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Why Did Matthew Need Dead Babies?
by Earle C. Beach


1993 / July-August



The one biblical story that has been most offensive to me in my adult life is Matthew's tale of infanticide, sometimes referred to as the slaughter of the innocents. It is found towards the end of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, and it tells how all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem were killed by the order of the Roman governor Herod and how Jesus was spared by fleeing with his parents to Egypt.

The first realization I had of the offensiveness of this horrible story came to me when I was in a 24-hour newsstand. It was the Christmas shopping season, and as I was paying for my magazine, I heard a narration of the infanticide over the commercial radio station being played in the background on the store's P. A. system. It struck me that such an awful crime would have to be recorded elsewhere: in the other gospels, in secular histories, or in both. Mankind just was not that primitive, that barbaric, a mere two thousand years ago. And it would have happened, if it were in fact true, to the people with the greatest literary tradition in the world of that time. Even if I cannot accept the Jewish scriptures as divinely inspired, true, or beautiful, I must admit that they are man's earliest known attempt at a comprehensive history, and as such they are impressive.

Furthermore, this horrible offense was purported to have occurred in a place that is very important to the Jewish people, in Bethlehem, revered in their scriptures as the birth place of David, the greatest of their warrior-kings. Josephus, a famous first-century Jewish historian, for example, made no reference at all to this atrocity, although he chronicled the life of Herod in Book 18 of his Antiquities of the Jews. And, based upon Matthew's quotation from Jeremiah, the wailing of the mothers of the dead babies was loud enough to be heard in Ramah, which was on the other side of Jerusalem, the capital and largest city of Judah. Thus the inhabitants of Jerusalem, including its scribes who still maintained that great historical and literary tradition, would have heard this and would have recorded it. But there is no corroboration from any other source of Matthew's claim of mass infanticide.

On the occasion mentioned above, I was moved to comment on this to the cashier in the store. He apologized and offered to change the radio station. Well, this surprised me a bit. He certainly wasn't responsible for what any commercial radio station decided to play, and I guess I apologized back to him. On my way out, a man came out from behind the somewhat secluded girlie-book counter, saying something to me that I didn't catch, but he didn't exactly sound friendly. Not wanting to have to deal with any sort of porno-crazed religious apologist, I just kept going. I guess you've got to watch what you say about religion. Here I had garnered an unnecessary apology and interrupted someone's enjoyment of girlie books.

This first problem I had with the infanticide story is what I now call my "humanist" objection. That story unnecessarily denigrates mankind, causing it to be more barbaric than it is. But before long I realized I had a second major objection to it, my "rationalist" objection. In the overall context of the New Testament gospel, this story just makes no sense. If Jesus was sent to earth to be the ultimate sacrifice so that mankind through him might be saved, then there should have been no need for humans, human babies at that, to be sacrificed for him. Just who's doing the saving and who's being saved in such a story? It is plainly contradictory to the main theme of the gospels.

With these two major problems, what could Matthew's purpose have been in telling this awful story of killing babies? Are the two quoted passages from the Old Testament necessary in some way to establish the truth of Christianity? Do the references to these passages establish that scriptural prophecy (prediction) has been fulfilled?

No, they do not. All that needs to be done with each of these passages to show that they are not predictions of Jesus is simply to read the next verses. In the passage from Jeremiah that I've already mentioned, chapter 31, verse 15 , crying is heard in Ramah, and Rachel is mourning her lost children. But in the next verse (the sixteenth), God is telling Rachel to stop crying and start rejoicing; her children are not dead but are rather coming home out of captivity. Instead of being a passage of lamentation, this is one of rejoicing. To twist not just its meaning but its emotional tone in such a manner as Matthew did is as cynical as it is dishonest.

The other quotation is from Hosea 11:1 in which God said, "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt." Now on the face of it, this referred to the exodus of the Israelites led by Moses. (The singular form of address for Israel in this verse was obviously used in the collective sense, just as we would use it in the English language today.) The statement might also have applicability to the return of the majority of the Jewish people from Egypt after the Babylonian Diaspora, because we are told in 2 Kings 25:26 that not all of the Jewish nation was taken into captivity in Babylon and that the rest fled to Egypt after the Babylonian governor over them was murdered. (Second chronicles omits this, and in doing so would seem to indicate they were all taken to Babylon.) But could it have applied to Jesus also? Again, the next verse provides the answer, and again the answer is no. Verse 2 states that Israel then worshiped Baal. This is something the Israelites did throughout their early history, but nowhere in the Bible does it even suggest that Jesus worshiped Baal. For him to have done so would have disqualified him from being the unblemished sacrifice that is so necessary to the Christian story.

