Flight to Egypt

On the Historicity of the Flight to Egypt

Bishop Tim Whitaker on December 31, 2019
Bishop Timothy Whitaker
Bishop Timothy Whitaker (Photo credit: Kathy Gilbert / UMNS)

Timothy W. Whitaker is a Retired United Methodist Church bishop who served the Florida Area.

UM Voices is a forum for different voices within the United Methodist Church on pressing issues of denominational concern. UM Voices contributors represent only themselves and not IRD/UMAction. This post was originally shared by Bishop Whitaker in an email. It is reprinted with his permission.

The infancy narrative of the Gospel according to St. Matthew contains a fascinating story about the holy family of Joseph, Mary, and the child Jesus fleeing from the rule of Herod the Great into Egypt to sojourn there until Herod’s death (Matthew 2:13-23).

Avoiding skepticism that presupposes a worldview different from that of the church

The story may sound incredible when the narrative of Matthew is compared with that of Luke, who concludes his account of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem by saying, “When they had finished everything required by the law of Moses, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” (Luke 2:39).

The distinctiveness of each of the four Gospels ought to be honored. It is a convention of modern scholarship and teaching in mainline Protestant churches that any attempt to harmonize the differences between Gospels violates the principle of honoring the distinctiveness of each Gospel. But should we always conform to this convention? The late, great scholar Martin Hengel never wearied of challenging the conventions of modern New Testament scholarship, and he often pointed out how uncritical the so-called “historical-critical” method is. Indeed, he says that when we consider modern scholarship often it would be more appropriate to speak of an “unhistorical-uncritical method” (Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, p. 55). Hengel was thinking of the lack of knowledge of history and historical method by New Testament scholars and also their undisciplined speculation that has no solid basis, but I think that we should also beware of blind conformity to the convention that any attempt to construct harmony between Gospels is a violation of critical judgment.

Any attempt to harmonize differences between Gospels has to be an exercise in critical thinking. In The Harmony of the Gospels, St. Augustine articulates a critical principle by which we may construct a harmony between the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. Augustine observes that “each evangelist constructs his own particular narrative on a kind of plan which gives it the appearance of being the complete and orderly record of the events in succession.” He assumes that each evangelist is highly selective in choosing which events to narrate (a critical judgment commonplace among modern scholars) and that each evangelist then “connects those [events] which he does wish to relate with what he has been immediately recounting, in such a manner as to make the recital seem continuous” (a critical judgment characteristic of modern literary criticism). Augustine then reconstructs an account of the infancy of Jesus based on both Gospels, but in accordance with the critical judgments he makes about the intentions and methods of each evangelist. On the basis of these critical judgments, Augustine reconstructs a “complete” infancy narrative in which, for instance, the Lukan account of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple is followed immediately by the Matthean account of the angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph in dream to instruct him to flee with his family to Egypt, omitting altogether the second half of Luke 2:39 (“they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth”) since this fragment of a verse manifests Luke’s construction of “his own particular narrative on a kind of plan which gives it the appearance of being the complete and orderly record of the events in succession.”

One may object to Augustine’s goal of harmonizing the two infancy narratives, but his method is certainly “critical.” It is just that Augustine’s critical judgments are not determined by the kinds of conventions that have grown up in modern scholarship, conventions that Hengel rightly observes are often merely “psychological and dogmatic” (p.129) or that reflect a certain worldview and habits of mind consistent with that worldview.

We today can acknowledge that there is merit to the common modern scholarly judgment that the two infancy narratives “seem to be products of early Christian reflection on the salvific meaning of Jesus Christ in the light of Old Testament prophecies,” as stated by John P. Meier in A Marginal Jew, Volume One. The infancy narratives are written in the revelatory light of his resurrection from the dead and exaltation to God as Messiah, Lord, and Son of God following his whole public career and death. At the same time, because we have no access to the traditions and sources that informed Matthew’s construction of his infancy narrative, we are not capable of ascertaining the historicity of his account according to modern standards of historiography, and therefore we ought to avoid dogmatic assertions that such-and-such-a-story in the infancy narrative is incredible or purely imaginary. Many scholars conclude that, because of our inability to ascertain the historicity of Matthew’s account of the infancy of Jesus, the only attitude we should have is that of almost total skepticism; but the dogmatic skepticism of many today is basically a psychological proclivity based on a modern worldview that is characteristic of science and historiography. Within the church, to whom the scriptures belong, the focus is on God’s Word spoken through the narrative heard within a believing community, but this focus presumes that the narrative is based upon traditions handed on in the earliest Christian communities that are based upon facts–a presumption that fits the alternative sensibility of the church that faith in divine revelation is vouchsafed through history. The church respects the methods of modern scientists and historians, recognizing how limited they are, but it also trusts its own memory and the ethical integrity of the original witnesses and transmitters of traditions while also allowing for creative construction of Gospel narratives on the basis of limited or selective traditions.

