Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Where the Holy Family lived in Egypt

OK, so maybe you are blessed to not be a complete and total nerd.

Unlike me.

To give you an idea, on the morning of 9/11, with all that sadness going on before our eyes, I remember thinking, "There are people not yet alive who will spend their careers studying the events of this day."

A psychologist would call this projection ...

Nevertheless, one of the nerdy things I think about is this: when Mary and Joseph took the infant Savior into Egypt because of Herod's murderous schemes (Matthew 2.13-19) where did the holy family live?

Scripture gives us no clue. But not surprisingly, these auspicious visitors made an impression, and tradition has recorded their stay as being in Heliopolis.

While reading Jeremias' Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (reviewed here yesterday) he mentions something I had never heard of: that there was a Jewish temple established in the Egyptian city of Leontopolis, located 180 stadia (= just under 24 miles) from the city of Memphis.

Now there are several reasons given in Jeremias for the extraordinary event of establishing a temple outside of Jerusalem, but the primary one seems to have been practical: there was a large Jewish diaspora in Egypt, and the temple was needed for sacrifices, Passover celebrations, and other liturgical events not possible in a synagogue. This Egyptian temple seems to have had a grudging acceptance in Jewish Palestine, while the other extra-Jerusalem temple was despised: the Samaritan establishment of a temple on Mt. Gerazim. (See John 4.20).

Since the angelic dream instructions (in Matt. 2.13) were non-specific ("flee into Egypt") it would have been logical for St. Joseph to have taken the child into a region where there was an acceptable temple.

But why in Heliopolis and not Leontopolis? The answer to this riddle is that Helopolis is a region of Egypt, while Leontopolis is a city within that region. Like Atlanta (city) being in the state/"region" of Georgia. Thus the Holy Family would have been within a proximate distance of the temple. We can only surmise what their use of the temple might have been, but they were within the general vicinity of the temple. If St. Joseph -- as it seems -- had discretion as to where he should take the family, bringing the infant Savior close to a temple would make sense.

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