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Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents

According to Matthew's gospel, once Herod realized that he had been tricked by the wise men, he ordered the slaughter of all male babies under two years of age living in or around Bethlehem:

Matthew 2:16-18
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
"A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

We have very good reasons to belief that this slaughter of the innocents is unhistorical:

Let us pause to consider the facts: the massacre of the male babies by Herod as described in Matthew is an event without any historical corroboration; it fulfils an Old Testament prophecy (which in itself makes the whole episode suspect); and it closely parallels the story of Moses' escape from the clutches of the pharaoh.

To all these facts there is only one answer: the episode is a work of theological fiction, based on the story of Moses in Exodus, composed either by Matthew himself or the early Christian tradition to fulfill what was thought to be an Old Testament prophecy about the messiah.

Josephus' Silence

Historically, Herod, to put it mildly, did not have a peaceful reign. His many sons and wives were involved in bitter rivalry for his throne. Herod was not a man to hold family relation sacred. He had three of his sons executed for conspiracy. He executed his brother-in-law, Joseph. At the urging of Joseph's widow, Salome, he murdered his own wife, Mariamme. If he treated his own family badly, his opponents and enemies were given even more ferocious handling. He murdered the Jewish High Priest, Aristobolus III and forty five members of the Sanhedrin for their support of the Hasmoneans. These are just samplings of Herod's atrocities. He was therefore a kind of man that could have committed the crime Matthew attributed to him.

The atrocities listed above are taken from Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews. From Josephus' own writings, we can tell that he hated Herod, for he obviously took pleasure in noting down every crime and atrocities that was attributed to the Idumean king. Many of the crimes described by Josephus were far less "wicked" than the slaughter of the innocents described by Matthew. Now Josephus' list was very detailed. Had the slaughter actually occurred it would have been an event well known enough for the Jewish historian to have heard of it. Yet the silence of Josephus and the absence of any reference to it in any contemporary secular writings (Jewish, Greek or Roman) cannot be explained if the event was historical. The conclusion forces itself on us, it never happened.

The Fulfilment of an Old Testament Prophecy

Note also that Matthew claimed that this fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy of Jeremiah (31:15). We noted earlier how the early Christians used the Hebrew Scriptures as a happy hunting ground for allusions to their saviour. Their attitude was: if it was prophesied in the Old Testament about the messiah then it must have happened to Jesus.

Its Midrash-like Similarity to Moses' Nativity

Furthermore, the story in Matthew is very similar to the Old Testament story of the baby Moses' escape from the pharaoh slaughter of the Israelite children:

Exodus 1:15-16,22
Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives..."When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him...Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile..."

Just like the escape of Moses from the clutches of the pharaoh's slaughter, so was Jesus to escape from the grip of Herod's massacre. The midrash-like parallel in these two stories is strongly suggestive of Matthew's dependence on the Exodus episode for this portion of his nativity. [1]

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1.Asimov, Guide to the Bible: p795-796
Cuppitt & Armstrong, Who Was Jesus?: p46
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence, p48
Yerby, Judas, My Brother: p489

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