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.
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!”
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.)
“This seems to McGrath to be quite unjust.”
… always a good motivation to question the bible. I wonder what Herod felt about the justice of slaughtering innocents. Best to give him the benefit of the doubt based upon McGrath’s hunch.
Brian, your reaction (and response) is way better than mine – methinks.
Thanks for summarizing so well the exchanges of McGrath and Jones. Even had I known of it, I probably wouldn’t have read it all. I’d also like to address the particular and the general, as your post does.
I agree, and find it important, that indeed no one comes “objectively” to any text or unit of writing (or a tied set such as Scripture). But I do think those of us (I’d include myself as an interested lay person in this area, academically speaking) who are interested in the history and tracing of developments in the texts and their communities more than we are the derived doctrines CAN be relatively more objective). Many of us (definitely myself included) have come through a stage, often a long one, of a primarily “non-suspicious” hermeneutic method with a presumption of basic historicity for the Gospels/Acts and only gradually discovered enough problems to “switch” to not necessarily the opposite, but a stance of critique and open exploration allowing for a heavy dose of myth (not “untruth” necessarily), fabrication (as in even historical fiction) and such.
Now, with the Matthean passage in focus, if one is coming from the latter kind of vantage point, or something similar, this aspect of the “Christmas story” just seems to exude fabrication. Just a couple aspects of that: Were there really such astrologers (for lack of a better term) at great distance who were that attuned to a momentous prophecy and identified an actual “star” (or similar celestial light/phenomenon), and then “followed” it to (apparently) Jerusalem, but only after consulting Herod were able to see where it actually “stopped” (at Bethlehem)?
Was it really even at Bethlehem that Jesus was born? (Hardly clear from the Gospels and Paul as a whole, and with additional problems from history.)
If it was Bethlehem where Jesus was born AND the birth was announced as claimed in Luke, there seems to be a major conflict between Herod’s need for a search of the relatively small town and area and the miraculous events the shepherds experienced, including the child in a manger, which they then publicized: “… they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed…” (Luke 2:18, NRSV)… And the word didn’t spread, even if they suppressed their excitement enough to tell just a few?
To me, this “slaughter of the innocents” seems pretty easy to put in the “legendary and not true” category, even though Herod WOULD have had motive and was quite capable of such brutality.
There are aspects of Matthew 2:13-18 that are worth questioning, sure. I don’t know that anyone can be 100% certain that these events happened–unless they have a view of Scripture that demands something like inerrancy, but even then, can there be epistemological certainty? Neither do I think there is grounds for 100% denial of all the details (including 2:1-12), unless someone is committed to a naturalistic worldview (then angels are impossible). It may be that at the end of the day, if we are not committed to the extremes of inerrancy or naturalism, that the best we can say is Matthew believed this or that.
The Jesus Seminar gives helpful frameworks for addressing issues like this (Criteria for Authenticity, Criteria for Inauthenticity) which it applies to Jesus’ saying which are clearly more fleeting (historically) than thing such as events.
Accordingly, an assessment such as ‘To me, this “slaughter of the innocents” seems pretty easy to put in the “legendary and not true” category”‘ would roughly correspond a GREY BEAD (in line with Herod’s character but false).
The Jesus Seminary is excessive in their skepticism, in my opinion, but some sort of “degrees” of epistemological comfort are helpful for a discussion like this one. For example, do I feel more confident that Jesus was born, than that he was born of a virgin. Sure. Do I believe both? Yes. Is one easier to believe? Of course, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have reasons for both. Rather, one is familiar. It matches the norm. People are born all the time. Virgin births don’t happen, unless one did, then we have one.
Fair comment Brian – so what is the basis of scepticism then?
Here’s what we know about Herod’s deeds historically (mostly Josephus):
– 40 BC, Herod Was declared to be ‘King of the Jews’ by the Roman Senate
– 37 BC, MATTATHIAS ANTIGONUS his Hasmonean predecessor was executed for being a threat to the throne (with help from Mark Antony)
– 37 BC, orders the execution of 45 of MATTATHIAS’ friends (Antiquities 15:5-10; LCL 8:5-7) for being MATTATHIAS’ friends, therefore must have been a threat to the throne
– 30 BC, orders JOHN HYRCANUS 2 strangled for being a threat to his thrown (Antiquities 15:173-178; LCL 8:83-85)
– 28 BC, orders ALEXANDRA one of his mother-in-laws executed (jealous of her influence) (Antiquities 15:247-251; LCL 8:117-119)
– 29 BC, killed MIRIAMME, his wife, loved her to death (Antiquities 15:222-236; LCL 8:107-113)
– 20 BC, genocide against his population (because of paranoia) (Antiquities 15:365-372; LCL 8:177-181)
– 7 BC, orders the strangulation of 2 of his sons, ALEXANDER & ARISTOBULUS (sons of MARIAMME) (Antiquities 16:392-394; LCL 8:365-367; Netzer 2001:68-70)
– 7 BC, orders the death of ANTIPATER later same year (Antiquities 17:182-187; LCL 8:457-459; Netzer 2001:75; Gutfeld 2006:46-61) (Antiquities 17:187; LCL 8:457-459)
– 7 BC, orders the execuation of 300 military leaders (Antiquities 16:393-394; LCL 8:365)
– 7 BC, orders the execution of Pharisees (who prophecied aginst him) (Antiquities 17:42-45; LCL 8:393)
400 BC, Macrobius, a pagan historian cites some unknown source speaks about slaughter of boys up to 2 years old saying it was one of Herod’s last acts before he died.
