December 29, 2014

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod and the Symbolism of the 14,000 Infants

By George P. Patronos

The feast in honor of the "14,000 slaughtered children" is for many non-believers a scandal, as the number of infants killed by Herod in his hunt for Jesus was much smaller. But these people not only ignore the deeper significance of Herod's massacre, but also the symbolic dimension of the number.

What does history tell us?

Under the strict conditions of scientific historical accuracy, the number of 14,000 slaughtered infants, according to tradition, creates, even for the atrocities committed by Herod, insurmountable problems. According to the information provided by our sources, especially the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, a contemporary of the Evangelists Luke and John, who is a very knowledgeable source of the era of the events described in the Gospels, the ancient town of Bethlehem and its surroundings should then have had a population of perhaps little more than a thousand inhabitants. The slaughter of male infants "from two years and under" would not, therefore, in fact be for more than 30 or 40 maximum, based on statistical data obtained from the population distribution in this region.

Such a figure would be much more likely according to historians, for Herod to venture in an albeit still tragic attempt to ensure his authority from an inside and local threat of a pretender to the throne. The slaughtering of some dozens of infants from rural families in a remote and neglected region, would be but "only a small and insignificant episode" in his life and works, as a modern researcher aptly observes; a fault in comparison with his other crimes which does not substantially burden the already long list of victims he is suspected of, and is not particularly differentiated from the otherwise degraded local situation that would cause the intervention of Rome in this specific issue.

With this being the case, it is a fact that nowhere in the sacred texts of the Gospels does it record a specific number of "slaughtered infants". The reference to the slaughter of "fourteen thousand" male children instead comes from the sacred tradition of the Church in the Synaxarion for the feast, and the note that these infants are among the Martyrs of the Church and are considered the first anonymous and "countless" martyrs of the Christian faith. It is this factor that gives the whole issue a parallel to history, and a particular "symbolic" parameter which requires a theological hermeneutic approach.

The theological significance of the number of the "slaughtered infants"

As already pointed out, the Gospels do not take a stance on "chronology" or the simple "journalistic reporting" of historical events. Their aim is not simply to inform some readers, but they spiritually guide and theologically educate the faithful under the catechetical and pastoral role of the Church. In this light, the Massacre of the Innocents is of particular theological meaning for the sacred texts, and of particular interest to the interpretive approach and understanding of the semantics of the events in the Gospel narrative.

In the tradition of the Jewish people and the theology of the Old Testament there was a "historical" past persecution and even a "massacre". Specifically, the narrative in the Book of Exodus speaks of the foreign Pharaoh who belonged to another religion who had ordered the killing of male Israelites by drowning them in the Nile River, a real genocide which aimed to reduce the number of Jewish slaves who were increasing at an alarming rate in the country.

This factor was considered by the sacred writers of the New Testament as a theological precedent, or in the language of hermeneutics a "foreshadowing", for a parallel theological approach and interpretation of the corresponding event of the massacre of infants from a "new pharaoh", the hated Herod of another religion who was king of Judea. Just as the old Pharaoh expressed the opposing forces of darkness and oppression in reaction to the signs implemented for the planned and God-ordained salvation and historical recognition of Israel, and just as he killed the children so that Moses the first prophet of Exodus would not be born, so also did Herod as the "new Pharaoh" embody the actions of the same demonic powers. He attempts to impede the coming of the Savior of the world and the historical recognition of the new Israel, the Church.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is revealed from infancy already as Christ the Lord, who was sent by God for the salvation of the world. And Herod, who in a manic and insane way "seeks the soul of the child", manifested through his actions to be a representative of the evil one and is presented in the form of the Antichrist (see Rev. 12:l). The powerful present ruler, however, is essentially weak and vulnerable to the Infant who will become the final victor. The event of the massacre of the infants thus acquires a soteriological and eschatological perspective, where parallel it forms part of the "signs of the end" that predispose and prepare for the final defeat of evil and the victory of good.

