On 28th December the church commemorates the Sacrifice of the Holy Innocents

As per Matthew 2:16

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

However we celebrate the Feast of the 3 Kings on January 6th - which means by the date of Dec 28th Herod would not have known the Magi were not going to return to inform him the location of the baby Jesus.

  1. What is the chronology of these two events - is it a fair assumption that the Visit took place prior to the massacre ?

  2. Is there an explanation as to why these events are commemorated by the Church in a different order ?

  • 1
    One timeline depends on two beliefs: that Jesus was born on what is our 25th December, and that the Magi pitched up within a day or two, returning swiftly without telling Herod where the newborn king was, and Herod ordered the massacre of the innocent children without delay. However, others believe that the Magi did not appear until Jesus was a "child" (as opposed to a new-born baby) and was staying in a house (not a stable - see Matthew 3:11). Yes, the massacre took place after the Magi's visit but nobody can put a date on their visit.
    – Anne
    Jan 3, 2023 at 16:54
  • 2
    The liturgical sequence is not meant to convey a precise historical ordering.
    – eques
    Jan 4, 2023 at 15:22

2 Answers 2


Chronology of the Feast of Holy Innocents vis a vis the Visit of the Magi?

While it is true that the Church commemorates the Sacrifice of the Holy Innocents on December 28, we do not know the actual chronology of events surrounding the Magi and the Holy Innocents.

In fact, we do not even know how old Jesus was when the Magi really visited the Child Jesus. What we can surmise is that the Holy Innocents were murdered shortly after the visit of the Magi. How long after we do not know.

Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. - St. Matthew 2:16-18

The number of Infant boys killed under the orders of Herod must have been small, since historians do not speak about it.

Modern writers reduce the number considerably, since Bethlehem was a rather small town. Knabenbauer brings it down to fifteen or twenty (Evang. S. Matt., I, 104), Bisping to ten or twelve (Evang. S. Matt.), Kellner to about six (Christus and seine Apostel, Freiburg, 1908); cf. "Anzeiger kath. Geistlichk. Deutschl.", 15 Febr., 1909, p. 32. This cruel deed of Herod is not mentioned by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, although he relates quite a number of atrocities committed by the king during the last years of his reign. The number of these children was so small that this crime appeared insignificant amongst the other misdeeds of Herod. Macrobius (Saturn., IV, xiv, de Augusto et jocis ejus) relates that when Augustus heard that amongst the boys of two years and under Herod's own son also had been massacred, he said: "It is better to be Herod's hog [ous], than his son [houios]," alluding to the Jewish law of not eating, and consequently not killing, swine. The Middle Ages gave faith to this story; Abelard inserted it in his hymn for the feast of Holy Innocents:

Ad mandatum regis datum generale nec ipsius infans tutus est a caede. Ad Augustum hoc delatum risum movit, et rex mitis de immiti digne lusit: malum, inquit, est Herodis esse natum. prodest magis talis regis esse porcum.

Holy Innocents

This liturgical feast is celebrated three days after Christmas to celebrate the Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents within the the octave of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. No absolute chronological history of events is implied.

As I have already mentioned we do know how old Jesus was when the Magi really visited the Child Jesus. Our Lord was at least one year old and possibly somewhat older. That is why Herod ordered the deaths of all male children two years old and younger.

Scriptures tell us that after the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple the Holy Family went to the town of Nazareth.

The Magi would have visited Jesus only after his Presentation in the Temple. Had they done so earlier, Joseph and Mary would have been able to buy a lamb with the gold that they got as a present from the Magi!

39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. - Luke 2:39

Assuming the Holy Family left the next day journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth would have taken anywhere from 4 to 7 days depending on variables. But this is only one interpretation proposed by Catholic theologians and others do exist.

It is about 120 Km from Narareth to Jerusalem and another 10 Km from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. (About 80 miles in all) If Mary had not been feeling very well it could have taken nearly a week to do the journey. - Nazareth to Bethlehem

And what are the variables that could make a trip from Jerusalem to Nazareth go faster or slower?

Galilee is north of Jerusalem; Bethlehem is to the south. The shortest route, 70 miles more or less as the crow flies, is through Samaria. Given the antipathy between Jews and Samaritans, Joseph and Mary likely skirted the area and went around the longer way.

Assuming an average pace of 2.5 mph, 20 miles a day, would mean a trip of four 8-hour days. Some speculation puts it at seven days, or ten. I think four days is about right. Mary in her late teens, strong, healthy peasant stock; even pregnant and near delivery she could have managed walking it.

That is if they didn’t bother with a donkey. With a donkey, no question, it was a seven- to ten-day trip. Yes, all the images depict Mary seated on a donkey. I suggest they are wrong.

