Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

Oh little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie.
Until the soldiers come with swords to make your mothers cry.
Blood in thy dark streets floweth on this horrible night.
The hopes and dreams of all it seems were crushed in thee tonight.

It is horrible, isn’t it? This is how I “rewrote” this Christmas song when I was in junior high. Everybody else was singing out an idyllic song of this peaceful town where sleeps the Savior as angels keep watch and stars shine out. Me? I was a young teenage boy doing what sheltered young teenage boys tend to do. I was reveling in a massacre of blood and death and gore I knew nothing about. That dreadful moment in history for which I dedicated a verse has come to be known in Christian lore as “The Slaughter of the Innocents”.

The gnostic writing The Martyrdom of Matthew says that Herod resides in hell because he murdered three thousand innocent children in Bethlehem. While I am quite sure Herod is near the front of the queue for people deserving of damnation. I am also just as certain that the Bethlehem massacre is only a minor footnote compared to his many other crimes. More on that later. Not to be outdone by Martyred Matthew’s gnostic tall tale, the Byzantine liturgical tradition places the number of babies killed at fourteen thousand. It quickly slides downhill from there. The Syrian tradition places the number at 64,000. I am told that some medieval writers claimed that 144,000 babies were killed in Bethlehem. I am not told, however, what writers claimed this so I remain skeptical of its veracity.

Today there is a swing in the opposite direction. It is a popular past time of amateur skeptics to point out that there is no historical record of Herod actually killing anyone in Bethlehem. Ummmm, actually no. That’s not true. There is a historical record of it. It is called the gospel of Matthew. This gospel was certainly written before Josephus wrote his Antiquities and possibly (I would say probably) written before his history of the Jewish War. I know the very next counter any one of these skeptics will give me was that Matthew had an agenda in his writing. So what? The same can be said for virtually every writer of history up to and far beyond Matthew’s time. I would argue that the same can be said of every single work of history written in our time. Nobody writes without an agenda. Matthew is certainly far more reliable than Herodotus, Thucydides, or Theophanes. Ignoring this hypocrisy, the skeptics will say Matthew just made up this story to tick off a “prophesy fulfilled” box and prove Jesus was who Matthew claimed him to be.

There is no current other historical or archaeological proof of this massacre. I will acknowledge that. If this slaughter really happened, why is there no record of it? The answer to that question is found in the title of today’s Christmas song: O Little Town of Bethlehem. At the time of this atrocity, the town of Bethlehem was barely a blip on the map. Most historians would put this city’s size at around 300-500 people. Nobody who knows anything would go so far as to say there were more than a thousand in the city. Now, considering the fact children under 2 normally account for about 2-3 percent of the population, that would mean this slaughter in Bethlehem amounted to between 6 and 15 babies being killed. Two real scholars (Professor William Albright, dean of American Archaeology in the Holy Land and Dr. Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at WMU) both argue for the lower end of this spectrum but for argument’s sake, lets put the number at ten. In our modern era, we would rightfully call this a horrific crime.  But Herod would consider ten kills a random way to liven up a boring Tuesday.

King Herod was a paranoid schizophrenic. That isn’t my opinion. It is the diagnosis of multiple scholars after viewing the evidence of this man’s life. There was a recurring pattern in Herod’s life that Matthew’s account fits into perfectly. Herod would hear of a potential threat to his life or his throne. He would kill the threat. He would feel guilty. Then he would build something. Later on, he would hear of some other threat and the cycle would repeat. Among the thousands of others he killed, even one of his wives and three of his sons would fall victim to this paranoia.

Herod came to power with the backing of Rome and its armies. The first thing he did upon securing the throne in 37 BC was to execute his rival Mattathias Antigonus. At the same time, he also executed 45 other influential men who had backed this rival. In 35 BC he had eighteen-year-old Aristobulus drowned even though the boy was both High Priest and Herod’s brother in Law. In 30 BC he had John Hyrcanus strangled. In 29 BC he executed his wife Miriamme even though she was the person he loved most in the world (besides himself). In 28 BC his mother in law Alexandra was executed. Shortly after this Herod set up an ever-growing spy network and executions of potential threats and rebels became an everyday occurrence.

Jump ahead a few years. In the waning days of Herod’s life, he upped the ante and became even more brutal than before. In 7 BC he had two of his sons (sons of his executed wife) Alexander and Aristobulus (named after the executed uncle) killed. That same year Herod executed 300 military leaders suspected of plotting against him. He also executed a great number of Pharisees because they had started a rumor about a was prophesy saying that the kingdom was about to be taken from him. Then in 6 BC, Jesus is born. Sometime in 6-5 BC, the wise men with their entourage show up claiming the king of the Jews was born. When questioned, the religious leaders claim that the prophecy states the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Now, what do you think Herod would do?

To round out the story of his known history, Herod has a third son killed just days before he dies himself. When his own end was near Herod knew that he would not be mourned. To fix that he gives orders that everyone is to join him in Jericho under penalty of death. Then a command is given that at the moment of his death all the influential and respected men in the gathering were to be killed. Fortunately, this order was countermanded as soon as he passed away and instead the entire nation rejoiced.

King Herod would have fit in well with many of the Middle Eastern despots of our day. His actions would fit right in with the atrocities of Bashar Assad, Ayatollah Khomeini, Omar al-Bashir, or Kim Jong Il. People feared him in his time just as much as they fear ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, or Al-Shabaab. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus was born under his rule and lived his early childhood as a refugee and a fugitive? The book of Hebrews says that God can sympathize with us because He has been tested in every way just as we are. God knows and cares about the plight of the homeless and refugees so deeply that He came and was born one Himself. If He cares so passionately for them, should we not also care? He set aside the safety and security and comfort of heaven to live among us… among them. What are we willing to sacrifice this Christmas to reach out and show love to the least of these?

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