Was Jesus an undocumented migrant?

December 30th, 2019
by Chris

I’ve seen a lot of posts recently about the Holy Family being undocumented migrants, this stemming from the “flight into Egypt” narrative in Matt. 2:13-23. Equally, it seems to be a common conservative reaction to that (I’ve seen it at least three times) to focus on the relocation of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, recounted in Luke 2:1-5, which it is said was mandated by Emperor Augustus for the purposes of registration for taxation.

Now, I’m very attracted to the idea of Jesus and his parents being refugees; this plays straight into the narrative running through Judaism up to that point that you should care for strangers and foreigners in your midst. The thing is, as at 6 BCE (which is commonly accepted these days as the likely actual birth year of Jesus), Egypt was a Roman province – but so was Judaea, albeit with slightly different statuses, Egypt being a straightforward province while Judaea was technically a client Kingdom ruled by Herod the Great. Transit between Roman provinces seems to have been more or less unrestricted, relying on this paper. (It seems to me well-researched and adequately scholarly, and is worth a read in general, though it is long).

There’s evidence in there (e.g. p.88) that Rome did occasionally issue decrees ordering citizens to return home (in that case due to the nearness of Gallic armies to Cremona and Placentia having led to a mass movement towards Rome), and specifically that immigrants to the city of Rome could occasionally be ordered to leave (P.72, relating to Samnites and Paelignians, notably both at the time client states rather than provinces) but the author arrives at the conclusion that views of Roman policy towards migration as being a privilege of the selected few must be abandoned. Other than in situations where colonies or provinces were concerned about depletion of manpower, there seems to be no evidence that relocation was restricted in any way – and that includes relocation from outside the Empire to within it (as witness, inter alia, the comments on P.84 about the ease of migration within the empire evidenced by foreign family names appearing in inscriptions and the discussion on P.88 of the Balbus case – where the point made is that in the case of certain nationalities there was in the treaty with them a restriction on becoming citizens, so there must be no restriction on that based on “nationality” as a general rule).

It seems, indeed, that in respect of the movement of individuals into and through the Roman Empire, the default was that it was permitted, the principle being that anything which was not specifically prohibited was allowed. It was also very common indeed. This seems especially true of those who were not of the upper classes, who typically seem to have been below the notice of Roman Law except when migration created labour shortages. There is no evidence that there was any such law in respect of Judaea, and so I regretfully conclude that no, the Holy Family were not undocumented migrants in the sense we now understand it, i.e. as not being legally permitted to travel to Egypt or to stay there.

They probably were undocumented, as although Roman citizens were required to register in the communities they were settled in, this did not apply to non-citizens, but that would not have been any kind of bar to free movement. What did affect non-citizens (and that would include the vast majority of inhabitants of the Empire) in Roman provinces was the 15-yearly census, which (contra Luke) was intended to establish the number of men available for military service. There was such a census under Quirinus, but it was in 6 CE, when Jesus would have been about 12, when Rome instituted direct rule over Judaea some years after Herod’s death, and no Roman census ever required people to return to their place of birth – nor did the census include client kingdoms, which were not directly taxed, which was the status of Judaea under Herod the Great. The result was widespread unrest at the prospect of direct taxation for the first time and the administrative intrusion into peoples’ lives, which was one of the multiple factors which ended up precipitating the Jewish revolt of 66-73 CE.

It is notable that following the next (and final) Jewish revolt in 135, Jews were specifically prohibited from entering Jerusalem except on the day of Tisha B’Av; this is, as far as I can tell, the only recorded instance of a legal requirement on Jewish movement or residence outside the city of Rome. Yes, I suppose there could have been an edict similar to that relating to Cremona and Placentia, but there is no evidence of one, and it would have been unprecedented in 6 BCE in affecting two parts of a client kingdom, rather than Roman provinces.

So, with much less reluctance, I conclude that Luke’s story about the census was weaving some real historical information about Quirinus’ census into earlier history (it was something between 6 and 12 years too late) and arriving at a relocation from Nazareth to Bethlehem which really didn’t need to have happened, assuming that it actually did. My strong suspicion is that Luke felt that he had to locate the birthplace of the Galilean Jesus in Bethlehem (Judaea) in order to fit what was understood as messianic prophecy. The strong probability is, in fact, that Jesus was actually born in the Galilee, probably in Nazareth.

Having established that the conservatives are relying on a non-historical event, does that mean that what Luke was trying to convey is untrue? Not at all: his object was to establish that Jesus was the hoped-for messiah, and that might well have been a truth independent of the fact that a birth in Bethlehem was predicted.

Similarly, Matthew was clearly drawing a parallel with Moses in the flight into Egypt. Most historians think this story didn’t happen; certainly there is no evidence that Herod ever ordered the wholesale slaughter of children born in a certain period, and this is something Josephus, at least, would surely have mentioned. Again, however, historical accuracy is not what was being aimed for; drawing parallels between Jesus and Moses is theologically very fruitful territory.

And, in conscience, although Jesus was not historically an “illegal immigrant” and probably never visited Egypt, if we do not today see Christ in the illegal immigrant (and in the starving, the thirsty, the unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned), we cannot see Christ anywhere. He is there in the child in a cage in ther USA, he is there in the child washed up on a Greek beach, he is there in the camps in Turkey and Jordan and near Calais.

And we are not bringing him any gifts…

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