upon
The Massacre of the Innocents
(Giotto di Bondone / more)

Article Preview
(skip preview)

Matthew 2:16 records Herod the Great’s reaction when he learned the wise men (Magi), who had come to Judea looking for the one born King of the Jews (Jesus), left Bethlehem without reporting the whereabouts of the Jewish king to Herod:

“… [Herod] 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.’”

Because the event (often referred to as the “Massacre of the Innocents”) isn’t referenced in any historical text outside of Matthew 2, many skeptics reject the account as mere fiction.

Is Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” based in historical fact or fiction?

Did Herod Really Order the Execution of
Male Babies in Bethlehem as Reported in Matthew 2?

Introduction
(skip introduction)

The following description of events is set forth in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament.

Magi from the east (pseudo scientists and astronomers probably from Babylon or Persia more) arrived in Jerusalem saying they had seen the “star” (aster) of the one born king of the Jews (more) and had come to worship him (Matt. 2:1-2).  That announcement disturbed Herod (aka Herod the Great) and all of Jerusalem (more) (Matt. 2:3).

While in Jerusalem, the Magi learned it had been prophesied in the Old Testament that the anticipated Jewish king would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2, Matt. 2:4-6).  However, before the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem in search of the Jewish king, Herod secretly met with them to ascertain when they had seen the “star” (aster) of the king appear.  Then, under the guise of desiring to pay homage to the new king, Herod told the Magi to report back the whereabouts of the king when they found him (Matt. 2:7-8).

The Magi found Jesus in a house in Bethlehem with his mother (Matt. 2:11), but because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left Bethlehem for their homeland in the east by another route (Matt. 2:12).

When Herod the Great learned the Magi had left for their homeland without reporting back to him, he was “furious” (Matt. 2:16).  To ensure any potential threat to his throne was eliminated, Herod ordered all the baby boys living in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and younger be killed, according to the time he had ascertained from the wise men (Matt. 2:16). The infanticide that ensued in and around Bethlehem is commonly referred to as the “Massacre of the Innocents” or the “Slaughter of the Innocents.”

Many skeptics reject Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” because the event is not referenced in any historical record other than Matthew 2:1-16.  Most notably, even the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus did not reference the event.

Response to the Criticism that Matthew is the
Only Historian to Reference the “Massacre of the Innocents”

In response to the criticism that Matthew 2:16-17 contains the only known historical reference to the “Massacre of the Innocents”, Christian apologists make the following points:

  • Point No. 1 —  Challenges to the historicity of Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” are imprudent and solely of recent construct skip to
  • Point No. 2 —  Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” is consistent with Herod’s well-documented murderous reputation skip to
  • Point No. 3 —  Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” is consistent with Herod’s psychological profile (Paranoid Personality Disorder) skip to
  • Point No. 4 — Except to the Jewish audience Matthew was writing to, the execution of several babies in Bethlehem may not have seemed noteworthy against the backdrop of Herod’s numerous brutal murders skip to

Point No. 1 

Challenges to the Historicity of Matthew’s
Account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” are
Imprudent and Solely of Recent Construct 

Admittedly, the only known ancient writer to reference the “Massacre of the Innocents” is the Apostle Matthew:

However, it seems imprudent to write off any ancient historical event (including Matthew 2) as made-up fiction solely on the basis that the event is referenced by only one known historical source.  There are at least two reasons for this:

  1. As compared to modern-day historians, ancient historians were greatly hampered in their ability to gather and record information; consequently, not all the events which occurred during any ancient period were, or could be, documented;
  2. Only a fraction of the ancient historical documents originally produced by ancient historians have actually survived to the present time.

Insisting that any single-sourced account of a particular ancient event be written off as fiction is especially troublesome when the only challenge made to the historicity of the account is of recent construct. Specifically, with respect to Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents”, not only is there no record that anyone with access to first hand knowledge challenged the reliability of the account, but even as late as ≈ 430 A.D. Macrobius (a pagan writer in Rome) treated the “Massacre of the Innocents” as a true historical event:

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] [See, Macrobius, Saturnalia, Book II, chap. 4:11 (c. 430 A.D.)]

For the foregoing reasons, Christian apologists maintain it is both arbitrary and unfair for skeptics to insist Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” be disregarded as fiction solely because no other reference to the event has been found.

Additionally, as set forth below, not only does Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” ring true because it is consistent with Herod’s murderous reputation (see, Point No. 2 below) and his psychological profile (see Point No. 3 below), but good reasons have been proffered to explain why Matthew may have included the event it in his writings while other writers did not (see, Point No. 4 below).

Point No. 2 

Matthew’s Account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” is
Consistent with Herod’s Well-Documented Murderous Reputation

By the time Herod the Great died (4 B.C. or 1 B.C.), he had developed a widespread reputation as a ruthless ruler who committed multiple acts of murder, even against members of his own family.

The following accusations made by Jews against Herod were recorded by Josephus:

[U]pon the permission that was given the accusers [of Herod] to speak, they, in the first place, went over Herod’s breaches of their law, and said that he was not a king, but the most barbarous of all tyrants, and that they had found him to be such by the sufferings they underwent from him; that when a very great number had been slain by him, those that were left had endured such miseries, that they called those that were dead happy men; that he had not only tortured the bodies of his subjects, but entire cities, … and of the greatest iniquity, instead of that happiness and those laws which they had anciently enjoyed; that, in short, the Jews had borne more calamities from Herod, in a few years, than had their forefathers during all that interval of time that had passed since they had come out of Babylon …. Josephus [The War of the Jews, Book II, chap. 6, No. 2 (c 75 A.D.)]

In his book, The Bible as History, Werner Keller provides a broader summary of Herod’s atrocities:

“In thirty-six years [of Herod’s reign] hardly a day passed without someone being sentenced to death. Herod spared no one, neither his own family nor his closest friends, neither the priests nor least of all the people. On his list of victims stand the names of the two husbands of his sister…, his wife Mariamne and his sons Alexander and Aristobulus. He had his brother-in-law drowned in the Jordan and his mother-in-law Alexandra put out of the way. Two scholars who had torn down the golden Roman eagle from the gateway of the Temple were burned alive. Hyrcanus the last of the Hasmoneans was killed. Noble families were exterminated root and branch. Many of the Pharisees were done away with. Five days before his death the old man had his son Antipater assassinated. And that is only a fraction of the crimes of this man who ‘ruled like a wild beast’”. [Werner Keller, The Bible as History, pgs. 334-335 (1981)]

Even at the end of Herod’s life when he knew he was facing death from a long-term illness, he was so disturbed that the Jews would rejoice upon his death that he came up with a plan to make sure that wouldn’t happen. He ordered a group of distinguished Jews from various parts of the land to report to Jericho; and, when they arrived, he imprisoned them in the Jericho hippodrome with orders they be executed upon his death.  That way, the Jews would have something to cry about when he died. [NOTE:  After Herod’s death, his sister countermanded the order and the Jews were released]. [See, Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews,17:174-181 (c 94 A.D.); Ehud Netzer, The Palaces of the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great, 64-67 (2001)]

Hippodrome Caesarea Maritima smallest (WM tango7174 CC 4.0)

HEROD’S HIPPODROME IN CAESAREA MARITIMA  (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

As referenced above, Herod the Great’s reputation for ordering the execution of anyone he perceived to be a threat to his throne (including his own sons) was so widespread that Caesar Augustus (the emperor of Rome), commented it was preferable to be Herod’s pig than his son.  In other words, because Herod practiced Judaism (at least nominally), he wouldn’t eat pork so Herod’s pigs had better odds of surviving than his own sons. [See, Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2.4.11 cited by  Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, pg. 226 (1993); see also, Unearthed, aired on TBN on 1/5/10]

Moreover, the Roman Senate had set precedent for ordering the killing of all male babies in a certain age range to eliminate a threat to its power.  As noted by Rick Larson (a proponent of the Jupiter proposal for the Christmas “star” more), 60 years earlier when the Roman Senate heard a new ruler may have been born, it ordered the death of all baby boys covering the applicable an age range. [Rick Larson, “The Bethlehem Star” (2007)] This precedent not only could have given Herod the idea to execute all the baby boys in Bethlehem under the age of two to eliminate the potential threat from the newborn Jewish king, but as a Roman client king, it would have given him the license to do so.

Given the above, Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” certainly has historical support.

Point No. 3 

Matthew’s Account of the “Massacre of the Innocents”
is Consistent  with Herod’s Psychological Profile
(Paranoid Personality Disorder)

In 2007, Aryeh Kasher, Ph.D. (an expert in Jewish history during the Second Temple period from 530 B.C. to 70 A.D.) collaborated with psychiatrist, Eliezer Witztum, M.D. (a senior staff psychiatrist) to develop a psychological profile of Herod the Great based on the facts recorded by Josephus whose sources included Nicholas of Damascus (a tutor to Herod’s sons and one of Herod’s advisors).

As documented by Kasher and Witztum in their 514 page textbook, Herod began exhibiting signs of paranoia and pathological suspiciousness as an adolescent.  Throughout his life, he suffered from ongoing violent mood swings and was haunted by persecutory delusions about plots being formed against him.  Not only did Herod execute numerous people (including several members of his own family), he exhibited sadistic tendencies by cruelly torturing many of his victims before killing them. [See, Aryeh Kasher and Elizer Witztum, King Herod: A Persecuted Persecutor, a Case Study in Psychohistory and Psychobiography (2007)]

As summed up by Kasher and Wiztum (see page 405 of their book), Herod was “a brutal individual, furious and sullen — a slave to his anger who twisted justice to suit his ends — fit[ting] the portrait of a mentally unstable person with obsessive tendencies and unrestrained impulses” which led Kasher and Witztum to come to the following conclusion:

“[T]there is reason to believe that [Herod] suffered from Paranoid Personality Disorder, in the terminology of the DSM-IV system of psychiatric classification.  In addition, as we will attempt to demonstrate, his condition subsequently deteriorated into what is known in modern psychiatric terminology as Delusional Disorder, whose recurrent episodes brought the paranoid elements of his disorder to psychotic levels, causing grave damage and ultimately even a loss of judgment, insight, and the ability to comprehend reality. At times, these were compounded by depressive states that exacerbated his condition.”   [See, Aryeh Kasher and Elizer Witztum, King Herod: A Persecuted Persecutor, a Case Study in Psychohistory and Psychobiography, pg. xv (2007)]

[NOTE: DSM IV refers to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV of the American Psychiatric Association]

Point No. 4 

Except to the Jewish Audience Matthew was
Writing to, the Execution of Several Babies in Bethlehem
May Not Have Seemed Noteworthy 
Against the Backdrop
of Herod’s Numerous Brutal Murders

Why Matthew Included the Event in His Gospel

As recognized by many biblical scholars, the authors of the four gospels directed their writings to different audiences.

As demonstrated by the following, Matthew primarily directed his gospel to a Jewish audience:

  • Things that would have only been of interest to a Jewish audience were included in Matthew’s gospel while omitted from other gospels.  For example, Matthew begins his gospel by tracing Jesus’ genealogy back to David and Abraham (ancestors of the promised Jewish Messiah).
  • About 1,000 years before Jesus was born, it was prophesied that the Messiah would come from the seed of David and Matthew consistently refers to Jesus as the “Son of David” (Matt. 1:1; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30; 21:9,15; 22:42,45) which would only have had meaning to a Jewish community.
  • While other gospels explain Jewish customs (see, e.g., Mark 7:3-4; 14:12; 15:42), Matthew refers to Jewish customs without explaining them, an indication he believed his readers were familiar with the customs so did not need to have them explained.

To establish that Jesus fulfilled Jewish prophecies about the Messiah, Matthew includes the most quotations from the Old Testament.  Indeed, specifically with regard to the “Massacre of the Innocents”, Matthew 2:18 says the event was a fulfillment of a prophecy of Jeremiah (see Jer. 31:15):

“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.”

[NOTE:  Because Rachel was the wife of the Jewish patriarch, Jacob (Abraham’s grandson through Isaac), the reference to Rachel weeping for her children” would have had particular meaning to Matthew’s Jewish audience.]

Based on the above, Matthew may have included the account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” (which took place in a small, rural Jewish town and involved Jewish babies) because the event would have been especially significant to his Jewish audience .

Why Secular Historians like Josephus May
Not Have Referenced the Event in their Writings

Christian apologists further contend the following factors reasonably explain why secular historians (specifically including Josephus) may not have referenced the “Massacre of the Innocents” in their writings:

  • It is sometimes assumed a vast number of babies were killed in the “Massacre of the Innocents”, but the actual number was between six to thirty skip to
  • Against the backdrop of Herod’s murder of thousands of people, the death of 6 to 30 Jewish babies in Bethlehem may not have seemed noteworthy to those writing to a Greco-Roman audience skip to

It is Sometimes Assumed a Vast Number of Babies Were Killed in the “Massacre of the Innocents”, but the Actual Number was Six to Thirty

Use of the Word “Massacre” Does Not Imply Vast Numbers of Murders

Matthew did not record how many babies were killed by Herod in Bethlehem, nor did Matthew use the word “massacre.”

Matthew only says Herod “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under”; the term “massacre” wasn’t associated with the event until much later.

Moreover, although “massacres” can involve the killing of large numbers of people, the term “massacre” can be used to speak to the defenselessness of the victims killed as demonstrated by the following:

Massacre

Number of People Involved

 The Boston Massacre (1770)  5
 The Valentine Day Massacre (1929) 6
 The Hula Massacre (1948)  35-48
 The Avivim School Bus Massacre (1970)  12
 The Mekong River Massacre (2011)  13

There are many other massacres documented by historians which involve only a handful of victims.  Therefore, the term “Massacre of the Innocents” does not mean vast numbers of babies were killed in Bethlehem.  This is made even more clear since Bethlehem was a very small town.

Bethlehem was a Small Town with a Small Population

As reported in 1 Chronicles 2:50-51, Bethlehem was founded by Salma (King David’s great great grandfather – Salma » Boaz » Obed » Jesse » David).  Salma is also found in Jesus’ genealogy recorded in Matthew 1 (see, Matt. 1:4-5).

Micah the prophet prophesied that even though Bethlehem was “small among the clans of Judah”, a ruler over Israel (whose origins are from ancient times) would come out of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) which is what the Magi were told when they arrived in Jerusalem looking for one born king of the Jews (Matt. 2:1-3).

Bethlehem was a rural community.  It was at or near Bethlehem where David was tending sheep for his father (Jesse) when Samuel anointed him the future king of Israel (1 Samuel 16:1-2, 10-13).

When the Magi visited Jesus in Bethlehem, it was still an area where shepherds tended flocks, particularly the sheep used as sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem.  According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ birth was announced to shepherd’s tending flocks in fields near Bethlehem and they went to Bethlehem and found Jesus lying in a manger Jesus (Luke 2:4, 8-11, 15-16).

Bethlehem was a small town. According to the Book of Ezra, only 123 men returned to Bethlehem after the Jew’s returned to the Promised Land following their exile in Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar II (see Ezra 2:1, 21).  Even as late as 1596, tax and census records show Bethlehem’s total population was still only 1,435. [See, Andrew Petersen, The Towns of Palestine Under Muslim Rule, pg. 141 (Archaeopress, 2005)]

Bethlehem (1856) smallBethlehem c. 1854
by Auguste Salzmann

Around the time of Jesus’ birth, scholars estimate the total population of Bethlehem to have been about 300 to 1,000 people, including 6 – 30 male boys under the age of two. [See, Michael J. Wilkins, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, pg. 19 (2002), Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, pgs.104-121 (1993), Donald A. Hagner, World Biblical Commentary, Vol 33a, pg. 37 (1993), William Albright & C.S. Mann, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 26, pg. 19 (1971) and Paul Maier, “Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem”, Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, pg. 178, fn 25 (1998)].  Accordingly, the total number of baby boys who could have been slaughtered in the “Massacre of the Innocents” was 6 – 30 and at least one baby escaped — Jesus (Matt. 2:13-14, 19-23).

Against the Backdrop of Herod’s Murder of Thousands of People, the Death of 6 to 30 Jewish Babies in Bethlehem May Not Have Seemed Noteworthy to Those Writing to a Greco-Roman Audience

As stated by Werner Keller, during Herod’s thirty-six year reign, hardly a day passed without someone being sentenced to death. [Werner KellerThe Bible as History, pg. 334 (1981)]  An average of one killing per day for 36 years totals over 13,000 killings.

Against a backdrop of the thousands of brutal killings committed by Herod, the killing of 6 – 30 Jewish baby boys may not have seemed significant to the Greeks and Romans who don’t seem to have held the lives of babies in high regard.  As noted by Paul Maier, the Greeks (especially in Sparta) used infanticide as a type of birth control and the Romans permitted fathers to leave their newborn babies on the floor to die if they so chose. [See, Paul Maier, “Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem”, Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, pg. 169 (1998)]

Accordingly, Maier argues that although the massacre of babies in and around Bethlehem was certainly relevant to the Christian narrative and, therefore, included by Matthew in his gospel which was directed to a Jewish audience, the deaths of even a few dozen babies in a rural Jewish town like Bethlehem could have seemed to have little consequence to Josephus when he recorded  facts about Herod 75 – 95 years later.  [NOTE:  Herod died between 4 B.C. – 1 B.C. and Josephus wrote War to the Jews in c. 75 and Antiquities of the Jews in c. 94 ] [See, Paul Maier, “Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem”, Chronos, Kairos, Christos II,  pg. 169 (1998)]

With the above in mind, Christian theologians and scholars maintain that the lack of known references to the “Massacre of the Innocents” in historical texts outside of Matthew 2 does not reasonably prove the event is made-up fiction as some skeptics insist.

Conclusion

Because historians can never document all the events that occurred during a particular point in history and because only a fraction of ancient historical documents have survived over time, on its face it seems imprudent to write off the historicity of any ancient historical writing (including Matthew 2) solely because the an event referenced in the text is not found in other historical writings (above).

Additionally, with respect to Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents”, Christian apologists maintain the following additional factors demonstrate it is unreasonable for skeptics to insist Matthew’s account be written off as mere fiction:

  • Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” is consistent with Herod’s well-documented murderous reputation (see Point No. 2 above)
  • Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” is consistent with Herod’s psychological profile — Paranoid Personality Disorder — (see Point No. 3 above)
  • Except to the Jewish audience Matthew was writing to, the execution of several babies in a small Jewish town like Bethlehem may not have seemed noteworthy against the backdrop of Herod’s numerous brutal murders (see Point No. 4 above)

Based on the above, Christian apologists maintain it is unreasonable for skeptics to insist Matthew’s account of the “Massacre of the Innocents” be disregarded as mere fiction.

© 2014 by Andrina G. Hanson

Published: December 5, 2014 / Last Updated: December 10, 2014

__________________________________

QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE

William Albright & C.S. Mann, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 26 (Doubleday, 1971)

Raymond BrownThe Birth of the Messiah. A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993)

Gordon Franz, “The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction?” (2009) available here

Donald A. Hagner, World Biblical Commentary, Vol 33a (Word Books: Dallas, Texas, 1993)

Aryeh Kasher (in collaboration with Eliezer Witztum) King Herod: A Persecuted Persecutor. A Case Study in Psychohistory and Psychobiography (Walter de Gruyter, Berlin-New York, March 2007)

Werner KellerThe Bible as History, pg. 334 (William Morrow & Co., Inc.: New York, 1981) here

Paul Maier (Jerry Vardman, Ed.), “Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem”, Chronos, Kairos, Christos II (Mercer University Press, 1998)

Ehud NetzerThe Palaces of the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Institute and Israel Exploration Society, 2001)

Michael J. Wilkins (Clinton Arnold, Ed.), Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002)

 IMAGE CREDITS & LICENSING

Slideshow Photo:  Giotto di Bondone (1267 – 1337) was an Italian painter and architect.  This slideshow photo is of Giotto’s painting of the “Massacre of the Innocents” was done on the 1310’s.  The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional work of art which is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Herod the Great:  This image of an artist’s impression of Herod the Great was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is in the public domain.

Herod’s Hippodrome in Caesarea Maritima:  This photograph of the hippodrome built by Herod the Great in Caesarea Maritima was taken by tango7174.  The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.com which states the image is license under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Bethlehem c 1956:  This work of art by Auguste Salzmann was downloaed from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Facebook Twitter Email