December 28, is a designated holy day on the Roman Catholic calendar known as The Feast of the Massacre of the Innocents, commemorating the event recounted by Matthew in which Herod, hearing from the three wise men of the birth of a child in Bethlehem who would fulfill the prophesies, "sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under." Though Matthew's text is regarded by scholars as hagiography, the event is also mentioned by Macrobius in his Saturnalia and in a Syrian text which numbers the innocents at 64,000. Byzantine liturgy counted 14,000.
Matthew also tells of how "an angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him." So Joseph fled with Mary and Jesus into Egypt. According to Matthew, the massacre was the fulfillment of a prophesy of Jeremiah, which Matthew recounts as: "In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because the are not." (Matthew 2:18, see also Jeremiah 31-15).
It is clear that Matthew was straining to fulfill prophesies, and this curious anecdote, which is not mentioned in the other Gospels, may simply be another of Matthew's strained tie-ins. In chapter 1 of his Gospel, he devotes the first seventeen verses to proving that Jesus was a descendant of Abraham. But in the very next verse he quite obliviously informs us that Jesus was, in fact, begat by the Holy Ghost.
But if Matthew's account is true, an an angel of the Lord warned Joseph in a dream of Herod's plans and he escaped with Mary and Jesus from Bethlehem during he night, a serious question arises. Why did Joseph fail to warn everyone else of the impending massacre? Was it merely because all those children had to die so that some obscure prophesy could be fulfilled? Did they have to die simply to cover Jesus's escape? Joseph could not have saved all the children from slaughter, but he certainly could have saved many of them. In a hurry to escape, he could have told one person, who could have spread the word or sounded an alarm that Herod's soldiers were on their way.
The figure of Joseph is nebulous in the Gospels. Cuckolded by the Holy Ghost, he is nonetheless instrumental, if Matthew is to be believed, in saving his step-child's life. Angels of the Lord do not appear to just anyone. In Jose Saramago's novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Jesus is the son of Joseph, not God. God calls upon him to sacrifice himself for man. Instead of learning in a dream of Herod's treachery, Joseph overhears two Roman soldiers talking about the plan to slaughter all the newborn children of Bethlehem. He hastily gathers up Jesus and Mary and they escape. Joseph and his family live, but he feels guilty for not helping any others to escape from Herod's soldiers. He suffers nightmares, and cries out in his sleep. Jesus asks Mary why his father should cry out. When Mary tells him why, Jesus is outraged, and says of his father: "Father murdered the children of Bethlehem." In Saramago's novel, God condemns Joseph for this "sin of omission" and he, too, is crucified. But Jesus, too, accepts the blame, and Saramago reverses his last entreaty from the Cross: "Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done." Jesus, in Saramago's version, is sent to die for the sins of his father. But the use of the word "father" is deliberately ambiguous. Was it Joseph who murdered the children, or God? If God created evil, is not God evil?
For the believer, the only conclusion that Matthew's text allows is that the innocents had to die so that Jesus might live. So within hours of his birth, a great crime tainted the Nativity. And the Church has set aside a day to feast their slaughter, reinforcing the interpretation that they died to fulfill a prophesy.