Why I’m Glad Matthew’s Infancy Narrative Isn’t Literally True

Why I’m Glad Matthew’s Infancy Narrative Isn’t Literally True December 16, 2012

In the wake of tragedy, we may view things differently.

While some at church this morning spouted offensive platitudes (despite the pastor’s explicit mention of the pain they cause and their inappropriateness), I found myself thinking about the text of the sermon, about the massacre of the innocents in Matthew 2.

In the story, it is God who alerts Herod to the birth of a king in Bethlehem. The star is obviously not a real star, since it could not lead people to a specific house. But in the story, it brings the Magi to Jerusalem first, alerting Herod and sending him down the path of planning murder.

God is then depicted as warning the Magi and Joseph about Herod, but choosing not to warning the other families in Bethlehem.

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. He could have had the other parents in Bethlehem also be warned, so that the soldiers reached Bethlehem and found no one with young children, and realizing that God had accomplished a miracle, they could then have gone back to Herod and told him that the mission was accomplished.

But Matthew was content to depict God as more like a human being in our less generous moments. God is depicted here as concerned with his “team” – special guests he invited from afar, and of course his son, but although Jesus is to be the Savior, for some reason Matthew chose not to have God act to save innocent children, but instead to actively bring about their slaughter by making Herod aware of the birth of one who will be king of the Jews.

Aren’t you glad that we have no reason to think that this story Matthew tells actually happened?

Instead, we can attribute it to the shortcomings of Matthew. And we can take a lesson from it.

Real life includes murders and tragedies – like that which happened in reality at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut recently, and like that depicted in story in Matthew’s Gospel.

But when we insert God as a character and say that God acted to save some, we turn God into a monster who chooses for inscrutable reasons to spare some but lead others to the slaughter.

Do we not do better to simply express our gratitude and our relief for those who survive, and our mourning and heartache for those who died and for their families in the midst of indescribable grief?

When we try to introduce divine action into the story, the God we portray is one that few will find it appropriate to thank. Those who will are those who are concerned for their own comfort, and not the comfort of those who are most affected by the tragedy.

In Matthew’s story, it doesn’t matter so much, since we have no evidence that young children in Bethlehem were in fact slaughtered as per Matthew’s story. More likely, Matthew is working in details from the story of Moses in order to highlight the similarity between Moses and Jesus.

The Moses story and Pharaoh’s order to kill male Hebrew children also disturbs us.

But try as we might, when we seek to work a divine plan or miraculous interventions into the stories, we never end up depicting God as just, but rather an unjust.

I think we are better off sitting quietly, sobbing, weeping, and if we are near to the one whose loss is greater than ours, hugging. Don’t try to offer explanations. Would any explanation offered be a comfort? If the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem really did experience the things Matthew described, and then read Matthew’s account, would they find it comforting or simply adding to their pain, depicting a God who takes care of others but inflicts heartache and misery on them?

There are places in Scripture where it seems that an author has failed to fully live up to and write in a way that does justice to some of the most lofty principles Scripture calls us to aspire to. I think Matthew’s story is an example of that. While he manages to highlight parallels between Jesus and Moses, he does so at the expense of not showing sympathy towards those who mourn.

Or maybe he never imagined that anyone would think his story was literally factual in all its details, the way some today assume it to be?

There have been conflicting accounts circulating about some details regarding what happened in Newtown, Connecticut just days ago. But one thing we know is that it is a true story of the slaughter of innocents.

And so I appeal to you: Don’t make the same mistakes Matthew did. Because here you are dealing with real tragedy, real loss of life. And the harm your words can inflict is real.


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  • I guess it depends what you mean by literal. It seems to me very likely that Herod strikes again – monetary, moral and mortal powers – gold, frankincense and myrrh failing to submit to anything but their own interests. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the teaching mother was struggling alone with a mentally ill son without respite or support. Why she had guns registered to her is utterly beyond me.

  • brianskirk

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this. My first reaction was to say, “The writer of Matthew knew that life is full of terror and the death of innocents and so couldn’t scrub these from his story without making it into a total fairy tale.” However, as you point out, including divine intervention that warns the main characters but leaves the innocent children to suffer is hugely problematic.

    • It is only a problem for a trivial god. If God is, God is not trivial and God leaves Rachel to weep for her children – maybe the really hard hearts will begin to break at her weeping. Isaiah 2:6-21 is a nice put down for the exalted – for those with too many horses and treasures beyond counting (v7).

  • JustMe

    I guess the question is, why would Matthew know that people would eventually find the story theologically problematic?

