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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Flight

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FLIGHT.—The story of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is peculiar to the First Gospel (Matthew 2:13 ff.). The omission of it, and also of the manifestation to the Gentiles (Matthew 2:1-12), from the Third Gospel is surprising, since there rather than in Mt. we should have expected to find any story that brought Jesus into contact with the Gentile world. The surprise would deepen into suspicion were it not that the records of the Evangelists are so fragmentary; but that fact instantly relieves the strain.

O. Holtzmann, who cites the well-known omission in Acts 9:19-26 of any reference to St. Paul’s journey to Arabia (Galatians 1:17), frankly states that ‘the author who left out this journey of Paul to Arabia might well pass over, in his other account, the journey of the Holy Family into Egypt,’ and that ‘if we had in Matthew an account absolutely above criticism, it would not be difficult to get over the gap in the narrative of Luke’ (Life of Jesus, p. 85).

The silence of St. Luke does not, then, discredit the narrative of St. Matthew. But their records might prove to be mutually exclusive, so that acceptance of the one would involve rejection of the other. How stand the facts? According to the Third Gospel, Nazareth was, prior to their marriage, the home both of Joseph and of Mary (Luke 2:4; Luke 1:26), whereas St. Matthew (Matthew 2:23) first associates them with Nazareth after their return from Egypt, and gives no hint of any previous residence there. Further, St. Matthew, having told the story of the Nativity (Matthew 1:18-25), goes on to record the visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12), the hurried flight from Bethlehem and the sojourn in Egypt (Matthew 2:13 ff.), whereas St. Luke records merely the circumcision of the child (Luke 2:21) and His presentation to the Lord (Matthew 2:22 ff.), and then adds that ‘when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth’ (Luke 2:39). From those words one would naturally infer that the return took place immediately after the events thus recorded, and that no room was left for the episodes of the First Gospel. Is that inference necessary, or even well founded? If the narrative of Acts must be so adjusted as to take in the sojourn of St. Paul in Arabia, he would be a bold critic who would maintain that the terms of the other narrative inevitably exclude the sojourn in Egypt. It is to be noted also that the timetable of the First Gospel is sufficiently elastic to embrace easily the events recorded in the Third. For we find there that, ‘according to the time which he had carefully learned of the wise men,’ Herod’s inhuman edict included all the children in Bethlehem ‘from two years old and under’ (Matthew 2:16).

The difficulty, therefore, is not one of chronology. Even if it were, such an objection would lose both point and edge in the hands of those who used it, except on the theory that Jesus was, after all, born in Bethlehem. For, even granting that the immediate return to Nazareth is the natural inference from St. Luke’s account, yet the force of any argument based upon it fails the very moment that Nazareth and not Bethlehem is made the scene of the Nativity. On that showing, St. Luke’s story is itself untrustworthy, and so cannot be used to discredit another story which is inconsistent with it.

The real difficulty is of quite a different sort: it is that we have not in St. Matthew ‘an account absolutely above criticism.’ It might very pertinently be asked if we have any right to expect such an account. Stories of the childhood of a great man are never written while he is still a child, but only after he has achieved greatness; and even then they are written, not necessarily because of their own intrinsic importance, but because they have caught some of the glory of the afterglow. Now, it was not until Jesus had already won His place in the hearts of men that our Gospels were written. In the circumstances of the case, therefore, these records could not be other than fragmentary, and a fragmentary account can never be ‘absolutely above criticism.’

But presumably the special criticism to which these incidents of the Infancy lie open, is that they are no more entitled to belief than, say, those recorded in the Apocryphal Gospels. The Gospel of the Infancy, e.g., weaves around the Flight into Egypt a fantastic garland of miracle and wonder. This wreath of fairy tales is by common consent stripped off and laid aside as unhistorical embellishment. Should not the Flight itself be laid with them as equally unworthy of credence? The question opens up a subject much too large to be discussed here. But one may at least ask if it is not too drastic a measure to destroy the ship because one has had to remove the barnacles, or to remove the peg because a worthless coat has been hung on it. Are these narratives so much of a piece that, if we reject some of them, we must reject all? Surely the fact is not without significance that the Evangelist preserves the story of the Flight, but records none of the marvels that have clustered round it. For if these other stories were extant when he wrote, he must have been cognizant of them, and his rejection of them must have been deliberate. On the other hand, if they were of a later growth, his tradition is thereby marked as older and, to that extent, more trustworthy.

