The Gospel of Matthew records that, shortly after Jesus was born, Herod the Great had all the baby boys in Bethlehem killed.
It was the Slaughter of the Innocents.
Some have been skeptical of this event and questioned whether it really happened.
For those who have studied history, though, it is very much in keeping with the character of King Herod.
Here's the story . . .
Herod the Paranoid Tyrant
As Herod’s reign progressed, he became increasingly paranoid and unstable. There were, indeed, plots against him, and those around him manipulated his fears to their own advantage, leading him to lash out violently, including against members of his own family.
Herod had a large number of people executed or assassinated, including members of his broader family and even some of his own wives and sons.
One of Herod’s main wives was named Mariamne, and she was of Hasmonean origin. Herod married her, at least in part, to cement ties with the nation’s former ruling family, even as his own family was displacing it.
Herod professed to love Mariamne so much that, on more than one occasion, he gave orders for her to be killed if he himself died, so that he might not be separated from her in death.
She, however, became convinced that he did not really love her, and relations between them turned frosty. Eventually, Herod’s sister convinced him that Mariamne was planning to poison him, and the wife was executed.
Herod’s sons fared little better. Two of Mariamne’s sons—Alexander and Aristobulus—had fractious relations with their father, who suspected them of plotting against him. Eventually, he brought them up on charges of treason before Augustus Caesar, who allowed Herod to convene a court to try them.
The court found them guilty, and they were put to death by strangulation.
They weren’t the last of Herod’s sons whom he had killed. Herod’s firstborn son—Antipater, born of Herod’s first wife, Doris—for many years was favored by Herod and heir to his throne. But he, too, was eventually brought up on charges of plotting against his father.
He was executed just five days before Herod’s own death.
In view of such executions, the emperor Augustus reportedly quipped, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than son” (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2:4:11)—the joke being that, since Herod was a Jew, he didn’t eat pork and his pig would be safe.
Slaughter of the Innocents
Against this background, it is easy to understand the account of Herod the Great in the Gospels.
The magi came from the east, seeking the newly born king of the Jews. It was natural to seek such an infant in the court of the current king—Herod—and so they went there, asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2).
Since Herod killed three of his own sons for plotting against him, you can imagine how this would have rung alarm bells for him. The people of Jerusalem, knowing Herod’s fears about usurpers, would have been alarmed as well, and so they were: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3).
Herod manipulated the magi into finding the child for him, but when they failed to report back, he flew into a rage: “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matt. 2:16).
Sometimes it is objected that we do not have an independent record of this event, but even absent that, the event is entirely in keeping with what we know of Herod’s character and how he responded to perceived threats to his throne.
This blog post is excerpted from an upcoming article in Catholic Answers Magazine.
The article—Death Dynasty: The Story of Judaea's Outrageous Ruling Family—will appear in the November-December 2013 issue.