It’s Payback Time!

News Alert! Herod the Great massacres Jewish male babies ages two and under in the region of Bethlehem!

This massacre is described in Matthew 2:16 -17. Please notice three things:

  • I didn’t say “the Gospel of Matthew,” primarily because the word gospel means “good news,” and this headline isn’t that.
  • This story is only told in Matthew, and history doesn’t record such a dastardly event.
  • Today, this story would be labeled “fake news” because this never happened. It was all about payback.

History shows that Herod, who lived 74 BCE–4 BCE (Jesus was born in about 4 BCE), certainly was capable of murdering children. The historian Josephus reported that Herod executed his second wife, three of his sons, and other members of his family. He was ruthless.

Herod was appointed “King of the Jews” not by the Jews, but by the Romans in 40 BCE. He wasn’t Jewish, but he did what the Romans needed him to do, keeping the Jews peaceful, collecting taxes, and carrying out Roman laws. With all the taxes he collected for himself, he also employed many Jews to expand the Second Temple and build a series of opulent palaces for him, as well as his own elaborate burial site.

Most Jews despised Herod. He kept them poor, levying heavy taxes, and he had no respect for Jewish laws and customs. He made a mockery of their religion and used every means possible to extract every shekel he could from his own people. Even though the area appeared calm for many years because of his bitter repression, underneath the Jews wanted vengeance. What better way could there be than to make up a terrible story—fake news—about Herod, some ninety years after he died? Now history would hate him as much as the Jews did.

The author(s) of the Gospel of Matthew were savvy, brilliant storytellers. Not only did they make up this horrendous story about Herod, they included a bit of scripture, quoting Jeremiah 31:15:A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation; Rachael weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” For me, it’s a real stretch to use Jeremiah to predict this fake news story for which there is no historical evidence.

But that was Matthew, a Gospel full of Old Testament quotes trying to convince fellow Jews that Jesus was the long-expected Messiah. Consequently, the authors found an Old Testament passage that could be useful and built a story around it. A couple of sentences later, Matthew makes up a story about Joseph: after a dream featuring an angel of the Lord, Joseph decides not to return to Judah because Herod’s son, Archelaus, ruled there, and Joseph was afraid that the son would carry out his father’s wishes and kill this “newborn king.”

So, Joseph went to Galilee and “a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’” (Matt. 2:23).

Here are some interesting facts:

  • While this is a good story, archeologists have had a very difficult time finding evidence that Nazareth existed as a town at the time of Jesus. It does exist today, a tourist trap with about seventy-five thousand inhabitants, mostly Arab Muslims.
  • No one knows where Matthew’s quote about Jesus being “called a Nazarene” comes from. Did Matthew just make it up to get Jesus back from Egypt to Galilee?

How much of the Bible is fake news? I suspect most of it, but inside most of this fake news, one often finds a great truth.

What do you think?


Photo used by permission of Jamie McGrath.


2 thoughts on “It’s Payback Time!”

  1. I expect you’re right. After all the gospels were not even written for decades after Jesus’s death. Those who wrote them were not even remotely first witnesses…they would be second or third generation literate men who wrote in Greek. The stories would have been strictly hearsay.

  2. Even if the Gospels are “fake news”, they can still have a meaningful purpose. Perhaps we should read them and think about the message that they are attempting to impart to the people that were being addressed at the time they were written. Many of the messages could still be of value today.


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