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.


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