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Discrepancies Surrounding the Date of Herod’s Death
Explore the interconnectedness of biblical events and cosmic phenomena in our examination of Herod’s death, Jesus’ birth, and a lunar eclipse. Navigate through the complexities of ancient history, prophecies, and celestial events in this insightful piece.
There will be some tiny amounts of reiteration in this article. Think of it as repetition for emphasis. The chronology of Herod’s death raises a host of interpretative issues. Some historians propose that Herod died around 5 or 4 B.C.E., primarily relying on the writings of Josephus. Josephus uses “consular dating” to pinpoint the moment of Herod’s appointment as king by Rome, relating it to the tenure of certain Roman consuls. According to his account, Herod’s ascension to the throne occurred in 40 B.C.E. However, data from another historian, Appianos, suggests this event transpired in 39 B.C.E.
Josephus also claims that Herod captured Jerusalem in 37 B.C.E. but contradicts himself by stating that this event took place 27 years after Pompey captured the city, which happened in 63 B.C.E. (Jewish Antiquities, XIV, 487, 488 [xvi, 4]). The latter assertion would place Herod’s conquest of Jerusalem in 36 B.C.E. Josephus further complicates matters by declaring that Herod died 37 years after his appointment by Rome and 34 years after seizing Jerusalem (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 190, 191 [viii, 1]). These conflicting accounts could suggest Herod’s death occurred in 2 or potentially 1 B.C.E.
There’s a possibility that Josephus adopted the accession-year system for counting the reigns of Judean kings, as was the practice for the line of David’s kings. If Rome declared Herod king in 40 B.C.E., his first regnal year could span from Nisan of 39 to Nisan of 38 B.C.E. If calculated from his capture of Jerusalem in 37 (or 36) B.C.E., his first regnal year could begin in Nisan 36 (or 35) B.C.E. Hence, as per Josephus, if Herod’s death took place 37 years post his Roman appointment and 34 years after capturing Jerusalem, and if these years are evaluated based on the regnal year system, his death could have been in 1 B.C.E.
In The Journal of Theological Studies, W. E. Filmer put forth a hypothesis that Jewish tradition holds evidence of Herod’s death taking place on Shebat 2, a date that falls within January-February of our calendar (edited by H. Chadwick and H. Sparks, Oxford, 1966, Vol. XVII, p. 284).
Josephus also specifies that Herod died after a lunar eclipse and before the Passover (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 167 [vi, 4]; 213 [ix, 3]). Since an eclipse occurred on March 11, 4 B.C.E. (March 13, Julian), some suggest that this was the eclipse Josephus referred to. Conversely, there was a total lunar eclipse in 1 B.C.E., approximately three months before Passover, whereas the 4 B.C.E. eclipse was only partial. The total eclipse in 1 B.C.E. occurred on January 8 (January 10, Julian), just 18 days before Shebat 2, the proposed day of Herod’s death. Another partial eclipse transpired on December 27 of 1 B.C.E. (December 29, Julian).
Lunar Eclipses as Historical Markers
Some have employed lunar eclipses to validate the chronology of Neo-Babylonian kings as depicted in Ptolemy’s canon and cuneiform records. However, even if Ptolemy’s computations of past eclipses were accurate—modern astronomers deem three fifths of his dates correct—this doesn’t necessarily affirm the reliability of his historical correlations, namely, the alignment of these lunar eclipses with the reigns of certain kings.
The Dilemma of Dating Herod the Great’s Death: Consider, for instance, the ambiguity surrounding the death of Herod the Great. Josephus, in his Jewish Antiquities (XVII, 167 [vi, 4]; XVII, 188-214 [viii, 1–ix, 3]), situates Herod’s demise shortly after a lunar eclipse and just before the Passover. Many scholars, citing the lunar eclipse of March 11 (Julian calendar, March 13) in 4 C.E., assert that Herod died in 4 C.E. and, consequently, that Jesus’ birth might have been as early as 5 C.E.
However, the 4 C.E. eclipse was only of 36 percent magnitude and likely went unnoticed by most during the early morning hours. Alternatively, two lunar eclipses occurred in 1 C.E., both of which could potentially satisfy the description of an eclipse preceding the Passover. The late-night lunar eclipse on January 8, 1 C.E. (Julian calendar, January 10) was particularly noticeable, with a total blackout duration of 1 hour and 41 minutes, observable by any awake individual, regardless of potential cloud cover.
The Limitations of Astronomical Diaries
While lunar eclipses play a role, not all historical dating depends on them. Some chronological methods involve astronomical diaries, which document the moon’s position relative to certain stars or constellations, as well as the positions of certain planets at specific moments. Such specific celestial configurations are not likely to recur for thousands of years. These diaries often align with Ptolemy’s canon, referencing the reigns of various kings. However, several factors are undermining their reliability.
First, the astronomical observations made in Babylon might be prone to error, primarily due to visibility issues caused by frequent sandstorms. Also, the vast majority of these diaries originate from the Seleucid period (312-65 B.C.E.), not the Neo-Babylonian or Persian eras, suggesting that they are copies of older records. As such, the full chronology of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods (late seventh to late fourth centuries) is yet to be definitively established by contemporaneous astronomical texts.
Secondly, even if the astronomical information in these texts is generally accurate, this doesn’t inherently validate their historical accuracy. For instance, an ancient astronomer might correctly report a celestial event happening in a specific year (e.g., 465 B.C.E.) but incorrectly attribute it to the 21st year of King Xerxes’ reign. Therefore, astronomical accuracy does not guarantee historical accuracy.
