Historical Truth or Holy Fiction: Did Herod really order the Massacre of the Innocents, or did Matthew just make up a story?

When we think of the Christmas story, our minds go to some dingy, yet warm and cozy places. We picture Mary, Joseph and a swaddling baby in a manger. We see angels, shepherds and the Magi bearing gifts. I can almost hear “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” now.

But smack dab in the middle of the Christmas story is a grim and gory tale. In Matthew 2:16 we read of Herod learning of the Messianic king’s birth, feeling threatened and then ordering the slaughter of all the male children 2 and under in Bethlehem. It’s a grizzly story, but it’s a part of the account of the birth of Christ nonetheless. But not everyone believes that Matthew was telling the truth.

Was Matthew making stuff up to fit his theological agenda?

Some skeptics have said that Matthew is just trying to make Jesus look like a new Moses. If you remember in Exodus, Pharaoh was worried the Israelite population was growing too large and becoming a threat, so he ordered the male Hebrew babies to be killed as they were born. (Exodus 1:15-22) Moses was hidden and you know the rest of the story.  Matthew, wanting to draw some parallels, cooked the whole thing up, or so we’re told. Classical historian Michael Grant, for instance, stated: “The tale is not history but myth or folklore.” Why do skeptics doubt Matthew?

Their reasoning boils down to this – Luke doesn’t mention it and he’s very interested in the birth narrative. It’s not a story that appears in the other gospels, either. And no other historian mentions it. You’d think Josephus of all people would have shared it since he gives us a lot of other details about crazy Herod and his shenanigans.

So what’s the deal? Was Matthew making things up to shoehorn another fulfilled prophecy into the life of Jesus? (Matthew 2:18, Jeremiah 31:15), Was he playing fast and loose with history?

The absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence – why the argument from silence fails

The problem with this is that it’s an argument from silence. Lack of evidence isn’t necessarily itself evidence. Philosopher Peter Kreeft defines the argument from silence like this: “When a speaker or writer is silent about x, we cannot conclude that he does not believe in x, or that there is no x.”

Examples of the argument from silence abound in history. Some historians said Marco Polo never explored China. After all, he would have mentioned the Great Wall. It turns out most historians now believe he visited China after all. Ulysses S. Grant wrote an extensive memoir of his time as a general in the Union Army. He wrote almost daily logs, yet he never says anything about the Emancipation Proclamation. Well, that is a weird thing to not mention! It was kind of a big deal.

Since Josephus’ silence is what the critics point to, I’ll mention that there are some big events that Josephus ignores in his writings that you wouldn’t expect. He doesn’t mention expulsion of the Jews from Rome by Emperor Claudius. Suetonius, a 2nd-century Roman Historian does, and Luke also talks about it. (Acts 18:2) But rather shockingly, Josephus is silent about it.  That doesn’t lead historians to think it didn’t happen, however.

Here’s the bottom line: If you got contemporary testimony from an author, an argument that we don’t have corroboration from other ancient authors is pretty lousy.

King Herod – Not a very nice guy

Plus, let’s think for a moment about what we know about King Herod. The man was a straight up gangster. Movies like Goodfellas, Casino and the like have nothing on the Life and Times of Herod. He operated like a super paranoid mob boss. Real or perceived threats to his authority got dealt with violently.

Upon becoming the “King of the Jews”, his first order of business was to purge his Hasmonean family. He had Mattathias Antigonus executed because he saw him as a threat. (Antiquities 15:5-10) He had the elderly John Hyrcanus II strangled over an alleged plot to have him overthrown. (Antiquities 15:173-178)

Herod also had his brother-in-law, who was also the High Priest, drowned in his swimming pool because he thought the Jews would want him to be their ruler instead of him. (Antiquities 15:50-56). Out of paranoia, he had his mother-in-law executed, and then later his second wife Miriamme killed. And then three of his sons through that marriage were also murdered to top things off. (Antiquities 15:247-251, 15:365-372, 17:182-187)

Herod seemingly got crazier in his later years. In the last few years of his life, he had 300 military leaders executed. Then a little bit later, some Pharisees prophesied that his kingdom would not fall to his heirs. So he rounded them up and had them bumped off. (Antiquities 16:393-394, 17:42-45)

With prophecies like these already circulating within his kingdom, is it any wonder Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus when the Magi revealed the new “king of the Jews” was born (Matthew 2:1-2)?

So why was Josephus silent?

We can only speculate. But Bethlehem wasn’t a booming metropolis. Neither was the surrounding area; we’re talking about a population of 1,200-1,500 tops.

The Massacre of the Innocents, as tragic as it was, resulted in the death of maybe a dozen baby boys. It’s pretty horrific sounding in our media age where there’s a constant news cycle.

But to Josephus’ Roman audience, it might have seemed like no big deal. The infant mortality rate that time was already high, and infanticide wasn’t seen as a whole lot different than abortion today.

In summary

This argument from silence that throws shade at Matthew’s report turns out to be rather weak sauce. This alleged historical gaffe doesn’t hurt the historical reliability of the gospels in the least.

Matthew’s not just spinning some holy yarn here. The slaughter of the innocents is completely in character with Herod’s insane paranoia and murderousness. It wasn’t a wide-scale infanticide like sometimes depicted, though it probably led to the tragic death of a handful of baby boys.

And as horrible as it is, it probably wasn’t something deemed all that historically important at the time, at least to a Roman audience. So the silence of Josephus and the other gospel writers simply isn’t a good argument against it.

Erik is a former atheist turned Christian after an experience with the Holy Spirit. Other interesting stuff about Erik: He’s a baseball nerd. His baseball writing has been published in ESPN.com, Fangraphs.com and has been mentioned in the WSJ. He’s a web designer by day and is the co-owner of a small decor business with his wife. He’s a dad of four and lives in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area. He’s passionate about the intersection of evangelism, apologetics and the local church.

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