Gospel Prophecy (and History) through Ancient Jewish Eyes: The Massacre of the Innocents

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by Neil Godfrey

10th century
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I used to be always a little troubled or at least mystified by the way the author of the Gospel of Matthew found “a prophecy” for Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” (all the infants two years old and under) in Bethlehem in hopes of killing off the one born to replace him as king of the Jews. The prophecy of this event was found in this verse in Jeremiah 31:15, but that passage is not a prediction of anything. Was Matthew twisting scriptures or what?

Matthew 2:16-18

16Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth and slew all the children who were in Bethlehem and in all the region thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

17Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,

18“In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation and weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted, because they are no more.”

To get some idea of why this particular prophecy is at the least a little mystifying, here is the verse in Jeremiah’s context:

11 For the Lord has redeemed Israel
from those too strong for them.

12 They will come home and sing songs of joy on the heights of Jerusalem.

They will be radiant because of the Lord’s good gifts—
the abundant crops of grain, new wine, and olive oil,
and the healthy flocks and herds.

Their life will be like a watered garden,
and all their sorrows will be gone.

13 The young women will dance for joy,
and the men—old and young—will join in the celebration.

I will turn their mourning into joy.

I will comfort them and exchange their sorrow for rejoicing.

14 The priests will enjoy abundance,
and my people will feast on my good gifts.

I, the Lord, have spoken!”

15 This is what the Lord says:

“A cry is heard in Ramah—
deep anguish and bitter weeping.
Rachel weeps for her children,
refusing to be comforted—
for her children are gone.”

16 But now this is what the Lord says:

“Do not weep any longer,
for I will reward you,” says the Lord.

“Your children will come back to you
from the distant land of the enemy.

17 There is hope for your future,” says the Lord.
“Your children will come again to their own land.

No-one reading Jeremiah and who knew nothing of the Gospel of Matthew could possibly see in this verse a “prediction” of Herod’s massacre. The Keil and Delitzsch Bible Commentary makes it clear that Ramah is far from Bethlehem. But location aside, the context itself is as far removed from the narrative in Matthew. Jeremiah is speaking of mourning turning to joy as God rescues his people from captivity and restores them to top class living conditions.

A solution

Recently I found a solution to my troubled meditations on Matthew’s use of this passage as “a prediction” of Herod’s villainy.

The answer, I believe, is on the Midrash, etc. blog, the personal blog of Carl Kinbar whose stated “passion” is “to read, study, teach, and blog midrash.” His explanation of this very passage in Matthew 2:16-18 struck a harmonious chord with what I have read elsewhere in scholarly works about the ancient understanding of the way events repeat themselves in cycles. What I mean — or what they mean, and what Carl Kinbar means — is this:

Rabbinic [interpretation] does not view events primarily in the context of linear history with its past, present, and future. I do not suggest that the rabbis had no sense that certain events took place before they lived and that others (such as the days of Messiah) were yet to occur. However, between the past and the future, the present was in many ways both a reiteration of the past and a foreshadowing of the future. (Carl Kinbar, A Postcript on Matthew 2:16-18, from Midrash and the Meaning of Events — Sept. 6, 2010)

Kinbar then refers to Jacob Neusner who explains

how individual midrash interpretations form a paradigm that becomes the framework for understanding events. For the rabbis who authored midrash, “what had taken place the first time as unique and unprecedented took place the second [and third and fourth . . .] time in precisely the same pattern and therefore formed of an episode a series” (Neusner 1997, 375). If we include Matthew 2:16-18, the series looks like this: Rachel weeps for the first time, unique and unprecedented, in Jeremiah 31:15-17. Matthew’s is the second episode and the midrashim follow.

By “midrashim” Kinbar is referring to the later rabbinic writings that are formally known as “midrash”, but other scholars of midrash treat the Gospel of Matthew as a pre-rabbinic example of exactly the same use of the Scripture. Early Christian and rabbinic writings were obviously distinct branches of literature but they both continued to deploy the same Jewish manner of interpreting the Scriptures that had been their common heritage.

Kinbar finds the same concept explained in relation to Matthew in Joel Kennedy’s book (Google book linked in the quote below):

Joel Kennedy’s view of the concept of “fulfillment” in Matthew closely parallels Neusner’s description of the rabbinic paradigm. From the perspective of New Testament studies, Kennedy writes that the concept of “fulfillment” in Matthew means “correspondence, repetition, and recapitulation” of an earlier scripture (Kennedy 2008, 145). In some cases, this reiteration is final and definitive; in others it is not, leaving room for others. This understanding of “fulfillment” supports the inclusion of Matthew 2:16-18 as the second episode in the series that begins with Jeremiah 31:15-17.

