“Holy Innocents” and the Birth of Jesus

Jesus was born into a world of violence. A world where demented people kill innocent children.

It’s right there in the infancy narrative of the first gospel (in the order in your Bibles). It’s easy to miss, because we don’t often focus on it in our telling of the Christmas story–understandably so.

Matthew 2:16-18 tells the story of the “massacre of the innocents.” When Herod learns that a presumed threat to his throne was born in Bethlehem, he orders all male infants under age 2 in Bethlehem and surrounding area to be killed. An angel warns Joseph, who subsequently removes the baby Jesus from danger.

Tony Jones and James McGrath recently had an interesting back and forth as to the historicity of this account, and what that means for how we might understand suffering and God’s will. McGrath pointed outthat the only

Guido Reni, 1611

evidence of this particular tragic event occurring is Matthew’s account itself (nothing in the other gospels–canonical or non–or in early histories like Josephus’). There is significant debate as to whether the account tells about a historical event or whether Matthew created or borrowed a fictional story. In any case, the story connected Jesus’s story with Moses’ (remember Miriam basket?) and underscored the significance of Jesus of Nazareth and his Messianic identity. McGrath takes the account as mythological–and is relieved by that. If it actually happened, it would suggest that God only cares about his own family (he sent an angel to warn Joseph, but not those other families — Weren’t there enough angels to go around?)

Tony Jones, on the other hand, insists that the story is historical and suggests that to consider otherwise is to silence the cries of the victims.

It’s easy to sense the heart behind both positions. On McGrath’s side is a concern that we not see divine providence behind every tragedy. Surely God’s will is not that little, innocent children die. Can we really believe that God takes sides? And even if we were to interpret Scripture this way,  we dare not apply that logic to contemporary, tragic events.

On the other hand, I get where Jones is coming from. While we can’t prove the event is historical, we certainly can’t be certain that it didn’t happen. So why risk silencing the voices of the victims and burying their faces under the genre of mythology?

For my part, I accept the story’s basic historicity (it’s certainly not out of character for Herod to do such a thing–indeed, he slaughtered his own sons, if we believe Josephus). But the really important element, for our purposes, is the theological message.

There’s an important lesson Matthew is telling through this story.

In his contribution to the Global Bible CommentaryAlejandro Duarte reads the gospel of Matthew through the lens of the second chapter, and the massacre of the innocents in particular. He suggests that Matthew is contrasting the kingship of Jesus with the kingship of Herod. Duarte recognizes the disjunction, the “divine injustice” that “Jesus was saved while the other children in Bethlehem were not…” This seems in contrast with the purpose of the mission of Jesus, which is to “save his people from their sins.” Salvation, Duarte insists, includes the “harm that awaits them in their daily lives.”

The disjunction, the tension is certainly there in the text (why was the Savior’s birth seemingly interlaced with the death of other children?). Why isn’t Matthew as troubled as we are by the implication that God somehow orchestrated this tragic scenario? Why didn’t God simply strike Herod dead–or keep the news from him? Why not save the others? Duarte suggests that the tension is due to the greater point Matthew is making: we have on display, here two kinds of royalty, two kinds of king.

Herod is a fearful and ferocious king–fearful of losing his power and ferocious toward his enemies. He makes use of his strength to wield his weapon of war and to vanquish those who threaten him. Herod’s power is the power of empire, the power of brute strength. Herod is a bully king. And Jesus? Jesus is the opposite: a baby, born to a poor illegitimate family, “dependent and passive.” While he is recognized as a unique figure, he is “weak and vulnerable,” dependent on God. The power of Jesus is exemplified by his birth as a vulnerable baby in a dingy manger. The tension from the beginning of Jesus’ incarnate life–as the birth of the Messiah occurs in the midst of the death of innocent, little ones–follows all the way through to Jesus’ act of sacrifice on the cross, in which he shows his solidarity with the powerless and ends the power of the powerful. Evil and suffering meet their end at the cross (even if the end-game must still be played out).

Christ came into a world where innocent children died. Christ “comes” again and again in a world–this we proclaim this during advent season) of intense suffering, a world where innocent children, “Holy Innocents” still die, whether by gunfire, errant drone strikes, starvation, thirst or disease.

Jesus shows us that the death of innocent children is not God’s will–and he prayed that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. The ultimate disjunction we live with is that God’s will is too often not done on earth as it is in heaven. God does not force his way. God creates space for freedom–even for evil and tragic suffering. And he urges obedience to the call of justice. While we pray that prayer, and hope in the advent of Jesus, we must also rise up and do whatever lies in our power to right wrongs and protect the innocent. But we must follow the model of Jesus the baby and the crucified one. He was a different sort of King than Herod. And we must not lose hope that the  birth of Jesus means the eventual death of the kind of power that too often rules our world.





