The Gospel of Matthew & the “Massacre of the Innocents”

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

The Gospel of Matthew and the “Massacre of the Innocents”

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“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matthew 2:16).

One of the most gruesome stories of the New Testament is the so-called “Massacre of the Innocents”, a crime perpetrated, according to the Gospel of Matthew, by King Herod “the Great” at the time of the birth of Jesus (peace be upon him). But the historicity of this crime against humanity has been the subject of debate between Christians and skeptics. In this article, we will see telltale evidence of the mythic nature of this story, insha’Allah.

The Historicity of the “Massacre of the Innocents”

            In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, we are told that King Herod was disturbed that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. To protect his power, he ordered the killings of all male children 2 years and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas:

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.””[1]

massacre-of-the-innocents

Figure 1: “Massacre of the Innocents” by Giotto di Bondone (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_the_Innocents#/media/File:Giotto_di_Bondone_-_No._21_Scenes_from_the_Life_of_Christ_-_5._Massacre_of_the_Innocents_-_.jpg)

This story is also found in the non-canonical Protoevangelium of James, also known as the Infancy Gospel of James.[2] But other than that, NO other source, even in the New Testament, mentions this incident. We do not find any traces or memory of this horrible event even in the anti-Herod writings of Josephus or the Talmud. This is one of the main reasons historians tend to doubt the veracity of the story. After all, ancient sources like Josephus cataloged Herod’s abuses and crimes, so why would they overlook the terrible and unique crime of killing newborn Jewish children, especially since a similar story was told again and again regarding the birth of Moses and the Pharaoh’s murder of Israelite infants? Jews would have especially been sensitive to a repeat of such a horrible crime. The Talmud criticizes Herod as a cruel despot and yet it too is completely silent on any acts of infanticide on the order of Herod. It even records a rumor that Herod had fallen in love with a Hasmonean girl (the Hasmoneans were the last Jewish dynasty to rule the Holy Land before the Romans conquered it), and after she committed suicide rather than marry him, he preserved her body and “engaged in necrophilia with her corpse”![3] Yet, for some reason, a crime as horrendous as the murder of some Jewish babies, like the pharaoh, escaped the attention of the Jews. As a matter of fact, the similarity of Matthew’s story to the Biblical story of Moses’ birth is another reason to doubt the latter. As it turns out, an alternative version of the Moses story circulated among Jews in the 1st century CE and was recorded by none other than Josephus. In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus stated that the Pharaoh had heard from his scribes that a child would be born who would “bring the Egyptian dominion low” (emphasis ours):

“While the affairs of the Hebrews were in this condition, there was this occasion offered itself to the Egyptians, which made them more solicitous for the extinction of our nation. One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events truly, told the king, that about this time there would a child be born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages. Which thing was so feared by the king, that, according to this man’s opinion, he commanded that they should cast every male child, which was born to the Israelites, into the river, and destroy it; that besides this, the Egyptian midwives (19) should watch the labors of the Hebrew women, and observe what is born, for those were the women who were enjoined to do the office of midwives to them; and by reason of their relation to the king, would not transgress his commands. He enjoined also, that if any parents should disobey him, and venture to save their male children alive, they and their families should be destroyed.”[4]

Of course, this contradicts the CANONICAL version of the story. Exodus 1 gives a completely different reason for the Pharaoh’s cruel order to kill all male Israelite infants. Here, the reason was that the Israelites were multiplying rapidly:

“Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.””[5]

According to the canonical story, the pharaoh ordered a cruel form of population control. It is NOT stated that he did it out of fear of a prophecy about the birth of Moses. So, is it just a coincidence that Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth and Herod’s barbaric act of infanticide just HAPPENS to match an alternative version of the beginning of the Exodus story that would have been circulating in the 1st century? This seems unlikely. The third reason to doubt Matthew’s story is the birth narrative provided by Luke. Matthew and Luke are the only 2 New Testament sources to provide accounts of Jesus’ birth. Curiously, Luke doesn’t mention Herod’s “massacre of the innocents”, and neither does any other book in New Testament. But the main problem between Matthew and Luke is one of timing. Here is the chronology of the two accounts, side-by-side: Matthew Luke Birth Narratives

