Gordon Franz of the Associates for Biblical Research breaks down the history behind this grim event in the early life of Jesus Christ.
Michael Grant, a popular writer on historical themes says of the Massacre of the Innocents: “The tale is not history but myth or folk-lore” (1971:12). He went on to say, Herod became known as “Herod the Wicked, villain of many a legend, including the Massacre of the Innocents: the story is invented, though it is based, in one respect, on what is likely to be a historical fact, since Jesus Christ was probably born in one of the last years of Herod’s reign” (1971:228-229). Elsewhere he says, “Matthew’s story of the Massacre of the Innocents by Herod the Great, because he was afraid of a child born in Bethlehem ‘to be King of the Jews’, is a myth allegedly fulfilling a prophecy by Jeremiah and mirroring history’s judgment of the great but evil potentate Herod, arising from many savage acts during the last years before his death in 4 BC” (1999:71). Was the slaughter of the innocents a tale, myth, folk-lore, or legend? Or was it a historical event?
Unfortunately archaeologists have yet to excavate the archives of the Jerusalem Post from the year 4 BC! Nor does the first century AD Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus record this event in any of his writings. Even though secular history is silent on this event it does not mean it did not occur. When the life of Herod the Great is examined, this event is very consistent with his character and actions so this is pointing to the fact that it did happen as recorded in Holy Scripture.
The Gospel of Matthew records the event in this manner: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’” (2:16-18, NKJV).
In 1988 I was attending a lecture at the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies by Dr. Isaiah Gafni, a leading authority on the Second Temple period at the Hebrew University. His topic was the life of Herod the Great. Sitting next to me was Dr. Bruce Narramore, a Christian psychologist from Biola University.
Dr. Gafni recounted a seminar that was held at Hebrew University a few years before. Attending it were historians and archaeologists of the Second Temple period as well as psychiatrists and psychologists. They laid out (figuratively speaking) Herod the Great on the psychiatric couch and preceded to psychoanalyze him. The historians explained a recurring pattern in the life of Herod. He would hear a rumor that somebody was going to bump him off and take over his throne, but Herod would kill that person first. He would then go into depression. After awhile he would come out of his depression and would build, build, build. He would hear another rumor and would kill that person, then go into another depression. After awhile he would come out of this depression and would build, build, build. This cycle repeated itself a number of times in which numerous people were killed, including one of his ten wives as well as three of his sons! The shrinks diagnosed Herod the Great as a paranoid schizophrenic.
After the lecture I turned to Dr. Narramore and asked his analysis of Herod: “Well, do you think he was a paranoid schizophrenic?” Bruce laughed and said, “No, he was a jerk!” [That is a direct quote!]. Recently a historical / psychological analysis was done on Herod the Great and he was diagnosed with Paranoid Personality Disorder (Kasher and Witztum 2007:431).
The Historical Plausibility of the Slaughter of the Innocents
It is true; Josephus does not record the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. He does, however, record a number of ruthless murders by Herod in order to keep his throne secure.
Herod was crowned “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 BC in Rome. He was, however, a king without a kingdom. Upon his return to the Land of Israel, he was given a Roman army and was eventually able to capture Jerusalem. The first order of business was to eliminate his Hasmonean predecessors. Mattathias Antigonus was executed with the help of Mark Antony and Herod killed 45 leading men of Antigonus’ party in 37 BC (Antiquities 15:5-10; LCL 8:5-7). He had the elderly John Hyrcanus II strangled over an alleged plot to overthrow Herod in 30 BC (Antiquities 15:173-178; LCL 8:83-85).
Herod continued to purge the Hasmonean family. He eliminated his brother-in-law, Aristobulus, who was at the time an 18 year old High Priest. He was drowned in 35 BC by Herod’s men in the swimming pool of the winter palace in Jericho because Herod thought the Romans would favor Aristobulus as ruler of Judea instead of him (Antiquities 15:50-56; LCL 8:25-29; Netzer 2001:21-25). He also had his Hasmonean mother-in-law, Alexandra (the mother of Mariamme) executed in 28 BC (Antiquities 15:247-251; LCL 8:117-119). He even killed his second wife Miriamme in 29 BC. She was his beloved Hasmonean bride whom he loved to death [literally, no pun intended] (Antiquities 15:222-236; LCL 8:107-113).
Around 20 BC, Herod remitted one third of the people’s taxes in order to curry favor with them, however, he did set up an internal spy network and eliminated people suspected of revolt, most being taken to Hyrcania, a fortress in the Judean Desert (Antiquities 15:365-372; LCL 8:177-181).
Herod also had three of his sons killed. The first two, Alexander and Aristobulus, the sons of Mariamme, were strangled in Sebaste (Samaria) in 7 BC and buried at the Alexandrium (Antiquities 16:392-394; LCL 8:365-367; Netzer 2001:68-70). The last, only five days before Herod’s own death, was Antipater who was buried without ceremony at Hyrcania (Antiquities 17:182-187; LCL 8:457-459; Netzer 2001:75; Gutfeld 2006:46-61).
Herod the Great became extremely paranoid during the last four years of his life (8-4 BC). On one occasion, in 7 BC, he had 300 military leaders executed (Antiquities 16:393-394; LCL 8:365). On another, he had a number of Pharisees executed in the same year after it was revealed that they predicted to Pheroras’ wife [Pheroras was Herod’s youngest brother and tetrarch of Perea] “that by God’s decree Herod’s throne would be taken from him, both from himself and his descendents, and the royal power would fall to her and Pheroras and to any children they might have” (Antiquities 17:42-45; LCL 8:393). With prophecies like these circulating within his kingdom, is it any wonder Herod wanted to eliminate Jesus when the wise men revealed the new “king of the Jews” had been born (Matt. 2:1-2)?! (For a full discussion of these historical events, see France 1979 and Maier 1998).
