In the New Testament, the Massacre of the Innocents is the incident in the nativity narrative of the Gospel of Matthew 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 "[p]robably a majority of biblical scholars", hold the event to be fictional. The Catholic Church has claimed the children murdered in Jesus's stead as the first Christian martyrs, and their feast – Holy Innocents Day (or the Feast of the Holy Innocents) – is celebrated on 28 December.
Matthew's story is found in no other gospel, and the Jewish historian Josephus does not mention it in his Antiquities of the Jews (c. AD 94), which records many of Herod's misdeeds including the murder of three of his own sons. Most modern biographers of Herod dismiss the story as an invention. Classical historian Michael Grant, for instance, stated “The tale is not history but myth or folk-lore”. 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 returns only 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 (the birth) is followed by his rejection by the Jews (Herod and his scribes and the people of Jerusalem) and 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.
The first non-Christian reference to the massacre is recorded four centuries later by Macrobius (c. 395–423), who writes in his Saturnalia:
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.
Nimrod was with his star-gazers on the roof of his palace, and saw the strange display in the sky with his own eyes. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded.
"There can be only one explanation. A son was born tonight who would challenge the king's power, and the father is none other than Terah."
"Terah?!" Nimrod roared. "My own trusted servant?"
Nimrod thought it was mighty loyal of Terah to give up his only son, born to him in his old age. Little did he know that it was not Terah's son who was brought to die, but a servant's.— Nissan Mindel, Nimrod and Abraham
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.
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 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).
The commemoration of the massacre of these "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 Catholic Church (in which, except on Sunday, violet vestments are prescribed in Missals before 1961). 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 General Roman Calendar of 1960, the violet vestments for Holy Innocents are replaced by red ones, and if 28 December fell on Sunday, this feast was commemorated on the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas. This was changed in a later revision of the Church calendar.
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.
The Version from Bramley and Stainer (1878)
Our current society is also becoming ever more cruel and filled with hatred. So we have to lift up the true love, charity.
Massacre of the Innocents
Flight into Egypt
| New Testament
Death of Herod,
further succeeded by
Return of young Jesus to Nazareth
Advent and Triumph of Christ is an oil painting on a panel of wood, painted c.1480 by German-born Early Netherlandish painter Hans Memling. It was made for the altar of the Tanners' guild in Our Lady's Church in Bruges, but is now held by the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. It measures 81 × 189 cm.
The painting shows 25 episodes from the Life of Christ (although some have interpreted it as a version of the Seven Joys of the Virgin) combined in one narrative composition without a central dominating scene: including the Annunciation; the Annunciation to the shepherds; the Nativity; the Massacre of the Innocents; the Adoration of the Magi; the Passion; the Resurrection; the Ascension; Pentecost; the Dormition and Assumption of Mary. A similar narrative style was employed by Memling for his earlier Scenes from the Passion of Christ (c.1470), commissioned by Tommaso Portinari and now held by the Galleria Sabauda in Turin.Boy bishop
Boy bishop was a name given to a custom very widespread in the Middle Ages, whereby a boy was chosen, for example among cathedral choristers, to parody the real bishop, commonly on the feast of Holy Innocents. This custom was linked with others, such as that of the Feast of Fools and the Feast of Asses.Chapel of the Milk Grotto
The Chapel of the Milk Grotto (Latin: Crypta lactea, Arabic: مغارةآلسثئ, Hebrew: מערת החלב) also called Grotto of Our Lady or Milk Grotto, is a Catholic chapel in Bethlehem in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories, erected in 1872. Since Byzantine times, the place has been a center of Christian pilgrimage, maintained since its last erection together with its Marian shrine and monastery by the Custody of the Holy Land of the Order of the Friars Minor of the Catholic Church in Palestine. The Status Quo, a 250-year old understanding between religious communities, applies to the site.Coventry Carol
The "Coventry Carol" is an English Christmas carol dating from the 16th century. The carol was traditionally 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 itself refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed, and takes the form of a lullaby sung by mothers of the doomed children.
The music contains a well-known example of a Picardy third. The author is unknown; the oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known setting of the melody dates from 1591. There is an alternative, modern setting of the carol by Kenneth Leighton, and another by Philip Stopford.Macduff's son
Macduff's son is a character in William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth (1606). His name and age are not established in the text, however he is estimated to be 7–10 years of age, and is often named as Andrew, for ease. He is Shakespeare's typical child character—cute and clever. While Lady Macduff and her children are mentioned in Holinshed's Chronicles as the innocent victims of Macbeth's cruelty, Shakespeare is completely responsible for developing Macduff's son as a character.
The boy appears in only one scene (4.2), in which he briefly banters with his mother and is then murdered by Macbeth's thugs. The scene's purpose is twofold: it provides Shakespeare's audience with a thrillingly horrific moment, and it underscores the depravity into which Macbeth has fallen. The brutal scene has often been cut in modern performance.
