The baby boys of bethlehem who were put to death by King herod the Great after the Magi's visit to the Infant Jesus (Mt 2:16–18). Study of the Innocents has often been more poetical and imaginative than factual. The interest of the past has been chiefly to amass greater detail about the Innocents. Attempts have been made to date the episode accurately, but these have been of little value, since the date of Christ's birth is itself a matter of speculation. Various efforts have been made, based on the probable population of Bethlehem at Our Lord's birth, to
determine the number of children involved. Estimates range from 10 or 12 (A. Bisping, P. Shegg) to an obviously exaggerated 64,000 (Syrian Liturgy) to a fantastic 144,000 (based on Rv 14:1–5, part of the Epistle of their feast).
The slaughter described in Mt 2:16–18 is not mentioned in any other source; it is notably absent in the works of Josephus. D. F. strauss and other scholars have, therefore, questioned the historicity of the episode. The argument from silence is, at best, unconvincing. The very character of Herod suggests a reason for the silence. In the records of a king responsible for many deaths, including those of his beloved wife and his own sons, the slaughter of the Innocents (if estimates are kept within reason) would be relatively insignificant.
On the other hand, attempts, such as E. Stauffer's, to prove the historicity of the event are likewise unconvincing. A growing number of modern scholars question the historical character of the Innocents' story because of its relation to such midrashic elements as the star of Bethlehem and the Magi [see magi]. If, for example, one considers the visit of the Magi a legendary amplification, one would almost be forced to judge the story of the Innocents in the same way.
Modern scholars are inclined to regard the entire in fancy gospel as a literary form related to midrash. Emphasis is placed, not so much on the isolated individual elements, as on their theological significance in the Christ story. It seems strongly probable that Matthew wished to present three basic themes in his Infancy narrative: Jesus is the new Moses; Jesus is true wisdom; Jesus is the new Israel. The last theme seems dominant. If this is true, a striking case can be made that, in the story of the Innocents, Matthew has been inspired by a midrash on Dt 26:5–8. According to the midrash, Laban the Aramaean sought to destroy Jacob (Israel) and his entire family; this attempt was later considered an effort to prevent the coming of the Messiah. Herod the Idumean, in his slaughter of the Innocents, represents Laban's oppression of Jacob-Israel and renews the attempt to prevent the coming of the Messiah. This comparison of Laban and Herod that is brought about by attributing to Herod a slaughter of the Innocents invites a comparison between Christ and Jacob. Implicitly, Christ is presented as the new Jacob-Israel, the bearer of messianic hope. Once the Jesus-Israel theme is established, Jacob's wife Rachel becomes an apt mourner and serves to underline the comparison once again. Especially is this true when one realizes that the prophecy of Jeremiah (Jer 31:15) to which Matthew refers opens with reference to the tragedy of the Exile (originally that of the Northern Kingdom and then extended to that of the Southern Kingdom) but continues with a description of restoration that is realized fully only in the coming of the Messiah. Seen in this setting, the episode of the Innocents, whether historical or not, contributes to the unfolding of the Jesus-Israel theme and helps one understand the role of Jesus, the new Israel, who will definitively establish the new people of God.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents was celebrated in the West as early as the 5th century. It was placed on December 28 in order to bring it close to Christmas. In Christian iconography the earliest representatives of the massacre of the Holy Innocents date from the 5th century, such as on the mosaic arch in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, and on an ivory Gospel cover now in the cathedral of Milan. In the Middle Ages representations of the scene were common, especially as miniatures in illuminated Gospels.
Bibliography: m. m. bourke, "The Literary Genus of Matthew 1–2," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 22 (1960) 160–175. d. daube, "The Earliest Structure of the Gospels," New Testament Studies 5 (1958–59) 174–187. a. durand, The Gospel according to Matthew (Milwaukee 1957) 18–20. u. holzmeister, "Quot pueros urbis Bethlehem Herodes rex occiderit," Verbum Domini 15 (1935) 373–379. j. michl, Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche, (Freiburg, 1957–66) 2:313. k. hofmann, Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche, (Freiburg, 1930–38) 10:415–416. f. g. holweck, CE 7:419. l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien (Paris 1955–59) 2.2:267–270.
[e. j. joyce]