Franciscan Saints, March-April 2017

I can see that preparing a more detailed post on Bl. Ludovica is going to take some time, as I work my way through her seventeenth-century biography, so I want to take a little time out to share a fascinating manuscript discovery I recently made about St. Elizabeth of Hungary, which will also give me a chance to talk about how medieval people read saints’ lives, as witnessed by biographies of her in the vernacular.

How Medieval People Read Saints’ Lives

elisabethpriant(avecange)BNfr185When I was studying for my Ph.D. in History at Fordham, I took a course in Manuscript Culture. The word “culture” is important. A few years previously, our course work in this area would have been limited to classes called Textual Criticism or Manuscript Editing, and would have been limited to teaching us how to recover the original text of a work from the various manuscripts. The new name is representative of an important change in the scholarly approach to the subject that took place before I began my studies. Now, as I discovered in class, looking at a manuscript can yield more than just a text: it can offer historians a rewarding glimpse into the people and culture that produced and used the manuscript. Manuscripts can often tell very interesting stories about their users. So I thought it would be fun to use my recent accidental discovery of a manuscript about St. Elizabeth of Hungary to illustrate for my readers what historians can find out from this kind of study.

My discovery took place at the end of March, while I was searching on Gallica, the online digital collection of books and manuscripts of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, hoping to find a digital back issue of the journal Esprit et Vie for a project I was working on. My search query didn’t return what I was looking for, but it did bring up a medieval manuscript called in French “Vies des saints” (lives of the saints). Immediately curious, I clicked on the file, and found that it contained a life of St. Elizabeth. This was a delightful surprise, since back in 2008-2011, when I was working on my documentary on her, many of the manuscripts of the library had not yet been digitized, or at least only their illuminated miniatures had, so this opened up a new world to me.

The manuscript is BN francais 13496, which, judging by the style of the script, was written sometime between 1270 and 1320.[1] It has a number of miniatures, including one of St. Elizabeth, but unfortunately was digitized only in black and white.

First, the text: The life of St. Elizabeth is a rather close French translation of the Libellus, which contains the longer version of the testimonies of Elizabeth’s handmaids at her canonization process. But it has an introduction of its own, not found in other versions. It not only traces her ancestry from the Hungarian Arpad dynasty, but describes her family’s relation to the Capetian royal house of France. The author notes that Agnes of Meran, sister of Elizabeth’s mother, Gertrude, was married to King Philip Augustus of France, and had a son, Philip, the count of Boulogne (St. Elizabeth’s first cousin). It also notes “Ses freres ot nom li rois Bela, qui encore regnoit l’an de l’incarnation Notre Seingnour mil et cc et lxiii” [Her brother was named King Bela (of Hungary), who was still reigning in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1263].[2] This gives us a very good idea of when this life was written: in 1263, or very shortly thereafter, and that it was written by someone with an interest in royal genealogy. This makes it the earliest vernacular translation of the Libellus I know of, and this alone makes it of interest, though it is far from the only interesting thing about it.

illumination-1The subject of the small, rather clumsy miniature of St. Elizabeth inside the initial at the beginning of the life is hard to identify, since it doesn’t really fit the known iconography. Elizabeth is alone, kneeling in prayer, on or alongside what looks like a draped colored cloth falling near her, and on the other side, an object draped in white cloth. My guess is that it portrays a scene from the Libellus where Elizabeth, as a young married woman, prays at night by her and her noble husband Ludwig’s bed, which is surrounded by bed curtains.

The manuscript contains the lives of several saints closely associated with hospital work, or who were patrons of the sick or of those with certain diseases. St. Julian the Hospitaller, St. Julianna (patron of the sick), St. Lazarus (after whom many leper hospitals were named), St. Lucy (patron of those suffering from diseases of the eyes), and of course, St. Elizabeth, famous for her founding of hospitals. The lives in the manuscript are in different hands and were evidently put together after being copied, so they were most likely chosen with this theme in mind. The manuscript has a close connection with the Burgundian house as well, for it also contains a life of the ninth-century nobleman, Girart de Roussillon, an ancestor of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Though we don’t know who wrote the life of Elizabeth, we can feel sure that it was someone who wanted to portray her as a noblewoman, a lay saint, and, as the introduction shows her, a royal relative of French kings. The miniature in this manuscript is in line with this, since rather than showing her visions or miracles, it shows her devotion as a married laywoman. From this much alone, we can guess that her life became part of the manuscript it did because she was a noblewoman who cared for the poor and sick, and that the manuscript may have been written for a hospital or group of people who cared for the sick, and had some connection to the dukes of Burgundy.

There are still more clues that confirm this. We know that by the fifteenth century the manuscript belonged to the Hôpital Saint-Esprit in Dijon because it contains a fifteenth-century copy of its charter, issued by Eudes II, duke of Burgundy, who founded it in 1204. The hospital belonged to the Order of the Hospitallers of the Holy Spirit, founded by a French nobleman, Bl. Guy de Montpellier around 1180. Modeled on the military orders, its members were largely laymen, often knights, and sometimes married; they were dedicated to serving “the destitute in life,” including abandoned children. The houses began in France and spread to Italy, and soon there were a large number throughout Europe. Pope Innocent III confirmed the order by a bull in 1198.

