I love PolitiFact. I follow them on Facebook, and I always appreciate the fact-checking they do every time a politician makes a claim. Last week, they had an article that caught my eye, titled “Jesus was an ‘undocumented immigrant,’ ordained minister says.” The minister, Ryan Eller, is the executive director of a group that works to promote awareness about immigration issues, and he was trying to point out that people shouldn’t be so judgmental toward undocumented immigrants — that even Jesus would have been considered an undocumented immigrant when he and his family fled to Egypt to avoid persecution from Herod.
PolitiFact decided to investigate this claim, and they quickly pointed out that during Jesus’s life, Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. Therefore, the comparison doesn’t really hold up — Jesus and his family were still traveling within the boundaries of the same empire, which was allowable under Roman law.
All of that is fine. But where I have a bit of a problem is that PolitiFact didn’t deal with this as thoroughly as they could have. Consider this paragraph, for instance:
Even though many scholars don’t agree on the exact years Jesus was born or moved to Nazareth as a youth, we know the family left Egypt after Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.E. The region known as Judaea (where Bethlehem was) became a Roman province in 6 C.E., after Rome removed Herod’s son Archelaus, who had become king of that portion of Herod’s kingdom. Nazareth, meanwhile, was in Galilee, an area later ruled by Herod’s son Antipas, known as the king who eventually beheaded John the Baptist.
“We know”?! No, we really don’t know. Yes, if Matthew’s story (his is the only gospel that tells us about this flight to Egypt) is to be believed, then Jesus’s family left Egypt after the death of Herod. But we don’t really know that Jesus’s family went there in the first place. Earlier in the article, we read this:
Luke 2:1-5 says Joseph lived in Nazareth with Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, when the Roman emperor called for all the residents of the empire to be counted and taxed. Joseph left for Bethlehem, where King David had been born, because Joseph had roots there.
Anyone who celebrates Christmas is pretty aware what happened in Bethlehem, but Eller is referring to what happened after that.
Matthew 2:12-16 describes how the Magi visited Jesus, then were warned by God in a dream not to tell King Herod, who wanted to kill the child. Joseph then took Mary and Jesus to Egypt. According to Matthew, Herod then had every male child in Bethlehem younger than 2 killed. Verses 17-23 say Joseph moved the family back to Nazareth after Herod died.
But here’s the thing, as many of you who read this blog know, it’s pretty apparent that Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of Jesus’s birth can’t be reconciled with one another. One or both of them is a fabrication. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth and are only in Bethlehem temporarily; therefore, it’s only in their version that we have the manger scene. Shepherds come to witness his birth, but no wise men are mentioned. According to Luke, around 6 weeks after Jesus’s birth, the family goes to Jerusalem to present him at the temple, do the sacrifices, etc. And once they finish that, they go straight home to Nazareth.
Matthew, on the other hand, starts his account with Mary and Joseph already in Bethlehem. There’s no mention of a trip to Jerusalem, and there’s no mention of the shepherds who witness his birth. However, we’re told that when he was born, some “wise men from the east” traveled to Jerusalem to find him. We have no idea how much time has passed since his birth. But after the wise men tell Herod why they’re there, Herod decides to kill all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two in an effort to eradicate this threat to his throne. Joseph is warned of this by an angel, and he and the family flee to Egypt. Matthew also tells us this was done in accordance with some prophecies, but when you look at those “prophecies” in their original context, you see that they aren’t prophecies at all. It’s also important to note that no historians of the time talk about this slaughter of children that supposedly took place, even those who had no love for Herod. Finally, Matthew tells us that after Herod’s death, the family decides to go back to Judea (the province in which Bethlehem is situated). However, Joseph worries that Herod’s son, who has now taken the throne, might still be a threat. So instead of going back to Judea, they go to Galilee and settle “in a city called Nazareth,” which seems like an odd way to refer to their hometown.
In Matthew’s version, instead of a journey to Jerusalem, it becomes the most dangerous place they could travel to. And in Luke’s version, there’s no mention of a trip to Egypt. Instead, they go to Jerusalem shortly after Jesus’s birth and then go home to Nazareth. Traveling to Egypt is simply unnecessary. Even if Herod had actually decided to kill all the children in Bethlehem, there was still no reason to go to Egypt. They could simply have gone back home to Nazareth. The city wasn’t under Herod’s control, and he didn’t actually know who they were, anyway.
In other words, there’s very little reason to think that Jesus ever went to Egypt at all. I know PolitiFact isn’t in the business of fact-checking religion. But since they took the time to examine this preacher’s claim, why not address it fully? Their entire shtick is fact-checking. I don’t expect them to flat-out say that Jesus never went to Egypt. But they could have at least mentioned that there’s no scholarly consensus about whether or not this even happened.
It reminds me of an article that Lawrence Krauss wrote for the New Yorker a couple of days ago that describes why scientists should stop being so PC with religion. We can still be respectful of individuals without compromising our standards of truth when it comes to their belief systems. And I feel that PolitiFact got it wrong this time.