From Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth, Jesus’s family accepted changes around them

Mary and Joseph sought to live ordinary lives of faith when the most extraordinary events overwhelmed their plan.

The Synagogue Church (photo credit: DAVID SMITH)
The Synagogue Church
(photo credit: DAVID SMITH)
Returning from the Babylonian captivity in 539 BCE (and the following decades), many Jews chose to reside outside of their forefathers’ historical Judah, settling instead in the former northern kingdom of Israel. Thus Mary and Joseph, both descendants of King David, found themselves in the small hamlet of Nazareth although their family roots ran through Bethlehem of Judah.
A Bible teacher at Nazareth Baptist School, Randy Green claims first-century Nazareth contained about 300-400 residents and “was a simple, rural community nestled into the hills surrounding it.”
Although small, Nazareth had a synagogue, the remains of which are in the town’s Old City. And of course there was a well providing water. While the Bible is not clear on the matter, church tradition dating back to the second century holds that Mary was at this well drawing water when the angel Gabriel told her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary; God has shown you his grace. Listen! You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Luke 1)
Though settled peacefully in Nazareth, Mary and Joseph had to return to Judah for the Roman-mandated census. The couple likely walked southeast from Nazareth, crossing the Jordan River near the site of the current northern border crossing with the country of Jordan. They would have trekked south through Perea, not far from the river, crossed back over near Jericho (where there still remains a border crossing), ascended to Jerusalem then gone south to Bethlehem.
There are two reasons to assume this route. First, the area east of the river contained more springs and, consequently, more villages – critical considerations when travelling with an expectant mother. Interestingly, that remains that situation today. The Jordanian side of the border is populated with dozens of villages while the western side is relatively bare.
Secondly, both the Galilee and Perea had the same governor, offering additional security for the Galilean couple.
Further, the alternative route, while certainly 1-2 days shorter, was a southern trip through Samaria which most devout Jews avoided.
Upon arrival in Bethlehem it is likely Mary and Joseph turned to the family patriarch for lodging. This is of course inconsistent with the traditional understanding of the couple being turned away by the wicked innkeeper, a story founded on an inaccurate translation of a Greek word.
The King James Version of the Bible, following even earlier traditions (as early as the Latin Vulgate), translated kataluma as “inn” in Luke 2:7. Kataluma, used also in Luke 22:7 and translated there as “large upper room,” seems to mean something like “guest room.”
Considering that Mary had relatives in the area (earlier trip to visit Cousin Elizabeth) and Middle Eastern hospitality culture that would never turn away a relative, especially an expectant mother, it is safe to assume she was welcomed by her family. The phrase translated “no room in the kataluma” probably means the guest room was full as many other relatives were also in town for the census, disqualifying it as a reasonable place to give birth.
The traditional place of Jesus birth is in a cave now enclosed by Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. This is a strong and early tradition, articulated by Church Father Justin Martyr in the second century. It is indeed reasonable that early homes in Bethlehem began as caves since the soft limestone area contains many. As the families grew, they built additional rooms onto the cave, but likely kept it as a storeroom or shelter for some of the more fragile lambs, etc, susceptible to weather, theft, or attack by other animals.
Considering linguistic evidence, first century home architecture, and Jewish hospitality tradition, it is probable that when Mary’s time was near, she was helped to the storeroom, animals were shooed away, a manger (feeding trough) was refitted with fresh straw and a clean blanket, and baby Jesus was welcomed into the world assisted by the family matriarch and likely some of the other women relatives.
Herod, hearing from visitors from the east that a new king was born, considered his kingdom threatened and ordered all male children two years and under killed. While Roman Historian Josephus does not seem to refer to this mass killing, he does describe to his readers a Herod capable of mass murder. The eastern visitors returned home through “another route” according to Matthew 2.
Warned in a dream, Joseph sought refuge in Egypt but eventually returned home to Nazareth.
Green, a local minister and resident of Nazareth, explains that after fleeing to Egypt, “Nazareth offered a quiet, out of the way home for (Mary and Joseph) to raise their family. Its small size and lack of notoriety kept their young family out of the eyes of anyone who might be looking for the young Jesus but it was close enough to major cities and roads to provide possible work and understanding of the world around them.”
The village of Nazareth was strategically situated in the first century as it was in a basin surrounded by mountains. Early Nazareth was in the bottom of the bowl, offering protection from the outside as well as the simplicity and innocence of rural life for Jesus’ boyhood.
However, while largely insulated against outsiders, the town’s southern hill revealed the Jezreel Valley and many of the critical episodes of Israel’s history. The exploits of Josiah, Saul, Ahab, Gideon, Deborah and Barak were on display for an adventurous young Jesus who might look over the city’s southern rim.  Mt. Tabor and Megiddo and the international highway connecting Egypt and the Mesopotamian powers were accessible.
