Thanks to my blessed wife, we started up a tradition this past year that I grew up with, that being a subscription to National Geographic magazine. I remember stacks of yellow dating back to the ’70s in our house in Alaska, so the small pile here is a welcome addition.
The December issue has an article on “The Real King Herod” of Biblical lore and his influence and positive contributions to the architectural layout of Israel. The article, written by Tom Mueller, is centered around Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer’s discovery of Herod’s tomb. Embedded in the first paragraph is this quote:
Yet today he is best known as the sly and murderous monarch of Matthew’s Gospel, who slaughtered every male infant in Bethlehem in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the newborn Jesus, the prophesied King of the Jews. During the Middle Ages he became the image of the Antichrist: Illuminated manuscripts and Gothic gargoyles show him tearing his beard in mad fury and brandishing his sword at the luckless infants, with Satan whispering in his ear. Herod is almost certainly innocent of this crime, of which there is no report apart from Matthew’s account.
Scholars have long tried to line up the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, accounting for the differences and unique items reported. However, how do we approach this claim, that one of the unique items – Matthew’s report of Herod’s killing of the infants and presumably the subsequent flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt – is “almost certainly” false?
In matters of OT concordance, I’ve been using the maxim that the gospels were written after Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent time teaching the disciples and followers “in the whole of scripture the things that referred to himself.” (Luke 24:27) If the gospel accounts were vetted as accurate by the apostolic eyewitnesses within the first century church (cf. Luke 1:1-4), then the accounts we still have today must have their roots in this post-resurrection teaching. However, this presupposes that the events actually happened… or else Jesus was making stuff up!
Now, thanks to a comment from Esteban in a previous post, I’ve become familiar with the case of Bob Gundry, an expelled member of the Evangelical Theological Society. Gundry was expelled from ETS in 1983 for publishing an account of Matthew that claimed that “the four Evangelists, especially Matthew and Luke, have adapted the deeds and words of Jesus to fit the life and experiences of their readers” and that ” in the ‘infancy narratives’ (Matt. 1, 2) and elsewhere Matthew uses a Jewish literary genre called midrash. Like many preachers today, the writer of a midrash embroidered historical events with nonhistorical additions.” (Source) In particular, Gundry claims that Matthew changed the role played by the Jewish shepherds to that of Gentile astrologers in order to better bookend their arrival at Jesus’ birth with Jesus’ final commission that the apostles go to the nations/Gentiles at the ends of the earth.
I’ve not read Gundry myself, so I don’t know the extent of his claims that are based on the scholarly technique known as “redaction criticism.” But I recently speculated that the flight to Egypt might similarly be an allegorical or typological addition to the narrative, especially as Matthew concerns himself with messianic fulfillment of OT prophecy. Which of course then lays bare the question of what prophecy means and how it is fulfilled.
In matters of liberal scholarship, I tend to reference William Barclay. However, that bastion of liberal evangelicalism and skeptic of Jesus’ divinity makes this note:
There is not the slightest need to think that the story of the coming of the Magi to the cradle of Christ is only a lovely legend. It is exactly the kind of thing that could easily have happened in that ancient world. When Jesus Christ came the world was in an eagerness of expectation. Men were waiting for God and the desire for God was in their hearts. They had discovered that they could not build the golden age without God. It was to a waiting world that Jesus came; and, when he came, the ends of the earth were gathered at his cradle. It was the first sign and symbol of the world conquest of Christ. (Matthew, Vol. 1, p. 27)
Barclay goes on to state that Matthew’s use of the quote from Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 is
typical of Matthew’s use of the Old Testament. He is prepared to use as a prophecy about Jesus any text at all which can be made verbally to fit, even although originally it had nothing to do with the question in hand, and was never meant to have anything to do with it. […] When we read a passage like this we must remember that, though it seems strange and unconvincing to us, it would appeal to those Jews for whom Matthew was writing. (Matthew, Vol. 1, p. 36)
So on one hand, Barclay accepts the historical accuracy of the Magi’s visit, but also notes Matthew’s tendancy to appropriate prophecy as needed in order “to convince the Jews that Jesus was the promised Annointed One of God”. There is a balance of veracity and verisimilitude – the question is does the balance between the two really matter?