  • Paul D.

    Matthew’s nativity story has bothered me for a long time, for much the same reason.

    It’s a cruel irony that the very first effects that the coming of a “saviour” should have would be the wanton slaughter of babies and toddlers, ripped from their screaming mothers’ arms. Though the notion that the Magi and Joseph should have warned the whole village never occurred to me.

    It’s pretty clear that Matthew is not interested in (or hasn’t thought through) the moral implications of his story if read as literal history. He primarily wants to establish Jesus as another Moses by following the template of Moses’ birth and the slaughter of innocents given by Josephus in his version of the Exodus story.

    • James Bozeman

      I suppose that the above analysis would be fine if it were of any form of literature other than the inspired Word of God, especially that which is found in one of the only four Gospel accounts that has survived almost two-thousand years of scrutiny by the Church.

      What Matthew is “interested in” is telling the story of our salvation by means of the incarnate Son of God. Part of this story involves the evil that we humans perpetuate and perpetrate upon one another; namely the slaughter of the innocents. To insinuate that Matthew is insensitive in this case seems laughable. We don’t even have to read this Gospel account as strictly historical to realize this, either.

      The fact is that the Church has four Gospels, each of which has its own unique and crucial perspective on the “good news” of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection (i.e. the fact of the salvation of mankind). There were many, many “gospels” produced, but only four (no more and no less) were recognized to be scripture by the Church, and this fact has stood the test of time. To criticize it in the manner that this article has chosen to seems quite arrogant.

      The point of the article is a good when it commends us to avoid platitudes and insensitive religiosity. But the author does badly when he chooses to criticize the first of the four Gospels and its author, calling his efforts and the resulting inspired scripture as “mistaken” efforts. This simply misses the point of Matthew’s gospel altogether.

      • Thank you for your criticisms and appreciative comments. One thing you did not address is my central point, which is that the actions Matthew attributes to God in the story cause problems – the leading of the wise men to Jerusalem unnecessarily so that Herod can begin to get murderous ideas, the rescuing of Jesus’ family while no one else is warned, etc. My contention is that those details, like any attempt to posit divine action in the midst of a tragedy of the sorts being discussed, aggravates rather than ameliorates the problem of evil.

        • What if the point WAS to aggravate the problem of evil? That is, to reveal our very need for God, to get man to understand that we are all evil, in and of ourselves? What if “bad things” (sin) happen to “good people” (of which there are none) to have them repent? As Jesus said (or didn’t, I guess)…neither the Galileans in the temple nor the people in Siloam were any more evil than the next guy…yet, all are called to repentance unless we likewise perish.

          As far as God “leading the wise men to Jerusalem unnecessarily so that Herod can begin to get murderous ideas”…this is preposterous. Herod was a power-mad leader from the beginning. Unlike you, I suppose, neither I nor Herod need anyone to “provoke” me to sin. I do just fine on my own. That’s what Jesus meant (or didn’t, I guess) when he said that hatred was equal to murder and lust to adultery.

          What you call “worship” of the text, I call “participation” in it. We relate to it because it is also our story.

          • I don’t think you are getting my points. When I refer to the problem of evil, I am using that term in its normal sense in the philosophy of religion, which doesn’t seem to be how you are using it.

            In the story, the “star” leads the magi to Jerusalem rather than directly to Bethlehem, which apparently it was capable of doing since it was able to stop directly over a specific house. That is what I am referring to – the story implying that God deliberately informed Herod of the birth of a new king, provoking the murder of the young male children in Bethlehem when otherwise it would not have occurred. I am discussing the details of the story.

          • James Bozeman

            In astrological terms, the star would move and come to rest at a given point in the sky, which in this case was over the house of Christ. The point that Matthew seems to be making is *not* a poor explanation of celestial mechanics, but rather that God worked through these pagan star-worshipers and their astrological beliefs (using the terminology of those beliefs) to lead them to the Truth, which is Christ. The following is the Eastern Orthodox Troparion (hymn) for the Nativity of Christ, describing this situation:

            “Your Nativity, O Christ our God,
            Has shone to the world the Light of wisdom!
            For by it, those who worshipped the stars,
            Were taught by a Star to adore You,
            The Sun of Righteousness,
            And to know You, the Orient from on High.
            O Lord, glory to You!”

          • Paul D.

            “In astrological terms, the star would move and come to rest at a given point in the sky, which in this case was over the house of Christ.”

            That’s a physical impossibility. A star cannot be “over” a house, unless it is some kind of will-o’-the-wisp literally hovering a few feet above the structure.