The hospital in Dijon was also under the protection of the subsequent dukes of Burgundy, as witnessed by the fact that the coat of the arms of Philip the Good, who was duke from 1419 to 1457, and who built a chapel for the hospital, was also added to the manuscript in the fifteenth century. Most likely it was copied for a hospital foundation elsewhere and in the fifteenth century was donated to the hospital in Dijon by Philip the Good, who had the coats of arms added. It is also clear that both the noble dukes of Burgundy and the noble brothers of the hospital were highly interested in Elizabeth’s story.

The fact that the life is in the vernacular is telling. Those of the nobility who could read may or may not have been able to read Latin, as the priest chaplains at the hospital could, but some of them could read their native language, and the number of manuscripts in the vernacular was growing at this time. Elizabeth’s canonization process contains a vivid description of her charity and hospital work. Having it put into the vernacular gave many of the hospital brothers a chance to learn of it. It is touching to learn of the devotion of hospital workers to St. Elizabeth; many groups of hospital sisters in France named their congregations after her from the thirteenth century on.[3]

Even more intriguing: after a short search I found another manuscript of this same life in the Bibliotheque Nationale! It is Ms. francais 185, written around 1350, and contains a legend dorée by Jehan de Belet.[4] This life begins: Ci commence la vie sainte Elysabel de hongrie qui fut cordelière [Here begins the life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary who was a cord-bearer]. The word cordelier was beginning to be used for Friars Minor at that time. This title is right above a miniature of St. Elizabeth’s vision of Christ in which she is dressed in what looks like a brown Franciscan habit (top of page). This portrayal and description of her fit in with the growing recognition of Elizabeth as a Tertiary in the early fourteenth century. I don’t know if a Franciscan convent commissioned this manuscript, or if the illuminator just made use of general knowledge about the order. I used this miniature in the documentary, but was unable to read the rest of the manuscript, which had evidently been digitized at the time. [5]

BNLatNouvAcq688folpauvresAnother interesting use of the vernacular can be found in a manuscript from the same library, BN nouv. acq. latine 868, from Seville Spain, which is a small manuscript of the office for St. Elizabeth in Latin, with some large miniatures illustrating her life (some of which I used in the documentary). The short life of St. Elizabeth used for the readings at the office, however, is written in both Latin and in an abbreviated fashion in medieval Spanish. I think this would have most likely belonged to a convent of Poor Clares or Franciscan tertiary women; it would have allowed them, while singing the Latin office, to listen to the readings in their native language.

One last illustration, from a manuscript I have examined personally: MS. 42 of the Union Theological Seminary in New York (now part of Columbia University’s Burke Library). It is a small volume, dated 1518, containing a translation into German of the Vita of St. Elizabeth by the Dominican friar Dietrich of Apolda, which was written around 1297. On the last page is apparently a note of ownership: anno domini xvvxviii Domina Anna Frankensteyn monasterii Fontiis Sanctae Marie in Weydas. “In the year of Our Lord 1518, Lady Anna Frankensteyn, of the Monastery of Mariabrunn in Weyda.”

DietrichI wasn’t able to identify this monastery. There are several monasteries and convents for women in the area of Weida, including a Cistercian and a Premonstratensian foundation, but none seems to have been called Mariabrunn, “Mary’s spring,” or anything similar. Many of them would have had among their ranks noblewomen like Anna, who clearly enjoyed reading about St. Elizabeth.

This inscription may or may not be in Lady Anna’s hand, but it is interesting that she had it done in Latin, while the rest of the manuscript is in German. Perhaps she wanted to show her learning? Or was it written by someone else? This was just at the time printing was becoming popular, and soon Elizabeth’s life in German and other languages would be available to everyone.

One last note:

Today is the feast day of Bl. Jutta (Judith) of Sangerhausen, who died ca. 1260. She is often listed among the saints as a Franciscan tertiary; the early sources for her life say that she greatly desired to imitate St. Elizabeth. The tale of her life and her possible affiliation with the Franciscan tertiaries is filled with considerable mystery, and I hope to do a post on her in the future. Her feast day is generally celebrated on May 5, but is listed in some places as being today, May 12. Her is what one of her contemporaries, Mechtild von Magdeburg, said about her in her revelations, called The Flowing Light of the Godhead, probably written shortly after 1270:

At that time when the Tartar people were raging through the world and were killing many people, the Lord said to me: “I have sent Sister Jutta von Sangerhausen, a pious and devout widow, into exile to the pagans, so that by her prayers she might help them and convert them and that by her good example she might appeal to them and proclaim my name.”[6]

Jutta is one of the five saints that Mechtild said were especially sent as messengers for her time, the others being St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and St. Peter Martyr. Sangerhausen is in Thuringia, where St. Elizabeth lived, and Jutta went to live as a kind of recluse in Kulm, which at that time was in Prussia, but is now in Poland. The place had just recently suffered a devastating invasion by the fierce tribe of Tartars and Jutta went to live among them. She was a true saint of the peripheries, at Pope Francis would say!

