Massacre of the Innocents

Last updated
Holy Innocents
0 La Vierge a l'Enfant entouree des saints Innocents - Louvre - (2).JPG
First Martyrs
BornVarious, presumably close to the birth of Jesus
Bethlehem, Judea
Diedc. 7–2 BC
Bethlehem, Judea (martyred by King Herod the Great)
Venerated in
Canonized Pre-Congregation
  • 27 December (West Syrians)
  • 28 December (Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, Anglican Communion)
  • 29 December (Eastern Orthodoxy)
  • 10 January (East Syrians)
Attributes Martyr's palm
Crown of martyrdom
  • Foundlings
  • Babies
  • Children's choirs [1]

The Massacre of the Innocents (Hebrew : טבח התמימים) is the incident in the nativity narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (2:16–18) in which Herod the Great, king of Judea, orders the execution of all male children two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The Catholic Church regards them as the first Christian martyrs, and their feast  Holy Innocents' Day (or the Feast of the Holy Innocents)  is celebrated on 28 December. [2] Scholarly opinion is divided as to the historicity of the event. [3]


Biblical narrative

The Magi visit Jerusalem to seek guidance as to where the king of the Jews has been born; King Herod directs them to Bethlehem and asks them to return to him and report, but they are warned in a dream and do not do so. The massacre is reported in Gospel of Matthew:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Matthew 2:16

This is followed by a reference to and quotation from the Book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:15): "Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." (Matthew 2:17-18). The relevance of this to the massacre is not immediately apparent, as Jeremiah's next verses go on to speak of hope and restoration. [4]


The apocryphal Protoevangelium of James describes how Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, a relative of Mary and wife to the priest Zechariah, prays to God while being pursued by Herod's soldiers during the massacre, and is miraculously saved together with her infant. [5] The same episode is again described in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. [5] Christian traditions associate these events with sites from the mountain village of Ein Karem near Jerusalem and a nearby cave.

History and theology

The story of the massacre is found in no gospel other than Matthew, nor in the surviving works of Nicolaus of Damascus (who was a personal friend of Herod the Great) and the historian Josephus makes no mention of it in his Antiquities of the Jews , despite recording many of Herod's misdeeds including the murder of three of his own sons. [2]

There is no independent confirmation that the event ever occurred, and some scholars consider it folklore inspired by Herod's reputation. [6] According to Paul L. Maier, a majority of Herod biographers, and "probably a majority of biblical scholars," hold the event to be myth, or legend, however, he finds "...such conclusions not well supported by the authors who drew them." [7]

The author appears to have modelled the episode on the biblical story of Pharaoh's attempt to kill the Israelite children in the Book of Exodus, as told in an expanded version that was current in the 1st century. [8] In that expanded story, Pharaoh kills the Hebrew children after his scribes warn him of the impending birth of the threat to his crown (i.e., Moses), but Moses' father and mother are warned in a dream that the child's life is in danger and act to save him. [9] Later in life, after Moses has to flee, like Jesus, he returns when those who sought his death are themselves dead. [9] The story of the massacre of the innocents thus plays a part in Matthew's wider nativity story, in which the proclamation of the coming of the Messiah (his birth) is followed by his rejection by the Jews (Herod and his scribes and the people of Jerusalem) and his later acceptance by the gentiles (the Magi). [10]

Against this majority opinion some argue for the historicity of the event. R. T. France, while acknowledging that the massacre is "perhaps the aspect [of Matthew's infancy narrative] most often rejected as legendary" [11] and that the story is similar to that of Moses, believes that it would not have arisen without historical basis. [12] Everett Ferguson argues that the story makes sense in the context of Herod's reign of terror in the last few years of his rule, [13] and the number of infants in Bethlehem that would have been killed  no more than a dozen or so  may have been too insignificant to be recorded by Josephus, who could not have been aware of every incident far in the past when he wrote it. [14]

