The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke

by James Kiefer



Herod, we are told, killed the boys of Bethlehem two years and under. This is estimated as about 20 to 30 children. It would not have been out of character. He had ten wives (we know the names of eight) and had several of them killed on suspicion of plotting against him, as well as several of his sons, and various other family members. (Caesar Augustus remarked, "It is safer to be Herod's swine (HUS) than Herod's son (HUIOS)," referring to the fact that Herod, in deference to Jewish law, did not eat pork.) When he was about to die, he had two hundred leading men of the realm imprisoned and gave orders that they be killed when he died, in order that there might be mourning at his death. (This order was not carried out.) Now consider his situation in 7 BC. Because of the census, the town of Bethlehem is full of persons claiming descent from David. Every one of them has, in the eyes of many of his subjects, a better claim to the throne than he does. It is widely believed that the Messiah, the man who will proclaim himself king of Israel and drive out the Romans, must be a descendant of David and must be born in Bethlehem. The astrologers are saying that this is the year when the Messiah will be born. Even if Herod puts no stock in astrology himself, he must recognize that any child born in Bethlehem that year will have that fact as a selling point if as an adult he chooses to lead a revolt, and that anyone wanting to lead a revolt immediately will find it useful to take a child born in Bethlehem that year and proclaim him the promised one, and lead a revolt in his name. The awareness of all those children in a town only six miles away, every one of them a potential focus of revolution, could very easliy work him up into a frenzy of suspicion. Ordering the children killed is just what he would have done under the circumstances. But did he?

I find the following objections given:

(1) Augustus would never have let Herod do anything so cruel. (2) Luke does not mention the Slaughter of the Innocents, or indeed any of the events recorded in the second chapter of Matthew. Could anyone undertaking to tell us about the birth and infancy of Christ, as Luke does, have left out such an important episode if it were true and he knew about it? It would be like writing a biography of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and never mentioning that she spent her earliest years in exile because her family had to flee from Hitler. (3) Josephus never mentions the Slaughter of the Innocents. But Josephus hated Herod and never misses an opportunity to record an instance of his cruelty or wickedness. He would surely have reported the Slaughter of the Innocents if it had occurred. (4) There is absolutely no reference to the Slaughter of the Innocents anywhere outside the pages of Matthew. Surely SOMEONE would have mentioned it.

We may reply to each of these objections as follows:

OBJECTION 1: It is argued that Augustus would never have permitted Herod to kill two or three dozen innocent little babies -- that he was far too nice a man.

REPLY: I find this argument downright curious. Augustus achieved his own throne through civil war, and at the beginning of his reign had hundreds of people (Cicero, for example) put to death, not for any crimes that they had committed but simply because he thought them dangerous. He would have understood that Herod could not afford to let a child live who had inherited a plausible claim to the throne: he had himself ordered the death of Caesarion, the child of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, not for anything the boy had done, but because he had at least as good a claim to be Caesar's heir as Augustus did. If in later life he killed fewer people, it was only because his throne was more secure and he was faced with fewer threats to it. Herod had killed thousands of other subjects of his with no protest from Augustus. Why would Augustus object to the killing of a few children? On the grounds that it is more wicked to kill a cute, cuddly little baby than a grown-up? This argument fails completely to allow for the Roman point of view. Both under the Republic and under the Empire, Roman fathers of all classes routinely left their unwanted children in the public square, for adoption, enslavement, or death, as Fortune might dictate. Juvenal lists, as one of the ridiculous and irrational peculiarities of the Jewish people, that they think it wrong to kill even newborn children. Of course, there is a difference between killing one's own children and killing someone else's, but if killing a baby is not murder but only a violation of the parent's property rights, then it is not really more serious than unjustly high taxes. Of all the atrocities that Herod has been accused of, that of slaying perhaps thirty infants in Bethlehem is, by Roman standards, the least serious, and it follows both (a) that Augustus would not have punished Herod for it, and (b) that Josephus, writing for a Roman audience, would have omitted it, even if he knew about it and personally detested it.

OBJECTION 2: It is argued that Luke's failure to mention Herod and the Magi proves that Matthew's account is unhistorical.

REPLY: Luke had urgent and compelling reasons for carefully avoiding the whole subject of Herod and the Magi. The Magi were Parthians. Now the Romans had made repeated but unsuccessful efforts to conquer Parthia (Persia), and the Parthians fought back aggressively (capturing Jerusalem in the fifth century AD). Even when the two empires were not fighting, they were constantly maneuvering, seeking allies and buffer states and spheres of influence, and trying to put rulers favorable to themselves on the thrones of the various minor principalities of the Middle East. In the closing years of Nero's reign, the Parthians put a pro-Parthian king, Tiridates, on the throne of Armenia, thereby causing an international crisis, which was finally resolved by allowing Tiridates to keep his throne on condition that he come to Rome and do homage to Nero for it. Now Luke, who may have been writing his gospel at the very time of the Tiridates affair, was not ignorant of Imperial politics. He had accompanied Paul when Paul went to Rome to be tried before Nero, and he knew that Christianity was in danger of being declared treasonable. That its founder had been executed by a Roman governor on a charge of claiming to be King of the Jews was, to put it mildly, awkward. But the story of the Magi would have been understood to mean that when he was born a group of Parthians had acknowledged his claim to be King of the Jews, and had supported that claim against the rival claim of Herod, the pro-Roman king. It was bad enough to have Christians suspected of being part of a Jewish National Liberation Front. To have them suspected of Parthian connections would have been ten times worse. Luke was no fool. Whatever he knew about the Magi he kept to himself.

OBJECTION 3: It is argued that Josephus, who is anti-Herod, would not have neglected to mention an atrocity like the Slaughter of the Innocents if it had occurred.

REPLY: This sort of argument from silence is, to say the least, precarious. Let us consider a modern parallel. In 1942, "Butcher" Heydrich, the head of the Nazi occupation forces in Czechoslovakia, was assassinated near the village of Lidice. Hitler ordered the village destroyed. All the men in the village were shot, the women sent off to die in concentration camps, and the very young children (too young to remember their origins when they grew up) put in orphanages. The idea was to blot out the village and all memory of it. It was a far more drastic action than the killing of at most thirty babies. Yet, dropping in at my neighborhood library and checking the shelves, I find seven biographies of Hitler, five of which make no mention of Lidice whatever. Yet they are written by anti-Hitler writers, who would be eager to list his atrocities. Those who infer from the silence of Josephus that the Bethlehem Masssacre never occurred ought to infer by the same sort of reasoning that the Lidice Massacre never occurred either. That Josephus does not mention something proves very little. His history covers the period of Hillel, one of the half-dozen greatest rabbis of all time. (The Jewish student center at any non-Jewish college or university is normally called the Hillel House.) But Josephus never mentions Hillel. Josephus was born more than forty years after Christ and wrote his histories at least eighty years afterwards. He is relying on the testimony of others and not on his own memory or personal knowledge of events. It is perfectly possible that he knew nothing of the Massacre. (It is NOT possible that he knew nothing of Hillel.) We note that in Josephus's account of the reign of Herod, he gives dates for the first part of the reign but not for the last part. (This is why not everyone agrees that Herod died in 4 BC.) The simplest explanation of this is that he got most or all of his information about Herod's earlier years from a single source that gave dates, and that when this document ran out he had to fall back on others -- very probably one other -- that did not give dates. If his source(s) did not mention the Massacre of the Innocents, then Josephus would not have known about it. He has not done extensive research into Herod's reign, consulting many sources. If he had, he would know the dates. Assuming that he did know of the Massacre, might he have had any reason for not mentioning it? Yes, and the the same reason would account for his not mentioning Hillel. Hillel, like Jesus, was a descendant of David, was of the traditional royal line of the Jews. Josephus had two reasons for not mentioning Davidids: one personal and one political. Josephus was himself of the Hasmonean, or Maccabean, family. The Hasmoneans were a priestly family who had led the fight for Jewish independence against the Greek successors of Alexander the Great, and had established an independent Jewish commonwealth, with themselves as priest-kings, to the distress of many pious Jews, who welcomed their military exploits, but who maintained that, by express Divine command, only descendents of Zadok could be high priests, and only descendents of David could be kings. Out of sheer family jealousy, therefore, Josephus would say as little about the Davidids as he could. He had another reason for silence. He had saved his own life in the war against Rome by deserting to the Roman side and proclaiming that the Jewish prophecies that a man would come out of Palestine and rule the whole world applied, not to any Jew, but to the Roman general Vespasian, whose military exploits in suppressing the Jewish revolt were in fact a prelude to his being proclaimed emperor. In order to make this line stick, he had to ignore the plain statements that this world-ruler to come would be a descendent of David, and the easiest way to do this was to ignore Jesus, Hillel, and the whole Davidic dynasty.

OBJECTION 4: It is objected that no one at all, other than Matthew, records the Massacre, and that this renders it highly suspect.

REPLY: We have seen that the silence of Luke and Josephus is not surprising, and there is no other writer whom one would expect to record it. However, it is not quite true to say that, aside from Matthew, we find complete silence on the matter. A probable indirect reference to the massacre is found in the ASSUMPTION OF MOSES (dated around 10 AD), a document that refers to Herod as giving "bloodthirsty commands, as was done in Egypt." Presumably the comparison is with Pharaoh's trying to kill the male children of the Hebrews in the days of Moses. Jewish writers of Matthew's time explained that he did so because he had been warned by an oracle that a Hebrew boy born that year would be his doom. A parallel action for Herod would be killing the babies of a village on the basis of a rumor or prediction that a threat to his throne had just been born there. The massacre of the children at Bethlehem is therefore a reasonable candidate, and the only one I know of, for the event that the ASSUMPTION is referring to. Thus we have what appears to be a reference to the Massacre of the Innocents by an independent source, a writer who was fairly close in time to the events he describes, and too early to be influenced by Christian ideas or stories about Jesus.

