The Christmas Massacre of the Innocents: History or Myth?

by Tony Reinke

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh — three expensive gifts from wise men laid at the feet of baby Jesus seem to mark a warm and fitting closing scene to the first Christmas story. But of course the biblical telling of the Christmas story doesn’t end here.

After the gift opening, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus run for their lives to escape the rage and paranoia of Herod, or as he preferred to be called, Herod the Great.

If you want an accurate sense of life in that first Christmas, ignore Martha Stewart Christmas décor and situate your imagination in a place of racial profiling and systematic and calculated police brutality.

Matthew 2:16 recounts what has been traditionally called the “massacre of the innocents,” the murder of all boys two-years-old and younger in the region of Bethlehem. The story, made visual by Giotto and other painters, is a deeply unsettling scene in the historical Christmas narrative.

Or is it?

Is the story fact, or a fiction invented by early Christians? And if is historic fact, why are there no other relics of historic evidence for such a headline-grabbing massacre?

I asked Dr. Paul L. Maier, a widely respected Christian scholar, Josephus expert, and historian of the ancient world. Until his retirement, the 84-year-old served as the Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University. He authored many fictional books and many non-fiction books including In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church, as well as several books for children, including, The Very First Christmas.

First, I asked him for a brief bio of the man we know as Herod.

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If you are ever asked which is the one figure from the ancient world on whom we have more primary evidence from original sources than anyone else in the world, the answer is not Jesus or Saint Paul or Caesar Augustus or Julius Caesar, none of those, Alexander the Great, no. It is Herod the Great. Why? Because Josephus gives us two whole book scrolls on the life of Herod the Great. And that is more primary material than anyone else.

He was a very remarkably successful politician keeping the peace between Rome, which had conquered Judea ever since 63 BC and he acted, really, as a Roman governor overseas. He is simply known as a client king, meaning very often when the Romans conquered a province they didn’t want to send a governor out. There was a local king doing a good enough job, so yes, he may be called king, but he was deferent to Rome for his whole administration.

In 40 BC he was awarded the title king. He didn’t actually take control of the land until, with Roman help, he drove some adversaries out of Jerusalem and early from about 37 BC on he is in charge until his death in 4 BC.

He was remarkably successful in a lot of ways. He deserves the title “Herod the Great” if we talk about his accomplishments through much of his life. He rebuilt the great temple in Jerusalem. He was the one who single-handedly created a city of Caesarea where there was no good port in the holy land here. He creates one by sinking some ship hulls and then using it as a base to build a breakwater in an otherwise rectilinear seacoast.

He built Caesarea in 12 years and he built other cities like that, too. In Jerusalem he face lifted the entire city in addition to building a gorgeous palace for himself. He had a hippodrome, a stadium and theaters and this kind of thing. He was kind of a Hellenistic monarch. And he also built seven great fortresses across the land, strong points of which he could defend his administration. One of them, of course, the most famous was Masada down along the southwest corner of the Dead Sea.

Everything he touched diplomatically seemed to turn to gold. He kept peace both with Jerusalem and Rome and so in that sense he was very successful…

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The Christmas Massacre of the Innocents: History or Myth? | Tony Reinke