By Ryan Leasure
Moral atrocities litter the historical landscape. And this ought to make us sad. People do bad things. And they’ve been doing bad things ever since Genesis 3. It doesn’t take long for the fall to rear its ugly head in the Bible for in the very next chapter — Genesis 4 — Cain violently kills his brother. Unfortunately, these kinds of events have been occurring ever since.
One thinks of the Holocaust, the genocides in Rwanda, or the untold millions dead from the Russian Gulag camps. Or if you’re a student of the Bible, you might think of the Bethlehem genocide orchestrated by King Herod the Great.
If you’re unfamiliar with this event, in Matthew 2, the Magi traveled to Jerusalem in search of this newborn king of the Jews. When Herod heard that these wise men were looking for a king other than himself, he became disturbed. Matthew tells us that Herod “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Mt 2:2).
Not one to share his throne, Herod eventually orders the execution of all the boys in Bethlehem who were two-years-old or under (Mt 2:16). Everyone would agree that Herod acted egregiously here. No morally sane person could justify Herod’s swift action. But did it actually happen?
No Historical Record of the Genocide
Skeptics are quick to point out that we don’t have any other ancient sources testifying to this awful event. Not even the other Gospels report it! But doesn’t this seem odd? If Herod really did order the execution of all those little boys, why didn’t Philo or Josephus report it? After all, Josephus wrote a great deal about first-century Palestine — more than anyone else. Yet, he is silent on the matter.
Does this give us reason to reject Matthew’s claim? Certainly, if the President of the United States ordered the execution of all the baby boys in Greenville, SC, we would expect at least two different news sources to cover the event. We can certainly sympathize with the skeptic’s concerns, but I still believe we still have good reason to believe that the genocide occurred.
Herod the Great
While Josephus doesn’t report on this specific event, he tells us a great deal about Herod the Great. Herod was born from noble stock, though he wasn’t technically Jewish. He was an Idumean — a descendent of Esau (something that the Jewish people always held against him). After Pompey conquered Judea, Julius Caesar appointed Herod’s father — Antipater II — as procurator of the region in 47 BC. Antipater subsequently appointed Herod as governor of Galilee at the ripe young age of twenty-five. Less than ten years later, Herod was appointed king of Judea by Caesar Augustus after his dad died by poisoning.
After claiming his throne, Herod quickly married Mariamne I to solidify relations with his Jewish counterparts. But he couldn’t shake the suspicion that she sought to bring him down. This constant paranoia led him to order her execution. Mariamne’s death profoundly affected Herod. He became extremely ill. And though he didn’t die, he remained obsessively paranoid for the rest of his life that others were trying to sabotage his reign.
Known for Two Things
King Herod is known for two things. First, he is known for his building projects. Most notably, Herod orchestrated the rebuilding of the Jewish temple. The building itself towered fifteen stories high, and the temple precincts covered the width of thirty-five football fields. Rabbinic tradition stated, “whoever has not beheld Herod’s building has not yet seen anything beautiful in his life.” In addition to the temple, Herod constructed a number of palaces. He also built a number of theaters, arenas, and amphitheaters for the Greek Games. He established an entirely new city which he named Sebaste in honor of Augustus and even fashioned a temple for the sole purpose of emperor worship. Furthermore, he’s credited with creating the port city of Caesarea Maritima — a marvel of the ancient world.
More relevant, though, Herod was known for his paranoia. Not known for chastity, Herod married ten women who gave him a number of sons. As Herod aged, he became increasingly skeptical of his sons’ devotion. He was so utterly convinced that they meant to overthrow him that he executed three of them (Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater III). After a series of executions and imprisonments of his close relatives, Caesar Augustus is reported to have remarked that he would rather be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios). Of course, Herod wasn’t allowed to touch pigs being a Jew. Upon his death bed, Herod ordered the execution of a number of high-ranking officials so that people would mourn at the time of his death rather than rejoice. Thankfully, that order was overturned by his sister after his death. To sum up Herod, Josephus notes, “He was a man who was cruel to all alike and one who easily gave in to anger and was contemptuous of justice.”
Back to Bethlehem
Knowing what we know about Herod, doesn’t his execution order of the young boys in Bethlehem make sense? Knowing how paranoid he was about losing his kingship, it seems almost historically certain that he would have acted this way if he felt his throne was threatened. The Magi were, after all, looking for the one who was “king of the Jews.” If Herod was willing to execute his favorite sons because he thought they were plotting his demise, we can certainly see him ordering the death of his potential replacements.
But why doesn’t Josephus mention this event? I think we have two good explanations. First, Bethlehem was a small town consisting of roughly five hundred people. This means the population of young boys would have been anywhere from 10-20. A sad course of events, yes, but not something that might make it into Josephus’ history books like the execution of the king’s sons.
Second, Josephus’ history books, while extremely helpful for learning about first-century Palestine, are limited in what they report. Case in point, Josephus uses a total of 15,764 words in Antiquities book 18 which covers the span of thirty-two years (AD 6-38). That works out to less than five hundred words per year. By comparison, Matthew uses 18,347 words in his Gospel which only spans three years (about six thousand words per year). This blog post alone is about twelve hundred words. I can’t imagine trying to squeeze the events of this year (especially the kind of year we’ve had) into 500 words. In sum, Josephus had to be selective in what he included in his works.
While we can appreciate the skeptic’s concerns, we don’t need to reject Matthew’s claim that Herod ordered the execution of the Bethlehem boys. Based on what we know of Herod, this execution is consistent with his constant paranoia and subpar character. Additionally, because the execution would have included at most 10-20 boys, Josephus didn’t feel it necessary to include this event in his works since he was limited in space.
 Josephus, Antiquities, 14.8.1-5.
 Michael J. Wilkins, “Matthew” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, ed. by Clint E Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 18.
 Bava Basra, 4a.
 Wilkins, Matthew, 18.
 Josephus, Antiquities, 17.1.3.
 Josephus, Antiquities, 16.10.5-16.11.8, 17.10.1.
 Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2.f.11.
 Josephus, Antiquities, 17.8.1.
 Peter Williams, Twitter Post March 28, 2019.
Recommended resources related to the topic:
Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels by J. Warner Wallace (Book)
Ryan Leasure holds a Master of Arts from Furman University and a Masters of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Currently, he’s a Doctor of Ministry candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Moore, SC.