A newly betrothed couple is forced to register for a census in a town far away. The woman is nine months pregnant. When they finally reach their destination after an arduous journey, there is no place to stay. The woman gives birth in a stable.
Scholars and clergy differ on whether the Nativity stories in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew are historical accounts or symbolic narratives of Christianity's beginnings.
But one thing is certain: The world of Mary and Joseph was a difficult and dangerous place, one whose harsh conditions were not fully chronicled in the Gospel accounts of their travails. Writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke "are so laconic about the [Nativity] event because they assume the reader would know what it was like," said James F. Strange, a New Testament and biblical archeology professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Today, he added, "we have no idea how difficult it was."
Joseph and Mary's hardships would have begun more than a week before the birth of their son, when the couple had to leave their home in Nazareth, in the northern highlands of Galilee, to register for a Roman census.
They had to travel 90 miles to the city of Joseph's ancestors: south along the flatlands of the Jordan River, then west over the hills surrounding Jerusalem, and on into Bethlehem.
"It was a fairly grueling trip," said Strange, who annually leads an excavation team at the ancient city of Sepphoris, near Nazareth. "In antiquity, the most we find people traveling is 20 miles a day. And this trip was very much uphill and downhill. It was not simple."
Strange estimates that Joseph and Mary likely would have traveled only 10 miles a day because of Mary's impending delivery.
And the trip through the Judean desert would have taken place during the winter, when "it's in the 30s during the day [and] rains like heck," said Strange. "It's nasty, miserable. And at night it would be freezing."
To protect themselves during inclement weather, Mary and Joseph would likely have worn heavy woolen cloaks, constructed to shed rain and snow. Under their cloaks, the ancient residents wore long robes, belted at the waist. Tube-like socks and enclosed shoes protected the feet, Strange said.
And the unpaved, hilly trails and harsh weather were not the only hazards Joseph and Mary would have faced on their journey south.
One of the most terrifying dangers in ancient Palestine was the heavily forested valley of the Jordan River, Strange said. Lions and bears lived in the woods, and travelers had to fend off wild boars. Archeologists have unearthed documents warning travelers of the forest's dangers, he said.
And "bandits, pirates of the desert and robbers" were also common hazards along the major trade routes like the one Joseph and Mary would have traveled, said the Rev. Peter Vasko, a Catholic priest and director of the Holy Land Foundation, an organization that works to retain a Christian presence in Israel and promotes the restoration of sacred Christian sites there.
The threat of outlaws often forced solitary travelers to join trade caravans for protection.
Mary and Joseph had to bring their own provisions. "In wineskins, they carried water," said Vasko. "And they carried a lot of bread. . . . Breakfast would be dried bread, lunch would be oil with bread, and herbs with oil and bread in the evening."
The hardships did not end when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem.
Under normal circumstances, he said, the pair would have expected to stay in the spare bedroom of a relative or another Jewish family. However, an overcrowded Bethlehem would have forced Joseph and Mary to seek lodging at a primitive inn.
It is widely agreed that Jesus was born in a cave used for housing animals. But how realistic are the Renaissance images of Joseph, Mary and the newborn Jesus surrounded by a menagerie of camels, oxen, cows, chickens, pheasants and peacocks?
Not very, according to Strange. Since the stable was part of the inn, the only animals likely to be found there would have been donkeys used for travel--and perhaps a few sheep, he said.
And both Strange and Vasko believe overcrowded conditions in Bethlehem on the night of Jesus' birth would have resulted in others being close at hand during Mary's delivery.
"There were others present at the birth of Jesus," Vasko said. "It's human nature to help somebody."
"There's another account of the Nativity . . . where it says that when it was time to have the baby, Joseph went out looking for a midwife," Strange said, referring to a noncanonical gospel written either by James, considered the brother of Jesus, or James the apostle.
Even though Mary could have had help and the cave may have provided some protection from the elements, the "noisy and dirty" conditions under which Jesus was born would have made the event anything but "warm and wonderful and sweet and comfortable," Strange said.