CONCLUSION: As noted above, we have non-Scriptural evidence for a census in 7 BC, and for a belief that the Messiah would be born in that year (in Bethlehem, of Davidic ancestry), and for Herod's being the sort of king who would react to these facts by ordering a massacre of children. We now have in the ASSUMPTION OF MOSES a probable reference to just such a massacre. I conclude that the case for Matthew's accuracy on this point is very strong indeed.


A friend of mine who is interested in myth and legend offers the following comments at this point.

QUOTE: Yes, as you have just pointed out, there is a close parallel between the story of Pharaoh and the baby Moses, and the story of Herod and the baby Jesus. In fact, that is precisely why I cannot accept such stories as history. They are part of a pattern as old as the human imagination. In every country we find the story of the baby whom the wicked king tried to kill, usually because he was warned by an oracle that this baby, or some baby born that year, would grow up to overthrow him. Romulus and Remus, Oedipus, Jason, Paris, Hercules, Perseus, Zeus himself, Cyrus, Arthur and Mordred (to shift mythologies) -- the list goes on and on. Is it not clear that this is the stuff of legend -- that tales like this collect naturally about the childhoods of great men, whether the men themselves are real or legendary? But although the theme is common to legends throughout the world, the specific working out of the details by Matthew is Jewish. Matthew wishes to show that Jesus fulfilled numerous prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures. He also wants to show that there are parallels between the life of Jesus and the history of great Jewish heroes of the past, or the history of the Jewish people as a whole. Just as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, so Jesus wanders in the wilderness for forty days. Just as Abraham sought refuge in Egypt from troubles in Palestine, so, according to Matthew, does Jesus. Just as David fled from Bethlehem into what is now the Gaza Strip in order to escape from the wicked king who wished to kill him, so does Jesus. Just as Jacob fled to avoid being killed by Edom, so Jesus, the descendant of Jacob, flees to avoid being killed by Herod, the descendent of Edom. Just as a queen comes from the East, bringing gifts for Solomon, the son of David, so three kings come from the East, bringing gifts for Jesus, the still greater son of David. Just as a star (according to Jewish legend not found in the Bible) heralded the birth of Abraham, so a star heralds the birth of Jesus. Stars, comets, or other heavenly portents hailing the birth of a great man were almost routine in the thought of that time. We are told of the great Persian king Mithridates that a comet marked the year of his conception and another the year of his coronation. In fact, it is difficult to point to an element in Matthew's story of the birth that is not straightforwardly explained by the story-tellers' conventions as to what such a birth should be like, or by Matthew's wish to work in fulfilments of prophecy, or by his wish to draw parallels with past sacred history, or by his wish to draw morals about Jews and gentiles. Matthew was himself a Jew and writing for Jewish readers. His story reflects and expresses his beliefs about Jewish and Gentile converts and their relation to the Church. According to Matthew, the wise men are virtuous gentiles, drawn to the light of Christ, but they cannot find him by themselves. They must inquire of the Jews, who alone have the sacred scriptures and know how to interpret them. The priests point them to the Child, but are not sufficiently interested to accompany them and pay homage also. Let devout Jews take warning and hasten to acknowledge Jesus as their king, lest devout gentiles enter into the kingdom before them. For those who wish to study Matthew's disposition to impose sacred parallels on his narrative, one of the most revealing instances is to be found when Herod dies and the angel tells Joseph in Egypt, "Return, for they are dead who sought the child's life." Herod is the only one who has sought the child's life, or who has been reported as dead. The phrase, "they are dead," is completely unjustified. But when we turn to the story of Moses, the reason for Matthew's wording becomes clear. Moses had killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave, and when Pharaoh learned of it, he sought to kill him. Moses fled into the wilderness of Midian. Then Pharaoh died. He is the only one reported as wishing to kill Moses, and the only one reported as having died, and yet God says to Moses: "Return, for all they are dead who sought thy life." (Ex 4:19) Clearly Matthew, with the Moses story in mind, has repeated the plural of the message, which is not justified by the story in either instance. One could go on and on about parallels. Why does Joseph keep getting messages in dreams? Because the original Joseph, who was the guardian in Egypt of an earlier Holy Family, was an outstanding dreamer and interpreter of dreams. At the same time, Matthew has a good sense, perhaps not always consciously exercised, of what is appropriate in a fairy tale. The wise men seek advice from the scribes, not only to point a Jewish-Gentile moral, but also because someone journeying on a quest must naturally stop to seek advice or guidance from someone, say a witch, or a holy hermit, or a magic mirror, depending on the tale. Note that in calling the story a fairy-tale, we are not disparaging it. It is intended to appeal to our imaginations, to our sense of awe and wonder, to the perpetual child in every one of us. Its very atmosphere breathes enchantment. The three kings riding on their camels loom up before us in the starlight, and we surrender once again to the magic of a story that never grows old. And what is wrong with that? Is HAMLET any less a great play because it is not historically accurate? Cannot a story convey a great spiritual message without being the least bit factual? END QUOTE.

These, then, are the comments of my mythographer friend.


Yes, we can make out an excellent case for classifying the Bethlehem story as a fairy-tale, one of the noblest of its kind, and letting it go at that. But we must not be too hasty. That a story appeals to the imagination is not enough by itself to prove that it is solely a product of the teller's imagination and has no basis in fact. We might start out by noticing that much of the fairy tale atmosphere is an effect of distance. To us, a camel is exotic. To Matthew and his readers, it was just a smelly but useful animal. (Not that Matthew mentions camels.) Riding in the moonlight is romantic to us. In hot climates, travelling when it is cool is simply practical. Gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh have a fairy-tale quality to us, and suggest considerable wealth on the part of the visitors. But we do not know how much gold was involved. Among the ancient Parsis (and the word "Magi" suggests Parsis), it was customary to put a gold coin into the hand of a newborn child for luck. I think (though I shall have to check this) that the frankincense and myrrh were also traditional good luck gifts for a Parsi baby. A gold coin is a nice present to get, but it does not make the recipient rich for life. The whole notion of three Kings from the mysterious Orient riding up in the moonlight carrying fabulous treasures ("Amahl and the Night Visitors") is something that we have read into Matthew. He does not say that there were three of them, or that they were Gentiles, or that they were kings, or that their gifts were fabulously expensive. Nor are wicked kings, like Herod, nearly so romantic in real life as they are in fiction. The recent histories of Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein and a few other rulers should make it clear that the idea of a tyrant who kills recklessly on suspicion (in a vicious spiral -- the more people he kills, the more people want to overthrow him and the greater the danger to his life, and hence the more people he must kill to protect himself) is neither romantic nor improbable nor particularly unusual. (Perhaps historians some centuries hence will discount reports of massacres under Idi Amin on the grounds that Queen Elizabeth, or the United Nations, would never have permitted such things.)

We must be careful about concluding that some report is unhistorical just because it fits the pattern of legend. Consider the following examples:

EXAMPLE 1: Elizabeth Barrett's father did not want his daughters to marry, and kept them under strict watch. But Robert Browning managed to meet Elizabeth, court her, and elope with her. The story of their courtship has all sorts of princess-imprisoned-in-a-castle overtones, but it really happened.

EXAMPLE 2: In the battle of Trafalgar, the British admiral, Lord Nelson, was one-armed and one-eyed. His ship was named the "Victory," and he died in the moment of victory. The details sound fictional, the work of a ballad-writer, but they are not.

EXAMPLE 3: A historian centuries hence, finding in old documents written by Englishmen a few fragmentary references to World War Two, might suppose it to be a myth about the struggle between good and evil. Not merely because the English cause was portrayed as completely just and the Nazi cause as completely unjust, but because of the names of the leaders. On the one side, "Hitler," from the same root as "heathen," and on the other, "Churchill," clearly denoting a citadel of faith, and "King George," obviously referring to Saint George, the mythical dragon slayer who is also a symbol of England. That King George is said to be of German ancestry is doubtless another symbol. The documents might refer to another leader of the Allied cause, one Roosevelt, whose name signifies a field of roses, clearly meaning the Elysian Fields, or Heaven. And yet the name, like King George, is obviously of Germanic origin. What this means is not perhaps quite clear, but it must express something profound about the poet's insights into the relation of good and evil. And so on, and so on. But in fact all these names are historical.

EXAMPLE 4: Consider a critic reading an admiring biography of Hitler, written in Germany in, say, 1940. He finds the statement that Hitler was an Austrian by birth rather than a German, and says:

> It is obvious where this idea came from. The author is trying > to represent Hitler as the most recent in a long line of > heroes who have led their nations to greatness. He is > therefore trying to fit him into the traditional pattern of > such heroes. An Austrian is a kind of borderline German. > Just so, Napoleon was a Corsican, and so a sort of Frenchman, > but not exactly. Stalin was a Georgian, and so not exactly a > Russian. Alexander was a Macedonian, and so not exactly a > Greek. Cyrus was not exactly a Persian, and we may doubt (as > Freud did) whether Moses was really an Israelite or just an > Egyptian pretending to Israelite ancestry on the basis of a > tall story about some bullrushes (hence the expression: Oh, > Bullrush!). Hitler's supposed Austrian origins are just a > device to make him fit the standard pattern!

The only trouble with this line of reasoning is that we happen to know that Hitler really did come from Austria.

EXAMPLE 5: Or again, consider a historian centuries hence poring over the records of two ancient countries, England and France. He finds it recorded of each country that, after centuries of monarchy, it became a republic and beheaded its king. The republic soon degenerated into a military dictatorship, headed by a general of outstanding ability, whose rule was far more autocratic than that of his royal predecessor, and upon his death or overthrow the monarchy was restored. The second king after the restoration also lost his throne, but with this difference, that he suffered exile rather than death, and that the throne passed to another branch of the family, to a presumably more moderate ruler. Would not our hypothetical future historian be tempted to conclude that he had here two versions of the same story, and that least one of them was unhistorical? And yet he would be completely wrong. History does sometimes repeat itself in that fashion.

EXAMPLE 6: Consider the matter of heavenly signs when a great man is born. Someone might dismiss the Star of Bethlehem story on the grounds that it is a standard embellishment on a hero's birth. After all, ancient writers tell us that there was a comet in the year of Mithridates' conception, and another in the year of his accession. Unfortunately for this approach, the Chinese astronomical records show that there really was a comet in the the year of Mithridates' conception and another in the year of his accession.

This is not to deny, of course, that biographers include material that fits their notions of the appropriate (including symbolically appropriate), the significant, the colorful, and the unusual, at the expense of material that does not. The biography of a senator will be sure to include his being elected president of the fourth grade, and perhaps not his building his own tree house the same year, while the biography of an architect would probably reverse those choices. Undoubtedly Matthew mentions the star partly because (like the biographers of Mithridates) he thinks it appropriate that the heavens should herald the birth of a great man. But this does not mean that he invented the heavenly signs, and in fact we have seen that he did not.

In summary, that the Bethlehem stories are beautiful, or that they can be paralleled elsewhere, does not prove them false. If we want to determine their historicity, we must take another approach. So far, we have examined the story of the wise men coming to look for a new-born king on the basis of a star, and have found it historically probable. The conjunction theory explains why they interpreted the star to mean that a king worthy of their homage had been born in Palestine, why they spoke of seeing the star "in the orient", why the star appeared, disappeared, then appeared again, why it could be said to go before them and to halt over the place where the child was, and why they might infer, simply from their observations of the planets, that Herod was up to no good. It also gives us a year for the birth, 7 BC, which can be checked against other evidence. We have also seen that Herod's reported reaction to the news of a possible royal claimant was in character. Some critics have argued that Matthew writes of the Flight into Egypt in order to draw a parallel with sojourns in Egypt (or the Gaza Strip) by Abraham, David, and the whole people of Israel. But surely the reason for all of these was simply that Egypt was a logical place for people to flee to when life in Palestine became difficult or dangerous. The records of the Egyptian show that they were accustomed to having people from the northwest seek, and be granted, asylum in Egypt. Everyone fled there. Jeroboam fled to Egypt when Solomon wished to kill him, having been warned by an oracle that Jeroboam would overthrow his kingdom. He is a perfect example of the sort of thing that Matthew's account is supposed to be based on. But of course, no one supposes that Matthew was trying to describe Jesus as a second Jeroboam, since Jeroboam was a villain, an enemy of the house of David, and worse, an idolater, one who has gone down in history as "Jeroboam, who made Israel to sin." We must therefore write off the resemblance to Jeroboam as coincidence. But no matter how we suppose that Matthew composed the story, most of the parallels will be coincidence. If Matthew begins by inventing the story of the Wicked King, because it is appropriate, then he is stuck with the Flight into Egypt (since after all Jesus did survive, and that he was out of Herod's reach is the simplest explanation of that). On the other hand, if he begins by inventing the Flight into Egypt, then he is stuck with King Herod, since a flight into Egypt would not save him from a Roman ruler, so it has to be Herod, which automatically brings in the ancient enmity between Israel and Edom -- and so on. There is no need to devise elaborate explanations of why Matthew invented the story, when we have good grounds for supposing the story to be factual.


One piece of evidence in particular has been cited by several critics to show that Matthew is inventing details to fit his story into the pattern of the lives of previous heroes. After the death of Herod, an angel tells Joseph, "Return, for they are dead who sought the child's life?" Why the plural? If Matthew is simply writing a parallel to the story of Moses, then we may suppose that he uses the plural because the Exodus account uses the plural at the corresponding place (Exodus 4:19). But before we conclude that this must be the correct explanation, let us ask whether Matthew, if he were writing accurate history, would have reason to use the plural here.

We might suppose that "they" meant Herod and his soldiers. But there is no reason to suppose that the soldiers have died, nor does it matter whether they have. Herod's death is what matters. If he is still alive, and all his soldiers are dead, he will just get new soldiers and give them the same orders as the old ones. But if Herod is dead, the soldiers are no longer dangerous. You remember that he had given orders for two hundred men to be killed after his death, but when he died, the soldiers released the prisoners instead. Some writers have suggested that Matthew means the priests who told Herod where to find the child. But if Matthew meant to imply that the priests believed that the Messiah had been born, and were deliberately setting out to get the Messiah killed, one would expect him to be a little more explicit about it. As I read that part of the story, Matthew simply says that some scholars were asked a question in their special area of expertise, and gave a straightforward answer. I see no hint that Matthew blames them for doing so. Besides, the priests, like the soldiers, present no independent danger. And finally, if we look for records of priests' dying at the same time as Herod, we find only this: that shortly before his death Herod had a golden image of a Roman eagle put up over the main gate of the Temple. Two priests pulled it down, calling it a heathen idol. Herod had them arrested and tried. They said, "We must obey God rather than the king." Herod had them burned alive. It is unthinkable that Matthew would have regarded them as anything but heroes.

Another interpretation occurs. King Herod's son and heir was Prince Antipater. Antipater had become the heir by plotting the deaths of his two older brothers. He was as ruthless as his father, and just as his father would have been aroused by rumors of a rival king, so Antipater would have been roused by rumors of a rival heir to the throne. He was a Roman-trained captain of cavalry, and may have personally led the raid on Bethlehem. In any event, he would be, equally with his father, one who "sought the child's life." Now, five days before Herod's death, Antipater was executed on a charge of planning to murder his father. It accordingly makes perfect sense for the angel to say, "They are dead who sought the child's life." The critics have emphasized the parallel between this speech and God's speech to Moses, but have overlooked one difference. The speech to to Moses says, "All they are dead who sought thy life," language which suggests more than two enemies. Matthew says simply, "They are dead," rather than, "All they are dead." If he is copying the Exodus account, it is curious that he makes the one verbal change necessary if the speech is to refer to only two deaths, Herod's and Antipater's.

I therefore conclude that the reason for the plural, "they are dead," is the deaths of Herod and Antipater. But Matthew does not mention Antipater, and I see no reason to suppose that he had ever heard of him. If he had, then he is a remarkable writer indeed. First, he had enough historical knowledge (and remember that he is writing a long time after the event) to know who Prince Antipater was and when he died, and that he would have sought the child's life. Second, he had enough imagination to realize that "they are dead" would therefore be an appropriate speech for the angel. Third, he had enough self-restraint not to point out what he was doing, not to mention Antipater, to put in this one subtle touch, which more than ninety-nine per cent of his readers would miss altogether (confess -- when you last read the story, did the plural bother you?), just for the sake of the handful who would see what he was doing and appreciate it. If Matthew was a historical novelist on that level, I take off my hat to him. If he was not, then the alternative is that the "they" is there simply because the angel said "they," and the speech was passed on down to Matthew without alteration. If this be so, it is worth noting. In the usual biographies of great men, the early years are the weak point. George Washington's later life is a matter of public record, and the biographer is not likely to go far astray in reporting whom he married or what offices he held and for how long. But no one was taking notes when George was a youngster, and for anecdotes of his boyhood, the biographer must rely on the memories of people being interrogated long afterwards about things which did not seem important or memorable at the time, and without a multitude of witnesses whose testimonies can be compared. Accordingly, we would expect the gospel narratives to be least reliable when discussing the early years, and if we had found the Bethlehem stories to be worthless historically, it would not follow that the later portions, those dealing with the public career of Jesus, were untrustworthy. But in fact the infancy narratives, checked for historical accuracy, come off impressively well, and this last is a good example. If Matthew gets the wording of a speech first made in 4 BC correct, without knowing the significance of the wording, then Matthew is either very careful or very lucky in his sources. One reason why I am convinced that Matthew did not know about Prince Antipater is that if he had, he could not have resisted using him as an example of prophecy fulfilled. You will have noticed that in the short space from chapter 1 verse 22 to chapter 3 verse 3, Matthew quotes six passages from the prophets (1:23; 2:6,15,18,23; 3:3) and applies them to the Messiah, and that when we look at the passages in their original context, it is far from clear that the prophet had the Messiah in mind. We see that Matthew is enthusiastic about such applications and parallels, and that they don't have to be very impressive in order to arouse his enthusiasm. But right at this point, with the angel saying, "They are dead who sought the child's life," he overlooks a prophecy of Isaiah that he would have considered a real find.

By way of background, I should explain that, although we have been talking about Prince Antipater, he was technically King Antipater. Herod, in accordance with a custom also followed by a number of Roman emperors, such as Augustus with Tiberius, had proclaimed Antipater as not only his successor but also co-ruler with him during his lifetime. Thus, for the only time in its history as far as I know (make that the only time since Isaiah's prophecy), Palestine was being ruled (at least in theory) by two kings acting jointly. Now in the seventh chapter of Isaiah, we have an interview between Isaiah and King Ahaz of Judah. The kingdom of Judah is threatened by an alliance of Samaria and Syria, and King Ahaz is worried. Isaiah reassures him, saying:

+ Behold, a maid conceives, and shall bear a son and shall name + him Imm-anu-el (God is with us). Before he is old enough to + refuse the evil and choose the good, the land you dread shall + be stripped of both its kings.

(We shall come back to this passage when we discuss the Virgin Birth in the sequel to this present essay.)

I take it that what Isaiah's immediate hearers, including King Ahaz, understood him to mean was:

+ Start with a girl who is not pregnant now. By the time she + can produce a child and rear him to the age at which he can + refuse the evil and choose the good, the land you dread shall + be stripped of both its kings.

This may seem an odd way to give a timetable of future events, but it is precisely the way that Isaiah uses in the following chapter. It may not be clear what age is meant. Let us take advantage of our hindsight and work backward from what actually happened. Three years after this prophecy, the king of Nineveh killed the kings of Syria and Samaria. Syria he added to his own realm, but he installed a puppet king in Samaria. Ten years later (thirteen years after the prophecy), he killed the king of Samaria and added Samaria to his own realm. If we look at the first of these two events, when the hypothetical child is about two years old, we will think of the child as being weaned. (Children were weaned later then than now.) It is when a child begins to be offered a variety of solid foods rather than just milk that he begins to show food preferences, to "refuse the evil and choose the good." If we look at the second event, when the child is about twelve, we will think either of a bar-mitzvah ceremony, with the child declared morally responsible, or of puberty, since "knowledge of good and evil" is sometimes a euphemism for sexual awareness. Whether we think of two years or of twelve years, Isaiah's prophecy fits the events.

