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.