Did the Slaughter of the Innocents Occur?

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The Catholic Church commemorates the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents on the 28th December.  The Slaughter of the Innocents is the biblical account of the infanticide committed by Herod the Great.  In the Gospel according to Matthew, Herod ordered the execution of all male children, below the age of two, in the vicinity of Bethlehem, to secure his throne from the infant “King of the Jews”.

Matthew 2:16-18
16 Meanwhile, when he found that the wise men had played him false, Herod was angry beyond measure; he sent and made away with all the male children in Bethlehem and in all its neighbourhood, of two years old and less, reckoning the time by the careful enquiry which he had made of the wise men.  17 It was then that the word spoken by the prophet Jeremy was fulfilled: 18 “A voice was heard in Rama, lamentation and great mourning; it was Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because none is left.”

This last portion is in reference to this line from the Book of Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 31:15
15 Now, the Lord Says, “A voice is heard in Rama, of lamentation and bitter mourning; it is Rachel weeping for her children, and she will not be comforted, because none is left.”

The canonical evidence that such an event occurred is found only in the Gospel according to Matthew.  This casts great doubt on the historicity if this event.  In fact, most recent biographers of Herod deny that the event occurred.  The Roman Jewish historian, Josephus, did not mention it in his “Antiquities of the Jews”, even though he recorded many of Herod’s misdeeds and failing.  Josephus reported Herod’s murder of three of his own sons, his mother-in-law, and his second wife.  But no such massacre.  I think, like many passages in the Gospel according to Matthew, this could be another creative device to link the story of the Messiah (a.s.) to events in the Old Testament, regardless of their authenticity, or no matter how tenuous.

Other than the Gospel according to Matthew, the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents was also recorded in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James.  The Protoevangelium of James is also known as the Gospel according to James, or the Infancy Gospel according to James.  This apocryphal gospel is thought to have probably written between 145 to 150 CE, and expands, backwards in time, the infancy stories contained in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke.  It also presented a narrative concerning the birth and upbringing of Mary (a.s.) herself, somewhat similar, in parts, to that which is found in the Qur’an.  It is also the oldest source to assert the perpetual virginity of Mary (a.s.).  The document presented itself as written by James (r.a.), the brother of Jesus (a.s.), beginning with, “I, James, wrote this history in Jerusalem.”  It is established that James (r.a.) most certainly did not write this.

This gospel excluded the Flight into Egypt, and switched the protagonist of the story regarding the slaughter to the infant John the Baptist (a.s.).  The passage went:

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, said, “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.

The first non-Christian reference to the massacre was only recorded four centuries later by Macrobius, his Saturnalia: “When he 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.’”  “He” here, referred to Emperor Augustus.  The joke here being that Herod, a Jew, could not eat pork, so pigs were safe from him,

The story became ridiculous in later Christian tradition; Byzantine liturgy estimated 14,000 “holy Innocents”, an early Syrian list of saints stated the number at 64,000, while Coptic sources raised the number to an incredible 144,000 and placed the event on 29th December.  Taking the smallest number here, assuming infants at 2% of the population, in line with demographics of the time, that would place the population of Bethlehem and surrounding villages at 700,000, dwarfing Jerusalem at that time.  If 144,000 infants were killed, that would raise the population to a staggering 7.2 million.  And how could Herod get away with slaughter of children on that scale and not have the population descend into outright revolt?

In contrast, the Catholic Encyclopaedia suggested that these numbers were inflated, and that the probable death toll was between six and twenty children killed in the town itself, with perhaps a dozen or so more in the surrounding areas.  These are more plausible numbers.  If that were so, it could also explain why the Slaughter of the Innocents was not recorded by Josephus or any other historians.  In an age of violence, twenty infants murdered is a mere footnote.  The Slaughter of the Innocents could have happened, or it could have been made up later to retroactively fulfill a prophecy in the Book of Jeremiah.  In any case, it developed a significance later.


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