Last week got me thinking about mass murder. The bible contains a lot of it, indeed it even recommends it. There is one place that contains a reference to particularly horrific mass murder but the difference is that this unerring word of god actually portrays it as a bad thing: the slaughter of innocents. The story is that upon hearing that the savior was born in Bethlehem, the king of the Jews: Herod; ordered his soldiers to kill every male child (just like Moses did) under the age of 2 because it’s better to be safe than sorry. Jesus and company escape to Egypt, apparently they had a place to stay and everything, then years later they went home where everything was just as they left it. Growing up I never really thought about the story too much.

Think about the evil men in history, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Hirohito, and yes, even Hussein, perhaps Assad, Ghadafi; they all committed great crimes against humanity. However have any of them every specifically ordered attacks against children, not even children, babies? Not only that, but exclusively babies. They have their share of that blood on their hands but it was never that specific. Hitler’s campaign surely killed many children, but he got the adults as well. Somehow what Herod did was worse because he only attacked kids. Yet…Herod isn’t as famous as the rest of them. He’s famous among Christians, but among Jews he’s famous for a different reason.

Years later, I was out of grad school working for a cable company and watching HBO’s Rome. This was during the latest rise of the Christian fundamentalist movement as they supported Bush in just about everything he did, even the stuff that was anti-Christian, and in one of the episodes up popped the Jewish king Herod. The troubling fact for me as religious zealotry certainly did more to push me against religion than anything else, was that I still bought the story. Here, was Herod, only this Herod had a nickname…he was called Herod “The Great.” I thought that odd, how could someone called the great be responsible for mass infanticide later? I did some digging and what I found was uniquely coincidental with all of the bible literalism that I was seeing around me socially.

First off, the Herod of the bible ought to be called “Herod II” as he is “The Great’s” son. The first Herod is famous because he expanded the holy temple. That explained one thing, but it raised a new problem. One that I still find strange and point out to literalists. By trade, I’m not a historian, I’m a philosopher, but there’s a lot of history in philosophy and while I know very little of Jewish history outside of biblical stories, I do know a bit about Roman history. This is because my favorite philosopher, the correct one, is the Italian Niccolo Machiavelli and he borrows a good deal of his examples from historians of antiquity, which I then read. So I’ve read people like Livy, Herodotus (I know he’s Greek but I read that damn book cover to cover so I’m going to brag about it when I get the chance), and the Roman Jewish chronicler Josephus. In the Roman historians guess how many times the massacre of the infants is mentioned?…I’ll give you a second.

Times up. The answer: 0. How about the Roman census that required everyone in the Roman Empire to travel back to the lands of their fathers? That would also be mentioned zero times. Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about the conducting of a census, the ancient world had that. I’m talking about the ridiculous requirement that Joseph would have to travel to his ancestral home in order to be counted. Think about the logistics of that for a second, then think about how pointless it is, even for…as is claimed by Josephus that this census was being done for tax purposes. If Joseph lived in Galilee would good would it be to have him counted in Bethlehem? That’s just a practical concern, there are more important concerns for that story. The omission of the existence of Jesus by the ancient histories isn’t noteworthy, if you think about it they would have to be fans of him already to mention it, otherwise he’s just another guy claiming divine origin…like a whole lot of other people. But the omission of these two events is conspicuous.

Let’s just deal with the census for right now. I worked for the US census in 2010, and most people didn’t like that I just wanted the number of people in their house (which was the bare minimum of information the Constitution mandates that they give), If we had required that people travelled to the land of their ancestor’s birth, there would have been an uprising. Plus the further trouble is that if you take the genealogy of Joseph* (either of the two different ones, Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38) at what point is Joseph supposed to stop? Let’s say instead of going back to the city of David, he goes back to the city of Boaz. It’s a case of changing facts to fit a prophecy, otherwise there wouldn’t be two genealogies and four stories.

Anyways, let’s assume the contrary. Augustus makes the requirement and Joseph travels with his pregnant wife to Bethlehem alone, because Joseph apparently had no siblings. All of the inns are taken, and they have to stay in a barn (although “manger” is such a nicer word for it). Ok, let’s accept that. Obviously this is how they survived the slaughter of the innocents, because none of Herod’s soldiers decided to question where people were staying as obviously Joseph and Mary were the only two people who couldn’t find a place to stay. This is all–at least possible.

This isn’t like when I ask bible literalists to explain how there are still koala’s and kangaroos in existence when surely the flood ought to have killed them. This whole Bethlehem story is a big deal, it’s central to the religion but it doesn’t make sense. Central also is the escape from danger, every myth has the danger story (refer to: all of them). The reason that they escape is not divine providence it’s because the massacre never happened. There is no way that a historian would miss the event where a king orders the death of every two year old and younger person in an entire town. It’s even more odd when you figure that historians weren’t afraid to label him a paranoid maniac who had no qualms about killing potential rivals–they just failed to point out that one time that he killed a bunch of children to do the same thing. I suppose that’s what happens before the era of peer review. This is the deed that should have made his name an eponym for mass murder, instead we had to come up with one to describe what the Nazis did during the Nuremberg trials.

So no non-Christian historians mention it. Surely there is universal acknowledgement of the even in the bible right? Wrong. Thomas Paine mentions this in “The Age of Enlightenment,” the only gospel to bring up such an atrocious event is that of Matthew. The others either weren’t aware of it, or didn’t think it to be that important. Which of those two is likely? Let’s apply that great weapon against spiritualism–Ockham’s Razor, to the case. The Razor states that if given a dilemma the one that is the simplest example (i.e. that one that doesn’t create more than it explains) is the more likely explanation. So is it more likely that there was a massacre of infants, and only one person decided that it was important enough to record or that it didn’t happen and was created to add drama to an otherwise unremarkable occurrence? Again, this isn’t one of those inane inconsistencies that you hear about from idiots that give “atheist” a bad name. This isn’t like wondering where Job’s second wife came from, this is an essential part of the corner stone story of the Christian religion. Modern interpretations state that it isn’t meant to be taken literally, it’s about meaning. Unfortunately I can derive no meaning from this story aside from the apparent lesson that if the king orders your two year old’s death, run your ass off!

I was never a bible literalist, but there were stories that had to be taken as, well, gospel; and this was one. The more I looked at it the more it seemed to be a fictional account to fulfill Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea 11:1 which allegedly refers to Herod’s seeking to destroy the child even though it plainly reads as a historical text. Matthew seems to have his own agenda regarding prophecy, since again he’s twisting the story to fit the prophecy. Or in some cases just making the prophecy fit the event he wants to talk about since Jer31:15 makes no mention of a messiah at all. It’s more important than just a couple contradictions as the entire religion is predicated on the existence of a prophecy. Yet, all prophecies are vague and ambiguous for precisely this reason.

*Not that either of those matter anyway since Joseph isn’t related to Jesus.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. December 26, 2015 at 11:53 pm

    Good article. Nice to learn a bit more about history and how the gospels (don’t) fit into it.

    • rdxdave
      December 30, 2015 at 7:24 pm

      The things is, I can’t say that it didn’t happen only that it’s very unlikely that it did.

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