How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the slaughter of the innocents. Therein, I argued that some of the skepticism about the account was unjustified. One argument I made was that the number of children killed in Bethlehem would likely have been no more than 20. Though obviously an act of great evil, the killing of 20 children would be much less likely to be noticed by historians of the time than the slaughter of thousands as later traditions speculated.

In response to the post, Peter Kirby asked a few questions. He has patiently waited my response, continuously delayed by work, family, and the completion of my Acts article. Two of the questions had to do with how the amount of 20 was determined. Others with the omission of the account by Luke and the reliability of the tradition recounted by Macrobius. Peter also mentioned that there were other reasons to doubt the story's historicity beyond just the silence of other sources. I hope to address all of these questions, but this post responds only to the questions re: the number of children killed:

How do we estimate Bethlehem and environs to have a population of 1000?

How do we estimate the population of infants and babies (two and under) to be less than 2%?

I do not have complete answers to these questions, but I can provide the information that I have and the sources upon which they rely.

Herod thus gives himself an extra measure both of temporal and of geographical assurance. Even within these expanded boundaries, the 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 (see Zahn, 109, n. 6). The early Church tended to exaggerate the number (Byzantine tradition sets it at 14,000; Syrian at 64,000; some have even equated it with the 144,000 of Rev 14). That Herod could perpetrate such a horrendous act is consistent with what history has record about him.

Donald A. Hagner, World Biblical Commentary, Matthew 1-13, page 37.

Unfortunately, Zahn appears to be a rather dated German source: Zahn, T., Das Evagnelium des Matthaus, 2nd ed. Leipzig: Diechert, 1903.

Craig Keener also puts the number at “perhaps twenty children in a small town,” but cites the much more recent R.T. France’s “Herod and the Children of Bethlehem,” Novum Testamun 21:98-120. See Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, page 111. I do not have access to this article, but perhaps Kirby does?

I decided to go to what many believe to be “the” source on the issue, Raymond Brown’s Birth of the Messiah, who says this:

Despite the obviously storytelling atmosphere, those interested in establishing the historicity of the event have calculated how many children there would have been in a village like Bethlehem and its surroundings. Because of the high infant morality rate, we are told that if the total population was one thousand, with an annual birthrate of thirty, the male children under two years of age would scarcely have numbered more than twenty.

The Birth of the Messiah, page 204-05.

Brown does not include a reference, but does offer more insight into the calculation of the numbers; including the high infant mortality rate and the annual birthrate of thirty. Of course, we should also remember that we are talking about 0-2 years old babies, not all the children in the area. Finally, it is only the male babies that would have been killed.

All told, I am much more inclined to go with a number around 20, or even twice that, than the number of later Christians placing the dead in the tens of thousands.


mim said…
Now that 20 children have been murdered in Newtown, Conn., we know how much grief the murder of 20 children can cause. How much more so when they're all the children of your neighbors in a small town.
Anonymous said…
I think mim's comment clearly helps us understand the the pain and the impact of what happened in Bethlehem all those years ago.
Anonymous said…
Matthew 2 says that Herod ordered all male babies age 2 and younger to be murdered in Bethlehem AND ALL THE COASTS OF ISRAEL. Could it be possible it was 144,000 males and they later be brought back to fulfill prophecy in the 7 YEAR TRIBULATIONS? Interesting thought.
truth seeker said…
You are closer than you think. Do a study on firstfruits. Better yet, watch Robert Breaker do the study on YouTube right before your eyes. You want to see the power of God in the scriptures? It will blow you away...I promise. Search Who are the 144,000 and receive one huge blessing! Still gives me the chills! I think it's 39 minutes long. Enjoy!
Unknown said…
I think your right about the 144000 being the children herod murdered.they had to also come out of the 12 tribes of israel which one could conclude they were murdered through out israel as herod i am sure was enraged at the wise men and the jews in genral .Jesus would have also been the only male jewish child in 2 genarations alive being why they left . John the baptist was i think born in turky as mary went to vist her cousion while pegnant there would not have been many male jewish boys to conclude to be our saviour left for the jewish leaders to get their hands on concidering john the baptist was i think was murdered by herod
Unknown said…
Their discription is detailed to be not of grown men as jesus was the only one born blamless and of no sin . He died for our sins and gave us life but we can never be blamless
Anonymous said…
I would have thought that as Mary and Joseph had returned to Bethlehem at the time of the census, there should be (in Roman records at least) a reasonably accurate account of how many people lived in Bethlehem, including how many male children and their birthdates?
Anonymous said…
I have heard prophecy that they are the the ones that rise from the graves when Jesus is killed .

Is it possible that they are souls reincarnated over and over to today and they are ready to rise ?
Jef Demolder said…
In my opinion the cruel Herod is a literary construction, created in the Bellum Judaicum, work attributed to Flavius Josephus, who himself is also a literary construction. The evangelist Matthew made use of the cruel Herod and of the Archelaus son of Herod he found in the final version of the Bellum Judaicum. The real meaning of the gospels is far beyond speculations on the number of children killed by Herod. See my blog (in Dutch)
Of course.Did you not know there were no real people in the first century? No Cesar ever exist. There was no Philo, he was made up by Jesus mythers. In fact there was no Roe that;s just myth, No Israel either.

anytime something challenges my comfy little anti-God world view it becomes fiction/
TINKIE said…
History is never a case of accepting an event without question; there is always room for questioning history. However, the weight of evidence usually leans more in one direction than another and this must always be a consideration when it comes to casting our vote as to what we consider is more likely the true version of events. Speculation, (especially involving prophecy) is not evidence, so it is always wise not to be dogmatic about the meaning of some historical event. The important question we need to address to the Bible centers on the historicity of Christ; did such a person exist? And is his claim to be "the way, the truth and the life" credible? That, I think, is something we each have to settle for ourselves.

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