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Without Lights, Tinsel Or Leisure – A Look At Life In Ancient Bethlehem

A picture taken on December 16, 2015 in the West Bank city of Bethlehem shows a Christmas manger displayed in front of a Christian souvenir shop on the Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on December 16, 2015 in the West Bank city of Bethlehem shows a Christmas manger displayed in front of a Christian souvenir shop on the Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, revered as the site of Jesus Christ's birth. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

Most of us are are at least vaguely familiar with this story – Mary and Joseph head to their hometown of Bethlehem to pay taxes to Caesar Augustus. There’s no room at the inn and their baby, a boy named Jesus, is born in a stable among the animals.

What the biblical story doesn’t say much about is life in Bethlehem a few thousand years ago. What did people there do? What did they wear? Wow did they spend their time?

Archaeologists have spent centuries digging for answers to those questions – among them Jodi Magness, who teaches early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She’s also vice president of the Archaeological Institute of America. She joins Here & Now’s Eric Westervelt from Chapel Hill to discuss life in biblical times.

Interview Highlights

What is the path [Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus] would have taken?

“The most likely route in this case would probably be the most direct one, which is just going south…from the area of Galilee down to Jerusalem, by way of what today is the West Bank, actually. How they would have traveled, whether it would have been on foot or whatever, that’s really impossible to tell. I’m pretty sure they didn’t go on horseback, horses were very expensive and not all that common in the country. Did they go on donkeys? It’s possible, donkeys were quite common. So if we want to imagine some sort of scenario like that, probably it would be most likely some combination of on foot, maybe with a donkey to carry the supplies or to ride occasionally. But I actually don’t think they ever even took that route – I mean I don’t think that trip ever actually happened.”

So it’s a myth?

“It’s just a story. If you look at the canonical gospels, the four gospels in the New Testament, you will notice that only two out of the four have a birth narrative. And those two birth narratives, those in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, vary quite a bit. And that story that you’re talking about with that trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is actually only in one of the two gospels. I think one of the gospel writers here inserted a birth narrative for Jesus in order to connect Jesus with Bethlehem, because otherwise there’s no connection between Jesus and Bethlehem. That connection is necessary, because in order to be the true Jewish messiah, Jesus had to be connected to David, and of course Bethlehem is David’s hometown.”

What would the terrain have been back then?

“The landscape, if you take away all the modern stuff today, the paved roads, the modern cities, the landscape would have looked largely the same 2,000 years ago. To most North Americans, it looks rather barren and rocky, and yes it’s good landscape for growing olive trees and to a lesser extent certain crops like grains and grapes and things. So yeah, a landscape dotted with villages here and there, agricultural villages.”

What language would people have spoken?

“The everyday language of Jewish population by the time of Jesus was Aramaic, that was the common everyday language, and that would have been the language that Jesus spoke on an everyday basis. The upper classes of Jews, the more educated Jews, would have also spoken Greek, because Greek was the language of administration in the Roman East.”

Were most people literate?

“No, there’s actually a lot of controversy among scholars about the degree of literacy, how many people were literate, and to what degree they were literate. Today when we talk about literacy we tend to put it in black and white terms that people are either literate or not literate without recognizing that there could in fact be different degrees of literacy, so for example someone could be able to know how to sign their name or make out certain letters without really being completely literate.”

What did people do for a living?

“That goes back to the landscape. It’s a little different depending on the part of the country you’re talking about but overall the country was not really heavily urbanized. In Galilee in fact there were only two urban centers in the Roman period, Tiberius and Sepphoris. Jerusalem, of course was a large urban center. Jericho was a fairly substantially-sized center. And then on the coast you had Caesarea Maritima, which was the major port. So the economic base would have been as you expect, agriculture. In the area of the Sea of Galilee and along the Mediterranean coast, of course you would have some fishing and trade along the sea. Then the sorts of people who we hear about you know, as Jesus’ family for example, people who were craftsman. However you interpret how the Gospel accounts describe Jesus’ father and what he was – tekton in Greek, whether it’s somebody who was a carpenter, which is how it’s translated today, or more generally just some sort of a craftsman.”

What do the artifacts show about leisure time?

“Unless you were a member of the upper classes, I’m not sure there was an awful lot of leisure time in the way we have it today. Most people in the Roman world, and this is certainly true of Galilee in this period, lived just above the subsistence level – meaning that they weren’t destitute, they had houses, they had occupations, they lived in villages, but they also by our standards were poor. Which means basically they’re pretty much working all the time in order to support themselves. There are people who have a little bit of reserves, but not a lot, so if you have a year or two of drought or plague or something like that, they go under. And then of course, they worked according to the hours of the day, the sun comes up you work, the sun goes down and then that’s it the sun goes down and you can’t work.”

What other religions did non-Jews practice?

“By the time of Jesus, Galilee was Judaized, that is, Galilee had been conquered by the Hasmoneans, the descendants of the Maccabee’s, the family that we celebrate today with the modern Jewish holiday of Hanukah. So Galilee had been conquered by the Hasmoneans about hundred years before Jesus’ birth, and those Hasmoneans had forcibly converted the inhabitants of Galilee to Judaism. If you want to find non-Jews in this period, you really have to go to areas outside Galilee, to the Decapolis cities, or you have to go to coast cities, or you have to go outside the territories that had been Judaized for example the area Phoenicia, the area of modern day Lebanon.”


  • Jodi Magness, professor of archaeology and early Jewish history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the first vice president of the Archaeological Institute of America.


Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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