The first Christmas: The innocents

Matthew’s gospel contains the only reference—inside or outside the Bible—to the massacre of the innocents, Herod’s killing of all the baby boys two years and younger in Bethlehem and its environs.

So, was it all a Christian invention to gain sympathy for their founder? Was Herod even capable of such a cruel act? Following is a very lightly edited transcript of an interview of historian Paul Maier (one of whose novels I loved). The interview was conducted by Tony Reinke for one of Desiring God’s podcasts, Authors On The Line.


Tony Reinke: Tell us more about the character we find embedded in the Christmas story, this man we know as Herod.

Paul Maier: Well, Tony, you may be surprised to hear this, but believe it or not, if you’re 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 St Paul or Caesar Augustus or Julius Caesar—none of those… Not Alexander the Great, no, no. It’s Herod the Great, believe it or not. Why? Because Josephus gives us two whole book scrolls on the life of Herod the Great, and that’s more primary material than anyone else. And I don’t think Herod deserved it. [Laughter]

He was a very remarkably successful politician, keeping the peace between Rome which had conquered Judea in 63 BC. And he acted simply as a Roman governor overseas. He was simply known as a ‘client king’. Meaning, very often when the Romans conquered a province and they didn’t want to send a governor out, and there was a local king doing a good enough job…  And so, yes, he may be called ‘king’ but he was definitely 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. From about 37 BC on he’s in charge until his death in 4 BC.

Actually he was remarkably successful in a lot of ways. He deserves the title ‘Herod the Great’ if we talk about his accomplishments for much of his life. He was the one who rebuilt the great temple in Jerusalem. He was the one who single-handedly created the city of Caesarea: where there was no good port in the Holy Land, he creates one by sinking some ship hulls and then using them as a base to build a breakwater in an otherwise rectilinear sea coast. 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, theatres and this kind of thing. He was kind of a Hellenistic monarch.

And he also built seven great fortresses across the land, strong points at which he could defend his administration. One, the most famous, was Masada, down along the south-west corner of the Dead Sea. Everything he touched diplomatically seemed to turn to gold. He kept peace both with Jerusalem and Rome, and that says he was very successful.

Reinke: There’s another side to Herod. Tell us a little bit about the paranoid side of Herod that begins to emerge later in his life.

Maier: Well, 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. And so if there weren’t two or three collateral plots taking place before they had orange juice in the morning, you knew something was wrong.

Josephus gives 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 3 of his own sons on suspicion of treason. He put to death his favourite wife out of the 10 of them. Mariamne was his favourite, she was a Hasmonean Maccabean princess and he put her to death then he killed his mother-in-law—I should have said one of his many mothers-in-law. He invited the High Priest down to Jericho for a swim. They played a very rough game of water polo and they drowned him. He killed several uncles, a couple of cousins… A fellow said he’s a real family man—in that negative respect.

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

Reinke: At one point late in his life, Herod plots to kill a stadium full of Jewish leaders. The plot ultimately failed, it doesn’t pan out. But explain that episode from his life and why he did this.

Maier: Well, Josephus says here a very grisly thing to report about Herod in his last months. He was so paranoid that he … Of course, he did have some grasp of reality, for instance he was worried that nobody would mourn his own death in the Holy Land, which shows how deadly accurate he was. [Laughter]  They were preparing general celebrations. And nobody likes to die knowing that they’re going to dance in their grave. And so he was going to give the people something to cry about.

It’s in 4 BC, he’s down in his winter palace in Jericho—it’s the only place in the Holy Land that doesn’t snow or get cold in the winter, it’s 1200 feet below sea level. Herod is dying and he tries every remedy in the world to stop the gang of diseases that were creeping up on him. He went to the hot springs at [unclear name] at the north-eastern corner of the Dead Sea—by the way they’re still springing hot water 2,000 years later—and that didn’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 that hippodrome has been discovered archaeologically, by the way. 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 let me give them something to cry about.” And so he wants them all executed in that hippodrome so that there will be thousands of 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.

Reinke: Speaking of Matthew 2, the Bible records a scene from Herod’s paranoia late in his life. The wise men, of course, alert him to the birth of the new king in Bethlehem. They don’t then return to him and Herod eventually slaughters all the boys that are two years old and under in Bethlehem and in all 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 even happened. How do you respond to that claim? Is the slaughter of the innocents historically reliable?

Maier: It’s interesting. 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, and that’s the weakest form of argumentation you could use. As we say in the profession, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

And in this case, one or two things could have happened. Josephus may have heard about it and not used it. Because you don’t have hundreds of babies killed; you only have about 12, as a matter of fact—12 or 15. The infant mortality in the ancient world was so huge anyway, that this is really not going to impress a reader too much, believe it or not. And I think Josephus is choosing between the two stories about how Herod dies and right before his death. I think I would take the one where he’s going to slaughter hundreds of Jewish leaders. Or he may not have heard about it. Again, simply because little Bethlehem didn’t amount to much. A little village of 1500 or so. We did an actuarial study of Bethlehem at the time. You wouldn’t have more than about 2 dozen babies two years old and under, half of them the wrong sex. And so this is not a big deal, and I think that’s why Josephus either never heard about it or didn’t feel it important enough to record. So this does not militate against Matthew’s version by any means.

In fact I was arguing once, years ago, on the infant massacre with a professor in Wagner College in New York who claimed that this is all fiction, and that surely a massacre of hundreds of Jewish boy babies would have come to the attention…  I agree it would have if there had been hundreds. It couldn’t possibly be the case.

And ‘all the coasts thereof’…  Well, look, Jerusalem is 5 miles away. So therefore this would include Jerusalem as well if we’re going to take literally ‘all the coasts thereof’. We’re talking about Bethlehem and probably a half mile around when we’re talking about the surroundings of Bethlehem.

Reinke: As a historian, is there any doubt in your mind about the historicity of the slaughter of the innocents?

Maier: I see not one iota of evidence that it could not have happened. And therefore, again, there’s no reason to doubt the account as far as I’m 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’s good, because this way they can hit it from different angles.

I think it really happened, and let’s remember again that the first martyr of Christianity was not Stephen, it was Jesus, but not even Jesus… For my money the first martyr in Christian church was the first baby that was killed in Bethlehem, and we always overlook that.