Matthew 2:13-15  The flight to Egypt

In modern commentaries one often encounters the view that Matthew or his sources invented the flight of the holy family to Egypt in order to portray the new-born Messiah as recapitulating the experience of the people of Israel being in Egypt. While Matthew clearly points out the parallel between Jesus and the people of Israel by quoting Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15, this does not mean that Matthew’s claim that the holy family resided for a while in Egypt is fictional.

The assertion that Matthew invented the story of the sojourn in Egypt based on Hosea 11:1 is an old scholarly canard. It is suggested that Matthew created the entire account of the family going to Egypt and then departing from Egypt on the basis of Hosea 11:1, which simply states, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” The most plausible explanation is that Matthew and other Gospel writers “were trying to show how the Old Testament fitted the events of Jesus’ life and not the other way around,” to quote Craig L. Blomberg in The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Blomberg points out how Hosea 11:1 is “not a prophecy in its Old Testament context but a reference to the Exodus.” The poor logic of some scholars who claim that Matthew invented the sojourn in Egypt to fit Hosea 11:1 is exposed by R.T. France whom Blomberg quotes:  “if the history were being created out of the text, there would be no need to adapt the text to fit the history.” In their Anchor Bible Commentary on Matthew, W.F. Albright (a premier historian of the Near East) and C.S. Mann state that “there is no reason to doubt the historicity of the story of the family’s flight into Egypt,” and they add the interesting comment that “even a rumor of the events detailed in Luke 2:1-39 would have called forth predictably violent reactions from Herod.”

As Josephus describes in lengthy detail in his Jewish Antiquities, Herod was very jealous of his power and anxious about usurpation, even to the point of being paranoid near the end of his life. Herod was quite aware that his subjects could not fully accept his reign as legitimate because he was not a Jew, or at least the kind of Jew that the people expected their ruler to be. Herod’s mother Cypros was a Nabatean or Arab and his father Antipater was an Idumean. The Idumeans were considered to be Jewish in the first century C.E. because they had been forced to convert during the late second century B.C.E. by John Hyrcanus, but the Idumeans were not ethnic Jews and their ancestors had not been a part of the people of Israel. Since Herod’s connection to the Jewish nation was dubious, and he certainly was not a member of David’s tribe–the tribe of Judah– he would have felt very threatened by the prospect of the birth of a descendant of David at Bethlehem.

Throughout the history of Israel, Egypt had been a place of refuge. At the time of Jesus’ birth, there was a large Jewish population in Egypt. A Jewish community was established on the island of Elephantine near Aswan in the mid-seventh century B.C.E. Around 330 B.C.E. Alexander the Great permitted Jews to settle in Alexandria, and Philo estimated that there were over one million Jews living in Alexandria and the rest of Egypt around the time Jesus was born.

If the holy family left for Egypt, they would have journeyed on a land route that paralleled the coast of the nearby Mediterranean Sea, a relatively straight and flat way between Bethlehem and Egypt. If they sought refuge in Alexandria, then they would have traveled about 350 miles over a period of about 45 days. At this time, the Roman territory of Egypt extended all the way up to Gaza not so far from Bethlehem, but if the family went beyond the desert regions and sought a good place to live closer to Bethlehem than Alexandria, they may have journeyed to Pelusium or Avaris in the eastern Nile Delta about 200 miles or 230 miles from Bethlehem after a trip of about 30 days. (See “Matthew’s Birth Narrative,” Lexam Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, p. 27). While any journey to Egypt would have been long and not easy for a couple with an infant, it would make sense because it was not only traditional to seek refuge there but also because it was the obvious choice given the accessibility of the place from Bethlehem and its sizeable Jewish population.

As Albright and Mann point out, there may even be an extra-biblical tradition for Jesus’ residence in Egypt. The second century pagan philosopher Celsus claimed that Jesus was “brought up as an illegitimate child, and having served for hire in Egypt, and then coming to the knowledge of certain miraculous powers, returned from thence to his own country, and by means of those powers proclaimed himself a god” (Origen, Against Celsus, Book I, 38). While Celsus held Christianity in contempt, and he spread lies about Jesus being illegitimate and a magician (which he probably learned from Jews), he did give credence to the basic fact of a sojourn by Jesus in Egypt. Whether Celsus or his sources were influenced by the Matthean account or were aware of reliable information is not known.

