The holy family flees to Egypt

Matt. 2:13-18 Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath (see 3 on Map 4). They escape by night, just before Herod orders the murder of all baby boys born in and around Bethlehem during the last two years.

 Church of St Sergius, Cairo

The Church of St Sergius in Cairo stands where the holy family is believed to have rested in Egypt
(Matthew 2:13)


The ‘massacre of the innocents’ was typical of Herod’s extreme behaviour recorded independently by the Jewish historian Josephus. Herod was intensely jealous and chronically insecure. He had suffered a severe breakdown in 29BC after he murdered his favourite wife Mariamne and his brother-in-law Joseph after falsely accusing them of having an affair.

As recently as 7BC, Herod had executed his own sons Aristobulus and Alexander (whom he accused of plotting to take the throne) and the following year, around the time of Jesus’s birth, he tortured each of his slave-girls in turn to reveal any further threats to his authority. In 4BC Herod executed his own son Antipater.


  Egypt in 5BC

When Joseph and Mary escaped with the baby Jesus to Egypt in 5 or 4BC, it was a friendly neighbour of Judaea with a large Jewish community. Following the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII (the last Ptolemaic (Greek) ruler of Egypt) by Octavian (Augustus Caesar) at the Battle of Actium in 31BC, Egypt had become part of the Roman Empire.

Its large Jewish community dated from the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 587BC. Six months after the appointment of Gedeliah as Governor of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar, Ishmael (a descendent of the King of Judah) had assassinated Gedeliah at Mizpah and had escaped to Egypt. Fearing reprisals, all the Israelites at Mizpah had fled to Egypt, taking with them the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 40:6, 41:1-2 &16-18 & 43:1-5). The Jews settled at Migdol, Tahpanhes and Memphis in the Nile Delta region of Lower Egypt (see Jeremiah 44:1 and Map 4).

After the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332BC, the Jewish community prospered under the Ptolemaic (Greek) pharaohs, and adopted Greek as their native language. As new generations grew up unfamiliar with Hebrew, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (the ‘Septuagint’) was made for the Greek-speaking Jews of Egypt in the 2nd century BC.

After the sacking of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167BC and the erection of the ‘abomination of desolation’ (a statue of Zeus) in the Temple (see Daniel 11:31 & 12:11), the Jews in Egypt built their own Jewish temple near Memphis, in fulfilment of the prophesy of Isaiah (see Isaiah 19:18-21). This Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in 72AD, at a time of intense hostility towards the Jews following the Romano-Jewish War of 66-70AD and the fall of Masada – the last Jewish stronghold – in 73AD. But this temple would have been the centre of a large Jewish community when Mary and Joseph arrived in Egypt in c.5BC.

Although the route followed by the holy family is not recorded in the Bible, Coptic (Egyptian) Christians have identified about twenty five places where they believe that Mary, Joseph and Jesus stayed during their sojourn in Egypt (see 1-7 on Map 4a). The ruins of an ancient church at Farma, and four monasteries in the Wadi Natrun are said to mark stages in their journey across the Nile Delta. At Deir al-Suriani (the ‘Monastery of the Syrians’ at Wadi Natrun), a 6th century fresco shows Mary nursing the infant Jesus.

The holy family in Egypt according to Coptic tradition
Map 4a  The holy family in Egypt according to Coptic tradition


In Old Cairo, tourists can visit the 5th century Coptic Orthodox Church of St Sergius and St Bacchus where the crypt beneath the church is believed to mark another spot where the holy family rested. In the Cairo suburb of Ma'adi, the domed church of Al Adaweya (the ‘Church of the Ferry Crossing’) commemorates the traditional spot where it is believed the holy family embarked on a felucca to sail up the Nile.

Upstream at Mount Durunkah, 5 miles / 8 km south of Asyut, the family are said to have sheltered in a large cave, around which has been built the Deir al-Adrah (‘Convent of the Virgin'), visited by over a million Coptic Christians each August for the annual Festival of the Virgin.

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