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
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.''
- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator