`Slaughter of the innocents' may not have happened

The observation of Childermas, Herod's ''slaughter of the innocents'', may be a festive season tradition worth dropping, for lack of evidence, argues Ian Harris.

After the upbeat celebration of Christmas and the hangover sales of Boxing Day, the festive season today comes down to earth with a jolt for Childermas. Only a faithful few who follow closely the Christian calendar now observe the day - which is not a bad thing, because it recalls an event that probably never happened. The point of the story lies elsewhere.

The event was the ''slaughter of the innocents'', the killing of all boys under the age of 2 around Bethlehem after Jesus was born. This was ordered, Matthew tells us, by the Jewish King Herod, alarmed when astrologers from the east turned up looking for a baby who was destined to be king of the Jews. Herod saw only one way to eliminate this threat to his dynasty: eliminate all the infant boys.

Jesus escaped, however. His father Joseph had been warned in a dream that Herod was up to no good, and fled with his family to Egypt, as refugees.

Slaughter on this scale was certainly not beyond Herod, now nearing the end of his reign. He was a combination of the ultimate Quisling and 17th-century England's Vicar of Bray. After greasing his way into the good books of the Romans, he was confirmed as king of Judea by the Roman senate in 40BC. Then, like the Vicar of Bray, he rolled with every change in political fortune to ingratiate himself with whoever held the upper hand in Rome.

At home he mixed opportunism with cruelty to stay on top. Not Jewish by birth (he was an Idumaean from southern Palestine), he took as one of his 10 wives Mariamne, the grand-daughter of the Jewish high priest, to give him greater legitimacy among the people.

Paranoid over possible threats to his rule, he had Mariamne's brother drowned, put his sister's husband to death on suspicion of adultery with Mariamne and when told she was plotting to poison him, had her executed.

He murdered two of their sons after another son convinced him they were planning to overthrow him. Later, he killed that son, too. Emperor Augustus commented that he would rather be Herod's pig (in Greek,''hys'') than his son (''hyios'').

But the Romans found Herod dependable, which meant they left the Jews alone. Years of peace gave him the chance to embark on a grandiose building programme, including the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem. His death in 4BC triggered division and rebellion, which the Romans crushed and then split the kingdom into three. So, if Joseph held fears for the family's safety, it was not without cause.

Matthew, however, puts his own slant on the story. His prime intent is to depict Jesus as the fulfilment of the Jews' religious tradition - even as the new Moses who, centuries earlier, had led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt and given them their law.

So, he fixes on a couple of passages in the Old Testament and relates them to Jesus. The prophet Hosea wrote: ''Out of Egypt have I called my son.''

This is a clear reference to Moses leading the Israelites to freedom, but Matthew makes it double as a pointer to Jesus. But first he must get him to Egypt. The family's flight from Herod does that.

Then he quotes another prophet, Jeremiah, who writes of wailing and lamentation in Ramah (though this was north of Jerusalem, while Bethlehem lies to the south), and of Rachel (Israel personified) ''weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more''. Actually, Jeremiah says nothing about children being murdered - they had been taken into exile in Babylon, and two verses later there is a promise that they will return.

Beyond those passages, however, lies the broader parallel between Jesus and Moses which Matthew is bent on making. As an infant, Moses survived a massacre in Egypt when the pharaoh ordered all male Hebrew children to be thrown into the Nile. The explanation, found outside the Bible, is that scribes had warned the pharaoh that an Israelite would grow up and rule Egypt. So this was a pre-emptive strike - and to heighten the parallel with Moses, Matthew has Herod resort to the same tactic.

The German scholar Uta Ranke-Heinemann, the first woman to hold a chair of Catholic theology (and the first to lose it when she questioned the virgin birth), sums up: ''We're aware of many foul crimes committed by Herod, but the slaughter of the innocents isn't one of them.''

Adieu, Childermas!

- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator