Yes, The Holy Family Really Were Refugees (Part I)


Carpaccio, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1500

President Trump’s refugee ban has brought the subject of refugees into Catholic internet commentary in a big way. I have been stunned by some of the arguments going around by anti-refugee people who call themselves Catholic. One attempt to carry modern concerns about refugees into first-century Palestine has been heard quite frequently on social media these last few weeks.

It seems to have started with Catholic writer Taylor Marshall more than a year ago:

“Remember the Good Samaritan! He did not take the roadside victim home with him. Rather, the Good Samaritan put the victim up in a hotel and paid for him to get better. The Good Samaritan was good and commended by Christ. The Good Samaritan did the right thing: humanitarian aid.” (Source)

This is frequently said by those advocating the establishment of “safe zones” for refugees in Muslim lands, in order to give them humanitarian aid in their own countries rather than allowing them to enter the U.S. However, I don’t think Marshall has though through this comparison very well. The situation in the parable does not fit at all the situation of refugees. The unfortunate man had been attacked by a couple of ordinary robbers. He was not in a war zone; he was not suffering persecution by those in power for his religion or ethnicity. He did not find it impossible to remain in his own country. There is no indication he needed or wanted to become a refugee. This is like saying that me being mugged in Central Park qualifies me to become a refugee to Canada.


Rembrandt knew what refugees looked like (The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1647)

People are now repeating the comparison as though it was Holy Writ itself. The actual point of the parable – that those racial, ethnically and religiously different from us are also our neighbors – apparently sails right over these people’s heads. Do they really understand what things are like now in the war zones in Iraq and Syria? U.N. refugee officials say there is no way to secure any part of these countries and make them safe. Majority Muslim nations in the area, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, have already taken in millions of refugees, and still there is need. That is why there is a crisis.

Others actually say: “What is wrong with extreme vetting? We all face extreme vetting to get into heaven.” (They conveniently forget that one of the requirements of that “extreme vetting” is “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” — Mt. 25:35).

This is again a false comparison. To begin with there is already “extreme vetting for refugees. A surprisingly large number of people are unaware of this. Including, it seems, President Trump, who said that his Muslim ban, which included refugees, had to be instituted and implemented as quickly as possible (apparently less than a day), because a large number of “bad dudes” would “rush over” to the U.S. as soon as they heard about it. This is absurd. Refugees coming to the U.S. are already put through an extremely rigorous process of identity and background checks, lasting 18 months to 2 years or more, before they are allowed to leave the refugee camps and come here. Those whose refugee status are halted because of the ban must begin this process all over again. All because of Trump’s inability to inform himself (he rejected all advice from Homeland Security and the State Department, who would have told him the facts). No one can just “rush over” to the U.S. as a refugee.

But my concern here is not with the President, but with Catholics. Some really strange attitudes are surfacing. One blogger around Christmas time insisted that the Holy Family could never have been homeless, or even been poor, implying that unless they were solidly middle class, he would have nothing to do with them. He also strangely insisted that could have done nothing illegal in fleeing as refugees to Egypt because “borders were immaterial” back then. Any attempt to say otherwise is “politicizing” the Holy Family. Others have echoed this: “It was all one Empire!”

I’m sorry, but the Holy Family were definitely refugees, with everything that goes along with it. Fleeing for your life from a homicidal maniac like King Herod was not a time for niceties. This is an area where a historian like me, who has studied ancient history, can be of help. While records aren’t the best for the late first-century B.C. early 1st century (as opposed to the later empire), we do know a few things.

It has often been said, even recently that Rome was a place of open borders.[1] But it wasn’t really quite that (as even the supporters of the idea acknowledge). The Mediterranean world of the time was made up of Rome, with its related Italian cities and Roman colonies, as well as semi-independent client kingdoms, like Herod’s Judea, Hellenistic “free” cities allied with Rome, federate cities and Roman provinces, each with its own governor; each of these entities, to a certain extent, had its own laws, privileges, customs and forms of citizenship, and of course, their own borders and different relationships with each other.

