divisions of the Promised Land were made among the 12 Israelite tribes. In the 11th century BC it served as the religious center for Israel, and for 369 years it was the home of the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Covenant. Here, too, Hannah prayed for a son and subsequently she gave birth to the prophet Samuel.

Old Testament Shiloh (above) and the possible site of the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Covenant for over 3 centuries

Still further south was Bethel, prominent in Genesis 28:10ff as the place where Jacob dreamed of a ladder ascending to heaven. Nearby is the site of Ai, one of the earliest cities captured by Joshua and the Israelites during their military conquest of Canaan.

Modern Beitin, ancient Bethel (above left); Canaanite palace at et-Tell (above right), which most scholars accept as the site of biblical Ai, but this is by no means certain. Et-Tell was not occupied in Joshua’s time.

Soon afterward, in modern times, comes the city of Ramallah, which sees itself as the capital of the West Bank. Without the historical significance of either Jerusalem and Nablus, Ramallah is remarkable for its affluence. Its streets are lined with luxurious villas attesting to the town's wealth. While neighboring al-Birah is predominantly Muslim, Ramallah is mainly Christian. Ramallah is in effect part of Jerusalem as its southern suburbs lead into the Holy City's northern neighborhoods — Atarot (site of Jerusalem's airport), Beit Hanina and the Shuafat refugee camp.

Some scholars doubt that Mary and Joseph ever had to endure the 80-mile, nearly week-long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, with a pregnant Mary jostled around on a donkey. It is claimed that Rome never required its subjects to return to their original homes for such an enrollment and that Luke merely erred on his facts, invoking a later, 6 AD census by Quirinius, the governor of the Roman province of Syria, to justify the presence of the couple in Bethlehem. Let us examine the facts:

Papyri discovered in nearby Egypt indicate that in 104 AD, taxpayers were "summoned to return to their own hearths, in order that they may perform the customary business of registration.

The Romans collected plenty of taxes! There were income taxes, food taxes, land taxes based on harvests, transport taxes on goods, a purchase tax and customs duties. These were on top of the poll tax (tributum capiti) that went directly to Rome, for which the census was taken that led May and Joseph to Bethlehem. In the 1st century BC/AD this tax was set at one silver Denarius per head, an extra load deeply resented by the Jews.

Augustus' census edicts (in connection with the Nativity) are proven by inscriptions at Ankara, also at Yalvaç (ancient Pisidian Antioch), both in Turkey. The emperor's famous Res Gestae Divi Augusti ("The achievements of the Divine Augustus"), in which he proudly claims to have taken a census three times. Augustus' Res Gestae tells us that a total of 4,063,000 Roman citizens were registered in his first census (28 BC), 4,233,000 citizens in a second (8 BC) and 4,957,000 in a third (14 AD).

(Right) part of the Res Gestae inscribed on marble blocks at the archeological museum in Yalvaç, Turkey (ancient Pisidian Antioch).

Quirinius — full name Publius Sulpicius Quirinius — probably served as governor of Syria twice, first at the time of Jesus' birth and second, when Jesus was about 12 or 13 years old. Both times a census was held to determine taxation (his second census — a most unpopular one in 6 AD as part of the Roman takeover of Palestine — is mentioned in Acts 5:37). The emperor Augustus rated Quirinius highly as a soldier and administrator. A fragment of a Roman inscription discovered at Antioch in Syria (modern Antakya, Turkey) showed that Quirinius had been in Syria on a mission from Augustus, in the days of the proconsul Saturnius. He established his headquarters and seat of government in Syria between 10 and 7 BC — around the time of Jesus' birth — and his assignment was purely military: he led a campaign against the Homonadenses, a tribe from the Taurus mountains of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

This is proof that Luke was not mistaken when he stated that "Quirinius was governor of Syria" when Jesus was born and that Augustus Caesar ordered a census to determine tax levies.

Jesus' Life Home n Final leg of Mary and Joseph's journey at Jerusalem