Did the Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

innocentThere’s been something of a debate happening in at least one corner of the theoblogosphere over Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, the incident described in Matthew 2 as Herod’s attempt to kill the presumed usurper the Magi had called “King of the Jews.”

James McGrath started it with a post titled, “Why I’m Glad the Infancy Narrative Isn’t Literally True,” in which he argued God’s warning of Mary and Joseph to flee while letting all of the other baby boys be slaughtered was an act of heinous injustice that besmirches the character of God – were it true, which it isn’t. He argues it isn’t true because Luke – nor any other ancient source – does not corroborate it, and it seems to be set up so that Matthew can cite the fulfillment of Hosea 11:1.

Tony Jones responded with “Herod Really Did Massacre the Innocents,” in which he rebukes McGrath’s seeming attempts to write off pieces of scripture with which he is uncomfortable and says he’s glad the Bible contains this narrative because it matches the horror and injustice of “real life.”

McGrath responded, correctly, that Jones didn’t actually address any of McGrath’s historical critiques of the passage but determined its authenticity based solely on theological considerations, which is not exactly the way you want to be determining the historicity of anything.

After all of that, Brian LePort stepped in with a couple of points. On the historicity of the passage, LePort argues:

Personally, I don’t find these points to be as devastating a critique as McGrath, especially since (1) the actions fit the Herod we know from other sources; (2) I think scholars often invert Matthew’s exegetical approach depicting him as having read Scripture in order to find events to narrate whereas the peculiarity of Matthew’s exegesis leads me to think he had existent traditions through which he read the text connecting events to Scripture. In other words, I think Matthew had a tradition that Herod killed the children while seeking Jesus and this [led] him to read Scripture to see if there was any “foretelling” of such an event.

He also doesn’t see anything terribly troubling about God stepping in to warn the most theologically important family in world history of impending demise: “If God intervened to stop all evil, it would be the eschaton!” He seems to be agreeing with Jones here; the passage is no more troubling than the Newtown, Conn., massacre – which is to say, no more troubling than the problem of evil existing in the first place.

I’ll leave the theology to these more able minds, though I tend to agree with LePort’s take on this – but I’m leery of simply dismissing McGrath’s theodicical (is that a word?) concerns, as well.

But I feel there’s a middle ground to be had on the historical elements, something neither McGrath nor LePort brings up.

We discussed the virgin birth narratives at length on this blog over the summer (links in the sidebar), and the Massacre of the Innocents plays a key role in casting doubt on their basic historicity. Simply put, Matthew’s story of slaughter and flight cannot fit with Luke’s story of Jesus’ dedication in the Jerusalem temple.

Yes, we harmonize these all the time. The family brings Jesus on the eighth day, as is customary, then settles down in a house to be visited by the Magi about two years later. But where does the family settle? Bethlehem, right? Because that’s where the Magi arrive. But Luke says the family went to Nazareth to live after the dedication. Did he just completely ignore the intervening massacre and years spent in Egypt? That’s quite the omission!

Now it’s possible Luke was simply wrong about where the family lived after the dedication; perhaps he knew Jesus lived in Nazareth to start his ministry so found a convenient time for the family to move there, unaware of all of the drama that preceded it. But I find it hard to believe that Luke, likely writing later than Matthew – perhaps even using Matthew as a source – would have been unaware of such a slaughter as Matthew describes. That would stick in the collective Jewish memory, I’d think.

Rather, I’m more inclined to agree with LePort that Matthew was aware of a tradition in which Herod had slaughtered a number of children for whatever reason around the time of Jesus’ birth, and that some had fled the carnage by traveling south to Egypt. Matthew, understanding that Jesus’ arrival was in at least some sense a recapitulation of God’s deliverance through the exodus, reworked these traditions to have Jesus himself make the same escape from a tyrant and journey through the wilderness that the ancient Israelites had made.

A lot of this is speculation, so let’s recap what we know:

  • No other ancient source mentions the massacre, although such an event would not be out of character for the paranoid, ruthless Herod. This isn’t conclusive by itself; Matthew does contain historical material, after all, and there are plenty of events we take at face value from single sources such as the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. But Matthew’s not trying to do what Josephus does – he’s not writing history but writing a gospel, which is a different genre, and that doesn’t get into the fact that history in Matthew and Josephus’ time did not necessarily mean what we take it to mean today.
  • Matthew and Luke cannot both be right. Jesus could not have moved to Nazareth right after the dedication and been in Bethlehem for the arrival of the Magi. Either Luke, usually regarded as the historian, is wrong about where the family moved and completely missed (or purposely ignored) a huge piece of Jesus’ story or Matthew is being more creative than literal in describing the Bethlehem massacre and flight to Egypt.

I tend to support the latter, as I can’t imagine an event as big as what Matthew describes being overlooked or ignored by Luke and every other ancient writer – including Josephus himself, from whom much of our knowledge about Herod comes.

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One comment on “Did the Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

  1. Patrick says:

    1) McGrath is in error theologically to assume God would need to be immoral to warn the parents of Jesus and not the victims parents because Jesus had to live to die at the right time to restore the entire universe,including McGrath and the little Bethlehem victims.

    He needs to ask himself exactly what does he think Jesus was about again. Why did Jesus become a corporeal man?? Was His role different than all other little babies? If so, why and go from there.

    2) Concerning the historicity of the Matthean account, as you noted, it perfectly fits Herod’s modus operandi.

    3) One thing I am discovering lately is the Gospel accounts might appear contradictory because at times one writer may be doing “literary device” work on a passage where the other 3 didn’t.

    Here’s an easy example.

    John places the temple cleansing in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the synoptics at the end. That doesn’t make John’s narrative fanciful, the cleansing did occur and it occurred at the end of Christ’s ministry( He’d have been murdered earlier if it was in the early part). John placed it where he did for theological purposes and ancient literary mentality knew this, it caused them no problems it causes us.

    Lots of their messaging was this type of stuff,unlike post enlightenment western culture, they didn’t write narratives like we do. To us it appears they hinted at things and to us it is a hint, to the ANE audiences, it was “look at that”!

    I think we’ll find out 95% of all our concerns fall into this type paradigm about the texts, including the Luke/Matthew case you deal with here. I think the events are real, they did occur, the literary devices are not frauds, they use the events theologically at times is what throws us off.

    For many centuries Christian theologians have wondered, “was John or were the synoptics accurate about the temple cleansing”? Both were, IMO. John just used his as a literary device in a non chronological case. It still happened and it shouldn’t take much reason to figure out which is chronological.

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