The Chapel of the Holy Innocents
Are These the Bones of the Baby Boys of Bethlehem?
This site is generally part of our live Octagon Tour.
Location - The Church of the Nativity
Map Coordinates - 31.704261, 35.207363
Merged Gospels story - 14
Most tourists visiting the Church of the Nativity don’t get permission to visit this unique chapel. However, it’s an opportunity that I never miss, showing this chapel to our visitors on the live Octagon Tour.
Just outside the south transept of the Church of the Nativity is a courtyard that leads to a chapel that is rarely visited – The Chapel of the Holy Innocents. Many years ago, an ancient cemetery was discovered under the church of the Nativity, and archeologists have determined that this cemetery dated back to the first century. In that cemetery they found the remains of both adults and babies - many babies.
The Biblical Story.
In their meeting illustrated below, King Herod instructed the Magi from Persia to locate the Christ child in Bethlehem, and then to return to Jerusalem, to report to himself the exact location of Jesus’ whereabouts (Matthew 2:7,8). Herod planned to kill the Son of God.
Herod and the Magi.
That night, after visiting the Holy Family, the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to travel back to their own country by a different route (Matthew 2:12). This infuriated Herod, and he sent his Temple guards to Bethlehem to kill any boys who were two years old and younger (Matthew 2:16).
The historical accuracy of the slaughter of these children has often been questioned by critics, since no other document from that period makes any reference to such a massacre. However, Bethlehem was a small rural town, and the number of children killed may have been very few. The writings of Flavius Josephus, who wrote the only available history of Herod’s life, compiled his research 100 years after the Bethlehem massacre occurred. It’s not surprising that he was either unaware of it, or that he did not consider it important.
Josephus does tell us that Herod was an extremely cruel man, having killed many members of his own family, including several of his sons, wives and in-laws (Antiquities, 17, 8:1). Given his blood-thirsty tendencies, and since he was known to kill anyone who would aspire to his throne, the story of the slaughter of the innocents is, therefore, entirely characteristic of Herod’s chronic paranoia.
Through barred doors in this chapel you can view the ancient cemetery from which the remains of the deceased were extracted (shown below). At this point we are literally under the current Church of the Nativity.
Part of the cemetery under the Church of the Nativity.
At the very bottom of the chapel there is a shroud, on which is painted an image of Christ lying in His tomb. This display is merely commemorative, placed here for contemplative purposes.
The Baby Bones.
In the back of the display room are two glass-topped cases. In these cases are the tiny bones of children who were less than two years old – bones that were extracted from this cemetery. It is believed that these are the bones of the baby boys of Bethlehem.
In one sense it’s almost as if these baby boys were the first martyrs, who all died because of Jesus Christ.
The Mass Grave.
Through barred windows in the display room you can see the bones of scores of people – a mass grave of the residents of Bethlehem.
A mass grave at the Chapel of the Holy Innocents.
While we don’t know who all of these people were, we should understand that it was probably not just the babies who were killed in Herod’s rampage. We would expect that their parents would have struggled with the soldiers as they tried to save their infants, and that many would have suffered the same fate at the sword of Herod’s murderous Temple guards. This means that it’s very likely that scattered throughout this mass grave are the bones of the parents who only wanted to protect their children.
The Meaning Behind the Icon.
The icon in the Chapel of the Holy Innocents.
As tragic as this event was, the first thing that you see when you walk into this chapel is the above icon, and it gives us hope that all was not lost. Illustrated on this painting is a reminder that each one of these baby boys was received into heaven, for no other reason than they were innocent before God – an innocence that can be shared by everyone who loves the Lord with all of their heart (Mark 12:30), until that day when we all go to sleep, and an angel’s song awakens each one of us.