The flight to Egypt.
October 5th, 2001
Received by H.
Hello, my dear H___.
When you read the gospels you realized that some parts appear only in one of them. Such is the case of the flight to Egypt of Jesus’ family. Only Matthew reports this. Mark and John don’t deal with Jesus’ childhood, and Luke mentions that after the census and once the period of purification of Mary was completed, as the Mosaic Law demands, the family returned to Galilee.
This is the reason why many Bible scholars think that events such as the murder of the children in Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt, are inventions, added to strengthen or to give a certain mystic flavor to Jesus’ history. It is true that the later gospel revisers used to do this, inserting parts into the text that they took from their fantasy or from their religious fervor. And the scholars typically explain this as follows:
Jesus was born somewhere in Galilee, where he passed almost all his life preaching. Only when he left his native region did he run into big problems, and finally they killed him. They say that the place of his birth was not necessarily Nazareth, but rather Jesus, at least during part of his life, lived according to the rules of the “nazirim,” like Samson and John the Baptist, and later also Paul of Tarsus, without cutting his hair, abstaining from alcoholic drinks, etc. But the gentile editors, with little knowledge of Jewish customs, have applied the word “nazir” to the village of Nazareth.
So the view goes, when they realized that the Messiah, according to the Scriptures, should be born in Bethlehem, they invented the story of the census, to find a pretext for Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. And they pushed things even further. In the Old Testament, in Hosea, we find the sentence: “And from Egypt I called my son.” Therefore, the editors invented the story of the massacre in Bethlehem, in order to find another pretext to send Jesus’ family to Egypt, and so, God could call His son from Egypt, fulfilling a prophecy.
But I have told you that the murder of the children and the family’s flight to Egypt really happened. It is true that Matthew himself didn’t write this in his gospel, it was added much later, but it has its foundation in fact. There were many traditions about Jesus which decades after his death were integrated into the gospel story, with embellishment, distortions, etc. But many of these stories have some basis in truth.
When Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus went to Egypt, there were in theory several possible destinations. The city with the biggest Jewish population outside Palestine was Alexandria, where science and arts flourished. But besides this imposing city, and capital of the Roman province of Egypt, there were many other Jewish centers in that country, like on the Elephantine island and near Heliopolis. And it is precisely to that city Joseph headed, because in its outskirts lived some of his relatives, and there he hoped to find help and a new start for him and his family.
You have already investigated the background to this not very well known story, and I propose that you write down here what you have discovered.
[H.: When Onias IV was to succeed his father Onias III in the office of the High Priest in Jerusalem, Jason and Menelaus, and later Alcimus, took possession of that position through trickery and deceit. Onias fled to Egypt, where king Ptolemy Philometor granted him a parcel of land near Heliopolis. Onias put hands to the work and built a temple around the year 160 B.C. A cult was really inaugurated in this temple, challenging the Law, but this innovation undoubtedly was fully justified, considering the vast number of Jews who lived in Egypt, and because of the scandalous conditions in the sanctuary at Jerusalem. The Jerusalem authorities, of course, censored the project immediately, but in Egypt it enjoyed great reputation and fame. The cult in the temple at Heliopolis continued for a long time, until the year 72 A.D., when it was abolished and prohibited by the Alexandrian prefect Lupus. That, of course, was a reprisal against Jewish institutions, as a consequence of the Jewish revolt against Rome.
In total, more than a million Jews lived in Egypt at that time. It was the strongest expatriate community, and exercised considerable influence even in Jerusalem, due to their financial contributions. There was a very good and very well developed educational network all though the country, and based on those facilities, the Jewish community achieved prosperity and scientific and philosophical advances. Alexandria became the cultural center for all of the eastern half of the empire, and great part of this position was owed to Jewish scholars. It was in Alexandria where the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the intention being of guaranteeing access to the word of God for the many Jews who little by little had lost their roots and could no longer read Hebrew. Their home language now was Greek.
The place in Egypt where the family settled was a city of considerable proportions, called Heliopolis. It was situated not far from what is modern Cairo. The Jews congregated together for safety as well as for community life.
There is a very interesting history to this community. The Romans had named Herod King of Judea. He had actively supported Octavian, with goods and soldiers, in his fight against Caesar’s murderers, Brutus and Cassius.
Cleopatra, on the other hand, dreamt of re-establishing the ancient glory of Egypt, and of incorporating Palestine.
The decline of the power of the Ptolemies coincided with the rise of the Roman Empire. They didn’t have many options, and seeing how country after country and city after city fell under the Roman aggression, the Ptolemies decided to ally with the Romans, in a pact which lasted two centuries. During the reign of the later Ptolemies, Rome won ever more power over Egypt, and was declared protector of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII had to pay tribute to the Romans, in order to keep them off his Kingdom.
Now Cleopatra didn’t feel happy with this situation, especially when she remembered the vanished power which once the ancient Pharaohs, and her own ancestors as well had exercised in the world. It was a question of her ambition.
First, seeing Caesar’s victory over Pompey, she allied with him, and Caesar helped her to defeat her brother, Ptolemy XIII, who also aspired to the throne of Egypt. But Caesar was murdered, and the Romans in general showed little sympathy for Cleopatra. Then, when a civil war exploded between Marc Antony and Octavian, and seeing that Marc Antony seemingly had better probabilities of winning, she forged the plan of allying with him. But it did not turn out well for her, as we know.
She even went so far as, apart from visiting Jerusalem many times, trying to entangle Herod in her “net of love.” The old fox Herod, who did not easily overlook a beautiful woman, knew of course, how dangerous this engagement could be. So he refused to ally with Cleopatra, gaining her hatred, which she never forgave him.
When finally Marc Antony arrived at Alexandria, the old friend and now rival of Octavian, the later emperor Augustus, Cleopatra became his ally and lover. And she did everything she could in order to punish Herod for his rejection of her.
She lied against Herod, and also against the king of the Nabathean Arabs, Malichus. But as you know, Rome was indebted to Herod, or let us rather say, they were grateful to him. And so Marc Antony could not issue an order to execute him, he simply could not, and he would not simply to satisfy his lover’s whim. But he took away large parts of Herod’s kingdom, and gave them to Cleopatra, as a personal present. Obviously he did not want to lose her affection either. In the long run this was one of the reasons he would later be killed, because Rome never forgave him that he gifted conquered territories, which Rome considered as its possession, to a foreign sovereign.
Herod had saved his head. But he lost a great part of his kingdom, and he lost Solomon’s famous perfumed gardens.
The legendary Queen of Sabah had brought them to Solomon, a story contained in the Old Testament. Then the proud king had them planted near Jericho, along with other seeds and plants, forming the famous perfumed gardens, where the most precious specimen of all Solomon’s realm prospered and flourished.
Later Antony gave those gardens to Cleopatra, and she ordered young plants to be brought to Egypt, more precisely to Heliopolis, where she planted them in a new garden, near the ancient Temple of On, in the village of Matariyah. She also had expert Jewish gardeners come from Jericho to make the shrubs prosper and thrive. So, a Jewish settlement established itself in the outskirts of Heliopolis.
At the time of the geographer Strabo, about sixteen years before our arrival at On or Heliopolis, the city was practically deserted, not having recovered from the destruction which it incurred at the time of the Persian invasion (525 BC). However various temples and buildings of historical interest were still standing and were pointed out to Strabo by the dragoman of that time. Later on, Heliopolis prospered again, but Jesus’ parents would have naturally avoided lodging right in this pagan city, and in consequence they sought a dwelling place nearby in which there had been Jewish families living on account of its proximity to the Jewish center at Leontopolis.]
Very well, and all this is correct. Sure, I know that you know all this, but my messages are not only for you but also for a wider public, and I find it convenient for you to provide this information which certainly is interesting.
It has been a short message, and more from your pen than from mine. But it has been important too. Because the stay in Egypt constituted a decisive phase in Jesus’ development, it provided him an extraordinarily fertile environment for his spiritual growth. Yes, once again, the Heavenly Father had transformed a calamity into a blessing.
Well, my brother, that is all for now. I just want to tell you that I love your portrait of Matthew. He looks sad, this poor boy, and certainly he felt so before he met Jesus. He lives now in the Celestial Heavens, as all the apostles do, and he no longer has those sad eyes (Judas laughs). He was a corrupt and totally materialistic person. Money was all that counted for him, until he met Jesus. And Jesus only saw a soul, God’s thought, as M___ would say, yes, a defiled and perverted soul, however a soul with all this marvelous potential of development, a soul screaming in despair, without even realizing this.
Yes, you are right. It is a quite modern personality; you can see his equals on TV. Do what Jesus did. See souls in despair, and help them, don’t despise them. They are marvelous thoughts of God, only covered with mud, but that can be removed.
Well, I will leave you now. No, I have not forgotten the Christian symbols. Tomorrow we will talk about them.
God bless you,
© Copyright is asserted in this message by Geoff Cutler 2013