Friday, January 16, 2009

Will The Real King Herod Please Stand Up?

In the December, 2008 issue of National Geographic (NG), Tom Mueller interviewed Ehud Netzer, an Israeli archaeologist and professor emeritus at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His speciality is Herodian architecture. Ehud Netzer is also the man who may have finally found the tomb of Herod the Great.

Mueller's article has made the claim that Herod was never a part of any murder of Jewish infants around the dawn of the first century, A.D., challenging the gospel of Matthew.
An astute and generous ruler, a brilliant general, and one of the most imaginative and energetic builders of the ancient world, Herod guided his kingdom to new prosperity and power. 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 an 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.

Netzer and other archaeologists are indeed correct that there is no definitive external evidence for Herod's involvement in such an event. But does that make him innocent of the crime? Further, does that mean that Matthew's account is suspect? The NG article goes on to engage in a cursory attempt at critical analysis of the gospels, pitting Matthew against Luke, as if both gospels were giving two separate but equal accounts of the same event. The article also assumes the honesty and veracity of the first century historian, Josephus, above and against the gospel narratives. The purpose of this article is to briefly poke holes in the suspect process that resulted in NG's December article, and expose who the real King Herod was.

Textual Criticism
Textual Criticism (TC) as a study is much like any other study, it can be done well or poorly, or from any perspective. There certainly are benefits to the science, such as determining lingual forms (poetry, figures of speech, etc.) and comparing them to the forms of other languages from surrounding cultures. We have learned much from the use of TC. Yet there is a certain perspective from which many people approach the practice of TC - that of the skeptic. These individuals assume the inaccuracy of the Scriptures while simultaneously elevating other early literature, especially when it appears that literature may conflict with Scripture. While there are numerous reasons this is done, it little matters. To come to the texts with a skeptic's eye defeats the very impartiality that the scholar is trying to counterfeit.

Not only is this skepticism dishonest, it is foolish. So far archaeology has proven out, rather than countered, Scriptural accounts of events. Within the last one hundred years, finds at Jericho and Bab-edh-dhra have confirmed separate ancient destructions at those sites, bolstering the biblical accounts of the fall of Jericho and the destruction by falling fire of Sodom and Gomorrah. While there is not evidence for everything that occurred in Scripture, the evidence we do find supports the biblical accounts.

There has been a long history within TC of pitting the gospels against each other. The Jesus Seminar has been especially notorious for their use of numerous colored beads by which they determine what they feel is an authentic saying of Jesus versus a mythical one. Areas where the gospels "conflict," where they do not say exactly the same thing, are determined to be fabrications by the apostles or later Christians. Needless to say, according to this particular group there is very little of Jesus' actual words represented in the gospels. But is it wise to assume the Bible is a fabrication? What evidence do we have that it is? If honest archaeology has repeatedly proven the accuracy of biblical events, why should we continue to doubt others?

Part of the problem, as mentioned earlier, is that critics assume that the gospel accounts or Kings/Chronicles, etc., are separate accounts of the same event which should be pitted against each other to find the truth and then they proceed to throw both out as "contradictory." Instead, I would suggest that accounts should be examined with the authorial intent in mind. What was the author trying to accomplish in his record/gospel. writing from a specific perspective does not make the data ahistorical or fabricated, but it does mean it is meant to be understood by the readers in a particular way. We must examine what is being said and see the intent of the author - why did he include this while the other author did not. Thus, we can see that Luke's gospel which does not contain as much information on the Herod the Great is not less or more reliable than Matthew's. Instead, he had a different goal than Matthew.

External Sources
External sources can be very helpful to the task of understanding the context in which the biblical accounts are situated, and can even be used as corroborating witnesses to an extent (i.e., with a grain of salt). But the use of external sources over and above Scriptural accounts is highly problematic. This is precisely what Ehud Netzer and Tom Mueller are doing. They are using the works of Josephus (The Jewish War and The Antiquities of the Jews in particular) in order to cast aspersions upon the gospel accounts. The reason this practice is problematic is precisely the reason that critics throw out the gospel accounts, perspective. Josephus should be trusted less, not more, than the gospel writers (more on this later).

Particularly relevant to this article is Netzer and Mueller's claim that Herod never murdered Jewish children. Because Josephus never mentions Herod's murder of Jewish children, Matthew must have created this story. Other scholars have said similar things, like that Matthew was so intent on connecting Jesus to Moses, he had to contrive a Pharaoh in order to kill-off Israelites, a Pharaoh from which a single individual savior would be spared. There is no evidence for such an argument, however, and no evidence that Matthew made the story up. Theirs is an argument from silence, and therefore, not a very convincing argument at all.

Back to the trustworthiness of Josephus. . . Josephus has given his readers cause to doubt the veracity of all he wrote. His opinion of Herod and his historical perspective of that "King of the Jews" change drastically between his Jewish War and Antiquities. In the former, Josephus finds Herod to be a noble and able man who is unfortunately swept into miserable circumstances by his family's plotting while in the latter he finds Herod to be a violent and evil man, a plotter himself. This perspective shift may largely have to do with changing opinions of his Roman patrons and those in power within Palestine. Whatever the reason, however, Josephus must be relied upon hesitatingly. He has shown his opinion to shift like sand while the gospel writers died for their faith. Who would you rather trust?

A Consensus on Herod's Character
While Josephus' earlier Jewish War gives a generally positive view of Herod, his latter Antiquities likely portrays Herod more correctly. Why? Many historians believe Josephus had written the earlier positive account based upon the sentiments of his Imperial patron and the sensibilities of those in power. As these patrons died off and new patrons lacking the same sentiments appeared, Josephus was able to write what he really thought. Again, this hypothesis is merely conjecture, but there are few other meaningful explanations. His latter portrayal, then, was probably closer to the truth.

In Antiquities, Herod is portrayed as a power-hungry despot who cunningly played his superiors to keep his throne and also destroyed any subordinates who posed a threat. He killed three of his own sons, one of his wives and her mother. He also violently quelled any hint of rebellion. He placed martial law upon towns or even whole regions, during which people could not meet or be seen walking down the street together. He built a handful of hilltop castles (Masada, Herodium, etc.) in proximity to his headquarters in Jerusalem, in case he had to flee attackers. These castles were also pleasure palaces in which Herod and his family engaged in all sorts of debauchery. Josephus' portrayal of Herod was that of a paranoid, irreverent, murderous, tyrant.

The image of Herod in Antiquities corroborates Matthew's gospel, if not in substance then at least in essence. Matthew's account portrays Herod as a paranoid tyrant who would rather kill innocent children than let a potential usurper to his dynastic throne survive. The fact that this newfound "King of the Jews" was foretold in Scripture and came from God gave Herod no pause. Certainly Matthew implies Herod's irreverence.

While text and source critics pit author against author, the sources themselves do not seem to disagree. While Josephus and even Luke are silent when it comes to the murder of infants, Matthew's gospel is consistent with the character of the king. There is, therefore no good reason to doubt Matthew's gospel when it relates the murder of children in the area around Bethlehem.

While many critics have used myriad methods to try to cast doubt upon the Scriptures (Ehud Netzer seems to do so because of his awe of Herod's building ability), their arguments are almost always built on silence or on speculation. The actual sources seem to only corroborate each other - Herod was an evil man who would stop at nothing to keep his throne. Further, until there is definitive archaeological proof that there was no local pogrom against Bethlehemite children or that Matthew fabricated his gospel, there is no reason to disbelieve his account.

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