Massacre of the Innocents
INNOCENTS, MASSACRE OF THE. This is the conventional name given to the slaughter by Herod of children two years old and under in Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Christ (
The statement of the Wise Men about a child to be born in Bethlehem who would become “
Matthew sees in this incident a fulfillment of
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
I. MEANING AND HISTORY OF THE TERM
II. ANALYSIS OF NARRATIVE WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO MOTIVE
1. Focus of Narrative--Residence at Nazareth
2. Corollaries from Above Facts
3. Marks of Historicity
I. Meaning and History of the Term.
The conventional, ecclesiastical name given to the slaughter by HEROD, I (which see) of children two years old and under in Bethlehem and its environs at the time of the birth of Christ (
Irenaeus (died 202 AD) calls these children "martyrs," and in a very beautiful passage interprets the tragedy which ended their brief lives as a gracious and tender "sending before" into His kingdom by the Lord Himself.
Cyprian (died 258 AD) says: "That it might be manifest that they who are slain for Christ’s sake are innocent, innocent infancy was put to death for his name’s sake" (Ep. lv. 6).
Augustine (born 354 AD), following Cyprian, speaks of the children, formally, as "the Innocents" (Commentary on
The ecclesiastical treatment of the incident is remarkable because of the exaggeration which was indulged in as to the extent of the massacre and the number of victims. At an early date the Greek church canonized 14,000, and afterward, by a curious misinterpretation of
According to Milman the liturgy of the
II. Analysis of Narrative with Special Reference to Motive.
In estimating the value of such a narrative from the viewpoint of historicity, the first and most important step is to gauge the motive. Why was the story told? This question is not always easy to answer, but in the present instance there is a very simple and effective test at hand.
1. Focus of Narrative--Residence at Nazareth:
In Matthew’s infancy section (
(1) at the
(2) at the birth at Bethlehem (
(3) at the visit to Egypt (
(4) at the murder of the children (
(5) at the Nazareth residence (
It will be noticed at once as peculiar and significant that no quotation is attached to the visit of the Magi. This omission is the more noteworthy because in
This brings the narrative of Matthew into striking relationship with that of Luke. The latter’s concern is to show how it was that the Messiah who lived at Nazareth was born at Bethlehem. We have here one of the undesigned unities which bind together these two narratives which are seemingly so divergent. That Matthew says nothing about a previous residence at Nazareth and that Luke says nothing about a forced return thither may be explained, in accordance with the balance of probabilities, on the ground, either that each evangelist was ignorant of the fact omitted by himself, or that in his condensed and rapid statement he did not see fit to mention it. In any case the harmony immeasurably outweighs the discrepancy.
2. Corollaries from Above Facts:
The fact that the focus of the entire narrative lies in the residence of Jesus at Nazareth effectually disposes of a number of current hypotheses as to its origin.
(1) The idea that it is merely legend told for the purpose of literary embellishment. The dovetailing of what would be the main item into the rest of the narrative and its subordination to secondary features cannot be explained on this hypothesis. The absence of adornment by available passages from the Old Testament alone is conclusive on this point (see Allen, "Matthew," ICC, 14, 15).
(2) The idea that the story is told for the purpose of illustrating the scope of the Messiah’s influence beyond Israel. Here, again, the subordinate position assigned to the story of the Magi together with the absence of Old Testament material is conclusive. Moreover, the history of the Magi is abruptly dropped with the statement of their return home. Interest in them flags as soon as their brief connection with the movement of the history through Herod ceases. And the intensely Hebraic character of Matthew’s infancy section as a whole is incidental evidence pointing in the same direction (compare remarks of the writer, Birth and Infancy of, 70 f).
(3) The idea that the story is told to emphasize the wonder-element in connection with the birth of Christ. The facts contradict this. In addition to the primary consideration, the subordinate position, there are others of great value. That the Magi were providentially guided to the feet of the Messiah is evidently the firm conviction of the narrator. The striking feature of the story is that with this belief in his mind he keeps so strictly within the limits of the natural order. In
It is also evident that
We may now glance at the positive evidence for the historicity of the event.
3. Marks of Historicity:
(1) The centering of the narrative upon the residence of Jesus at Nazareth. This not only brings Luke’s Gospel in support of the center, but groups the story around a point of known interest to the first generation of believers. It is interesting to note that the residence in Egypt has independent backing of a sort. There are in existence two stories, one traced by Origen through Jews of his own day to earlier times, and the other in the Talmud, which connect Jesus with Egypt and attempt to account for His miracles by reference to Egyptian magic (see Plummer, "Matthew," Ex. Comm., 17,18).
(2) The fact that the story of the Magi is told so objectively and with such personal detachment. Both Jews and early Christians had strong views both as to astrology and magic in general (see Plummer, op. cit., 15), but the author of this Gospel tells the story without emphasis and without comment and from the viewpoint of the Magi. His interest is purely historical and matter-of-fact.
(3) The portrait of Herod the Great. So far as Herod is concerned the incident is usually discussed with exclusive reference to the savagery involved. By many it is affirmed that we have here a hostile and unfair portrait. This contention could hardly be sustained even if the question turned entirely upon the point of savagery. But there is far more than savagery in the incident.
(a) In the first place there is this undeniable element of inherent probability in the story. Practically all of Herod’s murders, including those of his beloved wife and his sons, were perpetrated under the sway of one emotion and in obedience to a single motive. They were in practically every instance for the purpose of consolidating or perpetuating his power. He nearly destroyed his own immediate family in the half-mad jealousy that on occasion drove him to the very limits of ferocity, simply because they were accused of plotting against him. The accusations were largely false, but the suspicion doomed those accused. The murder of the Innocents was another crime of the same sort. The old king was obsessed by the fear of a claimant to his petty throne; the Messianic hope of the Jews was a perpetual secret torment, and the murder of the children, in the attempt to reach the child whose advent threatened him, was at once so original in method and so characteristic in purpose as to give an inimitable veri-similitude to the whole narrative. There are also other traits of truth.
(b) Herod’s prompt discovery of the visit of the Magi and their questions is in harmony with what we know of the old ruler’s watchfulness and his elaborate system of espionage.
(c) Characteristic also is the subtlety with which he deals with the whole situation. How striking and vivid, with all its rugged simplicity, is the story of the king’s pretended interest in the quest of the strangers, the solemn conclave of Jewish leaders with himself in the role of earnest inquirer, his urgent request for information that he may worship also, followed by his swift anger (note that ethumothe, "was wroth," verse 16, is not used elsewhere in the New Testament) at being deceived, and the blind but terrible stroke of his questing vengeance.
All these items are so true to the man, to the atmosphere which always surrounded him, and to the historic situation, that we are forced to conclude, either that we have veracious history more or less directly received from one who was an observer of the events described, or the work of an incomparably clever romancer.