By the time of the birth of Jesus, mobility and travel throughout the empire had increased enormously because of the Augustan peace. Students and merchants, officials and diplomats, soldiers and slaves, traveled and crossed borders all the time. There were different categories of people, including those on the move. Incolae were residents with a domicile in a city; Peregrini, (migrants) were protected foreigners and could travel safely in the empire. They did have to prove their right to this by proving their identity and origin. There was a word for refugees, or “those who have fled their homelands”; it was advenae.[2]

This meant that people had to be identified while traveling. There was nothing like an identity card as such, though those with Roman citizenship could acquire a copy of the document and carry it with them; it would open doors for them. There were several means of identification, including a diploma by a prefect, or a letter of introduction and recommendation by a known person, with his seal; in lieu of photographs, identity could be proved by physical descriptions of the person in question with distinguishing marks, such as scars, in written documents. Papers weren’t always necessary; oaths often were. St. Paul twice informed the authorities of his Roman citizenship to get better treatment (Acts 16:37-38; 22:25-29). We don’t know if he carried a certificate of citizenship with him, but given that making a false claim of citizenship was punishable by death, the authorities may have been inclined to believe him even without it.[3] Among the people that needed to be identified were fugitive slaves and escaped prisoners. Barbarians (Germans) were checked at the frontiers. Merchants had to have authorization to travel to certain ports in other countries. A Roman garrison was stationed at the border to some provinces to control entrance. Egypt, directly dependent on Rome, was a country with strict entrance and exit requirements, a diploma or safe-conduct was required for ships entering and leaving ports. [4]

Romans were proud of the fact that they were founded as a city of refugees: their founder, Aneas, had come to Rome with a small band after the fall of Troy. This could be compared to the nature of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants. But this doesn’t mean there were no problems. People in the empire often became migrants and refugees due to war and political strife. But Roman and its provinces didn’t always treat migrants well, even once they had found a home; whole peoples were often expelled, such as when Claudius expelled the immigrant Jews from Rome in 41 A.D. (They had originally come there as prisoners of war after Pompey’s conquest of Judea in 63 B.C.) From time to time beggars (often foreign migrants) were expelled from Rome. The ancient Romans often didn’t handle these matters better than we do today.

It is possible, then, that Mary and Joseph crossed the Egyptian border legally; on the other hand, they may not have had proper papers to cross (especially if they were not expecting to leave their native Kingdom of Judea and hadn’t brought any with them), and crossed illegally.

It’s also possible that they had to get in illegally because they were wanted fugitives. I’ll explain why in Part II.

[1] Mary Beard, “Ancient Rome’s Open Borders — The Romans would have been puzzled by today’s hostility to migrants — and the EU’s lack of political unity.” Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition; New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y] October 17, 2015: C.3. (This is bound to behind a firewall; I’m citing in such a way that it will be possible for people to consult the print ed).

[2] Claudia Moatti, “Migration and Cosmopolitanization,” The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome (Cambridge UP, 2013), p. 80.

[3] Sean A. Adams, “Paul the Roman Citizen: Roman Citizenship in the Ancient World and its Importance for Understanding Acts 22:22–29.” Paul: Jew, Greek and Roman, ed. Stanley F. Porter (Boston, Brill, 2008), pp. 309-326.

[4] Claudia Moatti, “Translation, communication and mobility in the Roman empire,” Classical Antiquity 25 (2006): 141–80. Egypt is one of the places for which we have the best records; due to the dry climate it was easier for them to be preserved. Note (3-7-2017): this section has been updated to reflect the new knowledge I gained from the same author’s article in French: “Le controle de la mobilite des personnes dans le monde romain.” Me?langes de l’Ecole Franc?aise de Rome. Antiquite? 112 (2000): 925-58

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