Matthew opens his version of the Good News of Jesus Christ with some unthinkably bad news: the King of the Jews, Herod the Great, becomes jealous and angry, and slaughters innocent baby boys born in and around Bethlehem. Since no other historian mentions this atrocity, many deny it ever took place.
Yeah, murdering innocent people would be soooooo out of character for King Herod….
Matthew 2:16-18 records the vicious outcome of King Herod’s interactions with the magi from the East. When the wise men didn’t give Herod directions to Jesus’ crib, the king had all the young boys of Bethlehem killed. Herod, the one who paid to become King of the Jews wasn’t about to let the One who was born King of the Jews replace him.
But even though there is no other mention of this atrocity outside of Scripture, anybody who knows anything about Herod has very little reason to doubt the biblical account. Here, take a look at the historical Herod for yourself:
35 BC: Aristobulus, the 16-year-old high priest, was murdered by Herod’s servants.
Herod feared that the good-looking young man would win the affection of Antony (in Egypt) and that Antony might support him as King of Judea instead of Herod. When the Feast of Tabernacles ended that year, Herod took Aristobulus down to Jericho to Alexandra’s palace. Herod invited Aristobulus to go swimming in the pool, but the shy boy thought it best to wait until nightfall to do so. Later that evening, Aristobulus stripped down and plunged into the waters where Herod’s servants began “ducking” him. They kept “ducking” him until he was dead.
35 BC: Jospeh, Herod’s uncle, was executed.
When Herod met with Antony to discuss the death of Aristobulus, he left his Uncle Joseph, who was also the husband of his sister Salome, in charge of Jerusalem. While Herod was gone, Joseph unwittingly told Mariamme, Herod’s wife, about the king’s orders to kill her if he was found guilty of Aristobulus’ murder. When Herod found out that Joseph had revealed his plan, he had his uncle killed.
29 BC: Mariamme, Herod’s wife, and Alexandra, Herod’s mother-in-law, were executed.
Mariamme was Herod’s favorite wife by far, even though she hated him deeply…and publically. Herod’s sister Salome used this strange marital relationship to frame Mariamme in an assassination plot against her king and husband. In the mock trial that followed, Herod acted as prosecutor and judge. Mariamme was convicted and sentenced to death, but Herod couldn’t bring himself to kill his wife. Salome intervened again, and persuaded Herod to have her killed. This time, there would be no turning back. After the execution of her daughter, Alexandra tried to oust Herod from the throne. The king was notified of the mutiny and had his mother-in-law killed, as well.
28 BC: Costobar, Herod’s brother-in-law, was executed.
Herod’s sister, Salome, wanted a divorce from her next husband Costobar, but the law didn’t allow for it. Fortunately for Salome – and unfortunately for Costobar – she was practiced in handling life’s little inconveniences. She framed her husband and told Herod that Costobar was attempting a coup. Several men, including Costobar, the king’s own brother-in-law, were rounded up and executed. It wasn’t exactly a divorce, but Salome was finished with her husband in the end.
7 BC: Herod’s sons Alexander and Aristobulus were executed.
These two boys were the sons of Queen Mariamme, whom Herod had already killed. Even though Herod intended to leave them his kingdom, they disdained him greatly. Vicious Salome struck again, this time concocting rumors about the boys and turning Herod’s heart against his own sons. The king took the two intelligent and handsome sons to the city of Sebaste – where he had married their mother – and had them strangled. Herod then chose another son, Antipater, to be his heir.
In 4 BC, Antipater was executed.
This son was born to Herod by Doris, a woman without nobility. But Herod chose Antipater as heir after killing his step-brothers. Antipater grew weary of waiting for the throne, and when Doris was implicated in a plot against the king, Antipater was thrown in prison where he sat for several years. One day toward the end of Herod’s life, the prisoner prematurely thought the king had died and ordered the guard to release him so he could ascend to the throne. Instead, the guard went to check, and upon finding the king alive, was ordered to go and kill the presumptuous prince. The servant did so.
If a man is willing to murder his own sons, will he not be willing to murder other people’s sons, as well?
The Life and Times of Herod the Great, by Stewart Perowne. Abingdon Press, Pages 71-173.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)