Cover image for Jesus in Egypt : discovering the secrets of Christ's childhood years
Jesus in Egypt : discovering the secrets of Christ's childhood years
Perry, Paul, 1950-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Ballantine Books, [2003]

Physical Description:
xv, 269 pages : illustrations, map ; 25 cm
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BT315.3 .P47 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Drawing on the narratives of the apocrypha and the traditions of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the author follows the Holy Family's odyssey through Egypt after their flight from Herod.

Author Notes

Paul Perry attended Arizona State University and received a fellowship from the Freedom Forum Foundation at Columbia University in 1988. He taught magazine writing at the University of Oregon and was Executive Editor at American Health magazine. He is the co-author with Melvin Morse of Closer to the Light, Transformed by the Light, and Where God Lives, which won the 2002 Aleph Award for the best spiritual book published that year in France. His work has appeared in numerous publications including National Geographic Adventure, Ladies Home Journal, Rolling Stone, Men's Journal, and Reader's Digest.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Despite the existence of only a few verses in one gospel claiming that the Holy Family fled to Egypt, Perry decided to retrace Jesus' steps on this alleged sojourn. The paucity of biblical information on the topic led Perry to the Gnostic gospels and the oral tradition of the Coptic Church. At first, as he reconstructs and then follows the trail, drinking water from healing wells and casting an eye on the bones of saints, it seems as if he simply believes the journey to have been a real event, but eventually he begins to wonder whether he is following a complete fiction. Finally, though, he sees himself as a believer who let his heart be his guide, concluding that it may not matter if the events are factual. Similarly, the most compelling part of his book isn't the quest itself but the stories of the people he meets along the way: the woman metal worker in what is truly a man's world, or the Coptic priests and monks who help him see in new ways. --Ilene Cooper Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

The Bible indicates that shortly after Jesus' birth, King Herod, threatened by the adulation the baby was receiving, ordered the slaughter of male children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem. Warned of this in advance, Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with Jesus, returning to Palestine only after Herod's death. That's all most Westerners know about Jesus' early childhood, mainly because many Christians tend to reject extra-biblical stories about Jesus, and Westerners in general often deny stories of ancient events that cannot be verified by archeology or science. Ever conscious of that, Arizona author Perry, a self-described "doubting Thomas" who grew up in a faith-rich environment, set out to discover more about Jesus' childhood by following a loosely structured itinerary based on the route the family is believed to have taken. Perry's experiences along the way would by themselves be entertaining enough, but more importantly, they offer significant insight into non-Western thinking about faithparticularly within the Coptic Church in Egypt, where the faithful have no problem believing, for instance, that a baby's footprint found on a stone slab in a sewer in 1984 is that of Jesus. Perry's portrayals of his traveling companions and others he meets on his journey, his retelling of stories about miracles attributed to the baby and his amusing style combine to make a delightful read, even for skeptical Westerners. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In a journey to Egypt recounted in this book, Perry (Closer to the Light) traces the steps of the Holy Family in a combination of spiritual pilgrimage, historical detective story, and adventure tale. Inspired by the silence of the infancy narratives in the canonical four gospels about details of Jesus' childhood, Perry trains his journalistic eye on apocryphal writings about the sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt. He traces details supplied by noncanonical writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of James, and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew to seek a record of what Jesus may have actually done in Egypt. Heavy use is also made of traditions maintained by the Christian Coptic Church in Egypt. Despite an easily readable style that is accessible to the general public, the book's intent is not entirely clear: Is this a spiritual pilgrimage or a historical examination of the veracity of scriptural texts? Or is it more an investigation of the archaeological record of surviving oral traditions not recorded in canonical Scripture? A little of each, it is not recommended.-Charlie Murray, C.S.S., Fordham Univ., New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1. Jesus Did Not Sleep Here June 1, in the year of our Lord 2, according to Coptic tradition.   