The Christmas Massacre of the Innocents — History or Myth?

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Gold, frankincense, and myrrh — three expensive gifts from wise men laid at the feet of baby Jesus seem to mark a warm and fitting closing scene to the first Christmas story. But of course the biblical telling of the Christmas story doesn’t end here.

After the gift opening, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus run for their lives to escape the rage and paranoia of Herod, or as he preferred to be called, Herod the Great.

If you want an accurate sense of life in that first Christmas, ignore Martha Stewart Christmas décor and situate your imagination in a place of racial profiling and systematic and calculated police brutality.

Matthew 2:16 recounts what has been traditionally called the “massacre of the innocents,” the murder of all boys two-years-old and younger in the region of Bethlehem. The story, made visual by Giotto and other painters, is a deeply unsettling scene in the historical Christmas narrative.

Or is it?

Is the story fact, or a fiction invented by early Christians? And if is historic fact, why are there no other relics of historic evidence for such a headline-grabbing massacre?

I asked Dr. Paul L. Maier, a widely respected Christian scholar, Josephus expert, and historian of the ancient world. Until his retirement, the 84-year-old served as the Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University. He authored many fictional books and many non-fiction books including In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church, as well as several books for children, including, The Very First Christmas.

First, I asked him for a brief bio of the man we know as Herod.


If you are ever asked which is the one figure from the ancient world on whom we have more primary evidence from original sources than anyone else in the world, the answer is not Jesus or Saint Paul or Caesar Augustus or Julius Caesar, none of those, Alexander the Great, no. It is Herod the Great. Why? Because Josephus gives us two whole book scrolls on the life of Herod the Great. And that is more primary material than anyone else.

He was a very remarkably successful politician keeping the peace between Rome, which had conquered Judea ever since 63 BC and he acted, really, as a Roman governor overseas. He is simply known as a client king, meaning very often when the Romans conquered a province they didn’t want to send a governor out. There was a local king doing a good enough job, so yes, he may be called king, but he was deferent to Rome for his whole administration.

In 40 BC he was awarded the title king. He didn’t actually take control of the land until, with Roman help, he drove some adversaries out of Jerusalem and early from about 37 BC on he is in charge until his death in 4 BC.

He was remarkably successful in a lot of ways. He deserves the title “Herod the Great” if we talk about his accomplishments through much of his life. He rebuilt the great temple in Jerusalem. He was the one who single-handedly created a city of Caesarea where there was no good port in the holy land here. He creates one by sinking some ship hulls and then using it as a base to build a breakwater in an otherwise rectilinear seacoast.

He built Caesarea in 12 years and he built other cities like that, too. In Jerusalem he face lifted the entire city in addition to building a gorgeous palace for himself. He had a hippodrome, a stadium and theaters and this kind of thing. He was kind of a Hellenistic monarch. And he also built seven great fortresses across the land, strong points of which he could defend his administration. One of them, of course, the most famous was Masada down along the southwest corner of the Dead Sea.

Everything he touched diplomatically seemed to turn to gold. He kept peace both with Jerusalem and Rome and so in that sense he was very successful.

There’s another side to Herod. Tell is a little about his paranoid side that begins to emerge later in his life.

Basically he was responsible for many of the problems back home. His home was a can of worms simply because he married 10 wives and each of those produced princes for him and each of those male princes was scheming to succeed as number-one, and there can only be one number-one. So if there weren’t two or three collateral plots taking place before they had orange juice in the morning, something was wrong.

Josephus gives us just a hideous tale of what was going on in the family, attempted poisonings, one brother against another. It so rattled Herod that he actually put to death three of his own sons on suspicion of treason. He put to death his favorite wife out of 10 of them. Mariamne was his favorite. She was a Hasmonean Maccabean princess and he put her to death and then he killed his mother-in-law.

He invited the high priest down to Jericho down for a swim. They played a very rough game of water polo and they drowned him. He killed several uncles, a couple of cousins. He was a real family man.

As a matter or fact, Augustus himself to whom Herod was always very deferent said, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than this son.” It is a double pun. In Greek it is hus and huios, a clever turn on words and the other idea is that at least pigs weren’t slaughtered for human consumption over there and had a better chance at a long life. A brilliant pun.

At one point late in his life Herod plots to kill a stadium full of Jewish leaders. The plot ultimately failed, but explain that episode from his life and why he did this.

Josephus has a grisly thing to report about Herod in his last months. He was so paranoid he worried nobody would mourn his death in the holy land. Of course that shows how deadly accurate he was. Nobody likes to die knowing others are going to dance on your grave.

And so he was going to give the people something cry about.

It’s 4 BC, he is down at his winter palace in Jericho. It is the only place in the holy land that doesn’t snow or get cold in the winter. It is 1,200 feet below sea level. And here he is dying. He tries every remedy in the world to stop the all gang of diseases that were creeping up on him. He went to the hot springs at the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea (still there today). But it doesn’t cure him.

