The Slaughter of the Innocents

It is without question one of the more grisly scenes depicted in the New Testament: the insecure King Herod, fearing a possible future threat to his thrown, orders troops to Bethlehem to kill all the male children under the age of two. However, heeding the angelic warning from his dream, Joseph takes Mary and the newborn Jesus and flees to Egypt – just escaping the slaughter. Only after Herod’s death do they return to settle in Nazareth. This event has come to be called: The Slaughter of the Innocents. However, many modern skeptical cynics claim this story is unhistorical, arguing there is no proof of such an event outside the Bible. So for this post I will explore the question: Is there evidence for the slaughter of the Innocents?

First, it is true that we have only one primary source for this event: The Gospel of Matthew. Although it is not entirely accurate to say there is no proof for the event outside the Bible, as there is supporting (secondary) evidence contained in non-biblical sources to which I will touch on later. It is also fair to say that two or more independent sources are preferred in establishing the historicity of an event. But by no means is such required to assert that an event is historical, meaning one that did indeed occur. Here is why: one historical source, even one contained in the Bible, is still an actual source of information. Once more, there are numerous historical events (e.g. the Roman siege of Masada) in which we have only one surviving source of information. In fact, if you are a person of faith, then there is no greater source of attestation to an event than the Bible itself. But let us stick with secular reasoning for this post. When confined to limited sources, one must evaluate its credibility, i.e. when was it written              (the earlier the better). In this regard, our only (primary) source for the event in question, the Gospel of Matthew, has very good credentials. For starters, it is a first century source, written within in the lifespan of eyewitnesses to such events. Moreover, early apostolic fathers affirm the Gospel is based on the disciple’s account. In other words, one in the know. Therefore, we have an early credible source that attests to this event.

Next, most of what historians recorded during the first century has been lost, so there is really no way we can know what they did or did not write/report concerning the incident in question. Also, while such an event would likely be splashed all over the news today, we have to remember the time period when this event occurred. This should go without saying, but the world was hardly interconnected in the first century as it is today. Once more, Bethlehem was not a large city, but rather a small village. Now consider this: How many young male infants (under two) would there have been in such a small village? We can never know for sure, but several scholars estimate the number was not greater than fifteen to twenty infants. Moreover, news in that day traveled much slower, if at all — especially news of events that occurred in seemingly insignificant small villages. Therefore, while such an atrocity would have definitely made a lasting imprint on the lives and memories of those residing in such a small community; it probably would not have garnered any attention at all from the outside Roman world.

Finally, we must consider if our source’s depiction of such an act is credible with the historical record. Here we have ample evidence (all outside the Bible) that it is, e.g. the writings of Josephus. By all accounts, we know that King Herod was notoriously evil and paranoid. In fact, he carried out numerous murders to keep his throne secure – including members of his own family. After Herod was named “King of the Jews” by the Roman Empire, his first order of business was to eliminate his Hasmonean predecessors. He also had his brother-in-law (Aristobulus) killed, who was at the time a young priest. Later his mother-in-law (Alexandra) was executed under his orders, even his second wife (Miriamme). In addition to these murders, he also had three of his own sons killed: Alexander, Aristobulus and Anitpater. Therefore, ordering the murder of young infants in Bethlehem is absolutely consistent with the character and actions of Herod as recorded in both Jewish and Roman sources. Once more, one of the last Pagan writers of Rome, Macrobius, knows the story in question and expressed no doubts at all as to its authenticity (at least on this point): observing that a pig was more safe from Herod than young infants or his own son — no doubt a mocking reference to Jewish kosher meals. All of this illustrates that our source (Matthew) is more than credible in its portrait of King Herod and the event it describes — known to us today as the slaughter of the innocents.

In conclusion, we can establish on solid historical grounds that Herod would not have thought twice about killing a handful of infants (15-20) in a small obscure village such as Bethlehem. Moreover, we have an early (first century) source (Matthew) with great credentials, — i.e. written during the lifespan of eyewitnesses to such events — that attests to this very event. Once more, much of what was recorded in the first century has been lost, so there is no way to say for certain what other historians did or did not report during this time. That said, there is no reason to believe that such an event, which would have been business as usual during the reign of Herod, would have captivated the attention of the larger Judean community or Roman world anyhow. Only as Christianity developed did people begin to realize the significance of this incident. Additionally, as Christianity spread, so too did knowledge of this atrocity, yet there is not one record (Pagan or Jewish) expressing any doubt that it actually occurred. In fact, we have later attestation from non-Christian sources (Macrobius) supporting that it did. Consequently, in the absence of any evidence or discoveries to the contrary, there is no credible reason for anyone to doubt the slaughter of the innocents reported in the Gospel of Matthew. As sad as it may be, we can conclude that this event actually did occur.

Thank you for reading. That concludes this post.

JDN

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