In Matthew's account, Magi from the east go to Judea in search of the newborn king of the Jews, having "seen his star in the east". The King, Herod the Great, directs them to Bethlehem, and asks them to let him know who this king is when they find him. They find Jesus and honor him, but an angel tells them not to alert Herod, and they return home by another way.
The Massacre of the Innocents is at Matthew 2:16–18, although the preceding verses form the context:
When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. Get up, he said, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son." When Herod realised 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 or 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."
The massacre is reported only in the Gospel of Matthew (2:16) and other later Christian writings likely based on that gospel. The Roman Jewish historian Josephus does not mention it in his history, Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 AD), which reports many of Herod's misdeeds, including murdering three of his own sons, his mother-in-law (Antiquities 15:247–251; LCL 8:117–119), and his second wife (Antiquities 15:222–236; LCL 8:107–113).
Among those historians who doubt the massacre's historicity, Geza Vermes and E. P. Sanders regard the story as part of a creative hagiography. Some scholars argue that the story is an apologetic device or a contrived fulfillment of prophecy, while others point to the silence of Josephus, who records several examples of Herod's use of violence to protect his power, including the murder of his own sons. Robert Eisenman argues that the story may have its origins in Herod's murder of his sons, an act which made a deep impression at the time. David Hill acknowledges that the episode "contains nothing that is historically impossible," but adds that Matthew's "real concern is ... with theological reflection on the theme of [Old Testament] fulfillment". Stephen Harris and Raymond Brown similarly contend that Matthew's purpose is to present Jesus as the Messiah, and the Massacre of the Innocents as the fulfillment of passages in Hosea (referring to the exodus), and in Jeremiah (referring to the Babylonian exile). Brown also sees the story as patterned on the Exodus account of the birth of Moses and the killing of the Hebrew firstborn by Pharaoh.
Brown and others argue that, based on Bethlehem's estimated population of 1,000 at the time, the largest number of infants that could have been killed would have been about twenty, and R. T. France, addressing the story's absence in Antiquities of the Jews, argues that "the murder of a few infants in a small village [is] not on a scale to match the more spectacular assassinations recorded by Josephus".
The story's first appearance in any source other than the Gospel of Matthew is in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James of c.150 AD, which excludes the Flight into Egypt and switches the attention of the story to the infant John the Baptist:
"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."
The first non-Christian reference to the massacre is recorded four centuries later by Macrobius (c. 395–423), who writes in his Saturnalia:
"When he [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered killed, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod's pig, than his son."
The story assumed an important place in later Christian tradition; Byzantine liturgy estimated 14,000 Holy Innocents while an early Syrian list of saints stated the number at 64,000. Coptic sources raise the number to 144,000 and place the event on 29 December. Taking the narrative literally and judging from the estimated population of Bethlehem, the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907–12) more soberly suggested that these numbers were inflated, and that probably only between six and twenty children were killed in the town, with a dozen or so more in the surrounding areas.
The "Coventry Carol" is a Christmas carol dating from the 16th century. The carol was performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered all male infants two years old and under in Bethlehem to be killed. The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother's lament for her doomed child. It is the only carol that has survived from this play. The author is unknown. The oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known printing of the melody dates from 1591. The carol is traditionally sung a cappella.
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. These events were likewise in one of the Medieval N-Town Plays.
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 popularity 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 – Bruegel's versions show the soldiers carrying banners with the Habsburg double-headed eagle (often used at the time for Ancient Roman soldiers).
The 1590 version by Cornelis van Haarlem also seems to reflect the violence of the Dutch Revolt. Guido Reni's early (1611) Massacre of the Innocents, in an unusual vertical format, is at Bologna. The 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. The French painter Nicolas Poussin painted The Massacre of the Innocents (1634) at the height of the Thirty Years' War.
The Childermass, after a traditional name for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, is the opening novel of Wyndham Lewis's trilogy The Human Age. In the novel The Fall (La Chute) by Albert Camus, the 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' stepfather, 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).
The Massacre is the opening plot used in the 2006 movie The Nativity Story.
The Cornish poet Charles Causley used the subject for his poem The Innocents' Song, which as a folk song has been performed by Show of Hands with music by Johnny Coppin (on their album Witness); by Keith Kendrick and Sylvia Needham; and by Keith Kendrick and Lynne Heraud (as Herod on their Album Stars in my Crown).
The commemoration of the massacre of these "Holy Innocents", traditionally regarded as the first Christian martyrs, if unknowingly so, first appears as a feast of the Western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485. The earliest commemorations were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January: Prudentius mentions the Innocents in his hymn on the Epiphany. Leo in his homilies on the Epiphany speaks of the Innocents. Fulgentius of Ruspe (6th century) gives a homily De Epiphania, deque Innocentum nece et muneribus magorum ("On Epiphany, and on the murder of the Innocents and the gifts of the Magi").
Today, the date of Holy Innocents' Day, also called The Innocents' Day or Childermas or Children's Mass, varies. It is 27 December for West Syrians (Syriac Orthodox Church, Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, and Maronite Church) and 10 January for East Syrians (Chaldeans and Syro-Malabar Catholic Church), while 28 December is the date in the Church of England, the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church (in which, except on Sunday, violet vestments were worn before 1961, instead of red, the normal liturgical colour for celebrating martyrs). In these latter Western Christian denominations, Childermas is the fourth day of Christmastide. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the feast on 29 December.
From the time of Charlemagne, Sicarius of Bethlehem was venerated at Brantôme, Dordogne as one of the purported victims of the Massacre.
In the 1962 Roman Catholic calendar, the violet vestments for Holy Innocents were eliminated, with red used instead, and if December 28 fell on Sunday, this feast was commemorated on the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas. This was changed in a later revision of the Church calendar.
In the Middle Ages, especially north of the Alps, the day was a festival of inversion involving role reversal between children and adults such as teachers and priests, with boy bishops presiding over some church services. This was perhaps a Christianized version of the Roman annual feast of the Saturnalia (when even slaves played "masters" for a day). In some regions, such as medieval England and France, it was said to be an unlucky day, when no new project should be started.
In addition, there was a medieval custom of refraining where possible from work on the day of the week on which the feast of "Innocents Day" had fallen for the whole of the following year until the next Innocents Day. This was presumably mainly observed by the better-off. Philippe de Commynes, the minister of King Louis XI of France tells in his memoirs how the king observed this custom, and describes the trepidation he felt when he had to inform the king of an emergency on the day.
In Spain, Hispanic America, and the Philippines, December 28 is still a day for pranks, equivalent to April Fool's Day in many countries. Pranks (bromas) are also known as inocentadas and their victims are called inocentes; alternatively, the pranksters are the "inocentes" and the victims should not be angry at them, since they could not have committed any sin. Media like newspapers, radio, and TV often give fake content or distort news as well. One of the more famous of these traditions is the annual "Els Enfarinats" festival of Ibi in Alacant, where the inocentadas dress up in full military dress and incite a flour fight.
In Trinidad and Tobago, Roman Catholic children had their toys blessed at a church service.