Alternate Theories Regarding Herod’s Age at His Death
Another angle for understanding the timing of Herod’s death focuses on his age at the time of passing. Josephus states that Herod was approximately 70 years old when he died. He also claims that Herod was 15 when appointed as the governor of Galilee, a position generally acknowledged to have been conferred upon him in 47 B.C.E. Scholars, however, interpret this as an error and suggest that the intended age was likely 25 (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 148 [vi, 1]; XIV, 158 [ix, 2]). Following this correction, it can be inferred that Herod’s death might have occurred in 2 or 1 B.C.E. Nonetheless, it’s essential to recognize that Josephus’ accounts contain numerous inconsistencies, rendering them less than wholly reliable. Consequently, the Bible provides more dependable information.
Evidence available suggests that Herod likely died in 1 B.C.E. Luke, the biblical historian, informs us that John started baptizing in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign (Luke 3:1-3). Augustus passed away on August 17, 14 C.E., and Tiberius was declared emperor by the Roman Senate on September 15. The Romans didn’t adopt the accession-year system, meaning the 15th year would extend from late 28 C.E. to late 29 C.E.
Being six months older than Jesus, John began his ministry ahead of Jesus as his forerunner, most likely in the spring (Luke 1:35, 36). Jesus, believed to be born in the fall, was about 30 years old when he went to John for baptism (Luke 3:21-23). Therefore, he was presumably baptized around October of 29 C.E. If we count 30 years back from this time, the birth of the Son of God can be placed in the fall of 2 B.C.E. (Compare Luke 3:1, 23 with Daniel’s prophecy of the “seventy weeks” at Daniel 9:24-27.)
After Jesus’ birth “in the days of Herod, the king,” astrologers from the east arrived in Jerusalem claiming to have seen his star (Matthew 2:1-7). By this time, Jesus was no longer in a manger but residing in a house with his parents (Matthew 2:11; compare Luke 2:4-7). Feeling threatened, Herod ordered the killing of all boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity, while Jesus was whisked away to Egypt due to divine intervention (Matthew 2:12-18). Considering Jesus’ approximate birth in October 2 B.C.E., Herod’s death could not have occurred before 1 B.C.E., or Jesus would have been less than three months old.
Furthermore, it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to be two years old during the massacre. Herod calculated the time from when the star appeared to the astrologers (Matthew 2:1, 2, 7-9). This journey from likely Babylon or Mesopotamia, the ancient hub of astrology, could have taken several months. After all, the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem took the Israelites at least four months in 537 B.C.E. Evidently, Herod wanted to ensure the destruction of the “king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2), leading to the death of infants up to two years old. Herod’s death shortly after these events is suggested by Jesus’ brief stay in Egypt (Matthew 2:19-21). In conclusion, considering Bible chronology, astronomical data, and historical records, it seems probable that Herod died around 1 B.C.E. or possibly early in 1 C.E.
Chronology of Jesus’ Birth, Ministry, and Death
Jesus’ birth and ministry can be understood more clearly when examining a series of events and their dates closely. Based on various historical and biblical sources, we can infer that Jesus was born in the month of Ethanim (September-October) in 2 B.C.E. His baptism occurred in the same month around 29 C.E., and he died at around 3 p.m. on Friday, the 14th day of the spring month of Nisan (March-April), in 33 C.E. Here’s the reasoning behind these dates:
Jesus’ Birth and Herod’s Death
The timing of Jesus’ birth and Herod’s death provides vital clues for constructing a precise chronology. We know Jesus was born about six months after his relative John (the Baptizer), during Caesar Augustus’ reign (31 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) and Quirinius’ governorship in Syria, towards the end of Herod the Great’s rule over Judea.
The precise date of Herod’s death is debated, but significant evidence points to 1 B.C.E. Several events happened between Jesus’ birth and Herod’s death, including Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day, his presentation at the Jerusalem temple 40 days after birth, the journey of the astrologers from the East to Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt, and Herod’s killing of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem. All these suggest that Jesus was born in the fall of 2 B.C.E., and Herod likely died in 1 B.C.E.
Connection to John the Baptist’s Ministry
The starting date of John the Baptist’s ministry offers additional evidence for Jesus’ birth year. According to Luke 3:1-3, John began his ministry in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” which spanned the latter half of 28 C.E. to August or September of 29 C.E. During John’s ministry, Jesus was baptized and started his ministry when he was “about thirty years old.” This suggests that John was born around the latter half of 3 B.C.E. to August or September of 2 B.C.E., and Jesus’ birth followed about six months later.
Further evidence indicating the length of Jesus’ ministry comes from the prophecy in Daniel 9:24-27. This prophecy points to the Messiah appearing at the start of the 70th “week” of years and his sacrificial death in the middle of the final week. This implies a ministry of three and a half years for Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ death occurred in the spring, on Passover Day, Nisan (or Abib) 14, according to the Jewish calendar. That year, the Passover happened on the sixth day of the week (counted from sundown on Thursday to sundown on Friday). Thus, Jesus’ death occurred on Friday, Nisan 14, around 3 p.m.
In summary, Jesus’ death took place in the spring month of Nisan, and his ministry, which began three and a half years earlier, must have started in the fall, around the month of Ethanim (September-October). John’s ministry, which started in Tiberius’ 15th year, began in the spring of the year 29 C.E. Consequently, John’s birth would have been in the spring of 2 B.C.E., and Jesus’ birth would come about six months later in the fall of 2 B.C.E. Jesus’ ministry would start about 30 years later in the fall of 29 C.E., and his death would occur in the year 33 C.E. (on Nisan 14 in the spring).