When Jesus himself was a refugee from the holy land

By Christian Today |
Michael Payne / Unsplash

As we watch the news of people fleeing the holy land, it reminds us that Jesus himself was also a refugee from that area. This is the story...


As we have watched the news over the last few years, we have seen many stories of refugees fleeing strife or persecution in the Middle East, from Iraq, from Syria, and now Gaza. Some are displaced and seek sanctuary in safer parts of their own countries, and others flee their own country for other lands.

At Christmas time, we also remember that after the birth of Jesus, he too was a refugee from Bethlehem to another land. The story is recorded in Matthew 2:13-23.

How old was Jesus when they left Bethlehem?

It was after the Magi had left Bethlehem that an angel appeared to Joseph and warned him to flee and avoid Herod. And so it was that Joseph took Mary and Joseph to Egypt (Matthew 2:11-13). They escaped an infanticide just in time, because King Herod "gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi" (Matthew 2:16 NIV). If Herod wanted to be sure he caught his potential rival, this may suggest that Jesus was just under a year old, or about a year old when the wise men visited Herod. It is not always easy to tell how exactly old a child is, so to make sure he got him, it would make sense that Herod would target all boys under the age of two, just to be sure.

Why did they go to Egypt?

Egypt made sense as a safe place to find refuge. Egypt and Judea were both in the Roman Empire, and were linked by a coastal road known as the Via Maris (The Way of the Sea). Egypt was outside the dominions of King Herod, but had large Jewish communities. Possibly Joseph knew people there, or at least would have found a welcome amongst fellow Jews.

Jews in Egypt

The Israelites in Egypt date back to the time of Joseph (Genesis 47:1-12), but they left during the Exodus. Jewish settlers returned to Egypt at the time of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 41:17 and 44:1).

These Jewish communities had their own synagogues, and after a time adopted Greek as their everyday language, keeping Hebrew as the liturgical language. The first translation of the Scriptures from Hebrew was made in the 3rd century BC at Alexandria in Egypt, originally for these Greek-speaking Jews, and is today known as the Septuagint, often abbreviated to LXX. When the New Testament was originally written, it was in the Greek language, and when it quotes the Scriptures it usually quotes this Septuagint translation from Egypt.

Where did they stay?

The narrative in the Gospel of Matthew is very brief, and it does not state where in Egypt the holy family lived. As often happens, this gap in knowledge has been supplemented by tradition. The Coptic Church, which is the historic ancient Christian Church of Egypt, recalls with pride that Egypt was the first place that Jesus went to after he left Bethlehem. In many historic parts of Egypt, there are churches and shrines marking reputed places where tradition states that the holy family stayed. In Old Cairo the Coptic Church of St Sergius has a crypt underneath the church, which marks the traditional spot where the family stayed. In fact around Egypt are 25 places which claim they were places visited by the holy family. The time in Egypt is said to have fulfilled a prophecy in the Old Testament in Hosea 11:1. Some people also apply Isaiah 19:1 and Isaiah 19:19-25. The story is told in many Coptic icons.

How did they pay for it?

We know that Joseph and Mary were poor. When Jesus was taken to the Temple for the ritual of purification (Luke 2:22), it is indicated that Mary and Joseph made the sacrifice which was specified in the Leviticus 12:1-8 as the alternative to a lamb, for poor people. This was two pigeons or two turtledoves (Luke 2:24), as perhaps recalled in the song The Twelve Days of Christmas? Therefore this must have been before the Magi came and brought them gold. The gold that the wise men brought might have been used to pay for their travel and stay in Egypt. Certainly, the gold is not mentioned again.

How long were they in Egypt?

It is not sure how long Joseph, Mary and Jesus were in Egypt, but the Bible tells us that they stayed there until King Herod died. The story of Herod's death is told in "The Antiquities of the Jews" by Josephus, where it is stated as being just after a lunar eclipse. Estimates for Herod's death are 4 BC, 1 BC or 1 AD, depending on which eclipse is chosen to fit the events. The reliability of Josephus's writing was shown in 2007, when following his description, King Herod's tomb was found as described at Herodium, just south of Bethlehem. Estimates and theories of how long Jesus was in Egypt prior to his death vary from a few weeks, to a number of years.

Actually, a clue is given in the biblical narrative because after King Herod died, his son Herod Archelaus took over as ethnarch of Judea. In Matthew 2:22, it says that when Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea, he was still afraid to return to Bethlehem, and was warned in another dream, and so went to Nazareth in Galilee. Archelaus was not well liked. In fact there may be an allusion to him in the Parable of the Minas in Luke 19:12-27. In any case, most histories have Archelaus reigning until 6 AD, when he was deposed by Caesar Augustus. Then by the time Jesus is twelve, we have the family in Nazareth attending Passover at Jerusalem "as usual", which they did "every year" (Luke 2:41-42 NRSV) which implies that they have been in Nazareth a number of years. So that means that they may have been in Egypt a short time or a few years when Jesus was a child, and possibly he remembered it.


The time Jesus spent in Egypt reminds us of the biblical imperative to care for outsiders. The Bible may not use the word "refugee" but they are certainly included when the Bible says "The foreigners residing among you must be treated as native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt..." (Leviticus 19:34 NIV). We may not know much about Jesus's exile in Egypt, but it does remind us that we need to care for refugees, just as Jesus was himself a refugee from the Middle East. Perhaps his exile in Egypt was in his mind when Jesus said from experience: "for I was hungry and you give me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Matthew 25:35 NRSV). In the letter to the Hebrews 13:1-2, we are reminded "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers."  

Originally published by Christian Today

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