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 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)?

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.

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.

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 non-plussed 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.

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. 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. Now notice how indirect all of this is. Matthew is just making a passing reference to Archelaus’ status and the limits of his dominion fit exactly with what we learn from reading Josephus. Also, his reasons for going to Nazareth aren’t clear to us unless we read Josephus as well.

Fictions and forgeries just aren’t like this. So here we have positive evidence that Matthew knew his stuff. And we’ve seen that the argument from silence isn’t enough to make us doubt the slaughter of the innocents.

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