Andrew is viewed as a symbol of the youthful innocence Macbeth hates and fears, and the scene has been compared by one critic to the biblical Massacre of the Innocents. He is described as an "egg" by his murderer, further emphasising on his youth before his imminent death.Massacre of the Innocents (Bruegel)
Several oil-on-oak-panel versions of The Massacre of the Innocents were painted by 16th-century Netherlandish painters Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The work translates the Biblical account of the Massacre of the Innocents into a winter scene in the Netherlands in the prelude to the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule, also known as the Eighty Years' War.
What is now thought to be the only version by Bruegel the Elder (c.1565-67) is in the British Royal Collection; for some time held at Hampton Court Palace, by 2017 it was at Windsor Castle. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II ordered it overpainted to hide images of dead and dying children. Many other versions are attributed to Pieter Breughel the Younger, with different art historians listing as many as 7 or 14 versions, including leading examples in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (the only version showing the slaughter), in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, and in the National Museum of Art of Romania in Bucharest. Pieter Breughel the Younger also painted his own different composition of the Massacre of the Innocents: one example is held by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.Massacre of the Innocents (Guido Reni)
Massacre of the Innocents is a painting by the Italian Baroque painter Guido Reni, created in 1611 for the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna, but now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in that same city.Massacre of the Innocents (Matteo di Giovanni)
Massacre of the Innocents is a tempera on panel painting by Matteo di Giovanni, produced between 1450 and 1500, possibly in 1478, 1468 or 1488, probably in Siena. It was commissioned by Alfonso II of Naples, then living in Siena as part of the campaign against the Medici. It was probably produced to commemorate the inhabitants of Otranto killed by the Ottomans in 1480 whose relics were moved into the church of Santa Caterina at Formiello at Alfonso's request - the same church also originally housed the painting. It is now in the National Museum of Capodimonte.Massacre of the Innocents (Rubens)
The Massacre of the Innocents is the subject of two paintings by Peter Paul Rubens depicting the episode of the biblical Massacre of the Innocents of Bethlehem, as related in the Gospel of Matthew (2:13-18). The first, measuring 142 x 182 cm, was painted after his return to his native Antwerp in 1608, following eight years spent in Italy.Ordo Rachelis
The Ordo Rachelis (Play of Rachel), Interfectio Puerorum (Murder of the Children), or Ludus Innocentium (Play of the Innocents) is a medieval dramatic tradition consisting in four plays and based on the Massacre of the Innocents, an event recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, and on the prophecy recorded in the Book of Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not" (31:15, KJV). The prophecy, which Matthew believed to be fulfilled when Herod the Great ordered the slaughter of all boys under two in Bethlehem, looks backwards to Rachel, the matriarch of the Hebrews, and towards her lamentation over the death of her children, the Hebrew children, in the massacre.
The Ordo Rachelis plays were probably performed as part of the liturgy for Innocents Day (28 December).Sicarius of Brantôme
Sicarius of Brantôme or Sicarius of Bethlehem (Sicaire de Brantôme, Sicaire de Bethléem) was a child saint who was venerated from the time of Charlemagne onwards as one of the victims of the Massacre of the Innocents by Herod the Great, said to have occurred in Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus. His remains are housed in the Abbey of Saint-Pierre in Brantôme, Dordogne, France.The Holy Infants Embracing
The Holy Infants Embracing is a lost painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. It represents the infant Christ embracing his cousin John the Baptist. The subject matter relates to the two paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo and numerous other Renaissance works by Raphael and others of the meeting of the two children on the road to Egypt while escaping the Massacre of the Innocents.The Massacre of the Innocents (Poussin)
The Massacre of the Innocents is a 1625-1632 painting by Nicolas Poussin, showing the Massacre of the Innocents. It was probably commissioned by the Roman collector Vincenzo Giustiniani, probably in memory of the tragic fate of the Giustiniani children taken hostage by the Ottoman Empire in 1564. It remained in the Palazzo Giustiniani until 1804, when it was bought by Lucien Bonaparte. It then passed through several other hands before being bought in London by Henri d'Orleans, Duke of Aumale. It is now in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France.Tornabuoni Chapel
The Tornabuoni Chapel (Italian: Cappella Tornabuoni) is the main chapel (or chancel) in the church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy. It is famous for the extensive and well-preserved fresco cycle on its walls, one of the most complete in the city, which was created by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop between 1485 and 1490.Zechariah (New Testament figure)
Zechariah (Hebrew: זכריה Zəḵaryāh, "remember Yah"; Greek: Ζαχαρίας; Zacharias in KJV; Zachary in the Douay-Rheims Bible; Zakariyyāʾ (Arabic: زَكَـرِيَّـا) in Islamic tradition) is a figure in the New Testament Bible and the Quran, hence venerated in Christianity and Islam. In the Bible, he is the father of John the Baptist, a priest of the sons of Aaron in the Gospel of Luke (1:67-79), and the husband of Elizabeth who is a relative of the Virgin Mary (Luke, 1:36).