Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bible study: The dangerous child myth

Imagine, if you will, a nation in ancient times, ruled by a cruel and vindictive king. He cares nothing for the people of his land. He rules by fear but he is hated by many. One day, the king hears that a particular child that has just been born. A prophecy states that this child will one day grow to become a leader and will eventually take the throne. Naturally, the king feels threatened. He gives orders to his soldiers to march through the land, and to kill every male child below a certain age. “Kill them all!” he barks at his generals. Despite the king’s actions, the special child manages – due to a divine warning – to escape the slaughter and to eventually fulfil its destiny.

Does this story sound familiar? Can you name the king in question or the small child? The characters in question are not the ones you would expect. The king in this story is King Kansa and the child is baby Krishna, the incarnation of the god Vishnu. This story appears in the Hindu poem Mahabharata, which was written two centuries before the birth of Christ.

Variations of the ‘dangerous child’ myth, as it is called, have appeared in many religions and legends. They roughly follow the same basic pattern as the story of King Kansa and Krishna: (1) a divinely appointed chid is born with a special destiny; (2) a local leader hears of the threat this child can become and orders the child be killed; (3) however, the child, through divine intervention, manages to escape. Various variations of this story can be ascribed to Jason, Hercules, Cyrus (king of Persia), and Zoroaster (see here, here and here).

This raises the question of whether the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod, as recorded by the writer of Matthew, really happened, or if it was simply an attempt on the writer’s part to use popular myth to raise the divine importance of Jesus in the eyes of readers at the time. It is telling that the story, which appears in Matthew 2:1-8, 2:16-18, does not feature in any of the other gospels, nor is it mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. Moreover, it is not recorded in any non-Christian records at the time. For example, Josephus, a Jewish historian living in the first century AD, went to great pains to list all of King Herod’s atrocities in Antiquities of the Jews. Strangely, the slaughter of the innocents is not mentioned. One would expect such an event to have a huge ripple effect in that region but strangely the writer of Matthew is the only person who mentions it.

So we presently have no other accounts of this story. We also have an historical record of the ‘dangerous child’ myth, which is often associated with divinely chosen individuals of various religions and legends throughout history. Is it not safe to conclude, until further evidence is forthcoming, that the story of King Herod ordering the killing of male babies is itself but a myth? Is this an example where a mythical story has been infused in-between the pieces of historical truth within the Bible?


Dar said...

There are many similar stories between religons and mythology. Christianity has adopted much from older practices. Even the birth and death of Jesus (Christmas and Easter) happen around the Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox, seasons widely celebrated by the Pagans, whom the Bible denounces.

Thank you for adding me to your blogroll, much appreciated!

Casey Kochmer said...

History is not truth, yet we expect it to be.

Stories of the past, are just that stories.

It's not the truth which should be the focus, rather understanding the patterns and meanings we assign to these stories. History is no different than reading tea leaves in the end, it's how we use and move upon the story which makes the difference in our lives.

I am not a christian, yet I recognize the bible as a valid mixture of humanities stories. Some have truth, some are not, some have errors in transcription, some are... it all adds up to being a very human book.
and one way to examine ourselves within which to become better.

I have known many christians who thru the bible have come to almost exactly the same place to which I as a Taoist live within. In that the secret is acceptance of life as life to be what we are: Human very human, each and every day a person. :)

Peace Brother


Bentley said...

Hi Kevin, I'm glad I found your blog. There is a God, it is your brain, your brain is the God of every thought that you will ever have. You know, we are all born without a knowledge of a God, Atheists if you will, we are expected to believe the myths handed down to us by our parents and people in authority. Great site! Have you checked out I recommend it. Thanks, Ben

Jason Hughes said...

A lot of the stories of Bible were drawn from myths of other cultures, such as the "worldwide flood" drawn from the Greek culture. It didn't surprise me in the least, but I'm sure it would a lot of folks! Great post!

eddie{F} said...

Hey Kevin

Good post. Pity most doesn’t see the parallels.


Kevin Parry said...

Thank you all for your comments. If the stories of the Bible are historically true, as apologists argue, then I would wonder why the omniscient god of the universe has such limited imagination. Instead of coming up with something original, he burrows stuff from earlier myths.

Hi Ben
Thanks for popping by! I've visited your blog and have added it to my newsreader.

All the best

P3T3RK3Y5 said...

good stuff kevin - i think you’re on to something. i think you have strong circumstantial evidence that the facts aren’t what they used to be.
perhaps the dangerous child myth was used as a literary device to underscore what the writers wanted to communicate - that jesus' teachings would be dangerous to the systems of man (the gospels being written years after his death).
i think arguing for literal truth here is not smart - and probably unfounded. arguing for metaphorical truth - including e.g. the creation myth and flood myth - even jonah - seems to make much more sense on ancient documents.
but it’s not how we’re used to thinking these days...
peace bro.

C.L. Hanson said...

Actually, I've kind of wondered the same thing about the story of Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem for Jesus to be born there.

I've heard that the year chosen as Jesus' birth year for the calendar doesn't fit with the 'journey to Bethlehem' story because there was no Roman census that year. Thus many people conclude that it's just that the year was chosen wrong.

Or maybe this story was added to deal with the problem that the "historical Jesus" (the real-life person the gospels were based on, if he existed) was from Galilee when by prophecy the Christ was supposed to come from Bethlehem.

According to the gospel of John (7:41-43) it seems like it wasn't clear that he was born in Bethlehem:
Others said, This is the Christ, But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee?
Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?
So there was a division among the people because of him.

The idea that this woman who is about to give birth would travel all this distance for a census on a donkey to a city where she apparently didn't even have relatives to take her in already seems a little far-fetched... (She couldn't possibly get out of it or send someone to go in her place???)

I assume I'm not the only person to suggest this, but I don't know what scholars have said bout this point...

Atrakasya said...

I would like to suggest that the threat of killing the first born was a sword that was held over the heads of would-be conspirators and rebels, in ancient times. People are normaly not dissuaded from anti-regime activities by threats to their own being.

Instead, the threat of putting their first-borns to risk is something that can easily dissuade would-be-rebels.
This kind of a threat has multiple benefits for the ruler, as well, if you think about it, to ensure loyalty and to inspire fear.

Anonymous said...

Many readers have recognized that the "New" Testament is a re-write of the Jewish bible. Perhaps the slaughter of the innocents is a rewrite of the Passover legend, where the plague is death to every firstborn son, but the Jewish families are saved by smearing the blood of the lamb on their doors. Thus, God trumps pharoah, who had ordered his midwives to kill every firstborn Israelite child. (the midwives refused.)

Kyle said...

nice research and conclusion... a+ kevin.

Anonymous said...

Im waiting for a responce from the die hard Christian..... All I hear is the crickets.