          • James Bozeman

            If you have ever looked up into the sky at night while standing outside of your house, you will observe that there are stars literally over your house. The text suggests to us that a star, and one of great significance to these astrologer-Magi, came to “rest” (perhaps a term indicative of the zenith or some other astrological term denoting a particular star or planet at the culmination of a conjunction or some such other astrological position in the sky) above the house where Christ was found. Considering the other miracles attested to in the scripture, while this one is profound, it is also not terribly impossible in the grand scheme of things. My hunch is that this star was rising each night, and its apex (the place where it “rested” above Bethlehem, if we are to believe the text) became some sort of guiding point for these Magi. That would be my poor attempt at a historical explanation.

            Having said all of that, my point isn’t to defend some sort of literalist POV of this passage as much as it is to say that we are intended to encounter the text at the level of the text. What is the text trying to communicate? It is communicating that Christ’s birth was so significant that even pagan astrologers were able to take note and recognize that a great “king” had been born. Something enormous had happened to the entire universe when God became man. Does this mean that this whole star business is fanciful a-historical myth? No, it doesn’t. When the Son of God takes on flesh and is born of a Virgin, you should expect some miraculous and unlikely things to happen.

          • If you have ever looked up at a star that is directly over your house, and then gone next door or down the street, you will have seen that a star will appear to be in the same position from those different locations, because it is so far away and so its position does not change perceptibly as you move over such distances.

            In short, a real actual star cannot point out, or come to rest, or reach its zenith, over a single specific house.

        • James Bozeman

          It sounds as if we disagree on the nature of inspired scripture, and so we disagree in our analysis of what the author of the Gospel of St Matthew is doing and saying. Christians have only one narrative: the Holy Scriptures and Christian Tradition which makes it possible for us to understand the words of Holy Scripture. If we begin deconstructing the scripture in the manner that you are suggesting, where does it end? I would suggest that it ends in absurdity and agnosticism.

          I agree with your sentiment: we don’t need to try to figure out how, why or if God was acting providentially within a given tragedy. We are better served by humbling and prayerfully accepting the tragedy, and avoiding useless platitudes, particularly those of the “it-was-God’s-will” sort. This is largely true because we cannot either prove or disprove the nature of His will. And in the end, it is His business and not ours to understand why he allows gunmen to kill innocent children. As I said, I agree with your sentiment, but a strongly disagree with your analysis of the Gospel of Matthew as a means to illustrate your point.

          • You used the term “deconstructing” but I think you are mistaking what it means. What I’m doing is historical analysis, not deconstruction. And it sounds like you think that we should avoid asking historical questions if they lead to results contrary to a previously-held doctrine of Scripture. I’d say that if Scripture does not fit our doctrine, it is the doctrine that should change. I think that process only leads to loss of faith if one’s faith is in Scripture rather than God, and if they were told that the inerrancy of Scripture is a doctrine without which faith cannot stand.

      • Paul D.

        “I suppose that the above analysis would be fine if it were of any form of literature other than the inspired Word of God”

        I’d rather analyze the text than worship it, thank you very much. I dearly love the Bible, but it is the work of men, not of God.

        • James Bozeman

          If you mean to say that the Bible is not the Koran (as in, it didn’t fall from the sky, intact and complete) then I certainly agree. Men wrote it, but the claims that the scripture makes of itself is that it is “God-breathed.” This is a great mystery, how God and man can work synergistically to produce — in human language— something that we call “holy scripture.” If we don’t or won’t accept this as truth, then the Bible is simply one more collection of baseless myths, and isn’t (in my opinion) even worth our time to bother with.

          I would add that there is a distinction between venerating holy scripture and being a “bibliolater” (my terminology). To accept holy scripture as “inspired” is to accord that text its rightful “honor”, and at the same time honors the One by whom it was generated. Analyzing the text does little to help anyone. I’d rather be transformed by reading it and by the renewing of my mind/heart/soul.

      • Rain

        “To criticize it in the manner that this article has chosen to seems quite arrogant.”

        You might not realize this, but you’re the most arrogant sounding one in the whole thread. Yeah, I realize it’s oh-so-obvious that we should accept that you speak for God. It must be very frustrating seeing people questioning oh-so-obvious things that are so oh-so-obvious that even the Bible says they’re obvious. Obviously we should take every word as so obviously true. What fools we are!