[1] This, as well as a few other details, was noted in the description of the manuscript on Gallica.

[2] Bela IV, who succeeded his (and Elizabeth’s) father, Andrew II, reigned from1235-1270.

[3] See Lori Pieper, OFS, “Elizabeth’s Influence on the Women’s Franciscan Movement,” The Voice of a Medieval Woman: St. Elizabeth of Hungary as a Franciscan Penitent in the Early Sources for Her Life (New York: Tau Cross Books and Media 2016), pp. 215-242.

[4] Many historians have assumed from this title that Jehan was a translator of Jacobus de Varagine’s Golden Legend, the famous collection of saints’ lives from the 1260s. But while some of the lives in this manuscript are clearly taken from Jacobus, many of the lives are completely different from his, including this life of Elizabeth. See Paul Meyer, “Notice sur trois legendiers français attribués a Jean Belet,” Notices et extraits des manuscrits de la bibliotheque nationale et autres bibliotheques, tome 36, 2me partie (Paris, 1901), pp. 409-486, and Pierce Butler, Legenda Aurea – Legende Dor ée – Golden Legend: A study of Caxton’s Golden Legend (Baltimore, 1899), pp. 20-49. There is another French translation of Jacobus, attributed to Jehan de Vignay, which does contain a close translation of his life of Elizabeth. The Bibliotheque nationale contains two manuscripts of this compilation.

[5] Even more intriguing is another manuscript of what appears to be the same life in the British Library, Add MS 17275; it begins Ci après conmence la vie sainte Elizabel de Hongrie, laquele fu cordelière, et de pluseurs autres veuves et matrosnes qui reçurent l’abit pour lamour de li. [Here begins the life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who was a cordeliere, and of several other widows and matrons who received the habit for love of her]. I am very curious to learn whether the “other widows and matrons” is a reference to Elizabeth’s companions Guda, Isentrude, Ermengard and Elisabeth, as I suspect it is, or whether any other woman in Elizabeth’s habit are mentioned, as the Anonymous Franciscan says (this type of addition is very frequent in medieval manuscripts). Unfortunately, I was unable to get access to this manuscript; it can only be read at the library. This manuscript was most likely circulated among the Franciscans, including the tertiaries.

[6] Lux divinitatis II, 18:2-5), according to the typescript of the project Texteditionen lateinischer Mystik aus dem Kloster Helfta, ed. Ernst Hellegardt, Elke Senne and Balasz J. Nemes; de Gruyter, 2010.

I’ve Received an Academy Award (Really!)

academy award-smIt was a secret, but now I can now at last reveal where I was this weekend. I was in Los Angeles, receiving an Academy Award – no, not that Academy, the other one: The Academy of Magical Arts. I was awarded a Literary Fellowship for my contribution to magic history through my translations and research for the Conjuring Arts Research Center, during the awards show for professional magicians. I was asked to tell no one until the awards were over. The winners were supposed to be a secret, but the “special awards” like mine were actually announced in the program.

The award was just one part of a whole wonderful weekend, in which my sister Mary and I explored the Magic Castle (the exclusive private magicians club in LA), and enjoyed dining privileges there. We also stayed at the Castle’s own hotel, where we were treated like VIP’s.

I began Friday night before Mary arrived having dinner with magicians Gene Anderson (the awards show host) and Paul Green. I took in a wonderful magic show at one of the Castle’s several theaters. Mary and I took a bus tour of LA on Saturday, saw the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and had lunch at a restaurant near the Santa Monica pier, which a spectacular view. Then in the evening we attended a pre-awards show reception at the Castle. On Sunday, we also enjoyed their famous brunch, with the most delicious food, everything from prime rib to chicken piccata, amazing desserts I can’t even name, and mimosas (champagne and orange juice cocktails).

The awards show took place at 7 p.m. Sunday at the historic Orpheum Theater in LA. The men were in tuxedos, many of the women in evening gowns. It was like the Oscars in a great many respects, including a screen lit up with all the nominees and winners. Also like the Oscars, the awards were interspersed with entertainment, but unlike most Oscar performances, they were actually entertaining. We were treated to some enchanting and sometimes hilarious magic acts by magicians from all over the world.

My award was presented by Richard Kaufman, editor of the very prestigious magic magazine Genie. He said that “Dr. Pieper. . . is unique in our field, a linguistic detective, tracking down the secrets of who really created this principle, sleight or trick, and when – and it’s usually hundreds of years earlier than we previously thought. I can’t think of anyone who’s more deserving of the Academy of Magical Arts’ Literary Fellowship.”

Here is what I planned to say during my speech. I’m not entirely certain of exactly what I did say, but apparently everyone liked it. Here is the gist:

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen of the Academy for this very great honor. I never could have imagined anything like this when I first came to Conjuring Arts back in 2004. Back then I knew nothing about magic or its fascinating history – I couldn’t even do a single magic trick. I did know several languages and was desperate for a job.

