An essential point of the infancy story of Jesus involves Herod’s paranoid attempt to destroy the recently-announced king. He sends his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all of the male children two years old and younger (Matthew 2:16-18). Critics claim that such a savage act would have caused a considerable outcry. Why isn’t the murder of the baby boys in Bethlehem mentioned in contemporary historical sources?
No human language has words to adequately capture the pure, unbridled monstrosity of Herod’s deeds. But his wickedness neither starts nor stops with the murder of little children. His is an abominable pride that craves power so much that he would destroy any potential challenger, no matter how small. Unfortunately, this is not without parallel in the ancient world, even among some of the Caesars who could be unbelievably cruel. We could find legions of examples just in the reigns of men like Caligula and Nero. Historians remembered their deeds. Why not Herod’s?
Fortunately, the answer is relatively simple. Rulers often used historical accounts to glorify themselves and their accomplishments. This was especially true in the ancient Near East, but the Greco-Roman world included a greater degree of historical objectivity. From a historian’s point of view, Herod was a relatively insignificant client king ruling in a small, troubled part of the Empire. Although he was a friend to Augustus Caesar and even bailed out the Olympics one year, most of what Herod did would have never gotten the attention of a historian.
“But,” someone might object, “what about the massacre of the innocents? Surely such an inhuman act would’ve gotten some attention!” And if it were in today’s news-saturated environment, it would have made national headlines. We must remember that there was no news media in those days. The first historian who could have heard the story was Josephus, who was born four decades after the event.
Critics question why no contemporary sources mention this event, no doubt because they have overestimated its significance. Ancient church sources do claim that tens of thousands were murdered in a virtual bloodbath, but they inflated the numbers of children killed by Herod’s men. In reality, a tiny town like Bethlehem probably had only a dozen little boys at most. The tiny number of victims doesn’t diminish Herod’s eternal infamy for commanding such barbarism, but it does explain why we should not expect any reference to it in any first-century historical record. We do find references to it in the Proteuangelim of James (c. AD 150) and the work of the fourth-century Roman author Macrobius (Saturnalia 2.4.11).
Although some critics allege that the account is mythical, there is little reason to doubt its veracity. Herod was a monster who murdered members of his own family. Augustus once noted that it would have been better to be Herod’s pig than his son (Herod observed the Mosaic law—selectively, of course—and did not eat pork). The king’s paranoia is well-documented. Power meant everything to him. We should not be surprised that his obsession promoted him to kill little children that his madness deemed a threat to his rule.
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