• Response to Triablogue’s Jason Engwer on Nativity Accounts (Part 1)

    Triablogue’s Jason Engwer has written a criticism of some of my recent posts (as well as my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination) on the Nativity accounts in Matthew (and Luke). Here, I will respond to him and his points.Cover sized

    To set the scene, Herod has been visited by the Magi who inadvertently get lost following a supernatural star (which God is in control of, so this seems by design) and end up in Jerusalem, not Bethlehem. Remember, these are some wise Zoroastrian astrologer/astronomers (probably) who have come together and followed a star that no one else in the known world appears to have seen, thinking it will lead them to something special. What a huge risk!

    They end up wandering around Jerusalem, where word of their search gets to the king. Herod finds out that they speak of a prophecy which neither himself, his scribes, or anyone else in Jerusalem appear to have the first clue about. Apparently, it speaks of the Messiah being born in nearby Bethlehem. Who knew?! Of course, had this been general knowledge, all of the world would have known Bethlehem was the place to be, they would have had the entire country there for the census (as in 41 generations, everyone could claim to be of the house of David) and so on.

    Littered with these issues, the somewhat trusting (out of character) Herod lets the Magi go and assumes they will report back to him. One would certainly have good right to think that this is bizarre and that Herod would more likely accompany them or send troops with them to find the Messiah at risk of death, and kill him there and then.

    As I have pointed out, Herod is not likely to have troubled himself with the newborn since at the time he was very ill, very old (in his 70s), suicidal and we know he did not care for the future of his kingdom, leaving it not explicitly to any particular son, with no vision of what it should become. In this light, is he likely to care a fig about a child whose challenge will not come to fruition for another 20-30 years, if at all? He will be long dead. Herod is known for doing horrible things, but only usually for immediate gratification and reward. This long term approach leading to the killing of a number of children under two is thus nonsensical, and it is not referenced at all in any other place, any other Gospel, any history of Herod (he is a well attested  ruler).

    Is it more probable, then, that the Matthean account of Herod did not happen? That the Magi were a literary and theological mechanism, a device for getting Herod involved to play the Pharaoh in a midrashic retelling of the crucial Old Testament story of Moses? That the firstborns dying is repeated in the Massacre of the Innocents at the hands of Herod, which leads Joseph and family to flee to Egypt only to “come out of Egypt” (“fulfilling” a prophecy in the meantime) like Moses to create a new kingdom of God? To believe this actually happened as reported by Matthew, to me, beggars belief.

    Over to Engwer:

    He asks why Herod would be so concerned about a child who probably wouldn’t grow up to become king until after Herod was dead (142). But the attention the child was already receiving from the magi was a present threat and offense to Herod, even if the child wouldn’t become king until significantly later.

    This, of course, assumes that the Magi were real, which, as I point out in my book (and it is worth reading Adair’s superb The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View). But Jason does have something of a point. However, Herod’s affront at the time would lead him, surely, to accompany the Magi by force. This would mean that there was no margin for error. On pain of death, those Magi would have led him to the baby. Moreover, the Star reappeared, so it would have been trivially easy to go there independently of the Magi. In fact, unless God only magically made the star visible to the Magi, the whole of Jerusalem could have gone to see the newborn Messiah; the entity they had surely been waiting to see for quite some time.

    But no, none of this.

    Pearce comments that Herod’s inquiry about the timing of the star in Matthew 2:7is “relevant if and only if they [the magi] were not to return to him [Herod]…As Strauss points out, his [Herod’s] anger shows he was not expecting this and gets away with being able to calculate such a morbid ruling because he had somehow asked them for the relevant information before he needed it!” (108) But Herod could have had any of multiple reasons for asking what he did in Matthew 2:7. Even if he considered it probable that he would successfully manipulate the magi, he could still desire to have another plan to fall back on if needed. And asking when the star appeared would be a highly natural response to the context of Matthew 2:7, since the timing of the star would be relevant to so many issues (curiosity about such an unusual phenomenon, why Herod hadn’t heard any previous reports of the star, the degree to which the child was a threat relative to his age, etc.). The idea that Herod would only be concerned about the timing of the star when he had been betrayed by the magi is ridiculous. Similarly ridiculous are Pearce’s assumption that the people of Jerusalem “knew of the birth of the Messiah” just because they were troubled at what some magi were claiming (105), his assumption that sending assassins with the magi (107) wouldn’t produce too much of a risk of raising the magi’s and the Bethlehemites’ suspicions, his assumption that Herod would be able to discern how many assassins were needed to overpower any resistance by the magi and an unpredictable number of people in Bethlehem, etc. Remember, the magi were claiming to have been supernaturally led to Israel. They professed to have guidance that Herod’s inner circle didn’t have. If Herod thought he was dependent on the magi for confirmation that the child was in Bethlehem and which child was the one, and he thought it likely that he could manipulate the magi, then proceeding as he did prior to Matthew 2:16 would be an efficient way of finding and executing the child.

