How did Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem? What did the innkeeper tell them? Which animals were present at Jesus’ birth? How many Wise Men came to visit? It might surprise you to know that we cannot find the answers to any of these questions in the Bible. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us the story of our Savior’s birth, but are silent about many of the details we take for granted.
For example, Luke tells us that Joseph had to go to his hometown to be registered, so he went from “Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” That is all the Bible tells us about the 80-mile trip to Bethlehem; there is no mention of how the couple traveled to the distant town. However, tradition for centuries has given us the image of a pregnant Mary riding on a donkey led by Joseph.
Once they got to Bethlehem, they needed to secure lodging. In the Gospels, no innkeeper says anything: we read simply that “there was no place for them in the inn.” Small, 1st century Jewish villages didn't have inns or hotels, so Mary and Joseph probably would have sought out Joseph’s relatives for hospitality. It is possible that there was no room for them because other relatives were staying there too, but it is more plausible that Joseph was looking for a private place for Mary to give birth. Many homes were built in front of dug-out caves used for storage or to stable the animals.
Which brings us to the animals present at the birth of Christ: in every Nativity scene, there are horses, cows, sheep, and other farm animals. But what animals are listed in the Bible as being present at Jesus’ birth? Matthew doesn’t mention any, and Luke says only that shepherds came to pay homage to the Messiah before returning to their flocks in the field. Once again, tradition fills in the blanks for us and gives us a manger scene full of life.
How many Wise Men were there and where did they find the Holy Family? The number is never given in Scripture. Tradition, however, puts the number at three because they offered Jesus three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And while they may have arrived on camels, that isn’t mentioned in Scripture either. When they finally arrive in Bethlehem (and we don’t know how long it took them to get there from “the East” or how old Jesus was by then), they find the Christ-child with Mary his mother – not in a stable or a cave, but in a house.
If we were a “Scripture-only” people, these revelations might rock our world. Thankfully, as Catholics, we understand the connection between Tradition – those customs and beliefs and practices, many passed on orally – and the written Scripture, and so our Nativities are bustling with life. Some more than others: a Bible scholar recently talked about finding Superman and Barbie in the Nativity scene in his home, additions made by his daughter. When he asked why dolls had been added to the menagerie, his daughter replied, “Daddy, everybody needs Jesus!” Merry Christmas!