Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Historicity Of The Slaughter Of The Innocents

BK of CADRE Comments recently posted a good article on the Slaughter of the Innocents. I added some points of my own in the comments section of the thread.


  1. re: your comment,

    I'm not sure I buy that Josephus went out of his way NOT to record an atrocity that could be read in a pro-Christian way. Christianity just wasn't big enough yet to warrant that kind of engagement. I doubt Josephus knew any more about Jesus (or Christians) than what he tells us in the TF. All he expresses is mild surprise, or perhaps irritation, that this 'tribe' has not yet died out. He wouldn't have bothered to get knowledge of how Christians were interpreting the Jewish Scriptures in any case.

    I think the best response to the question of why the Slaughter didn't appear in secular sources is that Herod committed many atrocities in his lifetime, some of which were consequential to history and got noticed (such as his murders of prominent people whom he feared as usurpers) and some were not (a few newborn Jewish babies in a tiny sheep village).

    All I need to believe the story is that it was quite consistent with Herod's character, and was recorded by persons with historical interests and access to reliable sources.

  2. JD,

    I’m not arguing that the factors I mentioned are necessary explanations, nor am I arguing that other explanations are insufficient. I view the factors I mentioned as supplementary.

    I doubt that Josephus knew no more than he wrote about Christianity. Judging from what Paul, Matthew, Justin Martyr, and other sources tell us, it seems that there was more interaction between Jews and Christians than Josephus’ comments would suggest. We know that Josephus is selective in his comments on other subjects as well. I find it doubtful that he heard of concepts such as the belief that Jesus was the Messiah and His performance of purported miracles, yet didn’t seek or attain any further information about Jesus and His followers. Even as far as the infancy narrative material in particular is concerned, we find the emperor Hadrian aware of specific Christian traditions surrounding Jesus’ birth and responding to those traditions in the early second century. Events surrounding Jesus’ birth are prominent in Matthew’s largely Jewish gospel and in early Christian interactions with critics of the religion, namely Trypho and Celsus.

    Josephus wouldn’t even need to seek information about Jesus’ background in order to hear of an event like the Slaughter of the Innocents. If one of his sources reported it, he would have to make a choice about how to handle the information, regardless of whether he knew much about Christianity or had much interest in it.

    I’m making the point that there’s more involved here than whether Josephus knew of the event. If he knew of it, it doesn’t follow that he should have mentioned it. That’s true in the sense that there probably weren’t many children involved, in the sense that it was just one of many murders carried out by Herod, etc. But it’s also true in the sense that Josephus had his own beliefs and interests that shaped what he would and wouldn’t discuss and in what manner.

    The idea that non-Christian sources should be expected to mention events favorable to Christianity, even when not mentioning those events would be easy in the contexts in which those non-Christians were writing, is a common assumption among critics of Christianity. I think it’s a dubious assumption, and I think Christians should stop going along with it.

    The early Christians were biased. So were the early non-Christian sources, like Josephus. The bias of a non-Christian source can include bias against Christianity, and we shouldn’t ignore that possibility when evaluating sources like Josephus. If we’re going to be told that a mention of the Slaughter of the Innocents should be expected from Josephus, then this line of evidence I’m raising is another, along with others, that would have to be addressed.