The dark reality of infanticide behind Matthew 1:21

One of the things that provoked discussion at last week’s Advent Seminar concerned a remark made by Leon Morris (1992: 29) that the angel’s instruction that “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus…” (Matt 1:21a) is, in the context of Mary’s predicament, highly significant.

It is important to remember that in pre-industrial societies marriage was not simply an agreement between two individuals, but a contract between two families. In ancient Mediterranean cultures, betrothal would have usually been initiated with a meal at the woman’s parent’s home (M. Pesachim 3:7), this would also be attended by the payment of an indirect dowry (M. Ketubot 5.2); a negotiated payment by the ‘groom’s’ family paid to the betrothed couple. This would have been part of the overall Bride-wealth.

VIOLATION AND BETRAYAL

Therefore, Mary’s unexpected pregnancy was not only a violation of sexually appropriate behaviour, but it could have also have been seen as a betrayal of the two family groups involved and the agreement that bound them together. Joseph’s response to this news would directly impact upon the wider kinships groups and would have risked pitching one family against the other.*

Matthew openly addresses the socially awkward nature of Mary’s  pregnancy face on. In fact, in his genealogy (1:1-17), he places Mary at the end of a list of four other women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah) whom Jewish tradition viewed as being, to borrow from Brown (1993:73), “instrument[s] of God’s providence” despite their morally dubious reputations.

The point that Morris makes is that, although Joseph was within his rights to divorce Mary, the angel, not only instructed him against this, but also directed him to name the child. The naming of a child was the father’s right (which makes Gabriel’s instructions to Mary in Luke 1:31 so surprising!). However, this act meant significantly more than simply deciding a name. In naming Jesus, Joseph was officially accepting Jesus into his family (including wider family) as his son. It was a commitment of paternity and responsibility.

“CAST IT OUT”

The darker side of this act (if the father decided not to accept the child) was drawn to our attention by David (McLoughlin) who also then referred to a papyrus letter (P.Oxy 4.744) written in 1 B.C.E. that was found at the Oxyrhynchus site in Egypt.

P.Oxy4.744
P. Oxy 4.744 (Letter from Hilarion, June 1 B.C.E.)

The letter, dated 29th year of the Emperor Augustus, 23rd day of the Egyptian month Pauni (17th June 1 B.C.E.), is from Hilarion to his pregnant wife Alis. The overall tone of the letter is very tender. Hilarion is away in Alexandria. He reassures Alis that he is thinking of her and that she should not worry. Although he has not yet received his pay, he assures her that as soon as he does, he will send it up to her.  However he also gives her this instruction concerning the unborn baby:

“Above all, if you bear a child and it is male, let it [live], but if it is female, cast it out.”

The word here for ‘cast it out’ (ἔκβαλε) is the same word used in the Gospels to describe Jesus expelling (casting out) demons.

Within the patriarchal structure of antiquity, the ultimate decision of whether a baby should live or die rested in the father’s (or head of the household’s) hands. In a world where offspring could become a dangerous drain upon a household’s resources, infanticide was high.

NEO-NATAL BODY DUMP IN ASHKELON

Excavations of neo-natal body dumps in Late Roman Period Israel have shown that infanticide was fairly common. Research of such a dump in the sewer system under a Roman bathhouse in Ashkelon and comprising the skeletal remains of about 100 babies (up to approximately 3 months old) suggests that ‘unwelcome’ or ‘inconvenient’ babies that were the result of extra-marital relationships were (literally?) cast away. Moreover, infanticide appears to have been viewed as the favoured means of family planning allowing sex selection and birth order to take place (see: M. Faerman et al. 1998).

Excavation Ashkelon
Excavation at Ashkelon. copyright Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

Bathhouses had a reputation for being places that encouraged promiscuity and prostitution and the report by Faerman et al. (1998:864-865) show that, although frequently a means of sex selection (in favour of males), the unusual number of male remains at the Ashkelon site suggest that infanticide could also have been used as a way to ‘deal’ with babies that were the result of prostitution and/or promiscuous liaisons.

Care must be taken before indiscriminately drawing parallels between evidence from the late Roman period and applying it to late Second Temple Judaism. However, as Faerman et al’s (1998) report indicates, this is far from an isolated incident and not restricted to one particular period. Forms of infanticide appear to be have been present (and recognised) within Palestinian Jewish tradition, even though precise attitudes to it are hard to discern (see Murphy, 2014).

JOSEPH’S CHOICE

In his birth narrative, Matthew appears to be aware of the scandalous nature in which a betrothed woman is found to be pregnant. He tells the birth from Joseph’s point of view. In the shame-honour culture of first century Palestine, Mary’s apparent violation of sexual mores (and even law) reflected  badly upon him (and their respective families too). Joseph’s response to the angel was not a decision to be made between two lovers, but one that bore the heavy weight of the concerns of two families that had financially entered a marriage contract and the down-payment (on Joseph’s side) had already been paid. To accept the child was to bring the shame of the mother and the mother’s family into his own family. Most would echo Hilarion’s injunction to Alis concerning the birth of a daughter in the case of this illegitimate child; ‘throw it out.’

And so the angel instructs Joseph to take this young girl (shrouded in scandal) into his family as his wife and, when the baby is born, to “name him Jesus.” A few short verses later (v. 25), Matthew uses those same words again to explain how, on the birth of the baby, Joseph “named him Jesus.”

This is a significant and profound act for Joseph. On one level, he is naming the child, a relatively common name, Yeshua (Joshua). On a deeper level, he is accepting this baby as his own, bringing him into his household. On a deeper level still, he his publicly demonstrating that in accepting this child (born amid the dark rumours of scandal – whether sexual misconduct or rape), he should be allowed to live.

* For more information see: Hanson and Oakman, 1998:31-43 and Chilton, 2005: 84-110.

 References

Brown, R. (1993) The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. New edn. New York: Doubleday

Chilton, B. (2006) ‘Recovering Jesus’ Mamzerut‘. in. Charlesworth, J.H. (2006) (ed.) Jesus and Archaeology. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans. 84-110.

Faerman, M. Bar-Gal, G.K., Filon, D. Greenblatt, C.L., Stager, L., Oppenheim, A., and Smith, P. (1998) ‘Determining the Sex of Infanticide Victims from the Late
Roman Era through Ancient DNA Analysis.’ Journal of Archaeological Science. (1998) 25. 861–865.

Hanson, K.C. and Oakman, D.E. (1998) Palestine at the time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Morris, L. (1992) The Gospel According to Matthew.  Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans

Murphy, A.J. (2014) Undesired Offspring and Child Endangerment
in Jewish AntiquityJournal of Childhood and Religion (5), 3. 1-36.

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