Implicit Josephus: Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:1-23)

Massacre of the Innocents
King Herod orders the slaughtering of Jewish males to find and kill Jesus, the Messiah. Credit: Getty Images/DeAgostini

 

Implicit Josephus_ Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents document download

 

Implicit Josephus: Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:1-23)

The Massacre of the Innocents is a name that may be familiar to you — or not. Some don’t know the event by its formal title, but can remember the account in Scripture in Matthew 2 where King Herod kills all the Jewish males ages 2 and under in order to kill Jesus, “the king of the Jews.” The story itself makes Herod look not only paranoid (that he would kill a baby), but also insecure in his political power that he would eliminate a generation of helpless babies in order to save his position as king. Matthew records the event in Holy Writ, and Christians who hold to the Scriptures as “the Word of truth” have no problems believing the event took place. But, as is the case with the Jewish Holocaust, there are those today who don’t believe the Massacre of the Innocents ever happened.

 

The critics disbelieve the account of Matthew 2 because, outside of Scripture, there is no mention anywhere of the tragic event. The documentary titled The Real Herod finds Matthew 2 to be a fabricated story because the Roman Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, failed to mention it in his writings. He mentions tons more information on the life of Herod than he does the life of Jesus. Atheists hold to this same view today. I spoke with one some months ago and she asked me, “Don’t you find it odd that Josephus doesn’t mention it, that we don’t have one extrabiblical source to support Matthew’s claim?” I responded back via email with the words, “Well, my sister and brother-in-law got married some years ago. If their marriage certificate is burned up, and the local courthouse gets destroyed, then they may not have a marriage certificate. Is their marriage “null and void” because they don’t have a piece of paper?” We know the answer to that question is, “of course not.” If there are witnesses of an event, and they were not hallucinating, insane/crazy, or blind, we can believe that they saw something that fits what they reveal. In Matthew’s case, though he wasn’t a disciple of Jesus at the time, it’s likely that he was alive when the massacre happened. Perhaps he records the event in his gospel while Luke, Mark, and John do not because it struck a chord with him. And Jesus, his Lord, was one of the children who could’ve been a victim of that terrible Jewish slaughtering of innocent children. He records the Jewish slaughter for reasons other than just his own experience of it, but it’s very possible that if Matthew wrote the Gospel that bears his name, then the event happened. We’ll get into the reasons why later in this article.

 

There are three questions before us that we shall try to answer: 1) Did the Massacre of the Innocents happen? 2) What evidence is there to testify to the authenticity of the recorded event in Matthew 2? And 3) What are we to make of its absence in the works of Josephus? When all is said and done, these three questions will be pivotal to how we reason about Matthew 2 within our hearts and minds. It will impact how we defend the faith to atheists and other religious critics. And, it will strengthen our faith in the process, for there are intellectual reasons to remain a firm believer in the Matthew 2 account, even apart from a genuine belief in the infallibility of Scripture (though infallibility is a weighty belief, in and of itself).

 

Did the Massacre of the Innocents Happen?

 

Did the Massacre of the Innocents happen? This is a complex question, depending on what you want to know. Let’s approach it from Matthew’s perspective. If you were Matthew, a disciple of Jesus, and you wanted to write a biography about the life of Jesus (the Gospel of Matthew, as the other three Gospels, are biographies), would you not want to put true events in it? Many of us scoff and laugh at the tabloids today, but few of us take the events in them seriously. It’s sensationalism, designed to get you reading and gossiping about imaginary events, outright lies. Sadly, in our country and world, tabloid writers stay in business and have lucrative careers telling lies and slandering the reputations and characters of celebrities. And yet, we don’t trust what they tell us. We don’t trust “The Onion” to be honest with us because we know it’s nothing more than mere satire, designed for entertainment and a few good laughs (some persons don’t find lies to be a laughing matter, but I digress.). When we want to know something factual, we go to encyclopedias, newspapers, news websites, social media, and so on. In other words, tabloid information we expect to find on a Wal-Mart shelf — but we don’t expect to find it in a biography where we’re wanting the writer to spill the beans of truth about the life of a particular individual. And if we read a biography and find the information to be less than credible, we will slander the biography, its writer, and the entire project publicly. Nowadays, social media can slander anyone and tear down their reputation in a matter of minutes. We live in a world where “fake news” is hated.

 

So why would Matthew have written a “biography” of Jesus and then mentioned a Jewish male slaughtering of innocent infants that never happened? Our Lord says that He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6); why would “The Truth” want a biography about Him passed around in the churches or made accessible to Christians that proclaims lies and falsehood? And why would Matthew have used a massacre to provide tabloid entertainment about Jesus? Why would Matthew, himself a Jew, use a “fake” Jewish massacre to paint King Herod in a terrible light when the Jews faced enough real massacres in their history? Take the slaughtering of all Jewish males in the Book of Exodus, for example. We’ll revisit this again, but for now, let me say something quick about the Exodus slaughter: the Jews saw their Jewish males killed after Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, refused to kill the Jewish males on the stools after the Jewish women gave birth to them. Do we presume that the Jews “lied” about this slaughtering too, if Moses’ mother Jochebed had to put Moses on the water? If there is no historical evidence from Josephus about the slaughtering of Moses’ generation, will we presume that Exodus lies about that, too?

 

Matthew recorded real events in the Gospel that bears his name. He recorded how Joseph and Mary moved into a house by the time Jesus was two years old. Matthew recorded that the angel visits Joseph to tell him that Mary’s pregnancy is of the Holy Spirit and that the child will be called “Jesus.” Matthew records the life of Jesus, His teachings, His selection of disciples, His death, and His resurrection. Many of the major events in the life of Jesus are evidenced by the other three Gospel writers Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew is concerned with what Jesus said and did, as well as His early childhood with His family. Why would he have to lie about the Massacre of the Innocents and evil King Herod in order to “fluff” the story?

 

Matthew’s Gospel is called a “biography” because it is a written record (“graphy,” from the Greek grapho which means “to write”) about the life (bios in Greek) of Jesus. The moment we question Matthew’s Massacre of the Innocents, the biography becomes a tabloid. And when that happens, then we can decide that nearly anything is fiction and that only a handful of details are true. Secular historians are saying that the Massacre of the Innocents is a myth, a fanciful story written to “prove a point” about the evil King Herod without suggesting that the event “actually” happened. And yet, if Christians follow this route, then we’re surrendering the very existence of Jesus and God right over to them as well. God might as well be fiction if the events in the life of Jesus are fiction.

 

And yet, we’ll see here that there’s nothing fictional about the Gospel of Matthew, his view of Herod, or the Massacre of the Innocents. The massacre did happen, babies were killed, and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had to flee to Egypt to avoid Jesus’ death at the hands of an evil king (Herod would be deemed evil for killing his wife, sons, and national citizens, even if one disregards the Massacre as a real event).

 

To discover the real Herod, and determine the authenticity of the Massacre of the Innocents, we’ll examine Matthew 2 and what it says. Then, we’ll approach Herod in history to see just what others say this Arab King was like and whether or not Matthew 2 fits Herod’s character and personality.

 

Examining the Evidence

Matthew 2

 

We’ve covered Matthew 2 before (see our “True Wisdom” article for more information), but we’ll examine it quickly here in order to set the context for our Herod discussion.

 

The three wise men travel from the East to arrive in Jerusalem, inquiring about “the King of the Jews.”

 

“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:2)

 

They call Jesus “King of the Jews,” a title that rightfully belongs to Jesus, the Son of God, but was nevertheless a title that would make Herod jealous and mad with envy. For Herod, at this time, was “the king of the Jews,” the one put in place to rule over them. The wise men reveal that “we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (v.2). They could see Jesus’ star, even as far away as the East. In other words, the Star of Bethlehem was no small star; those who lived thousands of miles away could see it. The wise men came “to worship Him,” revealing that they believed the “King of the Jews” to also be God Himself.

