• How do you solve a problem like Herod?

    Over on a previous post and thread, one (Christian) commenter declared that the likes of JP Holding and Jason Engwer had basically dealt with all of the harmonisation issues within the context of the historical problems in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew and their infancy accounts. I will now, as Randal Rauser did in our recent debate, refer to the accounts as M and L.

    In my book, The Nativity: A Critical Examination, I did not really deal with the work of Holding and Engwer other than a few passing comments and a reference to Engwer in relation to the spectrum of Christian approaches to the exegesis of these accounts, from the literal and historic approach of Engwer (and Holding) to the more theological approach of scholars like Raymond Brown.

    Engwer, on his Triablogue blog, carries many posts and articles which seek to solve the insoluble. I would like to look at the issue of Herod, and see what Derek, from the other thread, has to offer in rebuttal. So what are the issues with Herod, in the context of M and L.

    1) Herod died in 4/5 BCE. The Census of Luke was in 6CE. The killing of babies and chasing of Jesus’ family away leaves and incongruous tat least ten, more like twelve, year gap when the claims should be concurrent. These dates are well supported by

    a) Josephus dating Herod’s death. Some call Josephus into question, but he is generally good on dates. Where he can be less accurate is on numbers in other contexts, but dates are fairly sound. Also, the matrix within which this date is set means that to call this date wrong is to invalidate all sorts of other claims too which we also know to be true.

    b) Roman historian Cassius Dio corroborates such dating independent of Josephus, especially considering the reign of Herod’s son Herod Archelaus for 10 years up until the Romans took charge and issued a census in 6CE.

    c) Coinage also supports such dating, ending in 4BCE for Varus’ governorship, and we know he was in charge during Herod’s death.

    2) Herod was visited by Magi, who appear to be a midrashic retelling of the Old Testament (OT) story of Balaam, for which there is abundant evidence. Carrier, for example, details at some length the midrashic retelling of Daniel by the use of the Magi story. Given that the whole star issue is problematic for multitudinous reasons, the Magi most certainly appear to be ahistorical. Without them, Herod cannot enter the story. It seems the Magi were a tool to get Herod in on the action so that Jesus could fulfill, midrashically, the story of Moses.

    3) In Matthew 2: 7-8, we have the following announcement: “Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem…” So before sending the magi to Bethlehem he is finding out the position of the star for an as yet unknown reason. But verse 16 indicates a reason as Herod “sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” Yet how can this have happened with this chronology? As Strauss (1860, p.159) says:

    But this plan of murdering all the children of Bethlehem up to a certain age… was not conceived by Herod until after the magi had disappointed his expectation that they would return to Jerusalem: a deception which, if we may judge from his violent anger on account of it Herod had by no means anticipated. Prior to this … it had been his intention to obtain from the magi, on their return, so great a description of the child, his dwelling and circumstances, that it would be easy for him to remove his infantine rival without sacrificing any other life.

    So it wasn’t until after he had discovered that the magi had not returned to him that he had to change his actions and seek to put to death all infants under the age of two. He was pretty damned lucky, then, to have ‘ascertained this time before he had decided on the plan’. Asking the magi about the star was only relevant if and only if they were not to return to him, if they deceived him. As Strauss points out, his anger shows he was not expecting this and gets away with being able to calculate such a morbid ruling because he had somehow asked them for the relevant information before he needed it! Matthew’s chronology is woeful here and this makes the account even more contrived.

    4) As Raymond Brown says (1977, p.190):

     Herod’s failure to find the child at Bethlehem would be perfectly intelligible in a story in which there were no magi who came from the East and where he had only general scriptural knowledge about Bethlehem to guide him. It becomes ludicrous when the way to the house has been pointed out by a star which came to rest over it, and when the path to the door of the house in a small village has been blazed by exotic foreigners.

    In other words, if Magi from the East can find Jesus following the most incredible astronomical sign in the history of the world, then why couldn’t Herod?

    5) Herod calls the magi to his palace in Jerusalem after hearing of them asking about the new king. This arouses his suspicions and he calls together his chief priests to tell him of the birth of the Messiah and where it should take place. If this really was an important Messianic prophecy, rather than a verse dug out of the Old Testament retrospectively, one would imagine that Herod and the general public would have been well aware that a Messiah was due to be born in the vicinity of Bethlehem at some point. The real estate prices in Bethlehem would be consistently extravagant. What is even more implausible is verse 3 in Matthew 2 which states that “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” So the whole of Jerusalem knew of the birth of the Messiah. If this really was the case, the whole of the history of Judaism would have shifted from that point on; there would have been Jewish historical references to this great event. Jesus would have been properly heralded as the Messiah if all of Jerusalem knew of the birth of Jesus as a fulfilment of the prophecy from Micah. There is much that is strange and unbelievable about this whole episode. As Callahan (2002, p. 379) says:

     That king also acts strangely. Rather than counting on the wise men to tell him where the new king is to be found, why wouldn’t he give them an escort or have them followed, or even have his own soldiers follow the star that is so visible to the wise men? In fact, there are two reasons for stopping at Herod’s court, both having to do with establishing Jesus as the successor to the Davidic kings. The first of these is so the chief priests and scribes can announce that the scriptures say that the divine child will be born in Bethlehem. The second is so that Herod can know that the child is there, but not know exactly where in Bethlehem he is.

    So Callahan points out the rather bizarre behaviour of the king in relying on some magi, whom he does not know from Adam, to return to him and act as seasoned spies, betraying the very person whom they have travelled no doubt for many hundreds of miles and many weeks to see! This is the hope of a very naïve man. Any betting person would tell you that he has slim to no chance of seeing those wise men again. You don’t travel half of the known world to find and praise a new Messiah only to betray him immediately! Any decent king worth their salt would not exhibit such behaviour. Moreover, with a track record as vicious as Herod’s, you would expect him to send a detachment with the wise men or to put them under some kind of arrest so that they could “help him with his inquiries”. In addition, the time it would take the magi to go to Bethlehem and come back to Jerusalem there would be no guarantee, when the magi returned to Jerusalem and let Herod know of Jesus’ exact whereabouts, that Joseph and family would still be in Bethlehem to be found by a returning Herod and entourage. As Strauss (1860, p. 160) agrees:

     On all these grounds, Herod’s only prudent measure would have been either to detain the magi in Jerusalem, in the meantime by means of secret emissaries to dispatch the child to whom such peculiar hopes were attached, and who must have been easy of discovery in the little village of Bethlehem ; or to have given the magi companions who, so soon as the child was found, might at once have put an end to his existence.

    What Callahan, in the previous quote, also illustrates is that the magi had to stop off in Jerusalem in order to give Matthew a mechanism to bring Herod into the story as well as a mechanism to allow Herod to have heard of this birth. Without the magi turning up and shouting around Jerusalem “Has anyone seen the new Messiah?” (itself an unlikely thing) and alerting Herod, we would have had no Herod, no massacring of the babies and no reason for Joseph and family to flee to Egypt. This fleeing to Egypt is a crucial event, thematically speaking, for Matthew’s account as we shall learn later and seems rather dependent on a highly implausible contrivance dictated by Matthew himself.

     6) Firstly, it has been claimed that Herod, being in his 70s at the supposed time of Jesus’ birth, would not have been too bothered about chasing after a ‘usurper to the throne’. By the time Jesus would have been old enough to trouble Herod’s rule, Herod would have known that he himself would be long dead. One might counter this point to say that he still did ruthless things late in his rule and that he may have been thinking of his family who would take over the rule from him. However, on closer inspection, there are problems with such a defence. Indeed, Herod only seemed to do harsh and infamous things late in his rule that would have immediate effect. When he was 70, he installed two golden eagles (Roman symbols) at the temple gates. Two Pharisees, Judas and Mattathias, incited the crowd to a near riot and tore down the eagles, perhaps thinking that Herod was too old to care at this time. Herod burned them alive (see Anthony Tomasino in Judaism Before Jesus: The Events & Ideas That Shaped the New Testament World, p.273). This example shows a vitriolic and intolerant side to Herod but it is clear that this was an action to quell an immediate problem.

    Furthermore, Herod left his kingdom in complete turmoil. There seems to be very little evidence of him caring enough about his children and their ‘inheritance’ for one to conclude anything other than his vicious acts were entirely self-serving and designed for appeal to the present and not the future (of other people). After his death, his kingdom was divided up by Augustus into several parts. As Peter Richardson states in Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans, Herod was at this time “disintegrating and withdrawing from effective participation” in family affairs (p.289). Squabbles followed his death as to who would get what and when. Herod had not got his house in order for it seems it was not high on his list of priorities. So why would catching a newborn and murdering this newborn, forcing him to murder many other infants, be something that such an old king would bother to do? If he could not be bothered to sort out the factions within his own family while he was alive, then why on earth would he be bothered that a usurper, who would only come of age some twenty or so years later and would only eventually grow old enough to take the title of King of the Jews, long after his own death? After all, “Herod’s despair was so great over his health problems – he was in his seventieth year and acutely ill – that he tried to kill himself with a paring knife” (Richardson 1999, p.19).

    Thus it seems clear that this behaviour from Herod, of reacting so officiously to a prophecy and the magi’s news that he murders all the boys under two in Bethlehem and vicinity, is completely out of sorts to what would, in reality, be the behaviour of such a man. Contextual historical evidence shows the purported actions claimed by Matthew to be highly improbable.

    7) Did I mention there is no evidence, extrabiblically or otherwise, for Herod’s slaughter of the innocents?

    8) Given that we know Matthew loves his Midrash, given his Jewish audience, the whole story seems to be replaying Moses. Wicked king Herod, after killing children in response to this upstart leader of the New Kingdom, chases the family into Egypt where they hang out for some time to “come out of Egypt” and in so doing fulfill a prophecy, to lead the Jewish nation to their ‘promised land’ (new kingdom).

    Wicked ‘king’ Pharaoh, after being responsible for the death of Egyptian children (firstborn), chases Moses, leader of the Israelites out of Egypt to their promised land.

    This smacks less of history, more of theology.

    9) Given this whole, rather high-profile set of events, involving scribes, the king and important foreigners parading through Jerusalem, we hear nothing about this from any other source. But it gets worse. We hear nothing about this from any other Gospel. But it gets worse, we hear nothing about this in later Matthew. But it gets worse, we have no connection made to these events when Jesus returns late in his ministry, to Jerusalem. No scribes reference this, nothing, from no one. No one connects the fact that 30 years before, a prophecy had been discovered (apparently heretofore unknown) that Jesus would be the Messiah and the King went around with soldiers murdering babies. No one in Jerusalem seems to have the slightest idea who Jesus was or that the Messiah was prophesied and acted upon by the authorities and army,m unsuccessfully.

    So thi sis probably enough to be getting on with, Derek, and anyone else who cares to join in. Please do not merely post links. Please post substantive points. Cut and paste if needs be. Points need to be dealt with by points, not links.

    Many of the points here use text from my book. Here are the references:

    Brown, Raymond (1977), The Birth of the Messiah,London: Geoffrey Chapman

    Callahan, Tim (2002), The Secret Origins of the Bible,Altadena: Millennium Press

    Richardson, Peter (1999), Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans,Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd

    H Publishing Group

    Strauss, D.F. (4th Ed 1860) translated by Evans, Marian, The Life of Jesus, New York: Calvin Blanchard

    Tomasino, Anthony J. (2003), Judaism Before Jesus: The Events & Ideas That Shaped the New Testament World,Westmont,Illinois: IVP Academic

    Category: Biblical ExegesisBooks


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce