“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egyptand remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 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. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”” (Matthew 2:13–23 ESV)
Sometimes critics will take the killing of the children as fiction. They point to similarities to the killing of the children in Exodus. I think that is a valid comparison. Matthew likely wants us to be thinking of appearance of Jesus as a new exodus. However, it is not unheard of for history to repeat itself. Others will note that we have no outside historical account of this event. That is true but what kind of account of Herod do we expect to have? We do not have his court records. Most of what we have comes from Josephus and he does not attempt to give a comprehensive history of Herod.
How could Josephus and others ignore the complete slaughter of these children? It may be that not every child under two in Bethlehem and the surround area was killed. In Matthew 3:5, we are told that all the people of Judea went to hear John the Baptist. Did one hundred per cent of the people go? Unlikely, but many did. Not to diminish the death of the innocents, but it is possible that Herod did take out his anger by killing many children. We may not have an exact account of this in other sources, but it does fit in Herod’s violent and paranoid personality that we find elsewhere.
Check out this episode of the History of Christianity Podcast on Herod and Sons.