At the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we read how King Herod learned from the Magi that the messiah king had been born. Herod told the Magi to return and let him know where they found the infant so that he could also pay him homage. The Magi saw through Herod’s deception and returned by a different route. Enraged, Herod ordered that every male child two years old and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity be killed (Matthew 2:16). The Church commemorates this event with the Feast of the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28 in the west and Dec. 29 in the east.
But did this tragedy actually occur? There are some who hold that the death of the Holy Innocents is little more than a pious fiction, but is that the case?
When we look at the background of this text, we find that the events recorded ring true. Herod was installed as king of Judah, not by the Jewish populace, but by the pagan Romans. In fact, Herod was an Edomite, which meant that in the eyes of the Jews he had no right to be their king because God promised David that his descendants would sit on the throne forever.
Therefore, Herod would not have been overjoyed to hear of the recent birth of the messiah king in Bethlehem. Quite the opposite. Herod would have seen Christ’s birth as a threat to his throne. Herod’s murderous response also fits our knowledge of Herod. He murdered several of his own family members because he suspected disloyalty — causing Caesar Augustus to quip that “It is better to be Herod’s pig than a son.” Murdering these young children is perfectly in keeping with everything we know about Herod. Why, then, do some doubt?
The arguments against the historicity of this event are based almost entirely on silence, particularly the silence of a first century Jewish historian named Josephus. Josephus provides us with several details about Herod’s life and works, but never mentions the murder of the Holy Innocents. It is assumed, therefore, that the event must never have happened. But is this conclusion sound?
Part of the problem is it was once thought that the number of children murdered ran into the thousands and therefore the scale of the tragedy couldn’t have escaped Josephus’ attention, if it did happen. But more recent research has shown that the actual number would have been considerably smaller, perhaps less than 20 children killed. The figure is still large, but compared to the carnage Herod wrought during his reign, Josephus could have omitted it without any trouble.
Moreover, it is clear from Josephus’ other treatments of historic figures that he never intended to given an exhaustive account of his subjects. For example, Josephus’s description of the Essenes, the Jewish group famous for producing the Dead Sea Scrolls, entirely omits any mention of the group’s apocalyptic worldview, which was its hallmark. Therefore, if the first century Jewish historian chose not to give an exhaustive account of the acts of Herod, there is no reason to suspect the historicity of anything omitted by him.
There is also another plausible reason for Josephus’s omission of this event; he may not have connected Herod with the murders in Bethlehem. There’s nothing in Matthew that suggests that Herod sent his own troops to kill these children. In fact, Matthew 2:16 only says that Herod “…sent and killed” the children. It’s quite possible that Herod did not send his own troops (making it an official act), but rather sent banditti to do his bidding. A very ancient extra-biblical text known as the Protoevangelium of James seems to support this idea. In chapter 22, the text says, “And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under.”
For Christians who knew what transpired with the Magi, Herod’s role in the Bethlehem tragedy would have been obvious, but for a later Jewish historian who wouldn’t have known this information the tragedy in Bethlehem would have been seemed like just another senseless act of brutality common for the era.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.