  • Dan Wood

    If we want to talk about the death of innocents, why not turn to the end of each of the 4 gospel narratives. God ultimately does not spare his child, from a similar fate, though momentarily he does. Isn’t this instructive to our reading of Matthew’s nativity?

    • Let’s start with the beginning. What do you understand “Son of God” to mean in Matthew’s Gospel, and what do you understand the significance of Jesus’ death to be in Matthew’s theology? Or is your mention of all four Gospels an indication that your solution only results from the later theology built by combining all four Gospels, and other considerations, in a particular manner? Please do say more about how you think the end of Matthew sheds a different light on the role Matthew attributes to God in the infancy account!

  • I’m curious why you say this story didn’t really happen- I haven’t heard that idea before. Good thoughts in this post though- I also was really disturbed when I read this story recently- I have a blog post called God became man… and babies died for it where I said “Oh no, King Herod wants to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem!
    Fortunately, God knew about it- God intervened… and saved 1 of them. Seriously?” and couldn’t come up with any answer for how it could possibly be okay for God to do that.

    • If you are asking about the story of Herod killing children in Bethlehem, we have no other accounts of such an event. That doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen – just that we cannot conclude that it did using the tools of historical investigation.

      But there are reasons to think that the infancy narratives in the Gospels are like all other stories about the conceptions and childhoods of famous people we have from the ancient world: stories told to highlight or interpret the significance of the individual, not ones that were based on historical information.

      Maybe I should post something on the historical issues within the infancy narratives sometimes soon? In the mean time, here is something I posted on the topic a while ago: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2007/11/spoiling-christmas-vs-spoiling-q.html

  • Thank you for this – a really thoughtful and interesting post! When I was a Biblical Literalist, things like Matthew’s account of massive infanticide really hurt my spirit and caused me to question how God could possibly be both love and revenge; both merciful and indifferent. Interpreting the Bible less literally has opened so many doors to understanding the perspectives of the writers, and allowing myself to have my OWN perspective of God. http://www.jonikmartin.com

  • Krista Dalton

    Great post James! I was struck by your words: “While he manages to highlight parallels between Jesus and Moses, he does so at the expense of not showing sympathy towards those who mourn.” Thank you.

  • Kermit Zarley

    Hi James. Your comment seems to imply that you think God foreknows everything about the future, so that he foreknew Herod was going to kill all those children. And it seems on that basis you criticize Matthew in order to defend God’s integrity. I don’t think scripture verifies God foreknows everything about the future, especially when it concerns what people will do. For instance, the angel told Joseph that “Herod is about to search for the child [in Bethlehem], to destroy him” (Mt 2.13), meaning that the angel and God knew that this was Herod’s intention at that moment. Then we read, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated” (v. 16). Consequently, the rest of this verse implies that Herod then changed his mind due to his anger. He didn’t “search for the child,” as the angel said he was planning to do, but “killed all the children.” Of course, the text doesn’t say Herod didn’t first search for the child, but it seems pretty obvious to me that he had then abandoned that plan for a different one. Taking this view doesn’t make it necessary to impugn the historical reliability of the Gospel of Matthew to defend God. (Dear Brother James, I would also like to say that because this is my first comment on your blog, I feel esp. reluctant to offer it since it differs from yours. I think we agree a lot on theological matters.)

    • Welcome, Kermit, and thank you for commenting! My conclusion that Matthew’s infancy narrative is not one historians can use is based on other considerations, and is not motivated by an attempt to defend God.

      I think that the decision to kill all male children of a certain age, based on his inquiry about when the star had appeared, is a clear indication that Herod’s action was intended to try to eliminate the potential rival king – although I wonder whether Matthew knew how old Herod was at this stage, since if Herod had concerns about a rival it would have been one who would compete with his son for the throne, and not with him.

      Be that as it may, I agree with your theological point about foreknowledge.

  • Rob Davis

    Dr. McGrath, I’d be interested to hear your response to Tony’s (straw man) post critiquing this post:

  • You have made a huge leap with your conclusion, by just assuming these events didn’t happen. If you second guess what Mathew said in Chapter 2, you are undermining the integrity of the entire scriptures.

    Some of the events in the Bible are messy, we can’t just throw them out, ignore them or give them an assumed meaning.

    Would it not be easier to assume, that these sad tragic and senseless events that happened last week have also occurred at other times in history?

    • I don’t follow your reasoning. Matthew’s Gospel was written first, and was given the status of Scripture later. How can that later act be determinative of whether Matthew’s account is historical at this point?

      And why do you say that the imtegrity of Scripture depends on this? Not everything in Scripture is history, and each piece of possibly historical material must be assessed on its own merits. It is not a package deal. History does not work that way.

