Oh, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Until the soldiers come with swords to 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” this Christmas song when I was in junior high. Everybody else was singing out an 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 adolescent 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 for which I dedicated a verse has become 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 also just as confident that the Bethlehem massacre is only a minor footnote compared to his many other crimes. More on that later. Not to be outdone by Martyred Matthew’s tall tale, the Byzantine liturgical tradition places the number of babies killed at fourteen thousand. As time moves forward, this number quickly trends upward. The Syrian tradition puts 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 of its veracity.
Today there is a swing in the opposite direction. It is a popular pastime of amateur skeptics to point out that there is actually no historical record of Herod 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 undoubtedly written before Josephus wrote his Antiquities and possibly written before his history of the Jewish War. Personally, I say it was probably written first, but there are debates on the dating of both books, so it isn’t a hill I would die defending.
If I am to bring up this point to any skeptics, the very next counter I am likely to receive is that Matthew had an agenda in his writing. So what? The same can be said for virtually every writer of history up to and far beyond Matthew’s time. I would argue that the same can be said of every single work of history written in our time. Nobody writes without an agenda. Matthew is certainly far more reliable than Herodotus, Thucydides, or Theophanes. Ignoring this hypocrisy, the skeptics will say Matthew just made up this story to tick off a “prophesy fulfilled” box and prove Jesus was who Matthew claimed him to be.
Outside of Matthew, there is no current other historical or archaeological proof of this massacre. I will acknowledge that. If this slaughter really happened, why is there no record of it? 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 atrocity, 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 were more than a thousand in the town. Now, considering the fact that children under 2 typically account for about 2-3 percent of the population, there weren’t all that many babies in Bethlehem. The Syrians say 64k. Martyred Matthew gives us three grand. But in reality, this slaughter in Bethlehem probably 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, let’s put the number at ten. In our modern era, we would rightfully call this a horrific crime. Herod? He would consider ten kills a random way to liven up a dull 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 Herod would build something. Later on, he would hear of some other threat, and the cycle would repeat. Among the thousands of others he killed, 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. Upon securing the throne in 37 BC, the first thing he did was to execute his rival, Mattathias Antigonus. At the same time, Herod also executed 45 other influential men who had backed this rival. In 35 BC, he had eighteen-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 killed. Alexander and Aristobulus were sons of his executed wife, and the latter was named after Herod’s executed uncle. That same year Herod executed 300 military leaders suspected of plotting against him. He also executed a significant number of Pharisees because they had started a rumor. Apparently, that rumor was a prophesy saying that the kingdom was about to be taken from him. Then, in 6 BC, Jesus was born. Sometime around 6-5 BC, the wise men with their entourage show up claiming the king of the Jews was born. When questioned, the religious leaders claim that the prophecy states the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Now, what do you think Herod would do?
To round out the story of his known history, Herod has a third son killed just days before the king dies himself. When his own end was near, Herod knew that he would not be mourned. To fix that, he gave orders that everyone is to join him in Jericho under penalty of death. Then a command should be given that all the influential and respected men in the gathering were to be killed at the moment of his death. This way, everyone would be in mourning… even if it was not for him. Fortunately, this order was countermanded as soon as he passed away, and instead, the entire nation rejoiced.
King Herod would have fit in well with many of the despots of our day. His actions would fit right in with the atrocities of Bashar Assad, Ayatollah Khomeini, Omar al-Bashir, or Kim Jong Il. People feared him in his time just as much as they fear ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, or Al-Shabaab today. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus was born under his rule and lived his early childhood as a refugee and a fugitive? The book of Hebrews says that God can sympathize with us because He has been tested in every way just as we are. God knows and cares about the plight of the homeless and refugees so passionately that He came and was born as one Himself. If God cares so deeply for them, should we not also care? He set aside the safety and security and comfort of heaven to live among us… among them. What are we willing to sacrifice this Christmas to reach out and show love to the least of these?
O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight
For Christ is born of Mary and gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King and peace to men on earth
How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven
No ear may hear His coming but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in
O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us our Lord Emmanuel
O come to us, abide with us our Lord Emmanuel