  • Silas Morgan

    Thank you, Kyle, very good. I really appreciated this parallel and surfacing the Matthean narrative of “the murder of the innocents” within the context of the Newtown tragedy, I think, works well – both existentially and theologically. Point very well taken. I want to quibble a bit though, on two related points: (a) the “all-too-easy” binary between ‘myth’ and ‘history’, and (b) the slight allusion to or implication that the Newtown tragedy and the murder of innocents are analogous or parallel in some (theological) way. I agree: they most are, but not in the way I think you seem to have connected them here, if I read you correctly. One of the issues I have with how theological blog0sphere has responded to Newtown is to immediately turn into it another iteration of the theodicy question, a move that is (at least structurally) similar to the one you have made here. I do not believe this to be the case and its connected to why I think theodicy actually precludes the immediate demands of human agency, helps us avoid taking responsibility, and breeds a sort of eschatological quietism. There is, of course, a very long and complicated debate with modern philosophy on this score; it played itself mostly within the “theologico-political problem” á la Spinoza and Leo Strauss, but was also very significant, as you know, for Bultmann and Tillich, who didn’t see mythology as some sort of ahistorical category of “false consciousness”. Bultmann particularly argued that historically speaking, all narratives, particularly biblical narratives, would not have been read as modern “myths”, false stories, but rather would have been mythologized as a matter of cultural hermeneutics. So it is not as if what is mythology is some sort of Imaginary fairy-tale, and history is a certain portal into the Real. They both suggested that the Symbolic order (LACAN!!!) gets lost in this false choice, and it is the symbolic that is of “ultimate concern”. So, if the only way that we can get the theological message of Matthew right is if we claim it was NOT mythological, and therefore historical, I feel like we’ve missed something important. Namely, that in the theology of the incarnation, the transcendence of the sacred is shattered, obliterated by the flesh, and in a moment of radical apocalyptic reversal, the divine is shown to be human (SCHLEIERMACHER!!!) as a matter of symbolic – and so perverse encounter. This “perverse core” (ZIZEK) is what I think gets brought to the surface in this narrative: that the emergence of the apocalyptic Jesus brings the matter of divine violence to the fore as it is enacted upon the most vulnerable of bodies. The “murder of innocents” is a narrative about the imperial politics of fear and biopolitical force (what clearer way to assert your power over the material conditions of social life than to enact the mass murder of children), but the key point – and theological question! – of this story is not the problem of the deactivation of the imperial decree for the sake of a sacred exemption, (e.g. the baby Jesus as Agamben’s homo sacer), but instead the evil Herod as a cultural and historical production of imperial politics. The questions raised by the acts of Herod, I think, serves as a theological symbol of biopolitical hegemonic power. As such, the theological point of the story is his arraignment, not to raise questions of theodicy, as if evil was a divine production, not a social, and as such, human problem. “Why did Jesus survive and other children were murdered? How could God have allowed all this to happen?” are NOT the right questions to be raised here and often serve as ideologies that serve the current order; they lead to a sort of theological negativity about the political. They theologize political questions, projecting the demand for intervention – action! – as a matter of theo-logic, rather than political work.

    Herod and the massacre of innocents, like Adam Lanza and the Newtown tragedy, are both fruits of the social production of evil, not a matter of the divine economy. The theodicy question actually functions as to turn our attention away from our own responsibility – the sense that we can do something about this – and allows us to refocus (or [cynically] distract. ZIZEK!!!) our attention to theological issues, not on the inconvientent truth that OUR social structures (our political demands to own guns!) and the arrangements of our bodies (criminalization of the mentally ill, the public refusal to fund the necessary state and local programs that serve as resource centers for families and individuals dealing with illness, not of their choosing!) are responsible, both of which produce the same sort of imperial violence on display last week, a violence that indeed has a biblical parallel in the Matthean birth discourse.

    So I agree there’s a lot of interesting parallels here, but not certain that they rest on (theological) issues of theodicy which negotiates between differing types of sovereignty. This story is not a question about divine injustice, but about social injustice. The question, in my view, is not “why didn’t God do something?”, but “why are we doing this to ourselves?” In this sense, we do not need to be theological: t0 wait the messianic incursion of the proleptic cross to arrive itself with in the present. We need to be political: to find ways to make all lives livable, all deaths grievable, to recognize all bodies (BUTLER).

  • Dave Mowers

    Silas, I think you make a good point in saying that the turn to theodicy as a result of the Newtown massacre represents a turn towards speculation and away from the responsibility we have to work for responsible gun control, access to mental health services, etc. However, I wonder about whether these are mutually exclusive. Here’s what I mean: if you are really concerned about the theodicy question, and you have a certain Reformed evangelical position about how events happen in general (e.g. they are finally caused by the active willing of God), then is it possible to work for changing the policy environment around Newtown? No, indeed – it would be futile, for God is the one who willed it to occur.

    I know that you’ll agree with me in saying that this picture of God is monstrous – but I think that suggests that there is theological work that must be done alongside the political work.

  • Kyle Roberts

    Thanks, Silas, for your substantive comment. You’ve pushed the discussion further than I went here (for which I’m grateful). However, I’m in agreement with you that the point of Matthew’s text here is not theodicy at all (Duarte acknowledges this–and says basically that we might wish Matthew was more concerned about the troubling questions his account raises in our ears). This is why I said why I basically lean to taking the account as historical (it’s certainly believable as such), that doesn’t really matter for Matthew’s illocutionary intent here. The point is that Jesus is a different kind of king than Herod and, if we’re to worship and follow king Jesus, we need to embrace his anti-empire ways (power through powerlessness, kingship as shepherding, salvation through solidarity with the suffering.

  • Kyle Roberts

    …And yet, I also think (as Dave also said) that theodicy-like questions are inevitable. How are we to understand events like Sandy Hook? If the sacred text means anything at all for us, we have to be able to turn to it in our confusion or anxiety about these things. However, we should do so not expecting more from it than it means to give us and not reading it as a “theodicy” defense if it is not that…so I certainly agree that a narrative like this in Matthew (and I can’t think of any in Scripture that do), does not offer any sort of philosophical “answer” to the problem of evil and suffering or a cut and dry explanation of causation of tragic suffering. As Dave suggested, readings that force that into Scripture end up with sometimes horrific portraits of the divine (i.e. every death–including every death of a child– is an act of God’s will being done). However, I’m wary of the opposite tendency to refuse to think about suffering and evil in the context of divine providence (it feels analogous to Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” of science and theology – we’ve got suffering and evil on one side and God’s agency/power/love on the other, but we dare not consider how to “integrate” the two, except to say that it’s up to us (humanity) to deal with evil/suffering.

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