Humility’ was not in the repertoire of Herod the Great’s personality traits. By any standards, he was a homicidal maniac, but the one ‘crime’ he did not commit is the mythical Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16–18).
The term ‘myth’ has frequently been employed by academics in their study of the Infancy Narratives, which lies partly behind Chapter 4’s ‘Divine Heroes’, but if ‘myth’ signifies fictions that cannot be taken seriously it fails to communicate the richness of the concept, leading to superficial judgements about religious narratives.
Myth, properly experienced, is a source of spiritual transformation, and unless an event like Jesus’ birth, with all the mythical trappings surrounding it – the angelic chorus and the story of the murder of toddlers, for instance – cannot be liberated from the confines of a specific time and place, and brought into the life of Christians living in a world after Copernicus and Darwin, it will deservedly perish.
The purpose of myth is not to provide information. It is to invite people to embrace truths that are as invisible as music yet as positive as sound, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson in a very different context. When, every year, we pray before nativity scenes, believers are participating in a powerful ritual reflecting the positive sounds of that first and invisible Silent Night.
Christians know the Christmas story to be true, not because it conforms to a checklist of historical data but because of its power to transform lives. We impoverish the wonder of religion when it is reduced to ‘argument’ and ‘theology’. Arguments, no matter how erudite, seldom change people.
Only stories, not legend or dogma, have the power to address ‘the better angels of our nature’, as Jesus and Abraham Lincoln knew so well, because they give us the hope of a future redeemed from the terrors of the past.
Religious mythology is not to be identified with legends or fairy tales, which are clearly not factual, but they typically serve a didactic purpose. Myth and story, however, availing of the analogical and oblique nature of religious language, communicate truths of enduring significance. One medieval legend, with a definite purpose obliquely reflecting the myth-midrash of Herod’s Murder of the Innocents, comes from the Tyrol in modern Austria.
It tells of ‘little Catholic children being kidnapped by Jews so that they could be murdered in one of the services held in the synagogue’. The legend is typical of many circulating at the time, the most infamous one concerning William of Norwich, who was twelve years old when he disappeared a few days after Easter 1144. He was known to the city’s Jewish community. His slain and mutilated body was found by a nun and a forester.
Thomas of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk, writing ten years later, produced ‘evidence’ that ‘the Jews abducted William for demonic ritual purposes, subjecting him to the cruellest of tortures and a slow, agonising death’. His mother, according to Thomas, unwittingly gave the child to ‘a Jew’, for which she was paid three (silver) shillings, a clear allusion to Judas’ supposed betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (DJJ argues that Judas did not betray Jesus, and that the claim is a midrash on 1 Corinthians 11:23–24).
Thomas’ legendary account of William’s murder presents him as a Christian martyr who worked miracles, and ‘the key to appreciating his death lay in the murderous guilt of the Jews’, who ‘scourged and crucified William, just as the Jews of Judaea had scourged and crucified Jesus’.
‘Blood’ is a theme common to these grotesque fantasies, where the purpose of ‘demonic rituals’ is to extract and drink children’s blood, clearly parodying the Last Supper. Thomas argued further that one of the reasons why the Jews targeted William was because his innocence made him more susceptible to their ‘financial avarice’.
Most historians agree that the Norwich ritual murder libel of 1144 was ‘the first of its kind in Medieval Europe’, providing a template for ‘many similar accusations that would come in its wake’. Early in the thirteenth century an Austrian poet wrote: In every year it happens still The Jews Christ’s Passion offer, When a Christian boy they kill.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia renounces the preposterous claims of ritual murder, but it then proceeds with the extraordinary observation that Jews may have murdered ‘some of these victims’ because of their odium fidei, that is, Jewish hatred of Christianity.
What ‘victims’? There were no child victims of ritual murder, but countless Jews have been murdered by hateful Christians. The legend almost certainly had a long oral tradition prior to its literary representations in the twelfth century, which soon spread throughout Europe, and that oral tradition is related to a misunderstanding of the story about King Herod killing ‘the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger’ (Matthew 2:16).
