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  1. a day to commemorate the killing of the Holy Innocents. Variously held on 28th December in the Western Church and 29th December in the Eastern Church. In Spanish speaking countries this is often a prank filled day like April Fools' Day.


day commemorating the killing of the Holy Innocents

Extensive Definition

For the painting by Peter Paul Rubens, see "Massacre of the Innocents (Rubens)".
The Massacre of the Innocents is an episode of infanticide by Herod the Great, that appears in the Gospel of Matthew (). It is not mentioned in the other gospels, nor does it figure in the early apocrypha, with the exception of the Protoevangelium of James 22. Matthew relates that King Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the village of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn "King of the Jews" whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi.
Most modern biographers of Herod do not regard the massacre as an actual historical event. Many scholars portray this and other nativity stories as creative hagiography rather than history.

Church tradition

The episode

According to Matthew, when the Magi (popularly known as the "Three Wise Men") sought out the birth of Jesus, they first visited Herod the Great to ask if he knew the correct location. On hearing the Magi ask for He that is born King of the Jews, Herod, the Roman client king in Judea, feeling that his throne was in jeopardy, asked the Magi to find the child and return to tell him so that he may worship him, with the hidden intention of killing the identified child immediately. When the Magi, warned in dreams of the king's true intentions, returned home by a different route to avoid being forced to betray the child, Herod ordered the slaughter of all male children who were two years old and under. Fortunately for them, according to Matthew, Joseph, Mary and Jesus had fled to Egypt after they had been warned by an angel. Jesus thus avoided being killed.

The scale of the event

The passage specifically describes this event as happening in Bethlehem, which would probably have been a small village, and the surrounding rural areas. The Byzantine liturgy had 14,000 Holy Innocents and an early Syrian list of saints states that there were 64,000. The Catholic Encyclopedia in 1910 suggested that these numbers were probably inflated, and that for a town of that size probably only between six and twenty children would be killed, with a dozen or so more in the surrounding areas.

The prophecy of Jeremiah

According to the gospel of Matthew, the massacre fulfilled a verse of Jeremiah (31:15), interpreted as a prophecy of this event: "Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children."
Jews do not interpret the quotation as a prophecy at all, but as a poetic description of the Babylonian exile. This is reflected in the next verse, , in which God asks "Rachel" to stop crying, because her children "shall come again from the land of the enemy." According to some interpreters, this is actually the purpose of Matthew for including Jeremiah's words: he does not mean to connect the reference to "weeping" with the slaughtered Bethlehemite babies, but with the infant Jesus, who has gone to a foreign land like Israel had before him. However, he is going to be led back by God (31:16). Although the quotation in Matthew is from Jeremiah, the Old Syriac Codex Sinaiticus referred to Isaiah. Some textual critics conclude that the mistake occurred in the original manuscript, and was corrected in later copies.


The Massacre of the Innocents is not mentioned in the other gospels nor in the early apocrypha except for the Protoevangelium of James 22: "And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall. And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them."
Currently there exists no historical or archaeological evidence of this event having actually happened aside from the account by Matthew. The Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37–c.100) who wrote about the period, makes no mention of this event, but does record Herod's cruelty in other incidents. Many scholars argue that the account was invented to glorify Jesus.
Matthew's nativity story, including the massacre, is presented as showing Jesus to be the Messiah, in fulfilment of a prophecy from the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:15). Raymond Brown suggests that the account in Matthew is based on an earlier narrative, patterned on the events in Exodus regarding the killing of the Hebrew firstborn by Pharaoh and the birth of Moses, a connection which would have readily been understood by a Jewish audience. Some Christians doubt the event on ethical grounds, as Paul L. Maier explains: "believers are used to Jesus dying for people, not people dying for Jesus ... when the 'people' are babies, it becomes easier to doubt Matthew than wrestle with theodicy".

Defending the massacre's historicity

Other scholars, some of whom are cited below, defend the massacre as something that Herod was cruel enough to do and small enough to pass without remark outside the Gospel of Matthew.
Josephus records Herod's execution of two of his sons and his wife Mariamne because he believed they posed a threat. The execution of the two sons, whom Josephus describes as young men, has been represented by Robert Eisenman as the original that inspired the account in Matthew, since his two sons were the Jewish children that Herod believed had sought to replace him. Josephus records several examples of Herod’s willingness to commit such acts to protect his power against perceived threats, but suggests that not all such acts were recorded, as he summarizes that Herod "never stopped avenging and punishing every day those who had chosen to be of the party of his enemies." "Such a massacre," Francis Wright Beare observes, "is indeed quite in keeping with the character of Herod, who did not hesitate to put to death any who might be a threat to his power."
The Catholic Encyclopedia in 1910 argued that the Matthew Gospel account "is not contradicted by the mere silence of Josephus; for the latter follows Nicholas of Damascus, to whom, as a courtier, Herod was a hero." It also cited an 1897 book by A. J. Maas: "Cruel as the slaughter may appear to us, it disappears among the cruelties of Herod. It cannot, then, surprise us that history does not speak of it".

Extra-Biblical references

The assumption of Moses

Assumption of Moses 6:2–6:
An insolent king will succeed [the Hasmonean priests]… he will slay all the young.
This passage from the Assumption of Moses, dating to the first century, has been interpreted as a reference to the massacre of the innocents by E. Stauffer, who wrote, “Therefore the paragraph about the murder of ‘the young’ can only be pointing to a massacre of children en masse in the Pharaonic manner.”


