‘After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go back to the land of Israel, because those who tried to kill the child are dead.” So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went back to Israel.
‘But when Joseph heard that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as king of Judea, he was afraid to go there. He was given more instructions in a dream, so he went to the province of Galilee and made his home in a town named Nazareth. And so what the prophet had said came true: “He will be called a Nazarene” ‘
English: Herod Archelaus was the ethnarch of Samaria, Judea, and Edom from 4 BC to 6 AD. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As an historian, I find this piece both fascinating and puzzling, because it underlines the differences between the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. Up until the end of Matthew’s account, the accounts can interlace. However, Luke ends his account with the passage above, whereas Luke concludes with Jesus’ naming and presentation in Jerusalem, which he dates, according to ‘the Law of Moses’ as a week after the child’s birth and the visit of the shepherds. Also, this is the first mention Matthew makes of Nazareth. All his ‘reports’ come from Bethlehem, and here he feels the need to explain why the family settled in Nazareth and not in Bethlehem. Of course, he doesn’t say they were a Judean family either, but whereas Luke makes clear the reason they were ‘only visiting’ Bethlehem at the time of the birth, Matthew seems to suggest that they had to settle in Galilee because Judea was far too dangerous, despite the death of ‘Herod the Great‘. This also seems to suggest that, at the very least, Joseph had strong family ties to Bethlehem, which would have made an ‘undercover’ return to Judea possible. Indeed, the fact that Matthew does not refer to the birth taking place in the ’emergency accommodation’ of Luke’s ‘manger’ suggests that they had a family home in ‘the little town’ where they could stay, and that perhaps they had been on their way there when the baby arrived ‘prematurely’.
This view finds support from the apocryphal Gospel of James, which focuses in detail on the birth narratives, recording the birth as taking place in a cave used for keeping livestock, by the road to Bethlehem. For me, that makes the story even more human, having been through the ‘will we make it to the hospital before baby arrives’ scenario, like many other ‘expectant’ fathers!
English: This is a map of first century Iudaea Province that I created using Illustrator CS2. I traced this image for the general geographic features. I then manually input data from maps found in a couple of sources. Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco: 1998. p. xxiv. Michael Grant. Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1977. p. 65-67. John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew. Doubleday: 1991. p. 1:434. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
However, the more important difference, since the basis of the Christian faith is the historical Jesus, the incarnation in Earth’s space and time, is that, for the flight to Egypt, Herod’s death, the return and the presentation in the Temple to have all taken place within a week, would have been meant an action-packed week for a young mother and child, even if they had not gone much further along the road to Egypt than Gaza, as first century Palestinian refugees. Certainly, right up until the time of his death, which has been accurately dated to the end of March/ beginning of April 4 B.C., Herod was committing terrible atrocities on his own people. The following comes from the biblical scholar, Daniel B Wallace from www.bible.org, on the record of these provided by the Jewish historian:
‘Josephus tells us much about Herod. The best word to describe his reign is ‘overkill.’ He murdered his favourite wife’s father, drowned her brother–and even killed her! He executed one of his most trusted friends, his barber, and 300 military leaders–all in a day’s work! Then he slew three of his sons, allegedly suspecting them of treason. Josephus tells us that “Herod inflicted such outrages upon (the Jews) as not even a beast could have done if it possessed the power to rule over men” (Antiquities of the Jews 17:310). Killing babies was not out of character for this cruel king. And killing them up to two years old–to make sure he got the baby Jesus lines up with his insane jealousy for power.
‘Josephus might have omitted the slaying of the babies for one of two reasons: first, he was no friend of Christianity and he left it out intentionally; or second, just before Herod died he locked up 3000 of the nation’s leading citizens and gave orders that they were to be executed at the hour of his death. He wanted to make sure that there would be mourning when he died. . . Israel was so preoccupied with this that the clandestine murder of a few babies might have gone unnoticed. . .’
Watching again the scenes from North Korea at this time of year, three years ago, it was easy to see how, even in a world of mass and instantaneous communication, how it’s possible for dictators to hide the real truth of their tyranny behind a thin veneer of carefully choreographed, if seemingly spontaneous, devotion to a leader. When Jesus was born in the late winter or early spring of 4 B.C. he came into a country, Judea, which was a state living under terror, likely to continue under Herod’s successor. So, he became a refugee on the road through Gaza to Egypt, and grew up ‘in exile’ from his father’s ancestral home, in northern Palestine, or the kingdom of Israel, outside the jurisdiction of Archalaus, Herod’s son. There’s both a contemporary and timeless message in all that history somewhere, isn’t there? That’s what makes Christianity so unique as a faith. Emmanuel. God with us in every human experience.