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.

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