 

It is after their questions that Herod seeks the scribes to tell him what Scripture says about the birthplace of this supposed “King.” They tell him that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, and he then sends the wise men to Bethlehem, telling them that they were to bring back word where Jesus was so he could come and worship Jesus, too. The wise men followed the star until they arrived at the house where Jesus was (He was two years old at this time, and Joseph and Mary were in a house, not outdoors in a stable where Jesus was born in a manger, a feeding trough for animals). After presenting their gifts to Jesus, they are warned by an angel not to return to Herod and depart for their own country again.

 

After Herod realizes the wise men are not returning to him and have escaped, he turns angry and orders the execution of all Jewish males, ages 2 and under:

 

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,

Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children,

Refusing to be comforted,

Because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)

 

Herod calculates that Jesus must be two years old, so he goes into Bethlehem and its districts (all of them, we presume), and slaughters every Jewish male age 2 and less (even as young as three months, for example). He does this because he hears of Jesus being “the King of the Jews” and fears his own kingship and political authority would be challenged. He didn’t want anyone or anything challenging his rule; if Jesus would prove to be a challenge, he would kill Jesus and avoid any political threats to his throne. He is also upset with the wise men, but it appears as though his anger with the idea of Jesus being the true King of the Jews was even greater.

 

We don’t read of anything after Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, except for his death and the fact that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus can return to Israel and live in safety.

 

Is Matthew 2’s Massacre of the Innocents Account Believable?

Now that we’ve had a run-through of Matthew 2, the question we must ask ourselves is this: “Is the account credible? Do we believe that Herod really killed Jewish babies ages 2 and under? If we believe it, why is the account believable?” There’s good reason to believe that the account took place. As I’ve stated above, there’s the fact that Matthew was giving a “biography” of Jesus, one that would’ve prioritized true facts above false rumors and legend. Thus, if Matthew says that the event happened in the life of Jesus, then we should believe it unless there’s evidence to the contrary. And the evidence to the contrary hasn’t surfaced yet. The best “evidence” secularists lay claim to is Josephus’s failure to comment on it. That, however, isn’t enough to say the Massacre of the Innocents never happened. I’ll get into this when we cover Josephus.

 

So, with that said, let’s look at the details of Matthew 2 and ask whether or not we find the details to be credible. First, there’s the wise men who come from the “East,” inquiring about the King of the Jews. They came to Jerusalem, not knowing where to go to find Jesus, but perhaps they didn’t know where Bethlehem was. Maybe they’d never been to Israel; after all, they were Gentiles, and the journey probably took several weeks to make. Matthew plays up the fact that the wise men don’t know where Jesus is and are eager to worship Him, while the chief priests and scribes know where Jesus is but couldn’t care less to go see the King of the Jews or worship Him.

 

This is a point that fits everyday life: often, those who don’t know all the facts or details about God and Jesus are the most eager to serve and worship Him. Though they have little knowledge, they have great zeal and desire to do what they can to serve and worship God. In contrast, those who often know more are the most apathetic and lazy in their service to God. The Pharisees, who knew the Scriptures better than the average Jew, failed to do what they said, while everyday Jews who didn’t know the finer points of Scripture were all too eager to worship Jesus, serve Him, and praise Him at the sight of His miracles. The wise men were astrologers, not theologians, yet they’d read enough to know that the Star they saw in the East was “His Star,” that Jesus was “King of the Jews,” and that He was worthy of worship. The chief priests and scribes, the “theologians” of the day, could rattle off the tongue where Jesus was in Bethlehem but hadn’t gone to see the Christ Child. The wise men’s lack of knowledge here is believable and credible, and the chief priests and scribes’ apathy about Jesus is also believable. From this same group of chief priests and scribes would later come those who would use Jesus’ handpicked disciple, Judas, to betray Him and crucify Him.

Next, we must examine Herod’s troubled response to hearing of another “King of the Jews”:

 

3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

5 So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:

6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;

For out of you shall come a Ruler

Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”

 

7 Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” (Matthew 2:3-8)

 

Herod was troubled, according to Matthew 2:3. This is believable when one considers how paranoid Herod was about his political power. Historically, it’s been said that Herod was afraid of his political power being challenged because he didn’t inherit the throne legitimately. According to the documentary The Real King Herod, the King Herod of the Massacre of the Innocents was “a puppet king installed by Rome” (The Real King Herod, 0:01:26-0:01:29).  Since the Romans were lord over the Jews at this time, the Romans installed someone that would keep them afloat of all Jewish affairs, someone who would be “their man.” That man was Herod.

 

Not only was Herod installed by the Romans, but he also wasn’t Jewish:

“But there was a problem, one that right from the start blighted the reign of the king of the Jews: he wasn’t Jewish. Herod was an Arab. His mother was a princess from the rose-red city of Petra in what is now Jordan. His father was an Arab diplomat from a desert tribe that had been forced into Judaism at the point of the sword. To real Jews, Herod came from a family of heathens. They’d never call him king” (The Real King Herod, 0:02:56-0:03:31).

 

Herod’s problem was that he wasn’t Jewish and didn’t inherit his kingship among the Jews. The Jews believed that only descendants from King David, a “son” of King David, could rule on the throne. Since the Bible never endorsed the idea of an Arab reigning over God’s people, the Jews never accepted Herod as a real ruler. Since he was an Arab and wasn’t a Jew by blood, he was deemed to be an illegitimate ruler that didn’t belong. No matter what he did to appease the Jews, they’d never see him as a legitimate ruler. And his illegitimate kingship is something that was always in the back of his mind. His insecurity stemmed from his illegitimacy.

 

Herod’s father was one who worked as a Hasmonean diplomat with the Roman government, and it appears as though his son, Herod, became something of a “diplomat” even as king. Herod didn’t get to go to war much and was a “vassal” king, so the most Herod could do as king was build buildings. However, he could order individual or group executions. He became king of the Jews in 40BC, at the age of 33 (he was born in 73BC).

 

Herod’s illegitimacy is what moved him to act favorably toward those who could prove a threat to him. For example, when he wanted to elevate Hyrcanus, the Jewish historian Josephus tells us, Herod sent his ambassador and “many presents” in order to distract from his illegitimate, political power. Josephus:

 

“Herod…persuaded him to desire of Phraates, and the Jews that were there, that they should not grudge him the royal authority, which he should have jointly with himself, for that now was the proper time for himself to make him amends for the favours he had received from him, as having been brought up by him, and saved by him also, as well as for Hyrcanus to receive it. And as he wrote thus to Hyrcanus, so did he send also Saramallas his ambassador to Phraates, and many presents with him, and desired him in the most obliging way, that he would be no hindrance to his gratitude towards his benefactor. But this zeal of Herod’s did not flow from that principle, but because he had been made governor of that country without having any just claim to it, he was afraid, and that upon reasons good enough, of a change in his condition and so made what haste he could to get Hyrcanus into his power, or indeed to put him quite out of the way; which last thing he effected afterwards” (Flavius Josephus, author, William Whiston, Translator. Josephus: The Complete Works, page 478; bold font mine).

 

Herod sends gifts and advocates for Phraates to receive this friend of his because “he had been made governor of that country without having any just claim to it, he was afraid,” Josephus says in the quote above. He was generous and considerate out of fear that the citizens of Phraates would likely rise up against him.

 

Herod also fears for his reign when Antony dies against Octavian in the battle of Actium. Antony fought against Octavian and Herod should’ve been there to defend Marc Antony but wasn’t because he was fighting a battle in the desert. Antony dies in battle, and Herod makes the trip over winter seas to Octavian in order to pledge his loyalty to the new ruler. “He goes explicitly without any of the paraphernalia of his royal status: without his crown, without his robes, he goes cap-in-hand before Octavian and he says, ‘I make no apology. I was a supporter of Marc Antony’s, I should’ve been at Actium, I would’ve been fighting on Marc Antony’s side, I was loyal to Marc Antony during that whole period, but now I will offer my loyalty to you…the same kind of loyalty I showed to Marc Antony will now be shown to you,” the documentary tells us (The Real King Herod, 0:24:15-0:24:56). Octavian gives Herod more lands and adds to the size of Judea because of Herod’s submission to him. While there with Octavian, he offers Octavian 700 talents of pure silver, which Octavian needed because Octavian was bankrupt. Herod’s money is what helps him smooth over this threat to his political rule.

