Innocents, Massacre Of The


in'-o-sents, mas'-a-ker,



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 (Matthew 2:16). The accepted title for this event may be traced through Augustine to Cyprian.

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 Psalms 43:5).

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 Revelation 14:1,3, the number was increased to 144,000.

According to Milman the liturgy of the Church of England retains a reminiscence of this ancient error in the use of Revelation 14 on Holy Innocents' Day (see History of Christianity, I, 107, note e). This exaggeration, of which there is no hint in the New Testament, is worthy of note because the most serious general argument against the historicity of the narrative is drawn from the silence of Josephus. As in all probability there could not have been more than twenty children involved (compare Farrar, Life of Christ, I, 45, note), the incident could not have bulked very largely in the series of horrors perpetrated or planned by Herod in the last months of his life (see Farrar, The Herods, 144 f) .

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 (248/A>) there are five quotations from the Old Testament which are set into the narrative of events. These five quotations represent the cardinal and outstanding points of interest. The quotations are placed thus:

(1) at the Virgin Birth (Matthew 1:23);

(2) at the birth at Bethlehem (Matthew 2:6);

(3) at the visit to Egypt (Matthew 2:15);

(4) at the murder of the children (Matthew 2:18);

(5) at the Nazareth residence (Matthew 2:23).

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 Numbers 24:7; Psalms 72:15; Isaiah 60:6, and numerous references to the ingathering of the Gentiles there are such beautiful and appropriate passages to link with the visit of the strangers from the far East. This peculiar omission, on the part of a writer so deeply interested in prophecy and its fulfillment and so keen to seize upon appropriate and suggestive harmonies, in a section constructed with a view to such harmonies, can be explained only on the ground that the visit of the Magi did not, in the writer's view of events, occupy a critical point of especial interest. Their visit is told, not for its own sake, but because of its connection with the murder of the children and the journey to Egypt. The murder of the children is of interest because it discloses the character of Herod and the perils surrounding the newborn Messiah. It also explains the visit to Egypt and the subsequent residence at Nazareth. The latter is evidently the objective point, because it is given a place by itself and marked by a quotation. Moreover, the one evidence of overstrain in the narrative is in the ambiguous and obscure statement by which the Old Testament is brought into relationship with the Nazareth residence. The center of interest in the entire section which is concerned with Herod and the Magi is the Nazareth residence. The story is told for the express purpose of explaining why the heir of David, who was born at Bethlehem, lived at Nazareth.

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 Jesus Christ, 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 Matthew 2:9 and 12 only is there apparent exception. Of these the statement in 2:9 is the only one peculiar to this part of the narrative. Two things are to be remembered concerning it:

It is clear that the verse cannot be interpreted apart from a clear understanding of the whole astronomical occurrence of which it forms a part.

It is also evident that Matthew 2:9 must not be interpreted apart from the context. From the viewpoint of a wonder-tale the writer makes a fatal blunder at the most critical point of his story. The popular notion that the Magi were miraculously led to the Messiah finds no support in the text. The Magi did not come to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem, asking:

"Where is he that is born King of the Jews?" Matthew 2:9 comes after this statement and after the conclave called by Herod in which Bethlehem was specified. In view of all this it seems clear that the Magi were led, not miraculously, but in accordance with the genius of their own system, and that the Providential element lay in the striking coincidence of their visit and the birth of Jesus. The interest of the writer was not in the wonder-element, else, infallibly, he would have sharpened its outlines and expurgated all ambiguity as to the nature of the occurrence.

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.

Louis Matthews Sweet

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'INNOCENTS, MASSACRE OF THE'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.