James McGrath May Be Funnier than Me, But He’s Still Wronger

James McGrath May Be Funnier than Me, But He’s Still Wronger December 20, 2012
The Massacre of the Innocents by François Joseph Navez


James McGrath wrote that he’s happy that the Massacre of the Innocents by Herod didn’t happen.

I wrote that James is wrong, and that to denude that terrible text of its historicity silences the victims and lets God off the hook.

James replied that I’m wronger because I’m thinking theologically while he’s thinking historically. (His post also showed that he’s pretty damn funny.) Here’s the money quote from his response:

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.

Commenters, it seems, are evenly split, with the nod going to James. So, not being one to stay on the mat for too long, I’m going to give this one more try.

I defer to Walter Bruegemann, the dean of Old Testament scholars. When I was interviewing him at an Emergent Theological Conversation years ago, he said something that I’ve hung on to ever since:

“You can’t get behind the text.”

What he meant by that was that the text is all we’ve got, and when we try to get behind the text to “what really happened,” we are disempowering the text, robbing it of its ability to provoke, offend, and comfort. “Were Adam and Eve real, historical persons?” Wrong question!, Bruegemann shouts.

When I read James so easily brushing off the infanticide recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, I heard yet another example of what the Jesus Seminar attempted to do a couple decades ago, what the Dartmouth Bible did before that, and what Thomas Jefferson did before that: redact the Bible in order to align it with modern sensibilities.

Like many seminarians, I had to push through my doubting, critical phase when I learned that there is no archaeological evidence that 100,000 people lived in the Sinai Desert for 40 years (they would have left trash, right?), or that the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke do not accord in every detail. I had to get to a second naivete, as so many others do — and, honestly, many others do not.

Count me a fan of history. I’ve read and studied a lot of it, and I continue to. But history has its limits.

James admitted in his original post that he doesn’t want God to be a monster. Neither do I, but that’s not really my choice. James insulted Matthew as a theologian and a historian. That seems to me supremely arrogant. It is what I’d call chronocentric.

I am not trying to protect the text. I think it can handle everything that we can throw at it. But neither do I see any need to protect God from the terrifying

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  • “We were both wrong, not equally wrong. You were at least six wronger.” – Dr. Greg House aka Tony Jones fictional avatar

  • Man, I love this back and forth.

    Even though I agree the text can be interpreted as it is, I still think it’s overreaching to call that interpretation, in any sense, historically-based.

  • It seems to me that you’re still missing the point. However you much you may want the slaughter of the innocents to be a historical fact, that won’t make it one. The underlying problem seems to me to be the conflation of Scripture and narrative history. Whatever the theological message of the story, like much of the Bible it is not necessarily grounded in a historical “fact” (in the modern sense of the word). The purpose of Scripture is not to convey facts.

    We are not obligated to ignore or deny historical evidence in order to defend the historicity of Bible stories, whether the story of the Flood or the massacre of the innocents. The historical “accuracy” of the stories are independent of any theological significance.

    When I studied the Caananite genocide, I was relieved to discover that it almost certainly didn’t happen. Whatever the reason for those stories being included in Scripture, there is no historical evidence to support them having actually occurred.

    It seems to me we should assess the historicity and theological issues independently, letting those assessments inform one another, rather than stubbornly holding on to an anti-intellectual literalism, the consequences of which are well-known.

    • we should assess the historicity and theological issues independently, letting those assessments inform one another


  • Whoah. Did Tony just go all Theological Gangsta and god-smack James with that wicked insult “chronocentric.”


    BTW, what does that word mean?

    • Dictionary.com says it isn’t a word.

      Wikipedia says it defined as, “the egotism that one’s own generation is poised on the very cusp of history.” He means James is biased towards his own time frame.

      • You mean we’re not poised on the cusp of history? Dang.

        • I know! It’s sad. I was ready to ride the metaphorical wave of history into greatness.

  • I totally agree with the notion of a ‘second’ reading that ‘brackets out’ the question of historicity.

    That said, I personally think both sides still miss the point a little bit.

    Whether or not it ‘actually’ happened is irrelevant today (has no effect on us), and the theological ‘lesson’ is not that God is a ‘monstrosity’ per his non-interevention.

    God (in Christ) was (and is) an anamorphic ‘monstrosity’ per his sharing in suffering, not his role (or non-role) in the other’s suffering.

