The Wise Men triggered the Massacre of the Innocents

The Massacre of the Innocents was not beyond the ruthless King Herod, who through fear ordered the murder of baby boys. Photo: Triumph of the Innocents

SAN JOSE, December 28, 2013 — On December 28, the third day after Christmas, Roman Catholics and other Christians traditionally remember the children who were slaughtered in Bethlehem on the orders of King Herod as the “first martyrs.”

Even though the infants were Jewish, not Christian, Christians honor them because they died for Jesus, the intended target of their brutal king. The traditional Catholic holiday may be disturbing to those who do not comprehend a feast for the martyrdom of the innocent children.

This slaughter is described in the Gospel of Matthew. It took place at the time of the visitation of the Wise Men, or Magi, “from the East.” They had travelled a great distance to Jerusalem to find  “the King of the Jews who has been born.” The terrible irony is that the slaughter of innocents was initiated by accident, after the Magi’s visit with King Herod.

Upon learning of the presence of the Magi in Jerusalem, Herod was disturbed, and according to Matthew, “he trembled.” Being an Edomite and more of a secular leader, Herod “gathered together all the high priests and scribes of the people, and he kept asking them where the Christ would be born.”

After Herod consulted with the religious leaders, he learned from the Hebrew prophecies in the Tanach (Old Testament) that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. He then invited the Magi to visit. “Then Herod called the Magi secretly, and he learned from them at what time the star appeared to them.” Herod even tried to use the Magi to locate the correct child on his behalf, realizing that the local people would not cooperate with his quest for the infant of prophecy.

When he learned of the Magi’s departure without coming back to him to reveal the child’s location, Herod’s true nature as a jealous king exploded.

According to Matthew, “When Herod saw that he was mocked by the Magi, he was greatly enraged, so he sent forth and had all the infant boys in Bethlehem and its suburbs killed, from two years old and under, according to the time that he had inquired from the Magi.”

Such brutality shocks people who read of the massacre today, but it also causes skeptics to ask why this incident appears nowhere else in contemporary historical accounts. The lack of corroboration has been used by scholars to attack the credibility of Matthew’s account. 

To put an event like the massacre of infants in the context of history is a way to make sense of it. In this case it is especially important since the incident is mentioned in just one contemporary historical document: the Gospel of Matthew.

Scholarly historical analysis interestingly seems to allow those who disparage the lack of corroborative accounts as valid criticism. However, some academics tend to discredit the Bible as a trustworthy source of historical information.  Yet, this appraisal is usually based upon what presuppositions one brings to the study table. Scholars of faith accept it as eyewitness testimony.

Suspension of bias, sometimes deeply embedded bias or prejudice stemming from an individual’s own set of religious or non-religious education or experiences, is not easily accomplished. So, if an individual can accept the existence of God and miracles, then the Gospel of Matthew usually receives a more benign examination.  On the other hand, if a person is gnostic, or is outright atheistic, and discounts the possibility of miracles, then the Gospel of Matthew is often discounted as religious fable or mythology. The evidence for this fills the pages of many texts. Unfortunately, open minds are increasingly hard to find among those whose minds are already stuffed.

A key point often overlooked by people is that the world of 2,000 years ago saw infanticide as unimportant. The Greeks often left defective or female infants to die of exposure. 

Despite people believing in specific religious doctrine, they were still capable of killing their own children. Very few governments had enacted laws to prevent infanticide, and it was acceptably practiced almost everywhere and primarily the manner of death varied with the geographic region or culture. Who would raise an issue with a king who chose to kill a few children? The current estimates of the number of those infants killed through Herod’s command is about 15 – 20 Hebrew children based upon the actual population of Bethlehem and surrounding area at the time. The pervasive reality of infanticide may be the reason why no contemporary challenged Matthew’s account.

It is important to remember within the context of history that these times were dangerous times of tyrants and usurpers of power. Herod, the “King” of the Jews, was only a tetrarch allowed to be a tyrant in limited manner over the Jewish people. Herod, a foreigner, was simply a pawn of the Roman Empire and he was allowed his measures of tyranny as long as   it did not interfere with Roman dominion. However, his action of beheading his grown son even shocked the Roman Emperor, Augustus. The historian Macrobius relates that when Augustus learned about Herod’s murder of his own son, he said: “It is better to be Herod’s hog, than his son.”

The comments of Emperor Augustus demonstrate an understanding of King Herod’s ruthlessness. It also shows the Emperor’s awareness of Jewish law as he sarcastically alludes to the law of not eating pork, and consequently not killing swine.

Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian, also acknowledged Herod’s cruelty, as when he singled out individuals for public execution as well as the mass slaughter of opponents in the last years of his reign. But, he does not mention the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Perhaps the massacre never occurred. Or perhaps to Josephus, this event, quite insignificant when compared with Herod’s greater atrocities, was too minor to require mention.

This year in the United States, there was politically motivated media uproar surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting incident in Florida; yet, in the same year thousands of kids in the ghettos of American cities were killed in similar manner and  the major media silence showed great hypocrisy. It is not hard to comprehend a silent reporter (or historian).

This Massacre of the Innocents was not beyond the ruthless King Herod. Fear of a rival king sought by the Magi, enemies of the Romans who installed Herod as King, he ordered the murder of the baby boys.

In a world of treachery, Herod the Great could get away with murder. This incident is eerily parallel to the story of Pharaoh, who ordered Hebrew midwives to kill all Hebrew sons at birth to ensure the continued enslavement of the Hebrew people in Egypt.

Thank God America is a nation founded upon the fundamental principles of the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Nevertheless, this incident of the Massacre of Innocents exposes any government that can accept and condone the killing of innocent babies, whether alive and helpless in a mother’s womb or innocent newborns.

Perhaps, as President Obama told the world, America is no longer a Christian nation. It may be time to re-think this point in light of the American “massacre of the innocents.” 


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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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