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Walking through History

The image of Mary riding on a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem while pregnant with Jesus is a beautiful picture. But historically very unlikely.

We think that before cars, everyone rode horses or other animals. This is not true. Horses and donkeys, like cars, are expensive and were reserved for the wealthy. The most common means of travel throughout most of history (and even for many people today) was walking.

There is no mention in the Bible of Mary riding a donkey. Mary and Joseph were relatively poor, working class people. Mary most likely walked. Nor is there any mention of the camels the wise men rode. Since they brought expensive gifts to Jesus, it is assumed that they were wealthy and therefore rode, but this is just speculation.

Jesus Himself walked everywhere He went. The only time He rode was when He rode a donkey into Jerusalem just before He was crucified. But the point of riding then was to demonstrate that He was a king: “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5, a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy in Zechariah 9:9). Kings rode horses when they went to war, donkeys when they came in peace. Almost everyone else walked.

The Roman Empire was famous for its wealth and technology. Among its achievements was the construction of a system of roads that were flat, smooth and straight. This allowed the Roman Army to march 25 miles a day to meet any threat, internal or external. Roman armies had a cavalry wing, but the bulk of the travelling and fighting was done on foot.

In the Middle Ages, the invention of the stirrup gave a huge advantage to soldiers riding on horseback since it kept them from falling off the horse in battle. This was such an advantage that anyone who could afford a horse was given status as a knight, and poorer people would commit themselves to serve him in exchange for protection. This was the beginning of the hierarchical feudal social structure in which nobles ruled over peasants. The inequality created by the horse was one reason that in the Old Testament the Israelites had been forbidden to have horses since God’s vision of the good society was egalitarian.

The horse-drawn buggy or carriage was relatively rare in Europe before about the 14th century. Before that, in many cultures, there were carts for hauling goods, gentlemen rode horses, ladies travelled in enclosed litters carried by servants, but most people walked.

In the North American “wild west,” there is the familiar image of the cowboy on his horse. But cowboys needed horses to do their job, which was herding cattle. Most other people walked or used stagecoaches (public transit). In British Columbia, even the famous Judge Begbie often walked from mining camp to mining camp. Our image of the wagon train carrying settlers west is also flawed. The wagons were for carrying food and other supplies. Except for the very old and the very young, the settlers walked behind or beside the wagons.

Walking is still the most basic, most natural, least expensive, and most common mode of transportation.


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