There is historical significance to Matthew’s use of a verb to describe the departing of the holy family to Egypt. The verb translated “to depart” in Matthew 2:14 is anachorein. Later in the history of the church the verb became the technical term for monasticism. Monks who withdrew from the world were called “anchorites.” Indeed, prior to its application to monasticism, the verb had a history of being used to speak of withdrawal from public life into a personal life of contemplation. Matthew’s use of this verb was probably influenced by the first occurrence of the verb in the LXX version of Exodus 2:15, which describes Moses departing or fleeing from Pharaoh and settling in Midian after killing an Egyptian.

Matthew 2:16-18  The slaughter of the innocents

Matthew says that Herod ordered the slaughter of all the children around Bethlehem who were two years old or older, presumably meaning the slaughter of infant males.

Given the depiction by Josephus of Herod’s character and state of mind near the end of his life, Matthew’s claim is not implausible on its face. To take just one example, in Jewish Antiquities, 18.6.1, Josephus says that when Herod was about 70 years old, he “grew fierce, and indulged the bitterest anger upon all occasions.” His anger was motivated by his belief that he was “despised, and that the nation was pleased with his misfortune” [of sickness]. Moreover, Josephus says, Herod “resented a rebellion which some of the lower sort of men excited against him,” a rebellion Josephus goes on to describe.

Josephus never mentions the killing of children in Bethlehem, but Josephus was writing a hundred years later, and it is also quite plausible that an atrocity like this would not have attracted the attention of the historian. The population of the village of Bethlehem would have been probably around 300 or somewhere between 100 and 1,000 people. Even if the region around Bethlehem had a population of 1,000 people–which seems very high–there would have been only about 20 male children under the age of two. If the population was much smaller, as it probably was, then the number of children would have been very small. While horrific, this slaughter would have been a small occurrence in a very violent era and thus could have easily gone unmentioned or glossed over in historical records.

It is interesting that a fifth century C.E. Latin philosopher called Macrobius did say that Herod killed all the babies of Syria who were under the age of two. It is possible that Macrobius found this bit of information in the Roman imperial records. While Macrobius describes a slaughter in Syria, his account could provide some extra-biblical evidence for Herod’s killing of children. The discovery of Macrobius’ report was only recently made by Barry Beitzel and discussed in a 2014 article in the Journal of  the Evangelical Theological Society (See Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, p. 28, note 23).

Matthew 2:19-23  Settlement in Nazareth

Matthew describes the holy family’s return to the land of Israel after Herod’s death in the spring of 4 B.C.E. Matthew also suggests that Joseph did not trust Archelaus, Herod’s ambitious son who assumed rule over Judea. In New Testament History, F.F. Bruce observes, “Archelaus had all his father’s defects of character with but little of his administrative and diplomatic ability.” Instead, says Matthew, Joseph settled his family in Galilee where the ablest of Herod’s sons, Antipas, was the ruler. Another of Herod’s sons, Philip, ruled a third part of Herod’s kingdom. It may be significant that Joseph the carpenter/stone mason (tekton, Matthew 13:55) settled about four miles from Sephoris, the capital of Galilee, which Antipas completely rebuilt after it was destroyed in a revolt in 4 B.C.E., around the probable time of Jesus’ birth (perhaps between 9 B.C.E.- 4 B.C.E.).

Matthew concludes his account with a very interesting, and also puzzling, sentence:  “There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’.” The “he” refers to Jesus, not Joseph.

There has been a long debate about what prophecy Matthew has in mind. Clearly Matthew is not citing a particular text, but he is speaking in general about a fulfillment of the scriptures.

The discussion of what Matthew intended in Matthew 2:23 involves seeing a connection between the Hebrew consonants nsr and nsrt (the designation for “Nazareth” in later rabbinic inscriptions).

The Orthodox Study Bible notes, “2:23 The prophecy here cannot be exactly identified. It has been taken as a reference to the rod (Heb. neser) in Isaiah 11:1, and to the Nazirite (Heb. Nazir) of Judges 13:5. Matthew may also have been alluding to passages in which the Messiah was despised, since Nazareth did not have a good reputation (John 1:46).”

In Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, Dale C. Allison and W.D. Davies point to the history of commentary on Matthew 2:23 and say that, while there have been suggestions that Matthew is referring to Isaiah 11:1 (the branch [neser] from Jesse) or 42:6 or 49:6 or Jeremiah 31:6-7 or Genesis 49:26, they think Matthew is intending a “word play”:  “The LXX interchanges ‘holy one of God’–an early Christian title for Jesus (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34; John 6:69)–and “Nazarite’; cf. Judges 13:7; 16:17. This matters because if we make that substitution in Isaiah 4:3 MT [Masoretic Text of the Hebrew] (“will be called holy”), the result is very near Matthew 2:23.” Moreover, they think that the Christians in Matthew’s Syrian church called themselves “Nazoreans,” bearing the name Jesus bore. The allusions to texts in this explanation by Allison and Davies is too brief for most readers to find intelligible, but at least it gives a sense of the scope of texts which commentators have explored in order to understand what was in Matthew’s mind.

For a more detailed exploration of how Matthew may have thought of Old Testament texts “where a form of the Hebrew consonants nsr appeared, but where also the meaning had been lost or obscured, both in the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT) and in the Greek of the LXX,” such as Jeremiah 31:6, see the discussion by Albright and Mann in the Anchor Bible Commentary on Matthew.

Obviously, connecting the name of Jesus as a “Nazorean” to the texts cited by Allison and Davies requires a lot of explanation based not only on the Hebrew and various Greek translations as well as possible similarities between the meanings of these texts and the experience of the holy family, but also on an awareness of rabbinic techniques of interpretation of texts which Matthew used that seem very odd to modern people. The whole business is complicated by the way rabbis interpreted texts very differently from their original meaning, such as taking old texts as referring to a Messiah or messianic people which seem to be about completely different things originally. [Another example of Matthew’s use of rabbinic techniques to interpret several texts while ascribing the texts to a single  prophecy–a way of doing exegesis that was not unusual then but is very strange to us today–is Matthew 27:9-10.]

To simplify, the key to understanding what Matthew does in Matthew 2:23 is that he is engaged in “word play.” The Christians of Matthew’s church were probably known as “Nazoreans.” Originally this name was probably a term of contempt used by their Jewish opponents who identified them as being followers of the man from Nazareth. They themselves accepted this term of contempt by playing on its similarity with the word “Nazarite” that identifies holy ones:  Jesus Christ is the truly “holy one,” and all his disciples are his “holy ones.”

Concluding Observations

I think Allison and Davies rightly understand the basic meaning of Matthew 2:13-23. They view this story as being a part of a “typological equation of Jesus with Israel.” They write, “Jesus is not only the last redeemer who is like the first redeemer, Moses, he is not only the messianic king who is like the great king, David, but he is also like Israel in that he experiences exodus and exile and return; and Scriptures originally pertaining to Israel can be transferred to him.”

I myself not only agree with this assessment, I think it is fundamental to the whole New Testament conception of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, as the one who represents and fulfills the identity and vocation of Israel. Moreover, I further think that the story of Jesus as the recapitulation of Israel is instructive for his church, which is called to live as the Israel that is reconstituted around Jesus. So then, his own experience of exodus, exile, and return helps the church get a bearing on its experience in the world today.

Allison and Davies also suggest that all of Matthew 1-2 seems to teach that, in history of salvation, “human choice matters little.” Instead everything depends on the divine will. But then they make the significant observation, “In short, then, one comes away from Matthew’s first two chapters with the feeling that history is divinely run from first to last. At the same time, it must be said that the evangelist was nevertheless not naively persuaded that ‘God’s on his throne  all’s right with the world’. In 2:16-18 there is a terrible tragedy, the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem; and Matthew, by substituting ‘then’ for ‘in order that’ in 2:17, betrays his reluctance to ascribe suffering or evil outcomes to the Lord God. Beyond this, there runs throughout Matthew’s gospel a strong eschatological expectation–a sure sign of dissatisfaction with the world as it is. The conclusion, then, is that while history is, for our evangelist, the arena of God’s mighty acts, it is also the arena of much else:  there is darkness as well as light. God’s will is not always done (cf. 6:10), and this will be true until the end of the age comes.”

Well said!

Tim Whitaker

  1. Comment by Peter Herz on December 31, 2019 at 11:35 am

    Thank you for your post. Having studied some biblical history and languages, I’m also of the mind that the “He shall be called a Nazarene” in Matthew 2:23 is also a play on the Hebrew _netzer_ of Isaiah. This may also point to Mathew writing for a community where the Hebrew language was still known; or even a pointed that there is a factual basis to the ancient tradition that Matthew originally wrote in the lishon qodesh.

    Re other matters in this article, perhaps one issue with the “uncritical” character of much critical scholarship is that it has been forgotten that much of the earlier 19th century German criticism on which the ediface of modern biblical scholarship is built was originally an attempt to shoehorn the Bible and its narratives into a Hegelian dynamic?

