Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Herod's slaughter of the innocents

National Geographic did an article on King Herod last year. I didn't find the writing style particularly riveting though it was variably informative. The article started with this comment about Herod.
An astute and generous ruler, a brilliant general, and one of the most imaginative and energetic builders of the ancient world, Herod guided his kingdom to new prosperity and power. Yet today he is best known as the sly and murderous monarch of Matthew's Gospel, who slaughtered every male infant in Bethlehem in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the newborn Jesus, the prophesied King of the Jews. During the Middle Ages he became an image of the Antichrist: Illuminated manuscripts and Gothic gargoyles show him tearing his beard in mad fury and brandishing his sword at the luckless infants, with Satan whispering in his ear. Herod is almost certainly innocent of this crime, of which there is no report apart from Matthew's account. But children he certainly slew, including three of his own sons, along with his wife, his mother-in-law, and numerous other members of his court. Throughout his life, he blended creativity and cruelty, harmony and chaos, in ways that challenge the modern imagination.
The claim that Herod is innocent of this crime because there is not further documentary evidence of the event betrays an unjustified anti-biblical bias.

That Herod was capable of commanding the murder of infants is mentioned in the paragraph above: 3 sons, a wife, etc.

Herod had these people killed,
  • Mattathias Antigonus
  • Several leaders of Antigonus’ group
  • John Hyrcanus
  • Aristobulus (brother-in-law)
  • Kostobar (brother-in-law)
  • Alexandra (the mother of Herod's wife Mariamme)
  • Miriamme (wife)
  • Alexander (son)
  • Aristobulus (son)
  • 300 military leaders
  • Several Pharisees
  • Antipater (son)
Many of these were killed to prevent a perceived challenge to his kingdom.

And if these examples do not suffice to document Herod's paranoia and blood-thirst, Josephus records a well known story how Herod had many men imprisoned in Jericho shortly before his death with instructions they be executed when he died. The reason? So there would be mourning at the time of his death. This was not carried out.

So it is apparent that Herod was capable of ordering the death of children if he perceived a threat to his throne.

However the bigger issue here is the illegitimate implication that documentary evidence from the Bible has second class status. Or even errant status. Not only is any other contemporary (or not so contemporary) document held up as the primary standard that the Bible is judged by, the Bible is often assumed to be in error when it touches on aspects of history that no other historian has mentioned.

Matthew was roughly contemporary with these events. He wrote of Herod earlier than Josephus did.

There is documentary evidence of Herod slaughtering the children. It is recorded in Matthew 2. There is no evidence that Herod did not do such an action. There is no good reason to exempt him of this crime.

4 comments:

  1. "Almost certainly innocent of this crime", eh? I find it peculiar that people closer to the time of publication of Matthew didn't reject the account.

    They must be using Shariah law here, where you have to have four reliable witnesses to convict--"reliable" meaning male of the appropriate religion.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Herod would be a perfect person to include in any myth to give it some sense of validity. He was certainly an evil person and his existence is verifiable. Attributing to him an atrocity committed to supposedly eliminate a mythical rival makes sense.

    If one looks at these stories as just another version of "Forrest Gump" where a fictional character is mixed into stories with existing celebrities such as Herod and Pilate.

    Absence of evidence does not prove something doesn't exist, but it certainly doesn't lend credibility to the fact that it does. That Herod did not commit the crime isn't the question. The question is did Christ even exist?

    ReplyDelete
  3. That Herod did not commit the crime isn't the question.

    Well it is the question, it is raised by NG in the quote above.

    ReplyDelete
  4. That Yeshua existed is recorded in Josephus. Only an anti-biblical bias/hatred would write that Herod is innocent because Josephus makes no mention of the the slaughter of the innocents, while discounting Josephus' words about Messiah. Yeshua is mentioned at least twice (that I know of); Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3, and 20.9.1.

    ReplyDelete

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