Every great story needs a great villain. And Matthew’s account of the Nativity gives us plenty to boo and hiss in the person of Herod I (also known as Herod the Great).
Herod I was the Jewish leader appointed by the Roman Senate as king of Judea or “king of the Jews” from around 37 B.C. to his death around 4 or 2 B.C.
He was called great not because he was a great guy but because he initiated the construction of many buildings that were considered great, most significantly the Second Temple in Jerusalem known to Jesus and his disciples. What power he had came from Rome.
He wasn’t the only Herod to gain New Testament notoriety. The Gospels record that his son Herod Antipas was responsible for John the Baptist’s execution, and, in Luke, he played a role in Jesus’ trial. In the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” it’s this Herod who challenges the Son of God to “walk across my swimming pool.”
In Matthew, the elder Herod I reacts with fear and violence when the magi announce a star marking the birth of a new King of the Jews. He orders his forces to kill all Jewish children age 2 and younger in Bethlehem.
To this day, Catholics commemorate Herod’s victims on Dec. 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
There is no record of the massacre outside of Matthew. However, the Rev. Ben Witherington III, New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., sees no reason to doubt that it happened.
“We are talking a town of a few hundred people in Jesus’ day — maybe five to 10 or so children under 2,” said Witherington, who has written a commentary on Matthew. “This was small potatoes in a world full of infant mortality. The notion that there was some mass slaughter of innocent doesn’t come from the text of Matthew; it’s pure Hollywood.”
As Witherington points out, such paranoia and brutality are definitely in keeping with what historians know of Herod I’s character. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod killed one of his wives and three of his sons to try to preserve his rule.
Matthew’s account of Herod’s massacre also would resonate with anyone familiar with the Pharaoh’s murder of Hebrew boys at the time of Moses’ birth. That’s not the only connection between Matthew and Exodus. Just as Moses escaped from Egypt, Matthew says the holy family escaped to Egypt, remaining there until Herod’s death.
“The result is the building of an expectation for those listening to the Gospel that Jesus will do similar things to Moses and bring about deliverance for God’s people,” said Alicia D. Myers, a New Testament professor at United Methodist-related United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. “Thus, it is in Matthew’s Gospel that we have the Sermon on the Mount paralleling Moses’ giving of the Law in the Pentateuch.”
I must confess that I have always found Matthew’s telling of the Nativity troubling. It seems wrong that the birth of the Messiah should be accompanied by the death of children and the cries of their parents. I wish that the magi had stuck around in Bethlehem, and, in great Hollywood fashion, thwarted Herod’s attack.
Nevertheless, Myers pointed out that great sorrow often coincides with great joy — in Scripture and in everyday life. Indeed, even the magi’s honorific for Jesus, “King of the Jews,” later took a dark turn. The title showed up again in Matthew as the inscription above Jesus’ head on the Cross.
“Jesus’ birth is a miraculous event of good news, heralding the victory for the Kingdom of Heaven,” Myers said. “Nevertheless, the bringing about of this victory is far from easy. Once again we find God working through struggles to fulfill promises and bring about deliverance.”