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 overlook.
So many of the dates in the Bible are vague or unascertainable, but here for once is an event that can be confidently dated. The Nativity 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 20 infants. But it could well have been less, less than a dozen in fact.
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 inspired bloodshed. It was left to his son Herod Antipas to succeed where his father failed, and to oversee the death of Jesus a generation later.
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 in Hosea. 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 Africa too.
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. But before 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 Church itself.
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 called Heliopolis.
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 persecution.
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].