Friday 23 December 2022

The Thirty-Third Child: A Christmas Story.

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:16-18

“A MOMENT SIR, just a moment of your time, that is all I ask.”

The teacher paused. His companions, fearing that, once again, he would be overwhelmed by the crowd, urged him on. So many people, all of them demanding a moment of his precious time.

“Hurry away, Teacher, there are too many, and we have far to travel before the sun sets.”

“Just one question, Sir. For the peace of mind of an old soldier. You, who have so many answers. I beg you, Sir, spare one for me.

A wind off the sea blew the thin whisps of what remained of old man’s of hair across the deep lines of his face. His had not been an easy life, that much was plain. And his eyes spoke of horrors they could not un-see.

“Go on, brothers, I will catch you up!”

The teacher drew the old man down a narrow alleyway between two houses, emerging from the gloom into the bright sunlight of a walled garden. The teacher motioned for the old man to be seated on a stone bench, positioned in the shadow of a lofty cypress.

“Ask me your question, brother.”

“Did I kill him? That is the question that has dogged my waking hours, and haunted my terrible dreams, for more than thirty years.”

“You do not know?”

“No, Sir, I do not. We killed so many. Mere babes they were, Sir, still at their mothers’ breasts most of them. And, oh, how those mothers pleaded for their sons’ lives. On their knees, their up-turned faces wet with tears, their eyes alive with fear. How they begged and begged, and screamed and screamed, as we stabbed and stabbed and stabbed. It was the King’s orders, Sir. We were to kill all the boys born since the arrival of three Parthian wizards. Journeying far from the East, they said, to pay homage to the new-born King of Israel. Herod was beside himself with rage. The prophecy must be defeated – there was no other way. Every male child born in and around Bethlehem since the arrival of these doom sayers was to be killed. That was the King’s dreadful order, and, God forgive me, Sir, I obeyed it.”

The teacher stood in the cypress’s shadow, motionless, a single finger pressed hard against his lips.

“How many did you kill, brother?”

“Thirty-two, Sir. Thirty-two innocent babes. Twenty-six in Bethlehem, six in the nearby farms and villages. Herod was satisfied. His crown and line were safe – or so he thought.”

“My father told me the tale of the slaughtered children when I was myself a child. It weighed heavily upon him, a great burden of guilt, all his life. That he did nothing to save them – even though he was forewarned of Herod’s murderous intentions. He fled with his wife, my mother, carrying me, their new-born son, south into Egypt – and safety. They sent no warning to the mothers of Bethlehem. Did not look back.”

The old soldier rose slowly to his feet, took three steps towards the teacher, and fell upon his knees. His gnarled fingers clutched wildly at the other man’s cloak, drawing it to his lips.

“Then I did not kill the King,” the old soldier whispered hoarsely, “for here he stands before me, alive beneath the sun. The thirty-third child.”

“It was not my father, alone, who bore the weight of guilt, my brother,” said the teacher, helping the old soldier to his feet. “All my life, I have carried with me the knowledge that to keep me safe, my parents did nothing to deliver those innocent children from Herod’s evil.”

The old soldier placed his hands on the teacher’s shoulders, his face grim as death itself.

“There was nothing you could have done, Sir. There was no hiding-place that my men and I would not have found eventually. And if you and your parents had not escaped south, in the very nick of time, then Israel would not have its saviour king – it’s Messiah.”

“But I am no Herod, brother. And no Messiah, neither. The kingdom I proclaim is not a place of thrones and swords and crimes. And all that it requires is one last sacrifice. One final gift of innocence to open the gates of paradise. The life of the thirty-third child.”

This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 December 2022.


Ele Ludemann said...

Thank you, your Christmas story always makes reflect.

David George said...

“The difference — and C.S. Lewis pointed this out as well — between those mythological gods and Christ was that there’s a historical representation of his existence as well. So what you have in the figure of Christ is an actual person who actually lived plus a myth, and, in some sense, Christ is the union of those two things.”

“The problem is I probably believe that but I’m amazed at my own belief, and I don’t understand it. Because I’ve seen, sometimes, the objective world and the narrative world touch — you know, that’s Jungian synchronicity. And I’ve seen that many times in my own life and so, in some sense, I believe it’s undeniable.”

Humans exist in a narrative sense of the world, the world of morality that tells us how to act, and it is “real” despite the fact that it is not “the objective world.”

“But the narrative and the objective world touch and the ultimate example of that, in principle, is supposed to be Christ, and that seems to me to be oddly plausible. But I still don’t know what to make of it, partly because it’s too terrifying a reality to fully believe. I don’t even know what would happen to you if you fully believed it.”
Jordan Peterson on Jesus.
Merry Christmas everyone.

The Barron said...