But now consider the birth of Jesus. Matthew has already applied Isaiah's prophecy to that birth. But when the child is two years old, the two kings who were a threat to him die, and are replaced by a single puppet king, under much more stringent control from Rome, and when he is twelve years old, the puppet king, Archelaus, is deposed and Judea put directly under a Roman prefect. Thus, the double fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy as applied to the immediate event is matched by a double fulfilment as applied to the Messiah. Would Matthew have failed to notice this parallel if he had known about Antipater? I doubt it. Having noticed it, would he have failed to mention it? Again, I doubt it. Conclusion: Matthew did not know about Antipater, and when he quoted the angel as saying, "They are dead," he was either incredibly lucky or faithfully following an authentic report of the precise words that the angel addressed to Joseph.

Since the subject of Archelaus's deposition has come up, let us discuss another aspect of it. You will remember that when Joseph returns from Egypt, he learns that Herod's kingdom has been divided, with Archelaus getting Judea and Antipas (with the title of tetrarch, not king) getting Galilee. Joseph is afraid to live under Archelaus, and so heads for Nazareth. Archelaus begins his reign by killing 3000 rebels, and is eventually deposed by the Romans for cruelty and tyranny. They replace him with a Roman governor. Antipas, on the other hand, is a relatively mild ruler for a Herod, and continues to rule for another generation. (He is still tetrarch at the time of the Crucifixion.) Now in Luke's Gospel, we are told that Joseph and Mary went up from Nazareth to Jerusalem every year for the feast of the Passover, and that when Jesus was twelve years old they took him along, presumably for the first time. Now it is possible that they had simply thought him too young to make the journey earlier. But if a year ago, he had been too young to make the pilgrimage at all, it is remarkable that he is now suddenly considered old enough and responsible enough so that if he is missing, Joseph and Mary will go a day's journey without seeing him before starting to wonder where he is. It seems likely, instead, that he was never taken before because of Archelaus. If we are right in dating his birth on or less than six months before October 3, 7 BC, then the Passover when he was twelve years old would have been the first Passover after the deposition of Archelaus, and therefore the first Passover when Joseph would have judged it safe to take Jesus into Judea.

We have, then, three independent arguments for dating the birth in 7 BC: one, from Matthew's account of the star; another, from Luke's account of the census; and a third, from a combination of Matthew's reference to Archelaus and Luke's reference to visiting the Temple at the age of twelve. Since Luke and Matthew show no signs of collaboration in providing us with the evidence for this date, I feel happy both about the date and about the factual reliability of Matthew and Luke.


And that wraps up Part One of my comments on the Infancy Narratives. I repeat my introductory comment. Normally, in the biography of a man with a public career, one expects most reliability in reporting his public acts as an adult, and least in reporting his early years. Accordingly, by looking first at the Infancy Narratives, we are testing the chain at its weakest link. However, they seem to hold up pretty well in that respect, and that encourages me to trust the Gospels as a whole to be reliable reports of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. This, of course, is not the end of the inquiry into the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels, but it is a respectable start.


I remarked near the beginning of this paper that scholars are generally agreed that Herod died in 4 BC, although a few hold out for 1 BC. I was thinking in particular of one man, Ernest L Martin, Ph D, author of THE BIRTH OF CHRIST RECALCULATED (Pasadena: FBR Publications, 1978, 2nd edition 1980), revised as THE STAR THAT ASTONISHED THE WORLD (1991, ASK Publications, PO Box 25000, Portland, Oregon 97225; ISBN 0-945657-88-9)

Dr Martin's contention is that Herod died, not in 4 BC as is generally supposed, but in 1 BC. He identifies the star of Bethlehem with an astronomical occurrence shortly before his preferred date for Herod's death. His theory has several advantages:

(1) It lets us say that Jesus was thirty years old when He was baptized, which agrees with Luke 3:23. (On the other hand, Luke says "about thirty years," which is precisely what one would expect Luke to say if he did not know exactly how old Jesus was. It does not follow that if he has his information on the census correct he must have known the exact year of the birth. Some commentators suppose that "about thirty years old" means that it was not exactly thirty years to the day. But this is silly. Scriptural writers almost always give ages in a whole number of years, and it would be indeed curious if every Bible character thus mentioned died, or came to the throne, or had a son, exactly on his birthday.)

(2) It agrees with the dates for the birth given in various early Christian writers, such as Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, etc. See Finegan. (On the other hand, most of these writers are probably getting their dates by counting back thirty years from what they think to be the date of the baptism. It is unlikely that they had an independent tradition on the subject.)

(3) It enables the writer to give a much nicer argument than mine that Quirinius was, in the precisely correct technical sense, governor of Syria at the time of the census.

However, his theory has weaknesses.

