One question that bothered me in this quest was why would Mary travel to Bethlehem when so close to delivering Jesus? Luke informs us that Joseph needed to travel to Bethlehem for a census, Matthew does not give a reason. Some theologians have suggested that Joseph owned land in Bethlehem or had some other type of connection. It may have been that they were living in Bethlehem at the time, we really do not for sure. But, if they did not would Mary risk being a part of Passover in her condition? The Talmud informs us that the Temple had a special section for women to gather, and yes pregnant women were involved with Passover. From The Essence of Perfection:
The Talmud mentions that pregnant women were close enough to the Temple during times of worship that they could smell the sacrifices. In Avot 5:8, it is acknowledged, “Ten miracles were wrought in the Sanctuary: No woman miscarried from the scent of the holy meat, and the holy meat never stank . . . and a man never said to his fellow, “The place is too strait for me to lodge in Jerusalem.”[Hence, according to this passage, even women close to birth had a special place to worship. Never too strait refers to the fact that rooms to stay in were always available. Therefore, women were an important part of Temple worship, and a special place was set aside for them, as shown in the map above.
The verse is from Rabbi Nathan, although scholars believe the commentary was not written by him, only attributed to him, just as many books of the New Testament are thought to be attributed. The commentary suggests that pregnant women were part of the celebration, even though it was believed that the smell of burnt meat could cause a miscarriage. There were even special areas were the women met. The Temple included several courts, one for gentiles, one for women, one for men, and one for the Priest, and of course above the Court of the Priest from the Heikal (Temple) was the Holy of Holies, or Debir, where the Ark of the Covenant once stood.
This passage from the Talmud also informs us that rooms were available in Jerusalem throughout holy weeks, something Luke disagrees with. Therefore, if the Nativity occurred during the holy week of Passover, it was possible for Joseph and Mary to find a room in nearby Bethlehem, as recounted in Matthew. The city of Jerusalem was always full of people at Passover. James Charlesworth informs us in the introduction to Jesus and Temple: Textual and Archaeological Explorations, “The thousands of priests and the treasures demanded a Temple police. They also controlled the crowds that could become mobs during the festivals, especially at Pesach (Passover), when Jerusalem frequently tripled in size." This could also explain why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, somewhat away from the possible Passover crowds, since Matthew does not give a precise reason for the young couple to be in Bethlehem, like the census spoken of in Luke. Tradition, although questioned by some scholars, holds that Joseph was from Bethlehem, and this might further explain why the young couple were in that town.
It was demanded in the Torah (Deut. 16:16, Exod. 23:14) that every Jew make a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple three times a year—at Passover, 50 days later at Shavuot (also known as Pentecost or Feast of the Weeks), and in the autumn at Sukkot (also known as Tabernacles or Festival of the Booths). Jews living far away, or in Galilee, were required to make a pilgrimage only once a year. If the account given in Matthew did happen during a Passover celebration, and Joseph did own property in the city, this might explain why Jesus was born there. We may never know for sure. This missing information, or lack of information, by the authors of Luke and Matthew later affected the date for the Nativity. Tomorrow's post will examine the prophecy of Simeon and Anna, mentioned in Luke, after they meet the infant Jesus at the Temple. Until then, GO WITH GOD!
114 Rodkinson, New Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, 2765.
115 James H. Charlesworth, ed., Jesus and Temple: Textual and Archaeological Explorations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 10.
14 years ago I became interested in the date that Jesus was born. This led to several years of research, I quickly realized that there was no valid information that provided any real answers to this question. Since this website is getting some interest I will post from time to time some of the information I learned during this quest.