The Slaughter Of The Innocents
Interwoven with the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus, the star,
the visit of the Magi, &c., we have a myth which belongs to a common
form, and which, in this instance, is merely adapted to the special
circumstances of the age and place. This has been termed "the myth of
the dangerous child." Its general outline is this: A child is born
concerning whose future greatness some prophetic indications have been
But the life of the child is fraught with danger to some powerful
individual, generally a monarch. In alarm at his threatened fate, this
person endeavors to take the child's life, but it is preserved by divine
Escaping the measures directed against it, and generally remaining long
unknown, it at length fulfills the prophecies concerning its career,
while the fate which he has vainly sought to shun falls upon him who had
desired to slay it. There is a departure from the ordinary type, in the
case of Jesus, inasmuch as Herod does not actually die or suffer any
calamity through his agency. But this failure is due to the fact that
Jesus did not fulfill the conditions of the Messiahship, according to
the Jewish conception which Matthew has here in mind. Had he--as was
expected of the Messiah--become the actual sovereign of the Jews, he
must have dethroned the reigning dynasty, whether represented by Herod
or his successors. But as his subsequent career belied the expectations,
the evangelist was obliged to postpone to a future time his accession to
that throne of temporal dominion which the incredulity of his countrymen
had withheld from him during his earthly life.
The story of the slaughter of the infants which is said to have taken
place in Judea about the time of the birth of Jesus, is to be found in
the second chapter of Matthew, and is as follows:
"When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of
Herod the king, there came wise men from the East to
Jerusalem, saying: 'Where is he that is born king of the
Jews? for we have seen his star in the East and have come
to worship him.' When Herod the king had heard these things,
he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him. Then Herod, when
he had privately called the wise men, enquired of them
diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to
Bethlehem, and said: 'Go and search diligently for the young
child; and when ye have found him, bring me word.'"
The wise men went to Bethlehem and found the young child, but instead of
returning to Herod as he had told them, they departed into their own
country another way, having been warned of God in a dream, that they
should not return to Herod.
"Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men,
was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the
children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts
thereof, from two years old and under."
We have in this story, told by the Matthew narrator--which the writers
of the other gospels seem to know nothing about,--almost a counterpart,
if not an exact one, to that related of Crishna of India, which shows
how closely the mythological history of Jesus has been copied from that
of the Hindoo Saviour.
Joguth Chunder Gangooly, a "Hindoo convert to Christ," tells us, in his
"Life and Religion of the Hindoos," that:
"A heavenly voice whispered to the foster father of Crishna
and told him to fly with the child across the river Jumna,
which was immediately done.[166:1] This was owing to the fact
that the reigning monarch, King Kansa, sought the life of the
infant Saviour, and to accomplish his purpose, he sent
messengers 'to kill all the infants in the neighboring
Mr. Higgins says:
"Soon after Crishna's birth he was carried away by night and
concealed in a region remote from his natal place, for fear of
a tyrant whose destroyer it was foretold he would become; and
who had, for that reason, ordered all the male children born
at that period to be slain."[166:3]
Sir William Jones says of Crishna:
"He passed a life, according to the Indians, of a most
extraordinary and incomprehensible nature. His birth was
concealed through fear of the reigning tyrant Kansa, who, at
the time of his birth, ordered all new-born males to be
slain, yet this wonderful babe was preserved."[166:4]
In the Epic poem Mahabarata, composed more than two thousand years ago,
we have the whole story of this incarnate deity, born of a virgin, and
miraculously escaping in his infancy from the reigning tyrant of his
country, related in its original form.
Representations of this flight with the babe at midnight are sculptured
on the walls of ancient Hindoo temples.[167:1]
This story is also the subject of an immense sculpture in the
cave-temple at Elephanta, where the children are represented as being
slain. The date of this sculpture is lost in the most remote antiquity.
It represents a person holding a drawn sword, surrounded by slaughtered
infant boys. Figures of men and women are also represented who are
supposed to be supplicating for their children.[167:2]
Thomas Maurice, speaking of this sculpture, says:
"The event of Crishna's birth, and the attempt to destroy him,
took place by night, and therefore the shadowy mantle of
darkness, upon which mutilated figures of infants are
engraved, darkness (at once congenial with his crime and the
season of its perpetration), involves the tyrant's bust; the
string of death heads marks the multitude of infants slain
by his savage mandate; and every object in the sculpture
illustrates the events of that Avatar."[167:3]
Another feature which connects these stories is the following:
Sir Wm. Jones tells us that when Crishna was taken out of reach of the
tyrant Kansa who sought to slay him, he was fostered at Mathura by
Nanda, the herdsman;[167:4] and Canon Farrar, speaking of the sojourn of
the Holy Family in Egypt, says:
"St. Matthew neither tells us where the Holy Family abode in
Egypt, nor how long their exile continued; but ancient legends
say that they remained two years absent from Palestine, and
lived at Matareeh, a few miles north-east of Cairo."[167:5]
Chemnitius, out of Stipulensis, who had it from Peter Martyr, Bishop of
Alexandria, in the third century, says, that the place in Egypt where
Jesus was banished, is now called Matarea, about ten miles beyond Cairo,
that the inhabitants constantly burn a lamp in remembrance of it, and
that there is a garden of trees yielding a balsam, which was planted by
Jesus when a boy.[167:6]
Here is evidently one and the same legend.
