Matthew’s Nativity – An Investigative Breakdown

Easy to forget, the Christmas Nativity story didn’t happen in a single night – it is a time-lapsed compilation of what took place over many weeks, if not months. Two Gospels, Luke and Matthew, are the sources of the Nativity story.[1]

Luke’s account starts just before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth ending when he was about a month old. Matthew’s account starts later, “Now after Jesus was born…”[2] No longer in a stable, “when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother.”[3]

Setting the scene in Matthew, King Herod of Judea was in his Jerusalem palace rather than one of his three other palaces in Herodium, Jericho and Caesarea.[4] Soon he would move to Jericho to live out his final days with a most miserable health condition…but not yet.[5]

As strange as it may seem to have purveyors of mysticism in the Jewish story of Jesus, Matthew writes, “Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,” translated as “Magi” in some Bibles. [6] According to the Talmud, Magi were from Persia, also known as “fire worshippers” and “Guebers.”[7] Magi had a long history of persecuting the Jews making them well-known, feared and disliked.[8]

Calling upon Herod at his palace, the Magi were promptly welcomed. After all, Magi were not only highly regarded in the former Persian and Greek Empires for their mysterious abilities, according to Plato, they were also known as “king makers.” [9]

Greek Hellenism accepted all religions, especially Zoroastrianism with its magian priests who had a reputation for their ability to read the stars and make accurate predictions.[10] Herod openly embraced Hellenism, such as incorporating Greek inscriptions and architectural features in the enhanced Jewish Temple, causing great consternation with the Jewish leadership.[11]

These Wise Men said something most alarming, shocking to King Herod. The Magi announced the reason for their visit and asked:

MT 2:2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” (NKJV)

Any king, especially Herod, would be distressed when these king-maker Magi said they were looking for a newborn “King of the Jews.” And, they didn’t use future tense; rather present tense – he was already a king. More disconcerting, the Magi said they had “come to worship Him” which seemed very likely the people might want to do the same.

Word leaked out to the people of Jerusalem of what the Magi had said. Not surprisingly they were also “troubled,” at the very least the rumor mill presented an air of uncertainty which always worries a populace. If the child was the foretold Messiah, such speculation certainly stirred the pot even more.

Herod’s next action clearly demonstrates he believed the Magi when he “gathered all the chief priests and scribes together asking them where the Christ was to be born.”[12] A difference in language is of special note. The Magi inquired about the birth of a “King of the Jews” while Herod’s quote uses the Greek word Christos meaning Messiah.

Whether this difference in language is attributable to the author of Matthew or if Herod connected the dots concluding the King of the Jews meant the Messiah, it didn’t make any difference. The chief priests and scribes understood what Herod was asking as evidenced by their specific answer.

Jewish chief priests and scribes – members of the Jewish leadership – reported to Herod that a Ruler was prophesied to be born “In Bethlehem of Judea.” Unambiguous, their answer included a quote from the prophecy of Micah 5:2:

MT 2:5-6 “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

Reaction by Herod was telling. For this ruthless King, based on the answer by the Jewish religious experts, there was only one course of action – eliminate the threat.

Previous mention by the Magi of observing “his star” was initially not an attention-getting detail. Herod accepted the Magi’s declaration that they had seen “his star,” but this detail was overshadowed by the bombshell announcement there was another King of the Jews.

Upon further contemplation after the Magi’s visit, Herod realized details about the “star” were important – the time of the star’s appearance would determine the child’s age. Undoubtedly, they saw something in the night sky compelling them to travel hundreds of miles “from the East;” however, the Magi they didn’t say when they had seen “his star.” 

Wanting this single detail, Herod “secretly called the wise men” to another meeting – to “determine from them what time the star appeared.”[13] The Magi, who still hadn’t yet received an answer to their own question, agreed to meet with Herod again.

Information from the secret meeting served to be useful to both parties. Herod “sent them to Bethlehem” thereby providing the Magi with the location of the child. In return, Herod was able to determine when the Magi saw “his star” and thus the age of the child.[14]

Cunningly, Herod told the Magi, “when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” Herod worshiped no one or thing – the trap was set. As for the Magi:

MT 2:9-10 “When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.”

A second appearance of the “star” is a definitive clue that opens the door for the science of astronomy to plausibly explain the “star.” In one scenario, an extremely rare series of stellar conjunctions occurred during an 18-month period in 3-2 BC centered around Jupiter.