Ireland has been almost entirely free of overt anti-Semitism, with one major exception: The Limerick Boycott of 1904/5. One night in January 1904, a large mob converged on the homes and businesses of the small number of Jews residing in Limerick.
The mob had come directly from a gathering of the Archconfraternity of the Holy Family, at which, supported by referencing libels and slanders of ritual murder, and naming so-called ‘martyr victims’ (‘William’ probably had a mention), a sermon had been given by a Redemptorist priest, John Creagh, in which he asserted: • that the Jews, because of their ‘financial avarice’, were responsible for enslaving the people of Limerick to usury; • that they murdered the Christ; • that the citizens of Limerick must immediately boycott Jewish businesses.
A week later, Creagh (d. 1947) repeated the same allegations, this time exhorting the confraternity members not to resort to violence. Early the following year, a reporter from The Jewish Chronicle visited Limerick, where he witnessed Jews being attacked ‘right and left’, with some having to run for their lives.
He reported organised protests, with the mob yelling ‘Down with the Jews, they kill innocent children’. Creagh exploited and inflamed the consequences of the Dreyfus Affair (1894–99) and the appalling Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 in Russia, which occasioned a massive surge to the West of Eastern European Jews.
It is a mercy that, unlike at Kishinev, there were no fatalities in Limerick. These crimes were fuelled by the rise of late nineteenth-century racial anti-Semitism and Creagh had tapped into a religious and historical sewer, reflecting the opprobrious Teaching of Contempt, typified by Thomas of Monmouth’s lies.
The William Legend that had originated in twelfth-century Norwich erupted again in twentieth-century Limerick, and probably had its remote origins in a first-century midrash about Jesus as the ‘new Moses’, written about eighty years after Herod’s death.
Herod the Great was recognised by Rome as ‘King of the Jews’ in 40 BCE, gaining full control of his territories three years later (37). ‘Herod’ means ‘sprung from a hero’. There is little doubt that history does not judge Herod to be heroic.
Of his many children, Herod certainly murdered three of them and possibly more, in addition to having his favourite wife of ten, Mariamne, strangled. For good measure, Herod also executed Alexandra (his motherin-law), her brother and Mariamne’s grandfather and brother, and countless others (garrotting and burning to death were the preferred means of dispatching his victims).
Pigs, however, were safe from Herod’s murderous reach, as demonstrated by Caesar Augustus’ sardonic quip, ‘Better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son’, knowing that Herod – a Jew – would abstain from pork. It is little wonder that people have no difficulty believing Herod to have murdered children, but he is entirely innocent of the ‘crime’.
There was no Massacre of the Innocents. The purpose of the story is to draw a parallel between Pharaoh’s (probably unhistorical) efforts to kill the infant Moses and Jesus as the ‘new Moses’, who will ultimately meet a violent end. It has nothing to do with the Herod of history, who is deservedly famed for his extensive building programme, in particular the extension to the Temple – probably the most resplendent building of the ancient world.
Matthew has constructed the story as a parallelism between Moses the Great and Jesus the Greater, illustrated also by their manner of escape: for Moses, it is away from Egypt; for Jesus it is into Egypt. In other words, the place of past oppression and despair for Moses becomes a centre of hope and refuge for Jesus.
This hope motif is intended for Matthew’s readers, and he communicates it employing a brilliant narrative device when the Magi reach Jerusalem, having them ask, ‘Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?’ (2:2b). Herod then inquires of his advisers where the Messiah is to be born (2:4), and in this context ‘Messiah’ is a synonym for ‘King of the Jews’.
This second title is not employed again until the Passion Narratives, where it figures three times, typically when Pilate asks, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (27:11). The background is the year 40 BCE when Mark Antony and Octavian contrived to make Herod ‘King of the Jews’, and its use in this Infancy Narrative is intended as an overture to the gospel, culminating on Calvary, when the inscription ‘King of the Jews’ is placed at the head of the cross (27:37).
Its role as the gospel’s bookend is a reminder that the objective of the Roman-appointed Herod who sought to kill Jesus was finally achieved by another Roman, Pilate. Matthew is telling us that the shadow of Roman imperial dominance, present at Jesus’ birth, would not be allowed to triumph by his death, which explains the words attributed to the (Gentile) centurion at the foot of the cross, ‘Truly, this man was God’s son’ (27:54).
