The Plausibility of the Slaughter of the Innocents

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).


Jason Engwer said…
Thanks, BK. I second your recommendation of Gordon Franz's article and Chris Price's articles on the subject.

In addition to the fact that Josephus is known to have not mentioned some significant events that other sources of that era mentioned, we should keep in mind the pro-Christian nature of the event in question. Matthew's gospel probably was circulating before Josephus published his material on Herod, and the traditions behind Matthew's gospel would have been circulating even earlier. Christians were already using the account for their own purposes. The Slaughter of the Innocents elicits sympathy for Christianity, it suggests that Jesus was under God's protection, and it involves Jesus' fulfillment of a commonly accepted Messianic prophecy (Micah 5:2). Josephus had enough other material on Herod to avoid utilizing an account that had such pro-Christian implications, an account that was being utilized by the Christians of his day. Similarly, Josephus makes vague reference to the miracles of Jesus, demonstrating that he was aware of them, without going into detail. He knew more than he wrote.
BK said…
Jason, those are excellent points. Thanks for adding them.
Jason Pratt said…
Ditto, Jason!

At the same time (not that anyone here has done this yet), we have to be careful not to slide this line of reasoning into a positive apologetic argument for the historicity of the account. Yes, it fits Herod's character very well, but it wouldn't be hard to come up with a fictional small-scale (thus undisconfirmable) secret incident that would fit Herod's character.

Herod hires a gang of thugs to act as Arabian raiders--the man was from Idumea himself originall and could be expected either to have proper contacts or at least to help them dress and act the part--they come and go mysteriously, just happening to kill the relevant kids along the way while 'robbing' the area. It doesn't get traced back to Herod, who after all was a master politician when not insane with jealousy and paranoia. He wasn't called "the Great" for nothing!

That scenario I just wrote is, frankly, even more plausible to me than the usual explanation (which just involves Herod sending troops like it was some official act). But it's total speculation on my part at best. I know better not to hang anything on it.

i.e., we have good arguments along this line against a charge of implausibility where that charge is grounded on the lack of significant secular report. We only have to present a plausible scenario that results in the actual data situation (such as it is). But that isn't a positive argument (in itself) that the event happened.

(Referring to a second and secular notice of the slaughter, on the other hand, would be part of a positive argument that it happened. I need to go back and read those articles; I had either forgotten or hadn't noticed that detail. {wry g})

Jason Engwer said…
I agree with the distinction Jason Pratt is making. Arguing that a lack of mention of the event in Josephus doesn't make the event unlikely to have occurred isn't equivalent to giving people reason to believe in the event. Since critics often focus on the former, so do Christians. But we should keep the distinction between the two in mind.

As far as making a positive case is concerned, the primary arguments would be from Matthew's credibility as a historical source and the evidence for the inspiration of scripture in general. Less significant arguments, though they'd carry some weight, would be the acceptance of the incident by later sources (like the church fathers) and references or possible references to it in the Assumption of Moses and Macrobius.

I would add that the case for Matthew's reliability is better than commonly perceived. Aside from the access that the apostle Matthew would have had to Jesus' immediate family and other relatives (who were in a position to know of an event like the Slaughter of the Innocents), Christians in general had a lot of access to such sources. Even if Matthew's authorship of the gospel is rejected or left undecided, the fact remains that Christians in general had a lot of access to relatives of Jesus and other sources who were chronologically or otherwise closer to the event in question. James was the most prominent leader of a prominent church (Jerusalem) for about three decades. As sources like 1 Corinthians 9:5 and the book of Jude tell us, at least one of Jesus' other siblings was available and prominent for a long time as well. Mary was at least temporarily available after Jesus' death (Acts 1:14), and it seems doubtful that every one of Jesus' siblings other than James and Jude died early. Jesus' cousin Symeon and other more distant relatives lived until even later than James and Jude.
that's all super, now do Quanrinas was governor twice!

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