Baker Academic

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Is Matthew's "Death of Innocents" Episode Wholesale Invention?

Brian LePort referees opposing views on this question:  Is Matthew's "Death of Innocents" episode simply literary invention? James McGrath and Tony Jones hash it out.
Here is the link.

Loosely related observation:
In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, Matthew 2:13-23 is getting more attention this Christmas.  On the one hand, I have often lamented that this important episode generally gets forgotten during Santa Claus season.  So perhaps we connect better with Matthew's good news once we are able to relate to Matthew's vision of darkness (i.e. exodus isn't "good news" unless one understands the utter horror of exile).  On the other hand, there is something unspeakable about this recent tragedy.  One wonders when it is appropriate to bring a singularly repugnant event into dialogue with larger cultural narratives.




  1. Anthony, I was myself quite independently struck by the linkage between the massacre of the innocents by Herod (and all Jerusalem with him) and the judgment of Isaiah chapter 2 against Jerusalem. The link to the Magi and their gifts is really obvious: gold=economic power, frankincense=priestly collusion, and myrrh=the use of deadly force. Herod and all Jerusalem worship these idolatrous powers and the result of such idolatry is injustice, the opposite of the gospel (Psalm 67 middle verse).

    1. Bob,

      If your interpretation of the Magi's gifts are "really obvious", I must be really blind.

      Do tell.


    2. Sorry for the opaqueness of my too brief note. Why do you think that Matthew has Herod troubled "and all Jerusalem with him"?

      I was reading Isaiah 2 at the time and was struck by three main powers that rule us: money, religion, and deadly force.

      I will write less for a while - not to be either obvious or offensive - but is Matthew offensive?

    3. Okay Bob, I suppose that the connection is worth considering at least.

      And the answer to your question is 'yes', Matthew is offensive and intentionally so. There are several targeted polemics in Matthew that paint Jewish leadership with over-the-top negativity.

      In my view, such intra-religious polemics (in this case, Jewish Xns and rival Pharisee-related synagogues) were not uncommon in Second Temple Judaism. Matthew fits very well within this context. Where Matthew becomes especially problematic is when it takes on a life beyond "Jewish Christianity" and is wielded as a bludgeon against Jews by gentile Christians. One could say the same for John's Gospel, Paul, James, Hebrews, etc.

      This is why contemporary Jewish-Xn dialogue is so crucial. We Christians (collectively) need to mature to the point where we can be trusted with our own sacred texts.


  2. Am I misreading? If I look just at McGrath's initial piece and Jones' reply, I think McGrath assumes that Matthew's "Death of Innocents" never happened and Jones assumes that it did happen, but there is no discussion of historicity in either of these two pieces. Instead, the discussion in both of these pieces is theological: McGrath is glad this story is not true, because if it was true it says disturbing things about God (subtext: God had nothing to do with the shooting at Sandy Hook). Jones is grateful that the story is true and that the Bible contains stories just as awful as those we confront in real life because to deny the truth of these stories is to do a disservice to the victims of these kinds of tragedies (subtext: we should not sweep the tragedy of Sandy Hook under the rug in an effort to "let God off the hook").

    To your question: it makes me distinctly nervous to link Sandy Hook to Matthew 2. The Bible may be able to distinguish between acts of God and acts of man, but we cannot and (more importantly) should not.

  3. Bob, I am at a loss to know how to say what I am about to say, so I ask you in advance to please forgive anything I'm about to say that seems insensitive to you. But what you've written above is potentially offensive to Jewish members of Anthony's audience, me included. I say "potentially" because it seems likely that I've misunderstood you, and because I'm certain that your intentions are good. I am saying this because I think maybe this is something you would want to know, and if my thinking this is presumptuous, please forgive me. I'm happy to discuss this further, but perhaps this is all I should say.

    1. Whoa Bob - sorry. I see that it might be. But priestly power is not confined to Israel. I am making a leap to powers related to the gifts. I should speak more carefully.

    2. Bob, please don’t write less. Write more. First, you didn’t necessarily come here to engage in interfaith dialog. Second, engaging in interfaith dialog means risking offense. I can describe numbers of times that my Christian friends have had to take me aside and tell me that something I’d said was offensive. But they did it in such a nice way! I’ve tried to learn from that. In any event … if there’s anything I said that makes you reluctant to speak often, then I’m sorry.

      I’ll go with Anthony’s answer to the question whether Matthew is offensive. From my vantage point, the text is what it is, and outside of a few spots, I don’t take personal offense from it. If I’m going to study Christianity and engage in interfaith dialog, I have to take the good text with the not-so-good … and besides, there’s plenty of negative stuff in the Old Testament I have to answer for. As a rule, I think we’re primarily responsible for how we use our texts, and how we interpret them.

