Refugee Jesus in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew
Recently, Casey Strine (Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature at the University of Sheffield) wrote for the Huffington Post UK about “Ancient Christianity’s Opposition To Trump’s Proposal To Prefer Christian Refugees.” In the article, Strine musters different passages in the Bible that speak to early Jewish and Christian responses to refugees, relating them to the Trump administration’s recent order to ban refugees from America. But what about other Christian ideas of refugees, outside of the canonical Bible? Some remarkable examples appear in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which I’ve written about before.
Those familiar with the life of Jesus from the gospels know about his family’s flight to Egypt because of Herod’s order to kill all children in Israel under the age of two. The Gospel of Matthew says (in the Douay-Rheims translation of the Latin Vulgate):
And after [the magi] were departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him. Who arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt: and he was there until the death of Herod: That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called my son. Then Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. (2:13-16)
Ancient and medieval apocryphal gospels drew on this same story, sometimes expanding it. Among these, Pseudo-Matthew largely follows this narrative, but adds several episodes about the journey. Jesus’ family leaves their homeland because of persecution and head to Egypt.
Along the way, the holy family is met by a curious amount of welcome. At one point, when they stop to cool off in a cave on the road, several dragons emerge:
And behold, suddenly many dragons went out of the cave…. Then the Lord, although he was not yet two years old, shook himself off and stood to his feet before them. And the dragons worshipped him, and when they had worshipped him they went away. (18:1)
Not long after this incident, other animals begin to join the crowd:
Similarly, both lions and panthers worshipped and accompanied him in the desert wherever Mary went with Joseph. And they went before them, showing the road and delivering obedience, and bowing their enormous heads with reverence they displayed their servitude by wagging their tails. (19:1)
Therefore, lions and asses and oxen and mules walked together, who carried their provisions, and wherever they made a stop together, they went to pasture. There were also tame rams who had come out of Judea together and followed them, and who walked among wolves without fear. (19:2)
All of this is included in Pseudo-Mathew as a way to link Jesus’ childhood miracles with prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. Yet the episodes also highlight the dangers of traveling: wild animals were certainly a hazard in the wilderness. Even these beasts show the decency of accepting the refugees.
Eventually, the family makes it to a city, and there the child Jesus performs a miracle of making the idols in an Egyptian temple bow down and venerate him. A local governor named Afrodisius brings a mob, intent to see who has defiled the pagan temple. But, when they arrive and see what has happened, the governor Afrodisius “immediately he went to Mary and worshipped the infant whom Mary held in her lap as Lord.” He then instructs all of the Egyptians to do the same. Clearly there are layers of theological content here, but one point of the story is to show how Christianity is meant to create unity, not division, between people from different ethnicities.
In the later Middle Ages, authors continued to expand the story of Pseudo-Matthew, adding further episodes to the core narrative. One of these expansions explicitly sets the story in Egypt, during Jesus’ time abroad with his family in exile:
When Jesus was three years old, he lived in Egypt in the home of a certain widow with his mother and Joseph. When he saw children playing, he began to play with them. And Jesus took a very dry fish and turned it to dust and ordered it to tremble. And again he said to the fish: “Reject the salt that you have within you, and go into the water.” And thus it was done. And seeing, the neighbors informed the female widow in whose home he lived. As soon as she heard about this, she cast them out of her home with great haste.
So not everyone treated the refugee holy family right in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. The story is an odd one, especially since the widow herself would have experienced a certain amount of being marginalized in the culture. Yet she looks down on Jesus and his family out of fear.
Again, the theological point behind the story with the widow is complex, here pointing to the fact that Jesus’ miracles can inspire fear. The widow also caves to societal pressure to see Jesus’ miracle as somehow threatening. This is often the case with the unknown, the Other. But, from a medieval Christian perspective, the text also has another implicit message: the unknown Other is not to be rejected, since we cannot presume to know the true nature of those who ask for refuge at our doors.