Baker Academic

Monday, September 7, 2015

Jesus was a Refugee

Today the Jesus Blog is very pleased to host a guest post from Prof Joan Taylor of King's College, London, addressing the significance of Jesus for the current tragedies associated with the Syrian Refugees.


Joan E. Taylor 
Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism 
King’s College London

The unstoppable force of refugees fleeing to Europe has in various places hit the immovable object of an attitude that there is no room at the inn. Spaces are filled. Migrants should be kept out, in order to preserve jobs, health and welfare services. In an environment of austerity, where economic cuts have hit people hard, this cold-heartedness in part derives from a deep sense of insecurity.

At this time it is worth remembering that Jesus of Nazareth is in the Bible presented exactly as one that would be rejected by such European countries: a refugee child.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’s (adoptive) father Joseph and mother Mary live in Bethlehem, a town in Judaea near Jerusalem. It is assumed to be their home village. Certain magoi (‘wise men’/astrologers) come from ‘the East’ to Herod, the Roman client king of Judaea, looking to honour a new ruler they have determined by a ‘star’, and Jesus is identified as the one. All this is bad news to Herod, and Herod acts in a pre-emptive strike against the people of Bethlehem and its environs.  He kills all boys under two years of age in an atrocity that is traditionally known as ‘the massacre of the innocents’ (Matthew 2.16-18).

Photo Wikimedia Commons
But Joseph has been warned beforehand in a dream of Herod’s intentions to kill little Jesus, and the family flees to Egypt. It is not until Herod is dead that Joseph and Mary dare return, and then they avoid Judaea: Joseph ‘was afraid to go there’ (Matthew 2.22) because Herod’s son is in charge. Instead they find a new place of refuge, in Nazareth of Galilee, far from Bethlehem.

Jesus’s earliest years were then, according to the Gospel of Matthew, spent as a refugee in a foreign land, and then as a displaced person in a village a long way from his family’s original home.

Scholars of the historical Jesus can be suspicious of this account, as also with the other nativity account in the Gospel of Luke 1-2. It is clearly constructed with allusions to Jesus as a kind of Moses figure: just as Moses was under threat from an evil Pharaoh who killed children (Exodus 1-2), so was Jesus. But while resonances with the scriptural precedent are intended, there is no real need for the author to invent the idea of Jesus being a refugee child somewhere in Egypt to have him being Moses-like. There is a quote, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ (Hosea 11.1), in Matthew 2.15, but the ‘son’ concerned is historical Israel, not Moses and not the Messiah, and it sits uncomfortably with the story. The author of Matthew did not need to build a myth out of such a text.

Herodion seen from Bethelehem.  Photo Joan Taylor
It seems not then unlikely to me that Jesus’s family, with a lineage traced to the great king David (Matthew 1; Luke 3.23-38; Romans 1.3; 15.12), opted to flee from Bethlehem, long-standing residence of the kingly line and their original home. In many traditional societies such locations of clans are maintained, even with social disruptions. Archaeology has shown how Herod built a palace complex at Herodion, including his future mausoleum, nicely overlooking the town of Bethlehem. It was as if Herod was breathing down Bethlehem’s neck.

The 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus portrays Herod as paranoid about any possible threat to his rule. He killed his own sons, and had few qualms about killing anyone else’s. As Augustus quipped: ‘I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son’ (Macrobius, Saturnalia 2:4, since pigs are not butchered by Jews).

We know also that Jews fled from troubles in Judaea of many kinds in the 3rd-1st centuries BCE, 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 CE; War 7: 407-19), but they were following a well-worn path.   

Many epitaphs and inscriptions, as well as historical sources, testify to a thriving Jewish expatriate community in Egypt, made up of earlier refugees that could be joined by others. However, just like today, new refugees were not welcome. A letter of the emperor Claudius, written in 41 CE, states that Jews in Alexandria lived in ‘a city not their own’ in which they were ‘not to bring in or invite Jews who sail down to Alexandria from Syria[-Palaestina]’ (P.London 1912; CPJ I:151).

A remembrance of Jesus’s family in Egypt is preserved in Matariya, in the suburbs of Cairo at Heliopolis, a spot understood to be a stopping place on the holy family’s flight, and it is probably the most important site in the world for anyone wishing to contemplate Joseph, Mary and Jesus as refugees.

For new refugees, as anywhere, life would have been very hard. The 1st-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria tells us of the consequences of poverty, which could result in enslavement (Special Laws 2.82). Presumably, Jewish charity and voluntary giving through the synagogue would have helped a struggling refugee family, but they would also have been reliant on the kindness of strangers.

The legacy of being a refugee and a newcomer to a place far from home is something that I think informed Jesus’s teaching. When he set off on his mission, he took up the life of a displaced person with ‘nowhere to lay his head’ (Matthew 8.20; Luke 9.58). He asked those who acted for him to go out without a bag or a change of clothing, essentially to walk along the road like destitute refugees who had suddenly fled, relying on the generosity and hospitality of ordinary people whose villages they entered (Mark 6.8-11; Matthew 10.9-11; Luke 9.3). It was the villagers’ welcome or not to such poor wanderers that showed what side they were on: ‘And if any place will not receive you and refuse to hear you, shake off the dust on your feet when you leave, for a testimony to them’ (Mark 6.11).  

To give to the Red Cross Europe Refugee Crisis Appeal, follow this link.


  1. The founders of many of the world’s great religions were exiles/refugees forced to leave their homelands because of persecution by the people in power/dominant religion. Interestingly, this facilitated the spread of their teachings to neighbouring countries and beyond and enriched communities by bringing new ideas, innovations and fostering tolerance. Many of the world’s most prosperous nations were settled at some point in their history, by refugees.

  2. Thanks for this thought-provoking challenge to the temptation to turn away and build walls against contemporary refugees.

  3. The problem with this article is not speculation about the possible migrations of Jesus' childhood. It's with the article's initial attempt to connect this biographical lore, factual or not, to a mischaracterization of a current large scale geo-political crisis. Germans, Belgians and Swedes are less concerned about jobs, health, and welfare services as they are about their values, customs, and culture. Westerners globally are feeling coerced into transforming their societies in order to culturally accommodate both the internal political influences of multiculturalism as well as the very often violent and socially caustic behavior of the immigrants themselves, not to mention the inherent risk of terrorism. For instance, in Cologne transit authorities have created separate railway cars for women and children because they are no longer safe to travel as they have traditionally. This is one of many instances of such policies in which the host is being assimilated to the newcomer, not the other way around. The very mandate to treat displaced and refugee populations with compassion and hospitality has come to be a feature of a Western cultural worldview, but there's no way to ensure that trait's survival or effectiveness if few feel the need to maintain the civilizational legacy from which that worldview proceeds.