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The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical or Not?

It is sometimes objected that there is no historical evidence to prove that Herod ever slaughtered the children of Bethlehem, as it is mentioned in neither Roman nor Jewish records. Surely, it is argued, since historians such as Josephus carefully recorded Herod's abuses, how could he have missed it? And wouldn't such an event have touched off a rebellion?

Although much has been made of the Slaughter of the Innocents - and indeed, any such event would be tragic - there is no reason to assume that it could be considered high on the list of Herod's atrocities in terms of scope or magnitude.

How many boys aged two and under could there have been in and around the tiny city of Bethlehem? Five? Ten? Matthew does not give a number.

Josephus says that Herod murdered a vast number of people, and was so cruel to those he didn't kill that the living considered the dead to be fortunate. Thus, indirectly, Josephus tells us that there were many atrocities that Herod committed that he does not mention in his histories - and it is probable that authorizing the killing of the presumably few male infants in the vicinity of Bethlehem was a minuscule blot of the blackness that was the reign of Herod.

Being that the events of the reign of Herod involved practically one atrocity after another - it is observed by one writer, with a minimum of hyperbole, that hardly a day in his 36-year reign passed when someone wasn't sentenced to death - why should any one event in particular have touched off a rebellion, when others in particular, including those recorded by Josephus, did not?

Herod probably died in March or April of 4 BC; the Slaughter would therefore have occurred during one of his last two years on earth, and it is unreasonable to say that the things he did in the previous 34 years - equally, if not more so, a time of political unrest among the Jews - was insufficient to incite rebellion, whereas killing a few male infants in a backwater suburb would be sufficient in comparison. It is doubtful that Josephus recorded EVERY atrocity performed by Herod; if he had, his works would be rather significantly larger.

Furthermore, a revolt would have been unlikely in any event. For all of his ruthlessness, Herod was nowhere near the monster the likes of, say, Caligula. More importantly, he was careful to not offend Jewish religious sensibilities; Josephus records only two instances where pious Jews questioned him on such matters. [Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, 19, 297] In Jewish eyes, Herod might have been a devil; but he was a nicer devil to have in charge than a Roman devil. The Slaughter of the Innocents, though, is something that fits in perfectly with the character of Herod.

Also, is it perhaps not too far a reach to wonder whether Herod - who had his own son assassinated - hired vigilantes of some sort to perpetrate the Slaughter, and that it was not connected to him until his death which was shortly thereafter, when it was too late for anyone to vent their anger on him?