The Slaughter of the Innocents


16 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 inquired of the wise men.

17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,

18 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.

The above quoted passage from Matthew 2 is often referred to as the “Slaughter (or Massacre) of the Innocents.” Most aspects of the nativity are memorialized in numerous Christmas carols, but this one, understandably, not so much. The mass killing of babies just isn’t the kind of thing we really want to think too much about as part of our holiday observance.

One song that actually goes there is Coventry Carol. The song dates to no later than the 16th century and was originally part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, which was originally performed by the two guilds at Coventry. Here is the original Early Modern English text:

Lully, lulla, thow littell tine child,
By by, lully, lullay thow littell tyne child,
By by, lully, lullay!
O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This pore yongling for whom we do singe
By by, lully, lullay?
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Chargid he hath this day
His men of might in his owne sight
All yonge children to slay,—
That wo is me, pore child, for thee,
And ever morne and may
For thi parting nether say nor singe,
By by, lully, lullay.

So this all raises the question: Did this actually happen? My impression is that the majority view among scholars is no, it didn’t. What’s the rationale for that position? Basically two things. First, the account occurs only in the Gospel of Matthew (and later sources influenced by the Gospel). It is not attested in either the Gospel of Luke or any secular source, including in particular Josephus, who was not shy about cataloging Herod’s atrocities (such as killing three of his own sons). Second, Matthew’s penchant for sometimes trying a little too hard to create narratives that can be characterized as fulfilling OT prophecy (such as the allusion here to Jeremiah 31:15) make some leery of accepting this account at face value.

But is it possible that the story is nonetheless true? Sure. The minority position that accepts the historicity of the account is pretty much a plausibility argument. The way the text portrays Herod, with his extreme paranoia at threats to his rule and his viciousness in putting them down, is certainly an accurate characterization of the man.

Also, one can argue that it’s not a given Josephus would have included such a story in his history. To our eyes it is obviously a tremendous atrocity. But Josephus is arguably writing primarily for the Roman elite, not local Jews, and infanticide was a common practice among Romans, being used basically as a form of birth control.

Later tradition greatly exaggerated the likely number of children killed. The Byzantine liturgy places the number at 14,000 and the Syrian tradition says 64,000 innocent children were killed. But Bethlehem was a very small place, with perhaps 300 residents, maybe 1000 if you count the surrounding region. Romans would be interested in the intrigue of Herod killing his own family members, but may not have particularly cared about nameless rabble in a hamlet away from the seat of power being killed.

So did it happen or did it not? Beats me. Ultimately I’m agnostic on the issue. But I don’t need the account to be historical to be profoundly moved by it. And Coventry Carol with its somber subject matter and haunting melody continues to be one of my very favorite Christmas carols.





  1. It is certainly historically doubtful, but the Massacre of the Innocents is enormously important to the typology of the New Testament. It occurs in a passage that is almost entirely devoted to showing how Christ’s birth fits into Old Testament prophecy, In the same way that Matthew 1 is designed to connect Christ to David with genealogy, Matthew 2 is designed to connect Christ to Moses by giving them similar origin stories. And then, Matthew had to get Christ to Egypt somehow so he could fulfill yet another prophecy.

  2. If this event is inserted into the gospel only with intent to paint the birth of Christ as a fulfillment of prophecy, then the author of Matthew had an advantage over Jeremiah in the telling of it.

    In Jeremiah, the passage is prophetic and theoretical and impersonal, and need not ever happen at all if Israel turns again to God. In Matthew, though, it is real, not theoretical; in his telling it happened to flesh and blood babies and to their mothers. Instead of the warning in Jeremiah, Rachel’s cry has become heart-rending fact in Matthew: “Lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.” (Jeremiah has been translated as “because they were not” — even the subjunctive there says that it is not (yet) real.)

    On the other hand, Jeremiah takes a longer view, with a hope that Matthew doesn’t explicitly give us: “Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears … they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope … that thy children shall come again to their own border.” Well, maybe not entirely absent in Matthew, but promised indirectly: In Matthew, one Child does “come again to [His] own border,” and through Him, all those other lost children will “come again from the land of the enemy.”

    It isn’t a merry story, but is still a moving one.

  3. The arguments against historicity are legion. Josephus would have likely chronicled this atrocity since he hated Herod and went of his way to report to the Romans every one of Herod’s misdeeds.

    Even more difficult for those who try to defend the historical accuracy of this story is the fact Herod likely would have had his spies follow the wise men he had commissioned to search for the Christ child. And if he had neglected to do that, imagine the attention that would have been drawn to Bethlehem by the ambulatory star and the visit of royalty from out of town. In a community that small, everyone would have eventually learned of their final destination. Herod wouldn’t have had to randomly slaughter babies—he could have simply asked: “Where can I find Mary and Joseph?”

    Much of the infancy narratives in both Matthew and Luke are myths—but myths that contain valuable theological truths, which is why I believe these stories are true, but not in a factual sense. In the case of the slaughter of the innocents, I believe Matthew, in addition to bending over backwards to fulfill an ancient prophecy, was drawing a parallel with two of the seminal events of the Old Testament: (1) the plot of Joseph’s brothers to kill him, that was thwarted by his brother, Reuben, allowing his life to be spared, but at the cost of being sold into slavery in Egypt, and, as Michael noted above, (2) the life of Moses, a baby whose death was also ordered by an evil king (pharaoh) and who came out of Egypt to lead his people to the promised land. In Matthew’s eyes, Christ was a second Moses.

