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Massacre of the Innocents

December 28: Matthew 2:15

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Matthew 2:15

Today’s note looks at the third section of the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:13-23. It has a clear structure comprising three episodes:

  • Angelic Appearance—Call to go into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
    —Joseph’s Response
    —Scripture (Hos 11:1)
  • Slaughter of the Children by Herod (vv. 16-18)
    —Scripture (Jer 31:15)
  • Angelic Appearance—Call to come out of Egypt (vv. 19-23)
    —Joseph’s Response—with added detail
    —Scripture (Isa 4:3 ?)

The section is framed by the two Angelic appearances to Joseph, each narrated in nearly identical wording, and parallel to the earlier appearance in 1:18-25 (cf. the prior note on 1:21). As in the first appearance scene, Joseph’s faithfulness is indicated by his obedience to the Angel’s message (v. 24). Here, however, this is enhanced by having the description of Joseph’s act match precisely the words of the Angel (2:14-15a, 21f). Each of the episodes in this section contain a Scripture quotation illustrating how the events were the fulfillment of prophecy. Both of the Angelic appearances really relate most directly to the first Scripture cited (Hos 11:1; v. 15)—that is, both episodes, taken together, fulfill the prophecy. The historical and narrative context is established in the central scene, involving the danger posed by Herod (v. 13b) which continues into the last scene in the person of Herod’s son (v. 22).

The narrative itself is clearly patterned after, and corresponds to, the story of Israel’s entry into Egypt (Joseph Narratives) and Exodus out of it (Moses Narratives). The events narrated fulfill Scripture, not only through the specific passages cited, but in their typology and correspondence with the Old Testament narratives. Note the essential structure:

  • Israel goes down into Egypt—Joseph Narratives, with the motif of communication/revelation through dreams
  • Slaughter of the children by the wicked King—Moses’ childhood (Infancy Narrative: Exod 1:15-2:10)
  • Israel comes up out of Egypt—the Exodus under Moses’ leadership

The central Scripture narrative is prominent—the birth of Moses parallel with the birth of Jesus. The correspondence is even more definite and closer if we take into consideration details from later Jewish tradition (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 2.205-223). Beyond this, it is also possible to glimpse in the Matthean episodes three additional scenes from Israel’s history, indicated by the specific Scriptures cited in each:

  • The Exodus—Hos 11:1
  • The Exile—Jer 31:15
  • The Messianic Age and redemption for the faithful Remnant—Isa 4:3 (?), etc

In considering the main scripture cited in the first episode (Hosea 11:1; v. 15), it is interesting to note that the quotation matches the underlying Hebrew, instead of the LXX; as cited by Matthew it is:

“Out of Egypt I called my Son”
e)c Ai)gu/ptou e)ka/lesa to\n ui(o/n mou

This quotation serves as a guiding theme for all three episodes, including the interpretation of them as scenes/periods of Israel’s history (cf. above):

In the Gospel of Matthew, as in the other Gospels, Jesus essentially never refers to himself by the title “Son of God”; rather, he uses the distinct Semitic expression “Son of Man” (on this title, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). However, Jesus is called the Son of God by others, or at least the title is used by others regarding him (Matt 3:17 [17:5]; 4:3, 6; 8:29; 14:33; 16:16; 26:63; 27:40, 43, 54 and pars). It occurs somewhat more frequently in Matthew. On several occasions, Jesus refers to himself with the absolute “the Son” (11:27; 24:36 par; 28:19), a self-reference which is far more common in the Gospel of John, and virtually always related to (God) the Father. In early Christian tradition, the title “Son of God” came to be regularly applied to Jesus, and was connected with the title “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ). Note, for example, the first verse of the Markan Gospel (Mk 1:1), as well the conjunction of these titles in Acts 9:20-22; Rom 1:3-4; 1 Cor 1:9; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 2:20; Jn 11:27; 20:31, etc. This association was influenced, to a large extent, by a uniquely Christian application of the Messianic interpretation for Psalm 2:7—cf. Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5, and the variant reading in Luke 3:22. Initially, in the earliest Christian preaching, Jesus was identified as God’s Son in connection with his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. Eventually, however, believers came to recognize this Sonship for Jesus in a more fundamental sense, going back to the Transfiguration scene, the Baptism, the Infancy Narratives, and even to the idea of his pre-existent (eternal) relation with the Father (John 1:1ff; Heb 1:2ff). It may be possible to glimpse something of this development in early Christian thought by examining the different versions of Peter’s confession. Mark’s is the simplest (8:29):

