by Phillip Eichman

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.

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.

  1. Tom Mueller, “King Herod Revealed: The Holy Land’s Visionary Builder,” National Geographic, 214 (6) December 2008, 34-59.
  2. Craig S. Keener, Matthew, IVP New Testament Commentary,
  3. Keener, ibid.
  4. National Geographic, 215 (4) April 2009, 8.
  5. 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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