I have learned much since then, but all the expertise I have in magic is due to Bill Kalush, and Stephen Minch, the editor of our journal Gibiciere, both of them previous recipients of this same fellowship. And then there are the many rewarding contacts with magicians from all over the world.

I have been very happy to be in such company, and to have made a contribution to this much-neglected but very important area of the history of popular culture. This award shows that you think it important too. I have learned that I am also receiving a lifetime membership in the Academy. I am very happy that you have welcomed me into your fold, especially since — I have to confess — I still can’t do a single magic trick, but I still hope to learn. Thank you all very much!”

Then on to another Oscars-like tradition — the after-party at the Castle, which continued into the wee hours, though we left early to get some sleep. We returned home on Monday after the experience of a lifetime!

(The picture was taken by Mary after the show in the very crowded theater lobby. There were some backstage photos as well, which they will eventually get to me).

Happy Anniversary, Pope Francis!

Do you remember this moment?  I certainly do. It was March 13, 2013:

Here’s what I wrote about this at the moment it happened. It hardly seems like four whole years since Pope Francis’ election. But sometimes the amount of reading involved to discuss what he is doing in the Church is very long. Just in time for his anniversary, we have another controversy — this time over the issue of married priests.

Once again, there is question about what he actually said. This time, it is harder to piece together a complete transcription, especially since the interview he gave was with the German newspaper Die Zeit, in German, and you have to subscribe to get it. I also don’t know whether there is a complete translation anywhere. But I’ll go with the best of got in getting the Pope’s exact words, from the Jesuit magazine America, with an assist from the Catholic News Agency for the first paragraph:

Pope Francis suggested he sympathizes with Catholics who come to Mass only to discover that there is no priest available to celebrate the Eucharist. Without priestly vocations “the Church is weakened, because a Church without the Eucharist doesn’t have strength: the Church makes the Eucharist, but the Eucharist also makes the Church. The problem of vocations is a serious problem.”

His interviewer suggested that it was hard to attract young men to the priesthood and asked if the church would consider telling them “that they don’t have to renounce a love life in order to become a priest? Maybe as a bishop or a cardinal—but not as a priest?”

The pope responded: “The issue of voluntary celibacy is frequently discussed, especially if there is a shortage of clerics. But voluntary celibacy is not a solution.”

Die Zeit asked: “What about viri probati, those men of proven virtue, who are married but can be ordained deacons because of their exemplary Catholic moral conduct?”

The pope answered: “We need to consider if viri probati could be a possibility. If so, we would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities.”

Regarding an expanded role for the viri probati, Pope Francis said the church has to be ready to recognize “the right moment when the Holy Spirit calls for something.”

The way the press is interpreting this is that the Pope is considering married priests. But when the actual question the Pope was asked is included, it could seem as if he is considering married deacons. But the meaning is uncertain. One the one hand, since the Church already has married deacons, the pope seeing this as a “possibility” doesn’t seem to make much sense. On the other hand, there are scarcely any married deacons outside of the U.S, the only place that this seems to have caught on, so Francis really could be considering this a novelty in the remote areas of the world, largely in Latin America, he is talking about.

Also, the Pope’s words about “needing to determine what duties they could undertake,” doesn’t really make sense when talking about priests, who are rarely limited in what they can do as long as they have faculties, while deacons are limited in their abilities. They can preach at Mass, perform baptisms and witness marriages, but not celebrate the Eucharist or hear confessions. I think changing the actual sacramental abilities of deacons would be too great a break in the Church’s understanding of these things.

If the Pope actually is talking about married priests, the path he would be suggesting would be in line with the Church’s present understanding of allowed already married men who are ordained in the Anglican or Episcopalian churches to become married Catholic priests when they convert, and with the practice in the Eastern Catholic churches of allowing already married men to be ordained, but not ordination after marriage. He also seems to be looking at this as an exception, not the norm. And whether this would be addressed by a Synod, or other consultation with the bishops, or a move on the Pope’s part alone, has yet to be seen.

The Pope also spoke very briefly about the question of women deacons (who would also be very happy to help out in remote places):

He looked forward to the results of a papal commission on the history of women deacons. He noted that a Syrian theologian had once explained that “the question is not whether there were consecrated women or not but what they were doing.” He suggested that he was awaiting more information on the issue after the commission meets again this month.

That reminds me that I need to finish the post on women deacons I was planning. Maybe next week…

More news from Pope Francis will always give me something to write about. May God preserve him for a long time!

Yes, the Holy Family Really Were
Refugees (Part III)

In my last installment, I wrote about the Holy Family suddenly breaking off their flight at Ashkelon, and traveling to Hebron, where they “remained hidden” for six months. Why might they have gone there?


Hebron – Tomb of the Patriarchs

Hebron, in the southern part of Judea, about 15 miles south of Jerusalem, was the place where Abraham, while living as a resident alien in the area, bought from the Hittites a field and the cave of Machpelah, which became his family tomb – the first land owned by the future Israelites in Canaan (Gen. 23). Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca and Leah, were all buried there, and the tomb was – and still is – a great pilgrimage site for Jews. It was also an important site for the Davidic dynasty, as David was anointed King of Judah, and later King of all Israel, in Hebron, and originally reigned from there.