Salivahana, the virgin-born Saviour, anciently worshiped near Cape
Comorin, the southerly part of the Peninsula of India, had the same
history. It was attempted to destroy him in infancy by a tyrant who was
afterward killed by him. Most of the other circumstances, with slight
variations, are the same as those told of Crishna and Jesus.[167:7]
Buddha's life was also in danger when an infant. In the southern
country of Magadha, there lived a king by the name of Bimbasara, who,
being fearful of some enemy arising that might overturn his kingdom,
frequently assembled his principal ministers together to hold discussion
with them on the subject. On one of these occasions they told him that
away to the north there was a respectable tribe of people called the
Sakyas, and that belonging to this race there was a youth newly-born,
the first-begotten of his mother, &c. This youth, who was Buddha, they
said was liable to overturn him, they therefore advised him to "at once
raise an army and destroy the child."[168:1]
In the chronicles of the East Mongols, the same tale is to be found
repeated in the following story:
"A certain king of a people called Patsala, had a son whose
peculiar appearance led the Brahmins at court to prophesy that
he would bring evil upon his father, and to advise his
destruction. Various modes of execution having failed, the
boy was laid in a copper chest and thrown into the Ganges.
Rescued by an old peasant who brought him up as his son, he,
in due time, learned the story of his escape, and returned to
seize upon the kingdom destined for him from his
Hau-ki, the Chinese hero of supernatural origin, was exposed in
infancy, as the "Shih-king" says:
"He was placed in a narrow lane, but the sheep and oxen
protected him with loving care. He was placed in a wide
forest, where he was met with by the wood-cutters. He was
placed on the cold ice, and a bird screened and supported him
with its wings," &c.[168:3]
Mr. Legge draws a comparison with this to the Roman legend of Romulus.
Horus, according to the Egyptian story, was born in the winter, and
brought up secretly in the Isle of Buto, for fear of Typhon, who sought
his life. Typhon at first schemed to prevent his birth and then sought
to destroy him when born.[168:4]
Within historical times, Cyrus, king of Persia (6th cent. B. C.), is
the hero of a similar tale. His grandfather, Astyages, had dreamed
certain dreams which were interpreted by the Magi to mean that the
offspring of his daughter Mandane would expel him from his kingdom.
Alarmed at the prophecy, he handed the child to his kinsman Harpagos to
be slain; but this man having entrusted it to a shepherd to be exposed,
the latter contrived to save it by exhibiting to the emissaries of
Harpagos the body of a still-born child of which his own wife had just
been delivered. Grown to man's estate Cyrus of course justified the
prediction of the Magi by his successful revolt against Astyages and
assumption of the monarchy.
Herodotus, the Grecian Historian (B. C. 484), relates that Astyages, in
a vision, appeared to see a vine grow up from Mandane's womb, which
covered all Asia. Having seen this and communicated it to the
interpreters of dreams, he put her under guard, resolving to destroy
whatever should be born of her; for the Magian interpreters had
signified to him from his vision that the child born of Mandane would
reign in his stead. Astyages therefore, guarding against this, as soon
as Cyrus was born sought to have him destroyed. The story of his
exposure on the mountain, and his subsequent good fortune, is then
Abraham was also a "dangerous child." At the time of his birth,
Nimrod, king of Babylon, was informed by his soothsayers that "a child
should be born in Babylonia, who would shortly become a great prince,
and that he had reason to fear him." The result of this was that Nimrod
then issued orders that "all women with child should be guarded with
great care, and all children born of them should be put to
The mother of Abraham was at that time with child, but, of course, he
escaped from being put to death, although many children were
Zoroaster, the chief of the religion of the Magi, was a "dangerous
child." Prodigies had announced his birth; he was exposed to dangers
from the time of his infancy, and was obliged to fly into Persia, like
Jesus into Egypt. Like him, he was pursued by a king, his enemy, who
wanted to get rid of him.[169:3]
His mother had alarming dreams of evil spirits seeking to destroy the
child to whom she was about to give birth. But a good spirit came to
comfort her and said: "Fear nothing! Ormuzd will protect this infant. He
has sent him as a prophet to the people. The world is waiting for
Perseus, son of the Virgin Danae, was also a "dangerous child."
