Childermas; The Feast of the Holy Innocents
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Matthew 2:16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.
The holiday season is approaching. Rather than penning yet another attack on the authenticity of December 25th as a Christian festival, I thought it might be interesting to take a critical look at another of the "Twelve Days of Christmas.
December 28 is known as Childermas, or the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It is the day set aside to commemorate the children supposedly ordered killed by Herod, considered by the Catholic Church to be the first martyrs.
You might wonder how many children were killed on Herod's orders in this incident. Matthew is silent on the matter, and none of the other gospels even mention it. But early Church authorities claimed several thousand, and numbers crept steadily upwards until 144,000 was the official estimate in the Middle Ages.
But, other than in Matthew, there is no evidence that this event took place. Not in any of the other gospels. Not in any contemporary documentation. Not in the writings of Josephus, who did write on Herod's reign. Nowhere in history is this atrocity recorded other than in the Gospel according to Matthew. And even if the original Matthew of the Twelve Disciples actually wrote the gospel attributed to him, he was not a witness to the supposed event.
Given the lack of evidence, it is not surprising that Christian scholars have been gradually reducing the number killed. After all, it is suggested, Bethlehem was a small town in those days; which conveniently ignores "and in all that region" which should serve to raise the numbers back up. But current estimates run to 20, or 18, or 12, or 6. I suggest that scholarship is on the right road as the estimates rapidly approach the most likely number murdered: zero.
The story of the murdered children is tied inextricably to the story of the wise men, and to the "star in the East." And these too appear only in Matthew. Nowhere in Mark, Luke, or John. Nowhere else in recorded history.
No observer of the skies records a star, planet, comet, meteor, nova or any other celestial object which behaved like the "star in the East." It was seen only by the wise men - who themselves have left no trace in history. No-one, other than Matthew writing long after the reported tale, marked their passing. Like the murdered children, their story seem to be pure invention.
But why invent such a story?
To give more significance to the birth. After all, the overall story is about God's own son. Is it possible that such a child would be born without signs and portents? To add to the validity of the birth, those additional details had to be invented.
That being the case, what happens when we discredit the signs and portents?
Let December 28th, Childermas, be a day to commemorate the inventions and falsehoods on which religion is based!
- Rather questionable, given that the faith these martyrs are claimed to have died for did not even exist at that time, nor could they have had knowledge of it.
- Interestingly, while researching this I found two accounts of why Josephus did not write on this particular matter:
a.) it was minor compared to Herod's other atrocities which he did write about, and thus Josephus did not consider it worthy of mention;
b.) Josephus championed Herod's place in history and covered up the worst of his crimes.
So it was either one of the least of his crimes or one of the worst. Take your pick.... or take the omission as evidence Josephus never ever heard of the matter and it did not happen.
- Another number in question. Matthew is, of course, silent on this detail. Current tradition is three, (presumably based on the variety of gifts proffered - gifts which also disappeared without a trace) but early authorities suggested an even dozen, or perhaps eight. Keep that estimate dropping, and perhaps we will reach a believable number.