Bethlehem's 4th-century Church of the Nativity includes a chamber called the Cave of the Holy Innocents, containing skulls and bones from hundreds of people, but they are not clearly infantile. [15] Further, the church was destroyed and rebuilt in the 6th century. [16] [17]


In the context of martyrdom, the murder of the holy innocents is seen in a positive light, as evidenced in Roger Baxter's Meditations, where he writes: "Admire the goodness of God, who from the wickedness of men draws advantages for His servants, and who can produce 'a honey-comb in the lion's jaw.' (Judg. 24:8.) He permitted this slaughter that the innocents might receive the immortal crown of martyrdom. How happy was this for them! If they had lived, perhaps some of them might have been found among those who crucified Christ. Throw yourself with confidence into the arms of Providence, who knows infinitely better how to dispose of yourself and your affairs than you do yourself. Imitate, in your life, the innocence of these infant saints, that you may be 'without spot before the throne of God.' (Rev. 24:5.)" [18]


The Greek liturgy asserts 14,000 Holy Innocents, while an early Syrian list of saints put the number at 64,000. Coptic sources raised this to 144,000 and placed the event on 29 December. [19] The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907–12) suggested that probably only between six and twenty children were killed in the town, with a dozen or so more in the surrounding areas. [lower-alpha 1]

In Christian art

Medieval liturgical drama recounted Biblical events, including Herod's slaughter of the innocents. The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, performed in Coventry, England, included a haunting song about the episode, now known as the Coventry Carol. The Ordo Rachelis tradition of four plays includes the Flight into Egypt, Herod's succession by Archelaus, the return from Egypt, as well as the Massacre all centred on Rachel weeping in fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy. These events were likewise in one of the medieval N-Town Plays.[ citation needed ]

The "Coventry Carol" is a Christmas carol dating from the 16th century. The carol was performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors . The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered all male infants two years old and under in Bethlehem to be killed. [20] The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother's lament for her doomed child. It is the only carol that has survived from this play. The author is unknown. The oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known printing of the melody dates from 1591. [21] The carol is traditionally sung a cappella.

The 17th Century Dutch Christmas song O Kerstnacht, schoner dan de dagen , while beginning with a reference to Christmas Night, is about the Massacre of the Innocents. The Dutch progressive rock band Focus recorded in 1974 the first two verses of the song for their album Hamburger Concerto .

The theme of the "Massacre of the Innocents" has provided artists of many nationalities with opportunities to compose complicated depictions of massed bodies in violent action. It was an alternative to the Flight into Egypt in cycles of the Life of the Virgin. It decreased in popularity in Gothic art, but revived in the larger works of the Renaissance, when artists took inspiration for their "Massacres" from Roman reliefs of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs to the extent that they showed the figures heroically nude. [22] The horrific subject matter of the Massacre of the Innocents also provided a comparison of ancient brutalities with the brutalities of the early modern period, during the period of religious wars that followed the Reformation  Bruegel's versions show the soldiers carrying banners with the Habsburg double-headed eagle. [23]

The 1590 version by Cornelis van Haarlem also seems to reflect the violence of the Dutch Revolt. Guido Reni's early (1611) Massacre of the Innocents , in an unusual vertical format, is at Bologna. [24] The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens painted the theme more than once. One version, now in Munich, was engraved and reproduced as a painting as far away as colonial Peru. [25] Another, his grand Massacre of the Innocents is now at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Ontario. The French painter Nicolas Poussin painted The Massacre of the Innocents (1634) at the height of the Thirty Years' War.[ citation needed ]