    Good topic…

    • Whether or not it ‘actually’ happened is irrelevant today (has no effect on us), and the theological ‘lesson’ is not that God is a ‘monstrosity’ per his non-interevention.

      God (in Christ) was (and is) an anamorphic ‘monstrosity’ per his sharing in suffering, not his role (or non-role) in the other’s suffering.

      Drew, I applaud your creative attempts at communicating some potentially interesting ideas, but am I the only one who has no idea what this means???

      • Rob, All I’m saying is that it appears that this debate hinges on God’s role (non-role) in certain horrific events (like the Matthew narrative). One side claims it didn’t ‘actually’ happen, thus God is ‘preserved’, the other claims the opposite, and thus God is implicated.

        Both sides have the same argument because God is implicated ‘if’ it happened.

      • (Although I don’t want to speak for anyone else if I’ve misrepresented any positions. This is simply my understanding of the ongoing discussion…which is a good one btw.) 🙂

  • Tracy

    A friend of mine, a Unitarian, was at her church a couple of years ago and when the minister stood up on Christmas eve and said, first thing, “I don’t believe in the Virgin Birth,” she wanted to scream, “I don’t care what you believe!” Something like this is how I feel about it.

    • This is definitely an interesting point, which makes me think it’s important to communicate which question we’re actually asking. Are we asking about historicity or theological meaning? If it’s the former, I think it’s dishonest to ignore the historical consensus. But, if it’s the latter, there is a lot more room for interesting possible interpretations.

    • Yes!!!

    • I think it was Spong who pointed out that Christmas is one of the worst times to discuss historical truth. And, if churches were more open about the place of the scripture in history, I would agree. That is, I agree there is a time and a place for story telling, for allegory, for letting your mind wander into a sacred space. The time to break out of that is as soon as you close the door on the sacred space. Other traditions do this much more intentionally than American Christians. If, on the drive home, a child asked if the virgin birth was real and the parents gave a fairly flat “No”, or at least suggested they looked into it, then I’d be okay with the story telling. But that is not what generally happens.

      So, I think I understand what Tony what is saying, but I think we disagree on just when it is appropriate to be historically accurate.

  • David

    The usual historical attack on the infanticide is that something of that magnitude would’ve been recorded in Josephus’ account of Herod’s life. The problem with this assumption is that it begins by seeing Bethlehem as littered with little kids–which is really improbable, since historically Bethlehem was a very small shepherd village. There were probably a handful of kids there two or younger who Herod ordered killed on the suspicion that they were the newborn king in question.

    • Yes. This. “There’s no independent confirmation” is much different from “it didn’t happen.” And since there’s absolutely no way to explore that, I think discussing the historicity of the infanticide is a ridiculous waste of time. Discussing the theological meaning of the story, on the other hand, is troubling and worthwhile.

  • Steve Swope

    I like Tony’s quote from Brueggemann. I also like what former Harvard professor of Hebrew scripture James Kugel said in an article some years ago, to the effect that “did it happen” is a modern, Western, Christian concern; on the other hand, Jewish interpreters have tended to focus on “what does it mean?”

    Marcus Borg uses the phrase “fact-fundamentalist” to describe folks like McGrath on the liberal side, as well as folks on the conservative side who must affirm everything in scripture as literally true.

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  • T.S.Gay

    It was necessary for Jesus to hide his mirth(GK Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”, final paragragh). There is some wisdom in that, because it is certainly an immense part of that spirit( think creative). Isn’t it a paradox that behind the funny men there is a sense of anger, not grace?

  • Alan K

    Thank you, Tony, for this response. Along with Brueggemann the late great Brevard Childs should be mentioned. There simply is no access to an anterior reality that bypasses the text.

  • Steve Pinkham

    I like Brueggemann a lot, but I think this approach suffers even worse from cultural imperialism and chronocentricity.

    Take for example this quote of his about the Canaanite genocide:

    Does God mandate violence? Properly contextualized, this narrative answers yes, but of a specific kind: tightly circumscribed, in the interest of a serious social experiment, in the interest of ending domination. The revelation is not really act, but warrant or permit. The narrative requires us to conclude that this community was utterly persuaded that the God of the tradition is passionately against domination and is passionately for an egalitarian community. (Walter Brueggemann, Divine Presence Amid Violence, 39.)

    This answer is about the slaughtering of whole people groups because they are not of the “us” our tradition springs from, seen through modern apologetic eyes. If that’s not the most narrow view in the world, I can’t think of a narrower one.

