How long did Jesus live in Egypt?

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.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister who served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

44 thoughts on “How long did Jesus live in Egypt?”

  1. Chris it seems odd to me that the most important thing that has ever happened on earth is not better documented. Why isn’t the exact date recorded of Jesus’ birth? Why aren’t his life events such as how long he was in Egypt, just to name one, more obvious?

    1. Well, for starters, as a rule in the ancient world births weren’t officially recorded as they are now, people didn’t have birth certificates, etc. In fact, if there hadn’t been a Roman census in 6 B.C., we’d have even less idea of when Jesus was born. Beyond this, no one knew while Jesus was growing up that his life would turn out to be the most important thing that ever happened on earth. So dates and places that would otherwise have been better documented have to be identified tentatively by the kind of inferences I discuss in this post. (We have no real idea of where Jesus lived in Egypt for all that.) If Jesus had arrived with great fanfare as the heir to the Roman imperial throne, we’d know the facts of his early life a lot better. But he came in a very different way for an important reason–to show us that whoever would be the greatest must be the least and the servant of all. One consequence of that is that his life is not as well documented as we’d like it to be, but I’m sure we’d agree the trade-off is worth it.

      1. Don’t know that I agree. The Bible was written by God as instructions for us and to help us have an intimate relationship with Him.

        God has a reason for everything that He does, even when it is not readily apparent. Ascribing Biblical text as man’s opinions or the result of events generally can be misleading. Jonathan Cahn has explained how Jesus’ birth date was Nisan one, 6BC; or March 20th.

        The purpose behind understanding this ties it to the seven Feasts. To fully understand all of it requires understanding that Jesus [the groom], the Church [the bride] and the ancient Jewish wedding are the pattern for the Rapture. Jesus said that only God knew the time but God always warns us. Would He make an exception now?

        Reading the Bible for its true meaning requires that we understand it was written to the Jews using their culture and terminology. There is a wealth of knowledge available to those who hunger for its truth.

        I thank you for your efforts. To few do not care. May you be richly rewarded.

    2. This was before news, media, and the web. Oral traditions were the norm. More intriguing is the fact that the fathers of Christianity didn’t want to add a historical fallacy by guessing the date. Jesus was born, and that is that!

      1. You state His birth as an obvious fact, as if you had witnessed the event yourself!
        There is no historical proof that Jesus was born of a woman, only historical evidence that he existed as an adult, because Josephus, the 1st century historian mentions him by name. And of course, we have four gospels which all more or less agree the details of his ministry for the last 3+ years of his life.
        The nativity stories are generally accepted as myths and the arguments for this assertion are excellently presented in this article:

        http://www.religioustolerance.org/myths-about-jesus-birth.htm

        Jesus could just as easily, and far more logically, have arrived as a fully-grown adult on the day he presented himself to John for Baptism.
        He is predicted to return in the End Times and there is no suggestion in the scriptures that he is going to do so by being born of a woman then, so why should it have been any different when he came originally?
        The only possible reason for requiring the birth to be of a “virgin”, it said so in the Old Testament but the prophecies of the Messiah in the OT got so many details of his comingl wrong, that a large proportion of Jews to this day, do not accept him as The Messiah
        It would be a shame for children to lose the magic of Christmas Nativity but sooner or later they have to learn the reality of Santa Claus. At least in the case of Jesus, we know that he did exist and can still believe in Him, His Message and His Promise, even if the nativity stories are myth.

      2. You state His birth as an obvious fact, as if you had witnessed the event yourself!
        There is no historical proof that Jesus was born of a woman, only historical evidence that he existed as an adult, because Josephus, the 1st century historian mentions him by name. And of course, we have four gospels which all more or less agree the details of his ministry for the last 3+ years of his life.
        The nativity stories are generally accepted as myths and the arguments for this assertion are excellently presented in this article:

        http://www.religioustolerance.org/myths-about-jesus-birth.htm

        Jesus could just as easily, and far more logically, have arrived as a fully-grown adult on the day he presented himself to John for Baptism.
        He is predicted to return in the End Times and there is no suggestion in the scriptures that he is going to do so by being born of a woman then, so why should it have been any different when he came originally?
        The only possible reason for requiring the birth to be of a “virgin”, it said so in the Old Testament but the prophecies of the Messiah in the OT got so many details of his coming wrong, that a large proportion of Jews to this day, do not accept him as The Messiah
        It would be a shame for children to lose the magic of Christmas Nativity but sooner or later they have to learn the reality of Santa Claus. At least in the case of Jesus, we know that he did exist and can still believe in Him, His Message and His Promise, even if the nativity stories are myth.