In this line of theological semantics, the Massacre of the Innocents also conjures the prophecy of Jeremiah, who seven centuries prior announced prophetically and poetically described the following apocalyptic scene: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more" (Jer. 31:15). The historical evangelist Matthew makes use of the prophetic saying and theologically interprets it according to the contemporary event of the "lamentation of the weeping and wailing" of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:18). The ancient prophecy referred to the sacrifices during the exodus of the old Israel from Egypt. And just as Moses at that time together with Joshua the son of Nun led the people of God from Egypt and "Egyptian bondage", from Pharaoh and pharaonic slavery, to the promised land and freedom, so now a "new Moses" and "new Joshua" will lead His people to a new exodus, to a new promised land, towards the eschatological country of freedom and dignity. Therefore the evangelist Matthew, being inspired, underlines in this theological symbolism and "foreshadowing" events, that "out of Egypt" again God called a leader for His people and for the great "exodus" of modern times (Matt. 2:15).

The apostle Paul and many interpreting Fathers of the Church make extensive use of the theological terms "Egypt" and "Pharaoh" in a typological interpretation of a purely theological character. The flight of the Infant Jesus to Egypt in the wake of the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem acquires, beyond its historical importance, also eschatological implications as if it is another "descent of the Son of God in Hades." There, in the "Hades of Egypt", Jesus Christ as the "new Moses" will meet His people and will invite them to a new eschatological "exodus" towards the new promised land, the Kingdom of God. (See Deut. 18:15, where Moses says: "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.")

The number 14,000

As regards, finally, the number 14,000 that sacred tradition has preserved for the slaughtered infants, this is not due to an accounting error, but comes from the influence of Jewish apocalyptic numerology. It is in fact a multiple of the sacred number of seven to the Jews, that symbolizes totality and universality. Similarly in the Apocalypse of John is found semantic reference to the other sacred number of twelve in multiples, with the observation that in the end times Jesus Christ comes again with the martyrs, who in their wholeness and perfection symbolically amount to 144,000 (Rev. 14:1 and 7:4). And certainly in this case it is not a real number, but for theological symbolism it expresses the universality of the Church, which is constituted and represented in the history of the Martyrs. The sacrificed and martyred saints over the centuries express the historical and eschatological unity of the Church. Those who are associated with power and strength, align with the respective "Pharaohs" and "Herods" of history.

The reporting of the evangelist of the event of the slaughter and sacrifice expresses in the most vivid way that Jesus and his followers do not realize their historical course in a romantic and idyllic world, but they are dominated by the realism of violence, bondage, oppressions and persecutions. The strong "Pharaohs" and "Herods" who usually dominate the destinies of peoples, representing opposite and demonic forces, perpetuate and augment the evils and injustices against the weak. The Holy Child, who from His first moments tasted of threats and violence, questionings and rejections, set the standard of the life of martyrdom of those who faithfully follow in His footsteps, to the end of historical time.

The history of the Church with its numerous martyrs continuously verifies the tragic reality that there can be no change in the world without the confessors of truth and the martyrs of freedom. Through the narration of the incident of the massacre of the infants it is stressed once again the permanent historical question: with what side will you finally align, with the powerful "Herods" or the innocent and weak who are as children of the "slain Lamb" and innocent infants, becoming martyrs of the truth "from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8)? This is one of the key questions that Christianity attempts to answer through the sacred text.

Almost all of the above is taken from the article by Professor Emeritus of Theology of the University of Athens, George P. Patronos, titled "The Massacre of the Innocents in the New Testament" ("Η σφαγή τών νηπίων κατά την Καινή Διαθήκη"), published in the magazine Ιστορικά (No. 216), in Eleftherotypia December 18, 2003 pp. 34-41.

Note: For a more detailed historical and theological hermeneutic approach to the event of the massacre of the infants, see George P. Patronos' The History of Jesus: From the Manger to the Empty Tomb (Η ιστορική πορεία τού Ιησού: από τη φάτνη ως τον κενό τάφο) published by Domos, Athens 1991, p. 580.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.