    This concerns the idea that Herod, whilst talking to the Magi, was fortuitous enough to gain the exact information of where the star was at the time, etc etc, so that, when the Magi failed to return, he was amazingly able to triangulate the position and age of the child and go about killing babies unbeknownst to any contemporary historian or recorder of events. Herod’s anger at the Magi’s failed return shows that he was not anticipating this, and yet Engwer claims it could have been a failsafe anticipated plan. As I state in my book (pp. 109-110):

    There is another fundamental problem with the behaviour of Herod as is so well set out by Strauss (1860, p. 159). In Matthew 2: 7-8, we have the following announcement: “Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem…” So before sending the magi to Bethlehem he is finding out the position of the star for an as yet unknown reason. But verse 16 indicates a reason as Herod “sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” Yet how can this have happened with this chronology? As Strauss (1860, p.159) says:

    But this plan of murdering all the children of Bethlehem up to a certain age… was not conceived by Herod until after the magi had disappointed his expectation that they would return to Jerusalem : a deception which, if we may judge from his violent anger on account of it Herod had by no means anticipated. Prior to this … it had been his intention to obtain from the magi, on their return, so great a description of the child, his dwelling and circumstances, that it would be easy for him to remove his infantine rival without sacrificing any other life.

    So it wasn’t until after he had discovered that the magi had not returned to him that he had to change his actions and seek to put to death all infants under the age of two. He was pretty damned lucky, then, to have “ascertained this time before he had decided on the plan”. Asking the magi about the star was only relevant if and only if they were not to return to him, if they deceived him. As Strauss points out, his anger shows he was not expecting this and gets away with being able to calculate such a morbid ruling because he had somehow asked them for the relevant information before he needed it! Matthew’s chronology is woeful here and this makes the account even more contrived.

    I am not sure Engwer’s points are plausible enough to overcome this objection, though this is a particularly ancillary point to the whole case. It fits very well to the cumulative case that the account is utterly contrived, but needs not stand on its own. Engwer makes his points on a point by point basis and claims how things might be able to happen as reported, without taking all of them as a whole and seeing the compound probability. That is to say, if an end conclusion is derived from points A-E, and each point has a low probability, then the conclusion is derived by multiplying all of those probabilities together, A-E, giving a VERY low final probability (unless you drop individual points outright, which I am fine for Engwer to do!).

    As far as Herod acted irrationally, he also acted irrationally on other occasions that Pearce accepts as historically credible (129-130). In fact, on the pages just cited, Pearce suggests that those previous actions of Herod may have inspired Matthew’s account. If the previous actions could so plausibly inspire Matthew’s narrative, then why should we think Matthew’s account is inconsistent with how Herod would have behaved? And Herod wouldn’t be the only historical figure to have chosen the second, third, or worse option available to him rather than a better alternative. People often make bad decisions, for a variety of reasons, especially when they’re as mentally unstable as Herod, acting under such unexpected circumstances, with a sense of urgency, etc….

    I think Engwer is being disingenuous here. By this I mean I did not say what he says I did! I did not say Herod acted irrationally anywhere. I did say he committed some “tasteless atrocities” and that he was “a nasty piece of work” but that is not saying he did things irrationally. He might have had very strong reasons for doing so (in fact, that is what I have implied), that he was a driven man. But these actions do not seem to fit with that picture for the reasons already mentioned. So Engwer is well out here.

    Part 2 of this response will follow.

    Category: ApologeticsAtheismBiblical ExegesisFeaturedThe Nativity

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    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

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    • Void Walker

      Good stuff.

      • A few on free will lined up, fyi

        • Void Walker

          Nice! Looking forward to them.

    • Travelman

      Looking forward to part2.

      Initial comment. Engwer, along with every other apologetic, doesn’t seem to realise the innate unlikelihood of the nativity story. If you related it to someone who wasn’t steeped in christian culture it would be dismissed as nonsense. The only evidence for it is the biblical account and your book and commentaries show that, quite apart from the intrinsic improbability of the story, that there are grave logical flaws in the accounts, on top of the inconsistencies. Engwer does his best to counter these, but I think he should avoid using words such as ‘unreasonable’ and ‘ridiculous’ in his responses.

    • D Rizdek

      I guess another point that makes the act in the nativity play of Herod ordering the deaths of babies <=2 yrs incredible is that just because the star appeared at a certain time would not be evidence that THAT was when the baby was born. Not unless the whole scene is symbolic and the star symbolizing "light" and linking that scene to words that the character Jesus spoke later (his script) where he referred to himself as the light of the world (John 8:12 "I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won't have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light …") Perhaps this was THAT gospel (Matthew) writer's means of saying what gospel John had Jesus say himself. And Matthew has Jesus saying that "we" (followers of Christ) are the light of the world…again symbolizing that if one has Jesus in her, she will be a light for the world. Following this vein of thought, the symbolism is also that the Magi (wise men) did not walk in darkness, but Herod being the wicked guy that he was DID walk in darkness.

    • I’ve replied here.

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