Wednesday, December 16, 2009

When Herod Ruled - Resolving the Dates

As we approach the Feast of the Nativity, I want to take up a topic which we are also addressing in our church forum: was there a real Star of Bethlehem, and if so, just what was it? Last year, I did some posts on some of the points in Prof. Frank Tipler's amazing book, The Physics of Christianity. (If the legal disputes of the Church ever give me more time, I hope to return to the book and continue where I left off.) One of the chapters I took note of, but did not blog about, was about his theory that the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova that occurred at just the right time in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy.

I mentioned this to one of my friends who sometimes comments here, and got back the immediate response: "Oh, no -- the Star was not a supernova. You need to get up on the latest findings -- let me send you a DVD about it." The DVD arrived, but it had to wait until I could get a free hour to watch it. When I did, I was astonished by how the astronomical research fit together. I began to do some research of my own, to find out why this theory of the Star was not better known.

What I found was the usual scholarly blockade -- several generations of Biblical scholars who circle the wagons around a consensus formed more than a century ago based on the best evidence then available, and who resist anyone who rejects the consensus, or who undermines it with arguments based on new evidence. Thus it has ever been in academia. However, readers of this blog already know that no outdated consensus will form any stumbling block to where the truth may take us. So I have decided, in this series of posts leading up to December 25, to walk through the controversy, to examine the consensus and the problems with it, and to show how the new evidence makes a better fit with both what we know of Jewish chronology and custom in first-century-B.C. Palestine.

Solving the problem of the Star of Bethlehem requires that we arrive at a decision on the reign of Herod the Great. We know from Matthew's second chapter that Herod was alive when Jesus was born, because Matthew reports that Herod gave orders, in an attempt to prevent the usurpation of his throne by a new King of the Jews, to slay all the male children in Bethlehem of age two years or less. (Whether or not the order is an historical fact is much debated, because there are no other accounts which have survived of it. Then again, as another scholar has pointed out, given the population of Bethlehem in the years just before the Christian era, and applying standard demographics to that figure, there could have been at most about two dozen infants who met the criteria.) Shortly after this, it is reported that Herod himself died (while the Holy Family was in Egypt). From this, therefore, we know that Jesus was born a year or more before Herod died.

The date of Herod's death thus fixes a terminus ad quem -- a date certain before which Jesus must have been born. But when did Herod die? Ah, now that is the question. All historians of Herod's reign pretty much have to rely on the first century Jewish historian Josephus for that information. Josephus took part in the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in A.D. 66, but was captured by the Romans shortly afterward. He rose to sudden favor in the Roman camp when a prediction he made came true in A.D. 69 that the Roman general leading the siege against Jerusalem, Vespasian, would become the emperor of Rome. He observed the final fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 from the Roman lines, and then was granted a palace in Rome by a grateful Vespasian. There he began to translate into Greek an earlier account he had written (in Aramaic) of the "Jewish wars" he had just experienced. His narrative began with the events of 170 B.C., when Antiochus Epiphanes took Jerusalem by force. After relating the events which are described in the Maccabean books of the Apocrypha, he took up briefly the life and reign of Herod before focusing on the chain of events that led to Jerusalem's downfall.

His first-person account, shaded to make Vespasian more of a hero than he was, proved very popular in Rome, and Josephus flattered himself into thinking that there was a demand for a comprehensive history of the Jewish people, from the creation of the world to A.D. 66 -- where his Jewish Wars took over. The result, called the Jewish Antiquities in twenty volumes, included a second account of the life and reign of Herod.

The two accounts, written perhaps fifteen to twenty years apart, are maddeningly inconsistent in details of dates. (The inconsistencies were exacerbated by the error of a sixteenth-century copyist in writing "20" for what Josephus had written as "22" in dating the death of Herod's son -- an error that unfortunately was carried over into all the major editions of Josephus currently in print.) For example, in the Jewish Wars, Josephus states that Herod began work on rebuilding the Temple at Jerusalem in "the fifteenth year of his reign", while in the Antiquities Josephus asserts that the work on the Temple began in Herod's eighteenth year. But in the Antiquities (and not in the Wars), Josephus gives one objective clue to the date of Herod's death: he notes that a lunar eclipse occurred shortly beforehand, and that Herod's funeral took place before Passover.

