Herod would never have slaughtered the innocents

Herod would never have slaughtered the innocents December 14, 2014

It’s that time of year when those nativity accounts get brought up. And summarily debunked. My book, The Nativity: A Critical Examination, hopefully does a good job of dealing with the many attempts to harmonise the contradictory accounts in Matthew and Luke.

One of the  many problems concerns Herod and his apparent search for the baby Jesus and subsequent massacre of similarly-aged children in the vicinity of Bethlehem to stop the fulfilment of a prophecy, which he had never previously heard of, eventuating.

As I state in my book, p.145-6,

Firstly, it has been claimed that Herod, being in his 70s at the supposed time of Jesus’ birth, would not have been too bothered about chasing after a ‘usurper to the throne’. By the time Jesus would have been old enough to trouble Herod’s rule, Herod would have known that he himself would be long dead. One might counter this point to say that he still did ruthless things late in his rule and that he may have been thinking of his family who would take over the rule from him. However, on closer inspection, there are problems with such a defence. Indeed, Herod only seemed to do harsh and infamous things late in his rule that would have immediate effect. When he was 70, he installed two golden eagles (Roman symbols) at the temple gates. Two Pharisees, Judas and Mattathias, incited the crowd to a near riot and tore down the eagles, perhaps thinking that Herod was too old to care at this time. Herod burned them alive (see Anthony Tomasino in Judaism Before Jesus: The Events & Ideas That Shaped the New Testament World, 2003, p.273). This example shows a vitriolic and intolerant side to Herod but it is clear that this was an action to quell an immediate problem.

Furthermore, Herod left his kingdom in complete turmoil. There seems to be very little evidence of him caring enough about his children and their ‘inheritance’ for one to conclude anything other than his vicious acts were entirely self-serving and designed for appeal to the present and not the future (of other people). After his death, his kingdom was divided up by Augustus into several parts. As Peter Richardson states in Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans, Herod was at this time “disintegrating and withdrawing from effective participation” in family affairs (1999, p.289). Squabbles followed his death as to who would get what and when. Herod had not got his house in order for it seems it was not high on his list of priorities. So why would catching a newborn and murdering this newborn, thereby forcing him to murder many other infants, be something that such an old king would bother to do? If he could not be bothered to sort out the factions within his own family while he was alive, then why on earth would he be bothered that a usurper, who would only come of age some twenty or so years later and would only eventually grow old enough to take the title of King of the Jews, long after his own death? After all, “Herod’s despair was so great over his health problems—he was in his seventieth year and acutely ill—that he tried to kill himself with a paring knife” (Richardson 1999, p.19).

Thus it seems clear that this behaviour from Herod, of reacting so officiously to a prophecy and the magi’s news that he murders all the boys under two in Bethlehem and vicinity, is completely out of sorts to what would, in reality, be the behaviour of such a man. Contextual historical evidence shows the purported actions claimed by Matthew to be highly improbable.

So we have an old, suicidal king who was known to do bad things, but only really for immediate effect. We know he left his kingdom in turmoil, not caring for its future of his legacy. Why the hell, then, is he concerned about killing innocent children in the hope that he stops a Messiah who won’t come to fruition in 20-30 years? All this based on an obscure prophecy he or his scribes had not previously known about? Furthermore, Herod could easily have sent troops with, or accompanied the Magi himself, in hunting down the baby (p. 109-10):

As we have seen from the previous section, Herod calls the magi to his palace in Jerusalem after hearing of them asking about the new king. This arouses his suspicions and he calls together his chief priests to tell him of the birth of the Messiah and where it should take place. If this really was an important Messianic prophecy, rather than a verse dug out of the Old Testament retrospectively, one would imagine that Herod and the general public would have been well aware that a Messiah was due to be born in the vicinity of Bethlehem at some point. The real estate prices in Bethlehem would be consistently extravagant. What is even more implausible is verse 3 in Matthew 2 which states that “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” So the whole of Jerusalem knew of the birth of the Messiah. If this really was the case, the whole of the history of Judaism would have shifted from that point on; there would have been Jewish historical references to this great event. Jesus would have been properly heralded as the Messiah if all of Jerusalem knew of the birth of Jesus as a fulfilment of the prophecy from Micah. There is much that is strange and unbelievable about this whole episode. As Callahan (2002, p. 379) says:

That king also acts strangely. Rather than counting on the wise men to tell him where the new king is to be found, why wouldn’t he give them an escort or have them followed, or even have his own soldiers follow the star that is so visible to the wise men? In fact, there are two reasons for stopping at Herod’s court, both having to do with establishing Jesus as the successor to the Davidic kings. The first of these is so the chief priests and scribes can announce that the scriptures say that the divine child will be born in Bethlehem. The second is so that Herod can know that the child is there, but not know exactly where in Bethlehem he is.

So Callahan points out the rather bizarre behaviour of the king in relying on some magi, whom he does not know from Adam, to return to him and act as seasoned spies, betraying the very person whom they have travelled no doubt for many hundreds of miles and many weeks to see! This is the hope of a very naïve man. Any betting person would tell you that he has slim to no chance of seeing those wise men again. You don’t travel half of the known world to find and praise a new Messiah only to betray him immediately! Any decent king worth their salt would not exhibit such behaviour. Moreover, with a track record as vicious as Herod’s, you would expect him to send a detachment with the wise men or to put them under some kind of arrest so that they could ‘help him with his inquiries’. In addition, the time it would take the magi to go to Bethlehem and come back to Jerusalem there would be no guarantee, when the magi returned to Jerusalem and let Herod know of Jesus’ exact whereabouts, that Joseph and family would still be in Bethlehem to be found by a returning Herod and entourage. As Strauss (1860, p. 160) agrees:

On all these grounds, Herod’s only prudent measure would have been either to detain the magi in Jerusalem, in the meantime by means of secret emissaries to dispatch the child to whom such peculiar hopes were attached, and who must have been easy of discovery in the little village of Bethlehem ; or to have given the magi companions who, so soon as the child was found, might at once have put an end to his existence.

What Callahan, in the previous quote, also illustrates is that the magi had to stop off in Jerusalem in order to give Matthew a mechanism to bring Herod into the story as well as a mechanism to allow Herod to have heard of this birth. Without the magi turning up and shouting around Jerusalem “Has anyone seen the new Messiah?” (itself an unlikely thing) and alerting Herod, we would have had no Herod, no massacring of the babies and no reason for Joseph and family to flee to Egypt. This fleeing to Egypt is a crucial event, thematically speaking, for Matthew’s account as we shall learn later seems rather dependent on a highly implausible contrivance dictated by Matthew himself.

Which is essentially to say that the whole Herod thing is nonsense. It never happened, and was a literary and theological mechanism to get the killing of the firstborns midrashically retold, and Jesus to come out of Israel (from whence he escaped from Herod), the new Moses, leading his followers into a new kingdom with God.


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  • D Rizdek

    I agree that Herod would have better means to kill Jesus than to simply kill everyone in a village. Even in his old age, he must have known that wouldn’t assure him of having eliminated and threat to his kingdom. But I also agree it would be more likely that in a fit of rage that some magi deceived him, he’d go after them. He knew what they looked like and had the power to go after them and bring back on charges and them burn them to death.

    But I do take issue with the idea, “

  • epicurus

    In the same way that the resurrection story tosses out a verse that should cause a revolution, then moves on as if no big deal (the dead coming out of their graves and walking around the city -Matt 27:52-3), the assertion that Herod and all of Jerusalem being “troubled” at the wise men following a star to come worship the new King of The Jews (Matt 2:3) doesn’t seem to mean much for a fair size city.

    How would this have played out in real life? If they were really that troubled about it, a pretty big chunk of the population of the city would have followed the wise men down the road to Bethlehem to see their infant king! They would have seen the star. The lineup to the house/manger/inn would have been miles long. If Bethlehem is 6 miles or so from Jerusalem, it would have been a round trip done in a day, except of course for the time spent in the line of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands lined up to see the infant. Then, they would have over thrown Herod if he actually tried to kill the infants under two. Joseph and Mary would be given prime positions of honour, moved out of the house/inn/manger into the finest place available, and throughout Jesus youth, he would be hailed as the new king.

