Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

Of the Massacre of the Innocents.

When people speak of the massacre of the innocents, they do not refer to the Sicilian Vespers, nor to the matins of Paris, known under the name of St. Bartholomew; nor to the inhabitants of the new world, who were murdered because they were not Christians, nor to the auto-da-fés of Spain and Portugal, etc. They usually refer to the young children who were killed within the precincts of Bethlehem, by order of Herod the Great, and who were afterwards carried to Cologne, where they are still to be found.

Their number was maintained by the whole Greek Church to be fourteen thousand.

The difficulties raised by critics upon this point of history have been all solved by shrewd and learned commentators.

Objections have been started in relation to the star which conducted the Magi from the recesses of the East to Jerusalem. It has been said that the journey, being a long one, the star must have appeared for a long time above the horizon; and yet that no historian besides St. Matthew ever took notice of this extraordinary star; that if it had shone so long in the heavens, Herod and his whole court, and all Jerusalem, must have seen it as well as these three Magi, or kings; that Herod consequently could not, without absurdity, have inquired diligently, as Matthew expresses it, of these kings, at what time they had seen the star; that, if these three kings had made presents of gold and myrrh and incense to the new-born infant, his parents must have been very rich; that Herod could certainly never believe that this infant, born in a stable at Bethlehem, would be king of the Jews, as the kingdom of Judæa belonged to the Romans, and was a gift from Cæsar; that if three kings of the Indies were, at the present day, to come to France under the guidance of a star, and stop at the house of a woman of Vaugirard, no one could ever make the reigning monarch believe that the child of that poor woman would become king of France.

A satisfactory answer has been given to these difficulties, which may be considered preliminary ones, attending the subject of the massacre of the innocents; and it has been shown that what is impossible with man is not impossible with God.

With respect to the slaughter of the little children, whether the number was fourteen thousand, or greater, or less, it has been shown that this horrible and unprecedented cruelty was not absolutely incompatible with the character of Herod; that, after being established as king of Judæa by Augustus, he could not indeed fear anything from the child of obscure and poor parents, residing in a petty village; but that laboring at that time under the disorder of which he at length died, his blood might have become so corrupt that he might in consequence have lost both reason and humanity; that, in short, all these incomprehensible events, which prepared the way for mysteries still more incomprehensible, were directed by an inscrutable Providence.

It is objected that the historian Josephus, who was nearly contemporary, and who has related all the cruelties of Herod, has made no more mention of the massacre of the young children than of the star of the three kings; that neither the Jew Philo, nor any other Jew, nor any Roman takes any notice of it; and even that three of the evangelists have observed a profound silence upon these important subjects. It is replied that they are nevertheless announced by St. Matthew, and that the testimony of one inspired man is of more weight than the silence of all the world.

The critics, however, have not surrendered; they have dared to censure St. Matthew himself for saying that these children were massacred, “that the words of Jeremiah might be fulfilled. A voice is heard in Ramah, a voice of groaning and lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

These historical words, they observe, were literally fulfilled in the tribe of Benjamin, which descended from Rachel, when Nabuzaradan destroyed a part of that tribe near the city of Ramah. It was no longer a prediction, they say, any more than were the words “He shall be called a Nazarene. And He came to dwell in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets. He shall be called a Nazarene.” They triumph in the circumstance that these words are not to be found in any one of the prophets; just as they do in the idea that Rachel weeping for the Benjamites at Ramah has no reference whatever to the massacre of the innocents by Herod.

They dare even to urge that these two allusions, being clearly false, are a manifest proof of the falsehood of this narrative; and conclude that the massacre of the children, and the new star, and the journey of the three kings, never had the slightest foundation in fact.

They even go much further yet; they think they find as palpable a contradiction between the narrative of St. Matthew and that of St. Luke, as between the two genealogies adduced by them. St. Matthew says that Joseph and Mary carried Jesus into Egypt, fearing that he would be involved in the massacre. St. Luke, on the contrary, says, “After having fulfilled all the ceremonies of the law, Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth, their city, and went every year to Jerusalem, to keep the Passover.”

But thirty days must have expired before a woman could have completed her purification from childbirth and fulfilled all the ceremonies of the law. During these thirty days, therefore, the child must have been exposed to destruction by the general proscription. And if his parents went to Jerusalem to accomplish the ordinance of the law, they certainly did not go to Egypt.

These are the principal objections of unbelievers. They are effectually refuted by the faith both of the Greek and Latin churches. If it were necessary always to be clearing up the doubts of persons who read the Scriptures, we must inevitably pass our whole lives in disputing about all the articles contained in them. Let us rather refer ourselves to our worthy superiors and masters; to the university of Salamanca when in Spain, to the Sorbonne in France, and to the holy congregation at Rome. Let us submit both in heart and in understanding to that which is required of us for our good.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25