Monday, December 28, 2009

Holy Innocents Day and shallow suspicion of the Bible

The Feast of the Holy Innocents is a jolting reminder that the world's "high and mighty" do not welcome Christ and can't really sing, "Joy to the world, the Savior reigns." Margaret Guenther called Dec. 28 "a streak of red across the white of Christmas."

It also points up the suspicion with which many of us were trained to read the New Testament. Much of the "scholarship" of mainline denominational seminaries assumes that the Christian scriptures are mostly propaganda pieces, made up not just to advance a religion but to oppress some other group.

In the case of the Holy Innocents, there is scant historical corroboration for the massacre, so what we got in seminary was the following line of thought: "Matthew is writing for a Jewish audience. He wants Jews to become Christians. Therefore he made up this story to present Jesus as the new Moses, escaping from from a massacre of male children. It is simply Christian propaganda to downgrade Judaism's great prophet and law giver while exalting Jesus, the advocate of (insert cause of the day here), to a place he never intended to be."

Yeah, much of seminary was like listening to some weird late night radio show, where everybody calls in to share conspiracy theories about everything that happens. It is hard to refute arguments that have their own closed way of interpreting things.

But just yesterday, I caught a tweet from Tehran Bureau, with real time news from Iran. The link went to this report. Here's the key paragraph:

"Opposition and other unofficial sources claim that at least four protesters have been reported killed as thousands of opposition supporters chanting antigovernment slogans clashed with security forces in central Tehran, although Iranian police dismissed the report and said no deaths had occurred."

The "out" group, which is what Christians were for their first several centuries, tries to circulate news, while the powers that be deny their report. To put a South Dakota spin on it, what happened at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890? Was it a "battle," as the government and newspapers reported, or a "massacre" as most historians now say?

If we are going to assign a conspiracy, it is more likely that the lack of corroboration for the slaughter of the Holy Innocents reflects Roman desire to suppress inflammatory, inconvenient news from an overheated province. The Romans were invested in giving their "Judeans" a semblance of autonomy through the regent king, Herod, and this would be placed at risk by reporting an atrocity. Besides which Matthew, if he was just trying to ape Exodus, would have had the foreign oppressor, Pontius Pilate, play the part of Pharaoh and order the massacre in order to gain more Jewish sympathy for his Gospel.

The Holy Innocents were, like so many people throughout history, in the wrong place at the wrong time when evil asserted itself. Matthew assigns them no special virtue - we are free to infer that some might have grown up to be wonderful, holy people; others to be monstrously evil. It is a very human reality, so horribly repeated across the centuries as to not merit much news. In this sense, Matthew is hardly a propagandist - he is a voice for the voiceless, doing the work of God that Jesus' mother praised in song:

"He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly."


The Archer of the Forest said...

Haha, yeah I remember those days at seminary. The longer I have been out of seminary, the more I am convinced that there is just a very fine line between a serious biblical academic and a complete "bible code" crackpot.

They fabricate these elaborate fictions to explain texts and inconsistencies without one shred of credible proof, and then they expect us to believe them because their theories are self-justifying (at least to their own minds).

Case in point: the Q source theory, sometimes called the synoptic problem amongst other things. If you ever want to watch a bible scholar meeting completely melt down, question the existence of the Q source. They are more convinced that the Q source exists than anything they actually read from the actual gospel texts.

While I don't have a strong opinion either way on the Q source, the irony is that it can be completely logically explained away without a need for a Q source. For example, Mark was written first, Matthew was written, copying most of Mark and adding his own stuff, and Luke was written copying stuff from Matthew and Mark. Therefore, the Q source is really stuff unique to Matthew, and the need for the Q source evaporates. But that's not trendy enough to get you an article in the Biblical Quarterly or wherever.

I always took stuff like that in seminary and now with a grain a salt. If you actually start pulling out the strands of their exegetical tapestry, it is amazing how many of those theories completely unravel in a hurry.

Floridian said...

I posted the long list of Scriptures forbidding the shedding of innocent blood at Lent & Beyond (

TLF+ said...

Thanks, Archer - I think it was Kuhn's "Nature of Scientific Revolutions" in which he wrote of the ability of a lone anomaly to pull down a whole edifice of "normal science" - you know, like "Wait a minute, I think the Earth is the one going 'round the Sun, not the other way 'round." "Q" is a Biblical example par excellence!

Thanks, Floridian! That is, of course, an enduring message of the Holy Innocents.

Matt Perkins said...

"Yeah, much of seminary was like listening to some weird late night radio show, where everybody calls in to share conspiracy theories about everything that happens."

I loved this line Fr. Fountain. Even at Asbury, which is on the conservative side, I got some of this post-modern conspiracy theory stuff. Enjoying your blog!