Nile Valley, Egypt

"So (Joseph) got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod." (Matthew 2:14-15a)

Matthew gives no details about the Holy Family's time in Egypt, but a number of apocryphal tales fill in details. These stories are especially important to the Egyptian Coptic Church. According to the Coptic Church the Holy Family remained in Egypt for a little over three and a half years. In fact, nineteen places in the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt are named in Christian traditions as having been places where the Holy Family stopped or resided for varying lengths of time. Two late traditions have attempted to identify their places of sojourn…
As early as the 5th century AD pilgrims visited the “Tree of Mary” near the ruins of Heliopolis, outside Cairo:

Under this sycamore Mary, Joseph and Jesus are supposed to have shaded themselves from the hot sun

Of all the sites connected with the Holy Family's Egyptian sojourn the most important is the church of Abu Serga (St. Sergius) in the Coptic quarter of Old Cairo, a city unto itself, located in Cairo's south side, just east of the Nile River. According to ancient tradition the Holy Family took refuge in a cave, now in the crypt beneath the church.
Abu Serga
Built in the 4th century AD, Abu Serga burned down around 750 AD. It was restored and has been renovated many times since. The church is dedicated to St. Sergius and St. Bacchus, members of the imperial bodyguard under the eastern Roman emperor Galerius Maximianus (305-11). They converted to Christianity and were subsequently tortured and martyred.


Sign pointing toward the crypt of St. Sergius Church

Matthew tells us only that the Holy family stayed in Egypt "until the death of Herod," an unspecified length of time. What happen during this time? To answer this question we must turn to sources outside the gospel narratives:
c. 6 BC (Assumed date of Jesus' birth, but it could have been as early as 7 BC.)
5 BC (Jesus about 1 year old, and residing in Egypt) - Near the end of Herod's reign, a group of students of the law, encouraged by Matthias and Judas, two well-loved teachers, invaded the Temple area and cut down a golden eagle that had been placed by Herod "over the gate of the Temple." (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, book 2, 1:2) But Jews saw it as symbol of Roman domination and a violation of the law against the use of any sort of carved images, especially in connection with the house of God and their most sacred shrine. The perpetrators and their teachers were executed, but the image, as far as we know, was never restored.
4 BC (Jesus about 2 years old) - Ever fearful for his own security, the gravely ill Herod ordered the execution of his son, Antipater, for a perceived conspiracy. Two other sons, by his beloved wife Mariamne, had been executed three years earlier; Mariamne herself met the same fate. Five days later, the sixty-nine-year-old monarch died at his winter palace at Jericho. The wealthy tyrant had spent his final years in agony, his mind and body wracked with disease. From the description by Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, it has been surmised that he suffered from horrible disease called Fournier’s gangrene, that affected his genitals and blocked his breathing:
"After this, the distemper seized upon his whole body, and greatly disordered all its parts with various symptoms; for there was a gentle fever upon him, and an intolerable itching over all the surface of his body, and continual pains in his colon, and dropsical turnouts about his feet, and an inflammation of the abdomen, and a putrefaction of his privy member, that produced worms. Besides which he had a difficulty of breathing... Yet did he struggle with his numerous disorders, and still had a desire to live, and hoped for recovery, and considered of several methods of cure. Accordingly, he went over Jordan, and made use of those hot baths at Callirrhoe, which ran into the lake Asphaltitis (Dead Sea)... Here the physicians thought proper to bathe his whole body in warm oil, by letting it down into a large vessel full of oil; whereupon his eyes failed him, and he came and went as if he was dying... He then returned back and came to Jericho, in such a melancholy state of body as almost threatened him with present death...So he for a little while revived, and had a desire to live; but presently after he was overborne by his pains, and was disordered by want of food, and by a convulsive cough, and endeavored to prevent a natural, death; so he took an apple, and asked for a knife for he used to pare apples and eat them; he then looked round about to see that there was nobody to hinder him, and lift up his right hand as if he would stab himself; but Achiabus, his first cousin, came running to him, and held his hand, and hindered him from so doing... So Herod, having survived the slaughter of his son five days, died, having reigned...thirty-seven years since he had been made king by the Romans" (The Wars of the Jews, book 1, chapter 33:5-8).

