The Flight into Egypt 

The Holy Family in the Land of the Pharaohs 

On the surface, the Christmas story is a very simple one. It is about the birth of a child. 

The child of the Christmas story, however, isn’t just about any child – He was the Son of promise, foreshadowed and predicted many centuries before in the Old Testament. On the pages of the Old Testament Christ is predicted and foreshadowed by type and prophecy [1]. 

There are many fascinating elements that comprise the Christmas story — Mary, Joseph, the Roman Census, the Magi, the Shepherds, the Angels, and the Star. Each one of these could have a book-length essay written about it. There is one episode, however,  that is often overlooked which carries great historical and theological significance — the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt (Matt. 2:13). In the journey of the Christ-child to Egypt, God is pointing us back to what He did in the past, for He is the same today, yesterday and forever (Hebrews 13:8). But with Christ, God was going to accomplish something even greater than the wondrous events of the first Exodus, which He accomplished through the prophet Moses (Hebrews 3)!

Mary and Joseph, with their newborn Son, wasted no time after Joseph was warned by an angel in a dream to flee to Egypt in order to escape the barbaric intentions of Herod the Great. History and archaeology have given us a keen glimpse into the tumultuous life of Herod, when Christ was born. 

Herod’s Violence 

Lee Levine, Professor of Jewish History and Archaeology at Hebrew University, Jerusalem states that Herod’s reign can be divided into three time periods: 

  1. The Consolidation of Herod’s power (37-27 B.C.)
  2. A Time of Relative Peace & Prosperity (27-13 B.C.)
  3. Herod’s Deterioration & Decline (13-4 B.C.)

“The first was one of consolidation, lasting from 37 to 27 B.C. The second from 27 to 13 B.C., was a period of peace and prosperity, marked by Herod’s close relationship to Rome and her leaders on the one hand, and an ambitious building program on the other. The third period, from 13 to 4 B.C., was marked by great domestic strife in Judea as well as misunderstandings with Rome, and was likely the cause of Herod’s physical and emotional deterioration [2].”

Christ was born during the later part of Herod’s reign, when Herod was experiencing physical and emotional turmoil. At the time of Christ’s birth, Israel was a nation occupied by Imperial Rome [Imperium Romanum] which controlled the entire Eastern Mediterranean. 

The Herodian era was certainly a bloody one. 

The picture that emerges from Josephus and the New Testament, is one of a paranoid, tyrannical, and murderous monarch, willing to kill even his own family if he thought they threatened his reign or his rule. It is no surprise, therefore, that he ordered the death of the innocents in Matthew 2. Bruce Scott writes: 

Herod had no qualms about killing. He killed 2,000 survivors of five cities that had rebelled against him. He had his brother in law drowned. He executed his uncle, his wife’s grandfather, his wife, his mother in law, and three of his sons. He murdered faithful followers, servants, friends, soldiers, pious men, relatives – often on flimsy evidence of rumors or coerced confessions… 

…One of Herod’s most barbaric acts is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 2:16. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Herod had all males two years old and under in and around Bethlehem slaughtered. He was endeavoring to exterminate the promised Messiah [3].

Soon after the visit of the Magi to the Holy Family, Joseph was warned to flee Judea and go down into Egypt. 

…And when they [the Magi] opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him [Christ]: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way. 

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” 

And when he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet saying, ‘Out of Egypt I called My Son.’”  (Matthew 2:11-15)

Bethlehem & Herodium 

Just southeast of Bethlehem where Jesus was born on the edge of the Judean desert, stands a large man-made hill-fort — a “palace-fortress” called Herodium – built by Herod, and named in honor of himself. 

Herodium was built long before Christ was born, and it held great significance in Herod’s own personal history as well as his rise to power. He built the citadel on a natural promontory and modified it as an enormous man-made hill-fortress. As recently as a couple of years ago, archaeologists have excavated a large monumental entryway in which Herod and his royal entourage would enter the palace complex. 

The small town of Bethlehem and the surrounding countryside where shepherds kept their flocks was visible from the very ramparts of Herodium. Because there were surely soldiers and guards stationed there, it is also very likely that those same soldiers were dispatched to Bethlehem to kill all male children two years of age and below upon Herod’s evil decree. 

Herodium (or Herodion) was a massive fortress built by Herod I – it was visible from Bethlehem when Christ was born. Ironically, it is also where Herod was buried.


Why does Matthew’s Gospel account of the Nativity include the verses about the Holy Family traveling down into Egypt? Was it merely a metaphorical story Matthew used to make his account more interesting to his Jewish readers? And, why Egypt?

It is no exaggeration to say that ancient Egypt is perhaps one of the greatest and most influential civilizations of all time. The majestic pyramids of the Giza plateau have towered over the landscape for well over three millennia, and serve as the very icon and emblem of Egypt itself.  

