Thursday, August 22, 2013

Massacre of the Innocents--is History's Silence a Problem?

As long as we are talking about skeptics and their questions about our faith, one that I recently heard was a common one:  "If Herod really did kill all those innocent children as in Matthew 2:16-18, why doesn't history record it?"

Speaking purely philosophically, this is a pretty weak argument from silence: it assumes that (a) every horrible act from that period was recorded, (b) those records have survived to today, and (c) we have found and understood all relevant records which survived. If either of those is not true, then we we would not expect to have any records of the event.

Additionally, the records we do have of Herod the Great's history certainly does not make it implausible:  he was described by historians as, "a madman who murdered his own family," and "prepared to commit any crime to gratify his unbounded ambition." He banished his first wife and child when a more politically-expedient opportunity arose; he used secret police to monitor the Jewish people; he prohibited and arrested any public protesters; he levied massive taxes to build lavish palaces and temples; he built many pagan temples, to the anger of his Jewish people; he put a golden eagle idol inside the Jewish Temple; he drowned his brother-in-law at a party out of anger; he tried to kill his second wife and when she withheld sex as a result, he tried her for adultery and executed her; he executed another brother in law; and he executed three of his old sons.

So yes, if he felt that there was a potential king being born in a small village in his kingdom, it is absolutely in his character to kill all potentials.

How many innocents?

The next obvious question is, "How many innocents were slaughtered?" The Bible doesn't tell us directly, it simply records that it is every male under the age of 2. Luckily, we have some good information from history which can help us.

Some preachers have fancifully said that this was thousands (or even tens of thousands of children), but archaeology shows us that was patently false. First-century Bethlehem's population was between 300-1000 in total at the time--so obviously, the "male under two" population was considerably smaller than this.

Looking at population demographics in similar modern countries to ancient Israel, we should probably expect that the population under two years of age was around 2-4% of the population. Therefore, the population of males under two was about 1-2% of the total population. (In Rome the population would have probably been more male-heavy than a 50/50 split; however, Jews did not practice abortion or infanticide, so we should expect about half of the 2-4% under two population to be male.)

So, where does that leave us?

Well, if the total population is 300-1000, then we would expect the male-under-two population to be no less than 3, and no more than 20 children.

This is not to minimize a horrible situation: try and imagine an entire village losing all of their infants in a murderous rampage by soldiers, while you are helpless and unarmed to make a difference--and even if you protested it or told anyone, you would be jailed. Herod was evil, no question about that. And this rural village was so small that everyone knew everyone--not a person would have been unaffected.

But it is also quite conceivable that the murder of 3-20 innocents in a rural village of a madman's regime would be lost to history, isn't it? Even today, in our modern age of Twitter and Instagram, it would not at all be surprising to find out that 3-20 children were killed in some Rwandan village or Pakistani village and the paper trail is insufficient to be discovered 2,000 years from now. So the argument from silence on the Massacre of the Innocents is very, very weak.

For this reason, I have always considered this argument particularly weak. It simply does not stand to reason that we should ignore the Biblical record in this scenario, just because the one or two historians of that period whose writings we still possess did not record this event in a rural village on the edge of the Empire.

A tangential point--the modern Massacre of Innocents

Matthew found the event hideous. To the early Jews and Christians, it was stomach-churning:  so much so that Matthew recorded it even though it really didn't have that much to do with the actual story he was telling. Matthew invokes the image of a mother weeping for her children to bring it home for the reader.

The early Christians and Jews were outspokenly against abortion and infanticide. (Abortion is not a modern practice invented after Roe v Wade: abortion medicines were known, and infanticide was also common--either by leaving the children exposed in the wilderness or by spreading heroin on the mother's nipple to cause an overdose.) They interpreted Scripture the same way that we do, and know that every child is a human with inherent value.

Here we see Matthew mourning greatly the loss of less than 20 children. He found it so horrible that he put it in the Bible.

Today in America, over 3,000 children will be aborted. Over 56 million children have been aborted since Roe v. Wade.

Let's think about that:

Massacre of the Innocents:                            20
Modern-Day American Abortions:  56,542,336

Let me put it this way:  picture every person alive when Matthew was writing his Gospel--everyone in Israel and Rome and Britain and China, the ancient Indians and Native Americans, everyone. All of those added together were six times less than the number of worldwide abortions since I was born in 1980.

I am young, yet during my lifetime we have seen more children killed than lived in the entire world of the New Testament--times six. 

This is our Massacre of the Innocents. And many people are just numb to it. I, for one, am sickened.


  1. If the massacre of the innocents was so unnotable, why did the why did the Gospel of Matthew record it?

    Remember that none of the Gospels were actually written by the apostles. Each was written by anonymous authors, decades after Jesus' death. We know this through literary analysis of the languages, dialects, political persuasions, narrative flow, carbon dating and other clues. In the case of Matthew -- it's a script written between 80-90 AD by an educated Jewish author, who mostly just copied and rewrote the Gospel of Mark.

    Herod lived from 74 to 4 BCE. Jesus died around 33 AD. Fifty years later the author who wrote Matthew recorded it. This author managed to get upset over a massacre 80-100 years previous where no other Biblical or secular record did?

    Also, if Matthew was so upset over abortion and infanticide, why did he not express worry over the instructions to commit abortion in Numbers 5:21-21, 27-28? Or killing the pregnant woman in Genesis 38:24?

    1. With regard to the authorship of the Scripture, obviously you and I are going to disagree dramatically. I can recommend a host of books from textual scholars if you'd like, and I can assure you that I've already read all the ones you will recommend. :) So let's move on and agree to leave that tangential rabbit to the side, or we'll never get on with our discussion about my actual post.

      Ditto your references to Numbers 5 and Genesis 38...I suppose that you are saying that if Matthew didn't like infanticide he was required to mention every instance of it in Jewish history and write commentary? Surely you don't feel that a person recording a historical event is required to list every similar event in the history of his people? Do you start your discussions about the Iraqi War with the American Revolution? Surely you must admit this is irrelevant to my point.

      Regarding your first question, which I find more relevant: let me clarify. I am saying that it was not noteworthy TO THE ROMAN HISTORIANS IN ROME (and hence, did not show up in our records from them). This is in refutation to those who use that argument from silence as an alleged disproof. I am not, however, saying that it was unnoteworthy to those from the area. In fact, I explicitly stated that it would be VERY noteworthy to those in the town, surrounding villages, and Matthew was likewise moved by it. So while I understand your confusion, you aren't arguing against the point I am making.

      What I find most interesting is that in your entire do not really address the key point I am making at any point. The point of this post is: the fact that the Massacre does not show up in Roman contemporary historians, does not mean that it didn't occur. Instead you seem to get sidetracked by tangential issues.

      So while I am glad that you read my blog and hope you get something out of it, you actually violated several of the Commenting Rules (see page at the top)--most notably, numbers 2, 4, and 5. Please go check those out and then if you wish to continue to discuss the topic in the article I'll be glad to do so; otherwise, I think we need to move on.