Stepping outside Carl Kinbar’s blog for a moment, I quote here an explanation of a very similar concept from Thomas L. Thompson. (It is not a concept reserved to a few isolated scholars. Mircea Eliade popularized the understanding of the related idea of “the eternal returnin 1957.)

One is understood by one’s origins in ancient thought, because everything exists already at the creation. Fate and destiny of humanity are central concepts that see the essence of all reality and events as the outcome of the divine work done at the creation. What we understand as the historical world of change and events is for the biblical authors a peripheral unfolding of what has always been. The transience of historical events needs interpretation so that the reality they mirror may be perceived. (p. 17, The Mythic Past)

What this means is that all the happenings we see around us, or what a “historian” might see happening, is “not what it’s really all about”. The reality that was at the heart of Herod’s order and the killing of the infants in Bethlehem was that passage in Jeremiah 31:15 — from the Scriptures that are a window the plan of God.

Kinbar explains it this way:

Those who relate to an event as one in a series that flows from a biblical source do not view those events solely as the outcome of recent causes. Nor do they rely solely on an eschatological future to imbue the present with meaning.

For them, the joys and sorrows of life gain a measure of meaning from their relationship to the biblically-rooted series of events.

Continuing with Thompson:

Chronology in this kind of history is not used as a measure of change. It links events and persons, makes associations, established continuity. It expresses an unbroken chain from the past to the present. This is not a linear as much as it is a coherent sense of time. It functions so as to identify and legitimize what is otherwise ephemeral and transient. Time marks a reiteration or reality through its many forms. Nor is ancient chronology based on a sense of circular time, in the sense of a return to an original reality. The first instance of an event is there only to mark the pattern of reiteration. It is irrelevant whether a given event is earlier or later than another. Both exist as mirrored expressions of a transcendent reality. Closely linked with this ancient perception of time is the philosophical idea we find captured in the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:9-11):

There is nothing new under the sun. If we can say of anything: that it is new, it has been seen already long since. This event of the past is not remembered. Nor will the future events, which will happen again be remembered by those who follow us.

When God created the world, he created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. All of history is already included in creation. This is also what lies behind the idea of ‘fate’, which, as a classic premiss of Greek tragedy, reflects the human struggle against destiny. The only appropriate response is acceptance and understanding. (p. 17)

Thompson later illustrates this principle at work through

  1. the waters being parted at creation to give forth (a) the earth beneath the firmament; (b) the new life on earth;
  2. the waters of the flood receding to bring forth a new world;
  3. the waters of the Red Sea parting to give birth to a new Israel;
  4. the waters of the Jordan receding to give the new and promised land to Israel;
  5. the waters parting as Elijah went on his way to leave this world to be taken up into heaven;
  6. the waters parting as Elisha embarked on his new mission with a double portion of Elijah’s spirit;
  7. Jesus emerging from the waters of baptism to see the heavens themselves parting to announce the beginning of his ministry.

It was that first parting of the waters to effect the work of new creation that marked the pattern that was seen to follow in all the others.

So back to Rachel weeping

So all of this makes sense of the so-called “prophecy” of the Massacre of the Innocents. The Jeremiah passage was not thought of by the Gospel author as a prophecy in our sense of the word, meaning a prediction of a future event. Herod’s slaughter was in a much more comprehensible sense, rather, “a fulfilment” of that passage in Jeremiah. The above, to my mind at least, explains the difference between “fulfilment” and “fulfilled prediction”.

So to conclude with Carl Kinbar’s explanation:

So Matthew 2:16-18 is a reiteration of Rachel weeping in Jeremiah 31. In this paradigm, Rachel (who died over a millennium before Jeremiah’s time) weeps in Ramah over the innocent children who are no more. Rachel has become the mother of all Jewish children, even those who are not descended from her. The utter anguish of her cries reaches the ears of God, who speaks words of hope. Fast forward another five or six centuries and Rachel’s cries are reiterated in Matthew 2 where, once again, her children are no more.

In Jeremiah 31, the context is the Babylonian exile and the promised return. Although the paradigm of exile and return is prominent in Matthew 2, the Slaughter of the Innocents and Rachel weeping is embedded in two other paradigms: Rachel weeping over her lost children and the Messianic paradigm. The children in the Bethlehem region are slaughtered in Herod’s futile attempt to slay the Messiah, who has been removed to Egypt. In the both cases, a brutal adversary slays the children, who have become collateral damage. The full weight of these tragedies overwhelms Rachel, the mother of Israel, who weeps inconsolably.