“You are the Anointed (One)”

In Luke (9:20) it is a bit longer:

“(You are) the Anointed (One) of God

Matthew’s version (16:16), however, is the most extensive:

“You are the Anointed (One), the Son of the living God

Interestingly, in the scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the question of the High Priest, as recorded in Matthew (26:63), is nearly identical to Peter’s confession:

“according to the living God…(tell us) if you are the Anointed (One), the Son of God

There can be little doubt that the Gospel writer (trad. Matthew) would have understood Jesus as the Son of God even within the context of the Infancy Narrative, just as we see in Luke (cf. the note on Lk 1:32). However, this identification is not made explicit until later in the Gospel (at the Baptism), just as in the main Synoptic tradition. For more on the title “Son of God”, cf. Part 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

December 28 is the traditional date in the West commemorating the killing of the children in Bethlehem (The Slaughter/Massacre of the Innocents) as narrated in Matt 2:16-18. In Christian tradition they came to be regarded as the first Martyrs, those put to death for their faith in Christ. Their numbers increased considerably over the years, from 14,000 (in Greek Orthodox tradition) to 64,000, and even higher. However, if we accept the basic historicity of the narrative, then, at the historical level, the number of male children at the ages indicated may not have been more than two or three dozen. For the Old Testament background of this passage and the Scripture (Jer 31:15) cited in verse 18, cf. my earlier Christmas season note.

Note of the Day – January 6

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This is the last of three notes in celebration of Epiphany: the first explored the structure of the Matthean Infancy Narrative (Matt 2) and the central Scripture (Micah 5:2) quoted in vv. 1-12, the second examined the main narrative of vv. 1-12 (the Visit of the Magi), and today’s will explore the principal narrative in vv. 13-23 (the Flight to Egypt). Of these two narrative strands, the latter is the dominant one, for it extends back into the beginning of chapter 2. I discussed the central Scripture of vv. 13-23 (Jeremiah 31:15) in an earlier note; today the focus will be on the Old Testament background for the passage.

There are two main parallels at work, each of which will be examined in relation to Matthew 2:13-23:

  1. The Birth and early Life of Moses
  2. The theme of the Exodus

1. The Birth and early Life of Moses

Three elements from the narratives in Exodus 1-4 (and related Jewish tradition) can be isolated, each of which relates to the three sections in Matt 2:13-23 and help to define the structure of the passage:

  • A wicked king who seeks to destroy a divine/chosen child who is prophecied to become ruler/savior, and the rescue/escape of the child (vv. 13-15, also vv. 1-9)
  • Newborn children killed by the wicked king (vv. 16-18)
  • Death of the wicked king, which allows the chosen child to return (vv. 19-21[23])

As should be clear from the points above, this narrative structure not only draws from the Exodus stories but reflects an archetypal narrative found in traditional tales (myth/folklore) around the world. This has caused many commentators naturally to question the historicity of the narrative in Matthew. In passing, it may be helpful here to summarize the basic positions which have been taken (in relation to the Exodus/Matthew parallels):

1) They reflect a special historical synchronicity between (entirely factual) events
2) Historical events (in general) have been shaped (by the author or earlier tradition) under the influence of the Exodus stories (in literary detail)
3) The Gospel writer records/adapts an original tradition (of uncertain/questionable historicity) which draws from the Exodus stories
4) The Gospel writer has essentially created an episode of historical fiction, in imitation of the Exodus stories (and related traditions)

Many traditional-conservative scholars would opt for #1, while at least some critical scholars suspect #4; the majority of moderate commentators (on all sides) probably would adopt some form of #2 or 3. On purely objective grounds, #2 would seem the most plausible, but I will leave it to thoughtful and informed readers (believers) in humility to judge the matter for themselves.

a. The Wicked King and Chosen Child (Matt 2:13-15, and vv. 1-9)

Exodus 1:8-22 records that the new Pharaoh feared the increasing Israelite population and eventually sought to cut down their numbers by killing the newborn males (attempts are made by two different means, vv. 15-19 and 20-22). On the face of it, this does not seem to be an especially close parallel to Matthew’s narrative; however, at the time of the New Testament, several details had been added to the Exodus story within Jewish tradition (attested earliest by Josephus):

  • Pharaoh is warned by his “(sacred) scribes” that a child was about to be born who would deliver Israel and bring low the kingdom of Egypt (see Josephus Antiquities II.205)—in subsequent Rabbinic tradition, astrologers advise Pharaoh to drown the Hebrew children (Midrash Rabbah on Exodus I.18, cf. also b.Sanh. 101a); also in some versions of the story, the warning/prophecy is foreseen by Pharaoh’s ‘magicians’ (see b.Sotah 12b), or in a dream which they interpret.
  • The prophecy of this child caused fear and dread for Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Jos. Ant. II.206, 215), a possible parallel to Matt. 2:3. See a second attempt to kill the child Moses, instigated by Pharaoh’s scribes in Ant. II.234ff (cf. also II.255).
  • There is also a legend of a light which appeared at Moses’ birth (Midrash Rabbah on Exodus I.20), and that the stars above gave homage to the ‘light’ of Moses’ birth (cf. Sefer ha-Yashar [67]).

These details bring the Exodus story closer to Matthew’s narrative, and may have been familiar to the Gospel writer and/or its original audience.

The escape/rescue of the child (vv. 13-15)

This is narrated in Exodus 2:1-4ff, but note the version as recorded in Josephus (Ant. II.212-216, 219ff), whereby Moses’ father (Amram) is warned and encouraged by God in a dream, after which he takes steps to protect the child (in Ex 2:2-3, Moses’ mother initiates the hiding); all of this, again, brings the story closer to Matthew. In passing, one may also note the unusual/miraculous nature of Moses’ birth in early Jewish tradition, that it was painless (Jos. Ant. II.218, cf. also b.Sotah 12a, Midrash Rabbah on Ex. I.20)—which serves as a correlation to the ‘curse’ of Eve (a similar Mary-Eve parallel related to Jesus’ birth became commonplace in Christian tradition).

There is a second “escape” of Moses (as an adult) recorded in Exodus 2:15. Note in particular the phrase “he [Pharaoh] sought [e)zh/tei] to take away [i.e. kill] Moses” (LXX), compared with the angel’s message to Joseph: “Herod is seeking [zhtei=n] the child to destroy it” (v. 13). Again Josephus’ narrative is a bit closer overall to that of Matthew, cf. Ant. II.255-256.

b. Newborn children killed by the wicked king (vv. 16-18)

There is here only a general parallel between v. 16 and Exodus 2:22; the lack of corresponding detail could be seen as confirmation of the historicity of vv. 16-18. There is conceivably a faint correspondence between Pharaoh being ‘tricked’ as it were by the midwives (Ex 2:17ff) and Herod provoked to anger at being ‘tricked’ [lit. played with] by the Magi (v. 16). The narrative here is so brief (a single verse) that it is difficult to make a meaningful comparison.

c. Death of the wicked king (vv. 19-21[23])

This provides perhaps the closest parallel between the Exodus and Matthean narratives (precise or close verbal and syntactical parallels are indicated with italics):

Exodus 4:19-20 (LXX)

19But with [i.e. after] these many days the king of Egypt was finished [e)teleu/thsen], and (the) Lord said to Moses in Midan: “Walk! Go from (here) into Egypt! For all the (ones) seeking your soul have died“.

Matthew 2:19-21

19But (at) Herod’s being finished [teleuth/santo$ i.e. having died], see—a Messenger of the Lord shone forth [i.e. appeared] by a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20saying: “Rising, take along the child and his mother and travel into (the) land of Israel, for the (ones) seeking the soul of the child have died.”

20And taking up the woman and the child, Moses put them up upon a (beast) under-yoke [i.e. beast-of-burden] and turned about [i.e. returned] into Egypt…

21And rising, the (man) [i.e. Joseph] took along the child and his mother and came into (the) land of Israel.

Especially noteworthy is the virtually identical Greek phrase in Ex 4:19/Matt 2:20: ga\r oi( zhtou=nte$ th\n yuxh/n (“for the ones seeking the soul”)… teqnh/kasin (“have died”).

2. The theme of the Exodus

This is applied very simply to the narrative of Matt 2:13-23, interwoven through the Moses/Pharaoh paradigm, as can be illustrated by the following chiastic outline:

  • The wicked king seeks to destroy the chosen child (divine announcement [in a dream]), and the rescue/escape of the child—v. 13
    • Entrance into Egypt—v. 14-15
      • Newborn children killed by the wicked king—v. 16-18
    • Return (Exodus) from Egypt—v. 21ff
  • Death of the wicked king (divine announcement [in a dream]), allowing the return of the child—v. 19-20

To emphasize the symmetry here, I have taken the liberty of reversing vv. 19-20 and 21ff above.

It should be noted, of course, that the Exodus theme appears specifically in the Scripture citation in verse 15; indeed, the original context of Hosea 11:1 is simply a reference to the Exodus, with Israel as God’s “son” (in a symbolic/covenantal sense). A common idiom for the Israelites (people of Israel) is “sons of Israel”—almost certainly we should understand a correspondence here between the child Jesus and the sons [children] of Israel (as much as between Jesus and Moses) in the Gospel narrative.

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, January 6 was the date originally established for the birth of Jesus, just as December 25 was in the West (at about the same time, late-3rd century). In the East, Jesus’ birth was referred to as “Epiphany [e)pifa/neia]” (later “Theophany”)—the manifestation/appearing [shining, fai/nw] of God [qeo/$] upon [e)pi] us. Through a ‘cultural-exchange’ of sorts, Jan. 6 was adopted in the West (associated primarily with the Visitation of the Magi), while Dec. 25 became the date commemorating Jesus’ birth (with Jan. 6 now devoted especially to the Baptism of Jesus). Baptism had already been an important theme of Christmas/Epiphany, for it was on such holy Feast days that catechumens often were brought forward to be baptized. For more on the connection between the birth and baptism of Jesus in Eastern tradition, see a prior article posted last January for Epiphany.

Note of the Day – December 28

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The ‘fourth’ Day of Christmas (December 28) is associated in the Church Calendar with the “Massacre of the Innocents” in Bethlehem, as narrated in Matthew 2:16-18. I will be discussing this passage in more detail in a subsequent note for Epiphany; here I will look specifically at the Old Testament passage quoted in v. 18: Jeremiah 31:15 [LXX 38:15].

This is one of many “formula-citations” in the Gospel of Matthew, and the third of five used in the Infancy narrative: the first, Isaiah 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23) I have already discussed in a series of Advent notes; the second, Micah 5:2 (Matt 2:5-6) will be treated prior to Epiphany. The setting for the Scripture passage is the “massacre” of the newborn children, narrated briefly in v. 16:

“Then Herod, seeing that he was (being) played with by the Magoi, was provoked (to anger) exceedingly, and setting forth (men) from (him), he took away [i.e. killed] all the children th(at were) in Beth-lehem and in all her borders, from two-years (old) and down [i.e. under], according to the time he (sought to) know precisely from [lit. alongside] the Magoi.”

Then the citation is introducted (v. 17): “then was fulfilled the utterance through Yirmeyah {Jeremiah} the foreteller, saying…” Jeremiah 31:15 exists in four principal forms: the Hebrew MT, the LXX A (Alexandrinus) text, the LXX B (Vaticanus) text, and the version in Matthew. The version in LXX A and Matthew is fairly close to the MT, although there is some indication, at least in this instance, that Matthew may reflect a more accurate Hebrew original. Here are the three versions side-by-side:

Hebrew (MT)

Thus says YHWH:
“A voice in Ramah was heard, mourning and weeping of bitterness [i.e. bitter weeping];
Rachel, weeping over her sons refused to be comforted [over her sons],
for he is no (more)”

LXX A [38:15]