I’ve hiked with pack burros; it is slower. A donkey will pretty much set its own pace and not usually the one you would like. You may be in front tugging a lead, but the donkey is in charge. You get to walk ahead and pretend you’re in command.

Even if they did have a donkey, I bet she walked. Donkeys aren’t fit for riding (again, yes, there are people who enjoy it over short distances; I’m not one of them at any distance). Eighty miles riding a donkey, picturesque as might be, still works out to, oh, let’s see, yes, 80 miles riding a donkey. Sensible people that they were, they walked. - Biblical travel: How far to where, and what about the donkey?

Now settled in at Nazareth, the Magi would have visited the Holy Family in their home town.

The Magi Visit the Messiah

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

From the above passage we can notice several points that can easily go unnoticed. The Magi visited the Holy Family in a house and not a manger. The Gospel does not state that the Magi actually went to Bethlehem; only that Herod had told them that the Newborn King was to be born in Bethlehem. Thus it is very conceivable that the Magi found the Holy Family at Nazareth and not Bethlehem. The Holy Family could have returned to Bethlehem after the presentation and found a house to remain in.

It seems most logical that the Magi certainly visited the Holy Family after the Presentation. As we know the Magi presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We also know that Mary offered “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” If they had had enough money they would have offered a lamb as was the Jewish custom in those days. Besides, Jesus is the real Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

To further show that the Church does not know exactly how to explain the Biblical texts surrounding the events of Our Lord’s birth, I am going to let Fr. Ryan Erlenbus explain the differences in the various time scenarios proposed by Catholic theologians. It is impossible to know for certain when the Magi actually visited the Holy Family.

The Magi must have arrived shortly after Christ’s Nativity

There are several points which must be recalled from the biblical narrative: The Magi visit Christ in Bethlehem; the Magi visit Christ in what Matthew calls a “home,” which may be different from the “stable” where Luke states the Child was born; after the Presentation in the Temple (forty days after the Birth), Luke tells us that Jesus was taken to Nazareth; it seems that Joseph took his family to Egypt fairly soon after the Magi departed; when Herod realized he was deceived he had the children in Bethlehem and the surrounding towns killed.

In the previous article, we have seen that the Child was born in a stable and adored that night by the shepherds. However, the Magi probably came shortly later, after the Holy Family had received hospitality in some home in Bethlehem (hence, Matthew speaks of a house). Thus, we can be reasonably certain that the Magi came to Bethlehem at least a day or two after the Nativity. However, it is most certain that they did not come any later than forty days after Christ’s birth, since then the Holy Family would not be in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth (since Luke states that they returned to Nazareth after the Presentation in the Temple which, according to the Law, took place forty days after birth). Hence, we can reasonably conclude that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem somewhere between the second and the fortieth day after Christmas – why not accept the tradition of the thirteenth day?

The star appeared on the day of the Nativity

St. Thomas knew of two opinions about the apparition of the star seen by the Magi: Chrysostom (or the author of the Opus Imperfectum in Mtt.) and Augustine seem to state that the star was first seen by the Magi two full years before the birth of Christ, and that it took these two years for the wise men to make the journey and arrive in Bethlehem (on the thirteenth day after the birth).

On the other hand, St. Thomas mentions “others” who hold that the star first appeared only when Christ was born. According to this opinion, the Magi set off on their journey only on the day of the Nativity and were able to travel a long distance “owing partly to the Divine assistance, and partly to the fleetness of the dromedaries.” This is Thomas’ own opinion (ST III, q.36, a.6, ad 3).

Yet, it may be the case that the star appeared on Christmas day and the Magi arrived thirteen days later on account of the fact that they were not from the far East, but only from a nation a little to the east of Israel – this is the opinion of Cornelius a’ Lapide, and I share it as well.

A good reason to maintain that the star had not appeared to the Magi until the time of Christ’s birth is that, on the presumption that the Magi saw the star two years before the Nativity, the Magi would have learned of the Incarnation even before the Blessed Virgin Mary had! How strange this would be, for the Magi to know of the coming of the King before even the Mother!

Moreover, it seems that Christ should not have been made manifest to the world until after his birth, for until the Nativity he was hidden in the virginal cloister of his Mother’s womb. It is for this reason that the Nativity is celebrated with greater solemnity than the Annunciation (the Incarnation) – it was only in the Nativity that God’s Love was revealed openly to the world. Hence, Christ should first come into the world openly (by his birth) before he is manifested to the wise men. Therefore, we ought to conclude, as a matter of fittingness, that the wise men did not see the star until the very night of the Nativity. In this way also, Christ’s birth was heralded first to the Jews (to the shepherds) and then to the Gentiles (to the Magi).