June 17, 2 BC, nine months after the first Jupiter-Venus very close conjunction, Jupiter, known as the king star, came into an occultation conjunction (overlapping/fused) with Venus, known as the Queen or mother star.[15] Jupiter’s celestial path continued its odyssey and moved into a retrograde U-turn in the southwestern sky.

From the vantage point of Jerusalem, Jupiter appeared to stop over Bethlehem beginning December 25, 2 BC, lasting until January 2, 1 BC.[16] Minimal nightly movement would have been visually indistinguishable giving it the illusion of stopping in its position.[17]

It becomes clear why Herod wanted to determine the age of the child. The King, who had undoubtedly believed the Magi, realized they had deceived him whereupon he took the drastic action of commanding all the children 2 years old and younger in the districts of Bethlehem to be killed. The 2-year range to remove any room for error fits Herod’s ruthless, cruel profile.

Finding the child in Bethlehem was probably not difficult – in a small town, everyone knows what’s what, just ask. Finding Jesus, the Magi “fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented expensive gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Now it becomes clear why Herod wanted to determine the age of the child. He took dramatic, merciless action to eliminate the threat to his kingdom.

MT 2:16 “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men

When the King realized the Magi were not returning, he commanded that all the children 2 years old and younger in the districts of Bethlehem to be killed. True to the reputation of Herod’s ruthless, cruel profile, the 2-year range covered any room for error.

More than capable of such evil deeds, there were no bounds for Herod. He had tortured people for mere suspicions and killed countless Jews, not to mention killing his brother, three sons, a former Jewish High Priest, and plotted to have all the “principal men” of Judea killed upon his own death.[18]

King Herod’s drastic action confirmed five points – the King believed the Magi; his royal Jewish council; the Micah prophecy; Christos had been born…and in Bethlehem. Herod died a few months later and oft overlooked is a key critical detail provided by Matthew:  Archelaus is named as the successor to King Herod, a fact consistent with secular history.[19]

At least 20 specific details are laid out in a logical sequence in 22 verses, much that is corroborated by history and science. Does this strengthen the credibility to Matthew’s Gospel account about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth?

 

Updated August 31, 2022.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

All Bible quotes are from the New King James Version.

[1] Matthew 2; Luke 2.
[2] Matthew 2:1.
[3] Matthew 2:11.
[4] Burrell, Barbara; Gleason, Kathryn L.; Netzer, Ehud. “Uncovering Herod’s Seaside Palace. BAS Library. 1993. <https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/19/3/7>  Geva, Hillel.  “Archaeology in Israel:  Jericho – the Winter Palace of King Herod.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2019. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jericho-the-winter-palace-of-king-herod>  “Herodium-King Herod-s Palace-Fortress.” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2000. < https://mfa.gov.il/mfa/israelexperience/history/pages/herodium%20-%20king%20herod-s%20palace-fortress.aspx>  Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews.  Trans. William Whitson. Book XV, Chapter XI. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Trans. William Whitson. Book I, Chapter XXI.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  “Herod.” Jewish Virtual Library. n.d. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/herod>
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.
[6] Matthew 2:1. Netbible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=1>
[7] Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. The Soncino Press. 1935-1948. Sanhedrin 98a.  <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_98.html#98a_22> Sanhedrin 74b. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_74.html>  “Babylonia.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10263-magi>
[8] Segal, Eliezer. “The Menorah and the Magi.” Sources. 1997. <https://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/971219_MagiMenorah.html> Missler, Chuck. “Who Were the Magi?” Idolphin.org.1999. <http://www.ldolphin.org/magi.html>
[9] Plato. Alcibiades 1. Trans. W.R.M. Lamb. c. 390 AD. 1 121e-1232. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0176%3Atext%3DAlc.%201%3Asection%3D122a>  “Herodotus. The Histories.  Book 3, Chapters 30, 60-79.  Missler. “Who Were the Magi?” Plato. Republic. Trans.Paul Shorey. 9.572e. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D9%3Asection%3D572e>   Herodotus. The Histories. Book 1, Chapters 107-122. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0239%3Abook%3D1>  Polybius. Histories. Book 34, Chapter 2. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0234:book=34:chapter=2&highlight=magi> Herodotus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herodotus-Greek-historian>
[13] Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. 8.1; 9/7. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0258:book=9:chapter=7&highlight=Magians%2C> “Pythagoras.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pythagoras>  “Cyrus takes Babylon.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2018. <http://www.livius.org/sources/content/herodotus/cyrus-takes-babylon> “Democritus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Democritus> Diogenes. Lives. 9.7.
[10] “Zoroastrianism.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/15283-zoroastrianism>
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter VIII; Book XVI, Chapter V; Book XVII, Chapters VI; VIII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Hellenism” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7535-hellenism>
[12] Matthew 2:4. Greek text. NetBible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=4>
[13] Matthew 2:7.
[14] Matthew 2:8, 16.
[15] Phillips, Tony.  “A Christmas Star for SOHO.”  NASA Science | Science New. 16 May 2000.  <http://web.archive.org/web/20170516003444/https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2000/ast16may_1>  “Venus And Jupiter Will Pass 42 Arc seconds Apart On May 17.” Press Release – Marshall Space Flight Center. SpaceRef.com. 2000. <http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=1819>  Carroll, Susan S. “The Star of Bethlehem:  An Astronomical and Historical Perspective.”1997. Twin Cities Creation Science Association. n.d. <http://www.tccsa.tc/articles/star_susan_carroll.pdf>
Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Associates for Scriptural Knowledge. 2003. Chapter 4.  Larson, Frederick A. The Star of Bethlehem. 2014. <http://www.bethlehemstar.net/setting-the-stage/why-are-we-hearing-this-now>  Haley, A. S. “The Star of Bethlehem and the Nativity.” Anglican Curmudgeon. 2009.   <http://web.archive.org/web/20171016111146/http://www.newmanlib.ibri.org/Papers/StarofBethlehem/75starbethlehem.htm> Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Jupiter.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[16] Martin. The Star of Bethlehem. Chapter 4.  Larson. The Star of Bethlehem. “The Starry Dance.”  Carroll. “The Star of Bethlehem:  An Astronomical and Historical Perspective.”
[17] Martin. The Star of Bethlehem. Chapter 4.  Haley. “The Star of Bethlehem and the Nativity.” “The Star of Bethlehem.” Northern Ireland Amateur Astronomy Society. 2006. <http://web.archive.org/web/20120103020452/http://www.eaas.co.uk/news/star_of_bethlehem.html>   Carroll. “The Star of Bethlehem:  An Astronomical and Historical Perspective.”
[18] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI; Book XVI, Chapter XI; Book XVII, Chapters VI, IX.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters X, XXVII, XXXIII.
[19] Matthew 2:22.

 

A Lunar Eclipse Links Astronomy, Herod & Judaism

King Herod was sanctioned by Caesar Augustus to rule Judea. Herod died between a lunar eclipse and the Jewish Passover while Augustus was still ruling Rome, according to Josephus. Gospels Matthew and Luke report that Herod was alive when Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. Matthew added that Herod died prompting Joseph and Mary along with their child, Jesus, to come out of hiding in Egypt.[2]

Establishing the date of the lunar eclipse through the science of astronomy along with the calendar reckoning of the Passover would substantiate the historical account of Josephus. Moreover, identifying the end of King Herod’s rule would corroborate the Gospel accounts and establish the birth year of Jesus of Nazareth.

“But Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised a sedition with his companions, alive. And that very night, there was an eclipse of the moon.”[3]

“…and when the public morning for the king was over…at the feast of unleavened bread, which was now at hand, and is by the Jews called the Passover…”[4] – Josephus

Secular history has long advocated the year of King Herod’s death as 4 BC.[5] That year is reckoned from published copies of Josephus’ Antiquities going back to 1544. The printed copies say one of Herod’s sons, Philip, died in the 20th year of the reign of Tiberius after ruling for 37 years.[6]

Upon the death of Augustus, Tiberius reigned as Caesar from 14-37 AD. The secular year of 4 BC for determining Herod’s death uses the reverse calculation for the beginning of Philip’s 37-year rule (14 + 20 = 34 – 37 = 4).[7] 

Upending the 4 BC date reckoning was Biblical hobbyist David Beyer. He traveled to the various libraries around the world that held older handwritten copies of Antiquities and discovered that all handwritten copies originally stated Philip died in the 22 nd year of the reign of Tiberius. Beyer’s discovery adjusts the beginning of Philip’s rule to the years of 2-1 BC for the time of Herod’s death.

