Wait. Did the Holy Family Go to Egypt or the Temple? A Quick Survey of Answers

The Gospels at Mass two days in a row seem to contradict each other.

On Sunday, Dec. 27, we get the Presentation Gospel of Luke and hear of the Holy Family, 40 days after his birth, ending, “When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.”

On Dec. 28, we hear the Gospel story of the Holy Innocents, which ends: “When the magi had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you.’” It adds: “Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod.”

So the question is, which was it? Did they go to Nazareth from the Temple or flee to Egypt from Bethlehem?

In his letter announcing the year of St. Joseph on Dec. 8, Pope Francis briefly describes the general consensus on the timeline:

“In the Temple, forty days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary offered their child to the Lord and listened with amazement to Simeon’s prophecy concerning Jesus and his Mother (cf. Lk 2:22-35). To protect Jesus from Herod, Joseph dwelt as a foreigner in Egypt (cf. Mt 2:13-18). After returning to his own country, he led a hidden life in the tiny and obscure village of Nazareth in Galilee, far from Bethlehem, his ancestral town, and from Jerusalem and the Temple.”

In short, the line after the Presentation that says “They returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” doesn’t mean they returned there immediately. It means they returned there eventually.

If that sounds unusual, it is. That phraseology in the Gospel as meant the question has been raised throughout Church history. St. Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea collected commentaries on the Gospels. Reading it gives a quick survey of thought on the topic.

Aquinas quotes St. Augustine (354-430), a Doctor of the Church, referring to the Holy Innocents, suggesting that the Magi could have visited even before the Presentation in the Temple:

“[Perhaps], disturbed by pressure of still more imminent dangers, Herod’s thoughts are drawn to other thoughts than the slaughter of children, he might suppose that the Magi, unable to find him whom they had supposed born, were ashamed to return to him. So the days of purification being accomplished, they might go up in safety to Jerusalem. And who does not see that that one day they may have escaped the attention of a King occupied with so many cares, and that afterwards when the things done in the Temple came to be spread abroad, then Herod discovered that he had been deceived by the Magi, and then sent and slew the children.”

Along those lines, Aquinas also quotes German Abbot Rabanus Maurus (780-856) who explains that, even if Joseph and Mary were already afraid of Herod before the Presentation, fear wouldn’t keep them from fulfilling the law:

“Here Matthew omits the day of purification when the first-born must be presented in the Temple with a lamb, or a pair of turtle doves, or pigeons. Their fear of Herod did not make them bold to transgress the Law, that they should not present the Child in the temple. As soon then as the rumor concerning the Child begins to be spread abroad, the Angel is sent to bid Joseph carry Him into Egypt.”

On the other hand, Aquinas quotes the Venerable Bede (d. 735), also a Doctor of the Church, who says that Luke, with a different “chain of narrative” for a different purpose, omitted the Magi incident in the shortcut phrase that the Holy Family “returned to Nazareth.”

“Luke has omitted in this place what he knew to have been sufficiently set forth by Matthew, that the Lord after this, for fear that He should be discovered and put to death by Herod, was carried by his parents into Egypt, and at Herod’s death, having at length returned to Galilee, came to dwell in His own city Nazareth. For the Evangelists individually are wont to omit certain things which they either know to have been, or in the Spirit foresee will be, related by others, so that in the connected chain of their narrative, they seem as it were to have omitted nothing, whereas by examining the writings of another Evangelist, the careful reader may discover the places where the omissions have been. Thus after omitting many things, Luke says [‘And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.’]”

I first encountered the Presentation vs. Flight to Egypt question after Scott Hahn’s cassette tape “Protestant Minister Becomes Catholic” and Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism sparked an apologetics movement in 1980s/1990s Catholic circles.

Hahn recommended the three-volume work Radio Replies, by Australian priest Father Leslie Rumble (1892-1975) and published by Father Charles Carty (1897-1964), which records the answers Father Rumble had given on Australian radio to questions about the Catholic faith.

In Volume One, the priest answers the book’s Question 163: “Matthew 2:14 says that the Holy Family went to Egypt until the death of Herod. Luke 2:39, says that they waited 40 days for the Purification, and went thence to Nazareth! Which is correct?”

Their answer is that when Luke’s Gospel says that the Holy Family “returned to Nazareth,” he means eventually, not immediately. But then they aggressively push back at the idea that this kind of omission is problematic:

“Some people are only too ready to take an inconsistency for granted, and then to use their assumption as sufficient grounds for the denial of inspiration. This attitude is most unscientific. Also it must be noted that the argument from silence is very much abused. Remember that it has no value unless the author, according to his scope, be strictly bound to state what we find omitted. None of the Evangelists sets out to give every detail of Our Lord’s life, and it is absurd to say, ‘This writer should have given what we desire, if it be true; but he does not give it; therefore he knew nothing of it, and it must be false.’ On such a principle, any historian who gives what another historian chooses to omit, could be accused of falsehood.”

While Pope Benedict XVI in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, does not address the timeline of events directly, he rejects the idea that the Magi and massacre of the innocents were invented in order to give Christ’s life the details found in other ancient stories of the day.

Benedict insists that the Gospels aren’t exercises in storytelling, but are records of history:

“[W]hat Matthew and Luke set out to do, each in his own way, was not to tell ‘stories’ but to write history, real history that had actually happened, admittedly interpreted and understood in the context of the word of God. Hence, the aim was not to produce an exhaustive account, but a record of what seemed important for the nascent faith community in the light of the word. The infancy narratives are interpreted history, condensed and written down in accordance with the interpretation.”

Benedict favorably quotes Jean Danielou saying “’The adoration of the Magi, unlike the story of the Annunciation to Mary, does not touch upon any essential aspect of our faith. No foundations would be shaken if it were simply an invention of Matthew’s based on a theological idea.”

Adds Benedict: “Danielou himself, though, comes to the conclusion that we are dealing here with historical events, whose theological significance was worked out by the Jewish Christian community and by Matthew. To put it simply, I share this view.”

Benedict enthusiastically quotes Klaus Berger in his 2011 commentary on the whole of the New Testament:

“Even when there is only a single attestation … one must suppose, until the contrary is proven, that the evangelists did not intend to deceive their readers, but rather to inform them concerning historical events. To contest the historicity of this account on mere suspicion exceeds every imaginable competence of historians” (Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, p. 20).

Adds Benedict:

“With this view I can only agree. The two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel devoted to the infancy narratives are not a meditation presented under the guise of stories, but the converse: Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought through and interpreted, and thus he helps us to understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply.”

The only thing I would add is that contemporary secular critics sometimes treat the apparent contradictions in the Bible as a “gotcha!” where we 21st century betters have caught the silly errors of the simpletons who invented the crazy Bible stories. That is not the case at all. These apparent contradictions have been noticed and addressed throughout Church history.

The fact that the Church has preserved Scripture as it was found and not tried to “clean it up” for P.R. purposes is a testament to the intellectual honesty of the Church as well as its faith. Scripture has a lot to tell us: Our job is to believe and seek understanding, not to treat it as guilty of fraud until proven innocent.

Image: Simple medieval wall painting in a German church in Bochum-Stiepel, Wiki.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.