The Massacre of the Innocents

Matthew tells us that, in his rage at the duplicity of the Magi, Herod ordered the murder of all boys between the ages of 0 and 2 In Bethlehem and the surrounding district:

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, in Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Matthew 2 v 16 – 18

Did it happen?
Almost more than any other event, this debate has proved a field day for New Testament scholars.

Argument for:
  It is in character for Herod, historically known to be an extreme psychopath perfectly willing to murder his own children to preserve his position.

Argument against:
It is not mentioned in any historical accounts, such as that by Josephus.
  A slightly more subtle argument against is to ask, if Matthew did make it up, why he might have done so. The answer to this may lie in his determination to provide Old Testament provenance to the story of the birth of Christ. In particular here, the narrative of Moses in Egypt in Exodus chapters 1 and 2, describing the murder of Hebrew boys:

And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah: And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.
(Exodus 15 – 16)

  The parallel with Moses continues, of course, with the Flight into Egypt, and the return.

How many?
   Later accounts tend to sensationalise this aspect. Coptic texts put it at 144,000!  Including the girls, this would make a 0 - 4 year-old total of 288,000 in the Bethlehem area. A modern figure for the proportion of children of this age in a population is around four percent. Even in a high birthrate low life expectancy civilisation such as that two thousand years ago, this would mean that the little town of Bethlehem had a population of around three to four million. Hmmm. 
  Modern estimates are more conservative - around fifteen to twenty children. If so, it is probably unlikely that Josephus would have mentioned it anyway. 

Who was Rachel
and why was she weeping?
   Rachel was one of Jacob’s wives, and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin – another Egypt connection.  She was said to weep from her tomb for the exiled children of Israel. Conveniently for Matthew's narrative, the location of Rachel’s tomb at Ramah was usually considered to be just up the road from Bethlehem.

The Massacre in art
  This is a familiar theme. These paintings are always moving, sometimes horrific. Visitors to this site will know my predilection for early art. To my mind, their simplicity and directness makes the message even more powerful. So, to start with, two versions by Giotto. Fascinating to compare them.
Note Herod himself giving orders from his balcony.

Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi

Scrovegni chapel, Padua

Fra  Angelico: San Marco, Florence

Duccio: Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

Ghirlandaio:Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Pieter Bruegel: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
A massacre set in Flanders: note the typical Dutch church in the background. The scene reflects the Spanish brutality in Flanders at the time the picture was painted.

   Finally, an oddity by Cornelis van Harlem. Why did the soldiers think it was a good idea to do their massacring with no clothes on?

Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem

Life  of the Virgin Index

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