Actualizado: oct 21
Herod the Great, King of Judea, gained the appellative “Great” because, during his reign, he completed large construction projects, including the cities of Caesarea and Samaria, built the new temple at Jerusalem, was a master diplomat, and reigned as king for over 37 years. Most historians don’t know much about these achievements. The legacy he left, the event we remember him for, is the Massacre of the Innocents, an occurrence that most historian doubt ever happened. The incident is narrated by only one of the evangelists (Matthew Chapter 2). Herod orders his men to kill all infants under two years old, born in Bethlehem and its vicinity, to eliminate the possibility of a new king of the Jews replacing him.
Michael Grant, a modern biographer of Herod, dismisses Matthew’s story as an invention; he categorized the tale as myth or folklore. In my book – Mary Magdalene: The Lord’s Wife – Alice McCallum, who asserts she was Mary Magdalene, married to Jesus in a past life, is certain that the event did not happen in Jesus’ times, but just as a story told by their parents about an Egyptian pharaoh ordering the killing of all Hebrew males at the moment of their birth.
Despite these adverse opinions, I will hold the position that the event happened, even if the only written account of the massacre is what Matthew gave us. I got into the project as a skeptic; now, after objectively and intellectually realizing Matthew's gospel's validity, I am a firm believer in his account (Matthew Chapter 2). I found convincing reasons why the Massacre of the Innocents is an authentic tale of what happened in Bethlehem on that unfortunate night. The massacre was not a large one, but was very important to Matthew because it involved Jesus. Matthew is a biographer and he wanted to write about facts, not rumors or legends. The only prerequisite for the story to make sense is that you believe in God's existence and His power to perform miracles and do supernatural things. If you are an atheist, or just one of those who do not believe in the super natural, then, this version of what happened will not satisfy you.
Before I tell you what I believe happened, let’s take a quick look at the main characters of the story: Bethlehem, Herod, Josephus, Matthew, Joseph, and God.
Bethlehem: As of August 12, 2018, Bethlehem had a population of less than 30,000. Statistical analysis indicates that Bethlehem was a small village of between 200-300 residents at the time of Jesus' birth. This fact eliminates the assertion of "Herod the Great," a Timeline documentary that, at its beginning, states that Herod's men murdered “thousands" of children. Much more absurd are the speculations of the Byzantine liturgy (14,000), the Syrian list of saints (64,000), and Coptic sources that estimate the number of children killed at around 144,000. As if it wasn’t enough, artists now and then have depicted the massacre showing huge numbers of naked bodies and lots of blood. Compare those numbers with the more realistic ones suggested by the Catholic Encyclopedia of between 6 and 20.
Herod: Born in 73 BC, died in 4 BC. Became king in 40 BC when he was 33 years old. He had ten wives. He is the only man known to have resisted been seduced by Cleopatra, the world's most desirable woman. During his 37 years’ reign, he ordered the execution of one of his wives (Marianne), his brother in law (Aristobulus), three of his sons (Antiparte, Alexander, and Aristobulus), and all those who he perceived to pose a threat to his political future. He managed to keep his kingdom based on two premises: one, by gifting when his adversary was superior to him and two by murdering them when they were inferior. In his latest years, he went mad; ordered massive executions of his political enemies. Medical experts believe it was the result of Paranoid Personality Disorder.
Josephus: Born 37 AD – Dead 100 AD Author of Antiquities of the Jews, published in 94 AD. He was Jewish. Became a Roman citizen, adopted the name Flavius to honor his patrons, the Flavian Dynasty, who gave him a generous stipend that allowed him to live in luxury until his death a few years after the publication of his “Antiquities.” Henry Davis, a distinguished historian, wrote an interesting article in 2019 where he disputes de mere existence of Josephus.
Matthew: Born a few years after the massacre happened in Capernaum – Died around 75 AD in Heliopolis. He witnessed the Ascension of Jesus. Author of the Gospel of Matthew, written in the mid-50s. He was a tax collector before becoming disciple, Apostol, and biographer of Jesus.