Key to the timeline for secular historians is a lunar eclipse that coincided with this traditional Antiquities date reckoning. NASA’s astronomy lunar eclipse data for Jerusalem confirms a partial, less-than-half lunar eclipse occurred on March 13, 4 BC, between 1:32 am and 3:50 am. Slightly less than four weeks later, Passover fell on April 10th.[8]

A potential game-changing fact supporting Beyer’s discovery for the 2-1 BC adjusted timeline for Herod’s death is NASA’s astronomy data. January 9, 1 BC, there was a full lunar eclipse that began over Jerusalem at 10:22 pm spanning to 3:53 am, January 10.[9] The Passover in 1 BC was observed on April 6, twelve and half weeks later.[10]

Archeological, historical and astronomy records tracing to 2 BC coincide with other historical timeline events. The Silver Anniversary of Caesar Augustus and his Pater Patriae registration decree; archeological discoveries of Quirinius governing in Syria; and the Battle of Actium marking the beginning date of Herod’s reign.[11] NASA’s data also shows a rare planetary occultation conjunction that formed an extraordinary, elongated star in June, 2 BC.

Aside from the partial lunar eclipse in 4 BC, finding other known secular historical events to corroborate secular year’s timeline has proven to be challenging. Attempts to explain the registration decree by Augustus and Quirinius governing in Syria have required complicated, varying explanations.[12] Astronomical events that might explain “His star” took place in previous years prior to 4 BC.

One historical factor may tip the scales in favor of the actual year of the timeline. Josephus described in detail events that transpired between the lunar eclipse and the Passover. Could all the events have taken place in less than four weeks…or would the twelve and half weeks in 1 BC be more realistic?

Sometime after the lunar eclipse, Herod’s loathsome bowel and gangrenous groin condition compelled him to seek therapy in the warm baths of Callirrhoe, a 2-day journey from Jerusalem across the Jordan River. Gaining no relief, he soaked in a full vat of oil at back at his palace in Jericho.[13] After all treatments failed, Herod welcomed the relief of death.

Letters were sent by Herod summoning “all the principal men of the entire Jewish nation” to his palace in Jericho.[14] Upon his death, Herod plotted to have them killed with darts after he died.[15] To ensure that the whole nation would fall into deep mourning, he also plotted to have one member of each family in Judea killed to ensure deep mourning.[16]

Diverting Herod’s attention from this connivance, a letter from Caesar temporarily uplifted his spirits.[17] It said Acme, Herod’s wicked daughter-in-law, had been executed in Rome and Caesar granted the King permission to either banish or execute her husband, Herod’s own hated son, Antipater.

Herod attempted suicide, but was thwarted by his cousin who happened upon the act. The King’s jailed son, Antipater, mistook the cousin’s loud screaming thinking Herod had died and tried to bribe the jailer to be released. Instead, the jailer told the King and Antipater was immediately executed.[18] Five days after Antipater’s execution, Herod succumbed to his wretched fatal condition.[19]

Many traveled to Herod’s funeral in Jericho from throughout Judea including 500 domestic servants and freed men and from other countries that included foreign dignitaries and militaries.[20] Slowly, the funeral procession lasted for many days to Herod’s final resting place in Herodium 30 miles away.[21]

Archelaus, one of Herod’s sons, extended the mourning period to seven days followed by giving a feast for all the people in Judea.[22] When the Passover festival arrived, Archelaus took the opportunity to sail away to Rome with his family to escape the threatening chaos that bubbled up from Herod having executed 40 insurrectionists the night of the lunar eclipse.[23]

A partial lunar eclipse in 4 BC followed by the Passover less than 4 weeks later vs. a full lunar eclipse in 1 BC with the Passover 12½ weeks later. Herod’s death period described by Josephus and the date of the Jewish Passover are defined by NASA lunar eclipse data – which scenario for the death of Herod best defines the birth year of Jesus of Nazareth?