Acrisius, king of Argos, being told by the oracle that a son born of his
virgin daughter would destroy him, immured his daughter Danae in a
tower, where no man could approach her, and by this means hoped to
keep his daughter from becoming enceinte. The god Jupiter, however,
visited her there, as it is related of the Angel Gabriel visiting the
Virgin Mary,[170:1] the result of which was that she bore a
son--Perseus. Acrisius, on hearing of his daughter's disgrace, caused
both her and the infant to be shut up in a chest and cast into the sea.
They were discovered by one Dictys, and liberated from what must have
been anything but a pleasant position.[170:2]
AEsculapius, when an infant, was exposed on the Mount of Myrtles, and
left there to die, but escaped the death which was intended for him,
having been found and cared for by shepherds.[170:3]
Hercules, son of the virgin Leto, was left to die on a plain, but was
found and rescued by a maiden.[170:4]
OEdipous was a "dangerous child." Laios, King of Thebes, having been
told by the Delphic Oracle that OEdipous would be his destroyer, no
sooner is OEdipous born than the decree goes forth that the child must
be slain: but the servant to whom he is intrusted contents himself with
exposing the babe on the slopes of Mount Kithairon, where a shepherd
finds him, and carries him, like Cyrus or Romulus, to his wife, who
cherishes the child with a mother's care.[170:5]
The Theban myth of OEdipous is repeated substantially in the Arcadian
tradition of Telephos. He is exposed, when a babe, on Mount Parthenon,
and is suckled by a doe, which represents the wolf in the myth of
Romulus, and the dog of the Persian story of Cyrus. Like Moses, he is
brought up in the palace of a king.[170:6]
As we read the story of Telephos, we can scarcely fail to think of the
story of the Trojan Paris, for, like Telephos, Paris is exposed as a
babe on the mountain-side.[170:7] Before he is born, there are portents
of the ruin which he is to bring upon his house and people. Priam, the
ruling monarch, therefore decrees that the child shall be left to die on
the hill-side. But the babe lies on the slopes of Ida and is nourished
by a she-bear. He is fostered, like Crishna and others, by shepherds,
among whom he grows up.[170:8]
Iamos was left to die among the bushes and violets. Aipytos, the
chieftain of Phaisana, had learned at Delphi that a child had been born
who should become the greatest of all the seers and prophets of the
earth, and he asked all his people where the babe was: but none had
heard or seen him, for he lay away amid the thick bushes, with his soft
body bathed in the golden and pure rays of the violets. So when he was
found, they called him Iamos, the "violet child;" and as he grew in
years and strength, he went down into the Alpheian stream, and prayed to
his father that he would glorify his son. Then the voice of Zeus was
heard, bidding him come to the heights of Olympus, where he should
receive the gift of prophecy.[171:1]
Chandragupta was also a "dangerous child." He is exposed to great
dangers in his infancy at the hands of a tributary chief who has
defeated and slain his suzerain. His mother, "relinquishing him to the
protection of the Devas, places him in a vase, and deposits him at the
door of a cattle pen." A herdsman takes the child and rears it as
Jason is another hero of the same kind. Pelias, the chief of Iolkos,
had been told that one of the children of Aiolos would be his destroyer,
and decreed, therefore, that all should be slain. Jason only is
preserved, and brought up by Cheiron.[171:3]
Bacchus, son of the virgin Semele, was destined to bring ruin upon
Cadmus, King of Thebes, who therefore orders the infant to be put into a
chest and thrown into a river. He is found, and taken from the water by
loving hands, and lives to fulfill his mission.[171:4]
Herodotus relates a similar story, which is as follows:
"The constitution of the Corinthians was formerly of this
kind; it was an oligarchy, (a government in the hands of a
selected few), and those who were called Bacchiadae governed
the city. About this time one Eetion, who had been married to
a maiden called Labda, and having no children by her, went to
Delphi to inquire of the oracle about having offspring. Upon
entering the temple he was immediately saluted as follows;
'Eetion, no one honors thee, though worthy of much honor.
