Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Is The Slaughter Of The Innocents Historical?

Matthew's passage narrating the Slaughter of the Innocents is often considered one of the weakest aspects of the infancy narratives. It's commonly cited as an example of the alleged historical unreliability of the Bible. However, what the passage actually reflects is the disparity that often exists between the claims of critics and the evidence itself.

Take Paul Tobin's recent case against the passage as an example:

- We should consider the nature of the event and its context. Tobin refers to what Herod did in Matthew's account as a "massive slaughter" (in John Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion [Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010], p. 159). I've seen a wide range of estimates of how many children would be involved. Some place the number lower than twenty.

Herod wasn't an elected official in a twenty-first-century republic. He was a king living in the first century B.C. who often had opponents or perceived opponents killed unjustly, in an age when even post-birth infanticide was common and widely considered acceptable. (Josephus, a source Tobin tells us should have mentioned the event, wrote for a Roman audience.) The execution of the Bethlehem children would have repulsed many people, especially relatives of the children and other inhabitants of the area. But the reaction would have been significantly different in ancient Israel or the Roman empire than in, say, the twenty-first-century United States.

Herod is said to have acted covertly in the nearby context (Matthew 2:7). We don't know how obvious it was that he was behind the execution of the children. There probably would have been suspicion of his involvement at the least. Most likely, word would have gotten out eventually. Matthew knew of Herod's involvement by the time his gospel was written. We don't know how much Herod was connected with the event early on. His involvement may have been a disputed point later as well, even after Matthew wrote. Origen tells us that a Jewish source cited by Celsus doubted "that Herod conspired against the child [Jesus]" (Against Celsus, 1:61). Origen could be referring to a denial that the children were executed. But his wording only refers to Herod's conspiring, not the execution.

Critics of Matthew's account often ignore or underestimate qualifiers like these. They act as if we know that one of the larger estimates of the number of children involved is the correct number. They assume that Herod's involvement would have been obvious. And they appeal to how modern individuals (often individuals living in significantly different contexts) would react to such a slaughter. We need to carefully examine what assumptions critics are bringing to the discussion and what assumptions we ourselves are making.

- People usually tell the truth. Even a liar has to tell the truth most of the time in order to seem believable when he lies. We don't assume that somebody is mistaken as our default position. That general principle is applicable to Matthew.

- Critics often suggest that Matthew was being creative in his account of the slaughter, such as by fabricating an account to serve as a fulfillment of an Old Testament passage or theme. Tobin argues along those lines, even calling the account "an invention of the Gospel of Matthew" (in John Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion [Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010], p. 160). Apparently, Tobin doesn't think Matthew was repeating an earlier Christian tradition. Rather, he was fabricating an account from the Old Testament. But Matthew seems to have been generally conservative in his use of sources:

“Because Matthew follows Mark and Q closely (by ancient literary standards) where we can check him, the assumption held by many scholars that he simply invents material where we cannot check him (traditionally loosely called ‘M’ material, though no longer held to represent a single source) appears to be simply imagination run amuck. His basically conservative editing at most points will impress one if one begins with neither a thoroughgoing skepticism nor a naive fundamentalism, but the standards of ancient texts in general.” (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], pp. 9-10)

- Often, it's alleged that Matthew's narrative was derived from the account of Moses' escape from the edict of Pharaoh in Exodus 1-2. Tobin uses that argument (in John Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion [Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010], p. 160). But the similarities between the accounts of Moses and Jesus are accompanied by many differences. Pharaoh was a foreign ruler who was concerned about the whole Jewish population for ordinary reasons (Exodus 1:9-10), so he issued a general and public edict prior to Moses' birth. Matthew 2 involves a ruler in Israel who was concerned about one individual as a result of a supernatural revelation communicated to him by the magi, so he acted in one city without a public edict after Jesus' birth. Those are just several differences among more that could be cited. If Matthew was as free to invent material as critics like Tobin suggest, then he could have created a much closer parallel to Moses.

Keep in mind that Tobin also appeals to a wide diversity of other sources in an attempt to explain where Matthew allegedly got his material. He even cites pagan sources with regard to the virgin birth, for example. Consider the many possible sources suggested in one of the books Tobin often cites, Raymond Brown's The Birth Of The Messiah (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999).

On p. 193, Brown tells us about a wide range of possible sources for the material in Matthew 2, including "the combined story of Joseph in Egypt and Moses...the stories of the birth of Abraham, the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and the struggle between Laban and Jacob...the most likely background is offered by the episode centered on Balaam in Num 22-24...The Matthean Herod resembles both the Pharaoh and Balak." After citing such a diverse array of possibilities, Brown assures us that he's omitted any mention of other parallels that are "too tenuous" (n. 40 on p. 193).