Whoever wrote Matthew’s Gospel would also have made a superb thriller writer, dropping brilliant indicators like bookends, headers and footers into the plot. The Massacre of the Innocents and almost all of the material in the Passion Narratives are not recorded history, but rather exercises in retrospective theology, and this is also how we should understand Rachel’s voice raised in Ramah, wailing and weeping for her children (2:18).
It is used as a fulfilment citation, from Jeremiah 31:15, to indicate that Herod’s putative slaughter of children was fore-ordained, but it has additional symbolic importance. Ramah is where 600 years earlier the Babylonians had kept their Jewish captives prior to deportation to Mesopotamia (587/6). Matthew’s purpose is to establish a Midrashic association between the two occurrences, the point being that Jesus’ temporary exile in Egypt will eventually result in a better outcome for his people than the disaster occasioned by the Babylonian Exile (of course, Matthew had no way of knowing that, 2,000 years later, millions of Jesus’ people would perish in the Holocaust).
The Babylonian Exile came to an end in 539 BCE, when Cyrus, King of Persia, permitted the Jews to return to their homeland. (Of interest is the likelihood that the exiles brought back with them, derived from Zoroastrianism, beliefs about resurrection from the dead.)
Another fulfilment citation is the one that attests to the Flight into Egypt: ‘Out of Egypt, I have called my son’ (Hosea 11:1). Raymond Brown observes that the verse referred originally to the Exodus from Egypt, and Matthew interpreted it in relation to Jesus, ‘who relives in his own life the history of that people’.
Geza Vermes notes that the Flight into Egypt presents us with an Exodus in reverse, providing the circumstances whereby Jesus can return to Israel, in fulfilment of the Hosea citation. As with ‘prophecy’, there is a problem with ‘fulfilment citations’. The difficulty is that they are presented in terms of Jesus alone being able to fulfil them, typified by the misattribution of Greek Isaiah 7:14, discussed earlier.
Matthew and other New Testament writers employ this methodology, which in essentials is an exercise in Midrashic selectivism, critiqued by Paula Fredriksen:
• Matthew in particular is engaged in an exercise of ‘theological appropriation’, meaning that his use of citation/proof-texts suggest implicitly ‘the incompletion of Judaism’, which soon thereafter led to the popular ‘Christian’ belief that Jesus had abrogated his ancestral faith – nothing could be further from the historical truth.
• This Gospel has chosen selected quotations, chiefly from Isaiah, Jeremiah and the Minor Prophets (Micah, for instance). They are notoriously ambiguous and replete with metaphors.
• The remainder of the Hebrew Bible, however, does not lend itself so easily to such interpretations, the consequence being that all of Scripture’s teachings become focused on Jesus the Christ and only those texts considered to support this ‘identification’ are deemed of relevance.
Fredriksen’s observations matter because they highlight a problem that besets Christianity to this day – its implicit and sometimes explicit assumption that first-century Judaism rejected Jesus as the ‘Promised One’.
It did no such thing, for a variety of reasons, and not least because the historical Jesus almost certainly made no such claim on his own behalf, no more than Judaism when he was alive subscribed to belief in a divine Messianic figure.
Jesus died a loyal son of the covenant and it is therefore wholly inappropriate to accuse Jews of a failure to recognise ‘their Messiah’, an accusation that has had disastrous consequences for the ancestors of Jesus the Jew, culminating in the abomination that is the Holocaust.
By the early second century, however, when emerging (Gentile) Christianity began to interpret literally Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, it had unwittingly cast the die for a developing hostile relationship between Judaism and Christianity, typified by some of the Apocryphal gospels, including those pertaining to Jesus’ childhood: “When a Jew saw what Jesus had done, while playing with friends at a stream, he went to Joseph and complained that his son, having turned soft clay into twelve sparrows, had profaned the Sabbath”.
Peter Keenan is the author of The Birth of Jesus the Jew: No Star of Bethlehem. Midrash and the Infancy Gospels published by Columba books. His next book, The Death of Jesus the Jew will be published in early 2023.