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On fundamentalist reasoning


March 4 2012

This blog entry looks at an event in the Bible which is widely regarded as fictional, at how fundamentalists try to argue it is not fictional, and at how the fundamentalist's worldview is flawed.

The Massacre of the Innocents

The story I will look at is this one, in Matthew 2:16:
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceedingly angry, and sent out, and killed all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding countryside, from two years old and under, according to the exact time which he had learned from the wise men.
This event never happened.

Problems with this story

This story has the following problems:
  • No one in the first century besides Matthew mentions this massacre of babies.
  • In particular, Flavius Josephus, who described in great detail other atrocities done by Herod, does not mention this massacre.
  • This first mention of this story, a second-century story written by Protoevangelium of James, is clearly a fable. It claims both Mary and Elizabeth were in Bethlehem when this massacre happened, which contradicts both Matthew and Luke.
  • The first non-Christian source to mention the story--Macrobius--did so some 400 years later. Macrobius undoubtedly got his information from Christian sources.

Fundamentalists' attempt to resolve these problems

The fundamentalist argument made is that the massacre of the innocents was such a minor event that it was not important enough to be mentioned at the time.

For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on this incident points to sources pointing out it only would have been at most a couple dozen babies killed, and concludes that this made the event too minor to be mentioned by anyone. I have not checked their sources but considering this encyclopedia feels Macrobius is reliable about this event, I do not fully trust them.

Indeed, this arguments glosses over the fact that Matthew did not just say that the infants in Bethlehem were killed, but that all male infants in both Bethlehem and all the surrounding countryside were killed.

Refuting these fundamentalists

In reality, with good reason, most recent biographies of Herod do not believe this massacre happened at all (see Paul L. Maier, "Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem")

Indeed, Richard Carrier, when refuting similar arguments used by fundamentalists to argue the census as described in Luke 2 happened when Quirinius was governor, points out that not only would such a massacre not have escaped the notice of historians (and very well could have started a war), but also that this massacre story was a common motif used by writers of this era, such as the story of Chrishna of India, Sargon, Cyrus, and others.

Is is clear Matthew was just retelling what was a well-known story at the time; one has to engage in rather convoluted thinking to argue that this event really happened but somehow wasn't recorded by anyone else at the time. To argue that this massacre really happened, a position a fundamentalist is forced to take, requires far more doublethink than I am willing to do.

The fundamentalist's big lie

Matthew did not live in a world where journalists like Stephen Glass, who attempted to pass off fiction as fact, are fired and shunned. Just because parts of Matthew are fictional does not make Matthew a liar; he wrote in a very different era. The error a fundamentalist makes is to take the writings of a first century evangelist and treat them like the writings of a twenty-first century journalist.

The reason why the fundamentalist is forced to do this is because they advocate the very arrogant idea that their particular faith is based on objective fact, that only members of their particular religion have genuine experiences from God, and that people who experience God but have different beliefs are having "counterfeit experiences".

This is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. The fundamentalist is unable to supply any convincing evidence whatsoever that their particular doctrine, and only their doctrine, is true.

In conclusion

There are many ways to God. The majority of religions and the majority of religious people live in God's truth and God's love. To say otherwise requires one to be closed-minded, bigoted, and to ignore the vast body of evidence that says otherwise.

Bible verses come from a public domain translation I use for Bible quotes. To post a comment about an entry, send me an email and I may or may not post your comment (with or without editing)

See also: Deadwood update; etc. Everyone has a soapbox The Rapture Final 2010 post; NIV update