      3. This view strikes me as being very close to the so-called Docetic idea, held by some in the early centuries of the Christian era, that Jesus was not really human (as he would have to have been born of a woman to be), but only appeared human. The broad consensus of the community of Jesus’ followers was that this view did not faithfully represent Jesus, as his life and teachings were passed down from those who knew him. Of course you are free to hold the view if you wish, but it should be acknowledged that it is not the consensus view.

    3. How about Islamic occupation of Jerusalem being the reason there are less records that we would hope. When Muslims capture a city like Jerusalem they destroy every bit of history documenting any civilization before them.

      1. I very nearly did not approve this comment because of its tone, but since it was made in reply to someone else’s question, I will permit the dialogue to continue in this space. I do not believe the comment is fair to Muslims, who, I find, have a profound respect for history and culture, even if it predates the founding of their religion. The Koran itself preserves much pre-Islamic literary tradition. It is only extremist groups such as the Taliban or ISIS, which hardly deserve the name “Muslim” or “Islamic,” that wantonly destroy historical records and artifacts.

  2. Thanks for your post. Good work.

    Here’s an interesting and related issue. If Jesus stayed one year or longer in Egypt he would not have been able to observe the day of atonement and various festivals commanded in the law of Moses. These commands make it compulsory for all Jewish males to journey to Jerusalem.

    If this were true and Jesus did not observe these festivals during his stay in Egypt. I’m not saying he sinned. Rather he didn’t perfectly observe the law of Moses.

    1. Unless the family went to Jerusalem for the festivals from Egypt during their sojourn there. The book of Acts records that Jews from all over the Roman Empire came to Jerusalem for the festivals. But as I say in my post, I think Jesus’ family were in Egypt for much less than a year.

      1. If Jesus’ family were in Egypt for much less than a year, why then does it say in the Revelation Prophecy of the Woman with 12 stars round her head, generally interpreted (incorrectly I believe) as Mary giving birth to Jesus, that she was transported to a “place prepared for her for 1260 days”, which equates to nearly 3 and a half years?

  3. The answers are in the Holy Bible.

    Go to REVELATIONS 12: 1 – 6.
    Jesus Christ stayed in Egypt for 1266 days which is 3 years and 5 months and some days.

    Thanks from South Africa

    1. You are assuming that the prophecy of the “Woman with 12 stars” relates to Mary giving birth to Jesus but this cannot be the case.
      A prophecy, of necessity, relates to a future event and the Birth of Jesus was already neary 100 years in the past when this prophecy was made in 93AD

  4. Great analysis and historical references! Do you think 430 days could work? For the 430 years that Israel was in Egypt! Drawing on the recapitulation.

    1. Actually, when something in the life of Jesus recapitulates the history of Israel, the gospel writers usually give the specifics. For example, it’s specified that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, recapitulating Israel’s 40 years there, and that he chose 12 apostles, mirroring the 12 tribes of Israel. So if Jesus actually had spent 430 days in Egypt, recapitulating Israel’s 430 years there, I’m sure Matthew would have specified the number. But a year and a half seems too long anyway, at least as I figure it, as I explain in the post.

  5. Thank you for your explanations, which are helpful. You have obviously done some study on these issues. However, I think you would enhance your credibility by finding a more fitting word than ‘recapitulate’. I have never before seen it used as you have used it.

    1. If you’re not yet familiar with the term and concept of “recapitulation” as used in Christian theology, you have some wonderful discoveries ahead of you. The term refers to how, as God’s redemptive plan unfolds and reaches its climax in the person and work of Christ, it can be discerned that “the end looks like the beginning,” although what happens in the end makes right whatever went wrong in the beginning. The concept has a venerable pedigree in Christian theology going all the way back to Irenaeus of Lyon in the 2nd Century, and it can also be argued that Paul’s arguments about the “First Adam” and “Second Adam” are an example of recapitulation in the Bible, although without that particular word being used. The way the gospel writers see Jesus reliving the experience of Israel is another biblical example.

