Matthew’s Massacre of the Innocents: HIstory, Not Fiction

When we think about the Christmas story, we imagine warm and cozy scenes—Mary, Joseph, and the baby in a humble manger, angels, shepherds, and the wise men offering their gifts. But right in the middle of this heartwarming tale is a grim event. In Matthew 2:16, Herod, after learning about the birth of the Messianic king, orders the killing of all boys aged two and under in Bethlehem. It’s a disturbing part of Christ’s birth story, but not everyone believes Matthew’s account.

Scholars and historians doubt this event for a few reasons. It’s not in Luke’s Gospel or any other historical records. Some think it was made up to fit a narrative, to portray Jesus as a “new Israel” through a “new Exodus” by placing him in Egypt. This connects to Exodus, where Pharaoh ordered the killing of Hebrew baby boys because he felt threatened by their growing numbers (Exodus 1:15-22). These scholars say that Matthew might have created this story to draw parallels to Moses and Jesus.

Furthermore, when scholars can’t confirm what Matthew says with outside sources, they suggest he made Old Testament prophecies into history. For instance, why did Matthew send Jesus to Egypt when Luke didn’t mention it? Some think it was to make it seem like Jesus fulfilled the prophecy in Hosea 11:1.

They also mention Jeremiah’s prophecy about wailing over Rachel’s children in Jeremiah 31:15. Some skeptics say that to Matthew, this means Herod might have done something—like killing Rachel’s descendants—to fit the prophecy, even if it doesn’t match historical facts.

So did Matthew lie, or was he telling the truth? 

About crazy King Herod

Let’s consider what we know about King Herod. He operated like a paranoid mob boss. Real or perceived threats to his authority got dealt with violently.

Upon becoming king, his first order of business was to purge his Hasmonean predecessors. 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 became more unhinged 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 killed (Antiquities 16:393-394, 17:42-45).

With prophecies 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)? Herod also imprisoned the leading figures of Palestine in the Hippodrome, intending to have them all killed at the time of his own death to ensure a grand mourning (Antiquities 17.6.5). Evidently, he had no expectations of genuine mourning for his passing. This malevolent scheme might have gained more attention if his relatives hadn’t relented after his demise, allowing all those citizens to return home unharmed.

For what it’s worth, a historical and psychological analysis diagnosed Herod the Great with Paranoid Personality Disorder (King Herod: A Persecuted Persecutor, Kasher). Suffice to say, the Massacre of the Innocents is totally on brand with what we know about King Herod the Great. 

A new Moses?

So was Jesus Moses 2.0 according to Matthew? 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.

Furthermore, unlike Moses, Jesus lacks older siblings playing a key role in his life. While Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s household, Jesus grows up in an ordinary lower-class home. As you go through the first two chapters of Exodus, it’s clear that Matthew could have drawn upon or mirrored aspects more closely if he wanted to, but consciously chose not to.

Even if the parallels between Jesus and Moses were strong, 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 (like the 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, parallels by themselves aren’t strong evidence against historical accuracy.

Did Matthew invent the story to fulfill Messianic prophecy?

But what about the prophecies? While skeptics are right in saying that Matthew seems to go out of the way to connect Jesus to the Old Testament, in all the Jewish writings before Christianity, there’s no hint that anyone considered Jeremiah 31:15 or Hosea 11:1 as messianic prophecies.

And it’s not like they were short on what they did see as messianic! Alfred Edersheim, in his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, listed 456 passages from the Targums or the Talmud as messianic. But neither of these verses make the list. 

Now, I’m not saying that, according to first-century Jewish thinking, these passages couldn’t have been seen to match events in Jesus’ life if those events actually happened. They could have easily fit that bill. But our evidence shows that an overly excited first-century Jew wanting to cook up a Messiah birth story wouldn’t likely reach for these passages or feel the need to squeeze them into the narrative. There were tons of other options available, these passages simply weren’t on their radar. So, why would Matthew specifically pick these bits from the prophetic writings unless they fit the events that actually happened?

