Jesus’ Birth: The out of Egypt prophecy

This post is the third in a series on Jesus’ birth. This particular post evaluates the relationship between the birth of Jesus and the prophecy of the escape to Egypt.

What do we know?Jesus in Egypt

The fulfillment of prophecy is claimed in Matthew 2:15

“2:13 After they had gone [the Magi], an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 2:14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and went to Egypt. 2:15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”

The referenced passage is found in Hosea 11:1

” 11:1 When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt. 11:2 But the more I summoned them, the farther they departed from me. They sacrificed to the Baal idols and burned incense to images. 11:3 Yet it was I who led Ephraim, I took them by the arm; but they did not acknowledge that I had healed them. 11:4 I led them with leather cords, with leather ropes; I lifted the yoke from their neck, and gently fed them. 11:5 They will return to Egypt! Assyria will rule over them because they refuse to repent!”

The escape to Egypt is not claimed anywhere else in the New Testament, nor is Jesus linked to the passage in Hosea. The obvious difficulty here is that the author of Matthew appears to have taken something completely out of context and linked it to Jesus. The passage in Hosea is most clearly read as a historical reference to the return of the Hebrew nation to the land of Israel after their enslavement in Egypt. The text also appears to have no prophetic content until 11:5, which suggests that Israel will be ruled by Assyria.

What is the Christian interpretation of the data?

The Christian view here is very simple: the passage is Hosea was in fact a foreshadowing of Jesus and this is revealed to us through the gospel of Matthew. This view fits within the larger idea that Jesus’ work on the cross is the culmination of everything we see in the Old Testament and, as such, we should not be surprised to find allusions to Jesus throughout the text. In this case, the allusion is to Jesus as the son of God and when Hosea says that God “summoned my son out of Egypt”, the author of Matthew is showing us that the exodus from Egypt was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ escape to, and return from, Egypt. Or, put another way, the major events in the history of Israel can be viewed as a symbolic parallel that holds a clue to recognizing the messiah.

In anticipation of the assertion that the story was invented to support the prophecy, the Christian points out that the difficulty with fitting this passage as a messianic prophecy makes it an unlikely choice for such behavior. This, in turn, makes it more likely that the story in Matthew is based on real events and that the link to Hosea was inspired by those events.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the data?

From a naturalist perspective, this issue can be attributed to the personal motives of the author of Matthew and his desire to assert two ideas: that Jesus is the messiah and that Jesus is the son of God, and that these claims are supported by his fulfillment of the passage in Hosea. This is actually similar to the Christian view given above except that the naturalist claim is that the author is injecting fulfillment where there actually is none and that this is only done to support the author’s claims. Given the conflict with the birth account in Luke (see the Bethlehem post), it’s reasonable to believe that the “escape to Egypt” event may have been constructed solely for this purpose (and maybe to also help explain how Jesus ended up in Nazareth).

The historical events referenced by the passage in Hosea are important for understanding the author’s motives for introducing this event into Jesus’ birth story. Moses was considered a prototype of the messiah, an idea allegedly introduced by Moses himself in Deuteronomy 18:15. By placing Jesus in Egypt after escaping an infanticide and then leaving Egypt to come to Israel the author has drawn a parallel between Moses and Jesus, which serves to reinforce the idea that Jesus is the messiah.

Regarding the claim of Jesus as God’s son, it is necessary to consider the fact that the text of Matthew is clearly directed to Jews and that there is good reason to believe that Matthew originated with Jewish Christians that still observed Jewish law (called Nazarenes in Acts and several early church sources). In addition to believing Jesus to be the messiah, the Nazarenes differed from traditional Jewish beliefs in several ways, one of which was a belief that the messiah was divine – the son of God. This is in contrast to another Jewish group which held that Jesus was the messiah but denied several central tenets that were common between Nazarenes and those that would eventually be known as Christians. In particular, the Ebionites generally rejected the divinity of Jesus and viewed the title “son of God” under an adoptionist view, which was to have occurred at Jesus’ baptism. The text in Matthew, however, supports the idea that Jesus was the son of God prior to his baptism.

In light of all of this, if this portion of Matthew has origins in some form of Nazarene tradition then it makes sense that the author would be compelled to find ways to argue for his messiahship and divinity by way of reference to the Tanakh text, upon which the Nazarenes, Ebionites and Jews agree. This is certainly motivation enough to cause one to inject meaning where there is none.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

There’s no denying that the passage in Hosea is speaking of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. It is difficult, however, to further contend that it can also be considered a prophecy of an event in Jesus’ infancy that has no record anywhere else. Even so, I agree with the assertion that this text would have been a poor choice to use as the basis for inventing the trip to Egypt. This makes it unlikely that the Hosea passage is the sole motivation behind the record and requires additional explanation if we are to believe that it was an invention. However, the cultural context of Matthew’s authorship provides a reasonable backdrop for understanding the additional motivations which explain why the story and claim of fulfilled prophecy would have been introduced. Ultimately, when all is considered, I find it difficult to see this as a legitimate prophecy. This leads me to assign the following probabilities:


It’s worth noting that the Christian view has no problem with Matthew being written by a Nazarene source who was strongly arguing for Jesus as the messiah. The Christian simply agrees with the Nazarene interpretation of the Old Testament references in Matthew and doesn’t see this as something that was injected by the author.

Lastly, given that I made several references to Nazarenes and Ebionites and the origins of Matthew in this post, I need to point out that I will be discussing those topics in greater detail at some point in the future. The ideas raised here are based on much more information than was presented. I will try to cross-link and update when that time comes.

Updated Jan 8, 2014: In light of a post by Tim McGrew, I have incorporated the argument that the text in Hosea is a poor choice for the author to have used as the basis for constructing the events in Matthew. I did not adequately incorporate this into my original post. Though it is valid objection, I have offered other motivations and it does nothing to support the claim that the relevant text in Hosea is a prophecy in the first place. Even so, this addition shifted my assigned probabilities from 10 / 90 to 20 / 80.

What do you think?

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