Macrobius (ca. AD 400), one of the last pagan writers in Rome, in his book Saturnalia, wrote: “When it was heard that, as part of the slaughter of boys up to two years old, Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered his own son to be killed, he [the Emperor Augustus] remarked, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig [Gr. hys] than his son’ [Gr. huios]” (2.4.11; cited in Brown 1993:226). Macrobius may have gotten some of his historical facts garbled, but he could have given us a chronological key as well. If he was referring to the death of Antipater in 4 BC, the slaughter of the Innocents would have been one of the last, if not the last, brutal killings of Herod before he died. What is also interesting is the word-play in the quote attributed to Augustus- “pig” and “son” are similar sounding words in Greek. Herod would not kill a pig because he kept kosher, at least among the Jews; yet he had no qualms killing his own sons!
Why did Josephus not record this event?
There are several possible explanations as to why Josephus did not record this event. First, Josephus, writing at the end of the first century AD may not have been aware of the slaughter in Bethlehem at the end of the first century BC. There were some pivotal events in the first century AD that Josephus does not record. For example, the episode of the golden Roman shields in Jerusalem which was the cause of the bad blood between Herod Antipas and Pontus Pilate (cf. Luke 23:12). It was the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria that recorded this event (Embassy to Gaius 38:299-305; Maier 1969:109-121). It should also be pointed out that Josephus got some of his information from Nicolas of Damascus who was Herod the Greats friend and personal historian. Nicolas may not have recorded such a terrible deed so as not to blacken the reputation of his friend any more than he had too (Brown 1993:226, footnote 34).
Second, the massacre might not have been as large as later church history records. The Martyrdom of Matthew states that 3,000 baby were slaughtered. The Byzantine liturgy places the number at 14,000 and the Syrian tradition says 64,000 innocent children were killed (Brown 1993:205). Yet Professor William F. Albright, the dean of American archaeology in the Holy Land, estimates that the population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth to be about 300 people (Albright and Mann 1971:19). The number of male children, two years old or younger, would be about six or seven (Maier 1998:178, footnote 25). This would hardly be a newsworthy event in light of what else was going on at the time. Please do not get me wrong, one innocent child being killed is a horrific tragedy.
Based on the date of Jesus’ birth provided by Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 AD), Jesus would have been born on May 14, 6 BC (Faulstich 1998:109-112). The wise men from the east do not arrive in Jerusalem to visit Herod and then go on to Bethlehem until at least 50 days after the birth of the Lord Jesus, but more than likely a year to a year and a half later. When Mary performed the ritual of purification for her firstborn in the Temple she offered two turtledoves, the offering of the poor (Luke 2:22-24; cf. Lev. 12:8). If the wise men had already arrived with their gold, frankincense and myrrh, Mary would have been obligated to offer a lamb and would have had the means to do so (Lev. 12:6). Herod inquired of the wise men when the star first appeared and instructed them to go and find the “King of the Jews” and return and tell him so he could go and worship the young Child as well (Matt. 2:7-9). Herod realized he was tricked when the wise men returned home another way after they were warned in a dream of Herod’s evil intentions (2:12). Herod calculated the age of the young Child based on the testimony of the wise men as to when the star first appeared. He ordered the killing of all male children in Bethlehem and its immediate vicinity who were two years old and younger (2:16). Herod dies in March of 4 BC, just under two years from the birth of Jesus.
Right before he dies, Herod realizes nobody will mourn for him at his death. He hatched a diabolical scheme to make sure everybody will morn at his death, even if it was not for him. He ordered all the notable Jews from all parts of his kingdom to come to him in Jericho under penalty of death. He placed them in the hippodrome of Jericho and left instructions for the soldiers to kill all the notables upon his death (Antiquities 17:174-181; LCL 8:451-455; Netzer 2001:64-67). Fortunately, after the death of Herod, his sister Salome countermanded the order and released the Jewish leaders. Ironically, Herod died on the Feast of Purim and there was much rejoicing at the death of Herod the Wicked (cf. Esther 8:15-17; Faulstich 1998:110)!
Five days before he died, Herod executed his oldest son Antipater (Antiquities 17:187; LCL 8:457-459). During that time period he also executed, by burning alive, two leading rabbis and then executed their students for participating in the “eagle affair” in the Temple (Antiquities 17:149-167; LCL 8:439-449; Wars 1:655; LCL 2:311).
Paul L. Maier has pointed out, “Josephus wrote for a Greco-Roman audience, which would have little concern for infant deaths. Greeks regularly practiced infanticide as a kind of birth control, particularly in Sparta, while the Roman father had the right not to lift his baby off the floor after birth, letting it die” (1998:179).
Josephus, even if he knew of the slaughter of the innocents, would have deemed this episode unimportant in light of all the other monumental events going on at the time of the death of Herod the Great, thus not including it in his writings.
The slaughter of the innocents is unattested in secular records, but the historical plausibility of this event happening is consistent with the character and actions of Herod the Great. Besides killing his enemies, he had no qualms in killing family members and friends as well. Herod would not have given a second thought about killing a handful of babies in a small, obscure village south of Jerusalem in order to keep his throne secure for himself, or his sons, even if it was one of the last dastardly deeds he committed before he died. As Herod lay dying, raked in pain and agony, the men of God and those with special wisdom opined that Herod was suffering these things because it was “the penalty that God was exacting of the king for his great impiety” (Antiquities 17:170; LCL 8:449-451).
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