Truth or Fiction: Did Herod Really Slaughter Baby Boys in Bethlehem?

Angelo Visconti, “The Massacre of the Innocents” (1860)

Audio Transcript

Embedded in the Christmas story, and in the birth of Jesus in this world, is a dark story of loss and tragedy, of tears and pain. Matthew 2:16 has been traditionally called the “massacre of the innocents.” There we are told about the killing of all boys two-years-old and younger in the region of Bethlehem. The event is deeply unsettling, but it’s also part of the historical record of the birth of Christ — or is it? Did this actually happen historically? Or was this massacre of the innocents a story invented by early Christians? And if the event is historically real — if such a public slaughter really happened — why are there no other historical records to corroborate the event?

For answers, we welcome special guest Paul Maier, a widely respected historian, in what will be a little longer of an episode than usual. Until his retirement, Maier served as the Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University. And he is the author of many fictional books and many non-fiction books including In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church, as well as several books for children, including, The Very First Christmas.

Dr. Maier, thanks for joining us. I want to ask you if Matthew 2:16 really happened in history. There’s a question mark on this event. But before we go there, who is this figure we know of in the Christmas story as Herod the Great?

Well, Tony, you may be surprised to hear this, but believe it or not, if you are ever asked which is the one figure from the ancient world on whom we have more primary evidence from original sources than anyone else in the world, the answer is not Jesus or Saint Paul or Caesar Augustus or Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. No. It’s Herod the Great. Why? Because Josephus gives us two whole book scrolls on the life of Herod the Great. And that is more primary material than anyone else.

And I don’t think Herod deserved it.

He was a very remarkably successful politician keeping the peace between Rome, which had conquered Judea ever since 63 BC, and he acted as a Roman governor overseas. He is simply known as a client king, meaning very often when the Romans conquered a province they didn’t want to send a governor out. There was a local king doing a good enough job and so yes he may be called king, but he was definitely deferent to Rome for his whole administration.

He was in charge from 40 BC when he was awarded the title king. He didn’t actually take control of the land until, with Roman help, he drove some adversaries out of Jerusalem and early from about 37 BC on he is in charge until his death in 4 BC.

Actually he was remarkably successful in a lot of ways. He deserves the title Herod the Great if we talk about his accomplishments through much of his life. He was the one, of course, who rebuilt the great temple in Jerusalem. He was the one who singlehandedly created a city of Caesarea where there was no good port in the holy land here. He creates one by sinking some ship hulls and then using it as a base to build a breakwater in an otherwise rectilinear sea coast.

He built Caesarea in 12 years and he built other cities like that, too. In Jerusalem he facelifted the entire city in addition to building a gorgeous palace for himself. He had a hippodrome (a stadium) and theaters and so forth. He was kind of a Hellenistic monarch. And he also built seven great fortresses across the land, strongpoints from which he could defend his administration. One of them, of course, the most famous, was Masada down along the southwest corner of the Dead Sea.

Everything he touched diplomatically seemed to turn to gold. He kept peace both with Jerusalem and Rome, and so in that sense he was very successful.

Yes, politically successful. But there’s another side to Herod. Explain the paranoid side of Herod that begins to emerge later in his life.

Basically he was responsible for many of the problems back home. His home was a can of worms simply because he married 10 wives and each of those produced princes for him and each of those male princes was scheming to succeed as number 1 — and there can only be one number 1. And so if there weren’t two or three collateral plots taking place before they had orange juice in the morning, you know, something was wrong.

Josephus gives us just a hideous tale of what was going on in the family, attempted poisonings, one brother against another. It so rattled Herod that he actually put to death three of his own sons on suspicion of treason. He put to death his favorite wife out of 10 of them. Mariamne was his favorite. She was a Hasmonean Macabean princess and he put her to death and then he killed his mother-in-law — I should say, one of his many mothers-in-law. He invited the high priest down to Jericho for a swim. They played a very rough game of water polo and they drowned him. He killed several uncles and a couple of cousins. Some have said he is a real family man, you know, in that negative respect.

As a matter or fact, Augustus himself, to whom Herod was always very deferent, said, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” It is a double pun. In Greek it is hus and huios, a clever turn on words, and the other idea is that at least pigs weren’t slaughtered for human consumption over there — and they had a better chance at a longer life. And so it was a brilliant pun on the part of Augustus.