So is the absence of this from Josephus the basis for scepticism, or since when did the bible itself cease to be believable as a historical source?
I gave the reasons why some are skeptical in the post, e.g., absence from Luke’s Gospel, absence from other sources, presupposition that Matthew read Scripture seeking to “find” events from Jesus’ life in Scripture, etc. That doesn’t mean I affirm them, but those are some of the reasons.
I’m not directing that you Brian – y our post is thorough. It’s more a philosophical question (or observation): that with respect to issues of historicity the bible is often treated different than any other (secular) source. [This is an apologetics point].
For examples historians are often willing to accept historical facts as facts, though not directly attested by primary sources, but referenced in secondary sources or mere archaeological evidence (which is general deemed weaker than literary evidence).
The standard required for historical proof for the bible is often far higher than secular proof. The slaughter of the innocents is attested in Matthew. This is no less proof than the death of James as attested in Josephus – yet people believe Josephus and disbelieve Matthew?!
My comment raised a few points re. problems with the historical view of the slaughter, which were either from prior knowledge or a quick re-reading of the text and cf. with Luke’s on the “announcement” to the shepherds. That is, just a few surface issues that themselves raise serious questions, without much deeper digging… which COULD end up being supportive of historicity for the event.
But one of my main points connects to your objection (?) about a different or higher standard for the Bible than secular documents. Two main points about that: 1) What is the apparent genre and purpose of a given writing? (Indeed the Gospels/Acts are a bit different than any other contemporary lit, or much of anything since, as well, except the non-canonical “gospels” of the same or just-later era); 2) What seems to be the specific bias (and purpose, again) of the author… or “tendenz” criticism, which I find is a very germane and important consideration, tho must be used carefully and will not be without controversy… It tends to be a stronger, more useful tool than say “form” or “redaction” criticism, more accessible to the almost any careful, analytical reader, without needing a lot of technical background or knowledge of ancient languages (though that helps), etc.
Josephus, as a key case-in-point, is loaded with pretty obvious bias that makes complete sense given his priestly, aristocratic, then military early life, defection to the Romans early in the 66-70 war, and then EMPLOY by the Flavian family (thus his later name of Flavius Josephus). But factoring this into interpretation at many points and recognizing his probable relative lack of direct sources (eye-witnesses or first-hand written accounts), he still conveys a LOT of useful information (even when taken tentatively) and a sense of what conditions of the day were, how the war developed, the major players, etc. But you don’t get the sense of full-fledged apologetic or polemical writing with Josephus, detailed theological bias (beyond his basic pro-Judaism but appeasement with Rome and leaning toward the Pharisees–the only group “left standing” when he wrote). He doesn’t cite “evidences” via miracles, etc., as you get in the Gospels. And much literature of the day DID cite supposed miracles. In other words, he DID have an historical as well as a somewhat apologetic purpose, but in a genre very distinct from the Gospels or “lives” stories (biographies of a sort).
(This is without any real expertise on Josephus, but seemed to be a good comparison point, so any pertinent scholars, feel free to correct me or elaborate… that about exhausts my knowledge:) )
It was not immoral or unfair, God certainly did allow His Son to also be murdered and in a much more brutal method.
It was just later so those earlier victims might live forever in a restored universe with us and McGrath.
Had God also allowed Jesus to be murdered as a child, we all would be cooked, including those innocent kids and McGrath.
BTW, I think it’s factual personally. It does fit perfectly with Herod’s character and he would have been determined to rid himself of any competitors.
If McGrath is so glad that, the infancy narrative isn’t literally true. Then why doesn’t he become an atheist and thus solve all his problems of theodicy. In the light of all the injustice in the world or just the suffering of children whether or not Matt. records actual history isn’t much to be glad about. There are many reasons to doubt the historical veracity of Matt. McGrath gives some good ones but he seems very smug about it. It’s as if his view is the only reasonable one but as Brian points out there are other ways to view the data. I had my doubts about the historicity of Matt. before I read this. McGrath’s post has no influence on my thinking one way or the other.
