It seems that most every movie or depiction of Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem depicts Mary as riding on a donkey. However, I don't recall any place in Scripture from which this idea could be founded. The only place where the trip is mentioned in in Luke:

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, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. Luke 2:4-5

So, is there any source for why this is assumed almost universally or any particular reason? It seems that she could have just as well walked or ridden a camel.

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    And why was he named Nestor, that seems to be the last name a donkey who carried the Mother of God would have. He should have been called Theotokostokos.
    – Peter Turner
    May 9, 2013 at 20:50
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    @PeterTurner He was named Nestor?
    – Narnian
    May 9, 2013 at 20:51
  • yeah, according to reliable sources. The early fathers of American stop motion animation...
    – Peter Turner
    May 9, 2013 at 20:53
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    Just for fun: "Our son is God" rump sticker comic frame.
    – user3331
    May 10, 2013 at 12:57
  • Not so funny - as any woman who has been pregnant to the point of a successful birth would tell you - is being heavily pregnant and having to walk miles. And the fact that Mary gave birth the very night they lodged in the stable, proves she had come full term (otherwise a premature baby's chances of surviving would be extremely low, but God's timing is perfect, and the Holy Spirit ensured a perfect conception, development and birth.) Had Mary not had transport, she would have collapsed long before getting to Bethlehem.
    – Anne
    Jun 2, 2021 at 9:51

1 Answer 1


The Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal Gospel probably written about AD 145, Says that Joseph used a donkey to bring Mary to Bethlehem

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.

Protoevangelium of James:17

So we know, that from very early times, Christians had the image of Mary riding a donkey to Bethlehem before Christmas.

Why not walking?

The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is 70-80 miles. A fit man can travel perhaps 20 miles a day. Normally it would take about 4 days to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem (assuming travel only during day time). Some Christians say that Joseph was a older man, and also as per tradition Mary was heavily pregnant and so she could not walk this long distance. There is fear of miscarriage too. This makes the journey longer than normal.

Map of Holy Land

Samaria lay between Galilee and Judea which had Bethlehem in it.See map There was much ill feeling between the Samaritans and the Jews.John 4:9 Any lone traveler crossing from Galilee into Samaria would be at risk of not receiving any lodgings or any other type of assistance on the journey. The family would have had to travel east, cross over into modern-day Jordan and then travel south on the eastern side of the Jordan River, before crossing back into Judea. This makes the journey much longer.

Could she have used a different ways of transportation like a camel? Common means of transportation in those times other than walking were donkey (ass), camel, horse, cart drawn by horse or donkey.

I personally don't see a women in her late stages of pregnancy, riding a camel. That would be too difficult. I am not a doctor, but I don't think it would be good for that child too. We also see that people using donkey when they are not in a position to walk like in the parable of the good SamaritanLuke 10:34

Some people say St. Joseph was very poor and could not have afforded a donkey. I personally disagree. St. Joseph was not rich, but he was also not so poor that he could not have afforded to borrow a donkey for his pregnant wife. He was a carpenter, he had a job.

So to answer your question why it is assumed almost universally, I think it is common sense.

  • My guess would be that a donkey would also be less expensive (because of size and uses, ruggedness might also be more attractive to common people as replacement or temporary loss of use of a work animal would have greater economic impact) and more accessible to a common person.
    – user3331
    May 10, 2013 at 12:50
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    +1. I am not aware of any specific scriptural or other historical evidence. It's plausible, that's about all one can say. Frankly, lots of things that someone just made up for a painting or a story become accepted fact for no apparent reason.
    – Jay
    Dec 10, 2013 at 8:02
  • Out of interest, why do you assume late stages of pregnancy? The text just says that "And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth". They could have travelled much earlier - when it was safer to do so. Nov 11, 2017 at 9:08
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    @PeteThorne even in the mid-stages of pregnancy, I'd try and find some way for my wife to ride a donkey.
    – RonJohn
    Apr 13, 2021 at 15:33
  • @RonJohn My wife went skiing in the mid stages of her last pregnancy... women are pretty hardy sometimes! Jun 11, 2021 at 13:38

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