The massacre of the Holy Innocents seems to have been nearly two years after the first Christmas

The primary reason why some (both of the past and of the present) hold that the star appeared two full years before the Nativity is based on the following line from Matthew 2:16, “Then Herod killed all the men children from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.” This time inquired from the wise men seems to refer to Matthew 2:7, “Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of the time of the star which appeared to them.” Hence, it is quite clear that Herod’s massacre of the Innocents was determined (in relation to the age of the children killed) by the time when first the Magi saw the star. The slaughter takes place about two years after the star first appeared.

However, while it seems that we ought to maintain that the star had indeed appeared two years before the slaughtering of the Innocents, this does not determine the relation of the appearance of the star to the Nativity. For indeed, it is quite possible that the slaughtering of the Innocents did not occur until nearly two years after the Nativity. In which case, the star would have first appeared on the night in which Christ was born; and Herod would have (over a year later) killed the children of two years, since he knew that the Child could not be older than the star which marked his birth.


Dates assigned by the Catholic Church to its holy calendar were often chosen for the convenience of having a common date accepted throughout the Church, with no claims of historical accuracy.

(The British monarch similarly has an arbitrarily set birthday, even though the actual date is well known. See: King's Official Birthday - Wikipedia.)

The date of Christ's birth is an excellent example of this process, and the Church is quite open about it.

CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Christmas provides a long list of dates celebrated as the birth of Christ. For the first few centuries, these dates jump all over the calendar, before eventually unifying on December 25.

Here are some examples (from the much much longer article):

The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Stromata I.21) says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ's birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. Others reached the date of 24 or 25 Pharmuthi (19 or 20 April). With Clement's evidence may be mentioned the "De paschæ computus", written in 243 and falsely ascribed to Cyprian (P.L., IV, 963 sqq.), which places Christ's birth on 28 March, because on that day the material sun was created.

The December feast therefore reached Egypt between 427 and 433.

In Cyprus, at the end of the fourth century, Epiphanius asserts … that Christ was born on 6 January and baptized on 8 November.

On "VIII kal.mart." (22 February) is also mentioned

The well-known solar feast, however, of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date. For the history of the solar cult, its position in the Roman Empire, and syncretism with Mithraism, see Cumont's epoch-making "Textes et Monuments" etc., I, ii, 4, 6, p. 355. Mommsen (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, 12, p. 338) has collected the evidence for the feast, which reached its climax of popularity under Aurelian in 274. Filippo del Torre in 1700 first saw its importance; it is marked, as has been said, without addition in Philocalus' Calendar. It would be impossible here even to outline the history of solar symbolism and language as applied to God, the Messiah, and Christ in Jewish or Christian canonical, patristic, or devotional works. Hymns and Christmas offices abound in instances; the texts are well arranged by Cumont (op. cit., addit. Note C, p. 355).

The earliest rapprochement of the births of Christ and the sun is in Cyprian, "De pasch. Comp.", xix, "O quam præclare providentia ut illo die quo natus est Sol . . . nasceretur Christus." — "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born."

Is there an explanation as to why these events are commemorated by the Church in a different order ?

Yes. The calendar dates assigned by the Church are the dates on which these events are to be commemorated, not the historical dates on which the events actually occurred (which can't be known without divine revelation).

What is the chronology of these two events - is it a fair assumption that the Visit took place prior to the massacre ?

As for which happened first, the visit or the slaughter, it depends entirely on when Herod realized that he had been tricked.

I would assume that he didn't learn of it until his spies that had been following the Magi returned from Nazareth and reported that the Magi were heading home and not coming back to Jerusalem.
The Visit would have occurred several days before, as Nazareth is about 150 km away from Jerusalem.

  • Do you have a source for the claim "were chosen mostly for convenience"? I assume you don't mean "conveniens" -- fittingness in the manner of the medieval theologians
    – eques
    Jan 4, 2023 at 19:38
  • @eques, no source. I've reworded it to indicate that it is convenient for the whole church to have a common agreed-upon date, even if it isn't necessarily the correct date. Jan 4, 2023 at 20:22
  • You still need a source to back up that claim. The liturgical calendar is far less planned in its development than that sentence would imply.
    – eques
    Jan 4, 2023 at 20:37
  • This answer actually does not address the question being asked: Chronology of the Feast of Holy Innocents vis a vis the Visit of the Magi.
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 5, 2023 at 13:13
  • @KenGraham, neither the Title nor the Question actually contain a "?". I've now added an explicit answer to the part that resembles a question. Jan 5, 2023 at 14:51

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