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Herod the Great -- Killing of the Innocents

Does the Gospel of Matthew's lone account of Herod's killing of boys two years old and younger in Bethlehem line up with historical evidence?

Marc Turnage, the executive director of the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies, provides a regular column that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. This month he examines how the Gospel of Matthew's lone account of Herod the Great's killing of all boys two and under in Bethlehem is supported as it lines up with other murderous acts commissioned by Herod in his final years of life.

The story of Herod's killing of the boys two and under in Bethlehem only appears in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-18). Yet, Matthew's portrayal of Herod's character fits the paranoia of Herod at the end of his life (Herod died in 4 BC) and his use brutal force in order to preserve his throne. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, relates two stories that happened prior to the birth of Jesus relevant to the gospel account of his killing the children in Bethlehem.

Herod's sister Salome sought to get rid of her husband, Costobar, who had been appointed governor of Idumea by Herod. Salome denounced Costobar to Herod claiming that her husband provided refuge for the sons of Baba, who were distantly related to the Hasmonean family (a Jewish royal-priestly family). Herod sought to kill the sons of Baba to remove Hasmoneans with claims on the throne. Upon learning of their hiding place, Herod took Costobar, the sons of Baba, and those helping them and executed them "so that none was left alive of the family of Hyrcanus (Hasmonean), and the kingdom was wholly in Herod's power, there being no one of high rank to stand in the way of his unlawful acts" (Antiquities 15.259-266).

On another occasion, certain Pharisees prophesied to the wife of Pheroras, the brother of Herod, that

…by God's decree Herod's throne would be taken from him, both from himself and his descendants, and the royal power would fall to her and Pheroras and to any children that they might have…And the king put to death those of the Pharisees who were most to blame and the eunuch Bagoas and a certain Karos…He also killed all those of his household who approved of what the Pharisee said. Now Bagoas had been carried away by their assurance that he would be called the father and benefactor of him who would some day be set over the people with the title of king, for all the power would belong to him and he would give Bagoas the ability to marry and beget children of his own (Antiquities 17.41-45).

Pheroras being the brother of Herod, an Idumean, could not provide the royal lineage for this future king, so it must have been his wife. Perhaps she even descended from the Davidic royal line. The reaction of Bagoas the eunuch makes it clear that the expected child was to be a messianic king giving eunuchs the ability to marry and beget children (see Isaiah 56:3). To this messianic threat, Herod responded with swift brutality killing those who made the prophecy as well as any sympathetic to it.

Matthew presents an identical picture. When Herod heard of a potential messianic claimant to his throne, he used swift brutal force to make sure that the child born in Bethlehem would not grow into a threat. But God protected Jesus sending Joseph and his family to Egypt until after the death of Herod.

Photo by Léon Cogniet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons