Matthew 2: Did the Slaughter of the Innocents Happen?
Matthew chapter 2 brings us to one of the more sad stories of the New Testament. Herod, not wanting his kingship to be threatened by anyone, sought to kill the young Messiah by slaughtering all young boys in the area of his domain.
Mat 2:13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
Mat 2:14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
Mat 2:15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
Mat 2:16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.
I point this out because it is also one of the more controversial events of the New Testament. There is no other author of antiquity that we know of who wrote about it. Modern skeptics will argue that surely something like that would’ve been recorded by more historians beyond Matthew.
However, there are a few things to keep into consideration before we throw this out as simply a made-up tale. First, from what we do know about Herod, this would not be out of character at all. If you read his entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, at one point, he ended up killing his wife, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather and her mother. He was prone to extraordinary jealousy as well. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica, a secular source, argues that “The slaying, shortly before his death, of the infants of Bethlehem was wholly consistent with the disarray into which he had fallen.” If he had no problem killing his own family out of jealousy, then it is not hard for me to think that he would have killed anonymous infants for similar reasons.
Second, there is a little reason to believe that very many children were slaughtered in this event, so in comparison to the intrigue of killing people in the royal family, killing perhaps 10 children might not have raised the eyebrows of historians at the time. Herod would of known that the child would have been born in Bethlehem, so it is not as if he would have combed all of Israel and killed every two-year-old boy. It was have been a very targeted killing in a very lowly populated area. Obviously it is tragic and evil, but it seems to me that this might have only been a little blip on the radar when compared to all of the other things that Herod had done.
Finally, there’s one last issue to consider here. There seems to be an underlying presupposition. Because the history is only in the Bible, we need to be automatically suspect because it can’t be true. I don’t know why we have to make that presupposition. People will argue that Matthew was writing with a bias. He was a follower of Jesus, so he might have put his agenda into the writing. In return, I would say that everyone has a bias. Everyone writes everything from a certain perspective and therefore has a bias, but that doesn’t mean that we need to throw out everything that has ever been written. Essentially, attacks like this do not worry me very much. Given the fact that this is entirely in character for Herod and there is reason to believe that it could have escaped the attention of other historians at the time, I see no reason to automatically discount Matthew as an accurate historian who recorded the facts as he learned them.