(Mt. 2:16) Did Herod really commit a mass genocide of babies?

CLAIM: Matthew records that Herod killed all of the male babies under the age of two years old (Mt. 2:16). No other extrabiblical source mentions this. Josephus—a first century historian—follows the life of Herod, but he fails to mention this. How could such a major genocide not be mentioned by Josephus or anyone else?

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:

First, Bethlehem was most likely a very tiny village—not a major city. By the end of the 19th century, there were only about 3,000 people in Bethlehem.[1] During Herod’s time, there could have only been a few hundred people in Bethlehem.

Second, only a handful of babies were probably killed. Of course, Matthew never claims how many babies were killed. Not much of the population was under the age of two, and only half of those babies would’ve been male. Thus out of a population of 500 (let’s say) how many male babies would have been killed? Five? Ten? This is much different than the mass genocide that we originally would’ve pictured.

Third, This picture of Herod fits with the extrabiblical portrait of Herod. Carson writes, “In his last years, suffering an illness that compounded his paranoia, he turned to cruelty and in fits of rage and jealousy killed close associates, his wife Mariamne (of Jewish descent from the Maccabeans), and at least two of his sons (cf. Jos. Antiq. XIV–XVIII; S. Perowne, The Life and Times of Herod the Great [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956]; and esp. Abraham Schalit, König Herodes: Der Mann und sein Werk [Berlin: de Gruyter, 1969]).”[2]

[1] Miller, Ellen Clare. “Eastern Sketches—notes of scenery, schools and tent life in Syria and Palestine.” Edinburgh: William Oliphant and Company. 1871. 148.

[2] Carson, D. A. (1984). Matthew. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (84). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.