  6. Please put more melaine in the skin of Mary and Joseph and Jesus! Remember they were hiding in Egypt! Those people are brown to black skinned in those days. I would think Yasohowa or Yahweh would want you to depict him correctly, as a black man. I would be afraid to lie on Jesus and his family. Thankyou.

    1. Is it documented that the holy family blended in with the Egyptians? They were hiding from Herod, not from the Egyptians. It is not true that the people of Israel are brown. Some of them are quite white. My brother-in-law recently had his DNA profiled. He is 100% Middle Eastern and when we went to the beach this summer I was shocked at how white his (ordinarily) unexposed skin is. He is whiter than me and I am of English/Irish/European descent. It isn’t that people want Jesus to be white. Or that he is depicted to be white because white Europeans painted him that way. It is that he most likely WAS white based on the fact that he was an Israeli and most Israelis are white. If you don’t believe me Google Israeli people and study the images. Keep in mind that they are exposed to a desert climate so they will be tanned but they are definitely not black. Not that there would be anything wrong with that but you wouldn’t be “lying on Jesus” if you depicted Him as he probably was…light skinned.

      1. I think this Christmas carol by Alfred Burt says it all. The 1951 language might be considered a bit politically incorrect today, but look past that to the sense of the words:

        Some children see Him lily white,
        the baby Jesus born this night.
        Some children see Him lily white,
        with tresses soft and fair.
        Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
        The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
        Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
        with dark and heavy hair.

        Some children see Him almond-eyed,
        this Savior whom we kneel beside.
        some children see Him almond-eyed,
        with skin of yellow hue.
        Some children see Him dark as they,
        sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.
        Some children see him dark as they,
        and, ah! they love Him, too!

        The children in each different place
        will see the baby Jesus’ face
        like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
        and filled with holy light.
        O lay aside each earthly thing
        and with thy heart as offering,
        come worship now the infant King.
        ‘Tis love that’s born tonight!

      2. Mary was Black…that makes Jesus Black. Joseph was told to take them to Egypt so that they would blend in. If you were to go to MANY old European towns and visit their churches you would see statues and pictures if a Black Madona and child. Much of this artwork was created BEFORE the sixth century. Before the present day world view of Black people was distorted and perverted.

      3. It say in the bible that his hair was like wool and his feet was the color brase. So therefor Jesus was black. (Revelation 1:13-15).

  7. How can you assert that a human can only exist on earth by being born here? We have been to the moon and will, in due course, set foot on other planets as physical humans, without the necessity of being born there.

    Jesus could have arrived on earth, in the same way we arrived on the moon, or by such other, far more advanced forms of travel which must exist on one of God’s many “mansions” which Jesus himself has told us exist in His Kingdom. “Mansions” must be interpreted by any modern reader as “planets” (let the reader understand)

    Are we not “created in his image” and did Jesus not tell us he was just a man? To be exact, he said “I am the son of man”, rather indicating that His Father was also a man!

    Can a man from another planet not set foot on earth except he be born of a woman on this earth?

      1. Where does Jesus, make such a claim? And if this was an important feature of his visit, why do we not have a complete record in the Bible of His birth and the rest of his life up to the time he presented himself to John for baptism, to support this allegation,

        Why can no one accept that the most logical and efficient way to have accomplished His mission to educate and prepare us, would be to arrive, carry out the mission and return to where he came from as soon as he was finished.This is exactly how his life on earth is recorded in Mark and John.

        Matthew’s account seems to have been structured so that the “prophecy” in the Book of Revelation of the Woman with 12 Stars giving birth to a child and being confronted by the dragon “should be fulfilled” Matthew’s gospel is riddled with accounts of events happening “so that the prophecy should be fulfilled” to the extent that his account of the Nativity is not taken seriously by scholars.

        Are we sure we have correctly interpreted His mission? If it was to die so that our sins should be forgiven, why is there still going to be a Judgement Day, when those found wanting will be cast into the “lake of fire and brimstone?

  8. “If it was to die so that our sins should be forgiven, why is there still going to be a Judgement Day, when those found wanting will be cast into the “lake of fire and brimstone?”

