Herod the Great (Baby Killer)

Posted: December 23, 2011 in Arguments, Bible Related, Conspiracy Theories, History Related
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While reading Reza Aslan’s book, How To Win A Cosmic War, I came across a paragraph that mentioned Herod the Great. Aslan writes, “History has not been kind to the man called Herod the Great. Best known for his slaughter of Bethlehem’s children in a vain search for the infant Jesus- an implausible event attributed to him solely by the Gospel of Matthew, for which there exists not a single corroborating source in any of the other chronicles or histories of the time-…”[1] Clearly Aslan doesn’t believe the event that is historically known as the “Slaughter of Innocents,” ever occurred. A position maintained by a great number of skeptics.


One can’t blame Aslan I suppose. Killing thousands upon thousands of children in Bethlehem alone seems ridiculous in itself… if you overlook the many times such atrocities have occurred in world history (just look at Hitler or the infanticide of the Spartans or modern day abortion) But for the Book of Matthew to be the only one source from which this historical claim is made… can we even consider Matthew to be a reliable source? You think someone else would have documented such an outrageous event. Not just a reformed tax collector that wrote about it some 50 years later or so. The whole premise relies on the assumption that the story of Christ is a true story to begin with. But this skepticism is really just a shallow denial without a thorough logical examination of the event in question when you really look into it.


Now of course, whether or not the story of Jesus and his existence is true I will not address here for sake of time and space. I’ve covered it a large number of times in many other articles I’ve written. So for you skeptics reading this, let’s assume for the moment the story of Christ is indeed accurate as recorded in the gospels. The gospel of Matthew reads as follows, When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape toEgypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left forEgypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out ofEgypt I called my son.’ When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:13-16 NIV).


From this passage take note of the requirements Herod gave for his soldiers. He told them to kill just boys. He also told them to kill only those 2 years of age or younger. This is a significant difference from the generalized notion that all the children were killed in Bethlehem, a tradition that maintains a number of anywhere from 3,000[2] to 64,000[3]. But only boys 2 years of age or younger were killed. Now consider that Bethlehem was not the decent sized city it is today. During the time of the events in question, Bethlehem was a very small village, hence why the prophecy that Christ would be born in such an insignificant location is so significant. Though we don’t know the exact population of Bethlehem at the time it was probably in the hundreds, maybe even a few thousand. Professor William F. Albright, the dean of American archaeology in the Holy Land, estimates that the population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth to be about 300 people.[4] So considering that the order was to kill only the boys of two years or younger in such a small village, how many children were actually killed? Fifty? Twenty? Who knows for sure? But we do know that it was not thousands of children killed becauseBethlehem was simply put, not big enough. In the eventBethlehem only had a population of 300 it is likely that no more than 10 children were killed.


The great historian Josephus wrote that Herod often killed people and was so cruel that his subjects considered the dead to be fortunate.[5] Many critics of the New Testament claim that a biased portrait of Herod is painted in the Bible because of untrue killing of innocent children. But outside of the Bible, every historian that wrote of Herod the Great remarked on how ruthless he was and that there was not a day during his reign when someone wasn’t executed. He once burned two Jewish rabbis alive and then killed all the rabbis’ students. He killed his brother in law, mother in law, three of his sons and his second wife Miriamme.[6] So Herod wasn’t exactly such a nice guy, but in historical fact a King responsible for the deaths of a great many people under his authority. So in the big picture, would the murder of a few baby boys in the littlevillage ofBethlehem be a significant historical event or be out of character for Herod? Doubtful. Would any Jewish or Roman historian take particular note of the small scale of the murders amidst Herod’s long record of murders? Doubtful. But for followers of Jesus in which it indicated fulfilled prophecy it was definitely an important event. One that needed to be recorded, and subsequently was.


King Herod

In addition, child death was not notable for the Roman culture either. Infanticide was widely practiced in Rome, especially in Sparta.[7] The slaughter of a few children in a Jewish province would have hardly turned any heads.  Furthermore, we must not overlook the possibility that a Jewish or Roman historian did write about the baby murders in Bethlehem, but the records were destroyed at some point or have yet to be unearthed. As the old saying goes; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As historian Gordon Franz writes, “Even though secular history is silent on this event it does not mean it did not occur.  When the life of Herod the Great is examined, this event is very consistent with his character and actions so this is pointing to the fact that it did happen as recorded in Holy Scripture.”[8]


In conclusion, Herod’s character would make the slaughter of innocents very plausible. The event itself was a small event and therefore not likely to get any “press” with Jewish or Roman historians, so we shouldn’t expect any historical record outside the Bible. And the event is recorded in the Book of Matthew which has been found historically accurate on all archaeology related accounts as noted in my other articles. In knowing this, it is hardly logical to dismiss the Slaughter of the Innocents as implausible myth.

[1] Aslan, R., (2009) How To Win A Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, Random House,New York: NY, pp. 32.

[2] Traditional count from the Martyrdom of Matthew.

[3] Traditional count from Syrian tradition.

[4] Albright, W., & Mann, C.S., (1971) The Anchor Bible, DoubledayNew York: NY, pp. 19.

[6] Franz, G., (December, 2009) “The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction?” http://www.biblearchaeology.org

[7] Maier, P., (1998) “Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem,” as written in Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, Mercer University Press, Macon; GA, pp. 179

[8] Franz, G., (December, 2009) “The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction?” http://www.biblearchaeology.org

  1. matthew2262 says:

    An exerpt from Rene Laurentin’s, “The Truth of Christmas.”

    “Herod was an atrocious murderer. The most noted of his killings are dated during Herod’s final years, precisely those around the time of Jesus’ birth, in frantic reaction to a prediction that his dynasty would lose the throne. His policing skills, his murderous plot, his violent reaction when his planned failed- all these, as reported by Matthew, do in fact correspond to his character…

    …The Bethlehem massacre was overlooked by Josephus. This omision does not constitute an objection. His chronicle is filled with the massacres committed by Herod, in his own family, among his officers, and among the Jews on a greater scale. In comparison to these major acts of violence, the Bethlehem massacre could have been passed over unnoticed. The village and its environs numbered about 1,000 persons, which would include at most about 20 boys under 2 years of age, an insignificant figure within Herod’s full tally of massacres. It is hardly suprising, then, that Josephus, whose account is overloaded with such episodes, should make no mention of this. His silence is in no way significant.”

    Laurentin, R., (1986 ) “The Truth of Christmas, Beyond the Myths,” (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications) pp. 372

  2. matthew2262 says:

    “Our conclusion from a literary point of view was that it was easier to explain the origin of the tradition of Herod and the children of Bethlehem on the assumption that it recorded an actual event, and our study of the historical question has shown that it is not improbable that such an event could have ocurred in the last years of Herod’s reign… This incident should not be cited without more ado as evidence that the nativity stories were simply ‘made up’ in the interests of Christian hagiography or apologetics, or evolved without historical basis from a reflection on scripture and Jewish tradition.

    Objective analysis, therefore, invites us to consider Matthew’s account not as an imaginative creation but as a datum of history- which led Matthew to think of a number of biblical analogies. If this were not the case, his procedure here would make no sense, given his prospective and overall purpose.

    Matthew is not simply meditating on OT texts, but claiming that in what has happened they find a fulfillment. If the events are legendary, the argument is futile. Of course, Matthew could be mistaken, and could have accepted as fact what was in reality pious legend. But we have seen reason to doubt whether this was the case.”

    -Dr. Richard Thomas France, New Testement Scholar

    France, R.T., (1979) “Herod and the Children of Bethlehem,” NovTest, 21, pp. 120.

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