But, says Keim (Life of Jesus, ii. 94), ‘it bears all the marks of a poetic picture.’ Is there, then, no poetry in real life? If a story is poetic, is it thereby branded as unhistorical? ‘Intertwined with the narrative is a no less than threefold revelation by an angel, almost too much for the thrift of heaven.’ The objection would be valid in the case of a story written in modern times by a man of the West, but is shorn of its force when one remembers that this story was written by an Oriental some eighteen centuries ago.

Much more apposite is the contention that ‘the enormous toil of such a journey with a little child, was such as only legend, aided or not by miracles, could easily get over.’ The toilsomeness of the journey is not denied; no one imagines that it was ‘easily got over.’ May not our Lord’s own words (Matthew 24:20, Mark 13:18) be an echo of the hardships Joseph and Mary had to endure in bearing Him to a place of refuge? But the cogency of Keim’s argument vanishes when we remember that this was a flight for life (see Innocents). In such circumstances, hardships are little accounted. But ‘they might have found a nearer refuge among the Arabs of the south or west.’ Surely this criticism is singularly inept. A temporary and brief refuge might thus have been found, but no one knew how long it would be ere the wanderers could safely return to their own land. What was needed was an asylum in which they could quietly abide till all danger was past, and where Joseph could find employment which would enable him to provide for his household.

Equally beside the mark is the attempt to explain the story as in some way parallel to the sojourn of Moses in Egypt. The two stories are rich, not in resemblance, but in contrast: they have absolutely nothing in common save the word ‘Egypt.’ The attempt to derive the one from the other is a triumph of misdirected ingenuity.

Quite as little avails the expedient of deducing the narrative from the prophecy of Hosea (Hosea 11:1), as O. Holtzmann would evidently do. ‘For the story about the Lord’s childhood the Gospel of Matthew seems to have drawn principally upon certain indications in the Old Testament’ (Life of Jesus, p. 86). One can readily enough understand how a Jewish Christian might see in the narrative of the Flight a richer fulfilment of the prophet’s words, but it is almost incredible that the incident should be invented as a commentary on the words, and all the more so when the words in question are not a prophecy, but a historical reference. Still less credible does the suggestion become when we find that we should require to believe not merely that the Flight was invented to explain the prophecy, but further that the Massacre of the Innocents had next to be invented to explain the Flight, and the visit of the Magi to explain the Massacre. Acceptance of such a theory involves a much larger draft on one’s credulity than does acceptance of the incident itself as historical.

The question may still arise, What motive led the Evangelist to record this event? Need we seek for any motive? He wanted to tell about Jesus: would it not be enough for him that this was a story of the childhood of the loved Master, and that he believed it to be authentic?

‘Egypt has, in all ages, been the natural place of refuge for all who were driven from Palestine by distress, persecution, or discontent’ (Farrar, Life of Christ, ch. iv.). It need create no surprise, therefore, that it was towards Egypt the fugitives bent their steps. There they would be without Herod’s jurisdiction and beyond the reach of his vengeance; the road was a well-known one, and some three days would suffice to bring them to the frontier. Of the incidents of the journey we have no reliable information, nor are we told in what part of Egypt the wanderers at length found rest and refuge. Tradition has assigned this distinction to Matarịeh (the ancient Heliopolis), which lies a few miles north-east from Cairo; and there is no good reason why the tradition may not be correct. It is known that in that neighbourhood there was a considerable Jewish population. That fact would have undoubted weight with Joseph, as it held out to him the prospect of obtaining suitable employment. The duration of the sojourn in Egypt has been very variously stated, some reckoning it as having extended over one, two, three, or even seven years. But we may take it as certain that it was in reality very brief, seeing the death of Herod occurred very shortly after the period at which the Flight must have taken place. See also art. Egypt.

Literature.—W. G. Elmslie in Expositor, i. vi. [1877] 401–411; Farrar, Christ in Art, 263–273. For a vivid conception of the circumstances of the Flight into Egypt, no less than of the relations between the Child Jesus and the slain infants of Bethlehem, see Holman Hunt’s ‘Triumph of the Innocents.’

Hugh Duncan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Flight'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/f/flight.html. 1906-1918.

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