  2. Comment by David on December 31, 2019 at 1:59 pm

    The Bible has many inconsistencies starting with contradictory accounts of the creation in Genesis 1 and 2. We should not imagine that the compilers were so dull as to not notice these. They wished to include more than one traditional account that had come down to them.

    The early Christians were obsessed with making Jesus the “new Moses” and had to have him come out of Egypt and get him up on a mountain. Having twelve disciples, the same number of the tribes of Israel, is too convenient.

    Perhaps the worst example of misquotation is the familiar “Behold a Virgin” verse in Isaiah 7:14 that was intended to be a sign to King Ahaz in his time. “Interestingly, when Matthew quotes this passage he not only mistranslates “young woman” as “virgin” but, to deflect the reference from a specific woman standing before Isaiah, he intentionally mistranslates “the young woman” as “a virgin.” This is discussed at length here and let us assume Jews know something about their scriptures.


  3. Comment by Loren J Golden on January 1, 2020 at 1:40 pm

    Your blatant unbelief in the Scriptures, sir, knows no bounds.
    With respect to the first two chapters of Genesis, the first chapter is an ordered account of the creation of the world, culminating in the creation of mankind in the image of God, emphasizing the creative power, work, and authority of God from beginning to end.  The second chapter is a detailed account of the creation of mankind—male and female—and the references to the creation of plant life in vv. 5-9 and of animal life in vv. 19-20 are only intended with respect to the central purpose of the chapter.  These were not written from a modern scientific approach to exact chronological development and should not be interpreted as such.
    Your reference, “the early Christians were obsessed with making Jesus the ‘new Moses’,” demonstrates your Biblical ignorance.  The Lord Jesus “came out of Egypt” shortly after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, while He was still a child, and went to Nazareth (Mt. 2.14-15,19-23, Lk. 2.39), whence came His earthly parents (Lk. 1.26-27).  Matthew’s reference to the Lord Jesus “going up on the mountain” (Mt. 5.1), to deliver the first of five discourses (Mt. 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), occurs more than twenty years later, after His baptism in Mt. 3 and His temptation in the wilderness and the beginning of His ministry in Mt. 4.  Matthew by no means emphasizes it, as you infer, and none of the other three Gospel writers mention it at all.
    As to His having chosen twelve disciples who later became apostles (Mt. 10.1-4, Mk. 3.13-19, Lk. 6.12-16), according to the number of the tribes of Israel (Rev. 7.5-8, 21.12-14) being “too convenient”, it is not an invention of the authors, but is superintended by God on human history to express the fullness and completeness of His chosen people (Jn. 10.16, Rom. 11)—twenty-four elders, to represent the union in the Age to come, of the Old Testament people of God, represented by the twelve Tribes of Israel, and the New Testament people of God—the Church—represented by the twelve Apostles (Rev. 4.4,10, 5.8,14, 11.16, 19.4).
    With respect to Matthew “mistranslating” “young woman” as “virgin”, you are quite mistaken.  His Gospel, written in Greek, is here quoting Is. 7.14 directly out of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament written a few hundred years before Christ (which predates the earliest extant Hebrew texts), and in both, the Greek word used is parthénos, which is translated in our modern English Bibles as “virgin”.  The Hebrew word used is almah, used only seven places in the Old Testament (Gen. 24.43, Ex. 2.8, Ps. 68.25, Prov. 30.19, Song 1.3, 6.8, Is. 7.14), which means a woman of marriageable age, rather than the usual Hebrew word for virgin, bethulah.  Although it does not expressly mean that such a woman is a virgin, the almah who conceives and bears a son in Is. 7.14 would hardly be a sign, if she were not.  Hence, the Greek interpretation of almah as parthénos is entirely justified.  This also is discussed at length by Jews who know something of the Scriptures: https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/issues-v09-n01/almah-virgin-or-young-maiden/

  4. Comment by David on December 31, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    The image that heads this article is something of a hoot with the Victorian custom of showing biblical people in 19th century Arab dress. This persists even in our time in films, etc. Mary and Joseph could easily be on their way to Mecca in this getup. The Egyptians are more authentically portrayed and likely closer to what people actually wore in Judea.


  5. Comment by Joe M on January 2, 2020 at 12:56 am

    Yes, because of course we have good grasp on 2000 year old history.

  6. Comment by JR on January 2, 2020 at 1:02 pm

    That’s referenced in Wikipedia as being painted in 1883. There are others on the wiki page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_into_Egypt from pre-1500 that show similar styles of dress. To me, the medieval ones are the funniest.

  7. Comment by Michael Gatliff on January 5, 2020 at 8:52 am

    Your article is very helpful. Thanks.

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