Besides Matthew 2:16,

Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry: and sending killed all the menchildren that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

What historical evidence is there of the Slaughter of the Innocents?

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    Even if that was not a historic event, it would match king Herod's mentality: A Roman historian wrote that king Herod's last will said that a certain percentage of his people shall be killed after his death: The people should mourn after his own death. And because he was not very popular (and they would not mourn because of him), the people should mourn because their relatives were killed. Mar 21, 2020 at 8:02
  • @MartinRosenau "A Roman historian wrote that king Herod's last will said that a certain percentage of his people shall be killed after his death" Which Roman historian exactly, and where did he write that?
    – Geremia
    Mar 21, 2020 at 16:47
  • Unfortunately, I have this information from a TV documentary - so I don't remember the name of the historian. Mar 21, 2020 at 18:09

2 Answers 2


What historical evidence is there of the Slaughter of the Innocents?

Apart from the Gospel of St. Matthew, it seems that there is a serious lack of any recognized historical evidence for the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the male children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men.” (Matthew 2:16)

Many historians now seem to be of the opinion that this event mentioned in the Gospel of St. Matthew is of minor importance in the annuals of the deeds of Herod the Great. The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it as follows:

The Greek Liturgy asserts that Herod killed 14,000 boys (ton hagion id chiliadon Nepion), the Syrians speak of 64,000, many medieval authors of 144,000, according to Apocalypse 14:3. Modern writers reduce the number considerably, since Bethlehem was a rather small town. Knabenbauer brings it down to fifteen or twenty (Evang. S. Matt., I, 104), Bisping to ten or twelve (Evang. S. Matt.), Kellner to about six (Christus and seine Apostel, Freiburg, 1908); cf. "Anzeiger kath. Geistlichk. Deutschl.", 15 Febr., 1909, p. 32. This cruel deed of Herod is not mentioned by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, although he relates quite a number of atrocities committed by the king during the last years of his reign. The number of these children was so small that this crime appeared insignificant amongst the other misdeeds of Herod. Macrobius (Saturn., IV, xiv, de Augusto et jocis ejus) relates that when Augustus heard that amongst the boys of two years and under Herod's own son also had been massacred, he said: "It is better to be Herod's hog [ous], than his son [houios]," alluding to the Jewish law of not eating, and consequently not killing, swine. The Middle Ages gave faith to this story; Abelard inserted it in his hymn for the feast of Holy Innocents:

“Ad mandatum regis datum generale nec ipsius infans tutus est a caede. Ad Augustum hoc delatum risum movit, et rex mitis de immiti digne lusit: malum, inquit, est Herodis esse natum. prodest magis talis regis esse porcum. (Dreves, "Petri Abaelardi Hymnarius Paracletensis", Paris, 1891, pp. 224, 274.)“

Historians do not always write down every event that has historically happened.

Sometimes historians choose not to record an event, and their reasons cannot always be determined. In the nineteenth century Pope Leo XIII noted the double standard in critics for whom “a profane book or ancient document is accepted without hesitation, whilst the Scripture, if they only find in it a suspicion of error, is set down with the slightest possible discussion as quite untrustworthy” (Providentissimus Deus, 20).

We should call out this double standard when critics demand that every event recorded in Scripture, including the massacre of the Holy Innocents, be corroborated in other non-biblical accounts before they can be considered to be historical. - Is the Massacre of the Holy Innocents Historical?

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    Every civilisation seems to have re-writen history in order to represent itself in a better light than the reality which actually occurred. As you state, it is no surprise that there are considerable gaps in history. But Matthew writes the truth and cares not to mis-represent truth for the sake of exalting acclaimed rulers. (+1).
    – Nigel J
    Mar 21, 2020 at 2:16
  • @NigelJ Thanks mate for the support!
    – Ken Graham
    Mar 21, 2020 at 2:30

Nobody knows the year of Jesus' birth and guesses range from 4 B.C.E. to 7 B.C.E. But that he was born before Herod the Great died is undisputed. Here are relevant comments about this tyrant from the New Living Translation Study Bible notes on Herod the Great (page 1578):

"Herod the Great was the Roman-appointed king of Judea (37-4 BC) at the time of Jesus' birth (Mat. 2:1; Luke 1:5)... Born into an Idumean (Edomite) family with links to the Romans, he rose to power by gaining Roman favor and retained it by cruelly suppressing his opponents. Herod was known for his large building projects, especially his magnificent reconstruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, begun 20-19 BC (Josephus, Antiquities 15.8.1)."

Note that the Jewish historian, Josephus, mentions Herod and his Temple-building work, but says nothing about the massacre of the babies. That is not surprising, given that Josephus was not a Christian and wrote some time after the event of Matthew writing his gospel account. However, if the story had not been true and well attested, Josephus would have contested it. But there are references elsewhere, and Matthew Henry (died 1714) mentions some of them in his Commentary on the whole Bible, (page 1283). First he speaks of a tradition of the Greek church:

"(and we have it in the Aethiopic missal)" a "very absurd" number of 14,000 slain infants. "But it is an instance of the vanity of tradition" which he discounts.

But Henry goes on to mention evidence of some substance, and I quote in full:

"Macrobius, a heathen writer, tells us that when Augustus Caesar heard that Herod, among the children he order to be slain, under two years old, slew his own son, he passed this jest upon him, That it was better to be Herod's swine than his son. The usage of the country forbade him to kill a swine, but nothing could restrain him from killing his son."

Quoting again from the NIV notes on Herod:

"Caesar Augustus once said that he would rather be Herod's swine than his son (a play on words in Greek since the two words sound alike - hus, huios."

Scant mention of the atrocity of having those infants under two years of age murdered is also unsurprising given the horrific nature of Herod's track-record of brutality. Such an event against despised, poor Jews would hardly compare (evil though it was) with these things Herod did - detailed by Henry:

"Herod was, throughout his reign, a bloody man. It was not long before, that he destroyed the whole Sanhedrim, or bench of judges; ...Herod was now about seventy years old, so that an infant, at this time under two years old, was not likely to give him any disturbance. Nor was he a man over fond of his own children, or of their preferment, having formerly slain two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, and his son Antipater after this, but five days before he himself died; so that it was purely to gratify his own brutish lusts of pride and cruelty that he did this. All is fish that comes to his net... It is probable that the blessed Jesus was at this time not a year old; yet Herod took in all the infants under two years old, that he might be sure not to miss of his prey."

Lack of mention in secular histories cannot be taken to mean this did not happen, but if you can track down the record of Macrobius, you may get more details. Suffice to say that the enormity of Herod's wickedness was such, that the murder of babies stated by Matthew in his gospel would hardly raise an eyebrow, compared with his whole rulership track-record of evil deeds.

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