25 Songs of Christmas #14 O Little Town

Oh little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie.
Until the soldiers come with swords and make your mothers cry.
Blood in thy dark streets floweth on this horrible night.
The hopes and dreams of all it seems were crushed in thee tonight.

It is horrible, isn’t it? This is how I “rewrote” the song when I was in junior high. Everybody else was singing out this idyllic song of this peaceful town where sleeps the Savior as angels keep watch and stars shine out. Me? I was a young teenage boy doing what sheltered young teenage boys tend to do. I was reveling in a massacre of blood and death and gore I knew nothing about. That dreadful moment in history has come to be known in Christian lore as “The Slaughter of the Innocents”.

The gnostic writing The Martyrdom of Matthew says that Herod resides in hell because he murdered three thousand innocent children in Bethlehem. While I am quite sure Herod is near the front of the queue for people deserving of damnation, I am just as certain that the Bethlehem massacre is only a minor footnote compared to his many other crimes. More on that later. Not to be outdone by this gnostic tall tale, the Byzantine liturgical tradition places the number killed at fourteen thousand. It quickly slides downhill from there. The Syrian tradition places the number at 64,000. I am told that some medieval writers claimed that 144,000 babies were killed in Bethlehem. (I am not told, however, what writers claimed this so I remain skeptical)

Today there is a swing in the opposite direction. It is a popular past time of amateur skeptics to point out that there is no historical record of Herod actually killing anyone in Bethlehem. Ummmm, actually no. That’s not true. There is a historical record of it. It is called the gospel of Matthew. This gospel was certainly written before Josephus wrote his Antiquities and possibly (I would say probably) written before his history of the Jewish War. I know the very next counter any one of these skeptics will give me was that Matthew had an agenda (as did virtually every writer of history up to and far beyond Matthew’s time). He just made it up to tick off a “prophesy fulfilled” box and prove Jesus was who Matthew claimed him to be.

Fair enough. There is no current other historical or archaeological proof of this massacre. If it really happened, why not? The answer to that question is found in the title of today’s Christmas song: O Little Town of Bethlehem. At the time of this happening, the town of Bethlehem was barely a blip on the map. Most historians would put this city’s size at around 300-500 people. Nobody who knows anything would go so far as to say there was a thousand in the city. Now, considering the fact children under 2  account for about 2-3 percent of the population, that would mean this slaughter in Bethlehem amounted to between 6 and 15 babies being killed. Two real scholars (Professor William Albright, dean of American Archaeology in the Holy Land and Dr. Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at WMU) both argue for the lower end of this spectrum but for argument’s sake, lets put the number at ten. We would rightfully call that a horrific crime but Herod? He would call it a random way to liven up a boring Tuesday.

King Herod was a paranoid schizophrenic. That isn’t my opinion. It is the diagnosis of multiple scholars after viewing the evidence of this man’s life. There was a recurring pattern in Herod’s life that Matthew’s account fits into perfectly. Herod would hear of a potential threat to his life or his throne. He would kill the threat. He would feel guilty. Then he would build something more. Then he would hear of some other threat and the cycle would repeat. Among thousands of others, even one of his wives and three of his sons would fall victim to this paranoia.

Herod came to power with the backing of Rome and its armies. The first thing he did upon securing the throne in 37 BC was to execute his rival Mattathias Antigonus along with 45 other influential men who had backed him. In 35 BC he had 18-year-old Aristobulus drowned even though the boy was both High Priest and Herod’s brother in Law. In 30 BC he had John Hyrcanus strangled. In 29 BC he executed his wife Miriamme even though she was the person he loved most in the world (besides himself). In 28 BC his mother in law Alexandra was executed. Shortly after this Herod set up an ever-growing spy network and executions of potential threats and rebels became an everyday occurrence.

Jump ahead a few years. In the waning days of Herod’s life, he upped the ante and became even more brutal than before. In 7 BC he had two of his sons (sons of his executed wife) Alexander and Aristobulus (named after his executed uncle) killed. That same year Herod executed 300 military leaders suspected of plotting against him. He also executed a great number of Pharisees because they had started a rumor that there was prophesy saying that the kingdom was about to be taken from him. Then in 6 BC, Jesus is born. Sometime in 6-5 BC, the wise men with their entourage show up claiming the king of the Jews was born. The religious leaders claim that prophesy states he will be born in Bethlehem. Now, what do you think Herod would do? To round out the story, Herod has a third son killed just days before he dies himself. When his own end was near Herod knew that he would not be mourned. To fix that he gives orders that everyone is to join him in Jericho under penalty of death. Then a command is given that at the moment of his death all the influential and respected men in the gathering were to be killed. Fortunately, this order was countermanded as soon as he passed away and instead the entire nation rejoiced.

With such an evil king, is it any wonder that Jesus came into this world as a fugitive and a refugee? What better way could there be to honor Him this Christmas than to serve those who are like Him? In what ways could we, could you, serve the refugee communities this Christmas?

3 thoughts on “25 Songs of Christmas #14 O Little Town

  1. What a fascinating post. We Christians tend to sanitize the Bible stories because we can’t accept the world as it is. Thanks for the history lesson too. Our cute Christmas notions need to be confronted with the brutality of this sin-cursed world we live in. Right from Genesis, Satan has striven to kill off the seed of the woman that would crush his head. We can see all through Holy Scripture that he failed. Now he’s trying to minimize the truth and cover up his defeat. Thanks for pointing out the truth of his murderous minions.

  2. Living in such a town (pop. 300) in Tennessee when my son was born I can tell you with some confidence that he was likely the only child in that place under the age of 2. The paranoia of absolute power is terrifying.

  3. Great post. Herod, it seems, considered these children to be Collateral Damage to his reign. I have heard that there was a saying “Better to be Herod’s sows than Herod’s sons”. Jewish law prohibited eating pigs. Sobering thoughts on this amazing historical account from the Bible.

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