  • A scientific perspective on following a star: http://what-if.xkcd.com/25/

  • You fail to understand that Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, and the case for Christ as Messiah was being made by directly connecting Jesus’ story and ministry to Old Testament figures. If Matthew edited out the infanticide, then he would have lost the parallel to Moses’ birth.

  • Joe Farley

    If the infancy slaughter offends you so that you don’t believe it, what else is there that you feel the same? It’s nice to pick and choose what we like and don’t. If we can’t wrap our head around something then we just discard it. I have no idea of why this happened. But I also don’t know why other things happened or didn’t. The Bible wasn’t written by one man at one time. If you don’t believe in divine inspiration then the Bible is no more than some kind of novel to you. Was Christ, if he even existed, just a nice guy with nice teachings that we like? Was he resurrected? Was he deluded into thinking that he was God? Did his contemporaries all die in vain for something they knew wasn’t true? Christianity isn’t just a feel good thing. Why did God tell the Isrealites to wipe out those whose land they were to possess? Why do people commit mass murder now? Herod was hateful, paranoid, insecure, selfish, deluded. Nothing was too vile for him to have done. We have similar mass murders even just recently by someone unstable. I know there are plenty of links that argue both ways. But if I deny this didn’t happen just because it doesn’t fit my sensibilities, idea of who God should be, that God is only about love and doing good things, then I’m wasting my time. Then what is true? Any of it? But, I guess I’ll keep wasting my time because I believe that I am not.

    Something to think about. http://www.neverthirsty.org/pp/corner/read1/r00379.html

    • I take this is your first visit to this blog. I would encourage you to take a look at some of the previous discussions about history and the Bible. The issue here is not “picking and choosing” – which everyone does, but inly some admit – but the asking of historical questions and the answering of them using the tools of historical study. That is not an all-or-nothing matter as you seem to think, where if one casts doubt on some things, everything must go. That is not how history works. Each question is discussed on its own terms, and each piece of evidence evaluated on its own merits.

  • robert

    Slaughtering of the Innocents is an allegory for the Sun in the old and New Testament. Jesus is the SUN in the new, Herod is night or darkness) and Moses is the SUN n the Old.

    Regarding the New Testament: When Herod [night] realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time [the time of Sunrise]he had learned from the Magi [the astronomers who watch the sky and know when the Sun will rise].

    [Darkness kills all the stars at Dawn, just before Sunrise, but fails to kill the Sun. The Sun rises, ending the reign of darkness of the night.]

    The astrotheological explanation is the only sensible one that explains this part of the bible.

    • LOL

      • Jesus

        John 1:3-8 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (Without the Sun nothing would grow and we’d all be dead.) In him was life, and that life was the light of men. (The light is the Sun.) The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (the Sun removes the darkness). There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He [John] came as a witness to testify concerning that light (the Sun), so that through him all men might believe. He [John] himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light (the Sun) that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
        John 3:19-20 This is the verdict: Light (the Sun) has come into the world, but men loved darkness (night time) instead of light (the Sun) because their deeds were evil (criminals do their crimes at night). Everyone who does evil hates the light (the Sun), and will not come into the light (the Sun) for fear that his deeds will be exposed.
        John 12:35-36 Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light (the light is the Sun) just a little while longer (the Sun will set soon). Walk while you have the light (the light is the Sun), before darkness (night time) overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark (at night) does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light (the light is the Sun) while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.” When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them (i.e. the sun set, because Jesus is the Sun).
        John 12:46 I have come into the world as a light (the Sun), so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.

  • Daniel

    If the Bible is not all true, then why bother making statements such as “God is truth” or “Your Word is truth”? It seems like a real crappy God who points to a work that contains lots of inaccuracies or “fibs”, as you claim, and would say “Yeah, that stuff is mostly true about me. But you have to wade through it in order to find out what is real and what isn’t!” You will say, “but we are reasonable and can know what God wants for us.” But eventually, a generation will come along that will believe the opposite of your beliefs and call it genuine, biblical Christianity. How would you be able to critique them based upon your own epistemological assumptions about your wisdom over the Bible’s presentation of the truth?

    • You are assuming in your comment that the Bible is what “the Word of God” refers to. And you are also assuming that having a book of supposedly inerrant truths is preferable, whether from God’s perspective or a human one concerned with human maturity, to having to investigate, assess, and draw conclusions. Neither assumption is beyond question. Could you kindly make the case for these things rather that simply assuming?