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Matthew 2, Herod, and National Geographic

September 14, 2015

A few years ago, I was made aware of an article in the National Geographic about Herod the Great. Herod was the King of Judea at the time that Christ was born. In Scripture, he is well known for his act of killing all of the male infants under two years old in Bethlehem, due to the report that the “King of Israel,” had been born. In the National Geographic article, the author (Tom Mueller) wrote, “Herod is almost certainly innocent of this crime,” (see the entire article here, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/12/herod/mueller-text).

My goal in this post is to show that Mueller falls victim to the common practice of filtering evidence through a chosen worldview, yet believing that the worldview is supported by evidence alone. Mueller believes that empirical evidence favors his view that Herod “almost certainly,” did not do the thing that the Bible asserts that he did. We will see the only reasons he offers in support of his interpretation of the evidence are based on logical fallacies. This post will show that the Biblical claim that Herod did in fact commit this crime, provides the most consistency with both logic and the available empirical data.

The only real argument that Mueller provides to acquit Herod of this crime is to say that the only reference of this event is found in the Gospel of Matthew. He is therefore begging the question and simply assuming, without arguing, that the Gospel of Matthew is not a historical account. He has assumed that if archaeologists have found no other account of the record at this point in time, that the Biblical account must be wrong. His logic then is the following; If the event did not occur, then we will find no evidence for it outside of the Bible. We find no evidence for it outside of the Bible, therefore the event did not occur. This is the fallacy of asserting the consequent. The best way to show that this is a fallacy is to give an example. Imagine the following line of argumentation; If Bob’s credit card was stolen, Bob will not be able to find his credit card when he looks for it. Bob cannot find his credit card, therefore it is stolen. This is a fallacy since there are many other reasons that Bob may not be able to find his credit card. He may have left his card at the grocery store, he may have forgotten that he let his wife borrow it, or he may dropped it in his car. It is a fallacy to assume only one of these options, when all of them are viable options.

Gordon Franz points out a few reasons this event may not have been mentioned by Josephus (see his article here, http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/12/08/The-Slaughter-of-the-Innocents-Historical-Fact-or-Legendary-Fiction.aspx#Article). Franz discusses how small Bethlehem was at the time of this event. The result was that it was likely very few babies that were killed in this time. Although this is still a horrific murder, the end of Herod’s life was rife with significant events including other large mass killings. Josephus could have been focusing on larger, more unique aspects of the end of Herod’s life (more unique since infant deaths were not out of place at that time). Also, Josephus simply may not have been aware of the event. He does not record history exhaustively by any means. The point is, there are many other possible reasons that additional records of this event have not been found at this point. To simply assume that it is because the Bible is wrong is to combine the fallacies of begging the question and asserting the consequent.

In addition to this fallacy, Mueller makes the mistake of inducing a universal based on a limited amount of experience or data. He assumes that just because no other record of this event has been found, that one never will be found in addition to Matthew’s account. This is simply begging the question. Historical discoveries are made all the time that confirm the Biblical accounts of events. Ralph Muncaster states, “Archaeologists who were using the Bible as a guide began finding parts of history they didn’t know existed. Ancient cultures thought to be nonexistent were discovered. Ancient cities thought to be myths were found. And events thought to be ‘legends’ were confirmed. Today the Bible is regarded as a fundamental archaeological reference,” (Muncaster, Examine the Evidence, 239). To sum, there have been numerous times that events were only known in Scripture with no additional sources of the account, right up until the point when a new historical discovery was made which was consistent with Scripture. To assume that this will never occur concerning the events of Herod referenced in Matthew 2 is simply begging the question.

What Mueller discounts, without making a logical argument for why he discounts it, is that the Bible itself is a historical book. Christianity is a historical faith. As it has been pointed out above, historical events that are consistent with archaeology are found all throughout Scripture. The Bible is a historical record, and I will add, one that is even more reliable than Josephus, Philo, Tacitus, or any other human historical record, since Scripture is inspired and inerrant. So, unfortunately for Mueller, there is historical evidence for Herod murdering these children. This historical evidence is found in the Gospel of Matthew.

Now let us conclude by looking at the other evil deeds done by Herod that Mueller mentions. He states, “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.” It is well known that Herod was a jealous king. Any time he felt his throne was threatened he would seek out the threat and end it with murder. As Mueller himself mentions, Herod was a man so wicked he killed his own sons, wife, brother-in-laws, and many others, all in the name of keeping his throne. Then, according to Matthew, some men from the east come to him and say, “Where is the one who was born King of the Jews?” (Mt. 2:2). This man had killed so many that were a threat to his throne. Now men are telling him that a child is to be born in Bethlehem that will be the King. He asks these men to return to him when they have found this child. Instead, they leave and return to their land. It is perfectly consistent with all that secular history has reported of the character of Herod for him to have acted just as the Bible says He does. He sends his soldiers to kill all children under the age of two in Bethlehem (since he knew Jesus could be no older than that).

How can Mueller then possibly conclude that Herod is, “almost certainly innocent of this crime”? Is it because the historical evidence is not consistent with this claim? Unfortunately for Mueller the empirical evidence is indeed perfectly consistent with the Biblical claim. Herod was a man that killed anyone who was a threat to his throne. He was exactly the type of man that Scripture explains him to be. How then can Mueller reject this? It is only because he assumes the Bible’s falsity without reason. This is about as clear a case as you can find of one interpreting evidence through a chosen worldview. Mueller views evidence through an anti-Biblical lens. This is why he can stare directly at evidence that is so perfectly consistent with Scripture, and somehow conclude that the Bible is almost certainly wrong. It is not because of evidence. It is not because of reason. It is simply unbelief. Mueller’s unbelief has caused him to make a claim that lacks all reason and evidence.

I will make a brief application of this observation. What we must understand as Christians is that people do not reject Christianity because they lack evidence. Mueller has all of the evidence he needs to side with Scripture’s claim on Herod. According to Romans 1, all people have all the evidence they need because God has clearly shown Himself to them (Rom. 1:19-21). The reason they do not believe is because of sin. They suppress the truth in their unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). This is why the Gospel has to be our main theme in all of our apologetical and evangelical conversations. The problem is not evidence. The problem is not necessarily intellectual. The problem is moral. Although I believe there is a proper use of evidences in evangelism, the Gospel must be central. It must be central because it is “the power of God for salvation,” (Rom. 1:16). Evidence can sometimes be helpful, but it will not convert someone. Only the Gospel can do that. Preach the holiness of God. Preach sin. Preach the Savior Jesus Christ as the only way for people to be forgiven. Preach His death and resurrection. Keep the Gospel central.

From → Miscellaneous

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