Did Herod Kill the Children in Bethlehem?

Alfred Edersheim

Herod the Great, the misnamed king of Judea during the time of Christ's birth, received his title more for the force of his rule and expensive building projects than for his moral scruples. Only by the authority of Rome did he obtain a kingdom—and even then, many rebellions marked his reign. His insecurity aroused a murderous suspicion in him that touched even his own family.

Despite his reputation, however, some critics have wondered why no other historian—at least in the accounts available to us—mentions Herod's murder of the children of Bethlehem. In fact, the only account we have comes from Matthew 2:16, which has led to claims that the slaughter is a myth.

Sadly, that this event is only recorded by Matthew attests to the cruelty Herod became known for. Other than the murder of several members of the Jewish nobility when he first captured Jerusalem, his paranoia led to the execution of his uncle, his children (along with the executions of 300 adherents to their cause), and even his wife. And this is but a small sample of the devastation left by his tyranny. Any perceived threat to his crown, real or imagined, earned brutal punishment.

When the magi appeared asking for the one born King of the Jews, Herod's subsequent execution of all the children two and under in Bethlehem fits what we know of him. He eliminated any threat to his sovereignty. Most estimates put the number of murdered children at fewer than 20. While a horrible tragedy, the slaughter of a few children in a small, unimportant village seems unlikely to make the pages of many histories compared to Herod's other atrocities.

One should also remember that much of our extra-biblical knowledge of Israel at the time comes from Josephus, a Jewish historian and likely a Pharisee. To include this event would require an explanation of why the children died. Given his beliefs and desire to please Rome, little wonder he should avoid references to this massacre.

Adapted from The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim (Book II, Chapter VIII).

Originally published April 12, 2010.

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