With the wilting sun at their backs, and broiling sand at their feet, the three people and a donkey approached the western bor-     der of what was then known as Judea. They were a sad and parched lot as they made their way for Wady el-Arish, the river of Egypt. Perhaps they felt relief as they approached the river. Crossing this muddy ribbon of water would put Judea behind them. The same could not be said of all of their problems. Soldiers would certainly follow, and the fact that the child on the donkey was wanted dead or alive by King Herod made the crossing of a border almost meaningless. Joseph had pushed hard to get away from Bethlehem. That is what the angel who appeared in his dream had told him to do. An angry King Herod was preparing to slaughter all male children two years old and younger. The reason for this carnage was a story told to Herod by three wise men from the east. They declared that a new king had been born. The paranoid monarch saw himself as the one and only ruler of Judea.To eliminate any possible competition, Herod ordered the death of all the male children under two in Bethlehem, an event that became known as the slaughter of the innocents. Had an angel not clued Joseph to the pending carnage, the baby Jesus would have been slain with all of the others. Now the one wanted by Herod--the one whose birth was marked by a phenomenal star in the east--was trying to escape. With tired legs, Joseph led his family toward the border river. This muddy strip of water was the western boundary of Canaan, the place given to the people of Israel by God in the book of Numbers. In the winter, when heavy rains fell in the mountains, this rushing torrent would be impassable. But on this blazing hot day there was little water to slow their progress. The agonized travelers likely paused for a moment to drink from the brown stream, or to wash the heat and grime from their faces. They may even have found dark humor in the notion that some people in Judea considered this very bleak and barren spot to be the site of the Garden of Eden. Whatever transpired, reaching this water was a heavenly respite from the harsh desert. Joseph looked back for a moment and then ahead. The desert in front looked the same as the treacherous desert behind. The sun was hot and beat down with such intensity that Joseph could easily have curled up beneath a bush and waited for the relief of sundown. And then there were the heat waves that rose from the pale sand and caused illusions. Several times Joseph had seen bushes in the distance that looked like people or donkeys because of the mirage effects of the desert. It may have made Joseph wonder: Were all of those incredible events that happened in the Negev Desert simply caused by heat madness and mirage? Or were those happenings real? First there were the dragons. According to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, a book that St. Jerome attributed to the "hand of the most blessed Evangelist Matthew," the dragons came from a cave where the travelers had stopped for a rest. "Suddenly," reads the gospel, there came forth from the cave many dragons. . . . Then Jesus went down from the bosom of His mother, and stood on His feet before the dragons; and they adored Jesus, and thereafter retired. Then was fulfilled that which was said by David the prophet, saying: Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons, ye dragons, and all ye deeps. And the young child Jesus, walking before them, commanded them to hurt no man. But Mary and Joseph were very much afraid lest the child should be hurt by the dragons. And Jesus said to them: Do not be afraid, and do not consider me to be a little child; for I am and always have been perfect and all the beasts of the forest must need be tame before me. The words echoed in Joseph's ears: Do not be afraid, and do not consider me to be a little child; for I am and always have been perfect. How could Joseph think of Jesus as a child after that? He was a unique supernatural being. In the ensuing days, according to the book of Pseudo-Matthew, Joseph saw his holy charge perform miracle after miracle. Lions and panthers and other beasts of the desert accompanied them with respect. They showed their submission to the Holy Child by wagging their tails and bowing. And when Mary showed fear of the wild animals, Jesus engaged his mother's attention and said: "Be not afraid, Mother; for they come not to do thee harm, but they make haste to serve both thee and me." Even the trees obeyed this infant. Several days after their journey had begun, Mary was seriously fatigued by the heat and searing sun of the desert. Seeing a palm tree, the young mother asked to rest in the shade. As she sat in the relative coolness, Mary looked up and saw that the tree was loaded with dates. She began to think about eating a piece of the moist fruit. "I wonder that thou sayest this, when thou seest how high the palm tree is; and that thou thinkest of eating its fruit," Joseph said to her. "I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle." The baby listened to this conversation from his mother's lap. He was reported to have a "joyful countenance." The book of Pseudo-Matthew reports the scene this way: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who bade commanded it to stoop. Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in paradise of my Father; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. And it rose up immediately, and at its roots there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. As they crossed the river of Egypt and headed into the land of the pharaohs, Joseph must certainly have looked back at the boy called Jesus and at his young wife, Mary, and wondered what was ahead for them. Egypt was known as an open-minded country, one where the population was well versed in magic and supernatural powers. Still, thought Joseph, how were the people of Egypt going to take to a child mystic? One who could heal, destroy, and create with just thoughts? Would they believe that he was the Messiah, no less than the Son of God? The day was hot and the travel was difficult. But on June 1, in the year of our Lord 2, Joseph must have felt a slight chill at what was to come in the land of the Nile. He pressed on. The town of El-Arish was nearby. November 9, 2001 "Paul, I am sorry." "It's okay, Ra'ed." "It doesn't seem to be okay, Paul. You seem disappointed or maybe angry." "I am disappointed. And maybe a little angry, too. This voyage hasn't happened as advertised." "What do you mean? I did not advertise anything. Is that just an Americanism?" "Yes, an Americanism. I am sorry to confuse you." "You did not confuse me, I just did not understand. Is an Americanism something I am supposed to laugh at? Is it funny?" "No. It is just a phrase we use