As many readers know, there are two stories of Jesus’s birth and childhood in the New Testament. They are told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke but the stories are quite different. Beyond the core themes shared by both authors (Mary becomes pregnant but not by Joseph; Jesus is born in Bethlehem) the stories feature differing details and emphases. It is the Gospel of Matthew, for example, that relates such unique narrative elements as the moving star, the arrival of the magi, the attempt by King Herod to execute the baby Jesus, and the family’s brief trip to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Why Egypt? Is such a trip even historical? We may never know the answer to the second question but we can offer quite a bit of insight into why Jesus and his family might have been portrayed as going to Egypt.
The Gospel of Matthew is considered by many scholars to be the most “Jewish” gospel of the four New Testament gospels although others have debated this assessment. Either way, the author is unique in crediting so much of Jesus’s activity to the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Multiple times we encounter such explanations for the things Jesus does as taking “place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 21:4 NET). If we read the gospel with this in mind, we can assume that the author wanted Jesus’s trip to Egypt to fulfill a scriptural prophecy. In fact, the author is quite clear about this. He wrote, “In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: ‘I called my Son out of Egypt.’” (Matt. 2:15 NET). The “prophecy” in question is from the Book of Hosea (11:1 NET): “When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt.”
The Gospel of Matthew is concerned not only with providing evidence that Jesus was God’s son in a unique way (Israel, too, is often characterized as God’s son in the Jewish scriptures) but that he is a new, updated Moses. Like Moses, Jesus was saved from a wrathful potentate who wanted to destroy Israelite/Jewish babies. Like Moses, Jesus/Israel comes out of Egypt (as Moses and Israel did in the Exodus). And like Israel itself which followed the patriarch (ancient father) Joseph, Jesus initially goes with his “father” Joseph into the land of Egypt.
It is a theological question, and thus a matter of faith, whether Jesus actually fulfilled all of the prophecies Matthew suggests or whether the author searched for prophesies in the scriptures in order to place them into the context of Jesus’s life. Was the prophecy about Egypt so important that Matthew felt compelled to write a story to show that Jesus fulfilled it? Or did Jesus actually go to Egypt and Matthew later found a prophecy that fit the circumstances?
Some would suggest that Matthew got the idea of an Egyptian sojourn while studying the Book of Numbers where he also got the idea of visiting magi from the story of the Eastern prophet Balaam, a story which included the star imagery found there (Num. 24:17). Within Numbers 24, the author also encountered verse 8: “God brought them out of Egypt.” But why did Matthew choose to cite the similar Hosea passage rather than the Numbers version? Perhaps it was because Hosea described Israel as being “God’s son,” and important concept for Matthew as we said.
Whether or not a trip to Egypt was taken by the historical Jesus and his family, later authors and writers took full advantage of the reported incident, citing it both positively and negatively.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were not the only early Christian texts to describe Jesus’s young life. Another so-called “infancy narrative,” also attributed to Matthew, describes the trip to Egypt in much more detail. In this apocryphal work that scholars call The Infancy Gospel of pseudo-Matthew, the Jesus-family entourage consisted of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, three male and one female slave, asses, oxen, and goats. According to pseudo-Matthew, exciting things happened along the way.
In one episode, dragons from a cave erupted, frightening all the members of the traveling party except for the young (“not yet two years old”) Jesus who “got to his feet” causing the dragons to worship him. With due deference to the writing style of canonical Matthew, pseudo-Matthew wrote that this event fulfilled (the Greek version of) Psalm 148:7 “Praise the Lord from the earth, you dragons and all deeps” (Ps. 148:7 NETS).
A similar thing happened with desert lions, leopards, and wolves which threatened Jesus’s mother Mary until Jesus reassured her that the wild animals had only come to accompany them and worship him. According to pseudo-Matthew, the presence of these animals fulfilled Isaiah 11:6 “A wolf will reside with a lamb, and a leopard will lie down with a young goat; an ox and a young lion will graze together, as a small child leads them along” (Isa. 11:6 NET).
Another incident taking place in Egypt according to pseudo-Matthew was later turned into a Christmas carol, The Cherry Tree Carol. In this episode, a weary Mary wanted to rest in the shade of a palm tree. She longed to be refreshed by some of the fruit from the tree but Joseph chastised her: the fruit is too high and, in any event, she should share his more vital concern with their lack of water. Hearing this, young Jesus ordered the tree to bend down so that everyone could pick and eat as much fruit as they wanted. Jesus rewarded the tree by promising that one of its branches would “be taken by my angels and planted in the paradise of my Father.”
