Merry Christmas, Ye Veracity Readers!
While you are putting the last touches on your Christmas tree, and reading the story of the Nativity to your family, someone is bound to wonder (at least silently, if not out loud), “Do we really know if this ‘Virgin Birth’ story is really true?” …
Anyone familiar with the world of mainstream biblical scholarship will know that the Christmas narratives, which are found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, have come under a great deal of scrutiny over the last couple of hundred years. As I have addressed elsewhere, critics will cite “contradictions” between Matthew’s story and Luke’s story, as well as problems trying to sync up the Scriptural narratives with sources outside of the Bible, notably the timing of the census of Quirinius.
The story of Herod the Great’s Massacre of the Innocents, recorded in Matthew 2:16-18, is often singled out as being implausible as well. The main difficulty is that we have no source outside of Matthew describing how Herod ordered the killing of all of the male infants, under the age of 2, in and around the town of Bethlehem. In Matthew’s story, the Gospel highlights in Matthew 2:13-15 that Jesus was able to escape the slaughter when his parents took him to Egypt, for safety.
A Useful Fiction?
Some have sought to defend and rescue Matthew’s story by suggesting that Matthew was using a type of fictional narrative device, as a means of symbolically associating Jesus with being the “new Moses.” After all, Exodus 1:22 suggests a parallel with Matthew’s story by describing the slaughter of Hebrew infants, while sparing the life of Moses, in the days of Pharoah. The similarities are striking.
The use of fictional narrative devices to communicate truth is not unknown to the Gospels, along with other parts of the Bible. Jesus himself used parables to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, the theme of Jesus being the “new Moses” is indeed a big part of Matthew’s Gospel. But the idea of a fictionalized Massacre of the Innocents undoubtedly will strike some as suggesting that Matthew was simply “making up” a historical detail, by riffing on an idea pulled out of the Old Testament.
We see this same type of criticism about the Bible, more broadly, made particularly by so-called “Jesus Mythicists,” those who believe that Jesus never even existed, suggesting that much of what we read in the Gospels is simply riffing on a whole set of ancient stories of a pagan origin, and not simply depending on stories found in the Old Testament.
New Testament scholar Mike Licona uses the following illustration to show the fallacy of such thinking: ….
…. Most Americans are quite familiar with the story of an airplane, that took off from Massachusetts one morning, that at some point after 9am flew into one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, in New York City, between the 78th and 80th floors, killing everyone on board.
Of course, you probably know exactly what event this is, right?
Are you sure you know what I am talking about??
Are you really sure?
Here is the answer:
Some readers might be surprised here, as what immediately comes to mind is 9/11, when the Boeing 767 flew into the South Tower, of the World Trade Center.
Coincidentally, both airplanes hit their respective buildings at the exact same floors! Both planes took off in the morning from Massachusetts. Both planes had no survivors, following their respective crashes. The parallels are striking, are they not?
Nevertheless, we would never draw from this example the conclusion that 9/11 never happened. But you never know what someone might think, 2,000 years from now, assuming humanity is still on this planet by then. Here is Dr. Licona explaining this:
Herod’s Atrocities Were So Numerous, They Were Hard to Keep Track
So, do we really need to accept Matthew’s story about the slaughter of babies as being purely fictional? A closer look at what is already known about Herod suggests that we need not go down that road. There is plenty of material in Herod’s life to indicate that the Massacre of the Innocents is quite plausible indeed. In other words, the absence of evidence does not necessarily mean the evidence of absence.
Dr. Paul Maier, a retired historian at Western Michigan University, tells us that Herod was a master politician, who sought to placate his Jewish subjects while seeking help from the Romans. After the Romans conquered Judea in 63 BCE, Herod acted as a governor, representing the Roman emperor. Herod rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, restoring it to a type of glory, reminiscent of King Solomon’s temple. He created the sea port city of Caesarea over a period of twelve years by sinking some ship hulls to create a harbor area. He also built a great palace for himself, theaters, a stadium, and the famous mountain fortress at Masada.
Yet as an ambitious ruler, Herod could be quite paranoid and ruthless. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that after some attempted poisonings within his family, he put three of his sons to death on suspicion of treason. He put his favorite wife, Mariamne, a Hasmonean Maccabean princess, to death, as well as his mother-in-law. Towards the end of his life, Herod was so rattled by threats to depose him that he even plotted to kill a stadium full of Jewish leaders, a plot that eventually failed. Caesar Augustus remarked that “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”
Part of the suspicion about Matthew’s account of Herod stems from unwarranted traditions that arose within the church, over the years, that lack Scriptural support. A Byzantine liturgy stated that 14,000 infants were killed by Herod at Bethlehem. A Syrian tradition placed the number at 64,000 infants killed. During the medieval period, an attempt was made to link Revelation 14:3 with the massacre, thus inflating the number to 144,000 thousand!
The problem with these large numbers tied to certain Scriptural narratives is that other facts on the ground make such claims unnecessary. In the case of Herod’s massacre, the town of Bethlehem was known to be pretty tiny. Imagine the Bethlehem in the days of Jesus to be the rough equivalent of a rural American town that only has one traffic light in it. You might miss Bethlehem if you were driving through it and blinked! We are talking about an area, with probably less than a 1,000 inhabitants, having a relatively small number of young children. With that in mind, it is quite plausible to consider that perhaps only a dozen or so of Bethlehem’s male infant population were murdered, which would hardly have measured a blip on the notoriously brutal life of Herod, as reported by those like Josephus.
So, it should not come as a surprise to learn that Matthew was the only ancient writer to have recorded this incident from the life of Herod the Great. While some might still have qualms about the historicity of certain events found in the Bible, a strong case can be made, giving us a great deal of confidence that the story of Christmas happened exactly like what we are told within the Sacred Book.
… And with that, I wish you once again, a Merry Christmas!