This would have made the Holy Family’s decision to go there understandable because it was so closely connected with Joseph’s ancestry – he might also have had relatives there. At the same time it is rather puzzling. It would seem to be one of the places where Herod might have looked for them. However, the words “remained hidden” may be the key. Hebron is hilly country, and the hills could have provided them a place in which to hide.

The Armenian Infancy Gospel goes on:

But then the people of the city went to warn Herod, in these terms: “The child Jesus is alive; he is at present in the city of Hebron.” Herod dispatched a courier to the chief men of the town enjoining them to seize Jesus by a ruse and to kill him. When Joseph and Mary learned of this, they got ready to leave and go to Egypt. Secretly leaving the town as fugitives, they continued their journey. They traveled it in numerous stages . . . Finally, they arrived in the land of Egypt in the plain of Tanis, and went down to a town where they stayed . . . for six months.[1]

The author of this ancient text clearly continued to see the Holy Family as fugitives and sought by Herod. Unfortunately there is not much detail about their route from Hebron to Egypt. They most likely would have followed the caravan route to Gaza. The situation of this seaport city was unusual. It was originally part of Nabatea, but was given to Herod by the emperor Augustus. The people of Nabatea did not relish losing their seaport, and there was tension over this. It seems to have been partly because of this that Gaza was separately administered by its own governor. Mary and Joseph may have gotten through undetected, if the governor was not particularly affected by Herod’s concerns. Or they may have passed through by attaching themselves to a large trade caravan.

Egypt-map-2Their route on foot from there would have taken them to Jenysos and Raphia. They then would have crossed the El-Arish, a brook that served as a boundary between Judaea and Egypt. They then reached the seaport of Pelusium (today Tel el-Farama or Farmea). Though now a desert, the city at the time was located between two branches of the Nile, so would have been more lush and fertile. Here the Romans had a border fortress. The Holy Family might have been detected here if the word was out for them, but the Roman governor may not have shared Herod’s interest in Jewish fugitives, or Herod may not have thought to have them traced this far.

Although I have proceeded mainly on conjecture, there is some historical evidence that this route was preserved in local tradition. Bernard, a Frankish monk, who visited the area in 870, wrote of his eastward journey:

. . . From Tanis we came to the city of Farmea, where there is a church in honor of blessed Mary, in the place to which, at the warning of the angel, Joseph fled with the boy and his mother.[2]

Recent excavations in Tel el-Farama have in fact unearthed a Byzantine church of the fifth or sixth century.


Coptic icon of the Holy Family on the Flight to Egypt

Continuing to travel across the Nile delta would have brought them to Tanis, which was also once a great city, and by tradition was the place where the baby Moses was rescued from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter. So the route they traveled in the scenario imagined by the Armenian Infancy Gospel actually imagines the itinerary that Joseph and his brothers took to Egypt, and follows the life of Moses, even though the author never overtly alludes to this.

Various traditions say that the Holy Family traveled to a number of places going down the Nile by boat before setting at a place now known as Dayr al-Muharraq, where there is now a monastery. Some of these traditions originated in the early Coptic church, and portray the Holy Family always traveling one step ahead of Herod’s soldiers (for some of these traditions, see here and here).

James Cowan gives a convincing description of what Mary and Joseph must have experienced in their exile:

What must it have been like for Joseph and Mary to encounter this world? First, they would not have spoken Egyptian or Greek. Aramaic was their language, so the prospect of talking to people other than fellow Jews recently migrated from Israel was remote. The cosmopolitan culture of cities such as Heliopolis, Sais, and Tanis would have been alien to them. Rather than experiencing a sense of freedom in their country of exile, one must assume they had become imprisoned there in their own language. It may have been one reason why they were badly treated in certain places; they found it difficult to communicate.[3]

The Return Trip

How long did the Holy Family stay in Egypt, and when did they return? The traditional time is three years and six months,[4] based partly on the passage in Revelation 12:5-6, about the “woman clothed with the sun,” which tells us:

She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne. The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God, that there she might be taken care of for twelve hundred and sixty days.

The “twelve hundred and sixty days” (three-and-a-half years) was thought by some to be the time the woman, identified with Mary, spends in the desert in Egypt after Christ’s birth. I think this is not likely to be the meaning of this passage, since it clearly takes place after the Ascension (her son is “caught up to God and his throne”). Rather it represents the Jerusalem church, of which Mary is the type, fleeing through the desert north to Pella, during the siege of Jerusalem in 68-70 A.D. The same time, three-and-a-half years, was mentioned in Rev. 11:2-3 as the length of time the Gentiles would “trample the holy city.”

Also, if the date of late 3-2 B.C. for Jesus’ birth is correct, this interpretation would not have left three-and-a-half years before Herod’s death in 1 B.C. There were roughly twelve to fifteen months between Jesus’ birth and Herod’s death. Given that the Magi did not come to Bethlehem right away, it might have been only a year that the family stayed in Egypt.

