Herod the Baby-Killer

Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents—the baby boys that Matthew records were slain on the orders of Herod the Great in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus.

Did he really?

Sometimes we hear skeptics dismiss the idea by saying that we have no record of him doing so.

But it’s not exactly like we have the complete records of what Herod did in his reign. So much has been lost that this kind of argument from silence is the logical fallacy they teach it to be in beginning philosophy classes. Just because we don’t have a record of Herod doing something doesn’t mean he didn’t do it.

And, after all, don’t we have a record in this case? Matthew mentions him doing it. That’s a record, right? Only if Matthew were a systematically untrustworthy source would one be warranted in summarily dismissing what he says, and judged by the ordinary standards applied to evaluating other first century historical works—even apart from the perspective of faith—Matthew must surely be reckoned as far more trustworthy than that.

Further, what Matthew says fits with what we know about Herod’s character. The man was ruthless, from the beginning of his reign to the end. As he got closer to the end, he became intensely paranoid and cruel, and even if we don’t have a second record of the slaughter of the innocents, anyone who has studied Herod’s life recognizes how in keeping this is with what we know of him.

Consider these excerpts from his biography in the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary:

Herod’s conquest of Jerusalem in 37 did not bring his problems to an end. Inheriting a divided city, he moved swiftly and decisively to thwart all opposition. Forty-five leaders of the pro-Antigonus faction in the city were executed (Ant 15 §5) and others were forced into hiding (Ant 15 §264). The wealthy were despoiled, and the revenue gained was used to pay Herod’s debts to his Roman patrons and his army.

In the years following his ascension, Herod was almost obsessively concerned about the security of his rule.

Little time elapsed before he realized the extent of Aristobulus’ popularity and the potential danger he posed (Ant 15 §52). Herod ordered the young man drowned in a swimming pool at his Jericho palace (Ant 15 §54–56).

Herod’s moves to forestall any Jewish uprising are noted by Josephus on a number of occasions. It was for this reason that Antigonus was beheaded in Antioch (Ant 15 §8–9) and that the king kept the young Aristobulus homebound despite Antony’s request, at one point, for the lad to join him (Ant 15 §28–30). Even as late as the year 30, before leaving for a fateful rendezvous with Octavius, Herod executed Hyrcanus II and placed Alexandra in a fortress under guard. He feared that in his absence either of them might foment a rebellion or assert his right to leadership (Ant 15 §174–78, 183–86). Similarly, Herod justified the execution of his wife Mariamme two years later, claiming that a popular disturbance might have broken out had she lived (Ant 15 §231).

Having already eliminated Hyrcanus II just prior to his journey to Rhodes, Herod then executed Alexandra: the king had fallen ill, and Alexandra, finding this to be a propitious opportunity for insurrection, moved to capture the Jerusalem fortress. Apprised of the situation, and having recovered from his illness, Herod immediately ordered her execution (Ant 15 §247–51). A year or so later Herod’s sister Salome sought to divorce Costobar who, together with others, was plotting a revolt. She also told Herod that Costobar had provided refuge for his enemy, the Baba family, during the conquest of Jerusalem a decade earlier. Already aware of Costobar’s seditious proclivities, Herod now moved quickly to execute him and his companions (Ant 15 §253–66).

All this was but a prelude to the most tragic—and, in the long run, the most significant—execution of all. Despite the extraordinary love he felt for his wife, Mariamme, Herod’s relationship with her had seriously deteriorated. Precisely owing to his passionate attachment, and dreading the thought that his beloved might be wedded to another, Herod on two separate occasions had ordered her death should he fail to return from a fateful encounter. Mariamme, however, misjudged his intentions and was incensed at such plans. Salome’s machinations against her only added fuel to the fire, as did Mariamme’s own intemperate remarks and actions vis-à-vis the king. Imbued with a sense of familial superiority because of her Hasmonean lineage, she often treated her husband and sister-in-law with contempt and arrogance. In 29, under the incessant prodding of Salome, Herod finally ordered her execution (Ant 15 §222–39).

Herod exercised complete control over his realm by dominating all key institutions. No matter was beyond his scrutiny. The highest tribunal (Sanhedrin), whatever its composition and authority in the previous era, was now merely a rubber stamp for the king’s wishes.

However, the brothers [Herod’s sons Alexander and Aristobulus] carried a heavy burden of antagonism vis-à-vis their father. They left no doubt that they did not forgive those responsible for their mother’s death and that in due time they would seek revenge.

Matters degenerated in the following years, and the brothers’ fate was sealed by the discovery of a number of alleged plots to murder the king. Herod believed the evidence presented by Antipater, Salome, and Pheroras, and following a trial in Berytus with the participation of Roman officials, Alexander and Aristobulus were executed in 7 B.C.E.

Realizing his end was imminent, Herod ordered that upon his death the men whom he had locked up in the Jericho hippodrome should be executed, thus ensuring general mourning at the time of his death (Ant 17 §173–75). He ordered [another of his sons,] Antipater killed and once again altered his will by naming Archelaus, the older son of Malthace, successor to the throne, Antipas tetrarch of the Galilee and Perea, and Philip, son of Cleopatra, tetrarch of Gaulanitis, Trachonitis, Batanaea, and Panaeas (Ant 17 §188–90).

Got all that? And that’s just a fraction of the people who lost their lives to Herod.

Note in particular: Herod had his wife killed, more than one of his own sons killed, and (although circumstances prevented it from happening) he ordered the death of a bunch of dignitaries just so there would be wailing among Jewish families at the time of his own death.

Is there any reason to think that Herod would scruple at killing the baby boys in Bethlehem to try and eliminate another potential rival for power?

The people of Jerusalem, of course, knew Herod’s character, and it is small wonder that St. Matthew records:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

It is also small wonder, given that Herod was an observant Jew (though his family had only converted to Judaism a generation or so earlier), and thus not someone supposed to eat pork, that Augustus Caesar is reputed to have quipped:

It is better to be Herod’s pig than to be his son.


What do you think?