Early Thoughts on the Flight of the Holy Family

Early Thoughts on the Flight of the Holy Family

by Andrew Makkin

One of earliest post-biblical references to the Flight of the Holy Family in Egypt may be found in the writings of Hippolytus of Rome. He was a prolific theologian and biblical commentator of the early third century AD. He was active as a church leader during a period of disagreement in the church at Rome, and thus was appointed bishop by one of the opposing factions within the Roman community. In his Commentary on Matthew, he writes, "Concerning 'the days which will be cut short' (Matt. 24:22) because of the anger of the Antichrist - so the length of time of the Antichrist is three years and [six] months, for as long a time as Christ remained in his flight in Egypt."

In the verse that Hippolytus quotes from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus interprets a prophecy from Daniel concerning the end times, promising that God will "cut short" the sufferings of God's people in the final days. Hippolytus mentions the story of Jesus' flight in Egypt and interprets it symbolically as a sign for how long this "time of the Antichrist" would last, specifically, three and a half years. Since Hippolytus does not get the figure from Matthew, where does it come from?

The interprsetation of Scripture plays an important role. In speaking about the "time of the Antichrist," Hippolytus probably had in mind the book of Revelations, where a period of three and a half years is twice mentioned in prophecies concerning the end of times. Like other early Christian interpreters of Scripture, Hippolytus was interested in numbers and their spiritual significance. This numerological interest helped shape his understanding of the Holy Family's flight.

Hippolytus may have also been aware of early local traditions about the length of the Holy Family's stay in Egypt. There are reasons to believe that the Roman writer had significant personal contact with the Egyptian Church. In fact, he may have even come from Egypt, or at least somewhere in the east, since his writings indicate training in the Alexandrian School of Theology. He may have even spent some time with the famous Egyptian theologian Origen of Alexandria. We at least know that Origen came to Rome in 212 AD to attend one of Hippolytus' sermons. Hence, Hippolytus could have certainly gained knowledge of early Egyptian traditions regarding the Holy Family. To this day, three and a half years remains the traditional duration of their time in Egypt.

The story of the Flight of the Holy Family in Egypt was a source for controversy for early Christians in their debates with both pagans and Jews. During the second century, a Greek philosopher names Celsus actually accused Jesus of "having worked for hire in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having experimented there with some magical powers, in which the Egyptians took great pride." Later, Jewish writers would elaborate upon these accusations. One hostile tradition in the Babylonian Talmud (sixth or seventh century AD) claims that Jesus brought forth "witchcraft from Egypt by means of scratches [in the form of charms] upon his flesh" and that he "practiced magic and led Israel astray." The association of Egyptians with the magical arts was a pervasive cultural stereotype in antiquity, and accusations of magic were a common way of disparaging an opponent. By means of such accusations, both Celsus and the later Talmudic writers tried to slander the character of Jesus and undermine Christian claims that he was the Messiah and son of God.

However, such criticism drew lively responses form early Christian writers. Origen, the most influential early Christian thinker and head of the famous theological school in Alexandria, wrote "Against Celsus" in the early third century AD. It is an "apologetic' work (from the Greek word apologia, meaning 'a defense'). In it, Origen defends Christian teaching by highlighting points of disagreement with Celsus and debating his controversial claims. Commenting briefly on the subject of the Holy Family, Origen discusses the "miraculous circumstances" surrounding their "journey to Egypt." Yet, whether the Alexandrian scholar had knowledge of any local traditions about the miracles that Jesus worked in Egypt is unclear. By "miraculous circumstances" he seems simply to have in mind Joseph's angelic visions and the significance of the event in biblical prophecy.

Ultimately though, Origen's main concern is not to provide an account of the Holy Family's journey, but to defend Christian doctrine concerning the identity of Jesus. Therefore, he rejects Celsus' claim that Jesus' miracles were magical tricks learned in Egypt, and asserts that the flight into Egypt was simply further proof of Jesus' identity as the son of God. Yes, what is important about his work is it shows that the tradition of the Holy Family was known outside Christian circles as early as the second century.

Eusebius of Caesarea (Palestine, ca. 260-339) is best known as the author of the first "History of the Church" but he also published a number of other writings. In some of these, Eusebius addressed the topic of another controversy. It was not related to an accusation of magic, but rather opposing interpretations of biblical prophecy by Jews and Christians. Not long after 314 AD, almost a century after Hippolytus and Origen, Eusebius wrote a work entitled "Proof of the Gospel", in which he discusses the Flight of the Holy Family as a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. This was another apologetic work, but in this case, Eusebius' purpose was to defend the Christian faith not against paganism, but against Jewish criticisms.

At two places in "Proof of the Gospel", (6.20 and 9.2), Eusebius comments on Isaiah 19:1 and interprets this verse as a prophecy of the Holy Family's exile in Egypt. "Behold, the Lord is sitting on a light cloud and coming to Egypt; the idols of Egypt will be shaken by his presence, and their hearts will give way within themselves"(LXX).

The image of the Lord "sitting on a light cloud" caused difficulties for Eusebius in his debate with his Jewish opponents. Did Jesus actually come to Egypt riding on a cloud? If not, could one still interpret this verse as a prophecy of Jesus' journey to Egypt? Eusebius' opponents raised these questions, amongst others. How could Christians claim that "the God above all gods" actually rode upon such a cloud and "walked locally on a particular part of the earth?" If Jesus did these things, how could he then still claim to be the infinite God?

Eusebius' response, of course, was to interpret Isaiah allegorically. He argued that in fact there was no actual cloud that carried Jesus during the Flight of the Holy Family. Instead, the cloud is meant to be a symbol of the divine conception of Jesus, of how the Word of God "took upon itself a body from the Virgin and the Holy Spirit" (6.20.6). Therefore, for Eusebius, the Holy Family's visit to Egypt becomes a metaphor for the Incarnation, God's act of "becoming flesh" in Jesus Christ. By coming to Egypt as the Word made flesh, Jesus displayed a power that caused the idols and their demons to "recoil and be conquered" (6.20.11).

It is impossible to know whether this fascinating interpretation of Isaiah actually originated with Eusebius, or whether he was borrowing it from another source. If similar interpretations of Isaiah were circulating in Egypt in the early fourth century, Eusebius could very well have encountered them during his time there. Less than a decade before he wrote his "Proof of the Gospel", Eusebius himself was forced to flee Palestine to Upper Egypt (the region of modern Luxor) to escape the persecutions of the Roman emperor Diocletian in 310 AD. The parallels between his own 'flight to Egypt' and that of the Holy Family may have helped generate his exegetical interest in their journey.

In any case, the interpretation of Isaiah 19:1 as a prophecy of the Holy Family's flight has had a profound effect on later writers and the history of the tradition in Egypt. By the fifth century, writers had begun citing Isaiah to support local traditions about where the Holy Family traveled while in Egypt and about the wonders that Jesus performed in those places. In these local traditions, one finds the roots of what would later develop into the full-fledged pilgrimage itinerary of the Holy Family.






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Last Updated: June 14th, 2011