Am I Wrong About the Massacre of the Innocents?

Am I Wrong About the Massacre of the Innocents? December 18, 2012

First, let’s have some appropriate music to go with this post:

Now, on with the post!

Tony Jones has suggested in a blog post that I am wrong in what I wrote about the massacre of the innocents.

He is wrong about my wrongness, and this post is to explain why.

The heart of the problem is that he is approaching the question as a theological one, not a historical one. That is the danger, I suppose, we all face when interacting across disciplinary divides.

Tony writes, among other things, “Like many liberals, he brushes off the deeper implications of the text in order to assuage his modern sensibilities…James wants to mythologize this story because that lets God off the hook.” He is mistaken about my motives. I am quite happy to acknowledge that there are disturbing, even horrific things found within the Bible. In this case, I expressed relief after the fact that the incident probably never occurred. But my reasoning is historical, and my reaction a response to the results of historical investigation.

And that is the main problem. Tony doesn’t discuss the case for the historicity or otherwise of the incident Matthew describes. He seems vaguely aware that there are some historical questions, when he writes,

It’s true that we don’t know how many infant boys Herod murdered. We don’t know if it was just the sons of a couple families, a village, or a whole territory. But does it matter?!?Innocent infants were killed. They were not myths. They were not fables. They were babies!

The truth is that we do not know that innocent infants were killed. We have no record in any other source about this event. That doesn’t mean we can be certain it never occurred, and perhaps I could have avoided this misunderstanding if I had offered a lengthy introduction to my post. But I feared that if I did so, the point I wanted to focus on there would be lost in the process. And it seems from the comments on Tony’s post that most people who read my post did not misunderstand me in the way Tony did.

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.

Tony is legitimately concerned that historical people not be turned into fables. But we must also have the reverse concern, that fictional accounts not be misconstrued as factual ones.

In this case, although it is possible that Herod killing a few children in a small village simply didn’t get mentioned by any other source, we cannot know that. What we do know is that we have two accounts of the infancy of Jesus which are incompatible in their details. And we know that most ancient infancy stories were mythological and symbolic ways of emphasizing a person’s importance without much historical information. And we know that Matthew was interested in highlighting similarities and differences between Jesus and Moses, and the irony of the poor reception Jesus got in Israel. And so a historian justifiably suspects that the infancy narrative is a literary creation intended to introduce major themes which will be to the fore in the rest of the Gospel – the story of an individual about whom it was believed that, if he was so significant, his birth must have been remarkable too.

And so the good news, for Tony, is that there are plenty of other texts and events where the historical evidence raises the issue. There is no need to insist on the historicity of ones which are doubtful or unlikely on historical grounds.

The bad news, for Tony, is this:

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  • I understand where each of you are coming from in this little debate, but you win on the grounds of making me laugh with your approach here. These are serious questions… But we all need a little giggle these days. Thanks.

    • It’s true historical FACT that James is funnier than I.

  • Jon Altman

    Herod the “Great ” did so many bad things that it’s not impossible that he did THIS bad thing. Matthew ‘s audience (((70 plus years removed from the events wouldn’t have had trouble believing it.

  • Even though I agree with Tony, I am willing to admit you make some good points. And your meme shows your good nature in these kinds of discussions. Bravo!

    • spinkham

      Yeah, I’ve learned many things from reading this blog, but my favorite is probably tips on how to argue strongly for your position without being an jerk about it. 😉

  • Matriarch

    Some years ago I carefully explained to my mother how Genesis (KJV) came to be, the melding of the various traditions and texts. She blinked a few times and then said ‘If that’s what education does then I’m glad I’m not educated because I’d rather believe the truth than learn a fact.’ Enough said.

  • No, you are not wrong. Tony Jones is doing the same thing he skewers others for doing. Some insist on an historical Adam for theological reasons. He’s insisting on an historical slaughter for what he says are theological reasons. “It has to be historically true for my theology to make sense, therefore it IS historically true.”

    Only criteria from the discipline of history should be used to determine the historicity of an account, just as only criteria from the scientific disciplines should be used to explain the natural world.

    The account can be theologically true (or not) without it having to be historically true.

    • David, I think you’re misleading people by putting that line in quotes, as though I actually wrote that.

      • Tony, for some reason I just now received a notification that you had replied to my comment.

        I did not mean to be misleading. I thought it was apparent that my “quote” was a rhetorical move on my part and not an actual quote from you. My apologies.

        • Grr. And now Disqus lists me as “dkmiller” rather than as “David Miller.” I’m not sure what I’ve done.

          • I see “David Miller” – strange!

          • I went into the Disqus settings and found the problem. It had merged all the various ways I have signed into Disqus and was using my Twitter user name, dkmiller. I reset it back to my full name.

  • John Meade


    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…

    • The infancy narrative is particularly problematic, with its geographic movements and evidence of taking inspiration from earlier stories to make a theological point. But there are others which are historically problematic – although if one recognizes the author’s aims, they don’t necessarily detract from appreciation of Matthew’s work. The organization of teaching material into blocks, and the addition of phrases to clarify and interpret (e.g. “You have heard it said…I say to you…” and “in the holy place, as spoken of by the prophet Daniel”). The latter may well be a helpful interpretative guide to what Jesus said, but it is still from a historical perspective an example of Matthew redacting material found in Mark.

  • Matybigfro

    I think you made the same mistake you called Tony on, you are using the conclusion from one discapline as the basis for the conclusion of the other. ie Tony can’t claim that the Slaughter of the innocents Historically happened on the basis of his theology (that doesn’t mean he can say it is true). On the other hand you can’t say that God is not a monster on the basis that Historically the Slaughter of the Innocents didn’t happen and equally it doesn’t release you from dealing with the scripture.

    • I am not sure if I understand your criticism. I don’t think that I anywhere suggested that one can say that God is not a monster, or indeed anything about God, on the basis of the lack of historical evidence for the slaughter of the innocents. I also thought I was critical of Matthew’s narrative and its theology. So I am not sure whether I have misunderstood your point, or you have misunderstood mine, but I would welcome some clarification on what you felt my error was and how it relates to what I wrote.

  • Mark Erickson

    James, I’m with you on this one. But I have to be irony police – twice: 1) The first case is blatant. You can’t use both “because” and “in spite of” (ironically) to link two clauses. Just drop “ironically” at the beginning, and the sentence makes perfect sense. 2) What is ironic about Jesus’ poor reception in Israel? Compared to Moses? Every reception looks bad compared to Moses. I don’t get it.