Did Matthew Fabricate the Account of Herod’s Slaughter of the Bethlehem Infants?
“In Matthew’s Gospel, there is the account of where king Herod killed the baby boys of Bethlehem, two years old and younger, in an attempt to eliminate the infant Jesus (Mt. 2:16). Since this was such a brutal event, why does history not record the horrible massacre? Skeptics say that this indicates the fictional nature of the New Testament.”
First of all, this observation must be made. The absence of the mention of an historical event in any given document proves nothing. There may be a perfectly legitimate reason for an incident not being recorded among the documents of antiquity, no matter how dramatic it was. The histories of the ancient world were limited in number and in scope. Roman records, for example, dealt principally with matters of interest to the political fortunes of the empire, rather than with isolated tragedies in remote countries that were under the imperial control.
The claim is made, however, that Josephus, a Jewish historian, records much about Herod, and that not even he mentions the alleged case of the slaughter of the Bethlehem babies.
While it is true that Josephus provides considerable data relative to Herod the Great (47-4 B.C.)—even numerous despicable deeds—it likewise is the case that his writings are slanted with a Jewish bias. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that he would have been inclined to record an episode that demonstrated the protective care of God on behalf of his Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
Second, it is not correct to say that history ignored this horrible event. It is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, and Matthew’s narrative is a reliable first century document. It is neither an honest nor legitimate approach to history to simply eliminate this record because it is in the New Testament. Critics must not be allowed to choose only those sources that meet their personal agenda.
There are a couple factors which may help to bring into sharper focus Matthew’s account of the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem.
- Bethlehem was a small, rather insignificant town in the hill country of Judah, about five miles south of Jerusalem. When the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity, only 123 men settled in Bethlehem (Ezra 2:21). It probably did not have more than a thousand citizens at the time of Christ’s birth. It has been estimated that, at the beginning of the first century, there likely would have been only about ten to thirty boy babies under the age of two in the little hamlet (Michael J. Wilkins, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Clinton Arnold, Ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, p. 19). The killing of a few children in an obscure Judean community would scarcely have attracted much attention in the notably bloody world of that day.
- This vile deed attributed to Herod is perfectly consistent with what is known about the character of the beast. He was so paranoid of his regal authority that he did not hesitate to murder numerous members of his own immediate and extended family. His favorite wife, Mariamne, was publicly executed, as was her mother, Alexandra. Earlier Herod had put to death Hyrcanus, Mariamne’s grandfather (who, incidentally, once had saved the king’s life). He also executed several of his sons, e.g., Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater. One ancient writer suggested that Augustus Caesar once quipped that it would be better to be Herod’s pig than his son! (Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.f.11). For a general survey of Herod’s activities, see Josephus, Antiquities, Books 14-17.
If that ruler committed such atrocities as those just sketched, is there any doubt that he would be capable of the bloody spectacle depicted in Matthew’s Gospel?
During the severe illness that previewed his imminent death, the Herodian monster had some of the chief men of the Jewish nation imprisoned at Jericho. He then issued a dispatch to some of his close kinsmen that, upon his death, these Jews should be put to death. The reason he ascribed to the plan was his knowledge of the fact that when he died, he would not be mourned as befitted a king. Especially was he aware that the Jews would rejoice at his passing. Accordingly, after he had breathed his final breath, these Hebrews were to be killed, that weeping might be heard throughout the land, suitable for a funeral such as his! (Antiquities 17.6.2). (Fortunately, his vile command was ignored.)
It is clear, therefore, that no reasonable objection can be made to the record of Herod’s brutal conduct, as portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel account.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.