Furthermore, it would have been a very inauspicious beginning for the perfect man, the Son of God, the king of the Jews, to go to Egypt, for it would have been a violation of an instruction from God for Jewish kings not to go into Egypt again: "Only he [the king] shall not... cause the people to return to Egypt... forasmuch as Yahweh hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way" (Dt. 17:15-16 ). Isaiah even pronounced a woe on them "that go down to Egypt for help" (30:2 ; 31:1 ). Even in the context of the passage Matthew quoted, Hosea said that Israel "shall not return into the land of Egypt" (v:5 ), so how could it be that verse one was a "prophecy" of Jesus but verse five wasn't? (Other translations render verse five differently from the meaning given in the KJV and ASV, but Bible fundamentalists spend a lot of time condemning the "liberalism" of modern translations, so let them wrestle with the problem that their beloved versions pose in this passage.)

So if fulfillment of biblical prophecy is not provided in Matthew's story of infanticide, what purpose could it have had? Well, I recently heard it proposed (at the Dobbs-Till Debate in Portland, Texas) that this could have been some sort of "prophecy through action," that Jesus's coming out of Egypt served as an antitype of Israel's deliverance. The trouble with this is that the Old Testament story that Matthew retold is not that of Israel's going to and coming out of Egypt. The "dangerous-child" aspect of this story (a familiar theme in many pagan myths) does not apply there. Jacob and his sons went into Egypt for food, not to keep their babies from being murdered. And when their descendants were led out by Moses, it was not to restore a kingdom but to create one, not to recapture what had already been theirs but to have for the first time their "land of milk and honey."

The infanticide tale more closely parallels a story about the Jews' close cousins, the Edomites, than it does any biblical story of the Hebrews themselves. In 1 Kings 11:17-25 , the Jews murdered all the males of Edom, except for a boy named Hadad who fled to Egypt. Hadad, who had developed a personal relationship with the pharaoh, later came back to his own country, ruled his people, and exacted some measure of revenge on the Jews. He was described as an adversary raised up by God. Here is the "dangerous-child"/Messiah tale in its most complete form, and it was told not of a Hebrew but of their enemies! In fact, the Hebrews acted in the role taken by Herod in the retelling of this story. Herod's massacre would make Jesus much more an antitype of Edom than of Israel, save for the accident of his national origin.

Escape-to-Egypt stories were not even limited to nations in Asia Minor. Europeans had them too. Bullfinch, in his Age of Fable related that the gods fled Olympus and hid in Egypt out of fear during a war with a race of giants known as Titans. Even the other elements of this story from Greek mythology have their counterparts in Hebrew and Christian scriptures, for Genesis 6 tells of angels coming to earth and siring a race of giants with human women. (See "If It Walks like a Duck..." and "Sons of God: Just the Godly Lineage of Seth?" The Skeptical Review, Autumn 1991, pp. 2-6, and Winter 1992, pp. 5-10,16.) Presumably these giants were all drowned in the flood.

In Book Two of The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine, the great American patriot of the Revolutionary War, pointed out yet another problem with Matthew's infanticide story. John the Baptist would have been killed in it, since in the Gospel according to Luke he was only a matter of months older than Jesus (Mary's and Elizabeth's pregnancies overlapped by about three months, Luke 1:36 ) and was born in a town in the hill country of Judea that had to be close enough to Jerusalem for his father to perform priestly duties at the temple. Since Herod ordered the massacre of all male children "from two years old and under" in Bethlehem "and in all the borders thereof" (Matt. 2:16 ), this would have placed the life of the infant John in jeopardy, but then Luke had no infanticide narrative and thus no need to have John flee. Not only did Luke leave the infanticide and flight to Egypt out of his account, he stated that Mary and Joseph took Jesus up directly to Galilee from Jerusalem, leaving no room for a trip to Egypt (2:39 ).

This offensive story of Matthew's is left with no redeeming value at all. It denigrates mankind, it irrationally contradicts the basic message of the gospel, it cynically twists the meaning and the emotion of Old Testament scriptures, it has Jesus disobeying an instruction from God, it is a theft from the mythology of neighboring people, and it contradicts the only other set of biblical infancy narratives. Yet some say that it is divinely inspired.

(Earle Beach's address is 13203 Tamayo Drive, Austin, TX 78729-7403.)
 



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