December 26, 2017

Historicity of the Flight Into Egypt Traditions

Many Copts are absolutely convinced the traditions of Christ's travels throughout Egypt as a child is historical truth. They are convinced Jesus Christ indeed visited specific locations in Egypt that can still be visited today. The only first century source we have is the Gospel of Matthew, but Matthew doesn’t mention any specific location in Egypt. Those locations were only mentioned centuries later.

Westerners may call this tradition a legend but it is certainly an old one and one that is of tremendous importance for the Egyptian Copts. It would thus not be correct to brush it away because of lack of any historical and archaeological evidence that Jesus, Mary and Joseph visited specific locations.

The traditions of the Copts depend to a great extent on medieval manuscripts. But a problem is that the surviving copies of those manuscripts are not that old. One of the main sources for this tradition is the Vision of Theophilus [most scholars who worked on this text believe it was attributed to Theophilus], Patriarch of Alexandria from 385 to 412. This text was originally written in Coptic, but no Coptic manuscript has survived. The full text survives only in Arabic, Syriac (15th century) and Ethiopian (later than the Syriac) translations. The oldest surviving Arabic manuscript of this vision is found in the Vatican and dates to the 14th century. The oldest surviving manuscript in Egypt is in the Monastery of Al-Muharraq and dates only to the 19th century.

Other important sources for this tradition are the homilies attributed to the anti-Chalcedonians Timothy, Cyriacus and Zacharias. Dr. Stephen Davis believes “the sermon of Cyriacus is probably by him, but no one seems to know for sure in what century he lived (guesses have ranged from the 6th to the 15th).” Davis, however, doubts the authenticity of the sermon of the early eighth century bishop Zacharias of Sakha despite the arguments of some who accepted the sermon’s authenticity. See also the chapter of Davis in Be Thou There. The surviving manuscripts attributed to Cyriacus and Zacharias both date to the 15th century. The sermon of Patriarch Timothy, titled Homily on the Church of the Rock, was probably not composed by him but by a 6th or 7th century source in one of the Pachomian monasteries of Upper Egypt.

The dating of manuscripts of works attributed to Theophilus, Timothy, Cyriacus and Zacharias does not necessarily reflect the dating of the original sources, or which manuscript tradition is to be preferred.

An additional issue is that the route of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Egypt has been expanding through the centuries. New locations are being added even until today. Two recent examples are the Monastery of Durunka and the Monastery of Dimyana. Prof. Dr. Otto Meinardus, the great western researcher in Coptic Church history, explained in 2000, that Bishop Michael of Assiut first promoted Durunka as a Holy Family site after the Monastery of Al-Muharraq was torn apart by internal rivalries of monks [described by Meinardus in one of his earlier publications – these rivalries later disappeared]. Meinardus also explained that Coptic businessmen in Assiut found it important to direct the revenues of pilgrimage to their own bishopric instead of a monastery which was so torn apart by strife. They thus encouraged the Bishop of Assiut to develop a site in his own diocese. And so Durunka was developed as a pilgrimage site. Coptic businessmen from Assiut have been generously contributing to the development of this site and today Durunka surpasses Al-Muharraq in the number of pilgrims it attracts.

Another recent addition is the Monastery of Dimyana. Manuscripts linking Dimyana to the Flight Into Egypt do not exist. When Prof. Meinardus visited this monastery in the 1960s no one brought to attention the site of this monastery in relation with the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. Today they do, claiming it to be based on an oral tradition Meinardus did not find. This resulted in the church placing Dimyana on the official itinerary of the flight into Egypt prior to the celebrations of the year 2000, and thus the visit of the Holy Family to this location has to many Coptic Orthodox become an undisputed historical fact.

Two other modern day additions have been made to the traditions. Father Matta from Tammua in Giza claims that Pope Cyril VI (1959-1970) had a dream revealing the visit of the Holy Family to his church. And people in the church of Zaytun in Cairo claim the Holy Family must have visited that location because the Holy Virgin appeared there in 1968. Why would she appear at a site which had not been blessed before?

Tradition also developed through new findings on old locations. In 1984, a stone was found in front of the church of Sakha (135 km north of Cairo) during work on the sewage system. On one side was a small dark spot, on the other side the word Allah (God) was written in Arabic. Christian workers immediately believed this dark spot had to be the footprint of Jesus which was known from medieval documents but which had disappeared in the 13th century. The stone was brought to Pope Shenouda who prayed over it and decided it this was indeed the stone with the footprint of Jesus. Coptic expert Dr. Otto Meinardus, a former professor at the American University in Cairo, does not believe this is true.

The importance of this tradition is not that we are dealing here with undisputed historical facts but with a tradition which has been important for believers in Egypt for many centuries. The belief that the Holy Family visited Egypt has been a source of great comfort for Christians in Egypt. Recent additions of sites show that Christians in Egypt want to be connected to this tradition. Many of these traditions, having their origins in the early to late Middle Ages, were probably developed as a way for the Copts to affirm that their land was blessed by Christ before the followers of Muhammad overtook the land and claimed it as their own.

Though some tales, such as the destruction of idols by the presence of Christ, have early traditions predating the Muslim conquest. In A History of the Monks in Egypt, a book describing the journey of seven pilgrims to Egypt around A.D. 394-95, people in Hermopolis (today al-Ashmunayn, 280 km south of Cairo) told these pilgrims about a temple where the idols had fallen down after the Savior had entered the city, a powerful story in a time when paganism was still strong. Also, the historian Sozomon wrote around A.D. 450 in his Ecclesiastical History about an oral tradition of the visit of Jesus in al-Ashmonayn, where a tree bowed down before Christ as if in adoration.