Was Jesus a Refugee?

Every Christmas season, American evangelicals seem to pick up the same handful of arguments they discussed the previous December, renewing their outrage and drumming up support for culture war causes. 

Some of these debates are political in nature, such as the so-called “war on Christmas” allegedly waged by corporations like Starbucks and Target. Others are more theological—Did Mary really know? 

And then there are some that are a mix of both, including the question as to whether it is right to refer to Jesus as a refugee. 

The harrowing story of Joseph and Mary’s flight from first century Palestine to Egypt is documented in Matthew 2. Most of us know it well. Shortly after Jesus was born, magi from the east began tracking a star that they believed would lead them to the coming king of the Jews. After they discovered that the star pointed toward Bethlehem, they celebrated in anticipation of personally being able to worship at his feet. 

After a brief meeting with Herod, the client king of Judea who considered himself to be king of the Jews, the magi located Joseph and Mary and offered expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Messiah. These magi had been instructed to tell Herod where to find the child, but after being warned in a dream that Herod intended to kill him, they went back home by another route and did not disclose Jesus’ location. 

Enraged, Herod enacted an edict to murder every male child under the age of two in and around Bethlehem in order to vanquish his potential usurper. Nevertheless, Joseph was warned in a dream of the coming massacre, and he took Mary and Jesus and fled to Egypt. 

Tragically, an untold number of infants in Bethlehem and the surrounding area were not saved. 

It was only after Herod’s death some years later that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned to Palestine, eventually settling in Nazareth of Galilee. 

Is this the story of a refugee? Certainly, the term “refugee” is a modern conception, and likely no one in the first century had a political category for what we would now call a refugee. So it could be argued that referring to Jesus as “displaced” or assigning him refugee status may be something of a historical anachronism. 

Nevertheless, the experience of Jesus’ family very much parallels that of refugees, which by any common definition can be described as a person who flees their home nation for another amid political unrest or to escape persecution and violence. It’s pretty hard to get around the fact that this is exactly what happened to Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. 

Furthermore, when we dig a little deeper, we find that Jesus’ family shared even more of the experiences common to political refugees. 

For instance, Joseph was not a man of means. We know this because when Jesus was dedicated at the temple in Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary made the sacrifice of two turtledoves (Luke 2:24). This is significant because the sacrifice of a lamb was usually required. However, Leviticus 12:8 outlines an exception for those who could not afford a lamb, in which they would only be required to offer two doves—“one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.”

As someone who could not even afford a sacrificial lamb for his son’s dedication before the Lord, it is unlikely that Joseph had the resources to fund an international move from Judea to Egypt. Thus, he likely had to rely upon the generosity of others. 

How Joseph secured the funds necessary for his family’s flight to Egypt is a matter of speculation. Some have suggested that he used the gold given to Jesus by the magi, although it is possible that another benefactor (or benefactors) provided the resources needed to make the trip possible. 

What’s more is that Joseph likely had to rely upon a network of relationships to find someone who would receive his family upon their arrival to Egypt, helping them secure a place to live and means of employment for their multiyear stay in a foreign land. 

Now, some would argue that Jesus’ family technically wasn’t in a foreign land, as they were merely moving from one region within the Roman Empire to another—something akin to a United States citizen moving from one state to another—thereby illustrating that the term “refugee” is not an apt description of Jesus’ family.

However, this is itself another anachronism, since an empire is certainly different from a constitutional republic. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus—who most likely weren’t even Roman citizens—moved from the region of their own national identity to a region with a separate national identity, ruled by a separate vassal leader. 

What’s more is that while the upper echelons of Egyptian society at the time were thoroughly Hellenized and spoke Koine Greek, those in the peasant class, with whom Joseph and Mary likely had most of their interactions, were still thoroughly Egyptian in culture. Thus, while Jesus’ family moved laterally within the Roman Empire, in a very real sense, they traversed from one nation to another. 

In other words, we could go back and forth all day about whether “refugee” is technically the right word, ultimately arguing in circles. 

Nevertheless, for those who have fled their homeland in search of a life free from persecution and violence, Jesus’ story is a familiar one. So even if it is historically imprecise to refer to Jesus as a refugee, his family could certainly identify with the experiences of modern-day refugees in every way. 

So why the major backlash and annual argument over the nuances of using a modern word to describe a first century family’s flight from Judea to escape the murderous intent of a local leader? 

That, unfortunately, has everything to do with widespread biases within the American evangelical movement against the plight of refugees. 

Because if Jesus—the Messiah, God incarnate—was a refugee whose family only survived because of the generosity of others and the willingness of a foreign community to receive them, then we might be forced to reckon with attitudes that are less than compassionate toward the refugees of our own day. 

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m no expert when it comes to immigration policy. I do know that the process for seeking asylum in America is broken, and I think that people on both sides of the political aisle would agree with me, albeit for different reasons. So I am for robust policy discussions that grapple with the tensions between international compassion, personal liberty, and national security as we strive to create a refugee policy that is both equitable and generous.

What troubles me deeply is the “othering” of refugees that is so common in the political discourse and that such rhetoric is too often found on the lips of evangelical Christians. 

Regardless of what you believe to be a sensible refugee policy in America, you cannot deny the clear and consistent call throughout the entire Bible to “execute justice for the fatherless and the widow, and love the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). Indeed, more than even housing and clothing them, we are called to “love the sojourner” as an expression of our reverence for God (Deuteronomy 10:19). 

Christians are called to live out this ethic personally, supporting and contributing to organizations that help to house, feed, and assist those who are entering our communities as refugees and sojourners. It is also my conviction that we should support compassionate policies that have the best interest of these individuals and families, who are created in the image of God, in mind. 

I don’t see this as some progressive ideal. To me, it seems like basic Christian behavior. 

Again, good-faith Christians can disagree over the specific policies. But what we can’t disagree on is the fact that fear, racism, or Islamophobia must never cause us to think or behave in a way that would lead us to reject the very Son of God were he to arrive on our shores as a helpless infant. 

As Jesus said himself, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).