The Massacre of the Innocents and the Historicity of the Gospels

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 Infancy narratives found in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels are some of the most often-attacked portions of the New Testament, on the basis of their alleged historical unreliability.  For example, James Martin, S.J., recently wrote:

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.


  1. Does he substantiate his claims? This is not exactly clear from the excerpt provided. And my point about source is that of Gospels being the ultimate source, not the direct one. For all we know he heard it from a guy who heard it from a guy and thought it reflective of Herod’s character, which surely it is. Think how many bon mots are misattributed and misquoted even in our own century.

    Moreover, even granting the legitimacy of either phrasing or content, what of the possibility that Augustus was referring to how Herod actually killed his literal, not metaphorical sons?

    We have at best hearsay from across the centuries, barring some point not yet cited. Really, backing up such a flimsy-looking quote should have been the focus of this post.

  2. But if it was known to be a questionable point then the historian would have done more to back the claim. Since he apparently did not it would be sensible to think that such a claim was already well founded…

    All this said, I agree that it could certainly use more support. I think the point though might be that holding this position as factual is not strictly illogical or less logical than the alternative.

    Ps I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen at your blog!

  3. While I appreciate assuming the good, we’d need to demonstrate the speaker’s credibility — specifically, topical expertise — to take him any more seriously than, say, a professor of political science writing about the Spanish Inquisition during the 1700s. For that matter, the idea that Christmas was a converted pagan celebration remains a popular idea and in individual sources is yet undisputed, absurd though it may be.

    What’s to say that a minor, incorrect claim did not meet even more minor correction which has since disappeared? Or that it did not meet correction at all, so completely had the Christian account of things in Syria three hundred years previous flavored Rome’s understanding of the region and place. These are not quibbles, nor implausible, nor even unreasonable.

    Indeterminate in wording, context, and in multiple levels of credibility — this does not a substantial source make. If we accept it, it must be with a grain of salt and with many caveats, noting very well how shaky it stands, that it stands at all on a windless day. I accept the slaughter of the holy innocents as a point of faith; basically because I trust the common source: the Gospel.

    Thanks for the kind words on the blog. It’s now more a proof-of-concept than anything, though the formatting gets frustrated when unattended. Guess that’s what comes when the blog is hosted.

  4. I’ve been a bit tardy in responding to the questions here. Here’s my take:

    It’s true that Macrobius could just be relying on Christian accounts of the Massacre. As Prodigalnomore said, there was plenty of time for the story to catch on, even if St. Matthew had invented it. But I think that there’s good reason to believe that this isn’t the case.

    Notice that Macrobius mistakenly describes the massacre as occurring in Syria, rather than Judea. From a Roman perspective, that’s close enough – Judea was at one point under the administration of the Roman governor. But that mistake isn’t one that a Christian would make. Judea is famous to Christians precisely because it’s where Jesus is from, and much of Biblical history.

    So Macrobius doesn’t appear to be borrowing this from a Christian source, since it’s unlikely that a Roman Christian would conflate Syria and Judea. Macrobius also ties it in with Herod’s murder of one of his sons, a detail not mentioned in any of the Christian sources I know of, and certainly not in Matthew’s Gospel, but which would have been known from the pagan Roman histories.

    All this seems to point towards the existence of an earlier non-Christian tradition recounting the Massacre. But it’s true that we can’t prove it. Even if we could point to earlier pagan writers, we couldn’t prove that they were anything more than victims of a legend created by St. Matthew. All we can say is that evidence exists outside of Christian writers that supports the historical existence of the Massacre of the Innocents, and that this evidence doesn’t appear to be based off of St. Matthew’s account.

    God bless,


  5. The prophecy which Matthew claims foretold of this massacre if read in context in Jeremiah 31 is found to be about the Asyrian captivity of the Ephraimites. For the next verse after the statement about “Rachel weeping in Rama” (not Bethlehem, Rama, which unlike Bethlehem is not a possession of Judah but of Ephraim) is “the Lord comforted Rachel, saying, Weep not, for there is still hope for your children to return from the land of the enemy to their own borders.”

  6. “Now, Macrobius gets certain historical details mixed up…the Massacre occurred in Judea, not Syria”

    From the prophecy saying ‘Rama’ instead of ‘Bethlehem’ it is clear how Macrobius got confused into saying Syria rather than Judea. He tried to be more literal to the prophecy! Rama would be further north, in Samaritan territory, hence closer to Syria.

  7. Beowulf,

    There’s no reason that the prophesy can’t have an immediate and a Messianic fulfillment — all sorts of prophesies do in the Old Testament. For example, Genesis 22:8 is fulfilled both immediately (Gen. 22:13) and more perfectly, in Christ (John 1:29).

    St. Matthew records the prophesy correctly, as mentioning “Ramah”: see Matthew 2:18. Ramah was in the vicinity of Bethlehem (see Mt. 2:16).



  8. I’ve never understood this idea of prophecies having ‘an immediate and a Messianic fulfillment’ — maybe you can explain it to me. It seems to be simply a production of the need to defend the indefensible. You go and try to convert a Jew by showing him all the prophecies about Jesus, and the Jew demonstrated to you that contextually they are about other things that happened long before his time, so out of necessity on the fly you (by you I mean the first Christian this happened to) invent the idea ‘well, see, prophecies are fulfilled twice.’ The first fulfillment actually meets the terms of the prophecy, and the second only partially meets them — so goes the theory. Well if you can argue this way with a Jew — why can’t a Muslim argue this way with you? If Jesus is the second fulfillment of Jeremiah 31 which is clearly about the Assyrian captivity of the Ephraimites (because the second fulfillment doesn’t have to meet all the terms of the prophecy) then why can’t Mohammed be the third fulfillment?

    Presumably the third fulfillment needs to fulfill even less of the terms.

    If, then, Zorobabel is the immediate fulfillment of Micah 5 since he is the one of whom it is spoken “this man will be our peace when the Assyrian shall come into our land” and he did arise from Bethlehem in the sense of it being a tribal affiliation “least of the TRIBES of Judah” and Jesus is the second fulfillment (because he didn’t defend the land against any Assryians but he was born in Bethelehem the city) then Mohammed perhaps is the third fulfillment (because although he was born, his birth had no connection to Bethlehem nor did he defend Israel against any Assyrian, but the 3rd fulillment can fulfill even less term than the 2nd). And I am the 4th fulfillment, I suppose, and you the 5th.

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