Their departure from Egypt might have been immediately after Herod’s death, but since the impetus for leaving was Joseph’s dream it might have been later. Matthew writes:

When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee. He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth. (Mt. 2:19-23).

The sources generally don’t tell us anything about their route back to Nazareth. But the question of timing is interesting. Depending on when they arrived, the Holy Family may have been caught in the middle of a war.

Some two or three months after Herod’s death, his son, Archelaus began his reign by putting down some rebellious Jews, and slaughtering around 3,000 of them in the Temple at Passover time. Some of the rebels there had been Galileans. They fled north, and the rebellion grew. A man named Judah ben Hezekiah, with some followers, sacked the royal palace in the city of Sepphoris, about three-and-a-half miles from Nazareth, and distributed the riches there, and took weapons for themselves from the royal armory. Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, acted immediately to put down the rebellion. He sent troops to Galilee, killed or enslaved the population of Sepphoris, and burned the city so thoroughly that archaeologists have discovered no remains at all from it from this period. In all, the Romans crucified some 2,000 Jews during this war. [5] Josephus didn’t record anything about what happened in Nazareth, but it would most certainly would have been affected by the violence.

We know that Joseph avoided going to Bethlehem, most probably because he had heard about Archelaus’ slaughter of the Jews in Jerusalem; he was probably unaware of what was going to happen in Galilee, and as a result, may have become caught up in a violent situation he did not expect.

Only one biblical film that I know of has portrayed this historical possibility: The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Someone connected with the film[6] had evidently studied Roman history and knew about the war of Varus. The film depicts the Romans putting down the rebellion in Judea and Galilee and has the Holy Family, as they return to Nazareth, pass by a row of crosses. Jesus, now about nine months or a year old, watches them. This is an impressive and evocative means of foreshadowing the future. It was also a sign that the life of the Holy Family was like that of so many of their fellow-countrymen at the time – deeply affected by political strife, war and the displacement of people.

[1] Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, XV, 2-3. I have translated the French text from Peeters, Les Evangiles de l’enfance II, pp. 160-61.

[2] “Itinerarium Bernardi Monachi,” ix, Titus Tobler and Augustus Molinier, eds. Itinera Hierosolymitana et descriptions Terrae Sanctae bellis sacris anteriora (Geneva: J.G. Fick, 1879), vol. I, pp. 313-314.

[3] James Cowan, Fleeing Herod: A Journey through Coptic Egypt with the Holy Family, p. 137.

[4] Hippolytus of Rome, in the early third century, writes in his Commentary on Matthew: “Concerning ‘the days which will be cut short’ (Matt. 24:22) because of the anger of the Antichrist – so the length of time of the Antichrist is three years and [six] months, for as long a time as Christ remained in his flight in Egypt.” The time he is referring to is evidently the seventieth “week of years” mentioned by Daniel.

[5] Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, X, 9.

[6] The movie was directed by George Stevens, with a screenplay by Stevens and Paul Lee Barrett. It was based on the book of the same name by Fulton Oursler and scripts for a radio show of the same name, written by novelist Henry Denker, who also wrote novels set at the time of Jesus. This historical reference to the war of Varus doesn’t occur in Oursler’s work, I think it may have come from Denker, though I haven’t really been able to research it.

Yes, the Holy Family Really Were Refugees (Part II)

My interest in writing about this was sparked in good part by the recent refugee situation, but it is a subject I have been studying for quite some time on my own; in fact, I hope to eventually  turn my studies about the Nativity and its earliest celebrations into a book. So my treatment has grown considerably as I have worked on it. I will conclude with Part III, which should be shorter.

Can we imagine historically what happened to Joseph, Mary and Jesus when Herod issued his orders, and the angel warned them to flee? Apart from the Gospel of Matthew, which tells us in the briefest possible words: “Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod” (Mt. 2:14-15), we have almost no other direct historical information.


Refugees – La Sagrada Familia by Karen Lattimore

Yet do do know a few things. We can study the historical context, and it reveals some fascinating things. We can connect the flight of the Holy Family to the actual political situation at the time, which directly affected them. So first we need to look at this context.

The Date

One of the things that complicates our efforts to understand this story is that the traditional date of Herod’s death in 4. B. C. is almost certainly wrong, and the correct date is 1 B.C. This date is actually being accepted by more and more scholars. (see my blog post here). Knowing this, we can identify the much-discussed “census” that Joseph and Mary had come to Bethlehem for: they obeyed a decree of Caesar Augustus, which can be identified with the “enrollment” throughout the Empire in 3 B.C. It involved a loyalty oath to Augustus, in preparation for his being declared “Father of his Country” in 2 B. C. Jesus was therefore probably born in the fall or winter of 3-2 B. C. And the oath was important, yet it has so far been overlooked.

We also know from the Jewish historian Josephus that in Judea this oath was coordinated with a loyalty oath to Herod.[1] One of the stipulations of the oath to Augustus was that those who took it had to swear to reveal any plot against him, even by their friends and relatives.[2] The oath to Herod (if it was separate) probably included something similar.

Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph would have taken the oath, was the birthplace of King David and the home of the Davidic dynasty – and Joseph was of “the house and family of David.” All the tribal groups of ancient Israel tended to be concentrated in their ancestral homes, though some members lived outside of them. It was the ancient Israelite custom to have census taken by tribes and families gathered together, and this was still continued at Herod’s time; in fact, Herod had copies of all these tribal genealogies in his archives.[3] So Joseph and all the members of his tribe who lived or were staying outside that area would have gone to Bethlehem to take the oath. All of this is very important for understanding the situation, and historians have almost completely ignored it because they have been looking at the wrong date.

The Situation

Herod’s throne had been in trouble for some time, and especially just before this, because of a quarrel with the Emperor Augustus – the joint oath might be an attempt for the two to reconcile. The loyalty oath to the Emperor was alarming; most people in Judea would have feared that Augustus was getting ready to covert Herod’s kingdom directly into a Roman province. Most of Herod’s Jewish subjects heartily disliked him, but they felt direct rule by Rome would be worse. This increased the hostility of Herod’s subjects; some 6,000 Pharisees refused to take the oath, and Herod imposed a fine on them, which his sister-in-law, hoping to defuse the situation, promised to pay.[4] The fact that number of those who didn’t swear could be counted, and their names were recorded, makes it clear that the oath required some kind of written record. In fact, it would have been a convenient way to update the genealogies. Herod, of course, was aware of the growing unrest in his kingdom, and it would have increased his paranoia and fear that his throne was in danger.

The birth of Jesus didn’t go completely unnoticed at the time; we can tell this from some things in Luke’s Gospel that we don’t really mention that much: “So [the shepherds] went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.” (Lk. 2:16-18). When Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem for the Presentation, the large crowds that were always present in the Temple would have witnessed Simeon proclaiming the “light to the nations and glory of Israel” had arrived; at the same time the prophetess Anna “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2:22-38).

In short, all of Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, were buzzing about the newborn Messiah and his parents. This, by most reckonings was even before the Magi came. Somewhere someone probably let their names slip. The rumors of a Messiah and the names of his parents could easily have come to the notice of the authorities.

All this came at a time of widespread Messianic fervor. It has been speculated that the Magi knew the prophecy of Balaam (a non-Israelite) in Numbers 24:17-18:

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not nigh:
a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab,
and break down all the sons of Sheth.
Edom shall be dispossessed. . .

Herod was an Edomite, the Hebrew for the people of Idumea, the homeland of Herod’s father. He could have read the prophecy as saying he himself would be dispossessed by this new king.

It’s surprising that Herod, who basically ran a police state in the latter part of his reign  and used many spies, didn’t have the Magi followed when they went to visit the newborn King. He could easily have learned where the family he was looking for was staying without depending on the Magi coming back to tell him. Or perhaps Herod actually did this as a precaution, and the Gospel doesn’t tell us.

The logic of Matthew’s account – when the Magi don’t come back, he orders all the young male babies in Bethlehem and the surrounding area killed (Mt. 2:16) – suggests Herod ordered the slaying because he didn’t know which child he needed to kill and wanted to make sure he got the right one. But if we recall who peopled Bethlehem and the surrounding Judean towns, and realize that a large proportion of them were members of the tribe of Judah, and a good subset of them of the house of David, the line from which the Messiah was to come — we can understand it better. He was not doing this just to make sure he killed the one child he was after; he was literally killing off all the potential Messiahs. This perhaps is why he killed not just the babies of Bethlehem, but the surrounding towns as well. Perhaps he would have done the same even if did know how to find Jesus.

If Herod had Mary and Joseph’s names and wanted to get their description or other details about them, he would only have had to look at the enrollment document they had just completed. And let’s not forget that every Jew in the area had just sworn to inform on people plotting against Herod – and setting up a rival king to him and his dynasty would definitely have been considered a plot. Many of Joseph’s relatives would have been affected, and their lives and their children’s lives were in danger. Hopefully Joseph would have been able to warn them, in time; Mary and Joseph may not have been the only ones in the family who had to flee with their children.

The Escape Route

How did the Holy Family get to Egypt? What borders would they have crossed and what would have been required of them?

Study of the known roads, travel conditions, and political realities of the time can tell us a few things. In a recent study, Bruce Crew notes that Joseph most likely would not have gone by the southern route through Nabatea, since, given Herod’s political ties there — his mother was from Nabatea — he could have easily had the borders watched or closed and had his contacts inside the country be on the lookout for these fugitives.