    There *is* no view from nowhere, and trying to pretend that McGrath is the only one in this discussion with a biased ethnic and chronocentric perspective is disingenuous at best.

    • Steve Pinkham

      The related question I’d really still like an answer to is:

      What exactly is it that makes the writers and redactors of the text more authoritative for our lives than either you or McGrath? How is an argument from antiquity any better than an argument from our point of view with all of our diverse fields of knowledge, or is there more to it?

      • Alan K

        Do you believe that God is revealed in Jesus Christ? If so, you have a starting place for authority. This is what the church has always believed.

        • JesusSonofMom

          What gives the church the authority to decide that?

          • Alan K

            The church doesn’t decide. The church simply responds to the testimony of witnesses to Jesus Christ. Maybe it is a scandal of particularity in our age that the identity of Jesus is not put up for a vote, but that probably says more about us than the early witnesses. We need to make friends with the face that for all the diverse fields of knowledge that we have that Matthew did not, still Matthew has proximity that we will never have and thus is a more qualified witness and thus has an authority in relaying the story. The church has just always felt that those who were closer to Jesus Christ were probably more reliable to give faithful report and testimony.

        • Steve Pinkham

          Oh boy, that depends a lot on what you mean by God and being the revealing of God.

          Do I accept the Johannine high Christology of Jesus as preexisting eternal being? Not on most days.

          Lets assume for the minute I did. What exactly does that mean for the author of the book of Matthew’s words? We have no real clear author of the book, but it seems from the evidence to not have been someone who was an eyewitness to most of Jesus’ ministry, and certainly wasn’t an eyewitness to Jesus’ birth.

  • Dan Hauge

    I can understand the view that Tony leaves the historical critical question too much off to the side. But I think that McGrath still leaves the theological question too much off to the side. For him, if Matthew’s story is not historically factual, that enables us to leave aside Matthew’s theology. He chides Matthew for having a lousy view of God, and not enough sympathy for grieving parents. But this is not an argument based on historicity, it’s an argument that Matthew is teaching lousy theology. Which brings us back to a deeper question–how do we receive the Scripture as a sacred text, that teaches us about the nature of God and the world?
    Even if you completely separate theological and historical questions, you still have to deal with the nature of the story Matthew is telling (and for what it’s worth, the best account of how to deal with this story is over at Slacktivist this morning). Saying ‘this probably didn’t happen in real life’ does not get us out from under the difficult theology the story is teaching as much as McGrath seems to think it does.

    • Thank you! You said it better than I did, Dan.

  • James

    Dude, you freaked me out. Your page loaded and I saw my name across the top. I was asking myself what did I do this time.

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  • Craig

    Tony is wrong. History, and historical facts, generally matter in the gospels.

    What he meant by that was that the text is all we’ve got, and when we try to get behind the text to “what really happened,” we are disempowering the text, robbing it of its ability to provoke, offend, and comfort. “Were Adam and Eve real, historical persons?” Wrong question!, Bruegemann shouts.

    Bruegemann’s advice is apt when we’re talking about fairytales and fiction. If you start asking historians whether Anna Karenina really did have an affair with Count Vronsky, then you are not properly engaging with Tolstoy’s great work. You’re kinda missing the whole idea of a novel.

    But McGrath has a point: whatever we may think about the creation myths, it is not a given that Matthew’s gospel is best regarded as fiction. I rather doubt that the Apostle Paul thought that the historical facts surrounding Jesus–and questions about what really happened–were irrelevant.

    • I don’t think it’s necessary to equate the words fiction, fairytale and myth. I’m becoming more open to the approach of people like Peter Enns.

      • Craig

        Fiction is the broad category, encompassing fairytales, myths, novels, etc.

        • I would also like to maintain a use of the word fiction similar to Simon Critchley:

          Religions are fictions, right? Beautiful fictions. Supreme fictions. Fictions of the end of the world, the last judgment, the final vocabulary, that whole thing. And so, for me, fiction is not something that needs to be escaped in order to seize hold of objective fact. Fiction is something that needs to be accepted…

          Love’s a fiction. It’s the most extraordinary fiction. What is it to love someone? It’s to base one’s existence on a complete fiction, an illusion that can be shattered in the easiest way.

          Maybe my only hangup is the use of the word “fairytale” – but maybe that’s not such a bad idea after all…

          • Craig

            I’ve never met Critchley but he sounds buffoonish. There’s a difference between fictitious love and non-fictitious love but Critchely just says “love’s a fiction”. He’s blowing it purely out of his ass when he says loving someone is “to base one’s existence on a complete fiction.”

