The Virgin and Child Surrounded by the Holy Innocents painted by Peter Paul Rubens at the Museum of Louvre-Lens, circa 1618.
|Died||c. 7–2 BC|
Bethlehem, Judea (martyred by King Herod the Great)
In the New Testament, the Massacre of the Innocents 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. A majority of Herod biographers, and "probably a majority of biblical scholars," hold the event to be myth, legend or folklore. The Catholic Church says that the children murdered in Jesus's stead are the first Christian martyrs, and their feast – Holy Innocents Day (or the Feast of the Holy Innocents) – is celebrated on 28 December.
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 Matthew 2:16:
- 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.
This is followed by a reference to and quotation from the Book of Jeremiah: "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).
History and theology
Most modern biographers of Herod dismiss Matthew's story as an invention, Classicist Michael Grant, for instance, stating that "[t]he tale is not history but myth or folk-lore". It is found in no other gospel, and the Jewish historian Josephus does not mention it in his Antiquities of the Jews (c. AD 94), despite recording many of Herod's misdeeds including the murder of three of his own sons. It appears to be modeled on Pharaoh's attempt to kill the Israelite children (Exodus 1:22), and more specifically on various elaborations of the original story that had become current in the 1st century. 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's father and mother are warned in a dream that the child's life is in danger and act to save him. Later in life, after Moses has to flee, like Jesus, he only returns when those who sought his death are themselves dead. 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). The relevance of Jeremiah 31:15 to the massacre in Bethlehem is not immediately apparent, as Jeremiah's next verses go on to speak of hope and restoration.
Some scholars argue for the historicity of the event. R. T. France acknowledges that the story is similar to that of Moses, but argues "[i]t is clear that this scriptural model has been important in Matthew's telling of the story of Jesus, but not so clear that it would have given rise to this narrative without historical basis." France nevertheless notes that the massacre is "perhaps the aspect [of his story of Jesus' infancy] most often rejected as legendary". Some scholars, such as Everett Ferguson, write that the story makes sense in the context of Herod's reign of terror in the last few years of his rule, 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 be aware of every incident far in the past when he wrote it.
The story's first appearance in any source other than the Gospel of Matthew is in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James of c. AD 150, which excludes the flight into Egypt and switches the attention of the story to the infant John the Baptist:
And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall. And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.
When he [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered killed, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod's pig, than his son.
The story assumed an important place in later Christian tradition; Byzantine liturgy estimated 14,000 Holy Innocents while an early Syrian list of saints stated the number at 64,000. Coptic sources raise the number to 144,000 and place the event on 29 December. Taking the narrative literally and judging from the estimated population of Bethlehem, the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907–12) more soberly suggested that these numbers were inflated, and that probably only between six and twenty children were killed in the town, with a dozen or so more in the surrounding areas.
In the arts
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.
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. 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. 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. 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 (often used at the time for Ancient Roman soldiers).
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. 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. 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.
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).
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); by Keith Kendrick and Sylvia Needham; and by Keith Kendrick and Lynne Heraud (as Herod on their Album Stars in my Crown).
Paintings with articles and Gallery
- Massacre of the Innocents by the Bruegels. Several versions of The Massacre of the Innocents were painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1565–67) and his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger (into the 17th century).
- Massacre of the Innocents by Guido Reni, created in 1611 for the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna, but now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in that city
- Two versions by Peter Paul Rubens, painted in 1611–1612 and 1636–1638
- Massacre of the Innocents (Matteo di Giovanni)
Giotto, Massacre of the Innocents
Jacopo Tintoretto, Massacre of the Innocents
François-Joseph Navez, The massacre of the innocents, 1824
The scream from Ramah, 2001 stamp of the Faroe Islands
The commemoration of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, traditionally regarded as the first Christian martyrs, if unknowingly so, 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").
Today, the date of Holy Innocents' Day, also called The Innocents' Day 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, the Lutheran Church and the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. In these latter Western Christian denominations, Childermas is the fourth day of Christmastide. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the feast on 29 December.
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. 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.
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.
In Spain, Hispanic America, and the Philippines, 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.
- Chapel of the Milk Grotto
- Coventry Carol
- Flight into Egypt
- Jesus and Messianic prophecy § Jeremiah 31:15
- Star of Bethlehem
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- Holy Innocents in the Catholic Encyclopedia: "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); cf. "Anzeiger kath. Geistlichk. Deutschl.", 15 Febr., 1909, p. 32."
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The Version from Bramley and Stainer (1878)
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Our current society is also becoming ever more cruel and filled with hatred. So we have to lift up the true love, charity.
- Skojec, Steve (2015-12-28). "Rachel's Lament: The Feast of the Holy Innocents". OnePeterFive. Archived from the original on 2017-04-12. Retrieved 2018-12-29.
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Massacre of the Innocents
Flight into Egypt
| New Testament
Death of Herod,
further succeeded by
Return of young Jesus to Nazareth