 

Updated September 14, 2022.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVII, Chapters VI, XIX Trans. and commentary.  William Whitson. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  CR Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book I, Chapter XXXIII. Trans. and commentary. William Whitson. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[2] Matthew 2; Luke 1.
[3] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.4
[4] Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter 1.2-3
[5] Bernegger, P.M. “Affirmation of Herod’s Death in 4 B.C.” Journal of Theological Studies Vol. 34, no 2, pp 526-531. 1983.  RedatedKings.com. n.d.  <http://www.redatedkings.com/postings/Bernegger.pdf>  Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Chapter 13. 2003. <http://askelm.com/star/star000.htm#_edn11%3E%20%3Chttp://web.archive.org/web/20170111193244/http://www.askelm.com/star/star001.htm>  Schurer, Emil.  A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. Volume 1. pp 400, 416. <http://books.google.com/books?id=BRynO3W9FPcC&pg=PP1#v=snippet&q=Tiberius&f=false>
[6] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapters IV.6; V.4.  Beyer, David W.  “Josephus Reexamined:  Unraveling the Twenty-Second Year of Tiberius.” Chronos, Kairos, Christos II. 1998.   < http://books.google.com/books?id=mWnYvI5RdLMC&lpg=PP1&dq=isbn%3A0865545820&pg=PA85#v=snippet&q=beyer&f=false>
[7] “Tiberius.” BBC. 2014. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/tiberius.shtml> Schurer. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. p. 358. Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter VI.6-8, 10.
[8] Espenak, Fred. “Javascript Lunar Eclipse Explorer.” NASA Eclipse Website. n.d.  Asia and Asia Minor – Jerusalem, Israel. Century Selection -0001 – 0100. <https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/JLEX/JLEX-AS.html>  Kidger, Mark R.  “The Date of Passover 11BC – 10AD.” Mark Kidger`s Comet and Asteroid Observing Home Page. n.d.  <http://www.observadores-cometas.com/cometas/Star/Passover.html
[9] Espenak. “Javascript Lunar Eclipse Explorer.”  NASA Eclipse Website. n.d.  Asia and Asia Minor – Jerusalem, Israel. Century Selection -0001 – 0100.  Espenak. “NASA TP-2009-214172.” n.d.  <https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/5MCLEmap/-0099-0000/LE0000-01-10T.gif
[10] Kidger, Mark R.  “The Date of Passover 11BC – 10AD.”  Mark Kidger`s Comet and Asteroid Observing Home Page.
[11] Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.” 2018. Academia.edu.  <http://www.academia.edu/3184175/Dating_the_two_Censuses_of_Quirinius>  Josephus. Antiquities.  Book XVII. Chapter VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII; Book II, Chapter XIX.  “Augustus.”  UNRV History |The Roman Empire. United Nations of Roma Victrix. 2017.  <http://www.unrv.com/fall-republic/augustus.php
[12] Davis, John D. “Quirinius” (Quirinus), cwui-rin’i-us, Publius Sulpicious.” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Vol. IX: Petri – Reuchlin. 1953. <http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/encyc/encyc09/htm/iv.vi.xii.htm>  Ramsay, William M.  “Was Christ Born in Bethlehem?” Chapter 11. 2010. <http://biblehub.com/library/ramsay/was_christ_born_in_bethlehem/index.html> Schaff, Philip. “Chronology of the Life of Christ.” History of the Christian Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity. A.D. 1-100. Chapter 2. 1890.  Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 1 June 2005. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc1.i.II_1.16.html> Sieffert, F. “Census.” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Vol. II:  Basilica – Chambers. 1952. <http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/encyc/encyc02/htm/iv.vi.ccxxx.htm
[13] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI. Josephus.  Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.   “Callirrhoe.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3933-callirrhoe>  “Map of New Testament Israel.”  Bible-history.com. Map. n.d. <http://www.bible-history.com/geography/ancient-israel/israel-first-century.html
[14] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.5. CR Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[15] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[17] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[18] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[19] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[20] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VIII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[21] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VIII, * footnote.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.  “Highways and Roads of Palestine.” Bible-history.com. Map. n.d. <https://www.bible-history.com/geography/ancient-israel/herodium.html
[22] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VIII.  Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter I.
[23] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter IX-X.  Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter I-II.

King Herod’s Death Year Controversy

King Herod’s death occurred shortly after the birth of Jesus of Nazareth making it the lynch pin date to determine the birth year of Jesus. Referenced in the Nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke, Jesus of Nazareth was born during the lifetimes of three historical personages – Augustus, Herod and Quirinius.[1]

Not without controversy, the death year of Herod has posed a challenge for believers and detractors alike. One factor in determining the year Herod died is the timing of a lunar eclipse; the other factor is the time between the eclipse and the Passover. Both are referenced by Jewish historian Josephus marking the beginning of Herod’s final days.

Antiquity has no standardized calendar, instead timelines and dates are linked to well-known historical events. Establishing the date of Herod’s death requires piecing together such clues as the reigns of Tiberius, King Herod and his sons; the Battle of Actium; the Jewish religious calendar; astronomy data, Josephus’ account, etc.

Adding another level of complexity is “inclusive reckoning,” the question of whether a partial year was counted as a full year in historical references. The unsettled question instills a plus or minus factor of at least a year.[2]

Herod’s death year is commonly calculated by historians using Josephus’ reference in Antiquities of the Jews. His son, Philip, began his regional Judean reign when his father died as did his two brothers, Antipas and Aristobulus.[3]

“…Philip, Herod’s brother, departed this life, in the twentieth year of the reign of Tiberius after he had been tetrarch of Trachonitis, and Gaulonitis, and of the nation of Bataneana also thirty-seven years. – Josephus[4]

Tiberius began his reign in 14 AD, then adding 20 years lands in 34 AD to establish the year of Philip’s death. Subtracting 37 years of Philip’s rule backdates to the commonly accepted year for King Herod’s death in 4 BC.[5]

Josephus’ account bookends Herod’s final days starting with a lunar eclipse and died just before the approaching Passover. The historian described in great detail events that occurred in the interim.

King Herod

Drama of Herod’s final days is better than most movie scripts.[6] A gripping scene in Jerusalem begins with rumors that Herod had died inciting insurrectionists to remove the long-hated sacrilege of Rome’s golden eagle insignia Herod had mounted over the entrance gate.

Unfortunately for the insurrectionists, the King was not yet dead. Herod had the High Priest removed from office and 40 insurrectionists burned alive.[7] That very night was marked by a lunar eclipse.

Herod’s loathsome protruding bowels and gangrenous groin condition worsened. His physicians recommended therapy in the warm baths of Callirrhoe, a 2-day journey from Jerusalem across the Jordan River. Gaining no relief from the warm springs, his physicians then recommended soaking in a full vat of oil at his palace in Jericho.[8]

Treatments failed and Herod welcomed the relief that death would bring. Preparing for the final chapter in his life, the King sent letters throughout Judea summoning all the “principal men” to Jericho:

“all the principal men of the entire Jewish nation, wheresoever they lived, should be called to him…a great number that came, because the whole nation was called, and all men heard of this call, and death was the penalty of such as should despise the epistles.”[9]

In the interim, misery overcame the King who decided to hasten the inevitable by suicide with a kitchen carving knife. His cousin saw what was about to happen, grabbed the King’s hand and began screaming.[10]

Echoing screams throughout the halls of the palace were misinterpreted that Herod had died touching off a great wailing lamentation. Herod’s imprisoned eldest son, Antipater, believing a twist of fate had now posited the kingdom into his grasp, promised his jailer fortunes to release him immediately. Instead, the jailer informed Herod who became enraged, beat his head and ordered Antipater to be promptly executed.[11]

Herod died 5 days later after Antipater’s execution.[12] News of the King’s death spread across Judea and to other nations. International dignitaries and top military personnel including centurions, captains and officers; and full regiments of the Thracians, Germans, Galatians and Gauls all outfitted in full battle gear traveled to the King’s funeral in Jericho. An elaborate funeral procession and burial in Herodium took many days.

Meanwhile, a funeral bier was built of gold embroidered by “very precious stones of a great variety” and lined with purple material “of various contexture.” The King’s burial was followed by a 7-day morning period, then a feast for the people of Judea.[13] Some experts question whether all these things could have occurred in the span of only 4 weeks if Herod died in 4 BC…

Consultant and Biblical hobbyist, David Beyer, compared the 1544 Gutenberg printings of Antiquities used to determine the 4 BC date to two dozen older, handwritten manuscripts predating Gutenburg  He discovered all older handwritten Antiquities manuscripts said that Philip died in the 22nd year of Tiberius, not the 20th year.[14] This discovery changes the traditional year of Herod’s death to the 2-1 BC timeframe.

