Myths of the Nativity: Herod’s Decree and The Flight to Egypt

stained glass nativityThere is no more central figure to Judaism than Moses. He is originator of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen who led the people out of slavery in Egypt, gave them God’s law, and brought them to the Promised Land. If Jesus is the key figure in Christianity, and Muhammad the key in the Islam, Moses is the key to the Jewish faith.

Today’s segment of the Nativity has one purpose: to tie Jesus, who in Matthew’s eyes was the perfector of the Jewish faith, to Moses, the originator. With the slaughter of all the boy children, and the flight to and from Jesus, Matthew is clearly trying with these stories to firmly establish Jesus in his readers’ minds as the new Moses.

As we discussed at the beginning of this series, Matthew was writing to a specifically Jewish audience. Throughout his Gospel, we find fulfillments of Jewish prophecy, and references to the Hebrew Bible, and a focus on Jesus as the culmination of the Jewish faith. Matthew’s nativity is no different. We have already seen him tie Jesus to that other crucial Jewish figure, King David, by way of a genealogy and a purported birth in Bethlehem. Now, he is evoking the very formation of the Jewish nation, as he establishes where Jesus came from.

There are two elements to this story: Herod’s decree that all the male children in Israel be put to death, and Jesus’ family’s flight into Egypt as a result. Considering the situation we have established over the course of the last few blog posts, it is clear this is not a historical story again, and is instead a story meant to identify Jesus with the Jewish people.

If in fact Herod had ordered something as despicable and horrifying as the murder of all male children, we surely would have heard of it in contemporary writings. Yet neither Josephus, the premier Jewish historian of the time, nor the Romans, who sanctioned Herod’s rule and this were quite interested in his actions, ever mention such a thing. It is hard to imagine that if it had happened that no one would have mentioned it in any way.

So why did Matthew create such a story? He is clearly evoking the similar order by Pharaoh in Exodus to kill all the male Hebrew children.  Again, Matthew’s readers would have been well aware that no such thing really happened. Such an event would be burned into the collective consciousness of the Jewish community. The point is to reference Jesus as taking up Moses’ mantle as the guide and savior of the Jewish nation.

The flight to Egypt does the same, by giving Jesus a link to the land that Israel came up out of, while also providing an explanation for Jesus’ escape from the decree. At God’s prompting, through an angelic messenger, Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt to save his son. With his return, again at the command of an angel of God, Matthew is able to fulfill another Hebrew prophecy, recounted in verse 2:15: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Just as God called Israel out of Egypt and into God’s protection, so Jesus was called. Jesus becomes a stand in for the entire nation.

The birth of a peasant boy in rural Galilee was an event of no special occasion. In a community that was largely illiterate, there would have been no time or energy wasted in remembering such details. The Nativity stories instead serve to orient Jesus as Matthew and Luke want him understood: as the Jewish messiah, as the bringer of a peaceful rule to God’s world. This was not history being written; it was myth pointing us towards Truth. As Tillich describes it,

Symbols of faith cannot be replaced by other symbols, such as artistic ones, and they cannot be removed by scientific criticism. They have a genuine standing in the human mind, just as science and art have. Their symbolic character is their truth and their power. Nothing less than symbols and myths can express our ultimate concern.

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4 thoughts on “Myths of the Nativity: Herod’s Decree and The Flight to Egypt

  1. I have pointed out exactly where you have failed Christianity in these posts. Both from a historical perspective and a theological perspective. You continue down that same path in this post. Do to the size of Bethlehem, one would expect only a handful of children to have been killed. Within the context of Herod’s ruthless reign, this is nothing. Why would we expect to hear about it everywhere? Furthermore, simply being unverified, does not falsify the story.

    I have realized by this point that you dislike discussion. It is a trait shared by most progressives. After all, in the millennial generation it is intolerant to challenge someone, even if they are misleading and wrong. However, if I could get an honest answer to one question it would be this:

    When do Luke and Matthew stop becoming myths and become truth based books by which to build a religion? There must be a point by which the atheist is proved wrong, because up to this point, you have only given them reason to believe the entire Bible was a fabrication.

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    1. I don’t dislike discussion or debate at all; I actually quite enjoy it, which I why I consistently encourage it here. In fact, the discussion is one of the reasons I blog. This does not mean, however, that I always have the time sit down and craft well-reasoned answers to comments; I have a job, an internship, two kids, school and various other commitments.

      I have, however, recognized the futility of continuously arguing with you about the same things over and over again on every blog post. I welcome and appreciate your comments, and I will respond when I can and when I feel like I am addressing something new. I intended my last blog post (about the Adoration) to answer some of the criticism you had raised previously.

      But to continuously contend with your prior that progressives are all heretics and that our interpretation of Christianity is inherently invalid really dissuades me from engaging all that often. If you are unwilling to acknowledge my (and my fellow progressives) good honest intentions in trying to live our faith as we feel led, then there isn’t a lot to be gained by constant debating. Here’s the thing: neither you nor I get to determine who has “failed” Christianity. Let quote my rules page: “Address ideas, not motivations. Just because someone disagrees with you, doesn’t mean they are evil or corrupt or bad. They just disagree. Respect your fellow commenters (and your lowly blogger) by giving the benefit of the doubt.”