In the fourth century, the Roman philosopher Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius gave the following comment in his Saturnalia:
When Augustus heard that Herod king of the Jews had ordered all the boys in Syria under the age of two years to be put to death and that the king's son was among those killed, he said, "I'd rather be Herod's sow than Herod’s son." ― Macrobius, The Saturnalia, trans. Percival Davies (New York 1969), 171. It was probably a pun in Greek: hus being pig and huios meaning son. Macrobius places the massacre in the Roman province of Syria (which at that time included Judaea) and combines it with the separate killing of one of Herod's sons. However, since Herod, as a nominal adherent to Judaism, would not eat pork, his pigs were safe, unlike his sons.

In art

Medieval liturgical drama recounted Biblical events, including Herod's slaughter of the innocents. The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, performed in Coventry, England, included a haunting song about the episode, now known as the Coventry Carol. The Ordo Rachelis tradition of four plays includes the Flight into Egypt, Herod's succession by Archelaus, the return from Egypt, as well as the Massacre all centred on Rachel weeping in fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy.
The theme of the "Massacre of the Innocents" has provided artists of many nationalities with opportunities to compose complicated depictions of massed bodies in violent action. It was an alternative to the Flight into Egypt in cycles of the Life of the Virgin. It decreased in poulalarity in Gothic art, but revived in the larger works of the Renaissance, when artists 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. The horrific subject matter of the Massacre of the Innocents also provided a comparison of ancient brutalities with early modern ones during the period of religious wars that followed the Reformation - Breugel's versions show the soldiers carrying banners with the Habsburg double-headed eagle (often used at the time for Ancient Rman soldiers).
Three artists of three distinct European ethnicities show an early 17th century fascination with the topic as Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other. First, Italian painter Guido Reni's early (1611) Massacre of the Innocents, in an unusual vertical format, is at Bologna. Second, Flemish painter 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. Another, his grand Massacre of the Innocents is now at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Third and finally, from 1632 through 1634, French painter Nicolas Poussin painted The Massacre of the Innocents at the height of the Thirty Years' War.
In the famous novel The Fall by Albert Camus, this incident is argued by the main character to be the reason why Jesus chose to let himself be crucified—as he escaped the punishment intended for him while many others died, he felt responsible and died in guilt. A similar interpretation is given in José Saramago's controversial The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, but there attributed to Joseph, Jesus' father, rather than to Jesus himself. As depicted by Saramago, Joseph knew of Herod's intention to massacre the children of Bethlehem, but failed to warn the townspeople and chose only to save his own child. Guilt-ridden ever after, Joseph finally expiates his sin by letting himself be crucified (an event not narrated in the New Testament).

Feast days

The commemoration of the massacre of these "Holy Innocents"—considered by some Christians as the first martyrs for Christ—first appears as a feast of the western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485. The date of Holy Innocents' Day, also called Childermas or Children's Mass, varies. 27 December is the date for West Syrians (Syriac Orthodox Church, Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, and Maronite Church) and East Syrians (Chaldeans and Syro-Malabar Catholic Church). 28 December is the date in the Roman Catholic Church (before 1961, violet vestments were worn, unless 28 December fell on a Sunday, instead of red, the normal colour for celebrating martyrs), the Church of England and the Lutheran Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the feast on 29 December.
In Spain] and Ibero-America, December 28 is a day for pranks, equivalent to April Fool's Day in many countries. Pranks are known as inocentadas and their victims are called inocentes, or alternatively, the pranksters are the "inocentes" and the victims should not be angry at them, since they could not have committed any sin. Various Catholic countries had a tradition (no longer widely observed) of role reversal between children and their adult educators, perhaps a Christianized version of the Roman annual feast of the Saturnalia (when even slaves played 'masters' for a day). In some cultures it is said to be an unlucky day, when no new project should be started.



  • Albright, W.F. and C.S. Mann. "Matthew." The Anchor Bible Series. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971.
  • Clarke, Howard W. The Gospel of Matthew and its Readers: A Historical Introduction to the First Gospel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
  • Robert Eisenman, 1997. James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Viking/Penguin)
  • Goulder, M.D. Midrash and Lection in Matthew. London: SPCK, 1974.
  • Jones, Alexander. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1965.
  • Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According to Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975.
Childermas in Aragonese: Día d'os santos inozens
Childermas in Breton: Inosanted santel
Childermas in Catalan: Els sants innocents
Childermas in Danish: Barnemordet i Betlehem
Childermas in German: Kindermord in Betlehem
Childermas in Spanish: Día de los Santos Inocentes
Childermas in French: Massacre des Innocents
Childermas in Italian: Strage degli innocenti
Childermas in Hebrew: טבח התמימים
Childermas in Dutch: Onschuldige Kinderen
Childermas in Japanese: 幼児虐殺
Childermas in Polish: Rzeź Niewiniątek
Childermas in Portuguese: Día de los Santos Inocentes
Childermas in Kölsch: Daach von de Unscholdije Pänz
Childermas in Russian: Избиение младенцев
Childermas in Serbian: Покољ младенаца витлејемских
Childermas in Finnish: Viattomien lasten päivä
Childermas in Swedish: Värnlösa barns dag
Childermas in Chinese: 諸聖嬰孩慶日
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