The Infant Massacre — History or Myth? -- By: Paul L. Maier

Journal: Bible and Spade (First Run)
Volume: BSP 06:4 (Autumn 1977)
Article: The Infant Massacre — History or Myth?
Author: Paul L. Maier


The Infant Massacre — History or Myth?

Paul L. Maier

[Paul L. Maier is professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University. He has the M.A. from Harvard and the Ph.D. from the University of Basel. Parts of this essay first appeared in his book First Christmas (Harper, 1971) and in Lutheran Forum (May, 1975, p. 11ff.).]

Who was the first martyr for Christianity? Stephen, the victim of stoning in Acts 7, is usually awarded this honor, but incorrectly. Jesus himself would be a better candidate for this distinction, but he, too, was not the first. Instead, a strong case could be made that some nameless baby boy in Bethlehem, two years old or under — the first of the infants slashed or dirked to death by Herod’s soldiers — was properly the first Christian martyr. . .

. .. . if indeed the infant massacre at Bethlehem actually happened. Except for the Virgin Birth itself, no aspect of the Christmas story has come under heavier critical attack than the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. The episode has been drenched with doubt from various quarters. Many ancient historians, church historians, biblical commentators, biographers of Herod the Great, and critical scholars have called it into question, and now there are even calls for eliminating the Feast of the Holy Innocents (celebrated on December 28) from the liturgical calendar.

Why the fuss? Some of the objection might be emotional. Amid all the joy and gladness of Christmas, the story of the butchery of babies in Bethlehem strikes an unwelcome discordant note, some argue. True, but Scripture never was a book to spare the feelings of its readers. It has a positive habit of introducing a clashing chord into the harmony of the whole. Think of Luke, who in relating the Nativity story reports that aged Simeon looked Mary in the face at the Temple and said: “A sword will pierce through your own soul also” (2:35).

Other objections to the infant massacre might well have an ethical motivation. Christians are used to the idea of Jesus dying for people, not people dying for Jesus (at least prior to the founding of the Church), and when the “people” are babies, the ways of God become inexplicable. There is, of course, no pat answer to the ethical problem, and it must be affirmed that here also God’s ways are not ours. The ultimate triumph in Christian eschatology, however, must have special application for the hapless infants of Bethlehem.

It is rather the scholarly and historical objection to the baby slaughter that I wish to probe here. Christians have a right to know ...

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