Herod was not a nice man. This is known to readers of the Bible, but also to those acquainted with general history. One gets something of his flavour in the Jewish Antiquities of Josephus, politic as he was. Rome’s client in Judaea, at the time of Christ’s birth, “Herod the Great” was megalomaniacal, paranoid, sadistic, sanguinary. He ruled much like Saddam Hussein, through a multi-layered personal bodyguard, secret police, and paramilitary networks. Indeed, the Western notion of “Oriental despotism” has deep historical roots, going back to the perceptions of the ancient Greeks. There were Oriental despots long before Herod, and innumerable between Herod and Saddam, and more will be on their way up the ranks. We have had quite a few in the West, too.
They kill whoever gets in their way. In Herod’s case, the list included a wife and son. He ordered massacres casually, whimsically; they kept his subjects docile till the moment of his death. (Whenupon there were riots, like an “Arab spring.”) Herod taxed heavily, but also created a great deal of employment, on crass and extravagant building schemes. The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is a souvenir of his Second Temple. The Haram platform is essentially his work. Herod, self-created “King of the Jews” (and patron of multiculturalism as well) made it into one of the many monuments to himself — designed to impress, as much as the massacres.
The Massacre of the Innocents, in the Gospel of Matthew, is entirely plausible. It would have been among Herod’s more modest efforts. Josephus doesn’t mention it, but given the scale and the contemporary “secular” attitude towards small children — that they were expendable — this is no surprise. Bethlehem was a village, and the number of male children there, under the age of two, could not have been more than a couple dozen.
The warnings in dreams; the Flight into Egypt (of tremendous significance to our brother Copts); Matthew’s invocation of Rachel weeping for her children — “and would not be comforted because they are not” — echo down the ages. These things speak to those who value human life; and those who don’t will always sneer at the “fairy tale.”
Every biblical scholar who denies Christ, also denies the veracity of this story. All would require positive confirmation from an independent source; and should ever such appear, they would then train their nihilist “scepticism” upon it. Most are ignorant enough not to realize that by standards of evidence they apply exclusively to the Bible, any incident in human history can be made to disappear. Do not waste time on typing monkeys.
A very interesting thing was done with this event, by the Church in her liturgy. In the Feast of the Holy Innocents, traditionally celebrated on this Fourth Day of Christmas, she did not merely commemorate the victims of a monstrous crime. She retroactively Christianized them, as having died for Christ.
The feast should be observed with supreme gravity in the Church today, while Christian children are being slaughtered by Muslim fanatics in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, and elsewhere — with good evidence some were beheaded after unambiguously refusing to deny Our Lord. (Alas, there are fourteen centuries of precedents for this.)
Yet there is something worse than what self-appointed swordsmen for Allah have ever accomplished; something that has piled victims vertiginously higher than Tamurlaine’s highest heap of skulls. For here in our “progressive” West, millions upon millions of children have been slaughtered, as a kind of Herodian “lifestyle option,” through the monstrous crime of abortion. Those, today, Christian or not, who can hear the voice of conscience, must wonder what becomes of those innocent souls.
And here, I think, is the key to that mystery: Holy Innocents, pray for us.
Gentle reader is perhaps familiar with the “Coventry Carol,” associated with Childermas — brought into the world within a Mystery Play at Coventry, in the last moments before these beautiful and haunting pageants were snuffed out in the Reformation, five hundred years ago. Every Englishman, of a certain age, knows how this carol, revived, was sung in the bombed-out ruins of Canterbury Cathedral at Christmas in 1940, and heard across the country on the BBC. It is a lullaby, sung by the mothers of Bethlehem for the children Herod takes from them. Here it is anew, sung a cappella as it should always be, but now in Assyrian, the language of beleaguered Christians in Syria and Iraq — descended from Aramaic, the very language in which Mary and Joseph first spoke and sang to the child Jesus.