Exile in Egypt
Somewhere in Egypt, 4 BC


"So (Joseph) got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod." (Matthew 2:14-15)

Many kindred souls lived in Egypt at the time and Mary, Joseph and Jesus would have easily found refuge there. Matthew tells us only that the Holy family stayed in Egypt "until the death of Herod," an unspecified length of time. But a number of apocryphal tales fill in the details. These stories are especially important to the Egyptian Coptic Church which states that the Holy Family remained in Egypt for a little over three and a half years. In fact, nineteen places in the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt are named in traditions as having been places where the Holy Family stopped or resided for varying lengths of time.

As early as the 5th century AD pilgrims visited the “Tree of Mary” outside Cairo. Under this sycamore (below) Mary, Joseph and and the infant Jesus are supposed to have shaded themselves from the hot sun.


Of all the sites connected with the Holy Family's Egyptian sojourn the most important is Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, also known as Abu Serga, in the Coptic Quarter of Old Cairo, just east of the Nile River. Dating back to the 4th century AD, Abu Serga is one of the oldest Coptic churches in Egypt. Although it burned down around 750 AD, it was restored and has been renovated many times since. The church is dedicated to Sergius and Bacchus, members of the imperial bodyguard under the Roman emperor Galerius Maximianus (305-311 AD), a fierce advocate of the old ways and old gods. The two converted to Christianity and were subsequently tortured and martyred. Below the church is a crypt venerated since the 6th century AD as the place where the Holy Family took refuge and stayed for 3 months. (l left) narrow passage leading to the church entrance (below right) sanctuary of Abu Serga with an intricate pattern of inlaid wood and bone.

(Below left) sign pointing toward the crypt of Abu Serga; (Below right) Crypt of the Holy Family, directly under the choir of the sanctuary. It contains the remains of the church's original sanctuary, built over the cave where tradition says Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus are said to have rested; when Nile levels are high, it is often flooded.

What happen during this time?

7 BC - Herod "the Great" executed two of his sons, Alexandros and Aristobulus (by his second wife, Mariamne). Mariamne herself had been executed earlier (29 BC), accused falsely of plotting to poison Herod.

6 BC (or as early as 7 BC) - Assumed date of Jesus' birth.

5 BC (Jesus about 1 year old, and residing in Egypt) - Near the end of Herod's reign, a group of students of the law, encouraged by Matthias and Judas, two well-loved teachers, cut down a golden eagle that had been placed by Herod "over the gate of the Temple" (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, book 2, 1:2). Jews saw the eagle as symbol of Roman domination and a violation of the law against the use of any sort of carved images, especially in connection with the house of God, their most sacred shrine. Although the perpetrators and their teachers were executed, the image, as far as we know, was never restored.

4 BC (Jesus about 2 years old) - Ever fearful for his own security, the gravely ill Herod ordered the execution of his son, Antipater, for a perceived conspiracy to murder his father.

Five days later, the sixty-nine-year-old monarch died at his winter palace at Jericho. The wealthy tyrant spent his final years in agony, his mind and body wracked with disease. From the description by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, it has been surmised that he suffered from Fournier’s gangrene, a horrible disease that affected his genitals and blocked his breathing:

"After this, the distemper seized upon his whole body, and greatly disordered all its parts with various symptoms; for there was a gentle fever upon him, and an intolerable itching over all the surface of his body, and continual pains in his colon, and dropsical turnouts about his feet, and an inflammation of the abdomen, and a putrefaction of his privy member, that produced worms. Besides which he had a difficulty of breathing ... Yet did he struggle with his numerous disorders, and still had a desire to live, and hoped for recovery, and considered of several methods of cure. Accordingly, he went over Jordan, and made use of those hot baths at Callirrhoe, which ran into the lake Asphaltitis [Dead Sea] ... Here the physicians thought proper to bathe his whole body in warm oil, by letting it down into a large vessel full of oil; whereupon his eyes failed him, and he came and went as if he was dying ... He then returned back and came to Jericho, in such a melancholy state of body as almost threatened him with present death ... So he for a little while revived, and had a desire to live; but presently after he was overborne by his pains, and was disordered by want of food, and by a convulsive cough, and endeavored to prevent a natural, death; so he took an apple, and asked for a knife for he used to pare apples and eat them; he then looked round about to see that there was nobody to hinder him, and lift up his right hand as if he would stab himself; but Achiabus, his first cousin, came running to him, and held his hand, and hindered him from so doing ... So Herod, having survived the slaughter of his son five days, died, having reigned ... thirty-seven years since he had been made king by the Romans" (The Wars of the Jews, book 1, chapter 33:5-8).

As specified in Herod's last will (written only days before his death), his kingdom was divided among his three remaining sons from his ten legal marriages. The largest part of his kingdom was given to Archelaus (from Herod's marriage with Malthace), while his younger brother, Antipas and his half-brother, Philip (mother: Cleopatra — not the Egyptian queen) were given their own smaller territories. These arrangements were tentative until ratified by emperor Augustus, and the people knew it, so a period of turmoil and unrest ensued.

