Power vs. Love in the Christmas story

Power vs. Love in the Christmas story December 20, 2012

There’s an interesting back-and-forth between Patheos bloggers James McGrath and Tony Jones regarding one part of the Christmas story, Herod’s massacre of the infants in Matthew’s Gospel.

This story follows the visit of the magi or wise men, who had visited Herod with their news that they had seen signs in the heavens marking the birth of a new king. Herod, the current king, was not as pleased by this news as the magi. After they head home without telling him the identity of this royal child, Matthew tells us that Herod took brutal action to preserve his power.

The story is told in Matthew 2:16-18:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Those evocative words from Jeremiah have led many to cite this story in recent days, as the Christmas story and the massacre of innocents have again converged.

That prompted McGrath’s first post: “Why I’m Glad Matthew’s Infancy Narrative Isn’t Literally True.” He says that this story, which isn’t found in the other Gospels, probably never really happened:

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.

And that’s a good thing, McGrath argues, since the story Matthew tells is problematic. Specifically, he says, it seems horrible that the wise men and Joseph were warned by God to flee from Herod, but no such warning was given to all the other families in Bethlehem, allowing them to save their children too:

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

Tony Jones disagrees, arguing that James McGrath is wrong and that Herod really did massacre the innocents. Hence the title of his response: “James McGrath Is Wrong: Herod Really Did Massacre the Innocents.”

McGrath’s first post didn’t really make a case that this story is not historical, but just began with the assumption that it isn’t. Jones’ response, likewise, doesn’t offer a case for why the story is historical, but just begins with the assumption that it is, warning against mythologizing horrific stories in an attempt to “let God off the hook.”

Neither of these posts argues for or against the historicity of the story on historical grounds. McGrath and Jones are really discussing, instead, the implications of the factual truth or untruth of the story Matthew tells.

McGrath’s follow-up post — “Am I Wrong About the Massacre of the Innocents?” — points in the direction of a more substantial case against reading this story as a historical account of actual events, but I wished he’d pointed us toward a fuller argument elsewhere, as what he provides there is still sketched a bit broadly:

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.

… 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.

I’m out of my element here. This is McGrath’s discipline, and he’s a sharp guy. His short ebook on The Burial of Jesus offers a look at his cautious, scrupulous approach to such historical questions, and it makes me inclined to trust him.

But on the other hand, this is not a story that I had previously seen challenged. It doesn’t set off the alarm-bells that some other biblical stories do, inviting such skeptical scrutiny.

The supernatural elements are relatively subdued here — some dream visions and whatever sort of astrology the magi were using. The antagonist, Herod, is an undisputed real person from history. (I’ve personally seen several of his public works projects, and they’re still impressive 2,000 years later.)

The story also seems congruent with the behavior of little puppet-kings like Herod — so much so that it’s not being recorded elsewhere doesn’t suggest anything particularly conclusive. “King Kills a Dozen Peasants in Backwater Village” would not have been front-page news in the First Century. “King Kills Peasants” was more like a weather report — something routine enough to be unremarkable.

But then we shouldn’t judge the First Century too harshly for that. Children are being killed in Bethlehem now and that doesn’t seem to make the news today either. (See also: Gaza. See also: diarrhea, which kills more infants every day than Herod did in a lifetime, and yet almost never makes the news.)

This story of Herod’s massacre is also presented as a plausible narrative. By that I mean that the text itself doesn’t cause us to question it. Matthew’s “then was fulfilled” attempt to tie the story to the words of a prophet is a bit eager-to-please, but the story of Herod’s slaughter is presented as a plausible third-person account of a public event.

Contrast that with, for example, Matthew’s account of Jesus temptation in the wilderness, which comes a few chapters later in Matthew 4:1-11. Who’s telling that story? Matthew presents it as a view-from-nowhere third-person account, but this was not a public event. Jesus was the only one there, so again, who’s telling this story? The temptation narrative itself invites scrutiny and questioning. The text itself suggests that this is a second-hand (at best) retelling of a story Jesus told to his disciples — a story that may have been more or less parabolic, more or less literal in its factual basis.