Why didn’t Josephus report the slaughter?

So, why did the Jewish historian Josephus stay silent about the Bethlehem massacre? Clearly he tells us a lot about the misdeeds of the evil Herod, so why stay silent here? In response, it’s possible that he never heard about it or that he simply didn’t care. 

Let’s think about it: Bethlehem wasn’t bustling—it had around 1,200-1,500 residents, with just 300 in the town itself according to some archaeologists’ estimates. So, while the Massacre of the Innocents was tragic, it might not have been a major event—maybe a dozen baby boys lost. In our sensitive media-driven world, that sounds shocking, but to Josephus’ Roman audience, it might have seemed minor. As historian Paul Maier notes, the Greco-Roman crowd had little concern for infant deaths. Greeks practiced infanticide as birth control, especially in Sparta, and Roman fathers had the power to let their babies die at birth.

Furthermore, Josephus also overlooked other major events. He didn’t mention Emperor Claudius expelling Jews from Rome, although Suetonius and Luke did. Using Josephus’ silence to discredit Matthew’s story falls flat. There are lots of things that we believe are historical that are based on a single source.

Trusting Joseph’s narrative

So far, I’ve been countering the negative arguments, but there’s solid evidence supporting the events in Matthew 2. Check out verses Matthew 2:19-22 that’s when Jesus’ family begins their journey back from Egypt right after Herod the Great passes away.

“But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 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.” 

Now, put on your historian hat and consider these passages. They spark three intriguing questions:

  1. Why did Galilee act as a kind of safe haven for the Holy Family?
  2. Why wasn’t Archelaus titled as king, unlike his father Herod?
  3. And most crucially, why did Joseph get uneasy upon hearing about Archelaus taking charge?

To crack the first puzzle, let’s consult Josephus. In Antiquities 17.3.1, he notes that after Herod the Great passed away, his realm split among his sons. Archelaus ruled over Judea, but Galilee fell under the sway of his brother, Herod Antipas. So apparently Joseph wanted to steer clear of Archelaus’s territory for some reason. We’ll find out why in a moment. 

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. Even his own brother opposed him because of his reputation for being cruel.

In 4 BC Augustus gave him the greater part of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea but only under the title of ethnarch. Archelaus continued to be a bully, 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 in Jerusalem is when he was 12 years old, after Archelaus was gone. (Luke 2:41-42)

In answering the third and most important question, when Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in his father’s place, he knew this was bad news. Archelaus first gained his bloody reputation from ordering the brutal slaughter of three thousand 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. 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.

You might imagine this didn’t sit well with the Jews. Thousands attended Passover annually, and the tale swiftly spread among the crowds the next Passover. A sizable group of protesting Jews confronted a small Roman soldier unit, tensions escalating to the point where the Jews stoned the soldiers. The culprits fled into the Temple, carrying their sacrifices, perhaps hoping to vanish within the crowd. The new ruler, Archelaus, caught wind of it and opted for the classic “there’s a new sheriff in town” approach.

Josephus tells us that Archelaus, wanting to maintain control, sent out his whole army. He used horsemen to stop people outside the temple from helping those inside and to chase down those trying to escape. About three thousand men were killed, making the others run to the nearby mountains. Archelaus then told everyone to go back home. Passover was canceled. As one of his first acts as ethnarch, this made him wildly unpopular. (Antiquities of the Jews, 17.9.3)

So 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.

Notice that Matthew’s account is indirectly precise, indicating a knowledgeable source. His accurate mention of Archelaus’ status and the unspoken hint that Archelaus didn’t rule Galilee align perfectly with Josephus’s account. When compared to later Christian legends about Jesus, which lack this level of precise detail, Matthew’s narrative feels genuine and truthful.

There’s really not much reason to question this story, and it seems like Matthew was probably telling it like it happened.

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