Imagine, if you will, a nation in ancient times, ruled by a cruel and vindictive king. He cares nothing for the people of his land. He rules by fear but he is hated by many. One day, the king hears that a particular child that has just been born. A prophecy states that this child will one day grow to become a leader and will eventually take the throne. Naturally, the king feels threatened. He gives orders to his soldiers to march through the land, and to kill every male child below a certain age. “Kill them all!” he barks at his generals. Despite the king’s actions, the special child manages – due to a divine warning – to escape the slaughter and to eventually fulfil its destiny.
Does this story sound familiar? Can you name the king in question or the small child? The characters in question are not the ones you would expect. The king in this story is King Kansa and the child is baby Krishna, the incarnation of the god Vishnu. This story appears in the Hindu poem Mahabharata, which was written two centuries before the birth of Christ.
Variations of the ‘dangerous child’ myth, as it is called, have appeared in many religions and legends. They roughly follow the same basic pattern as the story of King Kansa and Krishna: (1) a divinely appointed chid is born with a special destiny; (2) a local leader hears of the threat this child can become and orders the child be killed; (3) however, the child, through divine intervention, manages to escape. Various variations of this story can be ascribed to Jason, Hercules, Cyrus (king of Persia), and Zoroaster (see here, here and here).
This raises the question of whether the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod, as recorded by the writer of Matthew, really happened, or if it was simply an attempt on the writer’s part to use popular myth to raise the divine importance of Jesus in the eyes of readers at the time. It is telling that the story, which appears in Matthew 2:1-8, 2:16-18, does not feature in any of the other gospels, nor is it mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. Moreover, it is not recorded in any non-Christian records at the time. For example, Josephus, a Jewish historian living in the first century AD, went to great pains to list all of King Herod’s atrocities in Antiquities of the Jews. Strangely, the slaughter of the innocents is not mentioned. One would expect such an event to have a huge ripple effect in that region but strangely the writer of Matthew is the only person who mentions it.
So we presently have no other accounts of this story. We also have an historical record of the ‘dangerous child’ myth, which is often associated with divinely chosen individuals of various religions and legends throughout history. Is it not safe to conclude, until further evidence is forthcoming, that the story of King Herod ordering the killing of male babies is itself but a myth? Is this an example where a mythical story has been infused in-between the pieces of historical truth within the Bible?