I prefer his advice elsewhere that "one should be cautious in drawing an identification from such echoes of an OT scene." (p. 344) Brown often acknowledges that his conclusions could be wrong and that the narratives could be more historical than he concludes (for example, pp. 578-579). The Old Testament is a large collection of literature that covers a wide range of personalities, circumstances, and issues. Finding some parallels of New Testament events in the Old Testament doesn't have the sort of significance that critics like Tobin often suggest.

Is Moses' background somewhat similar to that of Jesus? Yes, but the similarities are accompanied by differences. And similarities don't do much to suggest non-historicity. If Matthew had described Jesus' background in some other way, then Tobin could have searched the Old Testament, pagan literature, and other sources for something similar. He could then claim that those other events concerning Jesus' background were non-historical and derived from those other accounts. If he can't find much of a parallel to Jesus in Moses, he can look to Abraham. If there isn't much of a parallel in Abraham, he can look to David. Etc. Think of the many ways in which the birth and childhood of different individuals are described in the Old Testament, in pagan literature, in pre-Christian Jewish literature outside of the Old Testament, etc. A partial parallel to Jesus' life in one or more of those sources doesn't carry much weight if it isn't accompanied by more significant evidence of borrowing. The fact that critics like Tobin rely so heavily on such argumentation doesn't reflect well on their position.

- Tobin cites Josephus' Jewish background in the process of arguing for Josephus' credibility. Similarly, the author of Matthew's gospel seems to have been a Jew. R.T. France notes that the idea of non-Jewish authorship of the gospel "enjoyed quite a vogue" during the third quarter of the twentieth century, "but is now not widely supported" (The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007], n. 26 on p. 15).

- Tobin also cites Josephus' earliness in the article linked above. Even under critical theories about the authorship of the gospel of Matthew, the author (or editor, etc.) would have been about as close to the time of the Slaughter of the Innocents as Josephus was. If Matthew was written by the disciple of Jesus to whom the gospel has traditionally been attributed, then he was even closer than Josephus to the event.

- In the article linked above, Tobin notes Josephus' access to sources who were in a good position to judge the matters in question. Even under critical theories about the authorship of the first gospel, the author had access to early Christian traditions formed at a time when the church was under the leadership of people who were close to Jesus and/or close to the events of His childhood (Jesus' brothers, Peter, etc.). If Matthew wrote the gospel, then he repeatedly had access to or met individuals like Mary and James (Matthew 12:46-50, John 2:1-12, Acts 1:14), and such sources continued to be available for years (Acts 1:14, 1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19, 2:9-10).

- When Tobin and other critics say that there's no reference to the slaughter in other ancient sources, they're excluding early Christian affirmations outside of Matthew. Justin Martyr (Dialogue With Trypho, 78), Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 3:16:4), and many other Christian sources of the patristic era refer to the event in a way that suggests its historicity. Even earlier, we have sources referring to Matthew's gospel as scripture (e.g., The Epistle Of Barnabas, 4), which suggests their acceptance of the historicity of Matthew's account of the slaughter. We know that the gospel of Matthew was widely distributed and highly regarded during the earliest patristic decades (Clayton Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006], pp. 110, 140-143).

While such sources may have accepted Matthew's account for no good reason, we shouldn't assume without argument that they did so. Some of them, like Justin Martyr, were in contact with critics of Christianity, including Jewish critics, and were studying and responding to their arguments. Despite his tendency toward allegorizing, Origen treated the slaughter as historical (Against Celsus, 1:61). Earlier, I cited a Jewish source used by Celsus who doubted at least Herod's involvement in the slaughter, perhaps even the slaughter itself and its surrounding events. But Origen doesn't mention any evidence that Celsus cites, and Origen doesn't seem to think that any significant objection has been raised. I'm not aware of any other source in the earliest generations who denies the historicity of the event. With that one possible exception in Celsus' treatise against Christianity, it doesn't seem that the historicity of the slaughter was questioned much by the early Christians or their enemies.