Later, the rabbis who authored the midrashim would cite Rachel weeping again and again. For them, the Rachel who weeps in Jeremiah 31 is also Israel weeping, is the Holy Spirit weeping, is all heaven and earth weeping over the lost children.

The texts concerning Rachel weeping do not depict the death of the children as the mere result of local historical circumstances, but as part of an overarching paradigm of loss and lamentation, to which God responds with a promise of return. . . . . [These events] arise from a biblical past that is also, and always, present, a past that is reiterated until God’s promise to Rachel is kept and Rachel’s children return home.

. . . . . the text of Matthew bears witness to the view of history that characterizes the midrashim.


(I am aware of that Herod’s massacre is not historical. That makes no difference to the way the author has used the passage in Jeremiah.)

(Given other conversations elsewhere some may wonder if this post is intended to be addressing “midrash” per se. It is not, at least not directly. Those posts are yet to come. But this post will serve as a reference to one of those future posts.)

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4 thoughts on “Gospel Prophecy (and History) through Ancient Jewish Eyes: The Massacre of the Innocents”

  1. The first gospel stories took place along the road from Mount Hermon, through Bethsaida, along the Sea of Galilee’s east shore, down to Pella. This was “The Way”, the pilgrimage route of the first Christians. In these first gospel stories, Jesus Christ came down from the Firmament to Earth and comforted and healed people whose handicaps — blindness, lameness, possession by demons — prevented them from climbing to the top of Mount Hermon.

    Then the locations of the stories extended across the Sea of Galilee into the territory of Galilee. Jesus became identified with Nazareth.

    Then I think a following group of stories was influenced by the prophetic book of Micah, which foretold that visions would end (3:5-7) and that the lame and other afflicted people would assemble in Jerusalem (4:6-7). In this context, Micah foretold that the new Jewish liberator-king would be born in Bethlehem (5:2-3).

    For this reason, there arose a need for a new gospel that would explain how Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem but eventually grew up in Nazareth. That is the fundamental point of the nativity stories in Matthew.

    The final additions to these nativity stories were the claims about the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. The essential fulfilled prophecy was Micah’s prophecy about the king being born in Bethlehem. The other such claims (e.g. Rachel weeping for her children because of Herod’s massacre of infants) are haphazard and silly. When the gospels were written and distributed, they were understood to be fictions. They were stories about a Jesus that had been seen in mystical visions experienced by the first Christians. The gospels were fictions told about later Christians, after the visions no longer were validated, about this Jesus descending from the Firmament to Earth to console the people who had not been able to experience the visions.

    The claims about prophecies being fulfilled were no more serious than the stories themselves were serious. These gospel stories were a fictional creation of imaginary events, as a devotional adoration of a mystical Jesus Christ who no longer could be seen by climbing to the top of Mount Hermon. The idea was: If Jesus did come down to Earth, then this is what his life what have been like. He would have healed afflicted persons and would have fulfilled ancient prophecies. He would have done many wonders.

  2. Another perspective I came across recently is that the Synoptic gospels were distinct from the Gospel of John because the Synoptics are based on the Elijah-Elisha narrative cycle as the template for Jesus’ life, while John’s Gospel was based instead on the Agent of the New Creation:

    > I think this is right on target and the explanation is easy: the
    > historical fellow Jesus wasn’t “a miracle worker.” All those stories
    > and yes, the healing ones, are midrashic creations plain and simple.
    > The key source for these stories? The Elijah/ Elisha cycle and the
    > midrashing of the prophetic utterances about such as “sight to the
    > blind, the lame walk,” etc. The reason for this important creation?
    > Because Jesus came to be understood as one like, but greater than
    > Moses and Elijah and the authentic Jesus speech was about “the
    > Kingdom of God.” Mix that characterization with those Scriptural
    > precedents and a good dose of theological imagination and voila…
    > two different sorts of “miracle traditions” were born: the Markan/
    > Synoptic form of a wandering exorcist who could also do Elijah/
    > Elisha like, but much greater feats (feeding far more; not making an
    > axe head float, but walking on water; not calling down lightning, but
    > stilling the storm) and the Johannine “Signs” type where Jesus is
    > decidedly not an exorcist, but does healings and other wonders as the
    > agent of the New Creation (the Word made flesh

    By Gordon Raynal


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