This is one of the most disturbing stories in the New Testament. King Herod, fearing that the “heralded” birth of a Jewish king would incite revolt and rebellion, ordered the slaughter of all the children under two years old!
As disturbing as this story is, it goes a long way in establishing Jesus as the Messiah, given the great level of threat that would have prompted King Herod to behave so ruthlessly. It is interesting, then, that this incident was only recorded in the Gospel of Matthew and was not mentioned by any of the other gospels. Neither is the event recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus nor by any one else that lived during that time.
It’s a bit peculiar that such a disturbing event was not recorded anywhere in the first century other than Matthew’s gospel. The event doesn’t even appear in other Christian texts of that time. In fact, the story doesn’t appear again until the middle of the second century in a text known as the Protoevangelium of James (Infancy Gospel of James), but here we find a disturbing twist.
This text indicates that Herod massacred the children in an attempt to kill John the Baptist, not Jesus. The text goes so far as to explicitly declare that John was to be King of Israel and was the target of Herod’s massacre. And God, while seemingly ignoring Jesus, divinely intervened to protect John and his mother.
And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall. And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.
And Herod searched for John, and sent officers to Zacharias, saying: Where have you hid your son? And he, answering, said to them… I do not know where my son is. And the officers went away, and reported all these things to Herod. And Herod was enraged, and said: His son is destined to be king over Israel.(1)
Interestingly, as we discovered in chapter two of The Myths of Christianity, there were a large number of early “Christians” who worshiped John the Baptist as the Christ, not Jesus. It is possible that Matthew’s account was the true version of history and that James’ account reflected a transference of the story to John to strengthen his believers’ claims. But then again, it is equally possible that James’ account was the real version of history. Without corroborating evidence we might never know.
It is worth noting that this story bares striking similarities to the story of Moses’ birth. Because of the population growth of the Hebrew people, Pharaoh ordered that any Hebrew males who were born should be drowned in the river.(2) Of course, Moses was preserved and grows up to be the most important prophet in Judaism. As the story of Jesus developed, it may have seemed only fitting that the Savior, the most important figure of Christianity, should survive a similar annihilation.
As an interesting aside, in light of the previous topics, the Protoevangelium of James is the first text to introduce the idea that Mary was a perpetual virgin and deserved veneration. Additionally, the text was attributed the James the Just, the son of Joseph from a previous marriage and step brother to Jesus.
Whether or not the specifics of the Nativity represented true history or if they were cultural additions to enhance the Savior’s image, it has inspired countless billions over the last two millennia and paved the way for the most famous holiday in history: Christmas.
Be sure to check out other articles on the evolution of Christian traditions and holidays.
Protoevangelium of James. Translated by Alexander Walker. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0847.htm. Retrieved September 10, 2009.
(2) Exodus 1:22