Pyramids of the Giza Plateau (Wikipedia)

According to the great Egyptologist, Sir Alan Gardiner, two of the earliest descriptions of Egypt came from two Greeks from the western coast of western Asia Minor: Hecataeus of Miletus (ca. 510 B.C.) and Herodotus of Halicarnassus (ca. 434—430 B.C.)[4]. Herodotus perhaps said it best when he wrote, “Egypt is a gift of the Nile” (Histories). The great Nile river serves a thin blue lifeline in a land surrounded by arid deserts and wastelands. When the early Greeks visited Egypt from the Mediterranean, they found themselves in a triangular swath of lush, green, and well-watered lands. The region reminded them of the shape of the fourth letter of their alphabet so they called it the “Delta.” 

Upper & Lower Egypt (and the representative “gods”)

It was also in Egypt that the greatest military conqueror in history, a Macedonian from northern Greece, Alexander the Great, became a “god,” as it were, and was laid to rest. In 332 B.C. Alexander advanced into Egypt as “liberator.” While he was there, he became enthralled with the culture and the great antiquity of the land. Alexander made the long and arduous journey across the Libyan desert in the west to visit a remote settlement called the Siwa Oasis, where an oracle pronounced him, “son of the deity of Amun.” 

Alexander the Great depicted as a Pharaoh praying to Amun at Luxor Temple

After the death of Alexander, his empire was fought over by several rival factions called diodochi [Greek for “successors”]. The diodochi included Alexander’s rival generals, as well as family members and friends. Two significant kingdoms emerged from that period. Both were established and ruled by Greek Generals who founded dynasties in their names. Those two kingdoms were the Ptolemaic Kingdom (305-30 B.C.), and the Seleucid Kingdom (312-63 B.C.). 

Ptolemaic Egypt 

In Egypt, Alexander’s companion and historian, Ptolemy Soter (the “savior”) established the Ptolemaic [i.e. Greek] dynasty which lasted from about 305–31 B.C.. During the time of Ptolemaic rule, Egypt became “Hellenized” and was a leading center of Greek culture and language. The city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander in about 323 B.C. became known for its incredible library, as well as one of the largest intellectual and cultural hubs, not only in Egypt, but the entire ancient world. 

As early as the founding of the city in 323 B.C. many Jews were present. According to Josephus, before Ptolemy took control of Egypt, he took Judea & Samaria, and is reported to have taken 120,000 Jewish captives there. They were later freed by Philadelphus [5]. Aftterwards many other Jews migrated to Alexandria voluntarily, very likely because of the liberal policies of the Ptolemies, the fertility of the land, and the great climate of learning. By the first century it is estimated that nearly one million people lived in Alexandria and one-third of that population was Jewish [6].

Alexandria, Egypt – From “The Description of Egypt”

It was in Alexandria that Hellenistic Jews translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek — called the Septuagint. The work was begun in the 3rd Century B.C. and finally completed in 132 B.C.. 

According to Josephus, Herod was also a political ally of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. After the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., the Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, Cleopatra allied herself with the Roman general Mark Antony in opposition to Octavian. In 31 B.C. Octavian’s naval forces defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium off the coast of Asia Minor, thus ending the nearly three hundred years of Ptolemaic [“Greek”] rule in Egypt. 

It is from these historical observations that we believe it is highly likely that Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus, made their home in Alexandria when they fled from Herod.

Was Egypt Also a “House of Bread”? (Fayum)

Micah 5:2 states: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” 

Of course, Christ was indeed born in Bethlehem in Judea, because of a Roman census (Luke 2). Bethlehem is also called “the City of David,” where David was born, and means “house of bread.” The symbolism of Christ as the “bread-manna” of heaven of course, was not lost (John 6:22-59).

But Christ also came, not only for the Jews, but for the Gentiles too (Isaiah 49:6 & Romans 3:21-29).

From history, we learn that like Bethlehem, Egypt also was a “house of bread” (fayum) for the entire Roman empire.

In 27 B.C., Caesar and the Roman Senate passed a law called, The Act of Settlement, in which Roman provinces were divided into two classes: (1) Provinces of normal and stable life, and (2) Imperial provinces. 

Provinces of normal and stable life were under the control of the Roman Senate who sent out a governor to rule for a single year. According to archaeologist, G.E. Wright, “The governors of all provinces under the senate, however, were called proconsuls, so the New Testament is correct in calling the governors of Cyprus and Acaia by this title (Acts 13:7; Acts 18:12)[7].”

The second class of provinces under the Act of Settlement law, were known as imperial provinces and were under the direct control of the emperor himself who delegated control to legates and procurators. The original group of imperial provinces included Egypt, Syria, and those in Gaul and Spain. Egypt stood above all other imperial provinces and held a special place in the Imperium Romanum. The primary reason is that Egypt was a bread-basket for Rome! Egypt was so important, that Augustus himself kept it as his personal domain. The population of Rome was very large in the first-century, and according to Roman records, there were about 200,000 who were on a free grain allowance. So, it turns out that Egypt was vital to keep Rome fed with its grain and bread during the time that Christ, Mary, and Joseph would have been there. 

Indeed, God would also feed the entire Gentile world and even Rome itself with the “Bread” of Christ who came out of Egypt when it was safe to return to Judea after the death of Herod in 4 B.C.. 

Although some biblical scholars have suggested that the episode of Christ’s flight into Egypt (Matt. 2) is symbolic in nature, there is no good hermeneutical or historical reasons to doubt the reality of the event. Christ’s journey and stay in Egypt can be firmly grounded in the historical and cultural milieu of first-century Roman Judea and Egypt. 

The Exodus: Paradigm of Salvation in the Old Testament 

Nearly two thousand years before the Holy Family arrived in Egypt, their distant ancestor, and founding father, Abraham also traveled there to escape a famine (Gen. 12:10-20) foreshadowing Jacob’s sojourn there, also because of a famine (Gen. 47:1-12). 

The ancient Israelites went to Egypt for safety, but they came out, by the work of God’s “mighty hand,” because He remembered the covenant He made with Abraham (Gen. 3). He brought the nation out and provided salvation, and brought them freedom from slavery, and accomplished it by His grace (hesed) (Deut. 7:7-9). 

The night of the Original Passover in Egypt (old engraving)

The Exodus is perhaps one of the greatest stories recorded on the pages of the Old Testament. It presents the very paradigm of Salvation itself, and sets the stage for Israel’s coming Messiah: the blood on the doorposts; the signs and wonders performed by Moses; the parting of the Red Sea; the sacrifices, the tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and even the serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21), all pointed to Christ.

Christ Brings a “New Exodus” 

One wonders what Mary and Joseph must have been thinking as they made their way south into Egypt at night. Did they look up at the stars and think of God’s promise to Abraham (Gen. 15:4-6) centuries before? Did they think about Jacob and Joseph and their sojourn into Egypt because of a famine in the land? The text doesn’t tell us, so we can only conjecture. Matthew simply quotes Hosea 11:1 – “Out of Egypt I called My Son…” 

Herod died in 4 B.C., and in a touch of irony, his final resting place was in Herodium just southeast of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. He was buried at the site in a large red-colored, limestone sarcophagus. 

In 2007, professor Ehud Netzer discovered the remaining fragments of Herod’s royal sarcophagus which had been smashed to pieces, presumably by one of his many enemies.

Israeli archaeologist, Ehud Netzer kneels beside the fragments of Herod’s coffin discovered at Herodium

When Mary and Joseph returned back to Judea with Christ, a new Exodus was beginning! One “greater than Moses” (Hebrews 3) would lead those in slavery to sin and death, to true freedom and true life. He would be a new Joshua (Yeshua) who would “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 2:21), and the fulfillment of God’s promises to David (Luke 1:32). But first, He would die as the Passover lamb (John 1:29). 

The child who was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the Christmas story (Luke 2), would eventually be crucified on a Roman cross, and “…cut off from the land of the living” (Isa. 53:8). But, three days later, His tomb was found empty (John 20), and a new Exodus had begun for all those who believe (John 6:29). 



[1] Type: “From the Greek word for form or pattern, which in biblical times denoted both the original model or prototype and the copy that resulted. In the NT the latter was labeled the antitype, and this was especially used in two directions: (1)   correspondence between two historical situations like the flood and baptism (1 Pet. 3:21); (2) correspondence between the heavenly pattern and the earthly counterpart (Acts 7:44; Heb. 8:5; 9:24). There are several categories — persons, events, institutions, places, objects, and offices…,” see, Grant R. Osborne, “Type, Typology,” in Walter A. Elwell, Editor, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984), pp. 1117-1119 [emphasis mine].

[2] L.I. Levine, “Herod the Great,” in David Noel Freedman Editor in Chief, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3., H-J (Toronto: Doubleday, 1992), 161 (emphasis mine). 

[3] Bruce Scott, Israel My Glory, Nov/Dec, 2006, p. 20.

[4] see, Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), 1-17.

[5] see, Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XII, chap. 1-2.

[6] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), p.50.

[7] G.E. Wright and Floyd Vivian Filson, The Westminster Historical Atlas of the Bible (Phildephia: The Westminster Press, 1956), 86-87.