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.