And so now he goes back to his winter palace and he invites his sister Salome in and he says, “I want you to arrest all the Jewish leaders in the land and imprison them in the hippodrome just below the palace here.” And so she does, and then she says, “Brother, why am I doing this?” And Herod says, “Well, I know that when I die the Jews are going to rejoice. So I want to give them something to cry about.” He wants them all executed in the hippodrome so that there will be thousands of Jewish households weeping at the time Herod the Great dies.

So is that the kind of a sweet guy who could have killed the babies in Bethlehem? Yeah, I think so.

Thankfully this plot failed in the end. But another plot of his was not thwarted. Speaking now of Matthew 2, the Bible records a scene from Herod’s paranoia late in his life. The wise men alert him to the birth of a new king in Bethlehem. They don’t return to him. And Herod eventually slaughters all boys two-years-old and under in Bethlehem and in the region. For all that Josephus wrote about Herod he doesn’t mention this, in fact there’s no extra-biblical evidence that this event happened. How do you respond to that claim? Is the slaughter of the innocents historically reliable?

No, Josephus does not mention it. And therefore a lot of biblical critics will pounce on that aspect of the nativity account and say therefore it didn’t happen.

Now please understand, this is an argument from silence. That’s the weakest form of argumentation you can use. As we say in the profession, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

In this case one or two things could have happened.

(1) Josephus may have heard about it and not used this fact. Bethlehem and the region is a little village of 1,500 or so at the time, and you wouldn’t have more than about 24 babies two years old and under, boys would have numbered only about 12–15. And the infant mortality in the ancient world was so huge anyway. And I think if Josephus is choosing between the two stories about how Herod right before his death, I think I would take the one where he is going to slaughter hundreds of Jewish leaders.

(2) Josephus may not have even heard about it. Again, simply because again little Bethlehem doesn’t amount to much of a story, but he may have never heard it in the first place.

So history does not militate against Matthew’s version by any means.

I was arguing once years ago on the infant massacre with a professor in Wagner College in New York who claimed this is all fiction that surely a massacre of hundreds of Jewish boy babies would have come to the attention of historians. Well, I agree it would have if there had been hundreds. But that is ridiculous, a little village that size to have hundreds of boy babies two years old and younger — it couldn’t possibly be the case.

So as a historian who has studied this in detail, is there any doubt in your mind about the historicity of this slaughter of the innocents?

I see not one iota of evidence here it could not have happened. And, therefore, again there is no reason to doubt the account as far as I am concerned. To be sure, Luke hasn’t heard about it. Remember, Matthew and Luke don’t copy from one another when it comes to the nativity. And that is good, because this way they can hit it from different angles.

But, yes, it really happened.

The first Christian martyr was not Stephen, it was Jesus. But not even Jesus. For my money the first martyr in the Christian Church was the first baby that was killed in Bethlehem. And we always overlook him.

The Allure of Middle-Earth

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More than seventy-five years after J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, the glory and majesty of Middle-earth continues to draw millions of readers and moviegoers.

Partly, Tolkien’s enduring popularity can be explained by the way he artfully touches the greatest themes of our collective experience of this world. Tolkien draws on themes of glory and majesty and kingship — intangible and abstract realities not easy to tap in art — and deeply embeds those themes into Middle-earth.

On a massive scale in The Lord of the Rings, and on a smaller, but no less significant, scale in The Hobbit, we encounter the longing for the right king to emerge from the shadows and to recapture his rightful empire, an ancient yearning older than mythical kings like King Arthur.

No Kings

Today, kings are mostly marginalized to meaningless pageantry. But there remains in kingship an enduring significance that is inescapable, something deeply burned into our souls, something telling us the world will only prosper when it’s ruled by the true king.

Where no kings reign, evil reigns. Tolkien knows this. This is what makes the Misty Mountains so treacherous for the company of Bilbo, the dwarves, and Gandalf, the travelers in The Hobbit. From the outset of their journey together, the wise wizard knows full well that to travel “over those great tall mountains with lonely peaks and valleys where no king ruled,” meant danger and “fearful adventure.”

No foot treads casually through realms unruled.

King Thorin

The kings must return, and the returning king in The Hobbit is Thorin, the true king of the Lonely Mountain and its vast caverns of golden wealth. When we enter the story, Thorin has been displaced by a wicked usurper, a liar and a stealer, the dragon named Smaug who is “the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities.” Smaug’s mutiny is driven by his wrongful claim to be, in his own words, “the real King under the Mountain.”

He wasn’t, but his false claim sets up a climactic declaration later in The Hobbit: “I am Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror King under the Mountain! I return!”

The Hobbit should be read (or viewed) as a clash of competing kings, and when the rightful king returns, evil is imperiled. The great dragon Smaug must be struck down, and he will be, and rumors of his death will unleash waves of lesser evils, all vying for the wealth of the Lonely Mountain.

All these evil, greedy marauders must be driven from the Lonely Mountain, and such victory is tied to kingship.