Rather, Crew thinks that once they left Bethlehem by night, Joseph would have gone westward on foot (traditionally, leading Mary and Jesus on a donkey) along the Roman road that descended into the Elah Valley and through Shephelah lowlands by way of the Hussan Ridge. They could have traveled this distance in 4 or 5 hours. Their path took them to Beit Guvrim. They were now in the Mediterranean coastal plain and could have joined a caravan traveling south on the international trade route. At some point, he believes, they would have turned west and had two choices. The could have headed for Ashkelon (ancient Askalon), a free Hellenic city, and a major seaport, which was outside of Herod’s jurisdiction. There they could have taken a ship to Alexandria – they certainly had received enough gold from the Magi to pay for their passage — and blended in with the population in that city’s Jewish quarter. This was the easiest and quickest route, especially when traveling with a baby or small child. Or they could have proceeded to travel by foot along the northern coast of the Sinai peninsula, until they reached Egypt.[5]

Crew never mentions the question of crossing borders. But his suggestions about the route receive some unexpected confirmation from the early material about the Flight to Egypt in one of the early Infancy Gospels, sources he never mentions. These works are, of course, without any historical attestation, but not completely without historical value, because they were written by people who understood something of the time, more perhaps than we many centuries later do.

Most of the apocryphal Infancy Gospels say little to nothing about the trip to Egypt. The Protevangelium of James stops before the Holy Family leaves for Egypt. The Arabic Infancy Gospel has them magically transported to Egypt after a single night of walking, and has nothing about the route. Most of the others don’t say anything about the route before they enter Egypt. The only early source that does describe their route to Egypt is the Armenian Infancy Gospel, and dates from the late sixth century or later, but though it is now found only in Armenian, its source was undoubtedly earlier and in Syriac, and so in time, area and language close to the original events.[6] It is based in good part on the Protevangelium and another work called Pseudo-Matthew. But the part on the Flight to Egypt appears to be original. I’m not accepting any information that comes from this or other works as infallibly true; I am using them as hypotheses to discuss the possibilities.

The Armenian Infancy Gospel, after describing Joseph’s dreams and his warning by the angel, says:

Joseph, rising in haste, took the child and his mother and left as a fugitive for Ashkelon, a city situated on the edge of the ocean sea and from there for Hebron, where they remained hidden for six months. . .[7]

This largely confirms Crew’s account as far as Ashkelon. But then they went to Hebron. There doesn’t seem to be anything objectionable about this route – unless you know the geography. This would have meant that they left the seaport where they were about to sail for freedom – and then turned and gone right back into Herod’s territory, to Hebron in southern Judea. Why would they have done that?

Holy family refugees map-1

The author of the Infancy Gospel doesn’t comment at all on it, or explain why they backtracked, which indicates that the Syrian author probably didn’t know much about the actual geography of southern Judea or Egypt. To me, this indicates that the author didn’t make up these details, but was just reporting what had come to him as tradition. Nor have Crew and other modern authors I have read, even when they mention the traditional sources, noted this oddity.[8] It actually seems that something sent Joseph and Mary back after they got to Ashkelon. What might it have been?

It might be because they had learned at the border that they needed some document they didn’t have, or would have had to take an oath that revealed their identity and purpose (see Part I). Even if they managed to cross the border unnoticed, they may have had trouble. Although Ashkelon was a Hellenistic city outside of Herod’s jurisdiction, it still had friendly relations with Herod. If Herod had details about Mary and Joseph, he probably would not have hesitated to send word to officials in Ashkelon and other seaports to be on the lookout for them. Their names would have been posted prominently. There are papyri from Egypt, for instance, that describe the search for escaped slaves, brigands and other fugitives. One said that an edict about brigands being sought was to be posted “in all the capitals and all the important places. . .” Another papyrus said: “The names and distinguishing marks (notae) of fugitives and those who associate with them must be given to the magistrates so that they may be identified easily.”[9]. If they saw their names posted, Mary and Joseph would have had to flee immediately.

But why go to Hebron? This and the rest of their journey and their return, will be treated in Part III.

[1] Josephus Jewish Antiquities 17: 41-45.

[2] The oath as taken by the inhabitants of Paphlagonia has survived: An English translation of the text can be found in N. Lewis and M. Reinhold, Roman Civilization, Sourcebook II: The Empire (New York 1966), pp. 34-35.

[3] Josephus, Life, 6.

[4] For more on this subject, see E. Mary Smallwood. The Jews under Roman Rule (Leiden: Brill, 2001), p. 98.

[5] “Why not Nabatea?” The Flight of Joseph’s Family from Bethlehem to Egypt and Migration to the Town of Nazareth in Galilee.” Bible and Spade 19:4 (2006): 118-125

[6] See the introduction to Paul Peeters, ed. Les Evangiles de l’enfance II. Redactions syriaques, arabe et armeniennes, traduites et annotées (Paris: Picard, 1914)

[7] The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, XV, 2-3. I have translated the French text from Peeters, Les Evangiles de l’enfance II, pp. 160-61. This text is very little known; there is a new English translation by Abraham Tarian, The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy: With Three Early versions of the Protevanglium of James (Oxford / New York: OUP, 2008), but it is very expensive, and I haven’t yet seen it.

[8] James Cowan, Fleeing Herod: A Journey Through Coptic Egypt with the Holy Family. Paraclete Press, 2013; Crew, “Why not Nabatea?” does not discuss any of the ancient accounts.

[9] Claudia Moatti, “Le controle de la mobilité des personnes dans le monde romain.” Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome. Antiquité 112 (2000): 926.