    Nowadays, someone spots a tear on a statue and you have throngs of people going to see it, how much more enthusiasm would you have with a “troubled” city and a big star that would have been visible to all resting over a house (however that would work I can’t imagine) containing the new King of The Jews.

    That’s how real life works. That’s what people would do and how they really act if they are “troubled.”

    • That’s a really good point, Quote of the day!

      • epicurus

        You are too kind. Thank you

  • Pingback: Quote of the Day, epicurus on Herod | A Tippling Philosopher()

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  • carmel Ka

    About the Massacre of the Innocents there are two independent reports: in Matthew’s
    Gospel and in Macrobius’s “The Saturnalia”. In “Saturnalia”
    we read: “When he [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria
    under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered to kill, his own
    son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod’s pig, than his
    son” [16, Book II, Chapter IV,11)]. Both texts talk about the same order
    of Herod “to kill all the boys… who were two years old and
    under…” but come from two independent sources. The source of Matthew’s
    text is Joseph or his relatives who knew about the Holy Family’s escape to
    Egypt. The source of Macrobius’s text is someone from Herod’s court who knew
    about Herod’s order and the massacre but didn’t know that the Holy Family was
    timely informed and could escape. But how and when was emperor August informed
    about Herod’s order and the massacre? Josephus writes that shortly before his
    execution in 7 BC Herod’s son Aristobulus said Herod’s sister Salome: “Art
    thou not in danger of destruction also, while the report goes that thou hadst
    disclosed beforehand all our affairs to Sylleus [Syllaeus – A.R.], when thou
    wast in hopes of being married to him?” [9, Book XVI, Chapter 10, 5]. I
    suppose, Syllaeus was informed about the massacre and told about it to emperor
    August when he met him in connection with Herod’s military actions against
    Nabataeans. And when Augustus “heard that among the boys in Syria under
    two years old …etc.” Josephus reports, that after this meeting Augustus
    “wrote to Herod sharply. The sum of his epistle was this, that whereas of
    old he had used him as his friend, he should now use him as his subject”
    [9, Book XVI, Chapter 9, 2-3].

    “the following year on his return from Rome”, i.e. in 11 BCE
ordered the massacre. But the Holy Family escaped to Egypt and according
our hypothesis stayed there for some seven years until Herod died in 4
In XIII century Bonaventure wrote: “When the Lord had completed his seven
    years’ exile in Egypt, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream…” (17,
    Chapter XII, p. 89). It would be interesting to know how Bonaventura got
    “seven years’ exile in Egypt”?

    C. Tischendorf. Evangelia apocrypha. Leipzig, 1876. 
[2] D. W. Hughes. The Star
    of Bethlehem. Walker, New-York, 1979. 
[3] E. Mary Smallwood. Jews under the
    Roman Rule. Leiden, 1981. 
[4] Duane W. Roller. The Building Program of Herod
    the Great. University of California Press, 1998. 
[5] Josephus. The Jewish War.
    Loeb, London, 1927. 
[6] Britannica. Macropaedia, v.25, p.197, 1978. 
[7] F. K.
    Ginzel. Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie. Bd.II.
    Leipzig, 1911. 
[8] G. Luzzatto. Storia Economica d’Italia. Cap.3. Roma, 1948.
[9] Josephus.Jewish Antiquities. Loeb, London, 1943-1969. 
[10] Holy Bible.
    New International Version. http://www.biblegateway.com/ve….
[11] F. R. Stephenson, K.C.Yau. Far
    eastern observations
of Halley’s comet: 240 B.C. to A.D. 1368. JBIS: journal of
British interplanetary society, 38, 195, 1985. 
[12] Dio Cassius. Roman
    History. Loeb Classical
Library edition, London, 1917. 
[13] Origen. Contra
[14] G. Luzzatto. Storia Economica d’Italia. Cap.3. Roma, 1948. 
    Suetonius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Latin original, English translation
    from Loeb Classical Library (1914) by John Carew Rolfe).. Book II. The Life of
    Augustus 94,3. Book VI. The Life of Nero 36. 
[16] Macrobius. The Saturnalia.
[17] St. Bonaventure’s Life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Translated
    from the Original Latin. P. J. KENEDY & SONS. NEW YORK. 1881.

