Q. How long did Jesus’ parents hide him in Egypt?

The starting point for the journey that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus took down to Egypt is shortly after the end of the wise men’s visit with them, before Herod realized, after a few days or a couple of weeks, that they weren’t coming back to his court as they had promised.

An icon of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt

The gospel of Matthew tells us that after the wise men had started back home, “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’”

We don’t know exactly when to date this historically.  It was, however, no more than two years after Jesus was born, because Herod then tried to kill Jesus by slaying all of the baby boys who had been born in Bethlehem in the past two years, based on when the wise men told him they first saw the star.  And since, according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus was born around the time of “the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria,” his birth occurred some time between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C.  (Even though A.D. dating is supposed to begin with the birth of Christ, it wasn’t quite calculated correctly in the first place and so it actually begins a little way into his lifetime.)

We have a better idea of when the sojourn in Egypt ended.  The gospel of Matthew also tells us that “after Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.’”  Herod died in 4 B.C.  So depending on when Jesus was born, the journey to Egypt lasted no more than two years, and perhaps as little as a few weeks or months.

It seems to me that the most likely scenario is that Jesus was born around 6 B.C., the wise men (by their own account) arrived in Jerusalem two years later in 4 B.C., and in that same year Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt, Herod died, and they returned.  So the length of their sojourn in Egypt was probably about a few months.

One takeaway from this investigation is the realization that King Herod the Great, who had been on the throne for 33 years, died a short time after slaying the children of Bethlehem.  We don’t always see immediately what feels like fitting retribution for atrocities like this one that he committed, but in this case it seems that the perpetrator very quickly joined his victims in death and had to answer for his crimes.

An interesting question that also arises is, since Jesus did find shelter as a refugee in Egypt for some length of time, whether He still feels a debt of gratitude to his briefly adopted homeland, and whether this provides an even further incentive for God to want to see justice done for all sides in current Middle Eastern disputes.  Speculative, but intriguing.

But the gospel of Matthew primarily wants us to take away from this episode an appreciation for how Jesus recapitulated the history of Israel in his own life.  The author quotes a historical recollection of the exodus from the book of Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” and says that through the journey to Egypt Jesus “fulfilled” this Scripture.  That is, he gave it a fuller and deeper meaning in light of the significance of his own life.

This same gospel shows how Jesus recapitulated the history of Israel in several other ways as well, for example, by spending 40 days in the wilderness, where Israel spent 40 years.  Ultimately through his death and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated a “new Israel” composed of those people from every nation who put their faith and trust in him.   The journey to Egypt, though it may well have been relatively brief, is another small signpost pointing in that direction.

A reader has asked this follow-up question: “Which angel told the parents of Jesus to go to Egypt?”

The biblical text does not tell us.  It says simply that “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream” and warned him that the family needed to flee to Egypt because Jesus’ life was in danger from King Herod.  So we don’t know which angel this was.