Sanctuary of St. Sergius with intricate pattern of inlaid wood and bone

As specified in Herod's last will (rewritten only days before his death), his kingdom was divided among his three remaining sons from his ten legal marriages. The largest part of his kingdom was given to Archelaus (mother: Malthace), while his younger brother, Antipas and his half-brother, Philip (mother: Cleopatra — not the Egyptian queen) were to be given their own smaller territories. These arrangements were tentative until ratified by Rome, and the people knew it, so a period of turmoil and unrest ensued.
Demands were made on Archelaus to reduce taxes, release prisoners and remove the high priest, Joazar, his late father's last appointee. Protests also broke out over his father's actions following the golden eagle incident. With Passover approaching, and Jerusalem filling with the usual huge numbers of pilgrims, he was worried that the unrest would get out of hand. Archelaus sent in a cohort of soldiers to police the crowd, but they were stoned to death. He then sent in his whole army and cavalry. According to Josephus some three-thousand casualties resulted and Archelaus suspended the week-long Passover festival. On this auspicious note he left for Rome to have his father's will ratified. Antipas soon followed to press his own claims under a previous will. Later, Philip arrived to support Archelaus and to safeguard his own interests.
With the brothers away in Rome to contest their father's will before the emperor Augustus, spontaneous uprisings broke out throughout the country. At Pentecost, the Roman military commander Sabinus looted Herod's treasury. Bitter fighting broke out in the Temple compound. Stones were thrown at the Roman troops and the rebels set fire to the Temple porticoes and pillaged all they could lay their hands on. The Jewish people, with the help of Herodian troops, besieged Sabinus in Herod's palace.

The turmoil spread from Jerusalem throughout the region as various men sought to name themselves rulers of portions of Herod's kingdom. In Judea, for example, a shepherd named Athronges, famed for his extraordinary physical prowess, proclaimed himself king. Together with his four brothers, he waged guerrilla warfare. They succeeded in wiping out a company of Roman soldiers near Emmaus, 16 miles west-northwest of Jerusalem (just off Route 1, the modern highway heading for Tel Aviv). Herod's slave, Simon, "a comely person, of a tall and robust body" according to Josephus, was proclaimed king by a group of followers. With his army, he burned and plundered several royal residences, including his deceased master's winter palace at Jericho. He was hunted down by a Roman military force and beheaded. At the Galilee capital of Sepphoris (Hebrew Zippori), 4 miles northwest of Nazareth, the Jews, under the leadership of Judas*, son of Ezekias, rebelled against Roman rule.
Peace was restored only when the Roman legate of Syria, Quintilius Varus, brought in two legions of troops and various auxiliaries and suppressed the uprisings. According to Josephus, Varus, burned Sepphoris to the ground and sold its Jewish inhabitants into slavery. The smoke must have been visible in the nearby village of Nazareth, creating a lasting impression among its residents. Varus also broke the siege against Sabinus in Jerusalem. According to Josephus, a total of two thousand insurgents were crucified.

* The fierce dedication of Judas and his followers inspired other Jews to form a rebel group known as the Zealots. During Jesus' lifetime these men engaged in sporadic guerrilla warfare and they were to play a leading role in the unsuccessful revolt against Rome in 66-70 AD that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

Crypt of the Holy Family, directly under the choir of the sanctuary. It contains the remains of the church's original sanctuary, built over the cave where tradition says the Holy Family lived

In the aftermath of the uprisings, Varus permitted a delegation of fifty Jews to sail for Rome to add their voices to the wrangling over the disposition of Herod's will. Preferring direct Roman rule rather than subjection to any member of Herodian family, they pointed out before Augustus the long period of misrule by Herod (from their perspective) and recounted Archelaus' recent slaughter of Passover pilgrims.
Augustus, who had procrastinated in the face of these competing claims, at last made his decision known. He confirmed Herod's will, but denied Archelaus the coveted title of "king" until he should prove himself worthy. Instead, he was named ethnarch ("ruler of the people") and given the largest part of his father's kingdom, consisting of the rich territories of Judea (including Jerusalem), Idumea and Samaria.
Antipas was given the lesser title of tetrarch, or "ruler of a fourth part" (of Palestine), and he inherited Perea (west of the Dead Sea; now part of Jordan) and Galilee. He chose the recently destroyed city of Sepphoris, near Nazareth, as his capital and began a major reconstruction. Antipas ruled throughout the lifetime of Jesus and is simply called "Herod" in the Gospels (24 times). He was supported by the Pharisees and a new aristocratic sect — the Herodians — who, although pro-Roman, preferred to be ruled by a native prince.
Philip, also designated tetrarch, was given charge of Gaulanitis (modern Golan Heights), Batanea, Aurantis, Trachonitis and Ituraea, regions north and east of the Sea of Galilee, mostly inhabited by pagans; he ruled competently for nearly forty years (4 BC-34 AD).
Also, Herod's sister, Salome, was granted a group of cities (Jamnia, Phasael, Azotus and Archelais) to provide her with an income (she died in 1 AD and willed them to emperor Augustus' wife).
Joseph, Mary and Jesus decide to make their home in Nazareth
Meanwhile, the news of Herod the Great's death reached Mary and Joseph in Egypt. Matthew's Gospel hints that Joseph originally intended to return to Judea and his ancestral home of Bethlehem, "but when he heard that Archelaus was reigning there (Judea)...he was afraid to go there."
Instead, Joseph, "having been warned in a dream," decided to return to his original home, Nazareth in Galilee, ruled by Archelaus' "milder" brother, Antipas.









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