PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Massacre: Remembering the Holy Innocents by peaceprobe
December 30, 2009, 9:36 am
Filed under: Politics of Empire | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In this final week of the year, Christians who follow the church calendar remember that children were massacred at Bethlehem. Life stopped. We are always shocked whenever life stops because of events like this, 9/11 or US drone bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The surviving victims and the onlookers stammer as they ask, how this could happen? How can people do this?

From what I know about Herod who ruled when Jesus was born the story of the murder of children is entirely plausible. As a politician and Roman vassal Herod was caught between the demands of an empire and his unpopular regime at home. His dynasty ruled because of Roman blessing not because of the grace of God. The local Jewish population distrusted his intentions and had grown restive over his taxation policies and cruelty. In foreign affairs he cleverly used a combination of diplomacy and good guess-work to convince Roman rulers, sometimes in the midst of their own power struggles, that he was reliable and could deliver strong political rule that would not cause the empire headaches. That is what empires want from their vassals.

Herod’s rule included territory roughly equivalent to ancient Israel. It brought him power but little favour with the people who disliked his decadent life style. Herod claimed to be a Jew but his mother was Arab. Herod’s tenuous claim to Jewish faith was further eroded by his compliance with Rome’s public religion, emperor worship in shrines created at his monumental construction sites. These facts fed unrest.

The gossip that a new King of the Jews had been born was a mortal threat to Herod’s rule. Thirty some years before Herod had been elected to that office by the Roman Senate after angling for the position in the midst of Caesar Augustus’ rise to total power. He may have known of this new threat through his police, palace guards or intelligence service before the arrival of the wise men. However, a diplomatic call by foreign dignitaries called Magi with access to mystery knowledge from the stars alerted him that there may be serious trouble ahead and still manageable ways to crush another impending rebellion. Always on the look out for a coup or usurper of royal office Herod, like his contemporaries today had an insatiable appetite for intelligence information and its first cousin, popular gossip sometimes called news. Information meant that suspects disappeared often for good.

To be safe the dignitaries slipped away by “another road” without checking in with King Herod after they visited the new King in swaddling clothes. This act of avoidance, perhaps rude in the context of routine diplomatic niceties awakened Herod’s deeper suspicions, and the action he settled on was the killing of all children born in the most recent two years in or near Bethlehem, the site of the usurper’s birth. A political killing of infants was Herod’s preferred option given the restive and rebellious nature of public opinion. There was precedent for the use of infanticide as an instrument of national security in the history of the Jewish life in Egypt and in other nations.

This sequence of stories in Matthew’s first two chapters includes five dreams and a message from the stars. In times like these when life and death nudge one another, access to all the insights available to people seeking to do the right thing is urgently required. The break through of wisdom from the unconscious were gifts that illuminated the journey of escape to Egypt and provide the prologue for Matthew’s story of the community of liberation.

Politicians caught in dilemmas that threaten their regime resort to brutality. The killings of all children under the age of 2 was a fear based warning to the population, no regime change, not now, not ever. Looking tough in the midst of unpopularity is essential . Despite the collateral damage, death to mostly innocent children meant that the gains from a limited massacre, only the area of Bethlehem, outweighed the risks. There was no time to consider the long term effects on political culture.

Behind this story recorded in Matthew but not mentioned was the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. Every nation and principality in the Empire understood the nonnegotiable demands made of vassals, demands for stability, reliability, ideological harmony and access to material or human resources when the need arose. The empire had financial and military limits and local rulers were left to their own devices including secret police to create at least the fiction of security and prosperity. The empire preferred to have its local strong man to carry out the heavy lifting of domination and cruelty to manufacture order. The interrogation, torture, and killing of enemies, often called terrorists is the work for lesser tetrarchs. The empire’s troops were only sent in as a last resort. The imperial heartland was reserved for pomp and endless repeating of the myths of its glory.

But there is another thread in this story of empire, client states, vassals, intrigue, and massacre. It involved the parents of the King baby, who listened the their dreams. It involved unexpected partners who offered protection and generous help along the way. The story of escape, return and new life is happening today too for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear and wise instincts to recognize the signs of the times.


6 Comments so far
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Gene, Thanks for your insightful and well put article on ‘holy innocents’. Your rendition helps to explain some very similar anxieties and tactics also pursued today. Infanticide just a bit more politically correct than genocide?

Comment by Jake Froese

Excellent piece. You make the connections with contemporary imperial politics in subtle but clear ways. Thanks for the time and energy you put into writing these columns regularly.


Comment by peaceprobe


I appreciate your bringing up the massacre of the innocents. The “low churches” or non-liturgical churches of my acquaintance never seem to bring up the important story of the Holy Innocents, yet it is vital to understanding the principalities and powers in opposition to the person and way of Jesus. You bring the story out well.

As you probably know, King Herod’s tomb has recently been discovered. It is maybe 5 kilometers east of Bethlehem, ironically. I thought about Herodium (as it is called) when I passed by the sign while on a bus in the Bethlehem vicinity the last time I was over in Palestine.

I also think of Herod’s temple whenever I’ve been in Jerusalem and invariably spend time at the Western Wall. Herod has been considered a masterful architect. But does his buildings, including the Temple, make up for his atrocities? Why is it that the blood-stained hands of Herod could direct the building of a colossal structure for the worship of God, and be accepted by the Jewish people and their priesthood? Jesus spent time at the Temple. While everyone knows that Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables, I sense that we do not fully understand the gravity of Jesus’ displeasure with the entire Temple system. And even less do we understand and ponder the too-oft religious complicity of today with “bloody hands.”

Comment by peaceprobe

Very instructive. But I don’t understand your reference to infanticide. Pardon my biblical ignorance, but I thought this was carried out at the time of Moses’ birth (he hidden in the bullrushes), not in Bethlehem when Jesus was born (in which case, how would he have survived?). In the event, he was only killed many years later as an adult. I may have mis-read something but would be happy to have your clarification. JS

Gene’s answer

If you have a Bible please read the 2nd chapter of Matthew the first book of the New Testament. You will find the story of Jesus being targeted by Herod and fleeing with his family into Egypt. The flight was set off by Herod’s edict that all the children under age two should be killed. This was the infanticide of the first century. The church going back to the 4th century in the west (Rome) and even further back in the East refers to the children who were killed as the first martyrs. Its remembered by the Roman Church as the Day of the Holy Innocents, or the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The Roman church puts the numbers as 20 or so killed in the Catholic Encyclopedia. But the eastern church gets quite ambitious and at least one number reaches 140,000.

Lots of places have stories of flight and survival like this. Bible scholars spend an abundance of time with the interpretation of this story because it only appears in Matthew, not in the other gospels although it is vaguely referred to in a few of the non canonical gospels. A non canonical gospel were those gospels judged most unreliable by the early church but in the present world there is a renewal of discussion about the gospels that didn’t make it into the Bible.

I had a some fun trying to sort through the history of Herod, his connections in Rome which were quite significant and his work as a prodigious builder. And then there was Augustus Caesar who is one of the longest running emperors. This was the time that the republic was becoming an empire and there was a lot of consolidation to do. He was a busy man and I must say Herod was very informed of the ways of Rome having made at least two trips there and having spent time making his case in the East early in life and later when the empire had an impulse to fragmentation. He knew his way around better than many of the other vassals.


Comment by peaceprobe

wow – amen, Gene!
this is so well said and I appreciate the background biblical facts. . . .oh how we need more understanding of just what a threat Jesus was/is!

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