Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Further Considerations on the Holy Family Chronology

These past days of Christmas, we have been reviewing various kinds of historical and scientific evidence in order to hone in on the date of Christ's birth. The first post dealt with the evidence of Herod's death. This establishes what historians call a terminus ad quem -- a date before which Christ must have been born, because we know that Herod was alive at Jesus' birth (and for some time afterwards, since he ordered the death of all children born in Bethlehem during the previous two years). Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, includes one key piece of evidence in his account of Herod's last days: he states that a lunar eclipse occurred shortly before Herod died. We saw that combining the evidence of Josephus with the astronomical record of lunar eclipses in the last B.C. years (scroll down to the very bottom; NASA's computer numbering counts the year 1 B.C. as "0000") gave the best result for Herod's death as occurring in January of 1 B.C (according to Jewish tradition, Herod died on 2 Shebat, or January 26 of that year), following an eclipse on January 12. (The eclipse dates given in the article on Herod just linked are in error, and should be disregarded in favor of the dates shown in the previous link.)

Now in addition to those considerations, there was another lunar eclipse that occurred in 1 B.C. -- but eleven months later, on December 29. The argument for this latter eclipse turns upon the fact that it would have been much more visible to people in Palestine, because the eclipse became visible shortly after sunset, while on January 12 the moon's umbral phase did not even begin until six hours after sunset (see this article for details).

As the article by John Pratt just linked points out, the December eclipse also allows for a better fit with the events Josephus records as occurring after Herod's death. How does it work, however, in relation to my second post last December, which discussed how the earliest Christians all converged upon a date for the nativity between 3 and 2 B.C.?

The point at issue here turns on the subtleties in the account of the visit by the wise men (magi, or court astronomers) in Matthew, chapter 2. To describe the infant Jesus, Matthew uses the Greek word paidion in verse 9, which is usually translated as "young child, little boy [or girl]." (See this link for other verses which use the word.)

The Greek word for "infant" or "baby", however is brephos -- as used in Luke 2:12, when the angel told the shepherds they were to look for "a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." It is a word used only by Luke in the Gospels; Matthew does not use it at all.

If Jesus was born most probably (as we shall see) in May or June of 2 B.C., and the Jewish Parthian astronomers (the "magi" -- see my third post of last year) arrived to worship and give him gifts in December of that year, then having Herod on his deathbed just a few weeks later is a bit of a push. Adding another eleven months to Herod's life allows for plenty of time for the Wise men to avoid Herod on their return trip, for Herod to hear about it later, and then to give the order for the Massacre of the Innocents. This, then, would fix the time of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, where they would have had to stay for only another seven months until Herod died.

Accordingly, I am revising my preferred chronology somewhat. It now looks like this:

May-June, 2 B.C.: Jesus born at Bethlehem, where Joseph has gone to be enrolled in an empire-wide tribute to Augustus' rule.

June 17, 2 B.C.: "Star of Bethlehem" super-conjunction of Jupiter and Venus observed throughout the East; the Jewish astronomers at the Parthian court put this phenomenon together with Jupiter's earlier conjunctions and conclude that a new King of the Jews has been born to their west, in Judea. They make preparations and start on a journey to worship him.

December 25, 2 B.C.: As Jupiter comes to a standstill over Bethlehem in the skies to the south of Jerusalem, the wise men, having visited Herod in his palace, find their way to the Christ child, who is now about six or seven months old (no longer a brephos). Joseph and Mary have in the meantime moved from the stable where Jesus was born, and found lodging in a house (Mt. 2:11 -- oikia).

January-February, 1 B.C.: The court astronomers quietly begin their return to Parthia, avoiding any meeting with Herod (who by this time of year has probably gone to the mineral baths, on the Dead Sea).

April-May, 1 B.C.: Herod learns he has been tricked, and that the wise men are long gone. Joseph, warned in a dream, has fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Based on what the astronomers had told him earlier about the time of Jesus' birth, and allowing for their possibly mistaking the time of conception (see my post next week on this) as the date of birth, Herod orders the massacre of all children in Bethlehem born within the preceding two years.

December 29, 1 B.C.: Herod puts to death a Jewish rabbi and his pupils by burning them alive (they had offended him by pulling down the graven image of an eagle which he had ordered erected on the Holy Temple). That night, everyone sees a blood-red lunar eclipse.

January, 1 A.D.: Herod falls ill, and despite numerous attempts at a cure, dies on the 26th of the month (Shebat 2).

February-March, 1 A.D.: Post-mortem ceremonies take place in Judea to mark Herod's passing; Archilaus assumes the throne after the Passover on March 26 of that year.

April-May, 1 A.D.: Joseph is told he may return from Egypt, because Herod is dead. He does not return to Judea, however, because Archilaus is just as cruel and arbitrary as his father was (Mt 2:22). So he takes his family to Nazareth, where Jesus turns two years old.

Still to be placed in this chronology are the events in the heavens which preceded the birth of Jesus, and which heralded the Annunciation and Conception. I shall take those up in my next (and last) post.


  1. A wonderful series. Nevertheless, it's clear that Josephus puts Herod the Great's death in 4 B.C. He says it took place in the 37th year of Herod's reign dated from the Roman Senate's decree appointing him king and the 34th year of his reign dating from his actual rule, which was the result of the Romans putting his kingly predecessor Antigonus to death. The Romans captured Antigonus when they took Jerusalem, which Josephus says took place during the consulate of Marcus Agrippa and Cuninus Gallus. That dates it at 37 B.C. If that's Herod's first year, then the 34th year is 4. B.C

  2. twvolck, thank you for reading the posts, and for your comment. However, the dating you cite from the consulships according to Josephus is inaccurate. If you will read the Steinmann article referenced in the first post of the series, especially at pp. 7-11 and the accompanying references, you will see how he corrects Josephus' dating based on other references Josephus gives, which are more consistent with the testimony from other outside sources.

    Antigonus was most likely executed (not on the capture of Jerusalem, but after he was delivered to Mark Antony for execution later) at the end of 36 B.C., or in March of 35 B.C., so to place Herod's death in 1 B.C. (34 years later) is consistent with the other evidence that Josephus gives us.

  3. At the end of your post, you say, "I shall take those up in my next (and last) post." Where is that next/last post? The series is most informative and fascinating, and I'd like to read the final installment.

  4. Father Dal, I ran out of time to put up that final post again this Christmas season. You can read it by clicking on this link.