An important fact McGrath failed to mention was the chronology of Herod does not match up with when Quirinius was governor of Syria. If I had to choose between Luke and Matt. as history I have to go with Luke.
Howard, given Josephus’ account of the consistent paranoid deaths Herod ordered over the course of his reign, which included family, friends, loyal subjects and military officers under his command, most in reaction to a perceived threat against his thrown, I see little reason to doubt Matthews account that he’d ordered the deaths of some children in a little known, somewhat obscure country-side village that few really cared about.
To be skeptical on this point while accepting many other points of history on less evidence is dogmatic and selective. Your own response shows this. That that bible records miracles does not automagically exclude the bible as a historical source. these records could be historical eye-witness evidence of miracles (especially if the bible has proven itself reliable historically on other points – of whatever genre that record takes), that is unless one already automatically presupposes miracles impossible whatever the evidence, then the genre of the record becomes a weak but convenient excuse to dismiss the evidence.
Rationally, the evidence Matthew gives is as strong (likely stronger, as Matthew was closer to the events) as that of Josephus, and consistent with it. Accordingly, one must either accept both, reject both, or find some credible reason why Josephus is more reliable than Matthew. (This I haven’t seen)
Andrew, you are correct about Herod as someone who would order the deaths of children. But that does not make a case for the historicity of Matt. Nobody that doubts Matt.’s historical reliability does so on the grounds that Herod would not kill the children. There are other questions to deal with but Herod’s character is not an issue. Your observation about Herod is thus irrelevant to the question of Matt. as history.
Thomas R … of course – and I agree though I must not have been clear. My observations about Herod were not for the sake of character assassination, but for the sake of pointing out the dichotomy and hypocrisy in historian’s treatment between the two, Josephus and Matthew. Everyone’s willing to accept Josephus recognizing his bias perhaps (as single source), whereas poor Matthew has ‘other questions’ (as of yet to be identified) hanging over his head …
.. which is why I concluded with the ‘challenge’ for someone to expose these ‘other questions’ that undermines Matt’s historical reliability. Clearly I don’t see miracles as those other reasons (especially if Matthew’s attestations to miracles are truthful and accurate). So if there’s cause to doubt Matthew James McGrath’s personal doubts likely aren’t sufficient – and the reasons accredited to him aren’t sufficient to warrant scepticism (according to normal historiographical standards (such as the ‘not attested in Luke’ argument – since when has a single source attestation been insufficient historical evidence?).
If there are other questions about Matthew’s reliability, of course people should know about them – otherwise scepticisms for the sake of scepticism is mere dogmatism.
I posted this comment to James’ blog but I have not received a response. What do you think?
Are there other places in Matthew’s gospel where you perceive his point of view as disqualifying his work from being considered historiography? There is no question Matthew writes his gospel from the theological point of view that Jesus is the new Israel and the new David and perhaps a new Moses, but the question is whether this point of view disqualifies the work from the genre of historiography. All histories are written from a point of view, theological or otherwise, correct? And this point of view certainly does not discount the historicity of the events or the accuracy of the account.
I realize you think the Matthew account and Luke account are incompatible and this is why you place the birth narratives in different category than historiography. And yet, Luke claims to write history (Luke 1:1-4), albeit from his point of view. Is it fair to call what Luke is writing, myth? This appears to go too far, especially when folks like Eric Auerbach in Mimesis see a realism in the Gospels not paralleled in other sources we usually consider to be historical (e.g. Tacitus). This realism usually lends credibility to a source from antiquity. The differences between accounts can be resolved, but you do not appear to think so. I would rather see a harmonization between the birth narratives and keep the Gospels free from the label of myth, of which genre they are clearly not good representatives at the very least.
Just my two cents…
I don’t think Matthew or Luke thought of their writings as something less than history. All history is interpretive, and we do need to acknowledge this, and ask what interpretive categories filtered Matthew’s and Luke’s understanding of past events. Matthew wants to show that events that he believes happened in real space-time prove that Jesus is the one to whom Scripture points. So if John the Baptist launched his ministry in the desert, Isaiah’s ‘a voice crying in the wilderness…’ provides useful language that John ‘fulfilled’. Some may see the use of Scripture to provide ‘meaning’ for John’s life as purely inventive. I don’t see that. I see events happened, John doing certain things, saying certain things, and looking a certain way. This allowed the Evangelist to take their stories about Jesus, go to Scripture, and find passages that seemed to match John’s life or Jesus’ life.
