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  • Writer's picturePatrick Prill

Herod Didn't Kill The Babies

Updated: Dec 18, 2022

“It beggars belief to think that anyone would have missed an outrage as big as a massacre of every infant boy in the area around a town just 6 miles from Jerusalem – and yet there is no corroboration for it in any account, Jewish, Greek or Roman.”[1] - David Fitzgerald

Most of us are familiar with the Christmas story. A young Jewish woman, Mary, is miraculously pregnant and told the child in her womb is the Son of God. Mary and Joseph must travel to the town of Bethlehem to be counted in a census and taxed. While there, Mary gives birth to Jesus. Angels tell shepherds about it and wise men from the east follow a star to where Jesus was born. Then everyone lives happily ever after – almost. The Christmas story also includes a mean king – Herod the Great – who doesn’t want the baby Jesus to grow up to become king. After his attempt to use the wise men to locate the baby fails, he kills all the baby boys in Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born. Christians don’t view the Christmas story to be a fable; it’s an account of actual historical events. However, David Fitzgerald views it to be fiction. He calls it a myth. He insists that such a horrible deed – killing babies in a small town – would certainly have been recorded by other historians of the day. Because Josephus, Tacitus and other leading 1st century historians say nothing of it, he says it didn’t happen. Did it?

Historical context actually adds credence to the details of the first Christmas.

Who was King Herod? Herod the Great was a real person. He was the king of Judea (Israel) from 37 to 4 BC. He was a battle-hardened military leader, a gifted administrator, a builder of temples and cities, and a shrewd politician. Though he was half Jewish, he sided with the Romans as they invaded Judea and placed it under their control. He then gained Cassius’ favor and, after his death, won the favor of Cassius’ opponent, Mark Antony (Cleopatra’s boyfriend). Herod was appointed King at the request of Antony by the Roman Senate and served at the pleasure of Rome.[2] Herod was also the ultimate political survivor. After Mark Antony (his benefactor) was defeated in the Roman civil war by Octavian (Caesar Augustus), Herod retained his position and his domain was expanded. This was in spite of the fact that Herod had supported the loser![3] Does the chronology make sense? Did Jesus live at the time of Herod's reign? Herod died in 4 BC.[4] Modern historians place the date of Jesus’ birth at about 6 to 4 BC.[5] These are the consensus dates. Assuming they’re accurate, Herod would have been alive and King of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. So, yes, the chronology makes sense. Was Herod capable of killing babies? Political survival in the Roman Empire required cunning, allies, wealth and brute force. And, the greater the position of power, the more force required. As a king, Herod was not only capable of killing opponents in battle, he was even capable of killing those dearest to him. Herod murdered his second wife’s grandfather and brother – not great for a happy marriage. He then killed her and her suspected lover. He tortured and executed servants and his son’s friends to expose plots against him. He tried two of his sons for treason and had them executed. He then had a third son executed five days before his own death.[6] Toward the end of his life, Herod was racked by disease and his brutality was particularly extreme. He had forty young men (and their rabbis) burned alive for removing an eagle statute from the Temple. And, so there would be mourning after he died, he ordered that the “most illustrious men of the whole Jewish nation” be killed immediately upon his death and had them taken into custody. Fortunately for these men, the order was not carried out.[7] Herod was definitely the sort of person who could kill babies. Would Herod have a motive? Herod could kill babies, but would he? What would have been his motive? He actually had a big one. The prophecy that a king would emerge from Judea to rule over the entire world was a big deal. The Romans were well aware of it. Suetonius and Tacitus, 1st century Roman historians, both wrote about it in their histories. However, the Romans claimed the prophecy was speaking about them. The King of Kings was to be Roman – not Jewish![8] “There had been spread throughout the East, and for long believed among men, a saying that there should come forth from Judea one whom destiny decreed should be lord of the whole world: which prophecy (as events showed), referred to a Roman emperor…”[9] - Suetonius Herod the Great was the King of Judea. He was appointed by and worked for the Romans. He wasn’t alone; other kings had been subdued by the Romans. That meant the Roman Emperor was a King of Kings. For the prophesied King of Kings to emerge from Herod’s kingdom as a rival to the emperor would be political suicide. It would cost Herod his kingdom and his life. For a man who murdered his own wife and killed his sons to secure his kingdom, killing babies would be of little consequence. It’s also interesting that three decades later, Jesus Christ was arrested and executed. On the cross of each executed person was a placard denoting their crime. In Jesus’ case the placard read “King of the Jews” – that was his crime.[10] To usurp Roman authority was treason. Though Jewish religious authorities saw Jesus’ crime as blasphemy, Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, executed Jesus because he didn’t want to be accused of disloyalty to Caesar.[11] Why do Roman historians not speak of it? As horrible as killing babies in a small town seems to us, it would attract little notice to Roman historians. Tacitus actually criticized the Jews for thinking it wrong to kill excess children.[12] It was common practice for Romans to discard unwanted babies along roadsides. The babies either died or were rescued to be raised as slaves or prostitutes.[13] The Romans didn’t share our moral shock. Why did Josephus not mention it? What about Josephus, the Jewish historian? He recorded many details about Herod’s murders and excesses. Why didn’t he mention the killing of babies? Josephus wrote his history after the failed Jewish revolt of 66 to 70 AD. He was a general who surrendered to the Romans and witnessed death on a massive scale. If his estimate is accurate, 1.1 million Jews died during the siege of Jerusalem.[14] Whether he had been desensitized to death by war, we don’t know. However, when Titus (the emperor’s son) celebrated his brother’s birthday by having over 2,500 Jews killed as entertainment, Josephus described it in only one sentence.[15] Josephus didn’t mention the murder of babies in Bethlehem, but he did mention Jesus’ life, reported miracles, virtue and execution by Pontius Pilate. He also spoke of John the Baptist’s influence and execution and James’ martyrdom in his history. He mentioned many people who were recorded in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and in The Acts of the Apostles.[16] Overall, rather than diminishing the historical credibility of the gospel accounts, Josephus supports it. How big of an event was it? David Fitzgerald’s challenge has merit. Surely a huge slaughter of innocent babies would be noticed by someone. However, what if it were not all that huge? Bethlehem was evidently not a big town early in the 1st century. William Albright, a prominent archaeologist, estimated the population to be just 300.[17] How many baby boys would be born there in any given year? Not many. If the killing of babies wasn’t a big historic event, why did Matthew even mention it? The answer seems clear – because it was a big prophetic event and happened at the time of Jesus’ birth. This was significant to Matthew.[18] Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life focused on how Jesus fulfilled prophecy. In this context, seemingly small events could be important. For example, Zechariah prophesied Israel’s King would ride humbly into Jerusalem on a young donkey (not a charging steed). This would not have been a big deal to historians, but it was to those looking for the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.[19] In light of this, a small historical event could be a big prophetic event. Why does only Matthew mention it? Fitzgerald raises another valid question. If this really happened, why do the other three gospel writers not speak of it? Both Mark and John start their accounts of Jesus’ life with John the Baptist and his proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah. Nothing is mentioned about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth or life prior to about the age of thirty. Their account begins as Jesus commences his public ministry in about 27 AD. Luke did include the events of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the wise men, the shepherds, and the angels. However, he did not include the order by Herod to kill the baby boys in Bethlehem. Fulfilled prophecy was not as prominent in his account. Instead, Luke placed more emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ focus on prayer. The gospel writers didn’t always include the same specific events in their biographies – sometimes they emphasized different things.

