’m really hoping to get something out today that isn’t crap, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely at this point. It’s wet and gloomy out this fourth day of Christmas, and it’s wet and gloomy inside, metaphorically anyway.
It’s Childermas, or Holy Innocents’ Day, commemorating the mythical slaughter of infants by Herod the Great. Fourteen thousand, or sixty-six thousand—the numbers vary according to the tradition—imaginary children aged two or less were killed in an attempt to eliminate one infant that might pose a threat to Herod, according to the story.
One Tony Jones complains (“James McGrath Is Wrong: Herod Really Did Massacre the Innocents”) that historians who point this out are silencing the victims:
It’s true that we don’t know how many infant boys Herod murdered. We don’t know if it was just the sons of a couple families, a village, or a whole territory. But does it matter?!? Innocent infants were killed. They were not myths. They were not fables. They were babies!
Forgive me if I pour a little cold water on these hysterical flames. There is no evidence whatsoever that this happened. It is not a matter of getting God off the hook or whatever, it doesn’t matter that Herod was a tyrant who murdered any members of his family that might conceivably pose a threat to his authority, it doesn’t matter that Josephus doesn’t mention this among the many crimes he attributes to Herod. The point is that there is no actual evidence.
Our only source for this story is the fabulous infancy narrative that is the beginning of The Gospel according to Matthew. It tells how astrologers from the East came to Jerusalem looking for the child who was to be the Jewish king, as predicted by a star. Herod is frightened at this news, and calls together the chief priests and scribes to ask where the future king will be born. They tell him in Bethlehem. Herod commissions the astrologers to find him, naively trusting that they will report back to him his location. They head off to Bethlehem, tracking the star, which comes to a stop over the place Jesus was born, in defiance of the laws of physics. They go inside, worship Jesus, give him the famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and then go back home by a different route, so as to evade Herod. They’d had a dream warning them against him. Jesus’ father has a dream too, telling him to get the hell out of Bethlehem with his family, and he does so. Herod, realizing that he had been tricked, orders all the infants in the area murdered—but Jesus escapes unhurt, as his family has fled to Egypt.
There is not one probable thing in this whole fairy-tale narrative. Astrology doesn’t work in the real world, precognitive dreams never give useful information, stars don’t move about in the sky and stop conveniently over a particular house, and Herod was a paranoid maniac, not a blundering fool. Given his penchant for spies and undercover work, you’d think Herod would have had the wise men followed—not that anything in this story has to make sense. It’s a goddamn fable, telling of the miraculous escape of a miraculous infant, not sober history.
If stars don’t act like this, if dreams don’t work like this, if Herod wasn’t dumb, then what is the basis for this story? No star, no astrologers, no prediction, no need for Herod to order a massacre. No massacre, no holy innocents, no infant martyrs. It’s really that simple. There are good reasons for putting certain things in—that trip to Egypt, for example. Various writers pointed out that Jesus could have learned magic in Egypt and it would have been easy to fool people, when magic was not well understood. Okay, says this author, Jesus was in Egypt—but when he was an infant, not when he was of an age to learn magic.
And of course it is always possible that some real event inspired the story. Herod had young members of his own family killed to prevent them from becoming a danger to him, for example, and maybe that inspired the story. Or maybe there was some other fit of murderous madness behind it. But there’s no need to assume anything of the sort. It’s just a story.