Two historical works by Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews and Wars of the Jews, back up Beyer’s discovery. Antiquities documents that Tiberius died after serving as Caesar “twenty-two years, five months and three days,” historically dating to early 37 AD. Philip reigned for 37 years placing King Herod’s death in 1 BC.[15]

Agrippa traveled to Rome a year before the death of Tiberius, 36 AD. After saying to Caligula in a carriage ride that he wished Tiberius would die, the carriage driver told Tiberius who had Agrippa thrown into prison. Six months later with Tiberius’ death, Caligula (Caius/Gaius) gave Philip’s tetrarchy to Agrippa in 37 AD.[16]

Wars marked the Battle of Actium in the 7th year of Herod’s reign. The Battle of Actium is academically recognized as occurring in the year 31 BC. Josephus wrote that Herod served for 37 years. Simple math backdates the beginning of Herod’s reign to 38 BC thereby placing Herod’s death in 1 BC.

Historian Dr. Gerard Gertoux’s different calculation arrived at similar results through another method. Since Herod was 70-years old when he died, Gertoux determined his death occurred sometime between April, 2 BC, and March, 1 BC.[17]

NASA lunar eclipse data for Jerusalem shows that a partial, less-than-half lunar eclipse did occur on March 13th, 4 BC.[18] Passover that year fell on April 10th, just four weeks later.[19] However, a full lunar eclipse appeared over Jerusalem January 9-10, 1 BC, and the Passover was observed on April 6th, twelve and half weeks later.[20]

Historical records and archeological discoveries along with astronomy data point to the death of Herod in the 1-2 BC time frame. Did Herod’s death actually occur in 1 BC or the traditionally accepted year of 4 BC?

 

Updated September 14, 2022.

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REFERENCES:

[1] Matthew 2. Luke 2.
[2] Gertoux. “Dating the Death of Herod.” pp 3-4.  Maier, Paul L. The New Complete Works of Josephus. Trans. William Whiston. Grand Rapids, MI:  Kregel Publications. 1999. Dissertation 5, Appendix #38.  Google Books. n.d. <http://books.google.com/books?id=kyaoIb6k2ccC&lpg=PP1&dq=the%20complete%20works%20of%20josephus&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false >  Ramsay. Was Christ Born in Bethlehem? Chapter 11 & end note.
[3] Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVII, Chapter XII; Book XVIII, Chapters V.  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Galilee; Judaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[4] Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVIII, Chapters IV.
[5] Whiston. The Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian.” 1850. p 349 footnote.  <https://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&hl=en#v=snippet&q=349&f=false>  Bernegger, P.M. “Affirmation of Herod’s Death in 4 B.C.” Journal of Theological Studies. 1983. Vol. 34, no 2, pp 526-531, <http://www.redatedkings.com/postings/Bernegger.pdf>  Schurer, Emil.  A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. 1890. Volume 1, pp 464-465, footnote 165.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=BRynO3W9FPcC&pg=PP1#v=snippet&q=Tiberius&f=false>  Doig, Kenneth F.  New Testament Chronology. 1990. Chapter  4. <http://nowoezone.com/NT_Chronology.htm
[6] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book VII, Chapters VI – IX. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Josephus, Flavius.  Wars of the Jews. Chapter XXXIII; Book II, Chapter I. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
[7] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI, VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[8] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII. “Tulul Abul Alayiq (Herodian Jericho) – Jericho.”  This Week in Palestine. Issue No. 102, October 2006. <http://www.thisweekinpalestine.com/details.php?id=1948&ed=132&edid=132>  “Callirrhoe.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3933-callirrhoe>  “Map of New Testament Israel.”  Bible-history.com. Map. n.d. <http://www.bible-history.com/geography/ancient-israel/israel-first-century.html>
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.5. CR Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[12] Josephus. Antiquities.  Book XVII, Chapter VI-VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[13] Josephus.  Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapters VII-VIII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII; Book II, Chapter I. Whiston. The Works of Flavius Josephus, the Learned and Authentic Jewish Historian.” 1850. p 450, footnote.  <https://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&hl=en#v=snippet&q=349&f=false>; “Highways and Roads of Palestine.” 2017. Map. Bible-history.com. <http://www.bible-history.com/geography/ancient-israel/israel-first-century.html>  San José, Juan Antonio Revilla. “On the Year of Herod’s Death.”  A partial translation from “La Fecha de Muerte de Herodes y La Estrella de Belén.” 1999. Astrology of the New Centaurs. <;href=”http://www.expreso.co.cr/centaurs/steiner/herod.html”>  Smallwood, E. Mary. The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian. 2nd Ed. 1981. p 104, footnote 158. <http://books.google.com/books?id=jSYbpitEjggC&lpg=PA151&ots=VWqUOinty4&dq=census%20Syria%20Rome&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false>; Reinhold, Roy A. “Other Scholarship Proving the Exact Date of Birth of Yeshua (Jesus), part 5.” Codes in the Bible. 2001. <http://www.ad2004.com/Biblecodes/articles/yeshuabirth5.html “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/8616-jesus-of-nazareth> Beyer, David W.  “Josephus Reexamined:  Unraveling the Twenty-Second Year of Tiberius.” 1998. p 88. Chronos, Kairos, Christos II. Ed. Jerry Vardaman.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=mWnYvI5RdLMC&lpg=PP1&dq=isbn%3A0865545820&pg=PA85#v=snippet&q=beyer&f=false>  Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the death of Herod.” 2015 Academia.edu. <http://www.academia.edu/2518046/Dating_the_death_of_Herod/a>
[14] Beyer. “Josephus Reexamined.” pp 86-87, 90-93, 95-96.  Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter II. 2. Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter IX.1, 6.  Wolfram, Chuck.  “The Herodian Dynasty.” 2004. <http://web.archive.org/web/20151013221102/http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~cwolfram/herod Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. 2nd Ed. 2003. Chapter 13. A.S.K. (Associates for Scriptural Knowledge.  <://web.archive.org/web/20170917115234/http://www.askelm.com/star/star015.htm> Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter VI.6-8, 10.
[15] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter II. 2; Chapter VI.5.
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter VI.10. Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter IX.6.  “Augustus.” UNRV History |The Roman Empire. United Nations of Roma Victrix. 2017.  <http://www.unrv.com/fall-republic/augustus.php>  “Did Caesar and Cleopatra really have a son?” The Ancient Standard. 2010. <http://ancientstandard.com/2010/12/03/did-caesar-and-cleopatra-really-have-a-son
[17] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter V, Book XVII, Chapters VI – Chapter VIII.  Josephus.  Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII. “Actium (31 BCE).”  Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2019. <https://www.livius.org/articles/battle/actium-31-bce> “King Herod the Great.” Livius.org. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/he-hg/herodians/herod_the_great01.html>  “The Actium Project.” New World Encyclopedia. The University of South Florida and the Greek Ministry of Culture. Dir. William M. Murray.  Research Project. 1997.  <http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~murray/actium/brochure.html>  Chesser, Preston. “The Battle of Actium.” Ohio State University. 2002. <http://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/battle-actium>  Gertoux. “Dating the Death of Herod.” pp 6, 9, 11.  “HEROD I. (surnamed the Great).” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011.  <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7598-herod-i>  Villalba i Varneda, Pere. The Historical Method of Flavius Josephus. 1986. p14.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=kdUUAAAAIAAJ&lpg=PA14&ots=2ek7SgCy2c&dq=josephus%2C%20battle%20of%20actium%2C%20herod&pg=PA14#v=onepage&q=josephus,%20battle%20of%20actium,%20herod&f=false>  Bernegger. “Affirmation of Herod’s Death in 4 B.C.”  San José, Juan Antonio Revilla. “On the Year of Herod’s Death.” Pages 14, 140.  “World History 50-0 BC.”  HistoryCentral.com.   MultiEducator, Inc.  n.d. <http://www.historycentral.com/dates/50bc.html>
[18] Espenak, Fred.  NASA Lunar Eclipse Website. 2007. Asia and Asia Minor – Jerusalem, Israel; Century Selection -0001 – 0100.  <https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/JLEX/JLEX-AS.html
[19] Martin. The Star of Bethlehem. Chapter 13. Bernegger. “Affirmation of Herod’s Death in 4 B.C.”
[20] Espenak. NASA Eclipse Website. Asia and Asia Minor – Jerusalem, Israel. Century Selection -0001 – 0100.  Espenak, Fred.  “Six Millennium Catalog of Phases of the Moon.” NASA Eclipse Website. n.d. “Phase years Table:  -0099 – 0000.” <https://archive.is/UsEwe> Kidger, Mark R. “The Date of Passover 11BC – 10AD.”  <http://www.observadores-cometas.com/cometas/Star/Passover.html> Reinhold. “Other Scholarship Proving the Exact Date of Birth of Yeshua (Jesus), part 5.”