The biblical account of Herod's "Massacre of the Innocents," often exaggerated beyond the point of credibility, likely occurred on a smaller scale, scholars say.
The Hollywood images of soldiers slaughtering scores of infants in a futile attempt to kill Jesus ignore the historical reality that there were probably no more than 15 male children 2 years old or younger in the village of Bethlehem, Paul Maier told the Nativity Conference II.However, historical evidence from both the Gospel of Matthew and the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus shows Herod would have done almost anything at the end of his reign to destroy a possible successor to his throne, Maier said.
"Is this the sort of person who could have ordered the elimination of a dozen or so babies in Bethlehem? Unquestionably," said Maier, author of "In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter and the Early Church."
"Statistically considered, he put to death a greater number of victims within his own royal family and court," Maier said.
The Nativity Conference II was held Saturday in conjunction with the annual joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. It was a follow-up to a 1983 conference on the nativity held at Mississippi State University.
Jack Finegan, professor emeritus of New Testament history and archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion, said Meier's presentation was "great. I think it fits all that we know with Herod's character."
But another conference participant, Robert Wolverton of Mississippi State, said he agrees with scholars who view the account in Matthew as a literary device to elevate the heroic status of Jesus.
He says it's similar to the accounts in Genesis of Moses being saved and the ancient Roman legend of Romulus and Remus being rescued from the Tiber River.
"It's myth. It's tradition. It's a great story," he said.
Hollywood epics on the life of Jesus invariably show Herod's troops going from house to house, slashing swords through two or three infants in every house on both sides of the street.
But "such a rabbit warren Bethlehem was not," Maier said.
Given the high infant mortality rate, the small town of perhaps 1,000 or 2,000 could not have had more than 30 infants of both sexes, Maier said.