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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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EGYPT.—The Gospel narrative comes into contact with the land of Egypt at one point alone, and then only incidentally, in a manner which seems to have exercised no influence and left no trace upon the course of sacred history. The record, moreover, is confined to the first of the Evangelists, and is by him associated with the fulfilment of prophecy, as one of the links which drew together the ancient Hebrew Scriptures and the life of our Lord. The narrative is simple and brief. St. Matthew relates that Joseph, in obedience to the command of God, conveyed by an angel in a dream, took refuge in Egypt with the child and His mother from the murderous intentions of Herod the king (Matthew 2:13 f.). The return to Palestine, again at the bidding of an angel of the Lord in a dream, is described (Matthew 2:19 ff.). Joseph, however, feared to enter Judaea because of Archelaus, Herod’s son and successor; and in obedience to a second vision directed his course to Galilee, and settled at Nazareth (Matthew 2:22 f.).

To St. Matthew it would appear that the chief interest of the history lies in its relation to OT prophecy. Both movements, the Flight and the Return to Nazareth, are described as fulfilments of the word spoken ‘through the prophet’ (Matthew 2:15), or ‘through the prophets’ (Matthew 2:23). In the first instance the passage quoted is Hosea 11:1 ‘When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt’ (מִמִּצרַיִם קָרִאחי לִבִנִי, LXX Septuagint τὰ τέκνα αὐτοῦ, ‘his, i.e. Israel’s, children’). Hosea recalls the deliverance and mercies of the past (cf. G. A. Smith, Twelve Prophets, in loc.); the Evangelist sees history repeating itself in a new exodus, which, like the earlier departure from Egypt, signalizes the beginning of a new national life, and is the promise and pledge of Divine favour. Egypt, therefore, to the narrator is no mere ‘geographical expression.’ The name recalls the memories of a glorious past, when Israel’s youth was guided and sustained by the miracles of Divine interposition. And to him it is significant of much that this land should thus be brought into connexion with the birth of a new era for the people, in the Person of a greater Son, in whom he saw the fulfilment of the best hopes and brightest anticipations of Israel’s ancient prophets.

The narrative of the Evangelist is absolutely simple and unadorned, and amounts to little more than a mention of the journey into Egypt made under Divine direction. No indication is given either of the locality or duration of the stay in the country. The impression conveyed, however, is that the visit was not prolonged.* [Note: Herod’s death (Matthew 2:19) would appear to have occurred not long after the ‘Massacre of the innocents’ in Bethlehem.] Had the case been otherwise, it would hardly have failed to find mention in the other Synoptic Gospels, if not in St. John. The absence, therefore, of further record is hardly sufficient ground for throwing doubt upon the reality of the incident itself.

This brief statement is supplemented and expanded in the Apocryphal Gospels with a wealth of descriptive detail. The fullest accounts are found, as might be expected, in the Gospel of the Infancy, and the Gospel of pseudo-Matthew (see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, Extra Vol. p. 430 ff.).

In the Gospel of the Infancy (ch. ix. f.), Joseph and Mary with the Child set out for Egypt at cock-crow, and reach a great city and temple with an idol to whose shrine the other idols of Egypt send gifts. There they find accommodation in a hospital dedicated to the idol, and a great commotion is caused by their entrance. The people of the land send to the idol to inquire the reason of the commotion, and are told that an ‘occult god’ has come, who alone is worthy of worship, because he is truly Son of God. Thereupon the idol falls prostrate, and all the people run together at the sound. The following chapter narrates the healing of the three-year-old son of the priest of the idol, who is possessed by many demons, and whose sickness is described in terms similar to those used of the Gadarene demoniac (Luke 8:27, Mark 5:2-5). Thereafter Joseph and Mary depart, being afraid lest the Egyptians should burn them to death because of the destruction of the idol. Passing on their way they twice meet with robbers in the desert. In the first instance the robbers flee on their approach, and a number of captives are liberated. At a considerably later stage of their journey (ch. xxiii.) two handits are encountered, whose names are given as Titus and Dumachus, the former of whom bribes his companion not to molest Joseph and Mary; and the child Jesus foretells His crucifixion at Jerusalem thirty years later with these two robbers, and that Titus shall precede Him into Paradise. On the road the travellers have passed through many cities, at which a demoniac woman, a dumb bride, a leprous girl who accompanies them on their journey, and many others have been healed. Finally, they come to Memphis (ch. xxv.), where they see the Pharaoh, and remain three years, during which period Jesus works many miracles; returning at the end of the three years to Palestine, and by direction of an angel making their home at Nazareth.

In a similar strain the Gospel of pseudo-Matthew (ch. xvii. ff.) records the number of attendants, with riding animals, a waggon, pack-oxen and asses, sheep and rams, that set out with Joseph and Mary from Judaea. In a cave where they had stopped to rest they are terrified by dragons, which, however, worship the child Jesus; and lions and other wild beasts escort them on their way through the desert. A palm-tree bends down its boughs that Mary may pluck the fruit; and as a reward a branch of it is carried by an angel to Paradise. A spring also breaks forth from its roots for the refreshment of man and beast. And the long thirty days’ journey into Egypt is miraculously shortened into one. The name of the Egyptian city to which they come is said to be Sotines within the borders of Hermopolis, and there, in default of any acquaintance from whom to seek hospitality, they take refuge in the temple, called the ‘capitol.’ The 355 idols of the temple, to which divine honours were daily paid, fall prostrate, and are broken in pieces; and Affrodosius, the governor of the town, coming with an army, at sight of the ruined idols worships the child Jesus, and all the people of the city believe in God through Jesus Christ. Afterwards Joseph is commanded to return into the land of Judah. Nothing, however, is said of the actual journey, but a narrative of events ‘in Galilee’ follows, beginning with the fourth year of Christ’s age.

According to the Gospel of Thomas, ch. i. ff. (Latin, Tisch. Evv. Apocr. [Note: Apocrypha, Apocryphal.] p. 156 ff.), Jesus was two years old on entering Egypt. He and His parents found hospitality in the house of a widow, where they remained for a year, at the close of which they were expelled because of a miracle wrought by Jesus in bringing a dry and salted fish to life. A similar fate overtakes them subsequently in being driven from the city. The angel directs Mary to return, and she goes with the child to Nazareth. The History of Joseph, ch. viii. f., states the duration of the stay in Egypt as a whole year, and names Nazareth as the city in which Jesus and His parents lived after their return into the land of Israel.

The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt has been at all times a favourite subject for the exercise of Christian art. William Blake, Charles Holroyd, Eugène Girardet, Anthony van Dyke, William Dobson, and many others have painted the scenes by the way with a circumstance and detail which are indebted, where not wholly imaginary, to the accounts of the Apocryphal Gospels. The reality would doubtless differ widely from the tranquil and easy conditions under which it has usually been depicted, and from which most readers have formed their mental conceptions of the event. The simple reticence of the Gospel narrative is in striking contrast to the luxuriance and prodigality of miracle of the Apocryphal story. All that can be affirmed with certainty is that the flight would be conducted in haste and with the utmost secrecy, and probably for the most part under cover of night. See also Flight.

Literature.—For notes on the Gospel narrative see the Commentaries on St. Matthew; and for the Apocryphal additions to the history, Tischendorf’s Evangelia Apocrypha, Leipzig, 1853. Certain features in the latter appear to betray Buddbist relations or parentage. For some account of the treatment of the subject in art, see Farrar, Christ in Art, pp. 263–273.

A. S. Geden.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Egypt'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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