The first few days after Christmas Day are a surprisingly bloody affair. On December 26, we celebrated the Feast Day of St. Stephen, sometimes called “the protomartyr,” since he is the first Christian after the Resurrection to be martyred for the faith. Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates Herod’s massacre of the children in the Bethlehem area.
|Guido Reni, Massacre of the Innocents (1611)|
The Biblical basis comes from Matthew 2:13-18, from sometime after the Magi visit Christ:
When the magi had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, Out of Egypt I called my son.
When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi. Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet: A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.
The two Gospels that do mention what theologians call the “infancy narratives” differ on some significant details. Matthew seems to describe Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt and then moving to Nazareth. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, has the two originally living in Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth and then returning home. Both Gospels, though, place Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem.
It’s true that Matthew and Luke both include details that the other omits, and that this can create problems in trying to construct an accurate timeline. Of course, this is true throughout the Gospels. After all, the whole point of having four different Gospel accounts is that each includes details the others omit (a Gospel that didn’t do this would be merely repetitive). But both Matthew and Luke’s Infancy narratives include details that some scholars are calling foul about.
With Luke, the biggest problem raised is the timing of the Census mentioned in Luke 2:2 — which I’ve addressed before. With Matthew’s Gospel, the biggest historical problem is the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. Wouldn’t something this horrendous warrant extensive attention from both Christian and pagan sources? Shouldn’t we expect to see a lot written about this?
No, actually. This is a massacre of children in a tiny rural area on the periphery of the Roman Empire, a sadly frequent occurrence (even today). The number of children killed may have been rather small in the scheme of things, perhaps a few dozen. And from a Christian perspective, the Massacre of Holy Innocents was likely omitted by many accounts because it’s tangential to the story of Who Jesus is, and why it’s important to believe in Him. At the least, this is why it doesn’t come up often amongst Christians today, and there’s little reason to think early Christians would be different on this count.
In any event, the question can be turned on its head. St. Matthew’s Gospel is written during the mid-first century, and it describes this massacre. If such an event hadn’t occurred, wouldn’t we expect to hear an objection on that basis? A man from Bethlehem of the right age would have been all that it would take to invalidate the historicity of the Gospel.
So even if the extra-Biblical testimony was totally silent, that wouldn’t be particularly surprising. But we actually do hear about the Massacre, and from a surprising source: Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, a pagan Roman praetorian writing in the early 400s. He mentioned in his Saturnalia that “On hearing that the son of Herod, king of the Jews, had been slain when Herod ordered that all boys in Syria under the age of two be killed, Augustus said, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.’”
Now, Macrobius gets certain historical details mixed up (Herod killed more than one son, but as far as we know, not during the Massacre; and the Massacre occurred in Judea, not Syria), but it’s clear that the Massacre is something he’s familiar with even as a pagan, and that it contributed to Herod’s reputation as being particularly blood-thirsty. And of course, the fact that Herod killed one of his wives and more than one son to avoid claimants to the throne makes it clear that he certainly was the type willing to murder some poor people’s children to avoid the prophesied Messiah-King of the Jews.
With Macrobius’ account, we find extra-Scriptural (and non-Christian) support for even the most seemingly-incredible detail: that Herod massacred a number of infants in an effort to find and kill the prophesied Messiah-King. And as Matthew notes, this Massacre was foretold in the Book of Jeremiah. It’s also prefigured in the massacre of the innocents described in Exodus 1:15-17, occurring at the time of the birth of Moses. All of this points to the fact that the Bible is both historical and prophetic.