That raises questions in a way that the story of Herod and the infants had not done so for me. It simply had not occurred to me, previously, to subject that particular story to the kind of historical scrutiny that McGrath is confident it cannot withstand.

OK, then. Whether one sides with James McGrath or with Tony Jones on this question, we’re still left with one unchallenged and unchallengeable historical fact: The author of the Gospel of Matthew chose to include this story. Why?

The historical question that Jim and Tony are debating only partly addresses the question of why the story was included. Yes, one contributing factor might be that the massacre of the infants actually happened. Or it might be that the author of Matthew mistakenly believed that the massacre actually happened. But that belief only suggest that this story was a candidate for inclusion in Matthew’s Gospel. An evangelist is not a biographer, bound to include an account of everything that took place. The author of Matthew chose to include this story. The authors of Mark, Luke and John did not. What accounts for that choice?

McGrath’s contention that it stems from Matthew’s desire to highlight similarities between Jesus and Moses has a lot to support it. Matthew was big on drawing such parallels and “fulfillments” of prophecy (sometimes stretching quite creatively to do so). The Herod story echoes the Pharaoh story from the life of Moses, and also provides the pretext for the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. That gives Jesus a sojourn in Egypt, just like the patriarchs Abraham, Jacob and Moses. (I’d be wholly convinced of this if Matthew had included a story in which Joseph lied, telling everyone in Egypt that Mary was his sister.)

The motif McGrath discusses of echoes, allusions and fulfillments of prophecy is certainly something present throughout the book of Matthew, but it’s not the paramount theme of this Gospel. That theme — Matthew’s essential focus from start to finish — is Jesus’ own message of the kingdom of heaven.

And that central theme of the kingdom of heaven, I think, is what accounts for Matthew’s choice to include the story of the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem. Herod had a kingdom too, and in this story Matthew is reminding us that such worldly kingdoms are very different from the kingdom of heaven. (For a sense of Matthew’s estimation of “all the kingdoms of this world,” just look at who owns them in that story about Jesus temptation in the wilderness.)

The story of Herod’s slaughter echoes the story of Moses, but I don’t think this was mainly in order to invite us to see the similarities between Jesus and Moses. I think it was mainly in order to highlight the contrast between Jesus and Pharaoh.

So with this story — regardless of its historical reliability — I wind up back where I always wind up.

It’s about Power vs. Love; Love vs. Power. This is Jesus’ story. This is Matthew’s Gospel.

Power kills. Love wins.

One of those last two sentences is an undeniable historical fact. I hope the other one is too.


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  • AnonymousSam

    Mm, we’re pretty sure there was a King Gilgamesh at one time as well, but I don’t think Gilgamesh ever really journeyed to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve a plant which bestows immortality upon any who consume it, only to lose it to a talking serpent.

  • histrogeek

    Another point about why Matthew put the story in (once again its historicity is unproven without being implausible), Matthew was looking to discredit any potential literal king among the Jewish people. Though the Herodians weren’t ruling by his time, Matthew would have been aware of possible claimants to the messianic title using their blood connection to earlier kings of Judea (Herod Agrippa seems to have played with this according to Luke and sort of Josepheus, who left out the religious angle).
    So Matthew was discrediting in part any future Herodian from claim kingship. If their greatest king (this is Herod the Great after all) was a paranoid, huberistic murderer, that pretty much limits the likelihood in the minds of Matthew’s audience that any Herodian would be the Messiah.

