Massacre of the Innocents

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The Holy Innocents by .
The Holy Innocents by Giotto di Bondone.

The Massacre of the Innocents is the name given to the infanticide in Bethlehem, according to the Gospel of Matthew 2:1618:

"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. — New International Version.

On hearing the Magi ask for "He that is born King of the Jews", Herod, the Roman client-king in Judea, felt his throne was in jeopardy. He ordered the murder of all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two, to be secure. However, Joseph, Mary and Jesus had fled to Egypt after they had been warned by an angel, the theme of the "Flight into Egypt".

Though Christian exegesis follows the author of Matthew in identifying a prophetic allusion from Jeremiah 31:15, skeptical readers see this and other episodes in the gospel narratives as expressly crafted for the purpose of recording apparently fulfilled prophecy. The Massacre of the Innocents is not mentioned in any other canonical gospel, nor by Josephus, who records other atrocities, nor by any other secular historian.

Even if the event is true, given the fact that Bethlehem was a minuscule village at that time, "Bethlehem and its vicinity" might have had a very small number of boys aged two and under. Albright and Mann estimate the village would have had only some 300 people at the time, Raymond E. Brown estimates it was around a thousand. Either of the figures would mean at most only a few dozen children killed. This would not have been a particularly large atrocity for the period and thus might not have been mentioned by Josephus and other historians.

The early churches had much higher estimates for the number killed. The Byzantine liturgy had 14,000 Holy Innocents and an early Syrian list of saints states that there were 64,000. Modern scholars consider these numbers deeply implausible.

Feast days

The Massacre of the Innocents first appears as a feast of the western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485. The feast has formerly been called Childermas, Children's Mass, Holy Innocents' Day, though probably not Herodmas. The Eastern Orthodox Church calls the victims "Holy Innocents", the first martyrs for Jesus Christ, and commemorates them each year on December 27. The Roman Catholic Church and Church of England (as The Holy Innocents) commemorate it on December 28. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,

The Latins keep it on December 28, the Greeks on December 29 [of the unreformed liturgical calendar], the Syrians and Chaldeans on 27 December.

In Spain and Iberoamerica, December 28 is a day for pranks, equivalent to April Fool's Day in many countries. Prank victims are called inocentes. In some cultures it is said to be an unlucky day and no new project should be started.

Missing image
Rubens' Massacre of the Innocents sold for over 75 million USD at a 2002 auction

In art

The theme of the "Massacre of the Innocents" has provided artists with opportunities to compose complicated depictions of massed bodies in violent action. Artistsa of the Renaissance took inspiration for their "Massacres" from Roman reliefs of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs to the extent that they showed the figures heroically nude [1] ( Guido Reni's early (1611) Massacre of the Innocents, in an unusual vertical format, is at Bologna [2] (

Peter Paul Rubens painted the theme more than once. One version, now in Munich, was engraved and reproduced as a painting as far away as colonial Peru [3] ( Another, his hectic Massacre of the Innocents is one of the most valuable paintings in the world, after being purchased by Kenneth Thomson, 2nd Baron Thomson of Fleet for 49.5 million GBP (then equal to some $76.7 million USD) at a 2002 Sotheby's auction [4] ( (see List of most expensive paintings).

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