Thus says the Lord:
“A voice in the height [B Ramah] was heard, of wailing and weeping and mourning,
Rachel, weeping (aloud) over her sons, and did not wish to be comforted,
because they were not.”
Ou%tw$ ei@pen ku/rio$
fwnh\ e)n th u(yhlh [B Rama] h)kousqh qrh/nou kai\ klauqmou= kai\ o)durmou=:
Raxhl a)poklaiome/nh$ e)pi\ tw=n ui(w=n au)th=$ kai\ ou)k h&qelen paraklhqh=nai
o%ti ou)k ei)si/n

Matthew 2:18

“A voice in Ramah was heard, weeping and much mourning;
Rachel, weeping (for) her children [te/kna], and did not wish to be comforted,
because they were not.”
qwnh\ e)n  (Rama\ h)kou/sqh klauqmo\$ kai\ o)durmo\$ polu/$:
 (Raxh\l klai/ousa ta\ te/kna au)th=$ kai\ ou)k h&qelen paraklhqh=nai
o%ti ou)k ei)si/n

It is possible that the repeated phrase “over her sons” in the MT is a scribal error or addition, as well as the curious singular suffix in the last line “he is no (more)”; if so, then Matthew (and LXX A) may reflect a more accurate underlying Hebrew text than the MT. Unfortunately, verse 15 is not preserved among the six (highly fragmentary) Jeremiah scrolls from Qumran.

In applying Jer 31:15 to events surrounding the birth of Jesus, the Gospel writer (as in the case of Isa 7:14, etc) has taken the passage out of its original context. While Matthew treats it as a prophecy of future events, the original passage is an evocation of the prophet’s own time. It is part of a larger section (30:1-33:26) promising future restoration for the people of Israel, with messages specifically directed at the exiled Northern tribes (“Ephraim”) in 30:1-31:40. Even in these two chapters one also finds the message being applied to the Southern kingdom (Judah), by Jeremiah himself or a later (exilic) editor. In any event, the theme of a reunited Israel is prominent, culminating in the famous passage of Jer 31:31-34, where God promises to make a new covenant with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah”. The Community of the Qumran texts and the early Christians both saw themselves related to this “new covenant” with God.

Rachel, as the mother of Benjamin and Joseph (Ephraim/Manasseh), represents the Northern tribes (closest to Judah); her weeping and mourning is a dramatic and evocative depiction of the (Assyrian) Exile, but it may be an echo (or foreshadowing) of the (Babylonian) exile of Judah (cf. the association of “Ramah” in Jer 40:1). The town Ramah (lit. “height”, so translated by LXX A) was in the territory of Benjamin, on the border of Ephraim and not far from Bethel; it may be the same as Ramah/Ramathaim the hometown of Samuel’s father, and is usually identified with modern er-Râm. According to Gen 35:16, Rachel died somewhere between Bethel and Ephrath and Jacob set up a pillar at that location, which is confirmed by the reference to “Rachel’s tomb” in 1 Sam 10:2-3. Gen 35:20 has a parenthetical statement (presumably an editor’s gloss) that “Ephrath” is (near) Bethlehem, representing either an scribal mistake or a competing tradition. The Gospel writer clearly identifies this Ramah with Bethlehem.

Rachel’s weeping is actually just the opening setting of this oracle of hope, for vv. 16-17 exhort the mother to cease weeping—her sons will return to their own land. There is no indication that the Gospel writer means to infer the wider context of the prophecy; he rather narrowly applies it to the “massacre” of the newborn males in Bethlehem. However, it should be noted that he does narrate a return—that of the infant Jesus and his parents out of Egypt back into their own land (see Matt 2:14-15, 19-21). Consider also the quotation of Isaiah 9:1-2 [8:23-9:1] in Matt 4:14-16: the original prophecy offers the promise of deliverance to the people of the Northern kingdom, now being fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Isaiah 9:6-7 [5-6] are the concluding words of the section 6:1-9:7, and, traditionally, one of the most famous ‘Messianic prophecies’ applied to the birth of Jesus (cf. my earlier Advent season note).

At the historical level, given the likely population of a relatively small town like Bethlehem, the number of male infants slaughtered would probably have been fewer than one hundred (perhaps even less than fifty). However, as the tradition developed, and legendary or fabulous details were added, the number expanded considerably—most commonly 14,000, as in Greek Orthodox tradition, but occasionally even higher. These “Holy Innocents” came to be regarded as the first Christian martyrs.