The Massacre of the Innocents in Matthew 2:13-18.
The Massacre of the Innocents in Matthew 2:13-18.

James McGrath and Tony Jones have engaged in a blog discussion over the historicity of the “Massacre of the Innocents” as described in Matthew 2:13-18. For some, this may be unattractive because it seems like these sort of topics are discussed ad nauseum, especially around Christmas and Easter, but I think this particular debate is interesting and it may be worth your time to read. Why? McGrath and Jones are discussing the historicity of the narrative because of the contemporary events that occurred last Friday in Newtown, CT. Many have connected the story of the Massacre of the Innocents to the killing of twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School because the Massacre of the Innocents is a “Christmas story” in the sense that Herod is described as having ordered for all the children near Bethlehem be killed because his conversation with the visiting Magi from the east lead him to think that another “king of the Jews” had been born there, one who would threaten his reign. In the narrative the one born in Bethlehem is Jesus, and though he escapes to Egypt with his parents due to angelic intervention, the other children in the area are killed.

McGrath wrote the provoking post, “Why I’m Glad the Infancy Narrative isn’t Literally True”, in which he expresses concern with a narrative where an angel would warn one family of impending doom, but not the others. This seems to McGrath to be quite unjust. Why couldn’t the angel have told all the families, saving far more children? Since McGrath finds this story improbable historically he expresses relief that in fact Matthew’s insensitive narrative is something we can ignore, for it doesn’t really tell us about how God acts in the midst of tragedy, merely how Matthew mistakingly depicts God as acting.

James McGrath
James McGrath

McGrath has a variety of reasons for denying, or strongly doubting, the historicity of the event: it is ignored in the Gospel of Luke, it is not mentioned in any other sources, it appears to be motivated by the author’s desire to place Jesus in Egypt so that he can be a “new Israel” with a “new Exodus”. 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 lead him to read Scripture to see if there was any “foretelling” of such an event. This doesn’t mean that Matthew’s information was correct, but I think it does force us to stop and think before denouncing Matthew as someone who created wild mythologies about the life of Jesus while reading the prophets.

While not to deny the quagmires of theodicy, I don’t feel as troubled as McGrath by this text’s depiction of God’s favoritism toward Jesus. McGrath doesn’t seem to give much thought to the theological reasons for why God may have intervened to save Jesus, the particular favor and role of Jesus in the plan of God, and how if God intervened to stop all evil it would be the eschaton! If he did think about these things, he dismissed them, quickly. As hard as this may be to swallow, Jesus’ life was more important than others, theologically, as is his death at the end of the story. If God saves the world through Jesus then we have to rethink the theodicy of this passage. If God does not save the world through Jesus, then we may have reason for demanding that God be egalitarian about who he rescues from death.

Tony Jones has different qualms with McGrath, which he expresses in “James McGrath is Wrong: Herod Really Did Massacre the Innocents”. He sees this as a liberal side-stepping of the problematic parts of Scripture. Jones is thankful that the Bible contains stories like the Massacre of the Innocents because it matches real life. Some people survive, others die, and God’s role in the world is quite messy. For Jones, McGrath’s exegetical move silences the victims. It doesn’t allow the reader to wrestle with the injustice of the world because the reader can say, “Well, thank God that didn’t actually happen!”

Tony Jones
Tony Jones

The strength of Jones’ argument is it does expose what many “liberal” or “progressive” types like to ignore: there is no objectivity. Even when doing historical work we are prone to accept and reject evidence based on presuppositions and motivations. Many historians would like to think that they “just read the text”, but no one does this. The weakness of Jones’ argument is doesn’t address some of the critiques of the event’s historicity presented by McGrath.

In McGrath’s response titled, “Am I Wrong About the Massacre of the Innocents” this is the direction he takes the conversation. Now, McGrath does use a slight of hand: he says Jones is asking a “theological” question while he is asking a “historical” one. Anyone who read McGrath’s first post should be aware that this is a false dichotomy. Both are asking theological and historical questions. Jones failed to give the historical questions enough attention. That is probably a more accurate assessment. McGrath says the following:

“Ironically, because Tony has justifiable concerns that the text not be misused for theological ends, Tony ends up ignoring the crucial historical question, which has to be paramount when we ask what did or did not occur. We do not say that the Holocaust occurred because otherwise it would let God off the hook. We say that it occurred because the evidence is clear and undeniable, and includes people who lived through it. And if we ask whether Israelites invaded Canaan and slaughtered Canaanites, the answer to that question must be based on the historical evidence, not because it either does or does not let God or Israelites off the hook.”

This is a fair criticism and it will be worth watching to see if Jones aims to address the lurking questions that need to be answered if one is going to demand that the Massacre of the Innocents happened in space-time. (FWIW, this is not a debate between a “liberal” and a “conservative”, so Jones won’t appeal to something like the inerrancy, infallibility, or trustworthiness of Scripture. For those who would approach it from this angle the question of why we should affirm the historicity of these events lingers still.)

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