Jesus’ flight from Herod isn’t the same as refugees fleeing war/violence

Author’s note: This piece is simply looking at things from a historical perspective. It does not pass judgment on U.S. or European policy regarding refugees or migrants.

One of the newest ‘Christmas traditions’ is the discussion of whether Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were refugees.

It’s an emotional argument used to tug at the heartstrings of Christians – and others – over the plight of people fleeing from one violent country or another to either Europe or the United States. The debates within Europe and America over migrant policy – plus the vow by President Donald Trump and Republicans to “build the wall” – only exacerbate the issue as both sides throw slings and arrows at each other like two ancient armies.

The most recent discussion of “Jesus as a refugee” comes from Kenneth Reid at (emphasis original).

When Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” he wasn’t exaggerating. It wasn’t meant to be taken poetically or metaphorical.

Jesus himself really was the “least of these.” He and his family actually stood at the edge of a national border, hoping someone would have pity on them.

I’ve heard time and time again about the threat of terrorists disguised as refugees seeking asylum, and the rapists and drug lords disguised as immigrants seeking to start a new life. But despite all the fears we may have, let’s remember that Jesus was once a refugee.

I can’t help wondering, if Jesus and his family were on the other side of our borders right now seeking asylum, would we let them in?

The refugee crisis, the removal of immigrant children from their families, and the immigrant caravan must be Christian issues before they are political issues.

Reid’s thoughtfulness, and clear concern for those fleeing violence, is laudable. His call for Christians to help others is correct – as the Bible does implore the Church to care and provide for the poor.

There is a fatal historical error in Reid’s claim, “(Jesus) and his family actually stood at the edge of a national border, hoping someone would have pity on him.” He’s absolutely correct in saying Jesus, Joseph, and Mary’s flight was to escape King Herod’s decree for the death of all newborns – and they crossed from Judea into Egypt.

The problem is neither Judea nor Egypt were independent kingdoms in 1 AD or, if you prefer, 1 CE because both were considered provinces of the Roman Empire. Egypt was under direct Roman rule with a prefect serving as governor.

The situation in Judea was a hair different. King Herod the Great had a bit of autonomy in Judea but he was still under Roman rule as a client king. Flavius Josephus writes of Herod’s subservience to Rome in his epic tome The War of the Jews or History of the Destruction of Jerusalem. Herod went to visit Caesar Augustus in hopes of remaining in power in Judea following the war between Augustus and Marc Antony.

Caesar replied to him thus: “Nay, thou shalt not only be in safety, but thou shalt be a king; and that more firmly than thou wast before; for thou art worthy to reign over a great many subjects, by reason of the fastness of thy friendship; and do thou endeavor to be equally constant in thy friendship to me, upon my good success, which is what I depend upon from the generosity of thy disposition…I do therefore assure thee that I will confirm the kingdom to thee by decree: I shall also endeavor to do thee some further kindness hereafter, that thou mayst find no loss in the want of Antony.”

This means Herod had to adhere to Caesar Augustus’ wishes (see: the census which is why Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem in the first place) and even had to request permission to punish his own sons. He may have enjoyed some autonomy in making declarations (see: the order to kill all newborns) but – make no mistake – his power came from Rome and Caesar’s wishes.

Both regions had to ask, “How high?” whenever Rome ordered them to jump on all issues. It also meant the regions were supposed to get along and, essentially, let people cross borders without a problem (much like Americans can cross state borders) – if they had the means to do so.

This is why the argument Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were refugees doesn’t hold water because it was all within one empire – not from one country to another. Yes, they were fleeing violence (much like the refugees who are coming from Central America or warn-torn Syria) but the trio had an easier time crossing the border from Judea to Egypt compared to those looking to go into Europe or the United States.

There’s nothing wrong with using emotional arguments within debates – as long as they’re accurate. The plight of those fleeing violence is awful, but those trying to encourage Americans to be more amenable to refugees shouldn’t use Jesus, Mary, and Joseph because the political conditions were completely different.

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