- An early Jewish source, the Assumption Of Moses, refers to Herod as a murderer of the young in a context in which he's compared to the Pharaoh who ordered the execution of the Jewish children in Exodus 1. The most natural implication is that the author thought Herod was involved in killing children in a way similar to what Pharaoh had done. Geza Vermes, a non-Christian scholar who's highly critical of the infancy narratives, even cites this passage as evidence of an atmosphere in which Matthew's account might have arisen:

"Already, the work known as the Assumption of Moses, which probably originated at the turn of the era, depicts Herod as the king who 'shall slay the old and the young, and shall not spare...And he shall execute judgments on them as the Egyptians executed upon them' (Assumption of Moses, 6)." (The Nativity [New York: Doubleday, 2006], p. 110)

But where did the author of the Assumption Of Moses get the idea that Herod was involved in such activity? Matthew's account provides an explanation. But even if we assume that the author of the Assumption Of Moses had some other incident or series of incidents in mind, it doesn't seem that he's referring to anything recorded by Josephus. If the Assumption Of Moses could be aware of one or more such misdeeds of Herod not mentioned by Josephus, then why couldn't the same be true of Matthew?

- A few hundred years after Matthew's gospel was written, another non-Christian source, Macrobius, gives us a garbled account that seems to partially corroborate what Matthew reported. But Macrobius is a late source, and some of his information is inconsistent with what we find in Matthew. His testimony isn't as significant as what we find in Matthew or the Assumption Of Moses. It's possible that he's not even referring to Matthew's event. But, as with the Assumption Of Moses, we would then have further evidence of a misdeed of Herod not recorded by Josephus. Or Macrobius may have just been confusing one historical event with one or more others. He doesn't seem to have been dependent on Matthew for his information. See here. At the least, it seems that Macrobius offers non-Christian corroboration of the plausibility of such a misdeed of Herod that wasn't recorded by Josephus.

- Craig Keener cites an incident that Josephus doesn't mention:

"It is possible that he [Herod] also engaged in persecutions outside the scope of Josephus’s sources, as in the repression of the wilderness Essenes (Fritsch 1956: 23-24). In an era of many, highly placed political murders, the execution of perhaps twenty children in a small town would warrant little attention (see France 1979: 114-19). Although Josephus readily lists Herod’s atrocities, most of his reports surround the royal house or events known on a national scale; it is not improbable that Herod was no less brutal when acting out of range of Josephus’s sources" (A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], pp. 110-111)

- An indirect line of evidence for the slaughter is the evidence we have for the Divine inspiration of scripture. See the many posts on that subject in this blog's archives.

- Notice that an Evangelical (or another type of defender of Matthew's account in some cases) has multiple reasons for trusting what Matthew wrote. It's not as though an Evangelical must assume Biblical inerrancy without any concern for evidence, then assume Matthew's reliability as a result. Rather, Evangelicals have argued for their conclusion that the Bible is inerrant, and there are other lines of evidence for Matthew's account independent of inerrancy.

- The heart of the objection to Matthew's account is the silence of Josephus. (That tells you something about the weakness of the objection.) Tobin tells us that Josephus' silence about the slaughter "speaks volumes" and that "he would have had every reason to tell the story if he had known about it" (in John Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion [Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010], p. 159) He writes:

"Did Josephus have any reason to suppress the information? None at all, indeed if anything, it was the opposite. As has been pointed out, Josephus was writing for Emperor Titus, whose mistress, Berenice, was herself a Hasmonean. So It was in the interest of the Jewish historian to blacken Herod’s name as much as possible. We note, furthermore, that Josephus himself was a Pharisee, Herod was not too kind to them as well."

Josephus' negative portrayal of Herod in Antiquities Of The Jews is different than his earlier, more positive portrayal in Jewish War (Steve Mason, Josephus And The New Testament [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005], p. 160). The former, which is the work Tobin has primarily been citing, wasn't written for Titus. And even the writing of Jewish War was started several years before Titus became emperor (ibid., p. 64). Steve Mason has argued that Josephus issued veiled criticisms of Titus and other high-ranking Romans by his use of irony (ibid., pp. 81-88; Josephus, Judea, And Christian Origins [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009], pp. 80-86). If Tobin wants us to believe that Josephus "was writing for Emperor Titus" in some way that suggests that he should have mentioned the Slaughter of the Innocents, then he'll need to produce more of an argument to establish that conclusion.

And he'll have to argue for his conclusion that Josephus was a Pharisee. It's a disputed point. See the first book by Steve Mason that I cited in my last paragraph (pp. 203-206), which is one of the sources Tobin himself has cited.

