Did Herod kill little children?

Today I spent some time at the new Waterstone Cafe in the city centre reading an excerpt of Darwin’s autobiography in “The portable atheist” . It was interesting to see his journey from staunch Christian who amused those around him with his quotations of the bible to someone who completely refutes the idea of a personal God. He thought his studies would lead him to a better understanding of God and his creation but instead led him steadily to question everything he’s learned. He said it was a slow path of discovery and didn’t cause him any discomfort.

Darwin’s story in many ways reminded me very much my own. The more I tried to prove the existence of God the more I was faced with discrepancies, things that simply didn’t add up. Only with me it wasn’t biology but the scriptures themselves and unlike Darwin I had my fair share of discomforts. I consulted many Christians about my doubts hoping they could throw some light on some of issues I had with the bible.  There was no shortage of explanations why certain passages in the bible do contradict, the favourite of them that it’s down to the many facets of God. Like a coin seen by two people, one describes the head, the other the tail. So in the case of the gospels each writer simply saw a different aspect of the same God.

While reading Darwin’s account the story of Herod killing the little children came to my mind. There is no mentioning of Herod in anything Darwin wrote and I can’t think of any reason why my thoughts should have wandered except that it is one of those stories that never felt quite right to me. It was my Galapagos island where I discovered evidence that seriously undermined the authenticity of the scriptures.

As a child I had some kind of image of Herod in my mind, sitting on a throne with a crown and all that royal pomp around him. Three wise men were standing in front of him asking about the new born king. Why did they ask him of all people?  I could not understand why God would lead these men instead of Bethlehem first to Jerusalem.  What did they need Herod’s help for ?  In the end it was the star that led them directly to Joseph’s house.

Here’s a short catch-up on the story which we only find in Matthew’s gospel:

Joseph and Mary were betrothed to each other and lived both in Bethlehem (Not Nazareth as in Luke’s gospel). Mary became pregnant and Joseph tried to divorce her but was told by an angel that the child is of God. He takes her into his house but doesn’t touch her until the child is born.

Some Magi arrive from the East and ask Herod for an audience to tell them where to find the new born King. The said they saw his star as it rose. The wise men are directed to Bethlehem where the star suddenly appears again and directs them to Joseph’s house (No stable here and no shepherds). They do homage to the child and return back to the East, taking a different route because they are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod (which makes one question, why didn’t God tell them in the first place not to go to Herod)

An angel also appears to Joseph telling him to flee to Egypt because Herod is after their child.  Two years later, Herod suddenly realises, he had been tricked by the wise men and according to the bible became so angry because of it that he had all the male children killed in Bethlehem and its surrounding district. (Here I also wondered why it took Herod such a long time to figure this out)

Herod eventually dies and Joseph together with his wife Maria and Jesus return to Israel towards Bethlehem, their home-town. However, on their way they hear that Herod’s son, Archelaus, had succeeded his father Herod and so they change their minds and go to Galilee instead and settle in a town called Nazareth (A town for which there is no evidence it even existed at that time, and if it did was certainly no town then.)

Now, recorded history about Herod tells us something interesting. He indeed did kill some children.

There is a revealing verse in Matthew where he quotes from Jeremiah, just after the execution of the children:

A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loudly lamenting; It was Rachel weeping for her children refusing to be comforted because they were no more.

In the Old Testament we can read that it was from Ramah that the Israelites were deported to Babylon.  Jeremiah however asks to restrain from weeping and tears ‘for your work will be rewarded, they will return from the land of the enemy, so there is hope for your future.’

Clearly, this reading the passage in it’s context demonstrates that the verse from Jeremiah had nothing to do with the killing of innocent children.  It is as if Matthew was just quoting scriptures randomly to lend support for what he’s saying, very much in the tradition of many pastors today.

