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.

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 the 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)? A historical and psychological analysis diagnosed Herod the Great with Paranoid Personality Disorder (Kasher and Witztum 2007:431). So yeah, suffice to say the Massacre of the Innocents is totally on brand with what we know about Herod.

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. As historian Paul Maier notes, “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.”

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. 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.

What about the parallels to Moses?

The comparison between Herod’s massacre of the Bethlehem children and Pharaoh’s act in Exodus 1-2 often crops up. But diving into these parallels reveals stark differences. Pharaoh, a foreign ruler, fretted over the entire Jewish population for typical reasons (Exodus 1:9-10), resulting in a broad, public decree even before Moses’ birth. Yet, in Matthew 2, we encounter an Israeli ruler bothered about just one individual based on a supernatural tip-off from the magi. This ruler acts alone in a single city without any public announcement following Jesus’ birth. These differences barely scratch the surface of the supposed Pharaoh/Herod comparison.

Matthew deliberately steers clear of potential parallels, portraying Jesus as distinct from Moses. Unlike Moses, Jesus lacks older siblings playing a pivotal role in his life. While Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s household, Jesus grows up in an ordinary lower-class home. It’s intriguing to note that when you peruse the first two chapters of Exodus, Matthew could have drawn upon or mirrored aspects more closely, but consciously chose not to. If Matthew indeed had the freedom to invent content as critics suggest, he could have forged a much more direct link to Moses.

Uncommon parallels might make us question historicity, but we need to consider various factors. Sometimes, two entities or events share uncanny similarities yet are widely acknowledged as historical (like the well-known resemblances between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy). On other occasions, historical events might oddly resemble fictional accounts (similarities between the sinking of the Titanic and an earlier well-known fictional tale of the sinking of the Titan). However, these unusual parallels don’t overshadow the substantial evidence supporting the historical authenticity of Kennedy and the Titanic. While they might prompt skepticism in other contexts, the Kennedy/Lincoln and Titanic/Titan parallels don’t outweigh the compelling evidence backing the historical claims about Kennedy and the Titanic.

Is there any positive evidence for Matthew 2?

What I’ve said so far undercuts the negative case. But is there any positive evidence for the events that took place in Matthew 2? There sure is. Let’s check out Matthew 2:22:

“But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee.”

If you put on your historian hat for a moment and think about this verse. It raises three natural questions:

  1. Why would Galilee provide a “sanctuary city” of sorts for The Holy Family?
  2. Why isn’t Archelaus called king, like his father Herod?
  3. Most importantly, why was the news that Archelaus in charge that Joseph found troubling?

To answer the first question, we need to go to Josephus. Antiquities 17.3.1 tells us that after Herod the Great’s death, his domain was divided between his sons. Archelaus received authority in Judea but not in Galilee. Galilee fell under the jurisdiction of his brother, Herod Antipas. So this explains why if Joseph was looking to avoid dealing with Archelaus he decided to go to Nazareth rather than back to Bethlehem.

Coin of Herod Archelaus, Creative Commons

So why didn’t Archelaus go by the title of ‘king’? His army called him king, but Archelaus refused to assume the title until he submitted his claims to Caesar Augustus. His own brother opposed him because of his reputation for being cruel. (I’ll talk about that in just a second.)

In 4 BC Augustus gave him the greater part of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea but only under the title of ethnarch. Archelaus continued to act like a savage jerk, and eventually, the Jews complained loudly enough that he was violating the commands of Caesar. Augustus was infuriated with Archelaus, and banished him to Vienna and stripped him of his title and wealth in 6 AD, about ten years after he gained authority and in the 12th year after Jesus’ birth. (Josephus, Antiquities 17.13.2) It’s interesting to note that the first time Jesus is mentioned going along with his family to Passover is when he was 12 years old. (Luke 2:41-42)

Archelaus – A chip off the old block

In answering the third and final question, I think by now you’ve picked up where this is going. When Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in his father’s place, he knew this was bad news. He had already fled to Egypt to get away from one homicidal maniac only to find out there was another one in his place. Archelaus gained his bloody reputation from ordering the brutal slaughter of 3,000 Jews at Passover.

So here’s what happened — There were some Jews who were outraged to see Roman shields posted over the gate of the Temple. They saw this as a clear sign of disrespect and breaking the decalogue’s commands against graven images, as the shields had eagle’s wings on them. So these devout Jews took the liberty of cutting them down. These protesters were immediately executed on Herod’s orders and not given a proper burial.

As you might guess, this didn’t go over very well with the Jews. Thousands flocked to Passover every year, and the story spread rapidly through the crowds during the following Passover. A large group of Jews gave a small regiment of Roman soldiers a piece of their mind and tensions rose to the point where the Jews stoned the soldiers. Archelaus got wind of it and decided to pull “there’s a new sheriff in town” routine. Here’s Josephus with the details:

“Now Archelaus thought there was no way to preserve the entire government but by cutting off those who made this attempt upon it; so he sent out the whole army upon them, and sent the horsemen to prevent those that had their tents without the temple from assisting those that were within the temple, and to kill such as ran away from the footmen when they thought themselves out of danger; which horsemen slew three thousand men, while the rest went to the neighbouring mountains. Then did Archelaus order proclamation to be made to them all, that they should retire to their own homes; so they went away and left the festival out of fear of somewhat worse which would follow, although they had been so bold by reason of their want of instruction.”

Antiquities of the Jews, 17.9.3

Passover was canceled. The Jews who came from outside Jerusalem were told to go home. As one of his first acts as ethnarch, this made him wildly unpopular.

Imagine this scene: Mary, Joseph, and little Jesus on their journey back from Egypt, encountering a sea of distressed pilgrims pouring out of Judea, sharing the harrowing news. Faced with this, they pivot and decide to head to Galilee instead, where Archelaus’ younger brother, Herod Antipas, held sway. Seeking refuge from one ruthless king in Judea, Joseph wisely concluded that re-entering the realm of yet another tyrant wasn’t a prudent move.

Matthew’s account intriguingly omits the background behind Joseph’s change of route. Oddly, Archelaus doesn’t show up anywhere else in the Bible. This makes Josephus’ incidental insight into the text more credible. It’s like puzzle pieces falling into place—Matthew’s narrative, rooted in reality, gains credibility through this connection. Especially when you consider the timeline—both accounts syncing up with Herod’s demise and Joseph’s family returning from Egypt around the same time. The story has the ring of truth.


Liked it? Take a second to support Erik Manning on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Comments are closed.

Is Jesus Alive?