a lot." "I am glad I did not laugh, then. I did not find it funny." "I am glad you did not laugh, too, Ra'ed. Can we not talk for a few minutes? I have to get my thoughts together." "That is good, Paul. We will be quiet. I just want you to know that I did not know about the land mines. And I will not talk anymore to policemen or soldiers unless they speak to me first. Is that fine?" "Yes, Ra'ed, that is very fine." I sighed and settled back into the well-worn backseat of the Peugeot station wagon. The rough Egyptian roads had turned the black and white French vehicle into a loose assemblage of nuts and bolts. As we sped across the Sinai Desert toward the setting sun, the car owned by Sa'ad Abdoullah sounded as though it might come apart in midflight. For a brief moment of self-pity, I saw the car as a metaphor for the day's voyage. We were rattling and rolling away from El-Arish, a dusty town near the Egyptian/Israeli border, having seen virtually nothing of what I planned to see. Not that there was really much there to begin with. El-Arish is the first town in Egypt that the Holy Family would have come to as they headed for the Nile. It was the first town I planned to visit as I retraced the steps of the infant Jesus and his family through the mysterious land of Egypt. In fact, El-Arish was probably a blur to the Holy Family. They passed through this dusty outpost as fast as possible. Legends say that they were concerned about being caught by Herod's pursuing soldiers and wanted to get as far away from them as they could. There might have been other reasons as well for their rush. In those days, El-Arish was called Rhinocolura, a name given to the town by Greeks who were just calling it what it was: a town for prisoners whose punishment consisted of having their noses cut off. Although none of the Infancy Gospels or Coptic legends indicate that Jesus even did so much as sleep here, I did want to talk to the local Christians to see if there were any accounts of the Holy Family in El-Arish that had not been written down. And I wanted to see another archaeological treasure that was rumored to be there. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, Moses tries to convince the pharaoh to let the Jews leave Egypt for the land that God had promised them. Despite two demonstrations of proof that Moses had the power of God on his side, the pharaoh refuses the request of Moses to "let my people go." To show God's power, Moses stretches his staff toward the river Nile and the water slowly turns to blood except in Goshen, where the Jews lived. This was the first of ten plagues alleged to be unleashed on the Egyptians by God. After the bloody water came frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and finally, the slaying of the firstborn child of every Egyptian. The last plague finally broke the will of the pharaoh. With his oldest son dead before him and the sounds of wailing mothers piercing the air, the pharaoh beckoned Moses and told him to leave the country. Moses led an estimated six hundred thousand Jews out of Goshen to the shores of the Red Sea. Soon the angry pharaoh gave chase with his army. The waters parted for the Jews to cross. As the last of the followers of Moses crossed into the Sinai Desert, the pharaoh's army charged into the same canyons of water, their horses pulling hard at the heavy chariots. You know the rest of the story. God caused the waters to fall back and the powerful army disappeared beneath the waves. It is a great story, certainly one of the central sagas of the Bible. To date, however, there is no significant archaeological proof that it took place. But there is some minor archaeological proof of the plagues. One such artifact is a black granite monolith in El-Arish found at the site of an Egyptian governor's palace, which seems to confirm the plague of darkness. On the ebony slab is inscribed this message: the land was in great affliction. evil fell on this earth. . . . it was a great upheaval in the residence. . . . nobody left the palace during nine days, and during these nine days of upheaval there was such a tempest that neither the men nor the gods could see the faces of their next. In addition to seeing the first stop of Jesus in Egypt, I also wanted to see this stone record of what appeared to be the ninth plague. As it was, I would not see the mysterious granite. I would barely see El-Arish itself. We came into the sparse and dusty town just as the noon call to prayer began to emanate from the minarets, the tall slender towers that stood like spikes next to the mosques. The call to prayer is projected from loudspeakers in the tower tops and is so loud that, as one Muslim told me, "only the deaf could deny hearing it." I expected the town to come to a halt as the faithful unrolled prayer rugs and knelt to the east, in the direction of the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. I was wrong. The town barely slowed at all when the muezzin began his nasal prayer. The people who were gathered in groups on the sidewalk continued their conversations as though nothing were taking place. Some even had a look of irritation at the auditory competition. Still, I felt uncomfortable at continuing to drive during the call to prayer. Even though we were all Christians in the car, we were not pausing to pay our respects to another religion. "Shouldn't we stop until the call to prayer is over?" I asked Ra'ed as we drove down the main street. "Not unless you want to be run over," said the translator. Our goal was to find the Coptic church, which, according to the first person we asked, was "somewhere downtown." According to the visions of Pope Theophilus in the fourth century, which first established the Holy Family trail, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph came through here in high gear, hoping to get away from Herod's pursuing soldiers as quickly as possible. Still, I considered this an important site because it marked the point at which Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah 19:1, in which the prophet said: "See, the Lord rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, and the hearts of the Egyptians melt within them." This is interpreted in the Coptic Church as prophesying Jesus riding into Egypt with his mother, symbolized by the "swift cloud." Seen in this way, say some religious scholars, the Copts are the only church in the world to be prophesied in the Old Testament. Also, the prophecy is a clear attack on the pagan religion of ancient Egypt. Although there were no pharaohs when Jesus arrived, there were plenty of idols and idolatry. Festivals were still being held in honor of the various gods whose stone visages dotted the country. In the ensuing battle between Christianity and paganism, the ancient town of Rhinocolura was the first beachhead. Egyptian Christians love to quote Hosea 11:1, which says, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." But that was later. El-Arish was where Jesus came into Egypt. "Where's the Coptic church?" asked Ra'ed. We had stopped in the middle of the town's main traffic circle to ask a policeman for directions. Behind us the traffic was backing up. Horns were honking furiously. The traffic cop didn't care. He stood straight and rubbed his chin for a moment. The drivers behind were in a fury by the time he leaned his head into the window. "I don't know," he said, pointing down one of the four main streets that played off the circle. "Try down there. It might be that way." Ra'ed smiled, but not pleasantly. "And it might not," he said as Sa'ad, our driver, hit the gas and we sped away. Tradition says that the Coptic Orthodox Church in El-Arish marked the spot where the Holy Family paused for a few hours before continuing to Tell Basta, where Jesus' first confrontation with stone idols would take place. It was here in El-Arish that Jesus would start to gather believers, more than thirty years before he started his formal ministry. The Coptic Church believes that the visit of the Holy Family to Egypt prepared the hearts of the Egyptians to receive Jesus' message of salvation. But it was also a training ground for Jesus, a place where the manlike infant first practiced his ministry and first demonstrated his miraculous powers. To me that made El-Arish as significant--if less dramatic--than the Red Sea was to Moses. It was the entry point for Jesus into a different kind of promised land, from which his message would eventually be spread throughout the world. We hit the brakes and stopped in front of a bewildered man who was trying almost hopelessly to cross the street against the traffic. "Where's the Coptic church?" asked Ra'ed in a demanding tone. The man straightened up and looked around. Cars began piling up behind us again and with them the sound of horns. Once again, the perpetrators of this traffic jam didn't care. "It could be down there," said the man, pointing down a different street. "I am Muslim, so I don't know where such a church might be." Ra'ed made a flicking motion with his hand and Sa'ad hit the gas, kicking up dirt on a main street that was more dirt than pavement. Once again I settled back into the car seat and watched the dusty town of El-Arish fly by the window. I tried to imagine what this place had been like in the time of Jesus but could not. There was too much honking and swerving to visualize an ancient town with little in it but mud buildings and criminals with hacked-off noses. It would have been a hardscrabble place back then--heaven knows it seemed like that now--but the arrival of Jesus here signified something momentous for the Copts. It meant that they, too, were God's chosen people. Since God called the people of Egypt "my people," in the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah, and then sent his "only begotten son" to Egypt, the Egyptians see themselves as the first to be trusted with the safekeeping of Jesus outside of Israel. This trust was a form of grace, wrote Coptic Pope Shenouda III in a 1981 article. "As Egypt opened its heart to Jesus and welcomed the Holy Family, so open your heart to God." Frankly, I have serious doubts that the ancient people of Egypt opened their hearts and welcomed the Holy Family. According to the Infancy Gospels and the Coptic visions and traditions, Jesus and his parents were unwelcome virtually everywhere they went in Egypt. From town after town they were booted out. The reason was simple: Jesus was seen as a destroyer. The miracle-making infant displayed no patience for local religious traditions of stone idols and oracles. In fact, Jesus would raise the ire of Egyptian citizens by destroying their objects of worship. At times the lives of the Holy Family were threatened, with stones hurled along with death threats. But that didn't deter the infant Jesus. When the Holy Family left a town where they were not wanted, Jesus would see to it that the idol worshipers of that town suffered in one way or another. This running battle with the locals disturbed Joseph. The Infancy Gospels of Thomas tell of Joseph asking Jesus: "Why do you do such things that these people must suffer and hate us and persecute us?" Still, Pope Shenouda interprets the constant movement of the Holy Family as a sign of their welcome. Indeed, Shenouda argues that the destruction of idols and the punishment of idol worshipers showed the Egyptians that the power of God was greater than that of their pagan gods. In short, Jesus the destroyer of idols made a lasting impression on the Egyptians. He may not have been loved by all Egyptians, at least according to the Infancy Gospels, but he was respected and in some cases feared. It was perhaps that mixture of fear and respect that made Egypt ripe for St. Mark, who came to Egypt in about 41 c.e., to spread the gospel of Christianity. Excerpted from Jesus in Egypt: Discovering the Secrets of Christ's Childhood Years by Paul Perry All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.