Now this is a fact that astronomically determines which years are eligible, and which are not. All of the lunar eclipses which occurred just before A.D. 1 may now be calculated with precision. Here is a table of the ones that occurred between the years 5 and 1 B.C.:

Date/(Type of Eclipse)/Days before Passover

March 23, 5 B.C. (total) 29 days

September 15, 5 B.C. (total) 7 months

March 13, 4 B.C. (partial) 29 days

January 10, 1 B.C. (total) 92 days

Most scholars have rejected the dates in 5 B.C., because of the inability to fit what Josephus elsewhere says were thirty-seven years of Herod's rule, beginning in 40 or 39 B.C. when the Roman senate confirmed him as King, into a reign that ended in that year. But 4 B.C. just fits, if one assumes that he was confirmed in 40 B.C. (Josephus is again ambiguous in giving us the markers for the Senate's proclamation), not 39, and if one counts both the first and the last year as part of the total of thirty-seven (yielding a reign of actually thirty-six years, according to normal methods of counting).

The same majority of scholars rejects the date of 1 B.C. as being too late to fit with Josephus' other data. However, that date does fit remarkably well with Josephus' statement that Herod was about seventy years old when he died, and that he was 25 years old when his father named him Governor of Galilee (in 47 B.C.). But the main difference between these two candidates -- 4 B.C. and 1 B.C. -- lies in the number of days between the eclipse and the Passover in that year.

In 4 B.C., there were just 29 days; in 1 B.C. there were 92 days. Now look at all of the events which Josephus says surrounded Herod's death, beginning with the lunar eclipse:

1. The day before the eclipse (Josephus reports), Herod had two celebrated rabbis burned alive for ordering their students to remove a golden eagle he had erected over the Temple's eastern gate.

2. The day after the eclipse, Herod's health worsened, and after his physicians tried many remedies to no avail, he decided to leave Jericho and go to bathe in the mineral waters at Calirrhoe, east of the Dead Sea.

3. The waters having also failed to improve his health, Herod then returned to Jericho.

4. On his return, and seeing that his death was imminent, Herod formed a monstrous plan to give the Jewish people no cause to celebrate after he was dead: he had the most prominent elders of the Jews summoned to Jericho from all over the country. When they arrived, he gave orders that they were to wait for him in the arena there. He planned to confine them in the arena until his death, and then have them all massacred -- so that Judea would really have something to bewail and grieve about. (Fortunately, Herod's son Archelaus refused to carry out his orders.)

5. The elders in due course arrived, and had just been confined to the arena, when news arrived from Rome that Herod had permission to execute yet another of his sons, Antipater, for having allegedly poisoned his uncle Pheroras (Herod's brother), and engaged in other treasonous acts. (In giving his imperial permission, Augustus is supposed to have remarked that it was safer to be a pig on Herod's farm than it was to be a member of his family.) Herod had the execution take place immediately.

6. Five days after executing his son, Herod himself died.

7. Herod had arranged for a slow and massive funeral procession to carry his bier from Jericho to his final resting place at Herodium, some twenty-three miles away. First all the crown jewels had to be brought from Herod's palace in Jerusalem, and spices to anoint the body (carried by some 500 slaves) assembled. Then the procession, accompanied by soldiers, notables and drummers, slowly marched off. It is estimated it would have taken at least a week to reach its destination.

8. After the funeral, the customary Jewish seven-day period of mourning was observed. Then there was a feast, following which Herod's son Archelaus (with whom Herod had begun to share power some years earlier) assumed the kingship and made some immediate promotions in the military.

9. Finally, after all these events, Josephus reports that the Passover festival came, after which Archelaus left for Rome to have his authority confirmed by the Emperor Augustus.