    Because salvation can only be found through following Jesus Christ. Everyone CAN be forgiven if they choose to follow Jesus Christ. In other words, only those who believe they are forgiven and ask God for forgiveness, can be forgiven. You must accept that you are a sinner and you must accept that Jesus died so that your sins COULD be forgiven (if you have faith)

    1. So what exactly was Jesus’ death all about? All he had to do was to explain to us that we needed to repent and apologise for our sins, otherwise we would be killed.

      We could have easily understood that without him having to die!

      1. Here’s what I say in response to your question–“What exactly was Jesus’ death all about?”–in my guide to Paul’s Journey Letters. In Lesson 14, which deals with 2 Corinthians, I note, “In his earlier letters, Paul mentioned in passing what Jesus does for us. He told the Thessalonians, for example, that Jesus ‘died and rose again’ for us and that he ‘rescues us from the coming wrath.’ But now, to help his friends stand firm in what they’ve believed, Paul begins to spell out how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection bring us salvation. This concept is so rich in meaning that it needs to be seen from more than one perspective to be fully appreciated. And so Paul explains it in several ways:
        – He says, for example, that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ”–restoring a broken relationship.
        – He adds that God wasn’t “counting people’s sins against them.” That is, God extended forgiveness.
        – Paul also says that God “leads us . . . in Christ’s triumphal procession,” portraying Jesus’ work as a victory over our spiritual enemies.
        – And he writes that “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.” In other words, Jesus delivers us from the conditions that characterize the ‘present evil age’ and enables us to live under the conditions that characterize the ‘age to come’ or the ‘new creation.’
        All of these explanations capture some vital aspect of what Jesus does for us.”
        Then in Session 19, about Galatians, I note that in this letter Paul “gives several more illustrations of how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection bring us salvation. As we saw in Session 14, this concept is so rich in meaning that it needs to be seen from more than one perspective to be fully appreciated.
        – Paul says here that ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.’ That is, Jesus substituted himself for us as the one under God’s curse for breaking the law.
        – Paul also says that Jesus redeemed us. That is, he paid a price to buy us out of slavery, because we were ‘enslaved’ to things that ‘by nature are not gods.’
        – Paul writes furthermore that through Jesus we have received adoption, meaning that God, having bought us from others who held us as slaves, didn’t bring us into his household to be his own slaves, but instead made us his sons and daughters.”
        Reconciliation, forgiveness, victory, new creation, substitution, redemption, adoption–these are some, but not all, of the ways that the New Testament writers and later Christian theologians would explain how Jesus’ death saves us. To bring about all of these effects and more, Jesus did have to die, not just explain something to us.

  9. El tiempo que vive Jesus en Belen es hasta que cumple 12 anos.
    y su fama de Hablar a la gente llega hasta Egypt y ahi le hacen
    una Iniciacion digamos Esoterica a el y a Maria su madre .
    Esto no esta en ningun evangelio .

  10. I was made to believe that Jesus did go to Egypt again in his adult life. This was after he heard of the brutal slaying of John the Baptist. How long did he stay in Egypt this second time?

    1. According to Matthew, after Herod killed John the Baptist, “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” It’s unlikely that this “solitary place” was Egypt because: (1) Jesus wouldn’t have gone there “by boat,” but rather on foot; “by boat” suggests across the Sea of Galilee, as the context in Matthew confirms (when they went back to the “other side,” they landed at Gennesaret, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, and (2) a “solitary place” suggests an unsettled place like the far shore of the Sea of Galilee, not a major civilization such as Egypt. So the gospels only record one trip to Egypt by Jesus, when he was an infant.

    1. I say in this post that Jesus’ parents took him to Egypt “no more than two years after Jesus was born.” So he was no more than two years old, and as I suggest in the post, the family was there “no more than two years, and perhaps as little as a few weeks or months,” so they would have returned by the time he was four.

    1. This is only a guess, but there was a thriving Jewish community in Alexandria. That’s where the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the few centuries before Christ. I think Joseph and Mary may have sought out friends-of-friends or extended relatives there. Here’s a link that will tell you a bit more about this.

      1. Thanks, Chris. I’d read Heliopolis and surrounding towns as candidates, but Alexandria makes sense w/ the Jewish community there.

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