    The brilliant Catholic theologian, Raymond Brown, in his magnum opus, “The Birth of the Messiah,” reveals many of these insights for those who are willing to set aside the shackles of scriptural literalism and scriptural inerrancy. And if you do not want to take on this scholarly tome, I highly recommend his much shorter distillation of these topics in “A Coming Christ in Advent” and “An Adult Christ at Christmas.” Excellent Christmas reading.

  4. Another alternative is that Matthew’s account somewhat alters (in order to make a theological / typological point, maybe?) the account that is actually found in Josephus. I’ve often been intrigued by the similarity between this story and what Josephus records in Antiquities 17.2.4. According to Josephus, Herod slaughtered Pharisees and some of his household that had been prophesying a new miraculous kingly line that would take power from him and give it to his brother, Pheroras. The story even has an element of the “census” from Luke in it, when all the Jews gave assurance of their goodwill to Caesar, but these Pharisees refuse to do so.

  5. felixfabulous says:

    Thank you for the interesting post and good comments discussion. If you haven’t heard this, it’s worth a listen I think all evidence indicates the gospel writers were setting up a literary narrative and not writing a factual historical account. It seems like mainline protestants have largely accepted this, but it’s uncomfortable territory for many Mormons (mainly because a lot of our other scripture and theology is built on a literal interpretation). Matthew’s narrative was designed to ring all kinds of bells with the Jewish readers, Herod being like Pharaoh by slaughtering the infants, the irony of Jesus fleeing Pharaoh and going back into Egypt instead of out of it. As has been pointed out in the other comments, Matthew really tries hard to link back to the OT and show fulfillment of prophecy, even misusing Isaiah’s prophecy of a virgin conceiving. Also, notice how both Matthew and Luke need to reconcile Jesus being born in Bethlehem (to fulfill prophecy) with the fact that he grew up in Nazareth (which was well established at the time). Matthew does this by having Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem and then move to Nazareth, Luke does it by having them go to Bethlehem for the census/taxation. These are different stories used to accomplish the literary purpose of showing the fulfillment of prophecy and that Jesus is the Messiah. There are many beautiful layers and truths in each of the accounts, I agree that these can become more interesting and meaningful once we unloose the shackles of literalism.

  6. Eric Facer says:

    felixfabulous, one of the arguments advanced by Brown to show that these accounts are not historical is the sheer number of Old Testament and other parallels that appear in each–far too numerous to be coincidental.

    Also, one of the most fascinating chapters in his book “A Coming Christ in Advent” is his dissection of the genealogy of Christ in the first chapter of Matthew. He makes a compelling argument that the lineage set forth here is not accurate; rather, its primary purpose is to reveal important aspects of his earthly ministry and the people to whom he would direct his message (e.g., the poor, the outcasts, second-class citizens, such as women and children, etc.).

    One of my favorite parts of “An Adult Christ at Christmas” is his discussion of the universal Augustinian census (“all the world to be taxed”) — something that Augustus does not appear to have ever done during his long reign — which Luke manufactured to juxtapose him with Christ.

    Augustus’ years in power were some of the most peaceful and prosperous of the Roman empire, so much so that he was deified by his admirers (something, not surprisingly, he actively promoted). An example of this adoration—something Luke, given his Greek/gentile heritage was likely aware of—is a monument erected in Augustus’ honor around 10 B.C., a monument that still stands in Rome today. He was hailed by his subjects as “the savior of the whole world” and the inscription on this monument reads: “The birthday of the god [Augustus] marked the beginning of the good news for the world.” Luke contrives an Augustinian census to contradict that assertion, showing that, paradoxically, the edict of Augustus served to provide a setting for the true Savior of the world and bringer of good news.

  7. Glenn Thigpen says:

    I don’t think that the there is no mention by Josephus of a massacre by Herod is problematic since it appears that Josephus was born in 37 CE or A.D. whichever one prefers, some some forty-one years after Herod died.

  8. I am no historian. i am way out of my depth in this discussion. Recently my daughter gave me a book on Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. The book describes an astonishing series of blood-thirsty rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty that governed Egypt for about 10 generations, Cleopatra was probably the best/worst of the bunch. Hardly a single royal member on this family tree was not murdered by and/or murdered their own children, siblings, spouses, etc. All of Cleopatra’s siblings faced violent deaths at the hands of other family members. The best one could hope for was an opportunity to commit suicide to avoid torture and a horrible death at the hands of a rival as did Cleopatra. If that was how royalty was treated, then the common people were slaughtered frequently in small and great numbers on whims with hardly a second thought. Absence of evidence is hardly evidence of absence at that time.

    In the contest of this history I think what Herod did or might have done was actually quite the norm for the times.The Romans were brutal and not a bit more civilized than the rest when it came to torture, slaughter and settling political rivalry with murder. Herod had every reason to be paranoid since he was a rival of Cleopatra and she would have not hesitated to torture and kill him (she tried) as would most of his other rival rulers. Herod murdering his own sons was really not a big deal, perhaps even expected and worthy of no more than a yawn. Modern sensibilities get in the way of understanding these people, especially when we think we are the wickedest people to ever live.

  9. The fact that Josephus does not mention it may not be a problem because of the small scope you mention. A Bethlehem of 300 (or fewer by some estimations) people would only have a half dozen or so children under 2. Prophetically significant, but not necessarily a historical scale.

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