There is simply not time enough for all of the events which Josephus relates to have occurred in the twenty-nine days between March 13, 4 B.C. and Passover in that same year. In a recent study by Professor Andrew E. Steinmann, the author estimates that allowing for the shortest possible time for each event, a minimum of 41 days would have elapsed after the eclipse, and that allowing 92 days for all the events to have occurred would be much more reasonable.

Thus, Professor Steinmann concludes, against the majority consensus of all the scholars, that Herod most probably died in 1 B.C., and not in 4 B.C. as has always been assumed. He adduces many more arguments to support his conclusion in his paper; I have summarized here only his major argument.

The clincher, in my view, that proves Herod died in 1 B.C. consists of the astronomical events which modern computers can show occurred in the skies over Babylon and Jerusalem in the years 3-2 B.C., and which bear out in wonderful detail the story of the magi which Matthew relates in chapter 2 of his Gospel. There are no comparable events to be found in the same skies in the years before 4 B.C. -- unless one goes all the way back to 7 B.C., when a rare triple conjunction occurred between Jupiter and Saturn. However, nothing else of moment could be observed in the months before or afterward (unlike the events in 3-2 B.C., which I shall describe in a later post), and the behavior of the triple conjunction in 7 B.C. does not provide as close a match to the description of the star of Bethlehem in Matthew chapter 2.

[UPDATE 12/22/2012: Note that His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, in his latest volume on the life of Jesus, relies on the same translation mistake from Josephus. He sides with the traditional death date of 4 B.C., and moves the date of the Nativity back from there. As we shall see in the next post, the astronomical events of 7-6 B.C. are not as good a fit to Matthew's account as are those of 3-2 B.C.]

Thus if we throw out the consensus, and look at the evidence with fresh eyes, it becomes possible to fix the date of Jesus' birth with astonishing precision. And that will be the topic for my Christmas post.


  1. That triple conjunction you mention in 7 BC actually fits the Gospel quite well for a number of reasons:
    1. It rose in the east.
    2. It occurred in a constellation related (in Persian astrology) to Israel.
    3. Jupiter (in Persian astrology) was related to events having to do with kings.

    The Wise Men (astrologers) would have seen the star in the East, recognized it as portending the birth of a Jewish king, and would have made a bee line to Jerusalem to check it out.

    All of the above I gleaned from a PBS broadcast last year. Worth viewing if you get the chance.

    This explanation seems more plausable to me than the generic supernova, which, depending in what part of the sky it appeared, could have meant a number of things to an astrologer.

    But in the end, the birth is the important thing. Its timing, while of interest, shouldn't detract from the miracle of the incarnation.

  2. Dear Mr. Haley,

    In addition to Dave's points concerning the better fit of a triple conjunction with the facts, there is the fact that the Gospel account refers to the star "stopping in the sky over the place where the baby was." A supernova in a distant galaxy, or even on the far side of our own galaxy, would not exhibit an apparent motion that would allow deviation from any other star's ascension, transit across the sky and descent below the horizon, faithfully repeated every night.

    However, an event involving the alignment of a planet with another celestial body has the possibility of apparent retrogade motion, i.e., the planet might appear to stop, or briefly reverse, it's apparent motion, subsequently resuming it's normal apparent motion. This could easily give the impression that the planet had ceased to move in the sky relative to the other "fixed stars." One more aspect of the conjunction that might allow it to better "fit" the Gospel account.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  3. Was there a lunar eclipse in 7 BC, and if so, how many days before passover?

  4. Dave, thank you for that comment. When we come to examine the events that occurred in the sky in 3-2 BC, you will see that all the points that you make apply even better to them. As I said at the beginning of the post, I first thought the Star might be a supernova, too, but I became convinced it was not after seeing and reading about the astronomical events which I will describe in my post on the Nativity.

    Perpetua, there were no lunar eclipses in either 7 BC or 6 BC.

  5. I have been mentally tracking the life of Jesus of precisely 2,000 years ago. 2,000 years ago today, if Herod died in 1 BC, Jesus would be about 12 years old and would, later this year, become separated from his parents in Jerusalem.

  6. Nice work Peter. I've done some reading up on the subject myself, and also observed a 1 BC makes best sense of surrounding historical events...