Joseph: Stepfather of Jesus. Christians believe that, following God’s instructions, he accepted Mary’s divine conception of Jesus. Took care of the child until he was at least 12 years old.
God: As a prerequisite to understanding the story told by Matthew, you must believe in God’s existence and His power to produce supernatural events.
Matthew's story begins when Jesus is born in Bethlehem (House of Bread in Hebrew), the birthplace of King David and Joseph's ancestors (Luke 2:1-7). He does not say that Our Savior was born in a manger surrounded by domestic animals. The Evangelist speaks about "wise men" from the East; nobody knows their countries. Contrary to popular belief, Matthew did not specify how many, but he surely knew they were astrologers and dream interpreters capable of understanding prophecy. He tells us they came to Jerusalem to inquire about the birthplace of a child who would be King of the Jews. The Magi want to go to worship Jesus but they are foreigners who may not know where Bethlehem is. Herod’s scribes know exactly where he is but did not care about it; they already had a King of the Jews. The wise men’s lack of knowledge is credible because they were not theologians; the scribes’ lack of interest is also credible because they already had their “king.” Supernatural events surrounded their trip, including a guiding star that led them to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We should not be surprised, neither should the Magi to find out that a guiding star celebrated the birth of Jesus (Numbers 24:17), or that angels told the shepherds to go to Bethlehem (Luke 2:15).They knew this guiding star was not a natural phenomenon since stars don't act strangely. I am sure that Matthew recognized the star as a divine manifestation of God's power. Matthew's tale makes sense if you are a Christian because you believe in God, in miracles, and supernatural events. If you are an atheist, the event didn't happen because you believe in neither God nor His power.
These Magi were experts in the study of stars. They knew the prophecy; a magical star would signal the Messiah's birth, which is the same type of supernatural event where a "light" guided the Israelites' escape from Egypt (Exodus 16:21). While in Jerusalem, they ask Herod the Great for the whereabouts of the recently born future King of the Jews. The King goes to his scribes, astrologers, and oracles to ask for the exact place of Christ birth. His counsels told him that the prophecy says the child will be born in Bethlehem. By getting into these details, Matthew is telling us that Jesus was fulfilling a prophecy (Micah 5:2). Following his scribes' recommendations, Herod sent the Magi to Bethlehem to locate the child and come back to report to him. The Magi’s desires to worship Jesus were genuine; Herod’s intentions on the other hand were evil. Again, the magic star guided the wise men on the short trip to the small village, which at the time had some 250 inhabitants. The star stood directly over the house where the family was now living. By the time the Magi reach Jesus, the baby was close to two years old. They proceeded to adore the child and present him with the gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. After they delivered their offerings, God warned them, in a dream, that they should not report back to Herod because the King deceived them with the only purpose of finding the child to eliminate the potential threat he represented. After giving their word to Herod, the Magi departed via a different route to avoid seeing him again. It seems evident that a supernatural entity must have taken part in their decision. If it wasn't for God's intervention, how did they know about Herod's plans?
Now, ask yourself the following questions: Is it among God's powers to create a star that would guide these wise men from Asia to Israel? Is Herod a man capable of deceiving somebody and ordering the execution of an innocent child? If you answer these questions positively, Matthew's story is credible. Then, you have to agree that Herod's personality fits perfectly into the account. For Herod, this child would challenge his authority as King of the Jews; so, he decided to eliminate him once and for all. He shows his paranoia, anger, and cruelty, mandating the killing of all infants under the age of two in Bethlehem.