I've already mentioned some evidence that Josephus wasn't giving an exhaustive account of the misdeeds of Herod. He could "blacken Herod's name" by giving representative examples. He didn't need to be exhaustive. Josephus wrote:

"And since Herod had now the government of all Judea put into his hands, he promoted such of the private men in the city as had been of his party, but never left off avenging and punishing every day those that had chosen to be of the party of his enemies." (Antiquities Of The Jews, 15:1)

Since Josephus says that Herod "never left off" doing such things "every day", will Tobin argue that Josephus mentions every one of those activities done each day? After all, Josephus wanted to "darken Herod's name as much as possible", according to Tobin.

Does Josephus claim to be giving an exhaustive account anywhere? Not that I'm aware of. I've never seen any critic of Matthew cite such a claim by Josephus. Why are we supposed to believe that he was being exhaustive?

I emailed Shaye Cohen, a scholar who's studied Josephus, on this issue. He told me that he doesn't recall any passage in which Josephus states or suggests that he's going to be exhaustive. The New Testament scholar Craig Keener wrote back to me, "That Josephus includes some events in either the War or the Antiquities that he doesn’t include in the other one suggests that he doesn’t try to be exhaustive."

Tobin's inability to think of any potential reason for Josephus to not mention the slaughter doesn't reflect well on Tobin. Why might Josephus not mention Herod's execution of the children? Aside from the factors I've already discussed, there are the pro-Christian aspects of the event. Matthew's gospel probably was circulating before Josephus published his material on Herod, and the traditions behind Matthew's gospel would have been circulating even earlier. Christians were already using the account of the slaughter for their own purposes. The Slaughter of the Innocents elicits sympathy for Christianity, it suggests that Jesus was under God's protection, and it involves Jesus' fulfillment of a commonly accepted Messianic prophecy (Micah 5:2). What would Josephus' readers have thought of his Judaism in light of such an event? Josephus had enough material on Herod to avoid utilizing an account that had such pro-Christian implications, an account that was being utilized by the Christians of his day. Similarly, Josephus makes vague reference to the miracles of Jesus, demonstrating that he was aware of them, without going into detail. He knew more than he wrote.

A desire on the part of Jews to avoid corroborating Christianity on such issues isn't just likely in principle. We have evidence that it did occur. Origen accuses post-Christian Jews of trying to avoid discussion of Micah's Bethlehem prophecy, and he notes that Jesus' birth in that city is acknowledged by both Christians and their enemies (Against Celsus, 1:51). Raymond Brown recognized the significance of Origen's comments:

"Later Jewish polemic did not feature a denial that Jesus was born at Bethlehem, even when his legitimacy was attacked. If there is any truth in Origen's charge of suppressed references to the Messiah's birth at Bethlehem (footnote 2), such suppression would represent a tacit acknowledgment of Christian tradition concerning the birthplace of Jesus." (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], p. 514)

Was Origen in a good position to judge the issue? Yes, he was. He read and traveled widely. John McGuckin notes that Origen "consulted on several occasions with famous rabbis...Talmudic texts also have Origen in discussion with the Caesarean Jewish scholar Hoschaia Rabba." (The Westminster Handbook To Origen [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], n. 62 on p. 11) Elsewhere, McGuckin refers to "the apologetic exchanges between the Christian and Jewish scholars of the respective Caesarean schools" (p. 27). Steve Mason notes that Origen "lived in Caesarea and knows the reality well [of what was happening in Israel]" (Josephus, Judea, And Christian Origins [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009], p. 178).

While Origen makes much of Jesus' fulfillment of the Bethlehem prophecy, Celsus and his Jewish sources avoid the subject. Similarly, Justin Martyr made much of the prophecy and its fulfillment in his writings, whereas his Jewish opponents didn't, though they did raise objections to the infancy narratives on other grounds. It seems that ancient Jews acknowledged Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, but preferred to largely avoid discussing the subject. Josephus' silence about the Slaughter of the Innocents, an event that corroborates the Bethlehem birthplace and reflects well on Christianity in other ways, isn't much of an objection to the historicity of the event.

Without the argument from Josephus' silence, Tobin's objection to the Slaughter of the Innocents collapses. And recall how much emphasis Tobin placed on the alleged non-historicity of the slaughter:

"With the links now completely severed between the nativity and world history, we can now see the rest of the nativity accounts for what they really are...Removed from the anchors of history provided by Herod and Quirinius, the nativity accounts drift into the realm of myths and legends." (in John Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion [Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010], p. 163)

Removed from the anchor of Josephus' silence, a weak anchor to begin with, Tobin's argument drifts into error and irrelevance.


  1. Since Herod died around 4BCE or 9BC how can he have ordered the slaughter of the innocents?

    Tony Pollock

  2. Anthony Pollock,

    Most scholars think Jesus was born somewhere in the range of 6-4 B.C.