      Regarding Matthew 2, it says that when wise men came to Jerusalem from the east and asked about the newly born king of the Jews, Herod was frightened, “and all Jerusalem with him”. Why do I think this text is there? I go for the simple answer: Herod and his supporters in Jerusalem were frightened by the thought of a rival claimant to the throne. I don’t read the text to say that every Jew in Jerusalem felt that way – that reading strikes me as impossible, and would mean that folks like Simeon (see Luke 2:25) and Anna (see Luke 2:36) were as frightened by the baby in Bethlehem as was Herod. Actually, the picture we get of Jerusalem in Luke 2 is pretty favorable. Perhaps Matthew held a different view. It’s a topic for discussion.

      What the text does NOT say was that the massacre of the innocents was by Herod “and all Jerusalem with him”. I don’t see how the text can reasonably be interpreted that way.

      Thanks for engaging me in dialog.

    3. Larry - thanks for the reply. Yes 'all Jerusalem' is a figure of speech, like 'all the land of Judea' in Mark 1:5 or אֶת־כָּל־יְרוּשָׁלִַם in 2 Kings 24:14. Where does the identity of the one with the whole body stop? How is it that Herod, an Idumean, was king in Jerusalem? Where are the social power supports for him? Or in the case of the exile (2 Kings) where does the impact stop when there is tragedy?

      Let me spin this comment a bit - recognizing that it is 'comment' and so not a peer-reviewed essay - Bob you can't say that!

      The one and the many are a single body. Rupert Sheldrake (Cambridge) even tests our mental fields and their interference and extra bodily communications. Psalms 42-44 and Lamentations 1-3 illustrate this. Ps 42-3 is a singular poem, Ps 44 a plural with nu sounding 40 times. It is the cry of a body of people, saying - how could you let us get into such a state? Lam 1-2 are third person or implicitly plural and corporate. Lam 3 is first person singular throughout - a triple acrostic with reversed Peh and Ayin. This is a child's game phrased by a singular 'I' calling out on behalf of all. Isaiah 2 condemns Jerusalem, the land is full of silver and gold, horses and chariots, idols - there are the three gifts as exploited by those who are in power. These powers are not submitted to God. How are we doing so far at bringing our own attention to the present and our use of economy, war, and religion to extend our ability to exploit the downtrodden?

      I haven't the resources to do this at present - but I think if we made a list of the places where social power is used and abused in TNK and NT, we would find a considerable confluence and call to 'repent' and beleive that God will judge the world with equity (= the gospel - I don't think gospel is confined to the NT at all. It is fully present in the Psalms and implicit in the Shema.)

      I am by the way passionately interested in inter-faith dialogue. I don't claim answers. I have sung Ps 133 with 1000s in a Jewish cemetery just up the hill. The whole community (et-kol-ha`am) came out to support the Rabbi when the cemetery was desecrated. I love Rashi's interpretation of the lilies as students of Torah. I love the psalms and have lived in them for decades as a singer and for 7 years in Hebrew. The singular-plural theme is evident in many of these Psalms - so how do we together and in solitude learn to submit to the sovereignty of HaShem?

  4. Bob, wow! יישר כוח (Hebrew: "Yasher Koach" – “may you have strength” – a way of saying “nice job”, for example, when someone has participated in a portion of the worship service).

    It is fair to ask about the complicity of the whole with the crimes of the one. This would mean consideration of the Roman power structure that put Herod on the throne. How was it that Herod became king? I understand that he was elected to the position by the Roman Senate. He then captured Jerusalem with the help of Roman troops provided by Mark Antony.

    Were there Jews who collaborated in Herod's reign? Of course. There are always collaborators. But Matthew's language describing the massacre of the innocents is remarkable in how it describes Herod as solely responsible for this crime. The NRSV Matthew 2:16 reads that "When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men ... he sent and killed all the children and and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under". The text almost reads as if Herod did the killings himself, personally. Probably the word "sent" refers to the sending of soldiers to do the job -- some NT translations so read. But the wording of the text seems to go out of its way to isolate Herod as solely responsible.

    I will defer to your analysis of Psalms and Lamentations -- you've analyzed these texts more closely than I have. It is dangerous to talk in generalities, but it's probably OK to say that the Jews of Jesus' time thought more than we do today in terms of identification with a group. But this is not to say that second Temple Jews believed in corporate responsibility for the crimes of a single person.

    It is fine to paint Jesus as the ultimate champion of the poor and oppressed, if that's how you see him. But for Jesus to be the ultimate friend of the poor does not require that first century Jewish society be seen as the ultimate oppressor of the poor, or that Herod’s crimes be laid at the feet of anyone but Herod himself (or his Roman overlords). The Jewish view of Herod is that he was a monster who ruled Judea by means of Roman military power and without much in the way of Jewish support.

    How do we together and in solitude learn to submit to the sovereignty of HaShem (Hebrew for "the name" -- this is the name that many Jews use for "God" outside of worship). I don't know. I don't know if this learning is an interfaith project, and I think there's a great deal of preliminary work to do before we can discuss how to serve God. Before discussing how to serve God, we might discuss how Jews and Christians can serve each other -- and even this question cannot be addressed without a considerable amount of preliminary work. So, maybe, from an interfaith perspective, we can best serve God by learning to understand the other ... which we do at the outset through study, and dialog. IMHO.

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