Advent, Christmas, and the Nativity Part I: No Room on the Donkey or Is Joseph an Ass?

Spoiler Alert: If you have not heard the Christmas Story before, this post may give away some surprise elements like Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Oops.

Spoilers of Another Kind: If you want to hold onto some of the traditional features of the nativity, then you may want to avoid this series of Advent posts. My intent is not to ruin Christmas. These posts are not intended to be my own version of Adam Ruins Everything.

So, Mary Rode a Little Donkey before She had a Little Lamb

Now, already with just the title of this post, you likely have a story in your head but how much of this story is actually in the Bible. If it is not there, then where did these extra-biblical elements come from.image
Our sources for the story of the Jesus’s birth and the events leading up to it are found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mark and John do not include nativity stories. Now, the story we tell is already a harmonized version of these two narratives. There is no real problem with telling a harmonized version of these stories at Christmas time. At least, there is no problem so long as we do not lose sight of the two distinct narratives that are in our canon.

Why does Luke tell the story the way he does? Why does Matthew include four women in his genealogy? Why does Luke tell us about shepherds? Why does Matthew tell us about Magi from the east?

Yet, I suspect that many of us are so familiar with the harmonized and embellished story that as we read Luke, for instance, we assume that the other elements, including those elements that are in neither, are in Matthew and vice versa.

Again, I am not writing Ian Spoils Everything. Some of these extra-biblical elements that have made there way into our popular and traditional re-telling of the Nativity are there because they resonate with key elements in the life of Jesus, the character of the Creator, and the way of the world.

Where is the Donkey? Is it in Luke, or Matthew, or neither?

If you are like me, then you grew up with an image of a full-bellied Mary riding on a donkey for the long journey to Bethlehem.

The journey from Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem is about 113 kilometers (or 70 miles for the metrically challenged). Assuming a walking-pace, non-stop travel on the average donkey would take about 13 hours. She rides into town literally bursting with life. Already, in labour, and no wonder with all that jostling, Joseph and Mary look desperately for any place where she can be delivered from this child.

Is the Donkey in Luke?

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7, ESV)

Nope. No donkey in Luke. Let’s check Matthew.

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? (Matthew 1:24-2:2)

No, I didn’t skip anything. Matthew tells us nothing about the journey to and from Bethlehem, about the census, about the manger or the inn or the innkeeper. Wait! Where’s the innkeeper?

I know what you are asking. Ou est l’âne? Hvor er den æsel?

Well, in the same way the majority of my readers are not likely asking this question in French or Danish, most of you will not think of looking at The Protoevangelium of James also known as The Infancy Gospel of James.

17. And there was an order from the Emperor Augustus, that all in Bethlehem of Judaea should be enrolled. And Joseph said: I shall enrol my sons, but what shall I do with this maiden? How shall I enrol her? As my wife? I am ashamed. As my daughter then? But all the sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter. The day of the Lord shall itself bring it to pass as the Lord will. And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed. And when they had come within three miles, Joseph turned and saw her sorrowful; and he said to himself: Likely that which is in her distresses her. And again Joseph turned and saw her laughing. And he said to her: Mary, how is it that I see in thy face at one time laughter, at another sorrow? And Mary said to Joseph: Because I see two peoples with my eyes; the one weeping and lamenting, and the other rejoicing and exulting. And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to him: Take me down from off the ass, for that which is in me presses to come forth. And he took her down from off the ass, and said to her: Whither shall I lead thee, and cover thy disgrace? for the place is desert.

The Infancy Gospel of James is a second-century document written to glorify Mary. While it may reflect earlier oral and/or written traditions, it is our first extant source for Mary riding on the Donkey. As you can see, it also contains many more narrative elements including  the tradition that Joseph was old, that Jesus’s brothers were brothers from another mother, and that Mary was about to pop by the end of the journey.

So, was there a donkey?

I don’t know but it seems like a reasonable way for a young woman in the first century BC to get from one place to another. But was Mary really nine months pregnant on the trip to Bethlehem? If she was, then was Joseph an ass for making his young bride “great with child” ride 70 miles on a donkey. Carts had been invented by that time but maybe carts were not much better.

Maybe, just maybe, Mary wasn’t so great with child on the journey and Joseph wasn’t an ass. Let’s look at whether or not Mary was as full with child as The Infancy Gospel of James and the popular story suggests.

Next Post: Just How Round Was Yon Virgin?

Original Post from December 2015.


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