Labda is pregnant and will bring forth a round stone; it will
fall on monarchs, and vindicate Corinth.' This oracle,
pronounced to Eetion, was by chance reported to the
Bacchiadae, who well knew that it prophesied the birth of a
son to Eetion who would overthrow them, and reign in their
stead; and though they comprehended, they kept it secret,
purposing to destroy the offspring that should be born to
Eetion. As soon as the woman brought forth, they sent ten
persons to the district where Eetion lived, to put the child
to death; but, the child, by a divine providence, was saved.
His mother hid him in a chest, and as they could not find the
child they resolved to depart, and tell those who sent them
that they had done all that they had commanded. After this,
Eetion's son grew up, and having escaped this danger, the name
of Cypselus was given him, from the chest. When Cypselus
reached man's estate, and consulted the oracle, an ambiguous
answer was given him at Delphi; relying on which he attacked
and got possession of Corinth."[171:5]
Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were exposed on the banks
of the Tiber, when infants, and left there to die, but escaped the death
intended for them.
The story of the "dangerous child" was well known in ancient Rome, and
several of their emperors, so it is said, were threatened with death at
their birth, or when mere infants. Julius Marathus, in his life of the
Emperor Augustus Caesar, says that before his birth there was a prophecy
in Rome that a king over the Roman people would soon be born. To obviate
this danger to the republic, the Senate ordered that all the male
children born in that year should be abandoned or exposed.[172:1]
The flight of the virgin-mother with her babe is also illustrated in the
story of Astrea when beset by Orion, and of Latona, the mother of
Apollo, when pursued by the monster.[172:2] It is simply the same old
story, over and over again. Someone has predicted that a child born at a
certain time shall be great, he is therefore a "dangerous child," and
the reigning monarch, or some other interested party, attempts to have
the child destroyed, but he invariably escapes and grows to manhood, and
generally accomplishes the purpose for which he was intended. This
almost universal mythos was added to the fictitious history of Jesus by
its fictitious authors, who have made him escape in his infancy from the
reigning tyrant with the usual good fortune.
When a marvellous occurrence is said to have happened everywhere, we
may feel sure that it never happened anywhere. Popular fancies propagate
themselves indefinitely, but historical events, especially the striking
and dramatic ones, are rarely repeated. That this is a fictitious story
is seen from the narratives of the birth of Jesus, which are recorded by
the first and third Gospel writers, without any other evidence. In the
one--that related by the Matthew narrator--we have a birth at
Bethlehem--implying the ordinary residence of the parents there--and a
hurried flight--almost immediately after the birth--from that place
into Egypt,[172:3] the slaughter of the infants, and a journey, after
many months, from Egypt to Nazareth in Galilee. In the other story--that
told by the Luke narrator--the parents, who have lived in Nazareth,
came to Bethlehem only for business of the State, and the casual birth
in the cave or stable is followed by a quiet sojourn, during which the
child is circumcised, and by a leisurely journey to Jerusalem; whence,
everything having gone off peaceably and happily, they return naturally
to their own former place of abode, full, it is said over and over
again, of wonder at the things that had happened, and deeply impressed
with the conviction that their child had a special work to do, and was
specially gifted for it. There is no fear of Herod, who seems never to
trouble himself about the child, or even to have any knowledge of him.
There is no trouble or misery at Bethlehem, and certainly no mourning
for children slain. Far from flying hurriedly away by night, his
parents celebrate openly, and at the usual time, the circumcision of
the child; and when he is presented in the temple, there is not only no
sign that enemies seek his life, but the devout saints give public
thanks for the manifestation of the Saviour.
Dr. Hooykaas, speaking of the slaughter of the innocents, says:
"Antiquity in general delighted in representing great men,
such as Romulus, Cyrus, and many more, as having been
threatened in their childhood by fearful dangers. This served
to bring into clear relief both the lofty significance of
their future lives, and the special protection of the deity
who watched over them.
"The brow of many a theologian has been bent over this
(Matthew) narrative! For, as long as people believed in the
miraculous inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, of course they
accepted every page as literally true, and thought that there
could not be any contradiction between the different
accounts or representations of Scripture. The worst of all
such pre-conceived ideas is, that they compel those who hold
them to do violence to their own sense of truth. For when
these so-called religious prejudices come into play, people
are afraid to call things by their right names, and, without
knowing it themselves, become guilty of all kinds of evasive
and arbitrary practices; for what would be thought quite
unjustifiable in any other case is here considered a duty,
inasmuch as it is supposed to tend toward the maintenance of
faith and the glory of God!"[173:1]
As we stated above, this story is to be found in the fictitious gospel
according to Matthew only; contemporary history has nowhere recorded
this audacious crime. It is mentioned neither by Jewish nor Roman
historians. Tacitus, who has stamped forever the crimes of despots with
the brand of reprobation, it would seem then, did not think such
infamies worthy of his condemnation. Josephus also, who gives us a
minute account of the atrocities perpetrated by Herod up to even the
very last moment of his life, does not say a single word about this
unheard-of crime, which must have been so notorious. Surely he must have
known of it, and must have mentioned it, had it ever been committed. "We
can readily imagine the Pagans," says Mr. Reber, "who composed the
learned and intelligent men of their day, at work in exposing the story
of Herod's cruelty, by showing that, considering the extent of
territory embraced in the order, and the population within it, the
assumed destruction of life stamped the story false and ridiculous. A
governor of a Roman province who dared make such an order would be so
speedily overtaken by the vengeance of the Roman people, that his head
would fall from his body before the blood of his victims had time to
dry. Archelaus, his son, was deposed for offenses not to be spoken of
when compared with this massacre of the infants."