There are other passages of Scripture that would have been very useful for proving Jesus as Messiah other than the ones used if Jesus had not done things that reminded them of various passages of Scripture. There are other things to invent that could have been more convincing to their audiences. If the Evangelist didn’t start from events and move to texts, but rather began with texts and invented events, then they chose some odd texts.
FYI: Tony Jones responded with the argument that you can’t get “behind the text”. I think he made some good points to worth reading: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2012/12/20/james-mcgrath-may-be-funnier-than-me-but-hes-still-wronger/
McGrath responded: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/12/funnier-and-wronger.html
So it is not methodologically flawed to write history from a point of view. I think you are on the right track.
I think it impossible to write history without a point of view. The question is whether or not one is aware of one’s point of view and willing to critique one’s own presuppositions to see if they can withstand. Some historians act objective, and they remind me of a quote from G.K. Chesterton: “There are two kinds of people in the world: the conscious dogmatist and the unconscious dogmatists. I have always found myself that the unconscious dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic.” (Generally Speaking, 23)
This is off topic, ignore if it’s too far irrelevant to the discussion…
To what degree do you think Matthew might have had the whole of Jer. 31.1-26 in mind when he quoted v 15 as a fulfillment? The reason I ask is that v 15 stands in such a stark contrast to the verses immediately before and after; they speak of restoration, regathering, blessing, prosperity, etc., with God even calling Ephraim a “delightful child”! Verse 15 is this inexplicable, tragic explanation of the separation, exile, loss etc. experienced by families at Ramah. It’s just dropped into a great passage, without extended comment by Jeremiah.
So, I’m wondering, in a similar way, does the Slaughter of the Innocents stand out as a horrific spot in an otherwise tremendous account of certain blessing, and should we then view the Cross as the same, and perhaps gain a framework by which to view recent horrors in our communities, country, world, etc.?
What do you think?
Merry Christmas, brother!
Merry Christmas to you as well. Whenever I read a quote of the OT in the NT I presume the broader context is worth investigating. As you note, v. 15 is a sorrowful statement in the midst of a passage that emphasizes the end of and restoration from exile. The mothers cry for the moment, because there children are gone, but this doesn’t mean that the exile won’t end and that there isn’t hope for the future.
This is interesting because Matthew wants to connect Jesus’ entry and exit from Egypt with the Exodus, and the Babylonian Exile is seen as a replication of the slavery in Egypt followed by freedom to return to the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is as if the combination of Jeremiah 31 with Exodus imagery is aimed on evoking the message that present mourning precedes future deliverance. In Jeremiah 31 the women crying does not negate the promise that exile will end. In Matthew 2 the women crying does not negate the promise that a different sort of exile will end, first with Jesus returning, second with Jesus “sav[ing] his people from their sins” (1:21).
If I were to make a principle of it I might connect tragedy to the reality that it is a precursor and a reminder to future deliverance, exodus, and freedom. I think Romans 8:18-25 presents the same idea with “cosmic” implications if you will. We wait to be “set free”, groaning and suffering with Creation, filled with the Spirit, hoping for the resurrection, or ultimate exodus!
Andrew, let me make myself perfectly clear as a former President once said. I did not like what McGrath had to say about Matthew. Statements like”If Matthew had had more sympathy towards those who lose children, and more theological concern not to depict God in a manner that people would eventually find morally problematic, he could have used his imagination and added still more details to the story he concocted.” I don’t think of Matthew as unsympathetic to those who lose children. Nor do I think he concocted the story out of his own imagination. McGrath must think Matthew is no more inspired that a modern novelist.
The question of historicity is a different issue however. The problems with historical events in Matt. are well documented for anyone to research if they want to. It would require to much time to put it all into a comment. I have not researched the issue myself but have come across it from time to time. Some criticisms of Matt.’s historicity I do not find to be valid but some make a better case. I’ll give one example of each. One commentary i read doubted the story of the massacre because no one else had recorded it. But I thought there may not have been as many children killed as we imagined, so it might not be that unusual that no one else recorded it. A fact I came across that is more of a problem for me is that Herod the Great was dead before Quirinius was governor of Syria. I consider Luke to be the better historian so for me this would cast doubt on Matt’s account. I don’t want to debate this all here but simply say, it’s alright to have doubts about some of the history in Matt. without putting yourself above Matthew as McGrath seems to be doing.
Thanks for the clarification Thomas. I agree that Luke writes his Gospel more has a historian than Matthew does, I also agree that Matthew’s ‘genre’ must be read according to its intent, but I would not argue Matthew’s gospel is defective as a historical document. (I would also argue there are a ton of historians who ignore (or dismiss) the historicity of Matthew simply because his Gospel is in the bible.)
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