Category Archives: Holy Innocents

Dec 28 – Is the massacre of the Holy Innocents historical? Mt 2:16-18


-Matteo di Giovanni, a tempera on panel painting by Matteo di Giovanni, produced between 1450 and 1500 possibly in 1468, 1478, 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.  Please click on the image for greater detail.

“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.””
-Mt 2:16-18

Jewish historian Josephus mentions 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

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.”

Coventry Carol

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay”?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”

The commemoration of the massacre of the 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 AD. The earliest commemorations were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January: Prudentius mentions the Innocents in his hymn on the Epiphany.  Pope St Leo the Great in his homilies on the Epiphany speaks of the Innocents. Fulgentius of Ruspe (6th century AD) 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”).


-by Trent Horn

“Matthew 2:12 tells us that the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod the Great after visiting Jesus and his family, and so they departed for their country by another way. Herod, upon realizing their failure to report to him, subsequently ordered all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two to be executed (Matt. 2:16). Atheist C.J. Werleman wrote of this story:

[T]here is no record of King Herod or any Roman ruler ever giving such an infanticidal statute. In fact, the ancient historian Josephus, who extensively recorded Herod’s crimes, does not mention this baby murdering, which would undoubtedly have been Herod’s greatest crime by far.

Now, it is true that Matthew did not intend to write a literal history of Jesus’ birth. The evangelist uses various narrative devices in order to underscore the reality of Jesus being the “new Moses.” On that view, one of those devices could be the creation of a story that parallels the slaughter of the Hebrew infants from which Moses was spared (Exod. 1:22).

But this approach to Scripture often evinces a “hermeneutic of suspicion” and begins with an assumption that denies not just the miraculous but also the providential. From this perspective, real historical events can’t “rhyme” with one another in order to demonstrate God’s sovereignty over time and space. Any such “marvelous coincidences” have to be explained as the inventions of a rather mundane author who is just riffing on older source material.

The evidence does not, however, point to the Gospels being such purely allegorical accounts. Matthew’s narrative diverges significantly from Moses’ birth story. For example, Jesus is raised by his mother instead of in Herod’s court and Moses flees as an adult from Egypt whereas Jesus flees as a child to Egypt. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI wrote,

What Matthew and Luke set out to do each in his own way, was not to tell “stories” but to write history, real history that had actually happened, admittedly interpreted and understood in the context of the word of God. Hence the aim was not to produce an exhaustive account, but a record of what seemed important for the nascent faith community in the light of the word. The infancy narratives are interpreted history, condensed and written down in accordance with the interpretation.

But what about the argument from silence that atheists like Werleman make? If this massacre really did happen, then why didn’t any other author—biblical or non-biblical—record it?

First, Mark and John do not discuss any of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, so we wouldn’t expect them to talk about the slaughter of the innocents. Second, Luke and Matthew’s accounts are complementary, not redundant, and so it isn’t surprising that there are details unique to each account be it Matthew’s description of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents or Luke’s description of Caesar Augustus’ enrollment of the population in what later authors describe as a “census” (Luke 2:1).

Such an act of cruelty perfectly corresponds with Herod’s paranoid and merciless character, which bolsters the argument for its historicity. Josephus records that Herod was quick to execute anyone he perceived to threaten his rule, including his wife and children (Antiquities 15.7.5–6 and 16.11.7). Two Jewish scholars have made the case that Herod suffered from “Paranoid Personality Disorder,” and Caesar Augustus even said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son.

In addition, first-century Bethlehem was a small village that would have included, at most, a dozen males under the age of two. Josephus, if he even knew about the massacre, probably did not think an isolated event like the killings at Bethlehem needed to be recorded, especially since infanticide in the Roman Empire was not a moral abomination as it is in our modern Western world.

Herod’s massacre would also not have been the first historical event Josephus failed to record.

We know from Suetonius and from the book of Acts that the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in A.D. 49, but neither Josephus nor the second century Roman historian Tacitus record this event (Acts 18). Josephus also failed to record Pontius Pilate’s decision to install blasphemous golden shields in Jerusalem, which drove the Jews to petition the emperor for their removal. The Alexandrian philosopher Philo was the only person to record this event.

Sometimes historians choose not to record an event, and their reasons cannot always be determined. In the nineteenth century Pope Leo XIII noted the double standard in critics for whom “a profane book or ancient document is accepted without hesitation, whilst the Scripture, if they only find in it a suspicion of error, is set down with the slightest possible discussion as quite untrustworthy” (Providentissimus Deus, 20).