Then – Matthew continues – an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, advising him to leave Bethlehem immediately, and flee to Egypt because Herod is sending his men to seek the child to kill him. The angel also told Joseph to stay there until it was safe to return, which they did when Herod died. Again, God intervened; if not, how could Joseph, and the wise men, know about the impending coming of Herod's men? Through His angel, God's intervention saved Jesus' life because he would die at a future date that only his Father knew. When Herod learned that the Magi left for their countries without informing him about the child's whereabouts, the King got very upset and ordered the slain of every child under two years old, born in Bethlehem and its vicinity. Herod decided the children's age based on the information he received from the Magi as to when they saw the star announcing the birth of Jesus. Additionally, he doesn’t know who is the new “King of the Jews.” He doesn’t even know the name of the child. His scribes told him about the Christ, not Jesus.
Scholars can debate whether this event is historical or not; what I want to point out is that it is consistent with everything we know about Herod. Although Josephus, to maintain his lavish living, depended on being pleasant to the Romans, he records that Herod’s paranoid personality corresponds perfectly with such a cruel and ruthless act. Matthew tells us that Herod was troubled to find out that the prophets’ foretold the coming of this baby out of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). There are many extra biblical accounts of Herod’s paranoid behavior concerning any threats to his political power. So Matthew’s account is once again very believable. In his most important work, Antiquities of the Jews, he said that the king was willing to kill anyone, including his wife and children, perceived to be his enemy or a threat to his kingship. (Antiquities 15.7.5–6 and 16.11.7). Let’s be clear; this is a cruel man who, because he is obsessed with power and consuming suspicion that this child might usurp his throne, would not hesitate to kill innocent children as long as he could kill the one representing a threat. Here, Matthew is confirming another prophecy (Jeremiah 31:15). Herod troubled himself with the dread of a rival, a child who prophecy predicted would be King of the Jews. He would not live enough to watch the infant Jesus grew up to adulthood. Herod’s brutality is legendary. His actions are consistent with his character. He killed anyone that he perceived as a threat to his authority. Macrobius (395-423) in his work, Saturnalia, told his audience that emperor Augustus, talking about Herod, said that it was better to be the King’s pig than one of his sons. He offered the first recorded reference of the massacre outside of Christian sources 400 years after the event. Thus, the act of murdering these children falls neatly into his character. The course of the events validates its truth. Only atheists and unbelievers will doubt it.
Faithful to his word, the angel appeared to Joseph again to tell him that Herod died (4 BC) and that it was safe to come back to Israel with his wife and child. He was also fulfilling the prophecy (Hosea 11:1). When Joseph learned that Herod’s son – Archelaus – inherited that part of the kingdom, which included Judaea, he realized that the new King was as cruel, if not more, than his father. The new King would probably be looking to finish the job his father did not complete. So, instead of coming back to Bethlehem, the family decided to settle in Nazareth, a town close to Bethlehem with a population of no more than 150 people. The logic of the Holy Family coming back to Nazareth as opposed to Bethlehem is undeniable.
