In the ancient world the development of roadways, over difficult stretches of land, only occurred according to need. Footpaths were acceptable in societies where the chief preoccupation was the acquisition of food for family and livestock and the beasts of burden were wild asses, donkeys, and mules.
But the appearance of the horse for riding and the camel as a beast of burden necessitated roadways that were adaptable for both the horseshoe and the wide, sensitive foot of the camel. It was at this point that pathways were turned into roadways, and later into more complete roads that could accommodate trade and military movement.
The expansion of a road network was thus a clear indication of the growth and prosperity of a region. The roadway between Jerusalem and Jericho experienced such expansion during the first century after Christ when the area prospered from both trade and pilgrimages.
In the time of Herod the Great’s second temple, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims made the journey three times a year on feast days. The main road from Jericho to Jerusalem became a natural conduit connecting the trading caravans, Roman military convoys, and pilgrims. The quantity of travel and the status of the travelers made the road an inviting target for the many bandit gangs that roamed the countryside.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the Romans judged the strategic roadway to be unsafe. Sentry posts were established along the route, most probably to act as protection against bandits who recognized that the surrounding desert allowed for easy escape and provided a secure hiding place. Many persons who traveled the road were attacked, as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan indicates.
It should also be noted that the mountain road between Jerusalem and Jericho was not fully engineered until the war of AD 66–70. The Romans undertook a rather complex effort to make the road serviceable for the siege machines they were brought up for use against the Jerusalem city walls.
But during the time of Jesus’ ministry, many parts of the Jerusalem-Jericho road were based on a soft, flaky, limestone surface that eroded rapidly. During and after the war the Romans paved the main roads in Palestine and marked them with milestones along the way. Mary and Joseph would not have experienced the ‘luxury’ of these paved roads—their traveling would have been much more difficult.
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