Friday, January 16, 2009

Massacre of the Innocent Prophesies

When rebuking the claims of the Bible, critics often the quote the Bible itself. In my experience, a Christian apologist's defense of the quote of a skeptic is most often slotted into one of three categories; guilt by intent, counter-quotes, or context.

Some apologists will claim that even the Devil can quote scripture, which perhaps implies that the critic is quoting with evil intent even though the Word of the Bible is Holy. Of course, that doesn't actually debunk the critic's claim. Instead, it shows that the apologist will not reply with an adequate defense.

The second defensive strategy has the apologist presenting other quotes which seem to contradict the flaw which the critic is trying to reveal. While this is sometimes a valid approach, often it simply highlights the fact that the Bible is self-contradicting.

The third strategy, the strongest and yet most condemning path, is when the apologist sites the context of the quote. Examining the surrounding text and considering the historical and cultural factors of the time best reveals the text's meaning. This context can keep a critic in check at times. However, this context can reveal the blatant errancy of the Bible if it is honestly considered.

In a previous post, we examined the context surrounding the Annunciation, when Mary got impregnated by the Holy Ghost. The context wasn't kind to that Biblical story. Following on its heels is another story which takes a contextual beating and it is the story we study here; the Massacre of the Innocents.

Massacre of the Innocent Prophesies
Herod I, a.k.a. Herod the Great, was a bit of a mixed bag; being a ruler backed by Rome, builder of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, but known for his brutality. His rule as king of the Jews was appointed by Rome and was fully realized in 37 BC. He ruled until his death in 4 BC. According to the Gospels, Jesus was born under Herod's rule.

Sometime after the three Magi had departed from Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, Matthew 2:13-23 records an event known today as the Massacre of the Innocents. An angel of God appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take Jesus to Egypt to prevent Herod from murdering Him. Herod gives an order to kill all two-year-old or younger boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Herod soon dies. An angel of God appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to return to Israel. After being warned in another dream to stay away from Judah, Joseph settled down with his family in Nazareth.

These events reportedly fulfilled three different Old Testament prophesies. Let's take a contextual look.

In historical context, Herod may have been the type of guy that could have ordered the slaughter of innocent children in the hope of protecting his rule. After all, he did have one of his ten wives (Mariamne I in 29 BC) and her two sons (Alexander and Aristobulus in 7 BC) executed, and the son (Antipater III in 4 BC) of another wife (Doris) executed as well. Those sons were executed on the suspicion of having plots to murder Herod. So perhaps he was a little paranoid about maintaining his rule. On the other hand, these unfortunate souls were living around and intermingling with Herod, doing actions in his site that could arouse suspicion, as opposed to being in some small town well outside the normal dwelling of royalty. Out of sight is (typically) out of mind.

It is strange that no secular or Jewish historian contemporary with those times recorded the massacre. Surely this would have been an event that spread wide through word of mouth, and would have made an impact on people's minds.

It is also strange that Matthew stands conspicuously alone as the only Gospel to record these events, events that fulfilled prophesy about Jesus. Fulfillment of prophesy would seem like pretty important to thing to record, would it not? Yet the other Gospels are silent on the matter.

Speaking of prophesy, let's examine the first prophesy of this story, recorded by Matthew 2:14-15 as:
So [Joseph] got up, took the child and His mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called My son." NIV
This prophesy is from Hosea 11, which does not appear to be a prophesy if Jesus, but rather a prophesy that Israel would be resettled by the Jews, pertaining to the time in their Babylonian captivity. In fact, Hosea 11:1, where Matthew gets the “prophesy”, is actually recounting the history of the Exodus:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.” NIV
The context of Hosea 11 destroys any hope of reconciling Matthew's slant on this prophesy.

Now we turn to the second prophesy. This one refers to the massacre itself, recorded by Matthew 2:17-18 as:
Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
"A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." NIV
This text hails from Jeremiah 31, and once again we find that the context does not suggest a prophesy of Jesus, but rather a resettling of Israel. Jeremiah 31:15 is the verse quoted by Matthew. Jeremiah 31:16 and beyond give context to that verse, suggesting that it means that God has heard the cries of the Israelites, and will bring them into the Promised Land once again. It does not mean that Herod will murder babies in Bethlehem.

The appearance of Jesus had nothing to do with a resettling of Israel by the Israelites. In fact, Jerusalem would be sacked by the Romans in 70 AD, thereby dispersing many of the Jews from the Promised Land. This is an insurmountable contrast to Matthew's take on the prophesy.

The third prophesy is the charm. Matthew 2:23 states about Joseph and family settling in Nazareth:
and [Joseph] went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene." NIV
Matthew was quoting here, as though the prophesy was either a well known verbal tradition or it was in some written form. Interestingly enough, nowhere in the Old Testament does this quote exist. Nor does it exist in any other extant source.

Unfortunately, we can't study the context of that prophesy. However, we can cross-reference the prophesy in another way to prove its errancy. It is said within the Bible that God's Word is eternal, like in Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God stands forever.” NIV However, this entire prophesy that Matthew quotes is no longer in existence. So, either Matthew's use of this prophesy is wrong or God's Word does not stand forever. In either case, Biblical infallibility goes right out the window.


  1. These prophesies read a lot like the author was either writing them from memory or was counting on the vague recollection of Jewish memorization of the Torah. If the latter, its possible the author of Matthew cited a passage they would recognize (and more likely remember) and then misapplied it to Christ to gain authority.

  2. I think you're right about it being the latter case. Such implied authority is further garnered from non-prophesy texts used as prophesy, like Psalm 22 for instance, where the cast-lots-for-clothing idea comes from in the Crucifixion.