No wonder that there is no trace at all in the Roman catacombs, nor in
Christian art, of this fictitious story, until about the beginning of
the fifth century.[174:1] Never would Herod dared to have taken upon
himself the odium and responsibility of such a sacrifice. Such a crime
could never have happened at the epoch of its professed perpetration.
To such lengths were the early Fathers led, by the servile adaptation of
the ancient traditions of the East, they required a second edition of
the tyrant Kansa, and their holy wrath fell upon Herod. The Apostles of
Jesus counted too much upon human credulity, they trusted too much that
the future might not unravel their maneuvers, the sanctity of their
object made them too reckless. They destroyed all the evidence against
themselves which they could lay their hands upon, but they did not
destroy it all.
[166:1] A heavenly voice whispered to the foster-father of Jesus, and
told him to fly with the child into Egypt, which was immediately done.
(See Matthew, ii. 13.)
[166:2] Life and Relig. of the Hindoos, p. 134.
[166:3] Anacalypsis, vol. i. p. 129. See also, Cox: Aryan Mythology,
vol. ii. p. 134, and Maurice: Hist. Hindostan, vol. ii. p. 331.
[166:4] Asiatic Researches, vol. i. pp. 273 and 259.
[167:1] See Prog. Relig. Ideas, vol. i. p. 61.
[167:2] See Higgins: Anacalypsis, vol. i. 130, 13-, and Maurice: Indian
Antiquities, vol. i. pp. 112, 113, and vol. iii. pp. 45, 95.
[167:3] Indian Antiquities, vol. i. pp. 112, 113.
[167:4] Asiatic Researches, vol. i. p. 259.
[167:5] Farrar's Life of Christ, p. 58.
[167:6] See Introduction to Gospel of Infancy, Apoc.
[167:7] See vol. x. Asiatic Researches.
[168:1] Beal: Hist. Buddha, pp. 103, 104.
[168:2] Amberly's Analysis, p. 229.
[168:3] The Shih-king. Decade ii, ode 1.
[168:4] Bonwick: Egyptian Belief, pp. 158 and 186.
[169:1] Herodotus, bk. 1, ch. 110.
[169:2] Calmet's Fragments, art. "Abraham."
[169:3] See Dupuis: Origin of Religious Belief, p. 240.
[169:4] See Prog. Relig. Ideas, vol. i. "Religions of Persia."
[170:1] In the Apocryphal Gospel of the Birth of Mary and
[170:2] See Bell's Pantheon, vol. i. p. 9. Cox: Aryan Mythology, vol.
ii. p. 58, and Bulfinch: The Age of Fable, p. 161.
[170:3] Bell's Pantheon, vol. i. p. 27. Cox: Aryan Mytho. vol. ii. p.
[170:4] Cox: Aryan Mytho. vol. ii. p. 44.
[170:5] Ibid. p. 69, and Tales of Ancient Greece, p. xlii.
[170:6] Cox: Aryan Mythology, vol. ii. p. 14.
[170:7] Ibid. p. 75.
[170:8] Ibid. p. 78.
[171:1] Cox: Aryan Mytho. ii. p. 81.
[171:2] Ibid. p. 84.
[171:3] Ibid. p. 150.
[171:4] Bell's Pantheon, vol. i. p. 188. Cox: Aryan Mytho. vol. ii. p.
[171:5] Herodotus: bk. v. ch. 92.
[172:1] See Farrar's Life of Christ, p. 60.
[172:2] Bonwick: Egyptian Belief, p. 168.
[172:3] There are no very early examples in Christian art of the flight
of the Holy Family into Egypt. (See Monumental Christianity, p. 289.)
[173:1] Bible for Learners, vol. iii. pp. 71-74.
[174:1] See Monumental Christianity, p. 238.