Ouch. Yes. At one point late in his life, Herod plots to kill a stadium full of Jewish leaders. The plot fails, but what does it reveal about him?

Well, Josephus has a very grisly thing to report about Herod in his last months. He was paranoid, though he did have some grasp of reality. For instance, he was worried that nobody would mourn his own death. Of course that shows how deadly accurate he was. They were preparing a general celebration. And nobody likes to die knowing that they are going to dance on your grave. And so he was going to give the people something to cry about.

In 4 BC he is in his winter palace in Jericho. It’s the only place in the holy land that doesn’t snow or get cold in the winter. It’s 1,200 feet below sea level. And Herod is dying. He tries every remedy in the world to stop the gang of diseases that were creeping up on him. He went to the hot springs on the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea. And that didn’t cure him.

So he goes back to his winter palace and he invites his sister Salome in and he says, “I want you to arrest all the Jewish leaders in the land and imprison them in the hippodrome just below the palace here.” And the hippodrome has been discovered archeaologically, by the way. And so she does so and then she says, “Brother, why am I doing this?” And Herod says, “Well, I know that when I die the Jews are going to rejoice. So I want to give them something to cry about.” And so he wants these leaders all executed in that hippodrome so that there will be thousands of households weeping at the time Herod the Great dies.

So is that the kind of sweet guy who could have killed the babies in Bethlehem? Yeah, I think so.

Yes, most certainly. Goodness. Speaking of Matthew 2, the Bible records this scene from Herod’s paranoia late in his life. The wise men alert him to the birth of a new king in Bethlehem. He wants to know where, so he can eradicate this new rival. The wise men wisely don’t return. Herod then responds by slaughtering all boys two-years-old and under in Bethlehem and in “all the region.” For all that Josephus writes about Herod, he makes no mention of this — in fact, there’s no extra-biblical evidence that this slaughter ever happened. How do you respond?

No, it is interesting. Josephus does not mention it. And therefore a lot of biblical critics will pounce on that aspect of the nativity account and say therefore it didn’t happen. Now please understand this is an argument from silence and that is the weakest form of argumentation you can use. As we say in the profession, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

In this case one or two things could have happened. Josephus may have heard about it and not used it because you don’t have hundreds of babies killed or you have only about 12, as a matter of fact, 12 or 15. The infant mortality in the ancient world was so huge anyway that this is really not going to impress the reader too much, believe it or not. And I think if Josephus is choosing between the two stories about how Herod died right before his death, I think I would take the one where he is going to slaughter hundreds of Jewish leaders.

Or he may not have heard about it. Again, simply because in little Bethlehem it doesn’t amount to much — a village of about 1,500 residents. In my actuarial study, Bethlehem at the time wouldn’t have had more than about two dozen babies two years old and under — half of them female. And so this is not a big deal, and I think that is why Josephus either never heard about it or didn’t feel it important enough to record. So this does not militate against Matthew’s version by any means.

In fact, I was arguing once years ago on the infant massacre with a professor in Wagner College in New York who claimed that this is all fiction — that surely a massacre of hundreds of Jewish boy babies would have come to the attention of other accounts of history. Well, I agree it would have if there had been hundreds of slaughters. But that is ridiculous. A little village that size to have hundreds of boy babies, two years old and younger? It couldn’t possibly be the case.

And “all the coasts thereof.” Well, look. Jerusalem is five miles away, right? So this would include Jerusalem as well if we are going to take literally “all the coasts thereof.” We are talking about Bethlehem and probably a half-mile around when we are talking about the surroundings of Bethlehem.

Fascinating — and certainly no less a real tragedy. So, finally, as a historian, in your mind, is there any reason to doubt the historicity of the slaughter of the innocents?

I see not one iota of evidence here it could not have happened. And therefore, again, there is no reason to doubt the account as far as I am concerned. To be sure, Luke hasn’t heard about it. Remember, Matthew and Luke don’t copy from one another when it comes to the Nativity. And that is good, because this way they can hit it from different angles. I think it really happened — and let’s remember again that the first martyr of Christianity was not Stephen, it was Jesus. But not even Jesus. For my money, the first martyr in the Christian church was the first baby that was killed in Bethlehem — and we always overlook that.