Finally, the family entered a mythical pagan city called Sohennen filled with pagan idols. At the approach of Mary and Jesus, the idols fell down in worship fulfilling Isaiah 19:1 “Here is a message about Egypt: Look, the LORD rides on a swift-moving cloud and approaches Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him; the Egyptians lose their courage” (Isa. 19:1 NET). Even the local official, who brought his army to challenge Jesus, ended up worshiping the child.
An added story concerning the trip by the baby Jesus to Egypt comes from another apocryphal infancy narrative known to scholars simply as the Latin Infancy Narrative. Following the incident with the palm tree, the Latin Infancy Narrative tells of twelve murderous robbers who roamed this region of the desert extorting tribute from travelers to allow them to proceed without harm. Spying the holy entourage coming near, one of the robbers set out to confront them. Observing Jesus’s smiling face, the robber immediately repented of his wicked intentions to rob the group and enslave Jesus. Instead, he offered to guide the group safely to his own house where the travelers were treated as honored guests; Jesus even got to take a bath. The next day, the robber led the party back to the road so that they might continue on their journey. The robber did not cease his marauding ways however and became seriously injured during a daring escapade. When he arrived home, his wife took some of the leftover foam created by Jesus’s bathtub water and put it on her husband’s wounds; he was immediately cured. The couple became rich selling the “ointment” to those who needed it.
Not all references to Jesus’s sojourn in Egypt were harmless tales of legendary piety. The second-century Greek philosopher Celsus became an ardent critic of the growing new religion called Christianity. He found it to be a dangerous superstition that appealed only to the credulous, largely women and children. Drawing on things he had heard about Jesus, especially from certain Jews, he derided Jesus as a charlatan in his work The True Word (now lost). The third-century Christian theologian Origen, still battling the continuing negative effects of Celsus’s treatise, wrote a riposte preserving many passages from Celsus’s work. There, we can read how detractors accused Jesus “of having invented his birth from a virgin…being born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God” (Origen, Against Celsus 1.28).
The great 5th-century BCE author and historian Herodotus was drawn to Egypt primarily by its reputation for being the land of religion and superstition. Such tales likely served to fire the imagination of the writers of the fabulous stories of Jesus’s journey there in the apocryphal accounts.
Is it historically likely that Jesus and his family traveled to Egypt? It is important to remember just how difficult travel was in ancient times. As Lionel Casson remarks:
Overland travel in this age was both hard and dangerous. It meant following roads that were often mere donkey tracks. It meant fording streams or, if the traveler was fortunate enough to find a ferry in operation, waiting for the ferryman. Above all, it meant plodding along in sun or wind or rain, any of which can be punishing in the Near East.” (Travel in the Ancient World, pg. 38)
An ancient traveler in Egypt wrote, “I came from Egypt with my face flagging. It was difficult, in my experience, to find the skin for it, when the land was burning hot, the highland was in summer, and the mountains branded a blistered skin” (pg. 38).
As Casson states, “even worse than the hardships were the dangers, above all brigandage” (pg. 38) which is reflected accurately in the story of the penitent robber from the Latin Infancy Gospel above.
It would take at least a week to cross the 200-or-so miles of desert between the Timsah Lake in Egypt and Bethlehem in Palestine moving along at a pace of no more than 26 miles a day.
By Jesus’s time, the Persians had improved the road system between Mesopotamia and Egypt and the Romans continued to maintain and further improve many such roads including that leading from Syria to Egypt. Nevertheless, there were few amenities along the way. According to Casson:
“In addition to the inevitable kitchenware and tableware, towels, bedding, and the like , the traveler probably had to have…changes of clothing, as well as special wear adapted to the rigors of the road: heavy shoes or heavy sandals, broad-brimmed hat, and a selection of capes…Money and valuables were carried in a purse on a belt about the waist or in a little bag on a cord about the neck…Women on the road wore more or less the same clothes as men, though of greater length, reaching to the ankles.” (pg. 176-77)
Kitchenware included “cooking utensils, tableware, napkins…oil lamps…. For washing and bathing…olive oil, alum, and natron…and myrrh as an after-washing lotion.” Sleeping gear might include “mattresses, blankets, pillows, rugs, and a selection of cushions” (pg. 177).
But the lack of detail given by Matthew about Jesus and his family’s destination in Egypt, who they went with, and what they did; the unlikely probability that a poor family could afford the servants, goods, animals, and money it took to make such a journey; and the certain hardships and dangers the trip entailed make it highly improbable that a family of Galilean village rustics, apparently without the protection of a caravan, took the journey that the Gospel of Matthew and the others describe. Rather, Matthew wanted to show that Jesus fulfilled all the important prophecies of scripture in order to become the new Moses and God’s unique son. Jesus’s trip to Egypt was just one more link in a chain toward the author’s goal.