  • I agree that the main theme of Matthew is Jesus’ new kingdom of (and from) heaven, and the primary plot conflict of this Gospel story is the contrast between this new king and kingdom of heaven over against the kings and kingdoms of the earth. Herod is another example of what Satan’s power produces in the kings of the earth. Matthew’s rulers of the earth–especially those in Israel (including the scribes of the Pharisees)–are contrasted with Jesus so that readers (especially Jewish-Christian readers) will not try to serve both them and Jesus.
    Jesus is the one king whose power produces love, including love for children and enemies. And Jesus is the one who will give his disciples the power of the Spirit so that they can produce the fruit of the Spirit, like Jesus’ kind of love. This power from heaven–that empowers Jesus’ kingdom of disciples–does not kill. Even when disciples are killed, this love wins because the power of death is not the end for them; it is only the beginning.

  • Carstonio

    Oddly, I never thought of Herod as Jewish. Until I read the National Geographic piece on him, I had assumed he was Roman like Pontius Pilate.


    The article argues that Herod is probably innocent of the crime in Matthew, while noting that it would have been consistent with his behavior as recorded elsewhere. I don’t like Matthew using an unverified story about a historical figure and passing it off as fact to make a theological or cultural point – millions of people still believe Washington Irving’s hagiographic flights of fancy about his namesake.

  • histrogeek

     Since I tend to be more inclined to Luke’s account, I don’t think much of Matthew’s at all. He is trying to shoehorn too much prophecy into the birth narrative for me to buy it.
    Don’t be too hard on Matthew though; it’s hard to find any historians (which Matthew wasn’t) during that time period who didn’t put weird, unverified, suspect accounts into their works. Unless Rome was the most lightning-prone location in human history.

  • Carstonio

    Understood. I just see the question of the story’s accuracy as just as important as the question of any theological and cultural meaning for Christianity.

  • Not

    Fred really hasn’t previously seen this story challenged? I am shocked, Matthew’s infancy narrative is widely regarded as likely to be whole-cloth-invention (partly because of the Moses thing, partly because history-wise,  Luke is often considered more likely to be reliable, and if you don’t  assume inerrancy it is fairly easy to see that Luke puts Jesus’ birth after Herod’s death).

  • HelenaConstantine

    This isn’t a very difficult problem and has long been settled in Biblical studies. There must have been some pressure in early Christian congregations to find out about Jesus’ origins  but no traditions on the subject were preserved down to the 70s or 80s when the Gospels were written, so the authors of Luke and Matthew made up two differnt answers to the question. And they are clearly made up because they are absolutely irreconcilable–they just aren’t different versions of a factual account of Jesus  birth. Matthew in particular is based on cobbling together a host of OT sources although its main thrust is to reverse the story of Moses, as if Jesus is rounding out history by returning to its source (and the Moses story, incidentally, was ultimately borrowed form the legend of Sargon’s birth).

  • HelenaConstantine

    Looking over the original post again, Slactivist has it exactly right–Its a story meant to fit the author of Matthew’s world view–but that means its less likely to convey historical reality.

  • Luke’s infancy narrative is just as much of a whole-cloth invention as Matthew’s – it may seem superficially more plausible because Luke is cribbing from secular history rather than from OT prophecies, but it’s really not.

  • I’m surprised, too.  Then again, the Herod-killing-the-babies thing tends to be left out of the whole Christmas mythology more often than not.  I imagine that is mostly because nobody wants to hear the sad part of the story at Christmas Eve Candlelight Service, but also because the silly story only appears in one of the gospels, and has absolutely no independent evidence of any kind.

  • mud man

    Strengthening that point a bit, the story establishes that Herod should be thought of as a worldly king like Caesar, not a righteous king like David. It also sets up the role the Jewish state will play in the Passion.

    So there’s a reasonable literary point, even if it doesn’t make a historical point. Personally I think we do well to consider the points made in the various gospels from a literary POV rather than as history. Considering the number of ears/mouths the stories have passed through. That doesn’t make them any less valid. I find in my life I need more and better stories more than I need to nail down every possible fact.

  • Wednesday

    Matthew’s infancy stories really have angels falling down on the job of being messengers. First the angels couldn’t be bothered to inform Joseph that Mary was pregnant by divine decree until _after_ Joseph found out and decided to divorce her, then the angel who warned Joseph about Herod’s plan to kill Jesus didn’t warn any other parents of small boys.