(1) I do not think that his astronomical phenomenon is half as neat as mine (Kepler's, actually). (2) On the theory of a 1 BC death, the city of Bethsaida Julias would have to be built and named for Augustus's daughter Julia after she had been disgraced and banished. Not tactful. The author replies that Augustus's anger had had time to cool. (3) All the evidence of the coins is that Herod's sons Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip (among whom the Romans divided Herod's kingdom after his death), all dated their reigns from 4 BC. Our author responds that this is the year (in his chronology) when Herod had Antipater made his heir and co-ruler, and that after the execution of Antipater for treason and the death of Herod and the accession of the three sons, they agreed that their father, if only he had not been sadly deceived by Antipater, would have made them co-rulers in 4 BC instead, and that therefore it was only proper to date the beginning of their respective reigns from 4 BC. I find this implausible, especially since he is shy of evidence that co-rulers (such as Tiberius, nominal co-emperor with Augustus for the last few years of Augustus's life) were accustomed to date their reigns from any date except that on which they became sole rulers.


A few persons have written to say: Where's the bibliography? I regret to say that there isn't one, or at least not a full-scale one. I originally wrote this up as a lecture series for my Sunday-school class, and believe me, those kids do not head for the library after class to check out bibliographical references! Besides, footnotes are awkward to insert into a speech. So what is attached is very partial and tentative. An asterisk after an author's name means, "The author has written other books of interest on this or related subjects."

Matthew chapters 1-2. Luke chapters 1-3. Raymond E. Brown*, THE BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH (Doubleday, 1977) Ethelbert Stauffer*, JESUS AND HIS STORY (Knopf, 1960) 13-42. Werner Keller, THE BIBLE AS HISTORY (Bantam, 1974) 381-5. Paul Maier*, THE FIRST CHRISTMAS (Harper & Row, 1971) Jack Finegan*, HANDBOOK OF BIBLICAL CHRONOLOGY (Princeton UP, 1964) William F. Albright* and C.S. Mann, MATTHEW (Anchor Bible vol 26) (Doubleday 1971) Hugh J. Schonfield, trans., AN OLD HEBREW TEXT OF ST. MATTHEW'S GOSPEL (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1927) 20-23 Alfred Edersheim, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS THE MESSIAH H. W. van der Vaart Smit, BORN IN BETHLEHEM (Helicon, Baltimore, 1963) Eusebius, ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY Josephus, ANTIQUITIES Joesphus, THE JEWISH WAR Oswald Gerhardt, DER STERN DES MESSIAS Sir William Ramsay*, WAS CHRIST BORN AT BETHLEHEM? (Putnam, New York, 1898 & Baker, Grand Rapids, 1975?) George Ogg, "The Quirinius Question Today," THE EXPOSITORY TIMES 79 (1967-8) 231-6 T.D. Barnes, "On the date of Herod's death," JOURNAL OF THEOLOGICAL STUDIES 19 (1968) 204-8 F.F. Bruce*, THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS: ARE THEY RELIABLE? (Inter-Varsity Press, Downer's Grove, Illinois, 5th ed. 1960) BULLETIN OF THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY OF GREAT BRITAIN, Dec. 1977

Getting away from the specific question of the Infancy Narratives and onto the historical accuracy of the New Testament in general: I recommend Bruce (a short and extremely good survey), and Ramsay (all his books -- old and sometimes verbose, but still useful). Paul Maier's biographical novel PONTIUS PILATE is first rate (and well footnoted). The two books REDATING THE NEW TESTAMENT and CAN WE TRUST THE NEW TESTAMENT, both by John A T Robinson, contain some excellent material and are well worth reading. George Salmon's HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT should be on every educated and would-be educated Christian's bookshelf. I would recommend that more happily if it were in print. Try your library. Try your used-book shop. Finegan is the standard work on chronological questions.

On the specific subject of the Infancy Narratives, the best single source of information and background on the above list is THE BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH, by Raymond Brown. He is a Roman Catholic priest, and a top-notch scholar, and his book is loaded with footnotes. One reason I feel few qualms about presenting this essay with few footnotes is that the reader will usually be able to find the relevant footnote by consulting Brown. (I did it the hard way, having written the first draft of this before Brown was published.) I should remark that Brown is in general less confident than I am that the Infancy Narratives are historical (though this is a question of degree rather than of head-on opposition). The reader of my work who goes on to read Brown (a decision that I encourage) may be disposed to say, "Well, these arguments seemed fairly plausible when Kiefer stated them, but Brown doesn't seem quite as enthusiastic about them, and he ought to be the better judge of their worth, since he is obviously the greater scholar." My reply is that I hope to convince others by showing them the same evidence and arguments that convinced me, but that I would never think of asking anyone to be convinced by the fact that I am convinced, and I hope than no one will accept Brown's conclusions just because he accepts them. Consider the evidence and arguments as you find them presented in Kiefer, and in Brown, and in the other writers in the above Bibliography, and in still other writers recommended by your anti-Christian friends, weigh them for yourself, and draw your own conclusions, uninfluenced by the conclusions drawn by (as opposed to the evidence and arguments presented by) Kiefer, Brown, Madlyn Murray O'Hair, or anyone else.

Part Three of this opus (at the moment no Part Four is projected) will appear in due course.