Why Did Matthew Need Dead Babies?
WHY DID MATTHEW NEED DEAD BABIES?
Earle C. Beach
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
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, [ref001]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 [ref002]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 [ref003]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" ([ref004]Dt. 17:15-16
). Isaiah even pronounced a woe on them "that go down
to Egypt for help" ([ref005]30:2
). Even in the context of the passage Matthew quoted, Hosea
said that Israel "shall not return into the land of Egypt"
), 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 [ref008]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
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 [ref009]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
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, [ref010]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" ([ref011]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 ([ref012]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.