Christmas is now generally a time of universal celebration and festivity.
But the days after the Nativity were different: after the joy
of the new child came cruelty and persecution.
As always the Bible is pervaded by a sense of the reality of human
affairs that people, swept away by sentiment, so often overlook: cruel
things happen to good people.
But the flight into Egypt and the stay of the Holy Family in Egypt is
an intrinsic part of the Christmas story, and it is worth considering
for its own interest and for the lessons it teaches.
Whatever may be the
historic doubts about the narrative and the reality of the event held
by scholars, the legend still speaks to us all, much as the parables in
the Gospels do, revealing truths about the human situation we cannot
So many of the dates in the Bible are vague or unascertainable, but
here for once is an event that can be confidently dated.
and the Flight into Egypt took place in the last years before the death
of Herod the Great which is known to have taken place in late March or
early April, 4BC.
The Romano-Jewish historian Josephus gives a lurid account of Herod’s
death from what modern doctors suspect was Fournier’s gangrene, a
necrosis of the genitals – an appalling death seen as the judgment of
God on a wicked ruler.
This would place the date of the Nativity itself a
year or two earlier, say about 6BC or 5BC.
Thus the date of the return
of the Holy Family from Egypt, being after Herod the Great’s death would
be after late 4BC or early 3BC.
The Massacre of the Innocents
Josephus, whose Antiquities of the Jews is the main source for the history of the Herodian kings of Palestine, says nothing about the massacre of the innocents.
Given the size of Bethlehem, and the narrow period of time, the
numbers of boys involved (if it did happen) has been calculated at about
But it could well have been less, less than a dozen in
If the wholesale massacres imagined by later writers and artists are a
legend, yet the barbarities of Herod the Great were notorious: he was
not above killing his own sons.
Indeed he gave orders that the nobles
who attended his death bed were to be executed after his demise, so that
he might pass away in an atmosphere of universal mourning.
A few babies in a remote town would not be noticed in all this state
It was left to his son Herod Antipas to succeed
where his father failed, and to oversee the death of Jesus a generation
Jesus in Egypt: The legend
The escape into Egypt is known only from the Gospel of Matthew and is also regarded doubtfully by modern scholars.
It is seen as a pious fiction created to fulfil an ancient prophecy
But perhaps this is an over simplification. In merely humans
terms it is readily understandable.
Believing the child to be possessed
of a special destiny, the parents were quite likely to have fled at the
least hint of danger. It is what people still do around the world.
In any case, Jewish connections with Egypt were strong. There were
Jewish communities already established in the country from the towns of
the Nile delta to the southern reaches of that river on the border with
the Sudan, where black Africa began. In time Jews spread into black
After the customary rite of circumcision and the presentation in the
Temple (40 days after the Nativity), the family fearing for their lives
would have followed the established route from Jerusalem through Escalon
and Gaza across the north of Sinai to the city of Pelusium.
Legends of the Coptic Church in Egypt provide an itinerary for the
Holy Family in Egypt, involving some twenty or so stations.
discussing this, it would be as well to say a few words about the
arrival of Christianity in Egypt and the later emergence of the Coptic
Christianity is thought to have been brought to Egypt by St Mark
about 40AD. (Copts believe that it was in Mark’s house that the apostles
were assembled for the Pentecost event.) He established himself in
multicultural Alexandria, then the intellectual capital of the Eastern
Mediterranean, which had a large Jewish population.
Arriving in Egypt in 49AD, Mark died about 68AD. So it can be seen
that the new faith was established little more than half a century
after the events in Egypt, which suggests to me that Egyptian Christians
would have been more than anxious to collect and confirm what they
could discover about the refuges of the Holy Family during their
four-year residence in their country, it would be only natural to do so.
So, though pious legends are rightly regarded with scepticism, in
this case there may well be a firm foundation to the legends, more than
European scholars are prepared to accept.
The narrative in the Gospel of
Matthew is a model of sobriety compared with the extravaganzas found in
the apocryphal gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and The Infancy Gospel, texts from which most of the medieval legends held by believers in East and West surrounding the Nativity derived.
It was believed, for instance, that the Good Thief had, 30 years
before his crucifion, lain in wait to ambush the Holy Family, but
retreated, amazed at the singular beauty of the infant Jesus.
(It might be added here for those who care for theological niceties
that the Copts, who only accept the first three Ecumenical Councils, are
in fact Miaphysites, rather than Monophysites. But in this era of
renewed Christian persecution in the Middle East these ancient disputers
should never stand in the way of a charitable brotherly support for
communities under siege.)
The Holy family in Egypt
Some of the traditions relating to the Holy Family in Egypt echoed
similar traditions elsewhere, even in Ireland: a foot print here, a hand
there, cut into the rock are attributed to the infant Jesus, much as in
Ireland they would be attributed to a legendary king.
The most substantial traditions are those from El Matareya, a suburb
in the north east of modern Cairo, in ancient times a separate town
There is found an ancient fig mulberry tree which the Virgin is said
by Coptic tradition to have sheltered. It is watered by a well in which
she is said to have washed out the soiled clothes of the infant Jesus.
In the Middle Ages the place was famous for a balsam tree, the balm of
which was much prized by Egyptian and Ethiopians.
The original Virgin’s Tree fell sometime in the 17th Century and was
replaced with a new sapling in 1672. Actually it seems it was planted
towards the end of the 17th Century, according to Dr Wallis Budge, and
the title deed to the site were presented to the Empress Eugénie on the
occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal. It fell again in 1906, but a
shoot was saved and nurtured to produce the relic tree where pilgrims
still come to pray.
But another place is more important, though little visited by
outsiders. At the monastery of Al Muharraq, at Qusquam in Upper Egypt,
one of the chapels is built around the cave in which the Holy family is
said to have lived for six months and ten days. It is known among the
Copts and other Eastern Christians as “the second Bethlehem”. A vision
of the Virgin was reported some five years back
The altar stone, dated 747 AD, is said to be located on the very spot
where the baby Jesus rested. Many Copts venerate the church, believing
it to be one of the first Christian churches in ancient Egypt.
It was from this place near Asyut, the farthest south they got, that
they later retraced their route northwards back to Palestine.
The flight into Egypt as a parable
The scholarly scepticism about the history of the flight into Egypt
does not go very far in addressing the nature of the actual narrative.
To dismiss the legend as a pious fiction is to overlook the point
that fiction has its own truth, as readers of the great classical novels
of western culture will realise; indeed the “truth” of a great novel
may well be far more relevant that the earnest endeavours of a
pedestrian academic historian.
So what is the meaning of the legend, in its own day and for modern
readers? The story underscores the endemic nature of tyranny in the
world, a tyranny which in its different forms, some of the cultures we
value are not entirely free of.
The arbitrary acts of Herod are not those of a mere Middle Eastern
tyrant of a kind we have heard so much of in the last 50 years; they
are the acts of a ruler on whom no constraint can be placed.
But the Holy family fleeing to Egypt to escape tyranny and death are
an image, a type, of every displaced refugee in the world at any time.
These days we have taken to calling them migrants; many people see them as a menace.
In doing so they forget their own history. Irish people forget that
in the past Irish people found refuge in Europe, North American, even
Latin America, and made themselves new lives.
Also, the Holy family in Egypt found refuge among the Jewish communities already settled there.
The odious doctrine, which is firmly held by many, especially in
Ireland, that somehow “stranger danger” has a larger meaning, possibly
involving the corruption of our own lovely ways. Such views are easily
exploited, prejudice turns quickly to intolerance, and then to active
In thinking about the Holy family on the road, we are reminded too of our own homeless families, our rough sleepers.
Here is a problem we have that would seem easy to solve through
concerted government and social action, yet year on year it persists.
So against the learned religious scholars I like to think that the
story of the Flight into Egypt is only too likely to be true.
And as we face into a New Year, a renewed era of refugees in flight
for their lives, some of the implications of the narrative, as a parable
of human life in all ages, are worth pondering on.
The Gospel according to Matthew, 2:13-23 (Douay- Rheims version)
And after [the Magi] were departed, behold an angel of the Lord
appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the child and his
mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell thee. For it
will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him.
Who arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and retired
into Egypt: and he was there until the death of Herod: That it might be
fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt
have I called my son [Hosea 11: 1].
Then Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was
exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in
Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under,
according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet,
saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning;
Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they
are not [Jeremiah 31:15].