Tag Archives: Christmas

Did Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

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.

Massacre of the Innocents, 1610-1611, Toronto. By Peter Paul Rubens – Rubenshuis, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75942301

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.

Mmmmm….. 

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:

It is about the B-25 that flew into the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945.

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!


Where Do “Live Nativity” Scenes Come From?

A typical nativity creche …. replete with Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, a shepherd and the “Three Kings of Orient are,” much like the one I grew up with. Historically accurate? Not so much. But it does give us food for thought.

 

Christmas is that time of year when many churches do their best to portray the Christmas story. In the era of COVID, indoor Christmas concerts have become tricky enterprises. But what about an outdoor venue to tell about the story of the Incarnation? What about bringing in live animals, too?!

Ah… Enter in the “live nativity”!

Saint Francis and the “Modern” Nativity

Throughout the history of church, the telling of the Christmas story has been a staple of Christian tradition. But the most well-known version of the “live nativity,” featuring shepherds and magi coming to worship at the feet of Jesus, along with “ox and ass” adoring the baby Jesus, can be traced back to 1223, in Greccio, Italy.

According to St. Bonaventure’s Life of Saint Francis, the famous 13th century evangelist created a manger scene in a cave near this Italian city, with human actors and animals playing various parts to tell the story of Christmas. Pope Honorius authorized the public display, and the popularity of the “live nativity” took off after that.

Yet while kids in particular enjoy nativity scenes today, the art of doing live nativity has some problems… and it is not about how to care for all of those animals! When astute observers read the nativity stories found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke closely, they soon discover that placing the shepherds together with the wise men “from the East,” does not fit the chronology. However, Saint Francis, was primarily concerned about bringing in all of the various elements of the story, in order to tell a simplified, cohesive narrative, to a medieval European audience who were mostly illiterate, as opposed to following a strict chronology.

Nevertheless, this distortion of what is actually found in the New Testament has created fodder for generations of critics to cast a skeptical eye over the live nativity. While significant challenges for harmonizing the stories told by Matthew and Luke do exist, it is still possible to draw together a consistently whole, coherent narrative, albeit more complex than what St. Francis put together.

A close-up of part of Fra Angelico’s fresco, in Florence, showing the ox and ass peering in from behind their stalls, to catch a glimpse of the baby Jesus.

 

Animals Who Worship the Baby Jesus

One of the more interesting aspects of the St. Francis’ nativity scene, is the use of the “ox and ass.” The popular 14th century carol, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” has the well-known line, “Ox and ass before Him bow, And He is in the manger now. Christ is born today! Christ is born today.

The problem is that in the Gospels, the mention of “ox and ass” is nowhere to be found. But the theological development of this idea across the centuries is a fascinating topic.

An ox and donkey are mentioned in Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Christian theologians across the centuries have looked upon this as an appropriate metaphor explaining why so many do not accept the Christmas story, even today. 

However, if you combine Isaiah 1:3 with the Septuagint reading of Habakkuk 3:2, the connection with Christmas becomes more apparent. Most English Bibles today read Habakkuk 3:2 as based on the Masoretic, or ancient Hebrew text of the Old Testament, something like this (from the ESV):

O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
    and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
    in the midst of the years make it known;
    in wrath remember mercy.

First century Jews across the Greek speaking world, along with the earliest Christians, read from the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, where the phrase “in the midst of the years” reads differently as “in the midst of two living creatures,” as in something like Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton’s 1844 English translation of the Septuagint:

….thou shalt be known between the two living creatures, thou shalt be acknowledged when the years draw nigh; thou shalt be manifested when the time is come; when my soul is troubled, thou wilt in wrath remember mercy.

The first mention of connecting the ox and ass to the Christmas story can be then traced back to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, otherwise known as The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, most probably written in the 7th century, as a speculation into some of the otherwise unknown events of Jesus’ life, before he enters his public ministry as an adult:

“And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Abacuc the prophet, saying: Between two animals thou art made manifest. In the same place Joseph remained with Mary three days.”

Some may object that an historical look back into the origins of today’s popular “live nativity” might ruin certain elements of Christmas for them. But it need not be thought of that way.

Instead, an honest look at where certain Christian traditions come from should do three things:

  1. It serves as a reminder to non-believers that Christians are not so crazy to believe what they believe.
  2. It prompts the believer to dig more into their own Bibles to more adequately ascertain the truth of what Christians say they believe.
  3. It reminds us all that the story of Christmas is ultimately a great mystery to celebrate and enter into, as we consider the theological meaning of God becoming human, and entering our world.

The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast

This kind of made me have second thoughts, as to why we Americans broke away from the mother country. Though respectful of other faiths, the Queen’s Christian faith shines through clearly. Following this year’s speech, is the first televised Christmas speech she gave in 1957, reading from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

 


Christmas in Dark Places 2020

Glen Scrivener is an evangelist in the U.K.  In this crazy year of 2020, I needed to hear this Christmas message:


Does the Bible Forbid Christians from Putting Up Christmas Trees?

Time-honored practice that sparks memories, in celebration of the coming of the Lord, who brings Eternal Life.... or insidiuous smuggling in of paganism into Christian homes? (credit: US Forest Service)

Time-honored practice that sparks memories, in celebration of the coming of the Lord, who brings Eternal Life…. or…  insidiuous smuggling in of paganism into Christian homes? (credit: US Forest Service)

It is that time of year again. Inevitably, some well-intentioned Christians argue that putting up a Christmas tree is a pagan practice, and so we should avoid standing them up with decorations in our homes, out of obedience to Scripture.

As someone who has kept ornaments I made back in kindergarten, if I had heard this, back when I was a kid, it might have soured me a bit on Christianity. But in the age of social media, the debate over Christmas’ supposed pagan origins, and that of the Christmas tree in particular, seems never ending. A favorite Bible “prooftext” given for this view is from the King James Version of Jeremiah:

Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not (Jeremiah 10:2-4 KJV).

Well. Well… I guess I should toss that adorable tree into the fire, with that sentimental “Christmas mouse” ornament I once made. Right?

The irony of this mentality is that it is a variation of an argument some atheists use to discredit Christianity, that Christmas was merely an invention of “the church,” political propaganda used to create a new form of paganism, a “copy cat” faith borrowed from the ancient Mithra cult, with a Jewish veneer pasted over it, squashing other forms of paganism, in order to unite the Roman empire.

I always find it bizarre when both certain fundamentalist-type Christians, as well as certain hyper-atheists, manage to gang up together to fight against some Christian practice that was originally designed to point us towards Jesus. But is there a better way to understand this passage of Jeremiah, that more accurately reflects the original context of the Biblical author? Continue reading


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