Jesus Wasn’t A Refugee

Years ago, I was in an argument with a friend about Jesus and evolution. It ended with him saying, “You know how badly I can kick your ass, right?” I did know. It was obvious. It was like a scene straight out of Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison.

The debate was pretty simple. I supported evolution. My friend supported creationism. I argued that the biological record showed no support for creationism in agreement with conclusions from a number of other established sciences. My friend argued against evolution through “irreducible complexity” or the argument that modern life is too complicated to have slowly evolved into its modern form. I had read extensively about this argument before and repeated responses from mainstream science educators. My friend abandoned his argument and declared that the Bible clearly detailed a creationist account. I argued that his position is a denial of the world that God actually created while attempting to build up a world of his own, and that his argument was nothing less than a rejection of what God had done and blasphemy to God’s work and plan for salvation.

In my mind, he couldn’t just be wrong. He had to be a blasphemer. And a heretic. He was rejecting God. Also, he had to be stupid. I was all too excited to let everyone know.

He attempted debate. I attempted humiliation. He didn’t succeed. I did.

You know how badly I can kick your ass, right?”

Liberals have long criticized conservatives and traditionalists for their support of ideas like creationism by claiming that such arguments fail for two reasons.

  1. The facts are wrong or their conclusions do not properly follow.

  1. They improperly place modern assumptions onto sources from a previous time period.

I believe that my friend’s argument for creationism included both of these errors. I’ll leave the science to those who understand it far better than me, but I believe my friend made serious mistakes with regards to the facts. But I believe he, like many others, made improper assumptions about the biblical text using modern assumptions of science, history, philosophy, and literary interpretation.

When the modern reader interprets the Bible, they face numerous problems that are not easily identifiable. The simple act of reading the text is problematic as many of the texts’ authors never meant for them to be read by their intended audience – let alone any audience at all. The ancient world was almost entirely illiterate and the primary method of communication was spoken language. If a writer even intended their work to be known by the public, it was to be publicly read, or most likely, performed. Any modern interpreter who reads ancient texts like those in the Christian scriptures is automatically separated from the method of communication intended by the author. Private study in a volume like “The Bible” was never intended by any of the authors of the Christian scriptures. This is just one of a number of problems that make the gap between the reader and biblical authors too large to cross with high confidence.

Interpreting the book Genesis as history with a scientific outlook using the text as authoritative due to its supernatural origins and its writer(s) as inspired by God, adds multiple levels of modern assumptions onto an ancient text that shares, or could even relate to very few. Biblical interpreters are charged with questioning many of these assumptions in order to try to understand the original intention and context of the author, but even when done properly, this often only leaves us with only a general idea of what the author meant while many open questions remain. Furthermore, proper biblical interpretation from the standpoint of Christian theology cannot simply be reduced to rediscovering the intention of the author, but instead must be the collective work of the church to discover how God is working through the Bible’s study, proclamation, and use.

In my view, creationism is not just wrong because it makes factual errors about modern science. Creationism is wrong because it improperly uses scripture and distracts from its true authority and purpose in the life of the church.

These two mistakes are not only made by conservatives and traditionalists, they’re made by a wide variety of commentators and interpreters of Christian scripture, especially when scripture is used to defend one’s political beliefs.

Just ask yourself, “Was Jesus a refugee?”

Remember, traditionalists and conservatives have made two basic errors with regards to topics like creationism. First, they get the facts wrong, and second, they inappropriately apply modern assumptions onto the ancient world.

Problem 1) The Facts:

Matthew 2: 13-16

Now after they had left, 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 remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

The Syrian civil war has sparked the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The number of people who have been affected is astounding. Upwards to half a million people are dead. Millions are wounded. An estimated 11+ million people have been displaced either internally or abroad. 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country. All of this with in a country with a population of only about 23 million people before the war started in 2011.

During the Obama administration, the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States was extremely low. In 2012, 31 Syrian refugees were resettled to the United States. In fiscal year 2013, 36 refugees were resettled. 2014: 105. 2015: 1,682. 2016: 12,587. 1st quarter of 2017: 3,566. Furthermore, the amount of money pledged to the UN by the US to assist in their response to the Syrian crisis has not even come close to being met.

Despite the fact that the United States’ direct assistance to refugees through resettlement and monetary contributions has been insufficient according to our own low targets, public outcry regarding refugees was rather limited while Barack Obama was president, only reaching peak levels in the first few weeks of the Trump administration. When President Trump issued a ban on migrants entering the United States from seven Muslim majority countries, including Syria, ending refugee resettlement for at least three months and likely longer, protests erupted across the United States.

One of the most effective arguments in support of refugees and against the change in executive policy towards migration has been that Jesus was a refugee. The argument is rooted in the second chapter of Matthew where the infant Jesus, along with Mary and Joseph, flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod. When King Herod learns that he has been deceived by the wise men from the east, he orders the murder of all children under the age of two years old in Bethlehem to ensure the death of the new king, who he fears will challenge his rule. This story, along with numerous examples from the Bible requiring fair, just, and hospitable treatment of travelers, foreigners, strangers, and sojourners makes for a powerful Christian argument in favor of a national policy sympathetic to the plight of refugees.

But like the creationists argument, there’s a problem. Just as there is no evidence, at all, that God created the world in seven days six thousand years ago, there is no evidence, at all, that the story in Matthew ever happened.

If Herod had ordered the murder of every child under the age of two in Bethlehem to ensure the death of the prophesied new king, somebody would have written about it, especially considering Herod had many enemies who could to use such an act to oppose him. Other than the second chapter of Matthew, no such documentation exists. No contemporary writer talks about it and no other Gospel mentions it. The Gospel of Luke gives an entirely different account of Jesus’s birth and return to Nazareth with contradictory information that cannot be reconciled to the narrative in Matthew.