Table 1: Comparison of Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives

As we can see, there are obvious conflicts between Matthew and Luke. But if we assume for the sake of argument that the 2 accounts can be reconciled, we will STILL have to grapple with a major problem. According to Luke, there was a CENSUS at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:1), which was ordered by the Roman emperor Augustus (the historicity of this census is also doubted by historians), and thus, the normally quiet and small town of Bethlehem was busier than usual. In other words, there were plenty of potential EYE-WITNESSES to Herod’s alleged “massacre of the innocents”. This is why, according to Luke, there was “no place for them [Mary and Joseph] in the inn”.[6] Note that one of the most common “arguments” by Christian apologists for the lack of historical verification for Herod’s terrible crime is that Bethlehem was a small town with a small population, and so it could have easily been “overlooked”. But Luke throws a wrench in this apologetic excuse. At the time of the massacre, there would have been PLENTY of eyewitnesses, including Roman officials and many Jews (the latter of whom HATED Herod). This makes it highly unlikely that Herod had committed this crime, and no one noticed. We also know that Herod’s attempt on the life of Jesus HAD to have occurred while his parents were still in Bethlehem. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary only LEFT Bethlehem to go to Jerusalem for the “purification rites” mentioned in Exodus 2:12:

“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.””[7]

Christian commentaries, such as Barnes’ Notes and Gill’s Exposition, state that this ritual had to be performed 40 DAYS after the birth of the child. So, 40 days after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary took the child and went to Jerusalem. Until that time, they were still in Bethlehem. Therefore, the so-called “massacre of the innocents” HAD to have occurred within those 40 days since Luke says Joseph and Mary RETURNED to NAZARETH after they had fulfilled their religious obligations, and not to Bethlehem:

“And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.”[8]

A possible response to this conundrum could be that Joseph and Mary may have stayed in Bethlehem for at least 2 years since Herod’s order was to kill all male children 2 years and younger (Matthew 2:16). But this is not possible because Luke is clear that Joseph & Mary RETURNED to Nazareth after at least 40 days. He does not state that they went back to Bethlehem. There is no indication and indeed NO REASON, for them to go back to Bethlehem since it was not Joseph’s hometown, and they had no place to stay. There is simply no way to reconcile the 2 accounts, of course. Matthew’s claim of the sojourn to Egypt cannot be inserted into Luke’s narrative. The chronology would not make any sense. But even IF we were generous to the Christians and tried to read the 2 accounts as 1 uniform account, Christians would still have to explain how Herod pulled off a massacre right in the middle of a census ordered by the Romans, when Bethlehem would have been teeming with eyewitnesses. It would have been the WORST possible time for Herod to commit this crime and not get noticed.

Conclusion

            We have seen that Matthew’s story of Herod’s evil act of infanticide is probably a myth. Not only is there no corroborating evidence outside of the Gospel of Matthew, but there are also internal contradictions between Matthew and Luke, the only two canonical gospels which provide any sort of account of Jesus’ birth. This is not merely an “argument from silence”. Given that the city of Bethlehem would have been busier than usual at the time of the alleged infanticidal actions of Herod, it is highly unlikely that no one would have noticed the crime and passed on the information to others. The only reasonable conclusion is that the author of the Gospel of Matthew concocted a pious myth, possibly due to the influence of an alternative version of the birth of Moses, in which the pharaoh was warned of the birth of a child who would bring Egypt “low”. And Allah knows best!
[1] Gospel of Matthew, 2:16–18 (English Standard Version). [2] “And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall. And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them” (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/infancyjames-roberts.html)/ [3] Bava Batra 3b:14–15, https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Batra.3b.15?lang=bi. [4] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 2:9:2, http://earlyjewishwritings.com/text/josephus/ant2.html. [5] Exodus 1:15–22. [6] Gospel of Luke, 2:7. [7] Ibid., 2:22–24. [8] Ibid., 2:39.

One thought on “The Gospel of Matthew & the “Massacre of the Innocents”

  1. Pingback: Dawn of the Dead: The Gospel of Matthew and the Zombie Apocalypse – The Quran and Bible Blog

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