We’re hearing the word refugee plenty these days. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a U.S. Presidential candidate, stirred up a backlash on Christmas Day when he described “divinity” coming to earth as a “refugee.”
Was Buttigieg’s label for the newborn Jesus accurate? No, because it was only about 24 months later that he was displaced from his home in Bethlehem, along with Joseph and Mary. But if Jesus didn’t arrive on earth as a refugee, his status quickly changed. Not born a refugee, he soon became one. Jesus was a boy refugee.
Here’s what the New Testament reveals. Luke’s Gospel portrays Joseph and Mary leaving Nazareth in Galilee and journeying to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-4). At this point in the narrative, there is no indication that the couple were fleeing any kind of religious or political persecution. Rather, Caesar Augustus was conducting a census. The mechanism for gathering the data was for people to return to their ancestral home, which for Joseph, was the a tiny village near Jerusalem named Bethlehem. The rest of Luke 2 presents snippets of Jesus’ young life, including his parents presenting him at the Jerusalem Temple eight days after his birth (vv. 22-28), the family’s return to Nazareth (v. 39-40), and the story of twelve-year-old Jesus getting lost during the Festival of the Passover in Jerusalem (vv. 41-52).
But Luke isn’t the only Gospel that recounts the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and infancy. Matthew furnishes details that are lacking in Luke’s account. Forget the typical nativity scenes that show both shepherds and magi kneeling at the manger. The magi weren’t there. Matthew 2:1-12 recounts a journey for the magi that likely took many months. Finally, the star “stopped over the place where the child was” (2:10, NIV). The next verse (2:11) explicitly mentions the “house” where they found Mary and Jesus. It was there in the house that they worshiped Jesus and presented him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Here’s where the story takes a dark turn. King Herod, ever protective of his political power, had previously inquired of the magi regarding the timing of the star’s appearance, under the pretext of also wanting to worship the Messiah (Luke 2:3-8). When the magi were done worshiping, they obeyed a warning received in a dream and “returned to their country by another route” (2:12, NIV). Only when Herod realized that the magi weren’t coming back to him with details on the child’s location did the King take more drastic measures. He ordered the slaying of all boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and younger (v. 16) based on the time when the star that led the magi westward had first appeared.
Now the legitimacy of applying the word “refugee” to the holy family comes into sharper focus. An angel of the Lord warned Joseph in a dream about Herod’s intentions, with the command to take Mary and Jesus and “escape to Egypt” (2:13, NIV; the HCSB uses the word “flee.”) Immediately, they “escaped” (HCSB) to Egypt by cover of darkness.
Having examined the evidence in Scripture as well as other historical documents, Joan Taylor observes:
We know that Jews fled from troubles in Judea of many kinds, in the third to first centuries B.C.E., and that Egypt was one of the places they went to as refugees. Josephus comments on the problematic revolutionaries (and their children) that fled there after the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 C.E.; Jewish War 7:407-419) but they were following a well-worn path.
Read the entire article for a convincing case that Jesus and his parents were refugees for a season. (See also the online version of the IVP New Testament Commentary, which in connection with the flight to Egypt describes Jesus’ family as “refugees.”) Only when Herod is dead and after two more dreams where the Lord warns Joseph does he make the decision to settle down in Nazareth of Galilee rather than back in his ancestral town of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:19-23). The trio of refugees gradually transition back to the more normal everyday life of Jewish peasants.
Both Luke and Matthew hint that the refugee chapter of the holy family’s story informed Jesus’ later perception of himself during his 3 year nomadic ministry. When a scribe said he would follow Jesus, the Lord replied: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests; but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20, NRSV; see also Luke 9:58). Taylor affirms: “The legacy of being a refugee and a newcomer to a place far from home is something that I think informed Jesus’ teaching.”
Whatever the motivation might have been for Mayor Buttigieg’s original remarks or the critical responses to it, this much is clear: Jesus was a boy refugee for a time in Egypt with Joseph and Mary. Such is the plain reading of Matthew’s account.
- La Huido a Egipto by Miguel Cabrera, at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Huida_a_Egipto_-_Miguel_Cabrera.jpg
- Slaughter of the Innocents, a painting inspired by Poussin; in the public domain, at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slaughter_of_the_Innocents_after_Poussin_-_Princeton_Univ_Art_Museum_INV34431.jpg