Additionally, the literary connections of Herod to Pharaoh in the Exodus are far too perfect to be mere coincidence which suggests that it is a literary creation rather than a historical event. Matthew is setting up a great irony casting the King of the Jews (King Herod) as Pharaoh. In Exodus, Pharaoh orders the death of all Israelite boys fearing that they will threaten his rule. Moses is spared through the actions of his parents and the favor of God, just as Jesus is in Matthew. Jesus escapes the Promised Land of Israel into Egypt, the exact opposite journey of Moses’s life. In doing so, Matthew is able to cast Herod as Pharaoh and Jesus as Moses, and he connects Jesus to prophetic scripture in Hosea 11:1. This literary creation fits with Matthew’s other literary themes in connecting Jesus to ancient prophecy and Israelite scriptural narratives, but it does not fit with historical information or any other literary sources. The modern interpreter has little choice but to presume that this story is an invention of Matthew.

Those who call Jesus a refugee must first wrestle with the fact that, in all likelihood, the events of this story never happened. To me, this is especially troubling as liberal and progressive Christians in Christian academia and in the clergy who have framed Jesus as a refugee, largely do not believe Matthew 2 is a historical event. Questioning the historicity of this narrative is standard practice in mainstream and liberal seminaries. Yet, those who are taught this are all too eager to act as if the narrative in Matthew 2 is historical fact now that it is beneficial to do so. If we are to reject creationism based on the lack of evidence, we should also do the same with regard Jesus as refugee.

Problem 2) The Anachronism:

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR):

A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

– The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees

In addition, refugees are guaranteed by international law to have certain rights in their host countries and countries of origin. Refugees are also given refugee status by the countries in which they reside in accordance to the countries own laws and procedures. UNHCR provides guidelines for this process. UNHCR also works with host countries to process, identify and register refugees for stay in their host countries and for resettlement abroad.

All of this requires modern assumptions of race, religion, nationality, social groups, politics, nations, borders, human rights, rule of law, international organizations, ect, that are not shared with the ancient world. If Jesus had escaped from Bethlehem to Egypt in fear of Herod’s violence, applying “race” or “religion” or even determining a national border would be impossible. Just as the creationist fails in his argument because he applies modern assumptions of science and history onto an ancient text, so too does the modern advocate who calls Jesus a refugee. Our assumptions do not fit the ancient world.

Was Jesus a refugee?

Despite previously sayting that he was, I no longer believe that is accurate. Jesus was not a refugee, but he did die at the hands of the state. He continually lived with the threat of violence from the ruling government. He lived under the rule of a kings who stole land, financially extorted the population, tortured their subjects, and perpetrated mass murder to enrich themselves and solidify their rule. Thousands of people were forced to leave their homes due to extortion, debt, and violence. In this world, Matthew envisions a family whose desperate situation in the face of state violence becomes central to Jesus’s identity as messiah.

Christians shouldn’t have to be convinced to care about refugees because “Jesus was a refugee”. A reconstruction of the author’s intent is not enough for good biblical interpretation nor does reconstruction determine a proper response. Rather, good biblical interpretation asks how is the study, proclamation and use of scripture working to discover what God is doing? How can the church be part of that?

The Bible doesn’t give us answers to modern political problems. It does not tell us whether or not we should accept refugees across our borders. It doesn’t tell us what we should do to assist people fleeing from violence. It doesn’t tell us whether or not we should respond with charity, diplomacy, or violence. The church is not the group that just tells and interprets the Bible for a confused world. The church is the people who proclaim and participate in what God is doing.

What is God doing? God identifies with those who flee. God is providing them with care. God is bringing them justice. God is punishing those who mistreat foreigners and strangers. God is rewarding those who treat them as citizen and as neighbor. God is present with those who are strangers in a strange land.

Like creationists and others who misuse scripture, advocates who claim that Jesus is a refugee are often reducing the Bible to a tool to settle debates and shame opponents. A claim that “Jesus is a refugee” is improper biblical interpretation because it gets the facts wrong and because it misapplies modern assumptions, but also because it distracts from the true authority and purpose of scripture for the life of the church. I too have been guilty of this.

Instead of participating in a biblicist reduction and attempts to shame opposition into conforming with our own views, we should do what God does as identified in scripture and throughout church history:

  • Identify with refugees by seeking them out and inviting them into your home or community, just as God does. Make their concerns your own. Incorporate the stranger into your own plans for the future.

  • Provide refugees with care through donations to organizations that assist them and through your own personal hospitality.

  • Bring them justice by advocating for their rights as required by international law. These rights include political and economic rights in your country and host countries like Turkey, Jordan and, Lebanon. Learn more about refugees and the successes and failures of previous international attempts to respond.

  • Punish those who mistreat refugees like Bashar Al-Assad, terrorist leaders, and foreign governments who perpetuate such conflicts for their own benefit. Learn how we can isolate them economically and diplomatically to bring about an end to the conflict. Learn about the successes and failures of military action as a response to refugee crises and civil war.

  • Reward those who treat refugees as citizen and neighbor through your vote, business, public commendation, and encouragement. Provide care to those who provide assistance.

  • Be present with refugees by volunteering with or donating to organizations that help with resettlement and hear directly from those who have been through the process. Seek out other people in your own community who are separated from family, friends, career, or church.

Casting Jesus as a refugee may be a convenient argument, but unless you’re a biblical literalist, it isn’t a consistent one, and it may encourage a brand of interpretation that undermines the authority and usefulness of scripture along with your own credibility. The church does not need more repeated insistence that Jesus was a refugee, but the church does need more creative interpretation, rooted in Scripture, of how God is responding.

Was Jesus a refugee? No. A better question:  Is your neighbor?


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