While the southern view declared Israel’s past, the north exposed the present and immediate future as the Roman road from Tiberius to Ptolemais (modern Acco) provided transportation for soldiers and merchants while Rome governed.
Ancient Nazareth sat upon chalky limestone while the surrounding mountains, also limestone, were made of sturdier stuff. Geologically speaking, this explains why the old town was at the bottom of the basin. But it also posed a challenge for craftsmen laboring in and around the village. The soil didn’t grow any tree sufficient to produce wood for construction and the chalky rock was not of adequate quality for building.
Further, builders Joseph and Jesus knew everyone in town and were probably related to almost everyone, necessitating work outside (since a profit is not accepted in its hometown).
“In Western Christianity, a big deal has been made over Joseph and Jesus being carpenters. Even to this day we do have some carpenters in Nazareth and it is unlikely that their work is only with wood. Most likely, Joseph and Jesus worked as builders, working with both wood and stone. The Greek word translated ‘carpenter’ has a much bigger semantic range and most modern scholars agree that ‘builder’ is a better translation,” Green explains.
“Nazareth was very close to Zippori which was a booming city at the time and very much in need of skilled labor. We don’t have a Biblical story of them working there but I think it is very likely that they did.”
Green and I decided to walk from Nazareth to the ancient Roman town of Zippori to get a feel for the trip we’re confident Jesus and Joseph made regularly.
Climbing from the bottom of the basin to the top of one of the surrounding mountains is quite a chore. Luke 4 records local residents took Jesus from the synagogue to the “brow of the hill” to throw him off. Having hiked out of Nazareth’s bottom up and out of the city, I wondered how the Nazarenes were able to stay angry that long. (A friend who is married to a wonderful girl from Nazareth assures me they can.)
Once at the top of the hill (modern Nazareth has expanded up and over the hill), the path to Zippori was in view.
About a four-mile walk from Nazareth, Zippori was a mixed (Jewish and Gentile) cosmopolitan city that was recovering from destruction following the death of Herod the Great. It offered craftsmen like Joseph and his apprentice steady work as well as a 75-minute (or so) walk to and from work every day.
Green and I completed the walk one way then, exhausted, called Mrs. Green to come pick us up at Zippori. It left me astounded that Joseph and Jesus could walk back home, burdened with tools and supplies, after a day’s work. (It is, of course, possible that they made the trip weekly, remaining at the work site throughout the week and returning to Nazareth for Sabbath preparations and observance.)
Raised by devout Mary and Joseph, Jesus made the Passover pilgrimage annually. During his 12th year young Jesus astounded the Temple scholars by his questions and responses, giving evidence of his parents’ commitment to a good Bible education. Caught up by his dialogue with the Jerusalem rabbis, Jesus wasn’t with the family when they left to return to the Galilee.
Luke 2 records that Mary asked, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” Jesus responded, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
With this distinction between “father” and “Father,” Joseph, having fulfilled his role, disappeared from the Gospel story, likely leaving Mary a young widow with several children to care for. Since Jesus’ public ministry didn’t begin until age 30 or so, it is possible that Jesus stayed home helping support and raise his brothers and sisters.
“If Joseph died and left Mary a widow, this would have also had an impact on Jesus,” according to Green. “Over and over in the Gospels we see Jesus reach out to the hurting, the widows, and those cast to the edge of society.”
As the Gospel narrative continues Mary is present, perhaps prompting him to carry out the first (recorded) miracle. At a wedding in Cana, a village next to Nazareth, she points out to Jesus that the host has run out of wine – a potential disgrace. Jesus responds by asking how that is his or Mary’s affair. Ignoring what is often considered a mild rebuke, Mary instructed the servants to do as Jesus asked.
Jesus turned the water to wine consistent with Mary’s initial prompting.
A faithful mother during Jesus ministry (Matt. 12:46, John 2:12), Mary was there at the crucifixion, among the group of women who went early to the tomb and learned of the resurrection. She was listed as continuing in prayer with the remaining disciples after the ascension (Act. 1:14).
Since Luke 2 records that “Mary pondered all these things in her heart,” it is reasonable to suggest that Mary passed on some Biblical geography traditions. For example, pilgrims worship in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, but who except Mary could have passed on the information concerning Jesus’ exact birthplace?
Mary and Joseph were arguably the first believers in Jesus. Joseph played his vital role, then departed. Mary was there through Jesus’ earthly ministry, continued to meet with disciples after the crucifixion and resurrection and was likely with the early church after Pentecost.
Mary and Joseph sought to live ordinary lives of faith when the most extraordinary events overwhelmed their plan. Their willingness to embrace the charge God set before them, raising, teaching, guiding, supporting and enduring until the end, remains a testimony to believers everywhere.