In the December 2008 issue of National
Geographic, there was an article on Herod the Great entitled
“King Herod Revealed: The Holy Land’s Visionary Builder.”1
Much of the article deals with Herod’s building programs. Anyone who
has studied the history of Palestine will realize that Herod was one of
the major builders of his time. The references to the Jewish temple in
the Gospels and Acts, for example, describe the beautiful edifice
constructed under Herod’s supervision.
by Phillip Eichman
As a whole the article is interesting and informative, but there is one
particularly disconcerting statement. In reference to the incident in
Matthew 2:16 where Herod ordered the slaughter of male children in
Bethlehem, the author stated, “Herod is almost certainly innocent of
this crime, of which there is no report apart from Matthew’s account.”
Regarding this passage in Matthew, New Testament scholar Craig S.
Keener made these comments: “We lack concrete historical record for
Matthew’s next episode, but it certainly fits Herod’s character. When
Herod’s young brother-in-law was becoming too popular, he had a
‘drowning accident’ in what archaeology shows was a rather shallow
pool; later, falsely accused officials were cudgeled to death on
Herod’s order. Wrongly suspecting two of his sons of plotting against
him, he had them strangled, and five days before his own death the
dying Herod had a more treacherous, Absalom-like son executed.”2
Keener went on to observe that the “murder of the children of Bethlehem
thus fits Herod’s character; yet it is not surprising that other early
writers do not mention this particular atrocity. Herod’s reign was an
era of many highly placed political murders, and our accounts come from
well-to-do reporters focused on the royal house and national events. In
such circles the execution of perhaps twenty children in a small town
would warrant little attention--except from God.”3
The author of the National Geographic
article himself freely admits that Herod had numerous people, including
members of his own family, executed for various reasons. Why then did
this author make the assertion that this one biblical reference to
Herod’s cruelty is in fact a fabricated story?
The statement evidently caused others to raise this question as well.
The April 2009 issue of National
Geographic featured several letters to the editor, most of which
questioned the author’s statement. The editor’s response is very
revealing, “We received a number of letters protesting the article’s
statement that Herod was ‘almost certainly innocent’ of the infanticide
described in the Gospel of Matthew. In the sense that the accused is
‘innocent until proven guilty,’ we stand by the phrase.”4
The concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is certainly a hallmark
of justice in our culture. There seems to be, however, a lack of
consistency in applying this principle. Is not it interesting that
Herod the Great, known in history for similar acts of cruelty, is to be
judged “innocent until proven guilty,” while Matthew, author of the
Gospel, on the other hand, is in a sense “guilty until proven
innocent.” I simply do not understand the reasoning here. Even though
there may not be any reference to the event in secular history, the
killing of a few children in a small Jewish village is certainly
consistent with the character of Herod depicted in history. Why then
reject the incident recorded in Matthew?
Personally, I think that this is a reflection of an anti-religious bias
on the part of the author and editor. Sadly, this is becoming more
common in our world. To question or even ridicule the Bible or
Christianity in general seems to be the popular thing to do these
days. There is ample evidence, however, for the historical reliability
of the Bible and the New Testament in particular.5 Thus,
there is no need for us as Christians to be intimidated by assertions
such as these. We can know that our faith is based on evidence that God
has provided (Hebrews 11:1-2).
As Christians, we accept by faith the event recorded in Matthew as
historical and a part of the revealed, inspired Word of God. Others who
reject the historical validity of this or other events recorded in the
Bible must do so based on their own belief system.
History or fable, guilty or not guilty--really it is a matter of faith.
- Tom Mueller, “King Herod Revealed: The Holy Land’s Visionary
Builder,” National Geographic,
214 (6) December 2008, 34-59.
- Craig S. Keener, Matthew, IVP
New Testament Commentary,
- Keener, ibid.
- National Geographic, 215
(4) April 2009, 8.
- See, for example, F. F. Bruce, The
New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 1981) and Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable?
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
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Does God Exist?, SepOct09.