The Childermass, after a traditional name for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, is the opening novel of Wyndham Lewis's trilogy The Human Age. In the novel The Fall (La Chute) by Albert Camus, the incident is argued by the main character to be the reason why Jesus chose to let himself be crucified—as he escaped the punishment intended for him while many others died, he felt responsible and died in guilt. A similar interpretation is given in José Saramago's controversial The Gospel According to Jesus Christ , but there attributed to Joseph, Jesus' stepfather, rather than to Jesus himself. As depicted by Saramago, Joseph knew of Herod's intention to massacre the children of Bethlehem, but failed to warn the townspeople and chose only to save his own child. Guilt-ridden ever after, Joseph finally expiates his sin by letting himself be crucified (an event not narrated in the New Testament).[ citation needed ]

The song "Long Way Around The Sea", from the 1999 Christmas EP by the indie-rock band Low, tells the story from the perspective of the magi during their journey from Herod to the newborn Jesus, and the warning from the angel not to return.

The Massacre is the opening plot used in the 2006 film The Nativity Story (2016).[ citation needed ] It is also dramatized in season 1 of the television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977).

The Cornish poet Charles Causley used the subject for his poem The Innocents' Song, which as a folk song has been performed by Show of Hands with music by Johnny Coppin (on their album Witness ); and by Keith Kendrick and Sylvia Needham.[ citation needed ]



Feast day

The commemoration of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, traditionally regarded as the first Christian martyrs, if unknowingly so, [26] [lower-alpha 2] first appears as a feast of the Western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485. The earliest commemorations were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January: Prudentius mentions the Innocents in his hymn on the Epiphany. Leo in his homilies on the Epiphany speaks of the Innocents. Fulgentius of Ruspe (6th century) gives a homily De Epiphania, deque Innocentum nece et muneribus magorum ("On Epiphany, and on the murder of the Innocents and the gifts of the Magi"). [lower-alpha 3]

Today, the date of Holy Innocents' Day, also called the Feast of the Holy Innocents or Childermas or Children's Mass, varies. It is 27 December for West Syrians (Syriac Orthodox Church, Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, and Maronite Church) and 10 January for East Syrians (Chaldeans and Syro-Malabar Catholic Church), while 28 December is the date in the Church of England (Festival), [27] the Lutheran Church and the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. In these latter Western Christian denominations, Childermas is the fourth day of Christmastide. [28] The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the feast on 29 December. [29]

From the time of Charlemagne, Sicarius of Bethlehem was venerated at Brantôme, Dordogne as one of the purported victims of the Massacre. [30]

In the Roman Rite, the 1960 Code of Rubrics prescribed the use of the red vestments for martyrs in place of the violet vestments previously prescribed on the feast of the Holy Innocents. The feast continued to outrank the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas until the 1969 motu proprio Mysterii Paschalis replaced this Sunday with the feast of the Holy Family.

In the Middle Ages, especially north of the Alps, the day was a festival of inversion involving role reversal between children and adults such as teachers and priests, with boy bishops presiding over some church services. [31] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens suggest that this was a Christianized version of the Roman annual feast of the Saturnalia (when even slaves played "masters" for a day). In some regions, such as medieval England and France, it was said to be an unlucky day, when no new project should be started. [32]

There was a medieval custom of refraining where possible from work on the day of the week on which the feast of "Innocents Day" had fallen for the whole of the following year until the next Innocents Day. Philippe de Commynes, the minister of King Louis XI of France tells in his memoirs how the king observed this custom, and describes the trepidation he felt when he had to inform the king of an emergency on the day. [33]

In Spain, Hispanic America, and the Philippines, [34] December 28 is still a day for pranks, equivalent to April Fool's Day in many countries. Pranks (bromas) are also known as inocentadas and their victims are called inocentes; alternatively, the pranksters are the "inocentes" and the victims should not be angry at them, since they could not have committed any sin . One of the more famous of these traditions is the annual "Els Enfarinats" festival of Ibi in Alacant, where the inocentadas dress up in full military dress and incite a flour fight. [35]

In Trinidad and Tobago, Roman Catholic children have their toys blessed at a Mass. [36]

See also


  1. Holweck 1910 states "The Greek Liturgy asserts that Herod killed 14,000 boys (ton hagion id chiliadon Nepion), the Syrians speak of 64,000, many medieval authors of 144,000, according to Apocalypse 14:3. Writers who accept the historicity of the episode reduce the number considerably, since Bethlehem was a rather small town. Joseph Knabenbauer brings it down to fifteen or twenty (Evang. S. Matt., I, 104), August Bisping to ten or twelve (Evang. S. Matt.), Lorenz Kellner to about six (Christus und seine Apostel, Freiburg, 1908)".
  2. Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. iii.16.4) and Cyprian (Epistle 56)
  3. Prudentius, Leo, and Fulgentius are noted in Smith & Cheetham 1875, pp. 839ff.

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  1. "Patron Saints A-Z".
  2. 1 2 Clarke 2003, p. 22.
  3. Maier 1998, p. 170, n.4.
  4. Clarke 2003, p. 23.
  5. 1 2 Infancy Gospel of James 16:3-7 at Accessed 22 March 2022.
  6. Magness 2021, p. 126.
  7. Maier 1998, p. 170-171.
  8. Lincoln 2013, p. 44.
  9. 1 2 Brown 1978, p. 11.
  10. Brown 1978, p. 13.
  11. France 2007, p. 82.
  12. France 2007, p. 82-83.
  13. Ferguson 2003, p. 390.
  14. Maier 1998, p. 179, 186.
  15. "Mysteries of Jesus". Expedition Unknown. Season 6. Episode 2. 2019. Event occurs at 14:30, 18:30. Discovery Channel.
  16. Cohen, Raymond (2011). "4". In Melanie Hall (ed.). Conflict and Neglect: Between Ruin and Preservation at the Church of the Nativity. Towards world heritage: international origins of the preservation movement 1870–1930. Routledge. pp. 91–108. ISBN   978-1-4094-0772-0 . Retrieved 13 April 2022.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  17. Madden, Andrew (2012). "A Revised Date for the Mosaic Pavements of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem". Ancient West & East. 11: 147–190. doi:10.2143/AWE.11.0.2175882. Archived from the original on 9 August 2021. Retrieved 23 June 2019.
  18. Baxter, Roger (1823). "Murder of the Holy Innocents"  . Meditations For Every Day In The Year. New York: Benziger Brothers.
  19. Mina 1907, pp. 300-.
  20. "The Coventry Carol". The version from Bramley and Stainer (1878)
  21. Studwell 1995, p. 15.
  22. "Getty Collection". 2009-05-07. Archived from the original on 2005-12-05. Retrieved 2012-06-15.
  23. A winter landscape with the Massacre of the Innocents, Sotheby's, 7 December 2005
  24. "Reni's painting at the Web Gallery of Art". Retrieved 2012-06-15.
  25. The Massacre of the Innocents in Cuzco Cathedral is clearly influenced by Rubens. See CODART Courant , Dec 2003, 12. (2.5 MB pdf download)
  26. Smith & Cheetham 1875, pp. 839-.
  27. "The Calendar". The Church of England. Retrieved 2021-04-10.
  28. "Day Four: December 28, Feast of the Holy Innocents". Catholic Culture. Retrieved 27 December 2015.
  29. troparia, All; saints, kontakia · All lives of. "Lives of the Saints".
  30. Wasyliw 2008, p. 46.
  31. Holweck 1910.
  32. Blackburn & Holford-Strevens 1999, pp. 537–538.
  33. de Commynes 1972, pp. 253–254.
  34. B. A., Seattle Pacific University. "It's No Joke: Dec. 28 Is for Pranks in Spanish-Speaking Countries". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2021-03-30.
  35. BBC News report of the 2010 festival.
  36. ""Feast of Holy Innocents", Trinity and Tobago Newsday, December 30, 2103". 2013-12-30. Retrieved 2018-04-16.


Massacre of the Innocents
Preceded by New Testament
Succeeded by
Death of Herod,
further succeeded by
Return of young Jesus to Nazareth