Herod's Extreme Make-Over

December 10, 2008
by Dr. Benjamin Wiker

The first large-type insert of National Geographic's article is meant to catch the eye, and of course, purify the reader's mind of error: "Herod is best known for slaughtering every male infant in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus. He is almost certainly innocent of this crime." In fact, the next bold insert declares, "One of the most imaginative and energetic builders of the ancient world, Herod guided his kingdom to new prosperity and power." Sure, some of the Jews were a little rough on Herod's coffin after his death: "The condition of the sarcophagi confirm that Herod remained vilified even in death. Hammer marks reveal they were intentionally destroyed." But fanatics, both then and now, fail to understand that religious faith should always be tempered by political prudence: "Herod's entente with the Romans, long considered betrayal, is beginning to seem more like statecraft."

So it is that the reader is led through the Christmas lessons that National Geographic wishes to teach both Jews and Christians. Apparently, the lesson is this. Religious faith distorts history, making heroes out of fanatics, and villains out of heroes. They wish to set the record straight.

"By Herod's death, the extent of his realm rivaled the biblical kingdoms of David and Solomon." Well then, I suppose the lesson we are to learn is this: Herod, a Jew, should be considered the great King, the prophesied heir to David whom the Jews had for centuries awaited.

But the foolish Jews rejected him because he sacrificed to the Roman gods and judiciously compromised Judaism for the sake of keeping his Roman-controlled kingship. Oh, there were also a few moral peccadilloes (such as killing one of his ten wives and three of his fourteen children; executing two brother-in-laws, one of whom was a High Priest; torturing anyone whom he thought might be concealing information about real or imagined plots against him).

And the foolish Christians? They chose a real loser as King, born in Herod's old age, a guy from the Judean outback who was soon enough executed as a criminal. No political vision, these Christians. Then, one of them, Matthew (a former Jew nonetheless) made up a story about how Herod—who was a "master architect," by the way, creating "audacious masterpieces of stunning beauty" such as the place at Masada, the magnificent harbor of Caesarea, the "ideal city" of Herodium; and last but not least, he renovated the Jewish Temple—"sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under…" (Mt 2:16). Obvious slander by malcontents.

That's ingratitude for you.  All those really nice buildings, and all the Jews and Christians could worry about was religion.

What to make of National Geographic's attempt to rehabilitate Herod (and not so subtly tweak orthodox Jews and Christians)?

Let's examine their first bold claim. National Geographic denies the slaughter of the innocents at Bethlehem because it is only reported in the Gospel of Matthew, and nowhere else in any ancient document. In doing so, they follow a train of modern biblical scholars with similar bias.

But if we could put the case in a court of law, the evidence speaks otherwise. Herod's character, as known from outside the Bible, fits such ruthlessness. He was paranoid enough about his rule to kill his own beloved wife Mariamne, three sons, and many other relations. It wasn't for nothing that Emperor Augustus was reported to have said "It's better to be Herod's dog than one of his children." Why not slaughter anyone who might threaten his reign?

Yet killing a kinsman here and there isn't the same, on scale, as slaughtering all male babies two and under in an entire town. Surely he was not the kind of man who could do such a thing?

On the contrary, as the National Geographic itself mentions (albeit, not in bold type), Herod was so obsessed about his own rule, and the antagonism of the Jews, that when he felt death approaching, and knew that his demise would be a cause for rejoicing not mourning, he ordered that all the principal men of the Jews be gathered together in the Hippodrome. He then ordered his sister and her husband to have them slaughtered, en masse, upon his death so that there would be mourning and not rejoicing during his funeral. Happily, Salome and Alexis let them go, rather than complete Herod's orders.

So, as it turns out, Herod was that kind of man. Why then don't we hear reports of Herod's slaughter of babies outside of the Bible? One obvious reason suggests itself. Herod was known for a long string of cruelties, but we don't have, coming down from antiquity, a blow-for-blow list of them. We have his very bad, and well-earned, reputation, and that tells us that he committed far more crimes than are individually reported as examples.

Furthermore, Bethlehem was a very small town, a town of no consequence except in regard to Jewish prophecy. The population was small, perhaps a thousand, and the number of babies has been estimated at about twenty. Why didn't it appear in the "papers"? Well, did you pick up your paper today, and read about four thousand babies killed yesterday—by abortion? When cruelty becomes common, then barbarism is no news, at least on the big cultural radar.

What Would National Geographic say about Stalin?

"An astute and generous ruler, a brilliant general, and one of the most imaginative and energetic builders of the ancient world, Herod guided his kingdom to new prosperity and power. Yet today he is best known as the sly and murderous monarch of Matthew’s Gospel, who slaughtered every male infant in Bethlehem in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the newborn Jesus, the prophesied King of the Jews. During the Middle Ages he became an image of the Antichrist: Illuminated manuscripts and Gothic gargoyles show him tearing his beard in mad fury and brandishing his sword at the luckless infants, with Satan whispering in his ear. Herod is almost certainly innocent of this crime, of which there is no report apart from Matthew’s account. But children he certainly slew, including three of his own sons, along with his wife, his mother-in-law, and numerous other members of his court. Throughout his life, he blended creativity and cruelty, harmony and chaos, in ways that challenge the modern imagination."

Related Past Articles:

Can We Trust the Gospels

Faith Steelers

Buyer Beware

Whom Shall We Trust

Those Rascally Scribes!

Ben Wiker  Trans Benjamin Wiker
Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and Franciscan University (OH).

He is a full-time writer, husband, and father. Dr. Wiker is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and a Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He writes regularly for a variety of journals.

Dr. Wiker has written Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (IVP), The Mystery of the Periodic Table (Bethlehem), Architects of the Culture of Death (Ignatius), and most recently, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (IVP). His newest books are Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God (Emmaus, co-authored with Scott Hahn) and Ten Books that Screwed Up the World (Regnery).

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