 

Herod plots the murder of his 18-year-old brother-in-law Aristobulus (his relative by marriage, that is), because Aristobulus was Hasmonean, a legitimate Jew, and had a legitimate connection to the Jewish kingship. After the murder, Aristobulus’s mother Alexandra wrote to Antony’s Cleopatra (yes, the Antony alive at the time of Julius Caesar; Herod’s father was on a first-name basis with Julius Caesar, The Real King Herod documentary says) to see to it that Herod paid for her son’s murder. Antony called Herod to make an appearance before him, and Herod goes — after he privately orders the death of his wife, Mariamne, a Hasmonean and legitimate Jew. Why does he order the death of his wife? Because Herod didn’t want Mariamne to become someone else’s wife should Antony sentence him to death for killing Aristobulus. Josephus tells us:

 

“She [Alexandra] wrote an account of this treacherous scene to Cleopatra, and how her son was murdered; but Cleopatra, as she had formerly been desirous to give her what satisfaction she could, and commiserating Alexandra’s misfortunes, made the case her own, and would not let Antony be quiet, but excited him to punish the child’s murder: for that it was an unworthy thing that Herod, who had by him been made king of a kingdom that no way belonged to him, should be guilty of such horrid crimes against those that were of the royal blood in reality. Antony was persuaded by these arguments; and when he came to Laodicea, he sent and commanded Herod to come and make his defence as to what he had done to Aristobulus, for that such a treacherous design was not well done, if he had any hand in it. Herod was now in fear, both of the accusation and of Cleopatra’s ill-will to him, which was such that she was ever endeavouring to make Antony hate him. He therefore determined to obey his summons…so he left his uncle Joseph procurator for his government and for the public affairs, and gave him a private charge, that if Antony should kill him, he also should kill Mariamne immediately; for that he had a tender affection for this his wife, and was afraid of the injury that should be offered him, if, after his death, she, for her beauty, should be engaged to some other man: but his intimation was nothing but this at the bottom, that Antony had fallen in love with her, when he formerly heard somewhat of her beauty” (Josephus: The Complete Works, page 482).

 

Herod was the type that was so jealous of others that he would rather kill his wife Mariamne, than think that she would remarry if he were murdered for his crime. Herod was insecure not only about his political power, but everything he owned as a result. Since his wife Mariamne was a marriage to invest in his future in hopes that the Jews would accept him (by accepting his wife, a true Hasmonean), she too, fell under political gains that he didn’t intend to lose to another man. When he returned to his kingdom after a favorable discussion with Antony (where he took the ruler presents to appease him), Herod discovered that Joseph, his uncle, had an intimate conversation with Mariamne where Joseph revealed Herod’s plan to kill Mariamne if he were murdered. Once Mariamne revealed this to her husband, he had his uncle Joseph murdered without seeing him. We’ll get into more murders of Herod as we get through the credibility of Matthew 2, but these are a few opening accounts from Josephus to show how insecure and frightened of a king Herod truly was. The only responses he had to challenges were 1) gifts, if the person was someone of greater political power than himself, or 2) murder, if the individual was beneath him and he was king over them.

 

In Matthew 2, when Herod inquires of where Jesus is to be born, then, he’s not inquiring out of joy or celebration of Jesus, but rather, to kill Him. Jesus is a new political threat to his illegitimate rulership because Jesus, as a Jew, the Son of God, and the “Son” of David, is a legitimate ruler. Herod is not, and so Jesus now becomes a political threat that Herod must eliminate. Matthew isn’t painting Herod as a scared and evil man to make him look bad; rather, the details in Matthew 2 match what even the Roman Jewish historian Josephus says about Herod. In this sense, the events of Matthew 2 prove to be true with regard to Herod’s fear and his tendency to kill. More will be said about Herod’s murdering tendencies later on.

 

When Herod sends the wise men to find Jesus, it’s an interesting move because he doesn’t go with them. If he really wanted to worship Jesus, why not travel with them to the house to discover it himself? There’s an answer that will suffice, though: perhaps Herod didn’t want anyone to know what he was up to, so he’d rather have the wise men bring back word than travel with them. He knew he wasn’t as godly as he pretended to be. Historians say in The Real King Herod documentary (produced by Ian Denyer) that Herod had a “silver tongue” and he always knew what to say. He wasn’t always on the side of the “right Roman,” but he always knew what to say to rebound and better himself in the eyes of those in power he encountered. When Herod says that he wanted to worship Him as well, he didn’t mean it — again, it was a case of clever words to innocent men who really did want to worship Jesus. Their mission was pure and sincere; Herod’s was sinister and evil.

 

So did Herod really want to worship Jesus? Some say that Herod’s rebuilding of the Temple Mount, his desire to marry into the Jewish aristocracy (Mariamne was the wife that got him there), and his desire to be loved by the Jewish people are all evidences that Herod the Great was a believer. And yet, he wasn’t, for one obvious reason: had Herod been a believer, he would’ve been excited, joyous, and welcoming of the King of the Jews. He wasn’t; in fact, after the wise men trick him and go back to their country without leaving details, Herod goes on a killing spree. Does the killing spree indicate that Herod the Great was a believer? Not at all. One would have to be truly naive to think otherwise. And yet, Herod’s reaction is believable because Jesus was considered to be a political threat. Anyone deemed a political threat was killed. Remember his brother-in-law Aristobulus, the brother of his wife, Mariamne? He recommended Aristobulus for the role of high priest, but when Aristobulus gets more cheers than Herod does, Herod decides to kill him because, in his lust for power, he feared that his brother-in-law would have more power. The reason? Aristobulus was a legitimate Jew, a Hasmonean, one who had a direct line all the way back to King David. Aristobulus was a direct descendant of King David, as were all the Hasmoneans. To kill him was an act of jealousy, but it was also an act that shows that Herod and Herod alone would have the applause of the people; no one would have greater reception than him, else they’d be killed.

 

When the wise men depart from Herod, the Star in the sky carries them to the house where Jesus was. Current nativity scenes are inaccurate in that they have the wise men coming to Jesus in the manger outdoors. The truth of the matter is that the wise men didn’t get to Jesus until He was about two years old, and even then, Mary and Joseph weren’t outdoors anymore but had settled in Bethlehem.

 

The wise men visit Jesus and bring Him gifts. He’s a toddler at this time. Is it plausible to believe a Star led them to Jesus? Yes, it is. After all, if God put a star in the sky to alert them as to Jesus’ birth, and they traveled by that star all the way to Jerusalem, then it is conceivable that the star guided them to Bethlehem where Jesus was at 2 years old. This is the supernatural element of the story, a belief that God can take general revelation (such as a star), make it special (“His Star”), then use it to guide those who belong to Him to see His Son as a toddler. Only secularists and unbelievers would question that a star in the sky would guide someone to Jesus. Those of us who are Christians and believe in a supernatural God would never question this element. And yet, sadly, there are even some Christians in the world who do question this supernatural element of the story. And yet, the biblical account of Matthew 2 tells us that we cannot believe in Jesus without believing in the other supernatural elements of the story. It’s no different than believing that angels appeared to the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel and told them to go to Bethlehem. Without divine revelation, the shepherds would’ve never known about Jesus’ birth. Without divine revelation (or special revelation) in the lives of the wise men, without that star in the sky, they would’ve never known about Jesus’ birth, either. Both examples are supernatural and must be believed in order to believe in Jesus. The star was also prophesied in Numbers 24:

 

15 So he took up his oracle and said:

“The utterance of Balaam the son of Beor,

And the utterance of the man whose eyes are opened;

16 The utterance of him who hears the words of God,

And has the knowledge of the Most High,

Who sees the vision of the Almighty,

Who falls down, with eyes wide open:

17 “I see Him, but not now;

I behold Him, but not near;

A Star shall come out of Jacob;

A Scepter shall rise out of Israel,

And batter the brow of Moab,

And destroy all the sons of tumult. (Numbers 24:15-17, NKJV)

 

Balaam prophesies that a Star would come out of Jacob, that “a Scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). Are we surprised then, to see that Jesus’ birth is celebrated with a star in the sky? No, not at all. And the wise men, who would have likely gotten ahold of the Old Testament Scriptures, weren’t shocked, either. In fact, they knew it was “His Star” that they had seen in the East: “For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2). The only way they could recognize it is if they had been anticipating it, and the only way they could anticipate it is if they were informed about it beforehand. If they didn’t have the Old Testament Scriptures, how would they have known to look for “His Star” at all?