Rome was the Babylon of Jesus time and it wasn’t till long after Jesus death that the Israelites find themselves driven out again from their homeland. In a sense one could say that by quoting this verse Matthew was foreshadowing the diaspora (Matthew wrote the gospel long after the event).  There is however something else the quotation points to. It reveals that something terrible must have happened that upset all of Israel, not something that happened much later but during exactly that time. This kind of terrible thing must be something for which we can find evidence not only in scripture but also in other recorded historic documents.  Something that is an allusion to what happened during Jeremiah’s time. It couldn’t therefore have been the slaying of innocent children because for this we find no single record outside of the gospels (and that only Matthews, neither Luke, Mark or John know anything about it, for if they did they surely had mentioned it)

One historian, Josephus, has something important to say about exactly that period in a time:

Until Herod usurped the throne with the help of Rome the  Hasmoenans were the ruling dynasty in Israel.  They were to rule until the Messiah comes, which means a person from the house of David worthy to take the throne.  Because only someone from the house of David could legitimately claim to be King, the Hasmoneans were not recognised by everybody in Israel but merely tolerated.  Attempts were made by the Hasmoneans to proof a lineage going back to David but they were not taken very seriously.  Nevertheless the Hasmoneans were tolerated and as long as the Hasmoneans had an heir the hope of Israel was alive.

Herod was fully aware of this situation and in an attempt to gain approval married  Mariamne, a full blooded Hasmonean princess.   However, to marry her Herod had to disown his first wife Doris and first born son  Antipater II.   He also had to agree that Mariamne’s children should be first in line to be heirs to the throne.

Herod had two sons with Mariamne,  Alexander and Aristobulus, who were very much liked in Israel. It was Israel’s hope that through these children the Hasmonean royal house would continue.  Antipater II however was not happy to be downgraded and conspired against Mariamne’s children.  He talked  Herod into believing that they were plotting his murder.  Herod believing him and fearing for his life ordered the arrest of Alexander and Aristobulus and had them both strangled.

This was the end of hope that the Hasmonean House ever would be re-established, a terrible loss for Israel and one that would justify the outcry in Israel.  One could maybe compare the feeling with how Britain felt when Princess Diana died, only worse.  That sense of loss was immense.  Alexander and Aristobulus were the children of Israel, the future hope, whom Herod killed in one stroke.   (This of course also gave rise to some Messianic fever because of the belief that the Hasmoneans were only standing in until the time of the Messiah (a king of the davidic lineage) .  Seeing the country run by heathens (Herod under Rome)  pious Jews were convinced that God’s anger was provoked enough for him to act soon and raise up their saviour who would wage war on these pig eating gentiles.)

We can roughly establish when Matthew’s Jesus was born. With Herod’s death at 4BC, his search for Jesus two years after the wise men announced Jesus birth, giving us 6 or 7BC, it would be any reasonable date before that.  The date when Alexander and Aristobulus were killed is 7BC.

What these dates show us is that Jesus according to Matthew must have been born not long before Alexander and Aristobulus were killed.   Should Herod really first kill his own children and then go on a rampage to kill innocent little children because one of those might be after his throne?  Was Herod really afraid of a two year old child like he was of his over thirty year old sons who had all the reasons to hate and wanting to kill him (in revenge for Herod killing their mother twenty-five years earlier when they were still children).

I believe it is obvious that the story in Josephus is more credible then Matthew’s account.  What is difficult to believe is that Matthew wouldn’t have known about this. Why did he obscure the real facts with such a fantastic story?  Was it simply to vilify Herod even more? Maybe it was not enough for Herod killing nearly the whole Hasmonean household, maybe he invented the story of him killing little children to gain more sympathies in a Roman world who would care little about Jewish affairs.   It is of course also possible that he invented this story to create a link between the killing of the children and Jesus himself to emphasise his messianic qualities by comparing him with Moses. None of this however makes real sense.

There is however another explanation which however makes only sense if one can accept that Jesus might have been a lot older when he died than what is traditionally accepted (which is thirty-three years).  To explain this however would require more historical background for which I don’t have time now except saying this, like I said before in another article, that there is a link to the Herodian household which I have rarely seen explored yet except by a few like Robert Graves.  The gospels give us a clue by having Pilate sending Jesus first to Herod (not the Great) before having him crucified.  What the gospels don’t tell us is why Pilate thought it necessary to do so except that Herod ruled Galilee and Jesus was from there.  If however Jesus was linked to the Herodian household it makes perfect sense and could possibly explain why Matthew invented the story of the killing of little children.

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