2016-06-30
Matthew's gospel records that Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus escaped King Herod's massacre of infant boys by fleeing to Egypt. What happened next? Little information on the Holy Family's flight remains, but ancient noncanonical texts called the Infancy Gospels offer fascinating speculations. These texts, along with stories accepted by Egypt's Coptic Christians, tell of a pint-sized Jesus working wonders during his stint as a refugee. Author Paul Perry followed the trail of the Holy Family through Egypt, trying to solve the mystery: Once Jesus and his family left his birthplace, where did they go, and what did they do?

Here, Perry and his Egyptian guide are in Tel Basta, where the infant Jesus was said to have made Egyptian idols bow down before him. Excerpted from Jesus in Egypt: Discovering the Secrets of Christ's Childhood Years with permission of Ballantine Books.


This place looks like a waste of time, I said to myself. A total zero. All I see is scrub brush and dirt.

We topped a hill and the entire scene changed. There in front of us was an enormous field of fallen idols. There were hundreds of them, covering perhaps a square mile in area. Pillars the circumference of pine trees had been toppled. Heads of stone pharaohs the size of automobiles were broken off and lying next to their own stone feet. Statues of shapely stone queens were lying on their sides. Massive steles were broken into pieces that were scattered all over the ground. Walls were crumbled, as prophecized by Ezekiel, an Old Testament prophet who lived between 592 and 570 BCE.
And there, in the foreground, was a perfectly shaped well, its circular wall neatly fashioned from irregular bricks. I looked inside. The well was partially full of water. Floating on its surface was bits of Styrofoam cup and other rubbish. I began to laugh at the scene in front of us. "I did the same thing the first time I saw this," said Ra'ed. "I laughed too." "I can't help it," I said. "It is so true to the Gospels that it's almost absurd." I brought out the notebook that contained the various Infancy Gospels and opened it to the book of Pseudo-Matthew. "Listen to this," I said to Ra'ed, standing on the hill overlooking the ancient destruction and reading out loud. ". . . they went into a temple which was called the Capital of Egypt. And in this temple there had been set up three hundred and fifty-five idols, to each of which on its own day divine honours and sacred rites were paid. For the Egyptians belonging to the same city entered the Capital, in which the priests told them how many sacrifices were offered each day, according to the honour in which the god was held. "And it came to pass, when the most blessed Mary went into the temple with the little child, that all the idols prostrated themselves on the ground, so that all of them were lying on their faces shattered and broken to pieces; and thus they plainly showed that they were nothing. Then was fulfilled that which was said by the prophet Isaiah: Behold, the Lord will come upon a swift cloud, and will enter Egypt, and all the handiwork of the Egyptians shall be moved at his presence.
Reading the Infancy Gospel at the site where it took place was a heady feeling. It was like reading Exodus while sitting on the shores of the Red Sea, or the story of King David while being present on the Temple Mount. I could read the words and then look up to see the story just as it was being described in the book. There was no feeling like it. The story was alive in both words and scenes, even though it was 2000 years old. Being there gave life to the words. Surely all of this really took place, I said to myself. I am surrounded by fallen idols, just like it says in the gospel. I joined Ra'ed by the well. "Yes, that is what we Copts believe happened," said Ra'ed about the verses I had just read. "It has not been read to me before from that book, but it is exactly as we believe it. Jesus knocked all of these idols down with his mind." "That was from the book of Pseudo-Matthew," I told him. "It probably came from the same word-of-mouth that the Coptic stories came from. Maybe even Theophilus heard the story before he had his vision." "No, that was a vision," corrected Ra'ed. "A vision is not the same as word of mouth." "Perhaps not," I said. "But one thing that is missing from the Infancy Gospels is any mention of this well. What is its story?" "Oh yes, the story of the well," said Ra'ed. "The story of the well picks up where your story ends. After Jesus made the idols fall he created a well right here to convince the people that he was someone who was obeyed by nature. He just put his hand down to the ground and made the water come up to the surface. It was another miracle. But even after everything they had seen, the people still refused to believe him. They did not want to give up the Cat Goddess and all of their other Gods. So they went and got soldiers to arrest the family."
I picked up the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew again and opened it to the spot where I had left off. "Yes, the coming of the soldiers is written about in this book," I said. I searched through the verses and then began to read.

"Then Affrodosius, that governor of the city, when news was brought to him, went to the temple with all his army. And the priests of the temple, when they saw Affrodosius with all his army coming into the temple, thought that he was making haste only to see vengeance taken on those on whose account the gods had fallen down. But when he came into the temple, and saw all the gods lying prostrate on their faces, he went up to the blessed Mary, who was carrying the Lord in her bosom, and adored Him, and said to all his army and all his friends: Unless this were the God of our gods, our gods would not have fallen on their faces before Him; nor would they be lying prostrate in His presence: wherefore they silently confess that He is their Lord. Unless we, therefore, take care to do what we have seen our gods doing, we may run the risk of His anger, and all come to destruction, even as it happened to Pharaoh king of the Egyptians, who, not believing in powers so mighty, was drowned in the sea, with all his army.

"Yes, that is interesting," said Ra'ed. "In the Coptic stories they must hide from the soldiers. It is Klum that saves them once again. He hides them in the fields until the soldiers go the other way. I like yours more. It explains the power of Jesus much better."
We walked through this field of rubble as the antiquities guards followed us from a watchful distance. We covered much of the ancient site and did not find a single stone monument standing or intact. It looked like a stone age junkyard. As we returned to the well I noticed that the ground was covered with broken pieces of pottery, thick jars that had been smashed to bits. "What is this broken pottery?" I asked Ra'ed. "That is not as old as you think," he said. "The well of Jesus is thought to be a source of luck. So women from Zagazig come here frequently with clay pots and scoop out the lucky water. After they have poured it over their heads, they smash the pots." I picked up a couple pieces of the pottery and examined them. They were simple pots, not old at all, made with whitish clay. The pieces broke easily when I clacked them together.

"I really don't know if they get much luck out of this water," said Ra'ed, looking down into the shallow well. "Jesus said that this well water would heal the body and soul of everyone who drank it. The only exceptions would be the people who lived in this town. They were so mean to him that he said none of them would be healed by it. I think that is a sanction that is still in place. Still it is not bad that they try."

more from beliefnet and our partners