Retired preachers get to preach on Sundays that full time pastors take off–like the Sunday after Christmas. The gospel reading for this week is from Matthew 2 about the massacre of the innocents and the flight into Egypt. After Herod the Great has been tipped off about the location of the child Jesus, he sends a death squad to exterminate the small children of Bethlehem. But Joseph dreams that he should flee. So he goes to Egypt with his family. The flight into Egypt was depicted in the Postal Service’s 2012 Christmas stamp:
I have always spent time on some of the historical issues of the Bible that would be too complex and boring to fit into a sermon. But I need the background for myself.
A lot of scholars do not think the nativity events behind our Christmas stories are historical at all. One reason for this is that there is a problem with Luke’s idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because of an empire-wide census. People usually focus on the contradiction between Luke and Josephus about the Roman governor of Syria, Quirinius. Luke says that the census took place under Quirinius, but also that Jesus was born in the time of Herod the Great. The problem is that Herod died in 4 B.C.E., but Josephus dates the census of Quirinius and his governorship of Syria ten years later in 6 C. E.
Those committed to Biblical inerrancy either say that for all we know Quirinius could have been governor of Syria earlier too, or they say that it was Josephus, not Luke, who was mistaken.
But the real problem is the idea of the census, not when it took place. First of all, when Rome took a census it was of Roman citizens. That Joseph was a Roman citizen is highly unlikely. But secondly, Bethlehem was in the realm of King Herod. He was the taxing authority there. A census was taken to facilitate taxation. Since the Romans did not directly tax people in Herod’s territory (Herod collected taxes and paid a tribute to Rome), and since the Roman governor of Syria would not have had authority to carry out a census in Judea during Herod’s life time, Luke’s concept seems unhistorical. This is one of the main reasons historical-Jesus scholars usually claim that Jesus (of Nazareth) was born in Nazareth. They usually claim that the whole Bethlehem scenario is theologically driven fiction.
However, Matthew agrees with Luke that the birth took place in Bethlehem. In Matthew there is no mention of the census. So probably there was a tradition that Jesus birth took place in Bethlehem that had nothing to do with a census. In Matthew, Mary and Joseph live in a house in Bethlehem. Matthew doesn’t need an explanation to get them there. That does not prove that Jesus was born there. But it does show that rejecting the historicity of the census does not necessarily mean that the birth in Bethlehem was unhistorical too.
My impression is that Matthew’s story is plausible. I mean Herod was the kind of ruler who motivated people to become refugees. And Egypt, with its large Jewish settlements, would have been a likely place for refugees to go. Matthew tells his story with a lot of midrash-like elements. He takes a couple of lines from the prophets out of context. He has a man named Joseph who has dreams and goes to Egypt. Readers are supposed to think of Joseph from Genesis.
And the story seems like a reverse exodus or passover story. Instead of Moses taking Israel from Egypt to Canaan, Joseph takes Jesus from Israel to Egypt. When a dream-angel gives Joseph the all-clear to return, the words in Matthew 2:20 are almost the same as those in Exodus 4:19. Those who wanted to kill you are dead.
In spite of these elements that Matthew builds into his story, the basic fact that people fled from the paranoid and murderous Herod the Great and found refuge among family and friends in Egypt, remains plausible.