This past week, my church, Orinda Community Church, put up a new street side banner that reads, “Jesus was an immigrant.” We shared photos of it on social media and have received several of the same question: “Was he really?” So I took some time to try and break that down:
The claim that Jesus was an immigrant is based largely on the Gospel of Matthew, in which Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt with their newborn child to avoid persecution. According to Matthew’s birth narrative, Jesus is born in Bethlehem in the land of Judea. Some Magi from the east arrive to Jerusalem and asked King Herod where the “king of the Jews” had been born. Upon hearing this, Herod feels threatened and sends the magi to find the child. The magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so “they returned to their country by another route.” (Matthew 2:1-12). After their departure, an angel tells Joseph to take his family and “escape to Egypt,” so they fled and stayed in Egypt until Herod’s death (Matthew 2:13-15). The family is fleeing for fear of persecution, as Herod’s intention was to kill the child. In Matthew 2:20 an angel says to Joseph, “Get up, take the child to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” But Joseph is fearful because Herod’s son is now ruling in Judea so instead he goes to the district of Galilee to live in the town of Nazareth (Matthew 2:21-23).
There are some arguments that claim Jesus was not an immigrant because the geographical area in which Jesus lived was largely ruled by the Roman Empire. There were seperate provinces ruled by different people, but all under the empire of Rome. While this is a fair and quite valid argument, the idea of ‘Jesus as immigrant’ is not as technical as many people are making it. Mary, Joseph, and their little child were fleeing a land ruled by Herod for a land ruled by someone else, and because Herod had no power in Egypt they were safe from persecution there.
While the claim that Jesus was an immigrant is mainly based on these passages from Matthew, there are also several other scriptural references to immigration:
In Matthew 25:35, Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
In Deuteronomy: “So you too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Dt. 10:19).
In Genesis: Abraham and his whole tribe move from their land and are strangers in a foreign land.
Exodus: the Israelites are alien in the land of Egypt and then flee to avoid persecution; in Exodus 22:21, Moses states a law given by God: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus 19:33-34; 24:22 “When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
These are but a few. For a full list of biblical references to immigration, please click here.
Immigration was not the same then as it is now. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus did not carry around passports. There were likely no border control officers. The Roman Empire may have had control over all the land. But there is still truth to the fact that the Christian story is rooted in stories of people fleeing their lands in order to escape persecution – Jesus included.