          • Ha! I haven’t met him either, but I’ve read several of his books.

            I’m sure you would have to read more of where he’s coming from to not get that same kind of reaction. He’s simply juxtaposing fiction (i.e. the things that matter most to us, that cannot be objectified) with objective fact.

  • Ric Shewell

    The idea of considering different disciplines (like history and theology) independently and objectively of each other is a pipe dream. Anyone’s theological position already affect their observation or work with any other discipline. I guess I still think theology is the queen of the sciences.

    • I’m not sure anyone is saying that the disciplines don’t intersect (and are, therefore, absolutely independent), or that anything is “objective.” Or that neutrality is possible, or even desirable. It seems like most of us agree on quite a few presuppositions like these.

      I’ve heard people use that “queen of the sciences” label before, but I’m still not sure what it’s supposed to mean.

      • Ric Shewell

        I want to say that these disciplines do more than intersect. If it was a Venn Diagram of the circles of history and theology, in my opinion, it would be just one circle. There is no part of history that does not affect theology, nor theology history.

        When I say “queen of the sciences,” I mean that theology informs all other disciplines, and, when done well, is systematic. Another way of saying this is that all other disciplines presuppose a theology, and based on that theology, continue in their disciplinary silo.

        All disciplines say something about God. Probably a lot of them are misinformed statement about God, especially if they are not aware of their presupposed theology.

        • I used to try defend a theology of, literally, everything. Because I had to believe in a super deity. Maybe this is true. I just can’t see a good reason to believe this anymore. Feel free to provide me with some reasons (beyond quoting the Bible)…

          • Ric Shewell

            Please, when have I ever quoted the Bible?

            Call it hubris, I its my opinion that every discipline already presupposes its stance on God. For instance, the scientific method/verification principle presupposes that if God does exist, God doesn’t interrupt nature, otherwise we would not be able to count on cause and effect, etc. Sooooo, since the scientific method depends on a God that doesn’t interrupt or exist, the scientific method observes that either God doesn’t exist or God doesn’t interrupt–a circular argument, but the scientific method depends on it.

            So, theology matters to science in a very big way.

            Same goes with ethics, where the relationship is a bit clearer. When we ask, “Why be moral?” or “Why be ethical?”, questions of purpose of the universe usually start peeking in, and it gets difficult to talk about purpose without mention deities. So before even deciding what is moral or not, we usually presuppose a theology that gives us a reason to be moral.

            This isn’t going to convince you that God exists or anything, but I hope this helps you see things the way I see them: all disciplines presuppose a theology… might as well make it a good theology.

          • Sorry, I wasn’t meaning to imply that you would only quote the Bible…

            When you put it like that, I guess I agree (“every discipline presupposes its stance on God”). But, I guess I have a hard time seeing theology being primarily about God’s existence or non-existence, or involvement in the world.

  • I think if we split hairs over whether or not the Slaughtering of the Innocents was a historical event, we’ll forget what Matthew’s Christmas narrative is trying to tell us, which is how Jesus’ kingdom is the exact opposite of Herod’s.

    • I, for one, hope we can split hairs and see the text as opening up multiple possible interpretations.

  • Charles

    I’m a rank amateur when y’all dive into these theological discussions and analysis. But it seems to me a persons theology derives from reading sacred texts, perhaps your tradition (your starting point), a good deal of reason, and your own personal experience with the devine – the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, if you will. Historical fact falls into the reason quadrant, while Christian scripture stands on its own. Our individual history (tradition, biblical stories), and how we experience “God” leads us to our own conclusions. In my world McGrath is less wrong(er). FWIW

  • This is why I love reading your blog. You both suprise and delight me. I agree that we cannot get behind the text, but also, it seems we apply our modern sensibilities to these premodern stories and get them all wrong. So thanks Tony for bringing this out.

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  • Lee P.

    These things are very disturbing to my new, fledgling faith. I really comfortable regarding the Genesis poem as non-literal. It’s ancient. It appears to be a poem. It is clearly not historically true. But once you start messing around with the accounts of the gospels then you are on a very slippery slope to regarding Jesus’ resurrection as figurative.

    Even more difficult to believe than the slaughter of the innocents is the rising dead saints of Matthew 27:52-53 , a passage that even some fundamentalist “scholars” have a hard time taking as historically accurate.