Was Jesus a Refugee?

was jesus a refugee and should we care?

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

Over the Christmas holidays I heard many references to Jesus being a refugee. This happens most years, but this year it was given extra credence by the number of migrants trying to cross the Channel in small dinghies and bitterness directed at President Trump over his border policy e.g. actually having one. Mainly this line is used by those on the left who are atheist or non-Christian, in order to urge people to take in refugees and migrants, whether legal or illegal. The idea is that if Jesus was a refugee, then if you are Christian you should agree to take in all migrants, as after all you wouldn’t turn away the Lord Jesus, would you? This is rather muddled thinking at best, but I thought to myself why not examine the claims in depth to see if Jesus was a refugee, what implications this may have, as well as what Jesus may have said about migration.

Many attribute the idea to Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem. If we examine the bible verse:

“At that time a proclamation was made by Caesar Augustus that all the inhabited world should be registered. This was the first census, undertaken while Cyrenius was governor of Syria and everybody went to the town of his birth to be registered. Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s town, Bethlehem, in Judea, because he was a direct descendant of David, to be registered with his future wife, Mary, now in the later stages of her pregnancy. So it happened that it was while they were there in Bethlehem that she came to the end of her time. She gave birth to her first child, a son. And as there was no place for them inside the inn, she wrapped him up and laid him in a manger.” –Luke 2:1-7

Mary and Joseph were certainly travelling, but within their own lands. They travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for a census, according to Luke. This is a journey estimated at around 80-100 miles depending on the route taken. While a lengthy trek for those times, it is not an international journey such as many migrants make today. If they were travelling for a census (and this is disputed by some) then they were complying with Roman law at the time, not fleeing for their lives. There was no room at the Inn because the town was full of people returning to register for the census, not because they were turned away out of spite. Clearly using this idea is incorrect as it does not show Jesus as a refugee. We need to look elsewhere.

Shortly after Jesus was born, he and his family were visited by the wise men, or Magi. They had travelled out of the East, mostly likely modern-day Iran. They had passed through Jerusalem, where they saw Herod, the ruler who was a client king for the Romans. This was a tactic they used quite often, as native populations were more tractable if nominally ruled by one of their own. The Magi told him they had come to worship a king of the Jews and were following a star. Herod asks them to inform him when they find him, so he can also worship. As Herod was nominally king of the Jews, anyone else claiming that title would be a threat to him. The Magi visit Jesus and present him with gifts but are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Joseph is also warned and told to flee to Egypt.

“…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” –Matthew 2:13

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.” –Matthew 2:16

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.” –Matthew 2:19-21

These passages from Matthew raise a number of interesting points. First is that Jesus and his family are said to flee to Egypt in fear of their lives. This would be a journey to another country, even though it was one that was still under Roman rule. We would therefore appear to have Jesus as a refugee in another land. What we also see is that once the danger has passed with Herod’s death, Jesus and his family return home. This is certainly not mentioned by those proclaiming that Jesus was a refugee so we should just let all the migrants in. In fact, they never mention migrants returning home at all. Their idea is that they settle here permanently forever more. Therefore, by their own logic i.e. “Look at the example of Jesus” their own arguments are flawed. Why are they also not helping refugees return home once the political situation has changed, or war has ended? For example, Uganda (you know who I mean here).

Another issue is that only Matthew includes the massacre of the innocents by Herod. Bible scholars have said that it is open to question whether this occurred. Most modern-day biographers of Herod claim the events never happened. The contemporary Roman Jewish historian Josephus does not mention it in his history, Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 AD), which reports many of Herod’s misdeeds, including murdering three of his own sons. as well as his mother-in-law and his second wife. The massacre of the first born is also remarkably similar to the account in Exodus, where Pharaoh orders the murder of the Hebrew first born, from which Moses escapes in a basket. Was Matthew adding his own embellishment to the story? It is plausible. If so then this would mean Jesus did not flee for his life under threat of persecution, so was not a refugee at all. So far it is looking decidedly dodgy that Jesus was “literally a refugee.” People using this argument often quote the “example of Jesus” for letting in migrants. So, did Jesus the grown man provide us with any examples?

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’” –Luke 10:30-35

Jesus told the tale of the Good Samaritan. Most know this story. A traveller is beaten and robbed on the road. The injured man lies in the road begging for help. Many people pass him by. Only a Samaritan stops. Samaritans were hated by the Jews at the time and they were enemies. The Samaritan helps the injured man. He treats his wounds, then takes him to an inn. He then pays the inn keeper to look after the man and leaves. He does not, however, take the man home to live with him. He does not invite the man’s family and relatives and pay for them to have houses. He doesn’t pretend that all differences between them can be healed and they can live together with no problems. The lesson here is clear. By all means help travellers in need. Treat his wounds. Pay for someone to look after him. But that is as far as it goes. You are under no obligation to permanently house, feed and clothe him, or his family. People often ask, “what would Jesus say?” Well, we know.

In addition to this, the situation today is very different to Israel 2,000 years ago. Vast numbers of people were not on the move. There were no international terrorist organisations operating in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. There were no international criminal gangs smuggling people across borders for profit.  There are many passages in the bible that are not applicable today and we should not try to recreate, for example stoning women to death. Imagine if a religion was doing that today? Taking a 2,000 year old bible passage about an event that may or may not have happened and using it to justify mass uncontrolled immigration today, while ignoring modern-day security risks and political issues, is neither sensible nor good governance. Those using it as a device to try and further their own ideological aims and guilt trip people in to accepting them do not have our best interests at heart and should not be listened to.

(Featured image is The Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst, available in the public domain.)

© Jonathon Davies 2019

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