 

Matthew’s Gospel is all about Jesus being the fulfillment of Old Testament Scriptures, so it makes sense that Matthew would include a Jesus star in the text. After all, Jews reading their Old Testament would’ve understood the star’s role in the story upon reading Matthew 2 for the first time. It’s a very subtle way in which Matthew does it: instead of just saying “this star is to fulfill the prophecy of Balaam, saying,” Matthew has the wise men note that the star belongs to Jesus (showing that they, too, are familiar with Old Testament prophecy). We’d expect this in a Gospel committed to Old Testament prophecy fulfillment: a good example of this is Matthew 2:5, where the chief priests and scribes quote from the Old Testament text of Micah 5:2. So, while the events of Matthew 2 aren’t present in any other Gospel, it is necessary here in Matthew’s Gospel because it contributes to the purpose for which his Gospel has been written — that is, to show that Jesus fulfills Old Testament Scriptures and prophecies. And in order to make the case that Jesus is the Christ, wouldn’t Matthew need to do that (since the Scriptures only refer to the Messiah as “Christ,” not “Jesus”)?

 

The wise men depart after worshipping Jesus and giving Him gifts, and go back to their country. Notice before that they were to come back to Herod and give him Jesus’ whereabouts. Herod said to them, “when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also” (v.8). So the wise men were likely planning to return to Herod after seeing Jesus because they believed his intentions were pure. They didn’t know anything about Herod, for they had just met him prior to going to Jesus’ house and following the star. If they didn’t know where Bethlehem was, and they were from the East, it’s unlikely they knew next to anything about Herod and his evil character. So, if they departed another way and decided not to return to Herod the king, then something or someone had to influence them. If it wasn’t a dream, then what could it have been?  How would the wise men have known not to go back there? Why wouldn’t they have returned to Herod if they gave their word?

 

So far, the events of the story make sense and seem logical. Again, the supernatural dreams and the divine nature of Jesus would only prove a problem for secularists and atheists, but believers wouldn’t find these things hard to believe. The wise men departed first, we read in Matthew 2:13, but then we read that the Lord warns Joseph:

 

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”

14 When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” (Matthew 2:13-15)

 

An angel of the Lord comes to Joseph, in the same way that the wise men were divinely warned in a dream, to tell him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt to escape Jesus’ death at the hands of Herod. Notice that the dream is explicit: Joseph is to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt. The Lord tells Joseph not only to flee Herod, but where to flee in order to avoid Herod’s capture. Joseph leaves at that moment from Bethlehem and heads to Egypt to escape. And he stays there “until the death of Herod” (v.15). Perhaps the Lord warns Joseph to flee to Egypt because Herod would’ve looked for Jesus until he found Him. Even if Joseph would have fled to some other place near Bethlehem, Jesus would have still been in danger. What would have stopped Herod from looking for Jesus in surrounding towns if his Bethlehem search turned up empty? Considering Herod’s anger, he could’ve expanded his slaughter beyond Bethlehem and its districts. With such an angry king, anything is possible. There are no limits to anger.

 

Matthew tells us that the angel tells Joseph to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt so that Jesus would fulfill Old Testament prophecy. The quote Matthew gives in 2:15 comes from Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Here’s the verse in context in the Old Testament:

 

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,

And out of Egypt I called My son. (Hosea 11:1)

 

The entirety of Hosea 11 concerns Israel, the nation. When Matthew says therefore, that Jesus goes to Egypt and then comes out of Egypt, he’s setting Jesus up as Israel personified, as the embodiment of Israel; that is, if you want to see Israel the nation, look no further than Jesus. Jesus represents Israel. “Israel,” by the way, is Hebrew for “May God prevail,” the name given to Jacob when he wrestles with the angel all night long (Genesis 32:22-28). Jesus, then, is the New Israel, the Israel that passes the test in the wilderness when tempted by Satan regarding food. Jesus is the Israel that, unlike the nation, doesn’t give in to Satan and question God’s provision. Let’s examine the Wilderness Temptation:

 

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. 3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”

4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ”

5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written:

‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’

and,

‘In their hands they shall bear you up,

Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ”

7 Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ ”

8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”

10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” 11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him. (Matthew 4:1-11)

Whereas the nation of Israel tempts God in the wilderness, Jesus surrenders to the Word of God and does not. He doesn’t doubt. He doesn’t tempt the Lord by throwing Himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. He doesn’t flinch when Satan promises to give Him “all the kingdoms of the world” in a moment of time. He is the New Israel, the Israel that responds the way the nation should’ve responded in its temptations in the wilderness but didn’t. And Matthew’s Hosea 11:1 quotation in Matthew 2 sets the stage for Matthew 4.

 

Herod’s Response

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,

Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children,

Refusing to be comforted,

Because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)

 

Herod presumed the wise men would bring back a report to him about where Jesus was, exactly. It appears as though Herod only wanted to kill Jesus. And yet, the wise men received a dream from God about Herod and his plans, a dream that led them back to their country without returning to Herod. God revealed that Herod’s intentions weren’t pure, but evil, that he was out to kill Jesus, not worship Him. As a result, the wise men returned to the East without seeing Herod again. God led them another way, and He then led Joseph and Mary with Jesus out of Bethlehem to Egypt.

 

Well, Herod didn’t take too well to this. Having learned that the wise men were long gone and wouldn’t return to him, he became extremely angry. He turned angry because the wise men wouldn’t give him Jesus’ whereabouts. Taking into account the time of the star that the wise men had given Herod, as well as the scriptural reference of the scribes and chief priests, Herod decided that he’d kill every Jewish male in Bethlehem, ages 2 and under.

Now some question whether or not this event happened. In The Real King Herod documentary, secular historians say that they question whether or not the Massacre of the Innocents really happened. They have a hard time believing it did. When one examines the event, however, it’s not hard to see that it is a credible event. Herod becomes angry and, in his fear that this Jesus will become King of the Jews, slaughters every Jewish male child in Bethlehem and its districts. The phrase there is the Greek Βηθλέεμ καὶ ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ὁρίοις αὐτῆς (Bethleem kai en pasi tois horiois autes), meaning “Bethlehem and all her districts or boundaries.” Now, pay attention to the Greek phrase there: the phrase refers to only Bethlehem. A slaughter is still a slaughter, and the loss of one Jewish male child is a tragedy, but the massacre was only for Bethlehem geographically; there was no genocide in Jerusalem, for example, or even Galilee, Nazareth, or any others. The Massacre of the Innocents was contained to Bethlehem, what the Scriptures refer to as a very small place:

 

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,

Yet out of you shall come forth to Me

The One to be Ruler in Israel,

Whose goings forth are from of old,

From everlasting.”

3 Therefore He shall give them up,

Until the time that she who is in labor has given birth;

Then the remnant of His brethren

Shall return to the children of Israel.

4 And He shall stand and feed His flock

In the strength of the Lord,

In the majesty of the name of the Lord His God;

And they shall abide,

For now He shall be great

To the ends of the earth;

5 And this One shall be peace. (Micah 5:2-5)

 

Micah 5:2 tells us that “Bethlehem Ephrathah” is “little among the thousands of Judah.” There’s nothing that spectacular about Bethlehem, of all the cities of Judea. It is one of the least of the Jewish cities. Since Bethlehem is “little,” then apparently, Bethlehem also had a small population. The nation of Israel itself is small as compared to the rest of the world. As of August 12, 2018, Israel as a nation has a population of 8,452,841 people. Now, of those 8.452 million people, imagine how few people live in Bethlehem. Numbers place Bethlehem at a population of over 25,000 people in 2007, and about 29,000 people as of 2018.

In Jesus’ day, according to Christianity Today, Palestine had a population of 500,000-600,000 people. Jerusalem had a population of 55,000 then, so Bethlehem would have been smaller than Jerusalem. Nazareth, a neighboring town, had only 120-150 people according to archaeology. Ray Pritchard says in his book, Six Miles From Jesus, that Bethlehem had “perhaps 200 residents.” What this means is that, if there were a total of 200 residents in Bethlehem when the Massacre of the Innocents took place, then the slaughter itself would not have been on a grand scale. The Real King Herod says that “thousands” of babies were slaughtered (in the opening scene of the documentary), but that makes little sense if Bethlehem only consisted of, at most, 200 people. Assuming that every two people (husband and wife) were married and had at least one child, then there would have only been about 60-70 children slaughtered in the Massacre of the Innocents. Matthew’s text doesn’t deceive us: it says that only Bethlehem’s children were slaughtered, not Jerusalem or other towns. In this regard, it doesn’t seem to be a large event worth remembering, but it’s important to Matthew because Jesus was the target of the Massacre. We aren’t deceived here, except in personal impressions that don’t adhere to the text. The Massacre isn’t a large one, but Jesus was the target — which makes it pertinent news in Matthew’s Gospel.

 

This is believable. It would be no different today than if someone reported a homicide situation where twelve babies in a nursery were killed. The issue is not the number of babies and infants, but the fact that innocent lives were taken. If three babies were killed in a nursery or a hospital nursery unit, the tragedy would still be worth reporting. The “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) movement has erupted in our day due to perceived police brutality with regard to black suspects, but in Matthew’s day, it would’ve been “Jewish Lives Matter” (JLM). Of course, every life matters, but I have a feeling Matthew recorded this small slaughter so that it wouldn’t be forgotten.

 

Humans have a tendency to remember the mass events, the large-scale tragedies, the massive wars where thousands are killed (such as Pearl Harbor), but forget small-scale events where only a few are killed. We remember September 11, 2001 and 9/11 but can’t recall private incidents where soldiers overseas were ambushed and killed. The Parkland, Florida shooting stands out to us as a mass shooting in 2018, but there have been numerous other shootings outside of Parkland. Why do we remember Parkland above them all? Because Parkland involved the deaths of numerous students, as opposed to other school shootings that involved a handful of persons. Shootings in Maryland have occurred this year but few match the terrible numbers of Parkland. Every shooting matters, but human nature recalls the largest ones and abandons the smaller ones.

 

And the same can be said for Matthew’s day. The slaughtering involved less than 100 children. The numbers above, the 60-70 children we surmised, pertains to the total number of children; not every child was 2 years old and under, however, which means that even fewer than 60-70 would have been slaughtered. Maybe there were only 20 or 25 that were slaughtered. The typical slaughters in history are in the thousands and millions (such as The Holocaust, for example, where 6 million Jews were slaughtered). The point of recording the slaughter was to forever blame Herod and make him responsible for their deaths. Perhaps Matthew knew, as we know today, that humans tend to forget small tragedies. That’s why he added it in his Gospel: so that everyone would never forget how Herod killed those few Bethlehem males. Matthew realized that time would probably erase their memory from the Bethlehem and Israelite conscience. Jews living in Jerusalem may have not even been aware of the tragedy; how many of us, living in one county, don’t know the tragedies that happen in the county next to us? So Matthew’s recording the Massacre of the Innocents was designed to help us, as the Parkland Twitter hashtag says, “#NeverForget” that the tragedy occurred. And it is Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents slaughter that is well-known today. When Jews think of Herod, they recall the Massacre. The Real King Herod documentary notes that Herod’s reputation is made by the Massacre; that is, few remember his building achievements, the length of his time as ruler (37 years), or his “silver tongue” by which he could always switch alliances and remain alive and in power. The Massacre of the Innocents is the defining event for Herod’s character and accomplishments in the first century BC.

 

Massacre of the Innocents: Fulfillment of Scripture

Those who question the Massacre of the Innocents as a real event do so because it isn’t attested by anyone else, not even the Herod-tracking Jewish historian Josephus. Its lack of attestation anywhere else means that secular historians find it to be fictional. One secular historian in The Real King Herod documentary said that Herod’s paranoia and murdering tendency was so strong that “stories could easily be made up about him.” And yet, not one particular story was lifted up as an example (outside of the Massacre of the Innocents) of a story about Herod that never took place. This tells me that secular historians who assume the Massacre mentioned in Matthew 2 is forged or made-up do so because the story doesn’t pass their own standard of authentication. That standard involves the writings of Josephus, which we’ll cover in the next section.

 

And yet, there’s plenty of evidence within Josephus that Herod was a killer. Herod killed when he felt his political power threatened, when he believed someone was plotting or conspiring to take his throne away from him. When he believed his brother-in-law Aristobulus as high priest was more popular and better received by the people, he had his 18-year-old brother-in-law killed. Herod left instructions for his wife Mariamne to be killed if he died because he didn’t want her to be in the arms of another man. He eventually kills Mariamne because she was discovered to have a lover and was promoting her lover’s political interests (which, presumably, were at odds with his own). Later in life, after marrying Mariamne, the granddaughter of the Hasmonean king he deposed from office to become king, he had two sons by her. Both of his sons he considered to be haughty men who had been educated in Rome, more intelligent than he, and conspirators over his throne. They likely considered him to be too old to lead and, as he believed, were trying to rally the Roman army against him to seize the kingship. In 7BC, he ordered both his sons by Mariamne, Alexander and Aristobulus, to be strangled.

It has been said that Herod may have had acute kidney disease in the last few years of his life and that it may have driven him mad and been the cause behind his large-scale executions. And yet, Herod didn’t just kill within the last few years; he killed throughout his entire 37 years as the king of the Jews. He killed conspirators against him, when learning of their plans. He didn’t care who he killed, as long as his kingship was secure.

 

Herod not only killed during his reign when in good health, but he ordered executions in the last ten years of his life. He didn’t know who to leave his throne to upon his death, though his first son with Doris, Antipater, was the frontrunner. In Herod’s sick days, Antipater staged a coup to take the throne; Herod ordered his immediate execution.

 

A group of students saw that Herod placed an eagle above one of the entrances to the Temple Mount. A mob of students, urged by their teacher, removed the eagle, deeming it offensive. Herod responded by executing the students and the teacher who was responsible for inciting them.

As for the Jewish aristocrats who never accepted Herod and always looked down their noses upon him, Herod took the last few days of his life to settle the score by ordering their immediate execution upon his death. Fortunately for the Jewish aristocracy, Herod’s sister never carried out the king’s command.

While Herod’s murderous tendencies are one reason that this story is credible, there’s another reason to validate the Massacre of the Innocents: the tragic event was the fulfillment of Scripture. Matthew says so:

 

17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,

Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children,

Refusing to be comforted,

Because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:17-18)

 

Matthew says here that the Massacre of the Innocents is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. The verse he quotes in Matthew 2:18 is taken from Jeremiah 31:15. Jeremiah is the prophet, and he says that “Rachel,” the mother of the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel (the twelve tribes), weeps for her children “refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” The phrase “they are no more” refers to their deaths, and Matthew says that the Massacre by Herod’s hand is the death of which Jeremiah prophesied in the book that bears his name. The question becomes the following: why would Matthew claim that the event was a fulfillment of Scripture if it never happened in the first place? Everything else Matthew claims occurs is a fulfillment of Old Testament Scriptures — and no one doubts him. If he’s stating something that fulfills Old Testament Scripture, then it must be true. There can be no fulfillment of the Old Testament in something that never happened. An “imaginary fulfillment” is no fulfillment at all.

 

With Matthew’s fulfillment motif, then, it’s hard to see how the Massacre of the Innocents could be anything but an authentic account of a real event.

 

One last part of the Matthew 2 account remains: the death of Herod and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus’ return to Israel.

 

19 Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” 21 Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.

22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. 23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:19-23)

We know that Herod the Great, the Herod of whom Matthew speaks in Matthew 2, existed. Even Josephus confirms his existence in his own history, written years after the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written. And yet, what about Archelaus?