  • Carstonio

    Historical figures crop up in fiction all the time, and often the portrayals fit the popular images of the figures instead of the historical records. But that’s really a problem with the human tendency to value a good story over an accurate one. (A common lament with historians critiquing docudramas – there’s a good-sized whopper in the John Adams miniseries about the longest-lived signers of the Declaration of Independence.)

    The difference with the Gospels is that they read more like histories. So it’s natural for a reader, particularly a casual one, to assume the author of Matthew intended for the Herod account to be read as history as well as story.

    While standards for historical scholarship were obviously different in that era, that doesn’t prevent us from valuing such standards. I would think a believer could still appreciate the point of the story while recognizing that there’s no independent evidence for Herod’s crime.

  • JC

    Matthew’s Infancy narrative is the most explicit use of midrash by the Biblical writer.  The writer of Matthew wanted to draw a parallel between Jesus and Moses.  Moses was saved from Pharaoh’s massacre of the first-born of the Israelites and likewise, Jesus was saved from Herod’s massacre of the children of Bethlehem.  It is theology, not history.  

    Josephus does not mention any such massacre by Herod.  Plus the story of Matthew contradicts the Lukan account.  Luke has the Holy Family going to Jerusalem to perform the ritual purification of the mother and the redemption of the first born.  Matthew does not mention this Jerusalem account.  The traditional explanation for the discrepancy is that the Magi came to Bethlehem when Jesus was two years old (Zeroing in on the verse that says that Herod killed baby boys two years old and under), but this explanation comes from outside the text.  

  • BaseDeltaZero

    then the angel who warned Joseph about Herod’s plan to kill Jesus didn’t warn any other parents of small boys.

    That’s another thing.  If you actually look at the population of Nazareth, it’s not inconcievable that there weren’t any other parents of small boys.  To be very, very, generous, the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ would have killed half a dozen – not even a blip on the metaphorical radar back then.

  • Wednesday

    @ BassDeltaZero

    Nitpick: According to Matthew, Herod killed all the male infant and toddlers in Bethlehem and the surrounding area; Joseph et al weren’t in Nazareth until after moving to Egypt and then coming back.

    But assuming the same population and number of affected families… okay, sure I can see why Matthew might not care about infants who weren’t Jesus or related to him — the most generous reason being that high infant mortality makes people more hardened to the deaths of infants than we are (although his indifference should pose a problem for pro-lifers who claim to draw inspiration for their position from the bible). But even if Mark didn’t care, the angels and their God should have — according to the text, these children died because Jesus was born in that area and his birth was heralded by prophecy and portent. Who cares if it was only half a dozen, tops — any child that dies because the Savior was born should be a huge moral/theological problem.

    It makes the comparison to Moses more problematic — Moses was saved by good luck and love (his birth family’s, and his adoptive mother’s) from an independent threat. Jesus was saved by an angelic intervention that couldn’t be arsed to save anyone else.

  • arcseconds

    Mark Goodacre points out that Matthew is the most jewish of the evangelists, and the most concerned to tie Jesus’s story in with judaism

    In light of this I’m inclined towards the parralleling Moses take on what’s going on here. Although I’m not disagreeing there’s also a powerless vs the powerful vibe too (as there is in the Moses story)


  • Very roughly, based on what we know about birth rates and mortality for the period, about 3.5% of the population (of Bethlehem, not Nazareth) would be boys under 2 years. So maybe 1 family in every 4 or 5 had a child killed – quite likely most people would know a victim’s family, and Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem and it’s unlikely that news wouldn’t travel.

    In terms of number of deaths it wouldn’t be noticed, but as a single deliberate atrocity it would be very much more significant.

    (And if the event had been mentioned in any of the several now-lost histories of Herod, you can be damn sure that they wouldn’t have been lost.)