435. The Holy Family’s Mysterious Flight into Egypt, Part One

Did Our Lord Jesus take His first steps as an infant in Egypt, not at home in Nazareth? Was one of His first questions: “Father, what is that?” “It’s a pyramid, my son”.

Coptic icon

Why ever would I publish this Post in the middle of January? After all, we read the story of the Flight into Egypt on December 26, as part of the Christmas celebration.  Keep reading and you’ll find out.

It has always fascinated me – the Holy Family slipping away by night into the darkness. Darkness indeed! The Gospel according to Saint Matthew tells us only that they went to Egypt and then returned – no enlightening details provided, except for why they left and why they returned when they did.

What happened in the interim between their leaving and their returning? I’ve wondered, but never till now got around to digging into it.

Before we go any farther, this Post is already four days late. The chief (though not only) reason is that I have run into an overwhelming amount of information on this subject that was completely new to me – more than I could process quickly. This Post kept getting longer and longer… and finally I realized I had written enough for two Posts. So Part One will arrive now. Part Two will arrive this Friday, right on schedule.

Rembrandt, 1627

Here’s what I have wondered about the Flight into Egypt:

1  Where did the story of the Flight come from? why does only Saint Matthew relate it?

2  When exactly did the Holy Family leave? That depends, of course, on…

3  When did the Magi arrive in Bethlehem?

4  How long did it take the Holy Family to get Egypt? what route did they take?

5  Did the three of them go alone on that long trip?

6  Where did they lodge during their trip?

7  When did they arrive in Egypt?

8  How long did they stay in Egypt?

9 What did they do while they were there?

10  How long in distance was their entire trip: to Egypt, within Egypt, and then home again?

I discover that, while our Eastern Orthodox tradition says little about these things, the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox have a whole lot to tell us.

Let’s begin with:

What we know

Here is the Gospel account according to Saint Matthew.

The Background

courtesy of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Alexandria, Virginia (original source unknown)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star * when it rose and have come to worship him.”

  • What was the star? That’s another mystery which we won’t go into here. Online we can find many articles about it. Just search. (I wrote about it somewhere, but now I can’t find it.)

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.'” Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” *

  • courtesy of Biblical Arcbaeological Society

    Ha! We know from other sources that Herod the Great was insanely paranoid, so of course he wanted to get rid of this potential new challenge to him. There was a whole series of Herods, each seemingly worse than the one before. This one was called Herod the Great, because despite all he was a very effective ruler – I suppose because he didn’t have to worry about political rivals, all of whom he had “removed”, including the murder of most of his closest relatives and finally his beloved wife. Which is to say, Saint Matthew’s account of the slaughter of the Innocents of Bethlehem fits what was known otherwise about Herod.

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way. Matthew 2:1-12

The Flight 

A detail of Joseph’s dream, from a twelfth century icon of the Nativity (courtesy of fatherjustinsblog.info)

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son” Matthew 2:12-15

The Return

Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Matthew 2:19-23

What we don’t know 

At least I didn’t. Let’s take my questions, one by one:

1  Where did the story of their Flight come from? why does only Saint Matthew relate it?

Apologia Pro Ortho Doxa, courtesy of orthochristian.com

No one knows for sure. We can only speculate. Clearly Matthew’s account originated somehow with Saint Joseph. It tells the story of the Nativity and their Flight entirely from his viewpoint. Likewise Luke’s account came from the Theotokos. Read both Gospels in this light, and this is obvious. As to why their accounts about the Lord’s Nativity are different (except in the essentials), here’s my guess: The Gospels were not written to be complete biographies. Each was intended to contain enough material to convince people that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, and was yet short enough to be carried around easily, in those days before books. Since tradition says that Matthew’s Gospel was written first, I’d guess that Luke then filled in some additional material (the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, etc.) but felt he didn’t need to duplicate Joseph’s stories. Just a guess. (Do you known any other possible explanations? Please comment below.)

2  When exactly did the Holy Family leave for Egypt? Since the story is always read at Christmastime, I’d always assumed they left almost immediately after Christ’s Birth. Now, I think not. Matthew doesn’t say this. Luke has them in Jerusalem forty days after the Lord’s Birth for his Presentation in the Temple. *

  • Here is the only possible conflict I can see: Luke says that after the Presentation, they returned to Nazareth. However, Matthew says the Wise Men found them in Bethlehem. Possible resolution: Luke doesn’t say when they returned to Nazareth. It could have been after they returned from Egypt, which then would be compatible with Matthew.

Matthew says the Wise Men found Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Therefore, after the Presentation, the Holy Family must have returned to that City of David. Why? Perhaps Joseph got a good job there? Perhaps they didn’t want the Boy  to grow up in Nazareth with the stigma of being “illegitimate”, as we used to call it?  Then they left for Egypt sometime after that. How long after that depends on…

3  When did the Magi arrive in Bethlehem?

Late 20th century, Laconia, Greece (available from skete.com)

I read that the Church Fathers differed about this – ranging from Saint John Chrysostom who took the imagery of the holy icons literally and believed they presented their gifts on the night of Jesus’ Birth, to others who believed the Wise Men visited the Holy Family at least two years afterwards.

Why two years? Herod asked the Wise Men when the star appeared, and then he murdered the children “two years old and younger”. The star must have appeared two years before that. Herod, at least, must have understood them to say that the King had been born at that time.

available from Saint Elisabeth’s Convent, Minsk, Belarus

Also, if we read Matthew’s account carefully, he gives another piece of circumstantial evidence. I know it’s insufficient to let a theory hang on one word. However, did you ever notice that Matthew says: “On coming to the house, [the Magi] saw the child with his mother Mary…” Matthew 2:11  The “house”: Greek “οἶκος”. They were no longer in the cave. (Note the icon to the right.) They had moved indoors, perhaps staying with relatives as ordinary people did in those days. Also Jesus is called the “child”: (Greek “παιδί”), not “infant” (Greek βρέφος), which at least allows Him to be older.

4  How long did it take the Holy Family to get Egypt? What route did they take?

Assuming they left in a big hurry, a straight shot from Bethlehem through Gaza to the Rafah Crossing *, the only exit from Gaza, is 63.9 miles, which I read would take three days by donkey. Beyond that they would have had a degree of safety, but they would not have reached the true borders of Egypt till they had crossed the Sanai desert.The distance from Rafah to modern Cairo is a long 200 miles.

  • Yes, that Rafah Crossing, the only way from Gaza into Egypt, which today is ordinarily closed by Egypt, but now sometimes is open to allow a few desperately ill Gazans to escape, and to let a wholly inadequate supply of food, water and medicine in to alleviate a little of the agony of the people of Gaza. Please pray and give.

5  Did they travel alone?

Most icons and pictures show only Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing by night. However, according to one Eastern Orthodox tradition (legend?), James, the son of Joseph by his first marriage, went along – the same James who would later be first Bishop of Jerusalem. The story says that he went as an unbeliever, only to help his elderly father on such a difficult journey, but returned believing Jesus was the Son of God. Also, the apocryphal Gospel of James says that the Theotokos was accompanied by a servant nameed Salome. I hope both stories are true. I’ve always worried about Mary and Joseph and her Infant Boy traveling all alone.

6 Where did they lodge during their travels?

I can find almost nothing about this. There are some references to caves where they stayed, or other places they lodged, without giving details. How they got across the Sinai I cannot imagine.

UK Coptic Icons, 20th century

Next Week’s Post: “This long Post” has turned into two Posts: Part Two of The Holy Family’s Mysterious Flight into Egypt

Week after next: um…uh… hard to say

Leave a Reply