We already know that this episode is only found in the Gospel of Matthew, and it appears nowhere else in the New Testament or other early Christian literature, as far as I know. As we will see in Part II of this book, we have to wait until the middle of the second century AD to see it again, when the story is picked up by the so-called apocryphal Gospel Protoevangelium of James (see chap. 22). There is nothing original there; it repeats more or less what Matthew tells us. We also find reference to it in some later texts such as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in the sixth century AD. Even there, though, it is only a brief mention (see chap. 17).
Tradition varies on the death toll of the massacre. The most serious estimate is about twenty children, figuring that Bethlehem was around a thousand inhabitants at the time. Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho (78:7) written in the second century, does not offer any number. The Byzantine liturgy of the Orthodox Church speaks of a 14,000 deaths. Some liturgy of the ancient Syrian Church mentioned 64,000 deaths. Others have suggested 144,000, a number equal to the righteous “who have not been defiled with women” (Rev 14:1–5).
All these figures are simply pious speculation, although outlandish. Demos argued that ancient Christian literature says very little about the magi and this massacre. We have already mentioned the passage of Justin Martyr (c. AD 150). It is not until a Greek author named Synesius (AD 370–411), who converted late in his life, that we see someone pen a hymn dedicated to the episode of the magi and the symbolic meaning of their gifts—although lacking special attention to the murder of the innocents.
A Christian author named Macrobius tells an interesting story in his work Saturnalia (c. AD 400). When Augustus heard about the massacre, according to Macrobius, the emperor said, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son” (melius est Herodis porcum esse quam filium; Saturnalia 2:4:11). He probably never said that. But Augustus, who knew Greek, was using some wordplay with ὗς (“pig”) and υἱός (“son”), whose pronunciation was very close. Macrobius also tells us in the same context that Augustus connected the massacre with Antipater’s death at the hands of his father. But that the emperor knew about and connected it with Antipater’s death is highly unlikely, as we shall see. All of these allusions are not independent sources; each depends on the account we read in Matthew.