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.
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. The bookend events are referenced by Jewish historian Josephus defining 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’ accounts, 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level of complexity is “inclusive reckoning,” the question of whether a partial year was counted as a full year in historical references.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.
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.
“…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
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. Supporting this date is a partial lunar eclipse March of that year.
Josephus’ account bookends Herod’s final days starting with the lunar eclipse and he died just before the approaching Passover. The historian described in great detail events that occurred in the interim.
Drama of Herod’s final days is better than most movie scripts. 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. 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.
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.”
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.
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.
Herod died 5 days later after Antipater’s execution. 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. Some experts question whether all these things could have occurred in the span of just 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. 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. In Antiquities, Josephus states Tiberius died after serving as Caesar “twenty-two years, five months and three days,” historically dating to early 36 AD. Philip reigned for 37 years placing King Herod’s death in 1 BC.
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 who then reigned 37 years thereby placing Herod’s death in 1 BC.
Agrippa traveled to Rome a year before the death of Tiberius in 36 AD. After saying to Caligula (Caius/Gaius) 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 gave Philip’s tetrarchy to Agrippa in 37 AD. Once again, the year of Herod’s death reckons to 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.
Changing the date of Herod’s death to 1 BC poses a second question – what about the lunar eclipse referenced by Josephus marking the final days of King Herod? Neverchanging astronomy facts are key.
NASA lunar eclipse data for Jerusalem shows that a partial, less-than-half lunar eclipse did occur on March 13th, 4 BC, more or less supporting the secular 4 BC timeline. Passover that year fell on April 10th, four weeks later.
During the night of January 9-10, 1 BC, NASA lunar eclipse data for Jerusalem shows that a full lunar eclipse occurred. The Passover that year was observed on April 6th, twelve and half weeks later allowing eight more weeks for the events described by Josephus between the bookend dates defining Herod’s final days.
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 December 19, 2022.
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