    the full post comes from:


    • From my book:

      The problem with using Macrobius is that he has overlaid the original quote from Augustus with reference to the Massacre of the Innocents rather than what is thought to be the original subject, Herod’s murder of his own children (see Brown 1977, p. 226). The quote relies on a pun comparing Herod’s brutality to his own son with the notion that he wouldn’t eat pork. Macrobius appears to be supplying a setting to the quote, based on his own contemporary, albeit pagan but contextually Christian, reading. Brown also concludes that it is likely that “the setting in Macro-bius has been influenced by the story in Matthew” (1977, p. 226).

      So, importantly, the key here, as Brown (1977, p. 228) also claims, is that:

      Matthew did not draw upon an account of histori-cal events but rewrote a pre-Matthean narrative associat-ing the birth of Jesus, son of Joseph, with the patriarch Jo-seph and the birth of Moses.

      This is the heart of the matter, and what Brown sees as concerning “history and verisimilitude”. However, as I have made pains to establish, on what foundations is the verisimili-tude built if there is no history? Thus the accounts are inspired by trying to develop an “intelligibility” for the reader. These accounts would certainly be full of theological meaning and intelligibility, but then so do stories of pure fiction placed in historical settings. For Brown, it seems that Matthew is all about being both “interesting folklore” and “a salvific message that Matthew could develop harmoniously”.

      In other words, it never happened as Matthew claimed it did. Jesus may offer salvation, but we cannot derive that truth from these narratives since these narratives seem to contain little or no historical fact.

      • carmel Ka

        interesting topic:”it is a good pun in Greek between ‘pig’ and ‘son’

        Caesar Agustus is said to have made the pun from Greek that he’d “rather be Herod’s pig (in Greek, hus) than his son” (In Greek, huois). For, Herod killed some of his own children but like Jews, avoided all proximity to swine,for
        they were dubbed unclean by the levitical priesthood. So was Herod the Great a Jew by birth? No, His father was Idumeon or Edomite. Was Herod the great
        a Jew by religion? No. He embraced Greek religions, and the pantheon of greek idolatrous false gods and goddesses. However, Herod was a king.

        About Macrobius , It is clear that he is not dependent on the Gospel of Matthew. As Paul Barnett notes,

        It appears that he has fused two separate episodes into one—the killing of the baby boys and Herod’s murder of a son of his own, who was then an adult and removed in circumstances different from those of the children. It does not seem tat Macrobius merely quotes Matthew’s story, since he was a convinced pagan and the reference to Syria is at odds with Matthew’s version. It is more likely that the killing of the boys was recorded in a pagan source, now lost to us, but preserved in Macrobius.

        Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable?, page 103.
        You also seem to admit that Macrobius got it from pagan sources above in your comment.

        On p. 193, Brown tells us about a wide range of possible sources for the material in Matthew 2, including “the combined story of Joseph in Egypt and Moses…the stories of the birth of Abraham, the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and the struggle between Laban and Jacob…the most likely background is offered by the episode centered on Balaam in Num 22-24…The Matthean Herod resembles both the Pharaoh and Balak.” After citing such a diverse array of possibilities, Brown assures us that he’s omitted any mention of other parallels that are “too tenuous” (n. 40 on p. 193).

        About Brown, I prefer his advice elsewhere that “one should be cautious in drawing an identification from such echoes of an OT scene.” (p. 344) Brown often acknowledges that his conclusions could be wrong and that the narratives could be more historical than he concludes (for example, pp. 578-579). The Old Testament is a large collection of literature that covers a wide range of personalities, circumstances, and issues. Finding some parallels of New Testament events in the Old Testament doesn’t have the sort of significance that critics like Tobin often suggest.

        It seems for me then appeal to inductive reasoning in historical facts could lead easily to the fallacy of hasty generalisation