Is there evidence Herod didn’t do it? David Fitzgerald doesn’t actually present evidence that Herod didn’t kill Bethlehem’s babies. Unless he can present evidence proving it didn’t happen or that Herod’s character was of such a quality that his order to kill babies would be implausible, he has no real grounds for calling Matthew’s account a myth. Was it a myth or not? It’s clear that King Herod the Great was a real person who reigned in Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. He would have had a huge motive to ensure that a king of kings did not emerge in his kingdom as a rival to the Roman Emperor (his boss). He also consistently demonstrated the moral qualities of a person who would kill even his own children to protect his throne. Though we’re aware of only one person who recorded Herod’s killing of babies in Bethlehem – Matthew – his account of the events is plausible. And, if Bethlehem was as small as William Albright said it was, the killing of babies would likely not have been significant enough to find a place in 1st century histories. However, it would have been seen as significant prophetically. Given no evidence to the contrary, it actually seems likely that Matthew’s account is not a myth. And, if Christmas is not a myth, the baby in the manger was worthy of Herod the Great's alarm and of our worship.

About David Fitzgerald David Fitzgerald is an atheist writer and activist. Notes:

[1] David Fitzgerald, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All (, 2010) [2] Josephus, The Works of Josephus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987) 565 and 570. See: Wars of the Jews, 1.14.4 and 1.17.9 [3] Josephus, The Works of Josephus, 574-575. See: Wars of the Jews, 1.20 [4] [5] [6] Josephus, The Works of Josephus, 577-596. See: Wars of the Jews, 1.22 – 1.33 [7] Josephus, The Works of Josephus, 595- 596. See: Wars of the Jews, 1.33 [8] Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars (London, England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1997), 324 and Tacitus, The Histories (London, England, Penguin Classics, 2009), 252. Tacitus claimed the prophecy was fulfilled through Emperors Vespasian and Titus. [9] Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, 324 [10] Matthew 26:62-66, 27:11 and 27:37 (Jewish authorities saw Jesus’ crime as blasphemy for acknowledging he was the Son of God. Roman authorities saw his crime as claiming he was King of the Jews.) [11] John 19:12-16 [12] Tacitus, The Histories, 247. [13] Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 172. See: Justin, First Apology, chapter 27. (This is an early 2nd century source.) Tertullian, a mid-2nd century source, states that killing new-born babies was illegal, but widely practiced by the Romans. See Ad Nationes chapter 15. [14] Josephus, The Works of Josephus, 749. See: Wars of the Jews, 6.9.3 [15] Josephus, The Works of Josephus, 752. See: Wars of the Jews, 7.3.1 [16] Josephus, The Works of Josephus, 478-486 and 533-539. See: Jewish Antiquities, 18.2-18.5 and 20.7-20.9 [17] William F. Albright and C.S. Mann, The Anchor Bible - Matthew (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1971), 19. [18] Matthew 2:17-18, Jeremiah 31:15 [19] Zechariah 9:9

Copyright 2021 by Patrick Prill Photo purchased from iStock

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