 

Matthew says that Archelaus existed, that he was the son of Herod (one of the sons whom Herod didn’t kill, apparently), and that Joseph, after returning to Israel, does not return to Bethlehem because of fear. Now, what is this fear about? Why is Joseph afraid of Archelaus? Because Archelaus, now king of the Jews in Herod’s place, could try to kill Jesus. Perhaps Archelaus would see himself as finishing something his father started. Perhaps Archelaus viewed Jesus as a threat to his rule also. Archelaus, being younger than Herod was when he pursued Jesus, was young enough to pursue Jesus with vigor. And Joseph was afraid that Archelaus may find him in Bethlehem. This is why Joseph decides to settle in Nazareth in the region of Galilee (Matthew 2:22-23). We also read that Joseph was “divinely warmed” in a dream not to go back to Bethlehem, so his intuition, coupled with a divine dream, sealed the decision in Joseph’s mind.

 

And yet, Matthew tells us that Joseph’s settlement in Nazareth is not without divine appointment and fulfillment: “23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23). The prophets called Jesus a Nazarene, meaning that He would come from Nazareth, so it isn’t a surprise to see Joseph go to Nazareth and Jesus grow up there. In other words, even Joseph’s decisions after returning from Egypt were made in fulfillment of Scripture. Again, Matthew is writing to show that the prophecies about Jesus came true. Why would he lie about any portion of it if his point is to prove that Jesus and the events themselves are true?

 

Matthew’s occupational evidence

Matthew didn’t want the readers of his Gospel, then and now, to forget the Massacre of the Innocents, but his occupation also lends credence to his Gospel account in Matthew 2 — not just about the Massacre of the Innocents but the entire account (both before and after). Matthew was a tax collector, one who served as an ancient-day IRS employee, who collected taxes and kept records. Matthew is sitting at the tax office when Jesus calls him to follow Him:

 

9 As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him. (Matthew 9:9)

And when He had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease. 2 Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him. (Matthew 10:1-4)

 

13 Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. 14 As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him. (Mark 2:13-14)

 

27 After these things He went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” 28 So he left all, rose up, and followed Him.

29 Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. 30 And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

31 Jesus answered and said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Luke 5:27-32)

 

A number of Gospel passages refer to “Matthew,” then some to “Levi.” Here in Luke 5:27, though, we see that Levi is “sitting at the tax office” (v.27) when Jesus calls him to follow Him. So there’s no denying that Matthew and Levi are one and the same. Perhaps Levi is Matthew’s first name and “Matthew” is his surname (“Levi Matthew”), as Peter is Simon’s surname (“Simon Peter”).

 

With the issue of “Levi or Matthew” out of the way, we can consider Matthew’s occupation. He was a tax collector, someone who would’ve likely been part of collecting taxes based on the census of the Jews. So, with that said, he could’ve had information about Joseph, Mary, and Jesus that others may not have had (how could he collect taxes and register them to the right families if he didn’t have a census list?). So, with that said, perhaps the Massacre of the Innocents is a case of Matthew having the inside scoop on something that many Jews may not have known. He would’ve known about the Jewish males ages 2 and under. He would’ve known about the specific age, or at least had access to the account. As a tax collector, he may have had access to information that, say, a fisherman, would not.

 

As we end this section on the credibility of Matthew 2, a credibility examined within the text itself, we are reminded that Matthew’s account doesn’t paint all of Judea as losing its up-to-2-year-old males, but rather, that Herod’s genocide was only toward Bethlehem Jewish males ages 2 and under. Bethlehem would’ve had no more than 200 people at the time of Jesus’ infant days, so the genocide count wouldn’t have been in the thousands (as The Real King Herod documentary says) but much, much, much smaller. And the small size of the genocide makes it believable and thus, credible. After all, Matthew reports something in Matthew 2 that would’ve mattered to him because it involved the loss of lives regarding his own people, the Jews.

 

Here are some details to consider in the final analysis. First, the people and places in the Matthew 2 account are real. Jesus, Herod, Joseph, Mary, and Archelaus are real people, as are the wise men who come from the East (though they bear no names in the text). Herod the Great was king of the Jews at the time, and the wise men referred to Jesus as “King of the Jews” (this is part of the Jewishness of Matthew’s Gospel). Bethlehem is a real place and was a small town from which Jesus is born. The Old Testament Scriptures foretold of His birth, so it’s no surprise to see Him born there. Herod’s actions within the plot are consistent with his character: he wanted to kill the child because Jesus, as “King of the Jews,” was a political threat to his authority. He deceives the wise men into thinking he wants to worship “The Christ” too, but the Lord warns the men in a dream about the evil Herod — and they go back to Asia some other way, never meeting Herod face to face again. The only way the wise men would have ever known not to return to Herod is if God intervenes. And He does.

 

Once Herod, the masterful king, realizes that he has been played, he goes into a rage and orders the execution of babies in Bethlehem that are male and 2 years old or less. Herod doesn’t kill the babies for the sake of killing them, which is something Matthew could’ve written to emotionally engage his audience. Instead, Matthew writes that Herod slaughters these “innocents” because he doesn’t know which one is king. He has never met the infant Jesus face-to-face, so he doesn’t know which one is Jesus. And then, Herod only knew Jesus as “The Christ.” The Old Testament prophecy, quoted by the chief priests and scribes, never refers to the Messiah as “Jesus.” Herod, then, doesn’t know the boy’s real name and thus, slaughters all Bethlehem males of a particular age requirement to be sure he’s killed the right one. He only slaughters Bethlehem males, not all the Jewish 2-year-olds and under in Judea. Herod is an evil man, but he didn’t just slaughter people without reason. Every murder Herod ever committed had a reason, even if it was still an unreasonable act.

 

Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape Herod, since he wants to kill the child. Why would they leave their homeland unless they were in danger? It’s something we all would do if we had to, if our lives were at risk. After Herod’s death, presumably some few years later (if you believe Jesus was born in 6BC and that Herod slaughtered Bethlehem Jewish males in 4BC), Joseph and Mary return to the land. They plan to go back to Bethlehem from where they came but at this point, Herod’s son Archelaus is king of the Jews. They don’t want to put Jesus at risk, so instead of going back to Bethlehem, registering for the census, and giving away Jesus’ age at the time of the Massacre of the Innocents (which presumably was a well-known event, otherwise they would’ve settled back in Bethlehem), they decide to go live in Nazareth. According to Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph settled in Nazareth after having Jesus in Bethlehem and fulfilling the circumcision requirements for Him as a Jew. They were only away from Nazareth 8 days before they returned to Nazareth. They’d moved to Bethlehem in Matthew 2, then to Egypt, and then back to Nazareth. And Joseph was warned in another dream not to take Jesus back to Bethlehem because of Archelaus. Presumably, Archelaus was the son of Herod who’d “finish the job” of finding the Christ, even if it meant looking over the census records. For some reason, Archelaus, like Herod, believed the boy would be in Bethlehem; they never suspected he may live in another small town surrounding Bethlehem. Of course, they were told to flee to Egypt because of Herod’s reach: he could go through the entire land of Israel and find out who the Christ Child was if he so wanted.

 

The events seem plausible, the people are real, and Herod’s character is consistent with what was widely known about him. The Jewish historian Josephus catalogues Herod’s killing sprees and his murders and stranglings, so Matthew 2 is consistent with his constant behavior. He killed when he perceived a political threat was closing in. He didn’t care if he killed his 18-year-old brother-in-law; why would the age of innocent babies matter if he too, thought them a political threat? He banished his 4-year-old son, Antipater, along with his wife, Doris, from his household when he lusted after Mariamne and decided to make her his wife. If he’ll banish his 4-year-old son without thought, would he not eliminate infants if he thought they were a political threat? His paranoia gets the better of him, both in his personal life and in Matthew 2. The story of the Massacre of the Innocents doesn’t sound like a story someone would write to laugh at Herod, for genocide is no laughing matter. Even in our day today, to accuse someone of murder, for example, when the person has done no such thing, is libel and slander and is punishable by law.

 

In order for secular historians to prove that the Massacre of the Innocents never happened, they must weigh the story and decide that it is nothing more than mere exaggeration. They have no proof that it is. The most they’ve said in The Real King Herod is that “Herod’s killings were so well-known that someone could easily make up stories about him,” and that “Josephus never mentions the slaughter.” These two claims together aren’t enough to deem the Massacre false. There must be positive evidence of falsehood: that is, they must prove that Matthew lied to us, intentionally so. And how will they, over 2000 years removed from the Massacre and Matthew’s Gospel, ever prove that?

 

On the Absence of Josephus

As we’ve discussed earlier, there is no evidence that Matthew’s account of the Massacre of the Innocents is “fake news,” though there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the account is authentic. The one thing upon which the veracity of the story hangs for secular historians is Josephus.

 

Josephus is a Jewish historian who, in his works, exhaustively covers Herod the Great, the Herod in the Massacre account. Josephus has a lot to say about Herod, from his buildings and impressive form and function monuments, to his tensions with family members and his murdering of some, as well as his murdering of anyone he believed was plotting against him. We know a bit about his marriages, his children, and even the “Old Testament plague” of a disease that took Herod’s life in the end. We also know that Herod and Jesus were alive at a certain point in history, so it’s plausible to believe that Jesus and Herod interacted in the Massacre. Josephus details a lot of things in Jewish history, including the Roman occupation, but he doesn’t mention anything about Herod slaughtering a few Jewish males ages 2 and under in Bethlehem. We read nothing about it in Josephus’ writings. Since Josephus details so much about Herod and neglects to tell us about the Massacre, secularists say, then surely, the event “probably” never happened.

 

Well, before responding to the statement, let’s first take a look at who Josephus is so that we can put him into proper context.

 

Background

Josephus was born a Jew, in Jerusalem, to a mother and father who were of royal ancestry. His father was a Jewish priest, and his mother was from the formerly-ruling Hasmonean dynasty. The Hasmoneans were direct descendants of King David, so Josephus is directly related to King David. He was educated in Jerusalem.

 

Josephus eventually becomes military governor of Galilee, fortifying Galilee as best he could until it fell to Roman control in the First Roman-Jewish War. During the siege of the Romans in the land around 67 CE, the Jewish Temple being destroyed in 70 CE, Josephus was captured along with several other prisoners. They agreed to commit suicide, drawing lots to see “who would go next.” Josephus is one of those who happens to not draw a lot, and he is released as a prisoner. Josephus became a Roman citizen the following year (71CE) as well as a client of the Flavian dynasty (hence, he called himself “Flavius Josephus”). As a client of this ruling party, Josephus received a pension and was given nice living quarters within Judea.

 

There are some today who believe Josephus to be a traitor. They say that he “surrendered” to Roman forces at Jotapata, then turned around and became a profitable prisoner and ultimately, free man, at the misfortune of the Jewish people. He is often called a “Jewish Benedict Arnold” because, where others were killed, captured, and died during the siege, Josephus outlives it all and achieves Roman patronage for the rest of his life.

 

It was under the patronage of the Flavian Dynasty that Josephus writes his works. He wrote War of the Jews, also known as Jewish Wars, The Jewish War, or History of the Jewish War, around 75CE. He wrote his Jewish history of the world, known as Antiquities of the Jews or Jewish Antiquities, around the year 94AD, six years before he died.

 

Josephus marries four times in his life, divorcing his first three wives and then marrying a fourth, and yes, he had three sons.

 

Now that we have some background on Josephus, we are ready to approach the million-dollar question: “Why doesn’t Josephus mention the Massacre of the Innocents in his Jewish Antiquities?

 

Josephus’s absence on the Massacre of the Innocents

 

Secular historians love to point out Josephus’s absence on the Massacre of the Innocents. Josephus, being a Jew, would’ve been one to cover this event, right? That’s the mindset of secularists who want so desperately to say that the event never happened. And yet, Josephus spends more time on Herod than Jesus and never mentions the incident. How can we explain Josephus’s absence on what Matthew deems an unforgettable event?

 

We can explain Josephus’s absence in the way that we can any other historians about any other thing. Historians pick, select, and choose what to include in their works. Take this article, for example: in it, I have selected what I believe is most important when it comes to the Massacre of the Innocents. This article has been crafted from scratch, no imitated layouts or “copy and paste” jobs from other sites. Rather I’ve taken the time to read, write, and research to produce what you are now reading. As the creator of it, I have the right to decide what goes in it and what does not. The same goes for Josephus.

 

There are good reasons why Josephus never mentions it. For one, he focuses on the Roman occupation when it comes to history because he wants the Jews to understand more about the Romans. This makes sense when you consider that Josephus was captured by the Romans, that he was freed by them, and that he later came under the patronage of the Roman Flavian Dynasty. He feels that he owes some homage to the Romans and thus, writes in his Antiquities of the Jews or Jewish Antiquities from the Roman perspective at times. The Jews would’ve known about the Bethlehem massacre by Herod. What they didn’t know, however, was all that happened with the Romans out of sight. That’s what Josephus wants the Jews to know: that Herod didn’t have it easy because he was king of the Jews. He had his share of struggle, he loved and lost, and he even killed his own wife, Mariamne, as well as their two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, that Herod murdered his own children. Herod didn’t just murder the Jewish babies in Bethlehem. They didn’t just lose their children. Herod lost his children, too.

 

Perhaps that’s also why he details Herod’s sickness and disease at the end of his life — to give the Jews some personal satisfaction when reading about his gruesome sickness and death. Maybe that’s what the Jews wanted to read to see him “get his just desserts.” Apart from this though, we must remember Josephus’ background: at the time he writes his Jewish Antiquities, Josephus is under Roman patronage by the Flavian Dynasty. Being a client of theirs, and being handsomely provided for, Josephus would’ve written his Jewish Antiquities to do homage to Roman rule: that is, to Herod, whom many Jews rejected as their ruler because he was an Arab, not a Jew descended from King David. Even in a Jewish history, Josephus would’ve tried to cover the Roman “dynasty” of one of the great Roman kings. No king was more accomplished at that time than Herod the Great. This is why Josephus writes more on Herod than Jesus: because Herod the Great was the Roman ruler, and Josephus was interested in Roman government and its affairs.

 

There’s another reason behind Josephus’s failure to mention the Massacre of the Innocents: the event was so small that it wasn’t worth covering. Think about it: only a few Jewish males, ages 2 and under, in Bethlehem were killed. If the town only had a population of 200, it wasn’t that large of a genocide to even mention for posterity. The Massacre of the Innocents was a much smaller genocide as compared to, say, the Holocaust or the nationwide genocide in Moses’ day in Exodus. For Josephus, his interests may have been in major events, people places, etc., so Bethlehem as a small town (and its Massacre) wouldn’t have been high on his priority list. Remember, historians then are similar to those of today in that they have to select material to include. They can’t write on everything, they can’t cover everything about everything, so they have to pick and choose what content to address. Josephus wrote much about the Roman-Jewish wars, as he was a Jewish general in the war. Josephus writes much about the war Herod conducted against the Parthians in Judea, a war that led to the slaughtering of thousands if not millions. The casualty numbers in these wars alone make them of far more importance than the slaughtering of less than 100 infants. Now, as I’ve said above, every life matters, every baby matters, but not to historians; in many cases, historians detail the bloodiest, most gory, casualty-incurring wars, not the smallest wars of which there is little bloodshed.

 

We see that even Josephus doesn’t record every minor detail. In the life of Moses, for example, Josephus records his marriage to the African King’s daughter, her name being “Tharbis.” Moses marries her on one condition: that she give him Ethiopia, the city, into his hands, he being the Egyptian Army General. She does, and he marries her (Josephus, Chapter X, “How Moses Made War With The Ethiopians”). After mentioning this, he skips time and goes to the point at which Moses flees Egypt because of plots against him. He heads for Midian, where he meets Jethro, priest of Midian, and his seven daughters, one of whom is Zipporah. Now the Midianites are distant cousins of the Israelites, and biblical history contains more about Zipporah than it does about Tharbis (in fact, the Bible mentions nothing about Tharbis; we presume, from Scripture alone, that Zipporah is his first wife even when she isn’t). Josephus’s failure to mention more detail about the Ethiopian Tharbis doesn’t mean that she and Moses didn’t have a successful, happy marriage; it means that Tharbis wasn’t essential to Josephus’s story and perspective. Hence, the selective nature of history and the historian craft, and the explanation behind why we hear of so many Romans wars and bloodshed while reading nothing about a small-scale Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem in the writings of Josephus.

