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.