The question we have in front of us is this: Did the massacre happen? When one examines the event objectively, it is not difficult to believe it actually happened. Let's answer it from the perspective of Matthew. His gospel about the Massacre of the Innocents seems a plausible event, where real people participated. To report this event was significant to Matthew for two reasons: one, he was a Jew, and two, it was all about Jesus. We will never know how many infants died that night, but I am sure that Matthew was chronicling a real event where Herod's men slaughtered innocent children. Herod had a terrible reputation as a cruel and despicable tyrant; Matthew did not need to taint it. There is nothing fictional about this evil king. He described the event as he understood it. Matthew is not talking about Herod's killing of all under two-year-old babies in Judea or the world. He limited the massacre to Bethlehem. If the town had fewer than 300 people, the most under-two babies would be between 6 and 12, not the thousands reported by uninformed documentarians and fanatics. The small size of the massacre makes Matthew's story much more credible. I believe Matthew was an honorable man who didn't lie about the events of that unfortunate night at Bethlehem. He was writing a good biography of Jesus Christ for people of his time. Matthew wanted to project the realities of his admired teacher and leader. He wrote what he thought was essential to Jesus's followers. He wanted to include his birth, his infancy, and details of his life as a preacher. The Massacre of the Innocents is not the only event in the life of Jesus recorded by Matthew. He recorded all the main events in the life of Jesus, his teachings, his recruited disciples, his trial, his death and his resurrection. Most of these events are also recorded by Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew is especially interested in Jesus’ family and early childhood. He is writing as a biographer; there is no reason to insert a fictitious event into his narrative. He would not want to write events that did not happen. Matthew says that the Massacre of the Innocents is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy (Jeremiah 31:15). If it did not happen, why claim that it was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy? It is difficult to imagine a prophesy fulfilled by an event that did not happen. It has to be an authentic account of a real event. Matthew is a biographer and he wanted to write about facts, not rumors or legends. If the people realized he was writing lies, exaggeration, and fictional events, they would have slandered him and discredit him in a way that, as a gospel writer, he would have gone to the dark corners of religious history. Why would he introduce an outrageous lie about an invented massacre that could destroy the credibility of his tale into the biography of the man he wanted to praise more than anybody else? As a biographer, Matthew knew what kind of effect the insertion of a deliberated lie into his recollection of what happened would have upon his credibility. If the Massacre of the Innocents is a fictional tale, then everything else about the life of Jesus should also be false. Even the existence of Jesus could be questioned if we take seriously any of the arguments of the unbelievers.
Most historians and theologians affirm that Josephus, a historian himself, is a credible source of information about his times. To validate their affirmation that the massacre did not occur, skeptics and atheists tell us that, because Josephus did not mention the Massacre of the Innocents in his great book Antiquities of the Jews, it is a myth, it did not happen. All they have to deny the event is that Herod’s killing were so well known that Josephus should have written about it and he didn’t. Because of that claim, they say the massacre never happened. This “evidence” is not enough to prove that Matthew intentionally concocted the story. To convince me that the story is an invention, as some critics say, they have to show me positive evidence that Matthew lied intentionally about the massacre. With the exception of John’s, the gospels are older that Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, but Josephus gets more credibility than the gospel writers. Consider that Josephus wanted to write a book favorable to his patrons the Romans. His decision as an author makes sense because the Flavian dynasty (he adopted the name Flavius Josephus because of it) paid him a nice pension to live comfortably for the rest of his life. Herod was the greatest king in the Roman Empire. This is why Josephus writes so much about Herod and so little about Jesus. Additionally, At the time of Jesus’ birth, infanticide was not morally wrong or an abomination in the Roman Empire. Accordingly, Josephus, even if he knew about the massacre, may have considered it an isolated and insignificant event. The slaughtering of less than a dozen infants in a small town was an insignificant story to be included in his work. A massacre where a few, perhaps less than 10 babies, in a small town of less than 300 inhabitants, were killed, was not a great interest to Josephus potential audience.
To me, the Massacre of the Innocents was a consequence of Herod’s extreme desires to stay in power which produced a man capable of doing anything to stay in power. He was so obsessed with this idea that he was fearful and suspicious of everybody. He could not allow somebody who could be a rival to his power to stay alive. This massacre was just another of Herod’s many ruthless acts. Matthew’s account is credible when you take into consideration Herod’s fears together with his murderous inclinations.
Mathew’s story makes sense because it corresponds with Herod’s reign of terror. As for why it is not included in Josephus works, the number of infants – from six to a dozen – killed during the night of the massacre was too insignificant to be known, much less recorded, by Josephus. The unbelievers conveniently forget that he didn’t know, first hand, either Herod or Jesus. He published his work in 94 AD; 98 years after Herod’s death and some 62 after Jesus’. His disregarding it is understandably. Additionally, the event happened 100 years before Josephus wrote his Antiquities of the Jews.
I hope I have shown enough evidence that Matthew’s account of the massacre is authentic. Even if Josephus considered it too insignificant to include in his Antiquities.