Demands were made on Archelaus to reduce taxes, release prisoners and remove the high priest, Joazar, his late father's last appointee. Protests also broke out over his father's actions following the golden eagle incident. With Passover approaching, and Jerusalem filling with the usual huge numbers of pilgrims, he worried that the unrest would get out of hand.

Archelaus sent in a cohort of soldiers to police the crowd, but they were stoned to death. He then sent in his whole army and cavalry. According to Josephus some three-thousand casualties resulted and Archelaus suspended the week-long Passover festival. On this auspicious note he left for Rome to have his father's will ratified. Antipas soon followed to press his own claims under a previous will. Later, Philip left for Rome to support Archelaus and to safeguard his own interests.

With the three brothers away, spontaneous uprisings broke out throughout the country. At Pentecost, the Roman military commander Sabinus looted Herod's treasury. Bitter fighting broke out in the Temple compound. Stones were thrown at the Roman troops and the rebels set fire to the Temple porticoes and pillaged all they could lay their hands on. The Jewish people, with the help of Herodian troops, besieged Sabinus in Herod's palace.

The turmoil spread from Jerusalem throughout the region as various men sought to name themselves rulers of portions of Herod's kingdom. In Judea, for example, a shepherd named Athronges, famed for his extraordinary physical prowess, proclaimed himself king. Together with his four brothers, he waged guerrilla warfare. They succeeded in wiping out a company of Roman soldiers near Emmaus, 16 miles west-northwest of Jerusalem (just off Route 1, the modern highway heading for Tel Aviv). Herod's slave, Simon, "a comely person, of a tall and robust body" according to Josephus, was proclaimed king by a group of followers. With his army, he burned and plundered several royal residences, including his deceased master's winter palace at Jericho. He was hunted down by a Roman military force and beheaded. At the Galilee capital of Sepphoris (Hebrew Zippori), 4 miles northwest of Nazareth, the Jews, under the leadership of Judas*, son of Ezekias, rebelled against Roman rule.

Peace was restored only when the Roman legate of Syria, Quintilius Varus, brought in two legions of troops and various auxiliaries and suppressed the uprisings. According to Josephus, Varus, burned Sepphoris to the ground and sold its Jewish inhabitants into slavery. The smoke must have been visible in the nearby village of Nazareth, creating a lasting impression among its residents. Varus also broke the siege against Sabinus in Jerusalem. According to Josephus, a total of two thousand insurgents were crucified.

*The fierce dedication of Judas and his followers inspired other Jews to form a rebel group known as the Zealots. During Jesus' lifetime these men engaged in sporadic guerrilla warfare. Later, they played a leading role in the unsuccessful revolt against Rome in 66-70 AD that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

In the aftermath of the uprisings, Varus permitted a delegation of fifty Jews to sail for Rome to add their voices to the wrangling over the disposition of Herod's will. Preferring direct Roman rule rather than subjection to any member of Herodian family, they pointed out before Augustus the long period of misrule by Herod (from their perspective) and recounted Archelaus' recent slaughter of Passover pilgrims.

Augustus, who had procrastinated in the face of these competing claims, at last made his decision known. He confirmed Herod's will, but denied Archelaus the coveted title of "king" until he proved himself worthy. Instead, he was named ethnarch ("ruler of the people") and given the largest part of his father's kingdom, consisting of the rich territories of Judea (including Jerusalem), Idumea and Samaria.

Antipas was given the lesser title of tetrarch, or "ruler of a fourth part" (of Palestine), and he inherited Perea (west of the Dead Sea; now part of Jordan) and Galilee. He chose the recently destroyed city of Sepphoris, near Nazareth, as his capital and began a major reconstruction. Antipas ruled throughout the lifetime of Jesus and is simply called "Herod" in the Gospels (24 times). He was supported by the Pharisees and a new aristocratic sect — the Herodians — who, although pro-Roman, preferred to be ruled by a native prince.

Philip, also designated tetrarch, was given charge of regions north and east of the Sea of Galilee — Gaulanitis (modern Golan Heights), Batanea, Aurantis, Trachonitis and Ituraea — mostly inhabited by pagans; he ruled competently for nearly forty years (4 BC-34 AD).

Also, Herod's sister, Salome, was granted a group of cities  — Jamnia, Phasael, Azotus and Archelais — to provide her with an income. She died in 1 AD and willed them to emperor Augustus' wife.

As for the baby who was supposed to die in Bethlehem... He was safely in the arms of his mother and the ever-protective Joseph.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus decide to make their home in Nazareth

Meanwhile, the news of Herod the Great's death reached Mary and Joseph in Egypt. Matthew's Gospel hints that Joseph originally intended to return to Judea and his ancestral home of Bethlehem, "but when he heard that Archelaus was reigning there (Judea)...he was afraid to go there." Instead, Joseph, "having been warned in a dream," decided to return to his original home, Nazareth in Galilee, ruled by Archelaus' "milder" brother, Antipas.

Jesus' Life Home n Journey of the Holy Family from Egypt to Nazareth