Social media has been abuzz with leftists universally crying out, “Jesus was a refugee!” For example, James Martin—consultant for the Vatican’s Secretariat of Communications—tweeted, “When the Holy Family flees to Egypt, they meet the current definition of refugees… And the word the angel uses in Joseph’s dream… is ‘φεῦγε’ (pheuge), from which comes the word ‘refugee,’ the one who flees.” How can anyone possibly argue with this? Joseph and Mary fled from Judaea to Egypt, and the Bible clearly referred to them as “refugees.” As is all too often the case with liberal interpretations, however, nothing is as it seems.
To start, let us first address Martin’s claim that “refugee” derives from “φεῦγε.” This is important because Martin is attempting to connect the dots between the modern English and the Greek so as to show that the intended meaning in the Bible was that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were refugees. If what he says and implies is true, then that would seem to settle the matter. While it is true Matthew 2:13 shows an angel of the lord (“ἄγγελος κυρίου”) telling Joseph to flee into Egypt (“φεῦγε εἰς Αἴγυπτον”), we must note that “φεῦγε” simply means “flee,” with a Proto-Hellenic origin. In contrast to this, “refugee” comes to English from French réfugié, itself descended from Latin refugium and, ultimately, Proto-Italic fugiō. Both share the same reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root, but it is clear that not only does the English not descend from the Greek but that the latter does not carry the connotation of the former. Simply “fleeing” does not make one a “refugee.”
To understand this, let’s consider that, as defined in international law, “refugee” is “actually intended to exclude internally displaced persons … and persons fleeing violent conflict but not subject to discrimination amounting to persecution.” Additionally, “refugee” is only “used to describe a person who has already been granted protection [by a foreign power]” while someone who has not received such is defined as an “asylum seeker.” Beyond fleeing to a foreign power, there are also three essential elements to being considered a refugee according to international law—1) there must be a form of harm rising to the level of persecution, inflicted by a government or by individuals or a group that the government cannot or will not control; 2) the person’s fear of such harm must be well-founded; 3) the harm, or persecution, must be inflicted upon the person for reasons related to the person’s race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Thus, we can see that, for one to be a “refugee,” they must flee from one power to another, do so for a reason meeting certain criteria, and then receive protection from the second power. To this, liberals say, “But they did flee to Egypt to escape Herod.”
At first glance, this may seem like a convincing argument, but it really only serves to demonstrate ignorance of historical events. For example, Judaea had actually come under Roman authority in 63 BC when Pompey the Great defeated Aristobulus II, King of Judaea and High Priest of Jerusalem, before installing the former king’s brother, Hyrcanus II, as high priest but not as king. Real authority, however, would come to rest in the hands of Antipater the Idumaean, who managed to cultivate relationships with Pompey and later Julius Caesar, the latter of whom would grant him Roman citizenship and the position of administrator of Judaea. Antipater would use his influence and power to have his sons, Phasael and Herod, appointed as governors of Jerusalem and Galilee, respectively. In 40 BC, the son of Aristobulus II brought a Parthian army to Judaea and seized power. While Phasael killed himself to avoid capture, Herod was able to escape to Rome where Mark Antony nominated him as King of Judaea before the Roman Senate. The civil war would come to an end in 37 BC when Herod retook Jerusalem, but, in truth, it was the Roman legions who had delivered Judaea into his hands. And his reign was entirely dependent on Rome. Egypt had similarly come under Roman rule in 30 BC but instead became a province under the authority of a Roman prefect rather than a local figurehead.
It is important to note that Herod would have been expected to continuously prove his loyalty to Rome, to serve Rome’s interests, and to send any sons to Rome to be educated. Herod and his son made journeys to Rome in addition to embassies sent, and Romans also traveled in an official capacity to Jerusalem. Even Herod’s own army used Thracian, German, and Gallic mercenaries, which he almost surely had access to due to his Roman connections, and, indeed, Octavian had granted him some 400 Gauls from Cleopatra’s personal bodyguard in 31 BC. Aside from foreign mercenaries, Herod’s army relied largely on gentiles recruited from Sebaste and Caesarea, and he also “seems to have employed Roman officers.” Thus, how could Joseph and Mary have been expecting that the Roman authorities in Egypt would offer them refuge? After all, Rome was heavily invested in Herod, and Gaius Turranius, Prefect of Aegyptus at the time, would surely not have protected what could be seen as a challenger to Herod’s (and Rome’s) authority. Roman legions had already been used more than once to deal with civil wars in Judaea, but we are supposed to believe that Joseph and Mary felt the Roman authorities in Aegyptus offered them safety from Herod?
The far more obvious explanation is that Egypt was relatively close, and Joseph and Mary would have been able to travel there largely unnoticed as Judaeans traveling to Egypt would not have been unusual. Indeed, there was a well-established and sizable Judaean population in Alexandria at the time. Consider: Would a Frenchman, his wife, and child standout while traveling from Marseilles to Venice? That would have been a similar trip in terms of both duration and commonness as one from Bethlehem to Alexandria. Regardless, we can be absolutely sure that the Holy Family neither sought nor received any sort of refuge or asylum from the Roman authorities in Aegyptus, and we can also be absolutely sure that they never intended to do so. Thus, how can anyone honestly posit that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were refugees in Roman Egypt?
The truth is that the Holy Family did not fit the definition of “refugee” used by the UN, but they also did not fit the common definition found in the OED: “A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” The original connotation being Protestants fleeing from France to escape persecution. Thus, it could be said that the French Huguenots were “refugees” at the time, but the same could not be said of the Pilgrims—British subjects going to British colonies and thus subject to the same British authorities; just as the Holy Family was still subject to the same Roman authorities.