Feast of the Holy Innocents
The Massacre of the Innocents is the incident in the nativity narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (2:16–18) in which Herod the Great, king of Judea, orders the execution of all male children two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The Catholic Church regards them as the first Christian martyrs, and their feast – Holy Innocents' Day (or the Feast of the Holy Innocents) – is celebrated on 28 December. A majority of Herod biographers, and "probably a majority of biblical scholars," hold the event to be myth, legend, or folklore.
The story of the massacre is found in no gospel other than Matthew, nor in the surviving works of Nicolaus of Damascus (who was a personal friend of Herod the Great) and the historian Josephus makes no mention of it in his Antiquities of the Jews, despite recording many of Herod's misdeeds including the murder of three of his own sons. A majority of Herod biographers, and "probably a majority of biblical scholars," accordingly hold the event to be myth, legend or folklore inspired by Herod's reputation.
The author appears to have modelled the episode on the biblical story of Pharaoh's attempt to kill the Israelite children in the Book of Exodus, as told in an expanded version that was current in the 1st century. In that expanded story, Pharaoh kills the Hebrew children after his scribes warn him of the impending birth of the threat to his crown (i.e., Moses), but Moses' father and mother are warned in a dream that the child's life is in danger and act to save him. Later in life, after Moses has to flee, like Jesus, he returns when those who sought his death are themselves dead. The story of the massacre of the innocents thus plays a part in Matthew's wider nativity story, in which the proclamation of the coming of the Messiah (his birth) is followed by his rejection by the Jews (Herod and his scribes and the people of Jerusalem) and his later acceptance by the gentiles (the Magi).
Against this majority opinion some argue for the historicity of the event. R. T. France, while acknowledging that the massacre is "perhaps the aspect [of Matthew's infancy narrative] most often rejected as legendary" and that the story is similar to that of Moses, believes that it would not have arisen without historical basis. Everett Ferguson argues that the story makes sense in the context of Herod's reign of terror in the last few years of his rule, and the number of infants in Bethlehem that would have been killed – no more than a dozen or so – may have been too insignificant to be recorded by Josephus, who could not have been aware of every incident far in the past when he wrote it.
Bethlehem's 4th-century Church of the Nativity includes a chamber called the Cave of the Holy Innocents, containing skulls and bones from hundreds of people, but they are not clearly infantile. Further, the church was destroyed and rebuilt in the 6th century.
27 December (West Syrians)
28 December (Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, Anglican Communion)
29 December (Eastern Orthodoxy)
10 January (East Syrians)