The latest newsletter from the Associates for Biblical Archaeology contains a very interesting article about Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus entitled, The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical Fact or Legendary Fiction? by Gordon Franz, M.A. In the article he notes the objection by skeptics that the lack of a secular account of the slaughter makes it unlikely that it ever occurred, then begins to piece together a very good article explaining possible reasons for such secular evidence (which means "anything but the Bible") to be absent.
In the course of the article he discusses the fact that Herod was a bad guy (which is an understatement even using the secular records) and the fact that the event was not so great as many think. The slaughter was not a huge blood bath with hundreds of babies brutally murdered in their mothers arms. Rather, it is likely that only a few mothers had their babies murdered at that time.
Second, the massacre might not have been as large as later church history records. The Martyrdom of Matthew states that 3,000 baby were slaughtered. The Byzantine liturgy places the number at 14,000 and the Syrian tradition says 64,000 innocent children were killed (Brown 1993:205). Yet Professor William F. Albright, the dean of American archaeology in the Holy Land, estimates that the population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth to be about 300 people (Albright and Mann 1971:19). The number of male children, two years old or younger, would be about six or seven (Maier 1998:178, footnote 25). This would hardly be a newsworthy event in light of what else was going on at the time. Please do not get me wrong, one innocent child being killed is a horrific tragedy.
Of course, none of this is news to the CADRE who has twice before covered this issue. Our own Chris Price has written two fine pieces that anyone really wanting to learn more about this issue should read. The first is entitled The Slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew reviews the Biblical account, the paranoia of King Herod, and (contrary to Mr. Franz' article) recounts that there is a secular source (i.e., not the Bible) that does reference the Slaughter of the Innocents and that the reference could (but may not) emanate from a non-Christian stream. The second article, How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?, comes to the conclusion that it is likely that no more than twenty children were murdered by Herod during the slaughter.
All in all, it appears that Christians have made a very strong case for the plausibility of the Matthew account -- even if there is no Jerusalem Post article circa 2 B.C. screaming that Herod should be deposed for such an atrocity. I close with the conclusion of the Franz article:
The slaughter of the innocents is unattested in secular records, but the historical plausibility of this event happening is consistent with the character and actions of Herod the Great. Besides killing his enemies, he had no qualms in killing family members and friends as well. Herod would not have given a second thought about killing a handful of babies in a small, obscure village south of Jerusalem in order to keep his throne secure for himself, or his sons, even if it was one of the last dastardly deeds he committed before he died. As Herod lay dying, raked in pain and agony, the men of God and those with special wisdom opined that Herod was suffering these things because it was “the penalty that God was exacting of the king for his great impiety” (Antiquities 17:170; LCL 8:449-451).