We should call out this double standard when critics demand that every event recorded in Scripture, including the massacre of the Holy Innocents, be corroborated in other non-biblical accounts before they can be considered to be historical.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Dec 28 – Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, “They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ”


-detail of Une Scene du Massacre des Innocents (A Scene of the Massacre of the Innocents), Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre (1714-1789), undated

[Feast of the Holy Innocents, also called Childermas, or Innocents’ Day, festival celebrated in the Christian churches in the West on December 28 and in the Eastern churches on December 29 and commemorating the massacre of the children by King Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16–18). These children were regarded by the early church as the first martyrs, but it is uncertain when the day was first kept as a saint’s day. At first it may have been celebrated with Epiphany, but by the 5th century it was kept as a separate festival. In Rome it was a day of fasting and mourning.

It was one of a series of days known as the Feast of Fools, and the last day of authority for boy bishops. Parents temporarily abdicated authority. In convents and monasteries the youngest nun and monk were allowed to act as abbess and abbot for the day. These customs, which mocked religion, were condemned by the Council of Basel (1431).

In medieval England the children were reminded of the mournfulness of the day by being whipped in bed in the morning; this custom survived into the 17th century.

The day is still observed as a feast day and, in Roman Catholic countries, as a day of merrymaking for children.]


-partially restored and enhanced St Quodvultdeus mosaic portrait (San Gennaro catacombs, Naples), Unknown artist, 5th century

-from a sermon by Saint Quodvultdeus, bishop (Sermo 2 de Symbolo: PL 40, 655) and spiritual student or “directee”, friend, and correspondent of St. Augustine, Second Reading, Office of Readings, Liturgy of the Hours for December 28th, Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs.

“A tiny child is born, Who is a great king. Wise men are led to Him from afar [Matthew 2:1]. They come to adore One Who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of One Who is born a king, Herod is disturbed [cf Matthew 2:3]. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill Him, though if he would have faith in the Child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come.

Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child Whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.

You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life Himself.

Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace – so small, yet so great – Who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out His own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.

The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The Child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to Himself. See the kind of kingdom that is His, coming as He did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the savior already working salvation.

But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying Him homage, and do not know it.

How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.

Love,
Matthew

Dec 28 – Holy Innocents

My novice master, Fr. Ambrose Eckinger, O.P., previously a barber in secular life, who insisted as part of our poverty we learn to cut each other’s hair!, silliest thing I ever was ordered to do, IMHO, and a cliché rotund friar, think jovial cookie jar, an excellent organist, and whose Christian name was previously Joseph, had just returned from Rome prior to accepting the office of novice master for the province of St Joseph.  There he collected “goodies”.  One of the “goodies” he collected were religious medals only to be found in Rome – the good stuff, literally.  Cannot be had/found here, for any price.

Novices and postulants to Catholic religious orders are held in special affection as the youngest, as children would be in a family, and as the future and the potential glory of the Order in the service of God Himself, alone. In some monasteries, the normal order of seniority, aka, order of religion, as in whom entered the order the earliest, not necessarily strictly age, is reversed on the feast, as a kind of humor and lesson in humility for all.

On the Feast of the Holy Innocents 1988, Fr. Ambrose presented to each novice a medal of the Holy Innocents containing a third class relic (LONG, technical explanation, if you are not familiar).  It being very fine, I placed mine on the beautiful, fine, nicest I EVER received, saw, was given, made in France rosary given me by the very young, blonde, most attractive Dominican Sister of Nashville, for whose grade school class I was mascot.

You’re not really Catholic until you’ve got many, high quality, jingly-jangly, coveted religious medals, four to a Pater Noster, as you WORK the beads!, hanging from the rosary you will be buried with, or hope to.  The rosary is held in special esteem by the Order of Preachers.  By legend, given to St Dominic himself by the Blessed Mother, it is the Dominican sword, always worn to the left by the right-handed and vice-versa for easy and immediate withdrawal from the scabbard as a spiritual weapon.  And, oh, what a weapon.  Just ask the Saracens at Lepanto!

We keep that rosary in the safe deposit box along with the wills, jewels, emeralds, diamonds, rubies, krugerrands, (just kidding on the rubies), and other items I require I be buried with including most touching letters of thanks I have received from survivors of clergy sexual abuse.  Proof for Jesus, upon my Resurrection, as if He needed any.  Kelly has express instructions.  God have mercy on our souls.

I believe God and a mother’s love are the two most powerful forces in the Universe.  I witnessed this as a son.  I witness this even more profoundly and have ever more irrefutable proof of said every day.  I stagger back and fall down.  My breath is withdrawn from me.  I tremble, literally, in fear, so powerful is this force.  The very incarnation (small “I”) of God’s love for His people.  I am not being facetious.  Fatherhood has NOTHING analogous.

Mt 2:18

Hymn: Salvete Flores

All Hail! ye infant Martyr flowers,
Cut off in life’s first dawning hours:
As rosebuds snapt in temptest strife,
When Herod sought your Savior’s life.

You, tender flock of lambs, we sing,
First victims slain for Christ your King:
Beside the very altar, gay
With palms and crowns, ye seem to play.

All honor, laud, and glory be,
O Jesu, Virgin-born, to Thee;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To Father and to Paraclete.

Merry Christmas,
Matthew