 

Josephus never met Herod or Jesus

Secularists say that Josephus’s failure to mention the Massacre of the Innocents means that it probably never happen. The secularists fail to tell you one thing, however: that is, Josephus wasn’t alive in the time of Herod or Jesus. Herod dies around 4BC, and Josephus isn’t born until around 37AD or 38AD — 41 or 42 years after Herod’s death. And then, he doesn’t write his Jewish Antiquities, his Jewish history of the world, until 94AD — 98 years after Herod dies, and some 60-64 years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension (depending on if you believe Jesus died in 30 or 33CE).

What does this mean? It means that Josephus never met Herod or Jesus.

 

This fact alone demolishes the views of secularist historians because it means that Josephus is not a primary, direct source of Herod and Jesus; rather, Josephus is simply writing based on information he gleans from other sources (Roman histories among them). In this regard, Josephus is a second-hand source, drawing from primary sources as Gospel writer Luke would have done to write the Gospel of Luke. So in this regard, it’s interesting to see secular historians have more faith in Josephus than the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Another point alongside of Josephus’s second-hand, indirect authority is that at least three of the four Gospels we know were all written before Josephus wrote his Jewish Antiquities. The Jewish Antiquities were written in 94AD; the Gospel of Matthew was written in the early 50s, the Gospel of Mark even earlier in the 40s, the Gospel of Luke in the mid-to-late 50s AD, and the Gospel of John was written around the same decade as Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities.

 

The Gospel of Mark was written when Josephus was a baby, no more than 5-8 years old. Josephus would have been a young teenager when the Gospel of Matthew was written; he would’ve been in early adulthood by the time Luke’s Gospel arrived on the market. By the time John’s disciples publish the Gospel of John, Josephus would’ve written the Antiquities and been in the last years of his life. Matthew and Luke are the two major Gospels of the Major Gospels, and both of these give information about Jesus’ birth and early childhood. Both Matthew and Luke were written in Josephus’s childhood days, which means that they are older than Josephus’s own accounts.

 

Why is it, then, that Josephus gets more of the historian “pat on the back” than the Gospels themselves? The reason why The Real King Herod documentary attempts to discredit the Massacre account in Matthew 2 is because, as it says, most Jews on the street know about the Herod Massacre. They know more about the Massacre than they do Herod’s achievements. They believe the Matthew 2 account to be a credible, valuable part of Jewish history (their own). And yet, the Gospels themselves are older than Josephus’s own writings. If we believe Josephus, why not believe the Gospels?

 

Implicit Josephus: Josephus Indirectly confirms the Gospels

 

Whether or not secularists believe the Gospels, Josephus did. In fact, he makes indirect mention to them in the only paragraph about Jesus he writes in his Jewish Antiquities:

Now there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, — a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day” (Josephus, Translated by Whiston. Chapter III, Sedition of the Jews Against Pontius Pilate; Concerning Christ, and What Befell Paulina And the Jews At Rome”; page 576).

 

The interesting thing about Josephus is that he never believed in Jesus. Josephus never confesses Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. Until his death, Josephus remained a devout Jew in Judaism. And yet, for all his commitments to Judaism, as a historian, even he writes that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophets, that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. This is an astonishing claim for someone who never committed to being a lifelong Christian in any shape or form.

 

Not only is Josephus credible in that he admits Jesus rises from the dead, a claim that many unbelievers would never admit (in Josephus’ day and ours) about Christ; he also admits that Jesus is the fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecies: “for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him,” Josephus says. Josephus confirms that Jesus rose on the third day, lending historical credence to the claim. Take that, Richard Dawkins! Take that, secular historians! Take that, atheists!

 

Not only does Josephus confirm that Jesus rose from the dead and that the prophets foretold it. He also says that, if the prophets predicted Jesus’ resurrection accurately (and they did), then one can believe all the other “ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him” that the prophets foretold. Josephus calls the prophets “divine,” no small term for a man who never actually confessed Jesus as God, as deity.

 

And this is where Josephus’s statement on Jesus intersects with our Massacre of the Innocents study. If Josephus believed Jesus was the Christ, that Jesus was God, that Jesus rose from the dead, that the Old Testament prophets were right about Jesus, and that they were right about all the prophecies concerning Jesus, then he would have agreed with Matthew’s fulfillment claim in the Gospel of Matthew. Here’s Matthew’s statement once more:

 

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”

14 When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,

Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children,

Refusing to be comforted,

Because they are no more.”

19 Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” 21 Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.

22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. 23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:16-23)

First, Jeremiah 31:15, where Rachel weeps for her children “because they are no more,” shows that the Massacre of the Innocents is the fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture. Next, Jesus fulfills two OT prophecies: first, He is called out of Egypt by God where Joseph, Mary, and He flee in order to escape Herod’s sword (a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1). Next, Jesus, though born in Bethlehem, is raised in Nazareth and is called a Nazarene (a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, plural).

 

If Josephus agrees that the Old Testament prophets were divine and that they correctly predicted the death and resurrection of Jesus, then he also believed that prophets were right about everything else they said. Since the prophet Hosea foretold that Jesus would come out of Egypt, Josephus would agree with Hosea — which means that Josephus would have agreed with Matthew. Jesus fulfills Hosea’s prophecy as the “Israel,” the “My Son,” that comes out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1). Josephus agrees implicitly with Matthew. If he were here, he’d say, “I agree that the prophets foretold many things about Jesus, and that they all came to pass — including Matthew 2’s account of Jesus fleeing to Egypt by way of His earthly parents.” Maybe Josephus doesn’t have as direct of an agreement with Matthew as we’d like, but he and Matthew do agree that everything spoken by the OT prophets came true. And if this is the case, then the Egypt trip happened because the Massacre happened. Both the Massacre and the Egypt fleeing were prophesied in Scripture. And both came true.

Conclusion

We’ve reached the end of this study on Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents. The one claim made in the documentary The Real King Herod is that the one event Herod is forever known for is an event “that may never have happened at all,” the documentary says at its end. And yet, when we examine the Massacre, we discover that it makes sense for a number of reasons. It fits with Herod’s paranoia that drove him to kill whoever he pleased. The idea of the true “King of the Jews” challenged his political authority, and Herod decided to have Jewish males ages 2 and under in Bethlehem murdered as a result. Before the Massacre, the Lord leads the wise men away from Herod by sending them a dream. Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and flees to Egypt because of the divine dream sent to him. There’s Herod’s anger, paranoia, and jealousy, the Lord’s work in the lives of the wise men and Joseph and Mary, all God-fearers. There’s the unfortunate decision of Herod to slaughter Jewish males, showing that evil happens in this world because of evil choices rather than divine approval.

 

The elements of the story seem believable enough that it’s a reasonable account in Matthew 2. And yet, what historians have done is claim that the event didn’t happen because Josephus fails to mention it. And yet, what Josephus does mention about Jesus shouldn’t be so overlooked by secular historians. In fact, Josephus mentions Jesus, calls him “Christ,” says that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, that the prophets predicted His resurrection, and that other prophecies made about Jesus also came true. Though Josephus doesn’t explicitly say, “And there was the Massacre of the Innocents, and Jesus was the target, and Herod ordered the Massacre of the Bethlehem males,” he would have, like Matthew, approved of the fulfillment of Scripture. For it is the Massacre that drove Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt, and it is because of life in Egypt that God calls His Son, “Israel,” Jesus, out of it (Hosea 11:1).

 

In the final analysis, the secular historians haven’t thought through what Josephus has said in his works. Perhaps in their efforts to use Josephus to disprove the Massacre of the Innocents, they’ve actually done the exact opposite.

 

 

One thought on “Implicit Josephus: Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:1-23)

Comments are closed.