It is often truly remarked that our classic Christmas story—the one we celebrate in pageants every December and teach to our children—blends elements from two quite distinct narratives, one found in the first two chapters of Matthew and the other in the first two chapters of Luke. In both accounts, Jesus is born in Bethlehem to Joseph and Mary during the reign of Herod the Great, and in both he ends up growing up in Nazareth. But beyond that, they have little in common. Matthew has an angelic visit to Joseph, the wise men, a warning in a dream, the flight into Egypt, the murder of innocents in Bethlehem, the death of Herod the Great, a journey partway to Judea, worry over a new ruler, and a detour northward to settle in Galilee. None of these things are mentioned in Luke. Luke, on the other hand, has the story of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the annunciation to Mary, a census, shepherds and angels, and the reactions of Simeon and Anna. None of these things are mentioned in Matthew. For two accounts of the same event, they are about as different as one could imagine.
Could they really both be true?
To start answering this question, we need to look a bit more closely at each narrative. Start with what we find in Matthew. A striking feature of those first two chapters is how much of them is told from the perspective of Joseph. Before an angel ever appears on the scene, he is painfully perplexed by the discovery that Mary is pregnant, and we are told what plan he formed—a plan on which he did not act, and which could therefore be known only if Joseph chose to tell it—for dealing with the problem privately (1:18-19). The angelic message is to Joseph, apparently when he is alone (1:20-23). The birth of the child is told from the standpoint of Joseph’s obedience to the message and his naming of the child (1:24-25). The warning to flee from Herod’s murderous wrath comes to him (2:13), and he immediately obeys (2:14). The word that Herod is dead comes to Joseph in a dream (2:20). Throughout the drama, Mary’s point of view is never seen; Joseph takes her to be his wife, avoids having relations with her until Jesus is born, takes her and Jesus to Egypt, and takes them back again. Anyone who can read should be able to see at least this much: if this is not fiction, then it is an account that goes back to Joseph himself.
Why should anyone think that it is fiction? There is, of course, the supernatural element, a virgin conceiving and angels appearing in dreams to deliver divine messages. That is an issue that deserves its own discussion. (Interested readers who cannot wait might want to start exploring the issue of miracles here.) Setting that aside for a moment, there is really just one major objection: the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, a grisly, public event, is not attested in any other first century source we now have.
But should it be? Start with the other Gospels. The story of the massacre in Bethlehem forms a link in Matthew’s story, explaining why the young family had to flee into Egypt. But since no other Gospel tells of the flight into Egypt, there is no particular reason for them to repeat the event. What of the other books of the New Testament? Here there is, if possible, even less reason; Acts deals entirely with later events, and the various epistles are designed to clarify doctrine, rebuke wrong behavior, and offer practical advice, not to be biographies of Jesus.
How about non-Christian sources? Roman authors wrote late and far away and had little interest in Christianity; often their understanding even of the Jews shows that they had few and poor sources of information. Philo of Alexandria lived hundreds of miles from Jerusalem, which he visited, so far as we can now tell, only once, and his latter years were consumed with the political fate of his people at the hands of the Romans.
That leaves Josephus, the first century Jewish writer who in his Antiquities of the Jews gives us in some detail the doings of Herod the Great. But Josephus’s accounts are for the most part centered on matters of civic or religious importance. Herod the Great had his rival Antigonus killed, his favorite wife executed, her brother murdered, her mother and grandfather executed, his own grown sons Alexander and Aristobulus strangled—those are matters of civic importance, affecting the power struggles within the Herodian family and the line of the succession after his death. He had the chief men of Palestine locked up in the Hippodrome with orders to slay them all at the hour of his death in order that there might be a great mourning on this occasion (Antiquities 17.6.5). (Apparently he was under no illusions as to whether anyone would spontaneously mourn his own passing.) No doubt we would have heard more about this malevolent plan if his relatives had not relented once the old villain was well and truly dead and let all of those citizens go home unharmed.
If prior plausibility means anything in history, the story of the slaughter in Bethlehem rings true. A man who could murder so many members even of his own family because of threats real and imagined to his throne is, undoubtedly, a man who could order a dozen male infants killed in a hamlet seven or eight miles south of his seat of power. But there is no particular reason that the event should have caught Josephus’s attention or merited a place in his history. There were larger matters afoot.
The argument from silence, therefore, has negligible weight here. But to say that is only to undermine the negative case. Is there any positive evidence for the events of Matthew 1-2, beyond the mere fact that the Christians believed they really happened?
As it turns out, there is, in Matthew 2:22:
But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee.
Three things stand out in this verse. First, the news that Archelaus was in charge was troubling to Joseph. Second, there is a peculiar term used here, a participle: Archelaus is not said to be a king but rather to be kinging, ruling as a king. Third, the indication that Galilee would afford sanctuary is striking.
Take these in reverse order. Herod the Great had been ruler of both Judea and Galilee. Why, then, should shifting northward have removed the holy family from danger? As Josephus explains, when Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided up among his surviving sons. Archelaus received Judea for his portion, but Galilee went to the younger Herod Antipas. So going to Galilee would indeed have taken them beyond Archelaus’s reach.
Then there is that participle, a delicate way of not quite saying that Archelaus was a king while saying quite plainly that he was behaving like one. This, too, is true to what we know from Josephus. Archelaus took power immediately upon his father’s death, but he never did receive from Rome the title of King; he was allowed, provisionally, to retain power with a view to seeing whether he deserved the title. He didn’t, and a dozen years later he was deposed for gross mismanagement. Thus began the period of procuratorial governance of Judea, culminating in the life of Jesus with the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate.
But most importantly of all, why was the reign of Archelaus so worrisome to Joseph? He was the oldest surviving son of Herod the Great; Judea was the central seat of his power. Knowing that Herod was dead, Joseph, if he knew anything about Herod’s sons at all, could very plausibly have inferred that Archelaus would inherit a sizeable chunk of his father’s kingdom. Why, then, should hearing that Archelaus was, in fact, in charge in Judea cause him to change his plans?
The question takes us back to Josephus once more, and in Antiquities 17.9.3 (Loeb #213-18) we discover a startling answer. One of Archelaus’s first problems when he stepped into his father’s position in Judea was a public uproar over the fact that the now-deceased Herod had, in his final weeks, executed some Jews for “sedition.” Their “crime” was that they had instigated the cutting down of some Roman shields posted over the gate of the Temple, and the Jewish perception was that this was merely their asserting their right to worship according to their own traditions, which forbade graven images (Exodus 20:4).
The execution had been wildly unpopular, and since Archelaus took power just at Passover time when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem, the story was spreading through the crowds like a wildfire through dry grass. A large group of Jews got into an argument with a much smaller regiment of Roman soldiers; matters escalated, and the Jews stoned the soldiers, most of whom died. The perpetrators then ran into the Temple with their sacrifices, thinking perhaps that they would simply disappear into the throng.
Archelaus panicked, feeling his newfound throne sway beneath him. He sent a troop of horsemen to surround the temple, with strict orders not to let anyone outside go in and not to let anyone inside leave. Then he sent troops directly into the temple. According to Josephus, they slaughtered some three thousand Jews. Passover was canceled. The visiting Jews were sent home.
None of this background information is related in Matthew, but it sheds a flood of light on Joseph’s decision. He had left Judea to escape a homicidal maniac on the throne; now, returning, he was met by a flood of erstwhile Passover pilgrims fleeing the temple massacre. Small wonder he was troubled. Small wonder that he revised his plans, taking Mary and the young Jesus into Galilee where they would be under the authority of a tetrarch who did not yet have blood on his hands.
The combination of indirectness and precision in Matthew’s narrative is evidence that it comes from a source who knew what had really happened. His passing but accurate reference to Archelaus’s status and the unspoken but correct implication that Archelaus’s dominion did not stretch northward into Galilee dovetail exactly with what Josephus tells us. A comparison with the apocryphal literature of the second century suggests that such minute precision in matters incidental to the narrative is not characteristic of the sorts of legends that later generations of Christians invented about the young Jesus. This has the ring of truth.
There is one other point of interest about the reference to Archelaus. He was deposed by the Romans and banished to Gaul in the year AD 6, about ten years after he took the throne and in the twelfth year after Jesus’ birth. Curiously enough, Luke’s narrative, which never mentions Archelaus, tells us that Jesus’ parents went up to Jerusalem for the feast every year, but the first time it mentions his going with them is when he is twelve years old. The chronological coincidence is not a guarantee, but it is at least plausible that they took him with them only when Archelaus was no longer in power and the shadow of their harrowing journey to Egypt had passed.