When you think of Christmas villains, who comes to mind? The Grinch? The Krampus? Burgermeister Meisterburger? The Awgwas? Well, how about Herod the Great, the King of Judea who tried to have Jesus killed?
Well, at least that’s what the Bible says. In the Gospel of Matthew, it’s reported that the Three Wise Men stopped by Herod’s palace on their way to see the baby Jesus, and the king was pissed off to discover that the infant was already being hailed as King of the Jews. After all, that was HIS job, and he had no desire to be made redundant, as they call it in the business world. So he had all the babies in the Bethlehem area killed, but Joseph was warned by an angel in a dream that Herod was after Jesus, so he fled with his wife and child to Egypt. The family remained there until after the death of Herod, at which point they moved to Nazareth. Kind of weird that the story of a guy whose big thing was dying for the sake of mankind begins with his family letting other kids die at his expense, but there you go.
Herod the Great was an actual historical figure, son of the official Antipater, and originally a general under Prince Hyrcanus. With Roman backing, he managed to take control of Judea, and rule it as a puppet king. He wasn’t very popular in this position for multiple reasons. One was that he was Idumean (i.e., from Edom), and while many Idumeans converted to Judaism during the Hasmonean period, not everyone considered them authentically Jewish. This wasn’t his fault, however, and he did oversee some significant building projects, including the expansion of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The bigger problem was that he was a ruthless ruler, frequently having his officials killed when he suspected disloyalty. He even had members of his own family executed, including his wife Mariamne. And although he considered himself Jewish, his decadent living wasn’t especially popular with the Sanhedrin.
So is the story about Herod having the babies killed accurate? It’s unlikely that such an event would have happened and not been recorded anywhere but in a book written some sixty years later. Herod was widely known as a cruel ruler, and Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wasn’t at all shy about listing his atrocities. So why not mention this one as well, if it’s true? Then there’s the fact that the Gospel of Luke gives a completely different account of Jesus’ birth that doesn’t mention the massacre, which you’d think would be significant enough that Luke wouldn’t have left it out. Indeed, Luke doesn’t even mention Jesus and his family living in Egypt, but instead has them go from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and from there back to Nazareth. Also, Luke has Jesus born during a census that didn’t take place until several years after Herod’s death. It seems much more likely to me that this was just a mythical theme that Matthew (who probably wasn’t actually named Matthew) attached to the birth of the Savior. The most obvious source would be Moses surviving the Pharaoh’s edict to kill all newborn Hebrew babies, but there are many other myths involving a child miraculously saved from death at the hands of a tyrant. And having Jesus live in Egypt for a little while before returning to the holy land allows him to symbolize the Jewish nation as a whole, plus there’s a bit of reversal in Jesus escaping to the place where the Hebrews had once been slaves and Moses almost put to death. It’s thematically quite interesting, but I doubt there’s any truth to it.