The Slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew
Unique to Matthew's gospel is his account of Herod's slaughter of the children of Bethlehem:
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
Many commentators have expressed doubt about the historicity of this passage because it is not reported by any other source. Because many historical events are only recorded by one source, the argument usually assumes that an event so dastardly was bound to be told by many sources. After all, we are talking about wiping out all of the small children in a city.
As many commentators have noted, however, this assumption is not well founded. Although later traditions ascribed the number of children killed as high as 144,000, that number is too high. Bethlehem was a small town with a population, including surrounding areas, of about 1,000. "[T]he number of infants under two in a population of 1,000, given the birth and infant mortality rates of the time, has been reckoned at less than twenty." Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, World Biblical Commentary, page 37. Obviously the murder of less than 20 children is a heinous crime, "[i]n an era of many, highly placed political murders, the execution of perhaps twenty children in a small town would warrant little attention." Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, page 111.
Though Keener may be overstating things a bit, it should also be kept in mind that Herod reined as King for over 30 years (and as Governor of Galilee for 10 years prior to that) and heinous crimes were not uncommon for him. Most of these crimes arose from Herod’s jealousy (and paranoia) regarding his throne.
Josephus records that Herod, “never stopped avenging and punishing everyday those who had chosen to be of the party of his enemies.” Antiquities 15.2. Herod executed 45 of the wealthiest aristocrats and confiscated their property. He was suspected, with good reason, of having the young High Priest (and son-in-law) Aristobulus drowned. In connection with that event, Herod ordered his wife to be murdered (an order he gave again under similar circumstances). Thereafter, he had his mother-in-law executed, as well as his brother-in-law and his sons.
Another important point to keep in mind is that Jesus’ birth occurred near the end of his reign. This period of time can only be described as Herod at his most paranoid and jealous. He had many sons with ten wives, all of whom wanted their son to become King. On top of that, Herod had lost favor with the Emperor because of his conflict with his Arab neighbors. He finally succeeded in killing his wife, and had three of his sons murdered. While he was dying, Herod ordered that “all the principal men of the entire Jewish nation” be executed upon his death so the nation would mourn on the day of his passing. Fortunately, his orders were not carried out. Antiquities 17:172-178.
Finally, there is good reason to think that Josephus – our main source for Herod – did not provide (or possess) an exhaustive catalogue of Herod’s misdeeds. Josephus was largely dependent on Nicholas of Damascus for his information about Herod. But Nicholas was a courtier of Herod and held him in high regard. Furthermore, it appears that Herod engaged in “the repression of the wilderness Essenes” which is otherwise unknown to us from Josephus. Keener, op. cit., pages 110-11. In all, what we can say from the Josephan evidence is that such a deed would have come to Herod easily and Josephus’ silence on the subject is inconclusive.
Another bit of evidence that has come to my attention is that of Macrobius. He was a pagan author of the late fourth century who did refer to Herod's slaughter of the innocents without being directly dependent on the Gospel of Matthew. The reference to the slaughter of the innocents is found in Saturnalia, which is,
a dialogue in seven books which includes a literary evaluation of Virgil as well as valuable quotations from other writers. Also contained in Saturnalia is the text, with commentary, of Cicero's Dream of Scipio, which was popular in the Middle Ages and influenced Chaucer.
Macrobius did not write about Christianity and shows no other awareness of the Gospel of Matthew. Yet in Satunalia, he writes the following:
When [Augustus] heard that Herod king of the Jews had ordered all the boys in Syria under the age of two years to be put to death and that the king's son was among those killed, he said, "I'd rather be Herod's pig than Herod’s son."
We simply do not know what Macrobius’ source of information was for this reference. It is clear that he is not dependent on the Gospel of Matthew. As Paul Barnett notes,
It appears that he has fused two separate episodes into one—the killing of the baby boys and Herod’s murder of a son of his own, who was then an adult and removed in circumstances different from those of the children. It does not seem tat Macrobius merely quotes Matthew’s story, since he was a convinced pagan and the reference to Syria is at odds with Matthew’s version. It is more likely that the killing of the boys was recorded in a pagan source, now lost to us, but preserved in Macrobius.
Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable?, page 103.
Though I agree with Barnett that Macrobius does not rely directly on a Christian source for his information, we can be less confident that ultimately the tradition Macrobuis recounts is independent of Christian influence. The Gospel of Matthew was written around 300 years before. It was the “first among equals” among Christians. Moreover, Christianity had spread deep into Roman culture by this time. Thus, although it is possible that Macrobius recounts a non-Christian source about Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, it cannot be said that this is likely. At the very least, however, Macrobius demonstrates that pagan authors had no reason to doubt such an account – even though found in a Christian source.