      As to your question: I tried to answer this in my last post about myth. Here is what I said: “Reducing Scripture to nothing but the “infallible, inerrant Word of God” negates the power of it’s variability. To give full respect and deference to the Bible and it’s writers, we must grapple with the multiplicity of form and intent we find therein. To make the Bible unquestionable and infallible is to make the Bible God, is to practice that most deadly of sins according to Paul, idolatory, in the form on Biblolatory.

      Recognizing the stories of the Nativity as “myth” isn’t to reduce them in importance or power or meaning. Instead, it is to recognize and acknowledge their true forms, and thus to recognize and acknowledge the kernel of Truth trying to be described. Analyzing these myths and the symbols that make them up is to give them their proper due.”

      The Bible cannot be a proof of itself. You cannot make the claim that the Bible is infallible and unquestionable because the Bible says so. It’s a foundational truth to both debate and mathematics: Something cannot prove itself. What I am doing with posts like this is, in part, trying to answer those questions from atheists and others of how we can still get meaning from a book that is clearly not a factual, historical accounting of incidents. It’s not about the historicity; it’s about the meaning we find in it, about the direction it points us to God, and reveals humanity’s ongoing and unfolding understanding of the Divine. It is important and meaningful because we have decided it is. We humans have decided that these writings, more than others, convey timeless truths that other humans have uncovered better than other writings. This doesn’t open the floodgates, so to speak, of other writings gaining Biblical status because it takes general consent across time to qualify something as such.

      So, from that, to answer your query about Bethlehem: if we don’t hear about it elsewhere, or if the consensus of scholarship doesn’t find it historically verifiable or likely, then we don’t take it to be literally true. This doesn’t mean the story of the decree doesn’t have meaning; it does, as I have described in this post. But again, the Bible cannot prove itself. Just because the Bible recounts it doesn’t mean we incredulously and uncritically take it as scientific historical fact. You say “simply being unverified, does not falsify the story.” But the basic foundational logic of historical inquiry doesn’t work that way. To infer the existence of something, we must have good reason to believe it did in fact happen. The existence of one story in a religious text that clearly has other goals in mind than a factual retelling of history doesn’t adequately satisfy that requirement.

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      1. I can appreciate your busy lifestyle. As a father of 5 myself, life can be overwhelming. My comment was less about the frequency with which you respond and more about lack of information in your response. You tend to restate your blog and not address specific concerns.

        First off, you are going to need to find my quote where I call ‘all’ progressives heretics. If I remember the exchange, I called your statement about Jesus not being a deity heresy. I guess if you are claiming that all progressives deny Christ’s being part of the Trinity, then sure by that reasoning and 2 centuries of Christian doctrine, I did.

        Next, I have never challenged your intentions,and have given you the benefit of the doubt (unless of course you state Christ was not part of the Trinity). When you make statements that are BIblically inaccurate (Communion, virgin birth), I address that with Biblical counterpoints. However, when you make statements of opinion (Trump or refugees) your ideas are driven by your motivations; hence, when I challenge your ideas the motivation is going to be challenged as well. That is all part of discussion. I have never claimed you needed to stop living your life as you see fit. I have however, challenged you to address your authority in demanding others must see life through your perspective. Including challenges to your Christian perspective through the use of Biblical text.

        You said, “To infer the existence of something, we must have good reason to believe it does.” If the Bible is filled with errors and mankind must read into what it needs, how then do you infer the existence of a God?

        In addition, what standard do we use to determine the “power of it’s variability” or the “multiplicity of form and intent we find therein”? Or better asked, what Biblical text allows mankind the ability to judge the Bible as he sees fit? If there is a God and he has a moral standard, he must have shared with us how to determine that standard through its ‘variability’.

        I have conversed with atheists. They love it when Christians find errors in their own book. It comes down to this, either we have an all powerful God who did write a perfect text or we have clunky compilation of borrowed stories stitched together by ego driven gospel writers. If it’s the latter, there is no benefit to an atheist in accepting the Christian God. The atheists puts their faith in the BIble being nothing more than mythology shrouded in arrogance. How does acknowledging the atheists belief in the Bible help bring them to faith? There are many self help books, simply being the oldest and most recognized does not an authority make, especially when you subjectively change its meaning by claiming ‘historical context’.

        As for history and the Bible. The Bible continues to be proven correct as I pointed out regarding your inaccurate claim about Nazareth. Also, Herod ruthlessly killed anyone he saw as a threat to his throne, including family. It is plausible he would order the murder of a handful of children in a peasant town for the same reason. Regarding verifiability, I can assure that both of our lives have events that are both unverified and unlikely. Does that make them not true? The appearance is that the Bible is accurate when you want to influence behavior (helping refugees) but error filled elsewhere. How is that possible?

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  2. Pingback: Week in Review: 12/20/15 | Justin DaMetz

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