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Saint Joseph: Slaughter of the Innocents

Saint Joseph: Slaughter of the Innocents

For the past couple of months, we have been looking at the Litany of Saint Joseph, but now we return to the events surrounding Joseph that are recorded in the Gospels.

We left the Holy Family having just been visited by the Magi. The Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went home by another route. This infuriated Herod. Matthew says:

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi. –Matthew 2:16

Jesus was spared because, again in a dream, Joseph was told to take his family to Egypt. We will look at this in more detail, but first, we need to talk about the slaughter of the innocents, in particular, did it really happen?

There is no record of such an event outside the Gospel of Matthew, but historians agree that such an action is fully in Herod’s character. He killed his brother-in-law and mother-in-law, his second wife and three of his sons in fits of rage, not to mention countless others, leading the Emperor Augustus to say, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”

So given what we know of Herod, it’s highly likely that he did order such an action. The problem arises with the number of children we tend to associate with the event. The Martyrdom of Matthew says 3,000 babies were killed. The Byzantine liturgy refers to 14,000, and Syrian tradition claims 64,000. Even one child’s death is horrific, but archaeologists estimate that the entire population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth was about 300. The number of boys under the age of two couldn’t have been more than six or seven. Even if you add in several villages around Bethlehem, the total number would have been well under twenty.

This relatively small number of deaths is undoubtedly why the event never was recorded by historians such as Josephus, from whom we get much of our historical evidence. Not to mention that Josephus got at least some of his information from Nicolas of Damascus, who was a close friend of Herod. Nicolas might not have wanted details about the murder of children to be recorded, so he might not have mentioned it in his writings.

The upshot of all this is that Herod probably did order boys in Bethlehem and the environs killed, forcing Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to flee to Egypt, where we will pick up the story.


“Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.’” –Matthew 2:17–18


Blessed be all children who suffer at the hands of those in power. Amen.

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