As the Holy family made their way to Bethlehem for the Quirinius census they must have been confused. The Quirinius census was 6AD, as a result of the death of Herod. Judea had been a protectorate under Rome. The tax collected by Herod and temple tithing. He had never been a model father and with his death Judea was brought under direct Roman rule as part of the Syrian province. New arrangements for tax collection was required, and like elsewhere, the Romans conducted a census to understand who and where to tax. Yes the Holy family must have wondered about the rumours the long dead Herold was still receiving visitors and issuing orders.

Even more confusing must have been the concept that Joseph was expected to travel, with pregnant wife, to the village of his descent. Despite contradictory genealogies, both the authors of Matthew and Luke have to show the unborn is from the seed of David. So, Joseph must be descended from the Davidic line to be the father of the Messiah. Luckily Mary knew nothing of genetics as she claimed the unborn had divine fatherhood.

The existence of David is yet to be proven, although a tablet has been found mentioning the 'House of David', the actual text is disputed, and as David means beloved it is interpretable evidence. Still, the authors of Matthew and Luke show a 30 generation line from David to Joseph. Of course he would be one of millions of descendants after 30 generations. If everyone in Judea had to return to their heritage homes of 30 generations ago there must have been chaos. Strangely, Josephus and Roman commentators failed to notice this mass movement of Judeans from around the Roman empire. With millions from David's descent descending upon the small town of Bethlehem there is no wonder there was no room at the Inn.

It must have been chaotic. Shepherds seeing hosts of angles. That must have been frightening for the simple sheep and goat herders. So traumatic that they seemed not to have mentioned this for decades. The Magi arrive in Jerusalem to see the long dead Herod, before doing the u-turn to Bethlehem. The saw a star, a sign from God. Of course their God was Ahura Mazda as they were followers of Zoroastrianism.

Anyway, several millennia later it all inspired Big Star to produce a great song -

or alternatively the classic-

The Barron made Snoopy fly to the Rhine
And forced him to land behind the enemy lines
Snoopy was certain that this was the end
When the Barron cried out, "Merry Christmas, mein friend!"
The Barron then offered a holiday toast
And Snoopy, our hero, saluted his host
And then with a roar they were both on their way
Each knowing they'd meet on some other day

"Merry Christmas, mein friends!"

Frankie Lee said...

I always enjoy the historical short stories you post from time to time Chris, they're always well-written and thought-provoking. Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Your uncle Peter would be proud, Chris. Merry Christmas.

Jason Barrier said...

Go well Chris and have a very Merry Christmas. Your incisive and insightful commentary has been a national treasure this year - a cutting and contrarian beacon in a slack water sea of media complacency. Thanks.

Simon Cohen said...

As according to the gospels Jesus was born at the time of the census called for by Quirinius the Legate of Syria and there is no dispute that this took place in 6-7 A.D. and there is also no dispute that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. it is impossible to reconcile this event.
Another nice piece of fiction about another nice piece of fiction.

The Barron said...

Yes, no children were harmed in the making of the myth. The 'massacre of the innocents' is entirely uncorroborated, no Jewish or Roman source mentions it outside of the author of Matthew. Even most Biblical scholars think the story carries little historical conviction.

It is likely the author of Matthew was well aware that his 2nd century audience knew that great events required blood sacrifice, none stronger than that of children. Of course he was also copying the literally trope where the hero to be survives as a child against the odds. The Sargon story was converted to the Moses tale. Again, the slaughter of innocents, and the story of the exodus was preceded by death of the first-born, with pass-over still commemorated. Blood sacrifice was central to the Old Testament and 2nd temple practice.

The morality of the story is difficult by today's standard. An omnipotent God would have have known the consequences of the Magi meeting Herod (which didn't happen because he was a decade dead), and his plan to have babies murdered. The Christian God would have known that Jesus' birth would be responsible for the massacre of the innocents.

As Harvey Cox noted [cited in The Nativity: A Critical Examination, Jonathon MS Pearce, 2020] -

"In this case Jesus did, at least indirectly, cause the death of the children of Bethlehem. Ironically, although Christians often say of Jesus "he died for us" in this case those children died for him."

David George said...

Discrepancies surrounding the birth of Christ are almost inevitable given they were written decades after the event and observed by the largely illiterate people of the time. While I can understand their attraction for those seeking to discredit the biblical story as a "nice piece of fiction" it rather suggests a far more innocent attempt. Perhaps the inaccuracies indicate authenticity not conspiracy?
People observe, recollect and relate to aspects of the same event differently, even those they've all just recently seen. Here's a famous experiment showing just that, six minutes:

Perhaps Christ's life is merely one of the many "Hero's Journey" myths (Joseph Campbell) - the archetypal story of the humble birth, the rise from ignorance and naivety, the confrontation with evil and temptation and the sacrifice and struggle toward the noble ideal told in many forms from Maui and Moses right through to the Lion King from every culture across time as far as we know. If that is the case it's surely the greatest of them all; the story of ultimate sacrifice. There's a reason it has captivated and compelled billions of people for thousands of years.

Simon Cohen said...

Unfortunately David George these discrepancies are quoted by many churches and Christians as fact. In Matthew the 3 wise men find the family in a house in Bethlehem [there is no mention of a manger in a stable] whereas Luke has the baby born in a manger attended by shepherds and angels. Mark and John both ignore the circumstances of Jesus' birth which is surprising because this forms the mythology which surrounds Christmas.
Modern scholarship has established that the first gospel written was Mark in about A.D 70 and as Jesus most likely dies in A.D.36 his is the only gospel which could have possibly relied on first hand sources. Matthew was probably written in A.D.95, Luke A.D.105 and John between A.D.110 and A.D 115.
Matthew and only Matthew tells the story of the flight to Egypt to escape the Herodian sword. There is no other evidence whether biblical or secular to support the claim and Matthew further damages his case by asserting the journey fulfilled prophecy. Therefore it can be presumed that all the other stories of Jesus' time in Egypt are myths.
As to what was written about the resurrection in the gospels is so contradictory and in many cases so easily proven to be false it casts a great deal of doubt on what is currently believed by Christians.
For example according to Matthew on the day after the crucifixion the chief priests and Pharisees gathered before Pilate and asked for the sepulchre to made secure until after the 3rd day [ Christ had predicted he would rise against on the 3rd day] Pilate said you can have a guard of soldiers go make it as secure as you can. This passage is interesting in revealing the ignorance of the author in regard to Jewish custom. Only a very poorly informed Gentile would suggest that the priests and Pharisees would engage in such business [or indeed business of any kind]on the Passover Sabbath. This alone is sufficient to put the passage quite beyond belief !!
These are just a few illustrations of the many myths which are believed and quoted as facts by modern Christians.

greywarbler said...

David George I warm to your ponderings. Thank you for them.

David George said...

Thank you Simon, though I think you've rather missed my point.
I've been enjoying the new "Exodus" series, the journey of a different hero (with, no doubt, it's own share of inaccuracies and inconsistencies) that might be of more interest to you. Here is a short trailer

greywarbler said...

The Barron gave us his history from WW1 exploits and here is the song with great images, very well done. Snoopy's Christmas - Royal Guardsmen.

Now another war bringing us Ukrainian choir - Carol of the Bells

Steeleye Span Gaudete Gaudete (with Latin lyrics to sing along to)

David George said...

Thank you Grey.
We're all on a journey, heroes (or otherwise) of the adventure of life. I guess that's why these archetypal stories are so universally revered; they're the stories of our own lives.

“To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).”
― Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

The Barron said...

Happy New year all!

Sorry David, but I will give links to an alternative view on Jordan B Paterson and his views on religion-

As you are looking at the Exodus I recommend that you widen your study and examine the career of the great Thomas L Thompson. He then studied Catholic theology at the University of Tübingen; his dissertation, "The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham", was completed in 1971, but rejected by the Catholic faculty (one of his examiners was Joseph Ratzinger, then Tübingen's Professor of Systematic Theology and later Pope Benedict XVI). His thesis showed the Biblical patriarchs were fiction. Ratzinger had him blacklisted from Theological Colleges. Then he got a surprise call from the University of Copenhagen's minimalist theological school, where he remains.

His views are now mainstream and backed by Israeli archeologists Israel Finkelstein, Amihai Mazar and Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt most noticeably in their 2007 book The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel (Archaeology and Biblical Studies).

The story of the Exodus is likely to be mainly post-Babylonian exile. Russell E Gmirkin, also connected to the Copenhagen School has shown the Platonic influence over the laws of Moses [Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch (2006) Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (2016) & Plato's Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts (2022].

Looking at the Exodus as the development of a foundation story for a people gives a greater insight into the Biblical works. The actual story of the peopling of Israel and Judea should not be lost in this. It is fascinating and complex, it is unique while integrated with the near east and Mediterranean worlds.

Once again, Happy New Year to all.

David George said...

Thank you Barron,
sorry, I haven't had a chance to watch those linked videos properly; they are quite long.

That Exodus series, I should have added, is paywalled but you can watch a lot of clips from it on Youtube. Although Jordan chairs the discussions it's a round table with Dr. Douglas Hedley (Professor of the Philosophy of Religion, Cambridge University), Dr. Os Guinness (English Author and Social Critic), Dr. James Orr (Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Religion, Cambridge), Dennis Prager (Jewish author of the Rational Bible Series), Dr. Stephen Blackwood (President of Ralston College), Gregg Hurwitz (novelist and screenwriter), and Jonathan Pageau (Orthodox Christian, thinker and artist).

Jordan has a new book due out early this year, "He Who Wrestles With God" which should clarify his variously interpreted (and misinterpreted) ideas on religion as well as a lot that is new.
Happy New Year.