The king is come unto his hall,
Under the Mountain dark and tall.
The Worm of Dread is slain and dead,
And ever so our foes shall fall.

If the great dragon falls and the true king returns, all other foes are doomed. The return of the king and the death of Smaug bring revolution to Middle-earth. As The Hobbit ends, we read of the Misty Mountains, the range of mountains once unruled, now governed by Beorn, the shape-shifing man/bear. Under Beorn, the Misty Mountains will be expelled of goblins and Wargs, evil will retreat, and men will travel through the Misty Mountains in peace.

Kings in Middle-Earth

This is how Middle-earth works. Unashamedly, Middle-earth is a world of kings. In his book The Philosophy of Tolkien, Peter Kreeft perceptively picks up on this point.

Though we do not have kings in America, or want them, our unconscious mind both has them and wants them. We all know what a true king is, a real king, an ideal king, an archetypal king. He is not a mere politician or soldier. Something in us longs to give him our loyalty and fealty and service and obedience. He is lost but longed for and will some day return, like Arthur.

In The Lord of the Rings, Arthur’s name is “Aragorn.” When we read The Lord of the Rings, he returns to his throne in our minds. He was always there; The Lord of the Rings only brings him back into our consciousness from the tomb of the unconscious, where he was sleeping. (44–45)

Tim Keller builds on this point in his sermon on Psalm 2:

We have to have democracy because human beings are so sinful that none of us really are fit to rule. But we need a king. We were built for a king.

The reason for the old myths, the reason for the new myths (all the superhero myths are new myths about kings), the reason we adore kings and create them is because there is a memory trace in the human race, in you and me, of a great King, an ancient King, one who did rule with such power and wisdom and compassion and justice and glory so his power and wisdom and compassion and glory were like the sun shining in full strength. We know we were built to submit to that King, to stand before and adore and serve and know that King.

That’s what the Bible says. The Bible says there is a King above the kings. There is a King behind the kings. There is a King beneath all of those legends. Even the greatest kings are just dim reflections of the memory trace in us.

Tolkien taps into this deep ache within us. We were made by a King, and we were made to be ruled by him. And when the right king reigns, prosperity will again reign over the land. The biblical prophets understood this (Isaiah 60), and it is this prophetic longing Tolkien puts into the mouths of the Dwarves, who solemnly, longingly sing,

The King beneath the mountains,
The King of carven stone,
The lord of silver fountains
Shall come into his own!

His crown shall be upholden,
His harp shall be restrung,
His halls shall echo golden
To songs of yore re-sung.

The woods shall wave on mountains
And grass beneath the sun;
His wealth shall flow in fountains
And the rivers golden run.

The streams shall run in gladness,
The lakes shall shine and burn,
And sorrow fail and sadness
At the Mountain-king’s return!

Thorin, the returning king in The Hobbit, is no Aragorn (the returning king in The Lord of the Rings). Thorin is a flawed king, egotistical and cranky, and yet he carries the hopes of the ancient prophecy.

Hope and letdown are intertwined in our kings. All of our kings will go wrong somehow (1 Samuel 8). Too often, our kings grow selfish. And even the most selfless of our kings will die. They are slayed in battle (like Thorin), or they are slayed by the ticking clock (according to Gollum’s riddle).

And therein is the problem: in the end, none of our kings will do.

The Return of the King

And so we find ourselves caught. We don’t want kings, but our modern disdain to be ruled by them cannot snuff out this “memory trace in the human race.” As much as we modern, king-rejecting, independents may reject the thought, we really do know we were made to be ruled, made to be governed by a perfectly righteous King, a king worthy of all our obedience and service, who will finally usher in perfect peace and unleash rivers of joyful abundance so great that piles of gold coins will fade to metaphor.

This is the allure of Middle-earth.

We are drawn to Middle-earth by this swelling, ungratified longing for the Day when the true King will return to evict the vile dragon and reclaim the land he has, in reality, always possessed (2 Timothy 4:8).

The prophetic songs are in place.

Even so, come Lord Jesus!

The Grand Secret of Becoming “Thoroughly Christian”

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Whether it’s getting free from our worldly sin, or getting free from the shackles of self-righteousness, our solution is found in one “grand secret,” writes Jonathan Edwards (Works, 20:90–91):

There is a twofold weanedness from the world. One is a having the heart beat off or forced off from the world by affliction, and especially by spiritual distresses and disquietudes of conscience that the world can’t quiet; this may be in men, while natural men. The other is a having the heart drawn off by being shown something better, whereby the heart is really turned from it.

So in like manner, there is a twofold bringing a man off from his own righteousness: one is a being beat or forced off by convictions of conscience, the other is a being drawn off by the sight of something better, whereby the heart is turned from that way of salvation by our own righteousness. . . .

In these things, in renouncing the world to trust in Christ only as the means and fountain of our happiness, and in renouncing our own righteousness to trust alone in his righteousness, lies the grand secret of being thorough Christians.