Did Herod the “Great” Really Die In 4 B.C.?
by Juan Antonio Revilla and John D. Keyser (Backup from Hope of Israel)
Placing Herod’s death in 1 B.C. allows us to accept the ANCIENT tradition that the Messiah was born in 3 B.C. The evidence of history, archaeology and astronomy is now showing that Herod died in early 1 B.C. and that the Messiah was therefore born in 3/2 B.C. (regnal dating) -- as confirmed by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Africanus, Hippolytus of Rome, Hippolytus of Thebes, Origen, Eusebius and Epiphanius.
There is a very generalized tendency to select the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction around 7 B.C. as the time of the Messiah’s birth. The alleged death of Herod in 4 B.C. has had a tremendous influence on this, being supported by:
The 4 statements above are not only arguable but highly improbable, and it is easy to show that other dates closer to tradition (3 B.C. -- 1 A.D.) explain the evidence better.
The discussion that follows is based mainly on John Mosley’s “When was that Christmas Star” (The Griffith Observer, December, 1980), and John Pratt’s “Yet Another Eclipse for Herod” (The Planetarian, December, 1990).
We will start quoting John Mosley regarding the time given to the beginning of Herod’s successors’ reigns:
“Herod suffered a grave political demotion in 4 BC, as the result of a misunderstanding over raiders he sent to Arabia to suppress robbers hiding there. Augustus condemned Herod, removed his title “Caesar’s Friend” (amic Caesaris), and relegated him to the lower position of “subject.” This loss of status was a serious matter. Its ramifications eventually included Herod’s execution of his own son Antipater, and others, in a show of loyalty to Augustus. This happened immediately before Herod’s death. The execution, however, created a problem in political bookkeeping. Upon his fall from favor with Augustus, Herod had named Antipater as coregent, and now the discredited Antipater’s regnal years were no longer valid.”
Writes Paul R. Finch --
This fact has made historians (Ernest Martin, The Birth of Christ Recalculated, 1978/1980) suggest “that Herod’s reign was seen to have officially ended with his disgrace, not death, in 4 B.C., while his successor’s appropriated Antipater’s regnal years and incorporated them into their own reigns. Numerous similar situations can be found in history.”
Based on a conjecture that the Star of Bethlehem is the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction, and that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., plus another conjecture concerning the tax call of 8 B.C., ideas which are mere hypothesis are accepted as proven facts.
Which Lunar Eclipse?
Josephus mentions that Herod died in the interval between a Lunar eclipse and the following Passover. For centuries this has been thought to be the eclipse of March 13, 4 B.C., and this evidence of astronomy has had a large part in establishing the dogma that Herod died that year.
Recent calculations, however, showed that this eclipse was only partial (40 percent total and fairly hard to detect), and that the events narrated by Josephus to have occurred between this eclipse and the Passover that followed are impossible to fit in if one takes the 4 B.C. date. The total eclipses of January 9-10, 1 B.C. and December 29, 1 B.C., however, eliminate these problems.
To determine which lunar eclipse was the correct one, one needs to know that lunar eclipses happen ONLY when there is a full moon and ONLY with a frequency of three times a year. The eclipse of January 10, 1 B.C. is listed as eclipse number 1,860 in Theodor Oppolozer’s Cannon of Eclipses (Dover, New York, 1962). That eclipse -- according to John Pratt -- was listed as TOTAL for 51 minutes near midnight and centered over 15 degrees east longitude -- which is PERFECT for having been viewed in Jerusalem. The eclipse of August 5 was over the Pacific Ocean and not visible in Jerusalem, while the one of December 29 was only partial.
Ernest Martin notes that:
Impossible Time Constraint
The proponents of the theory that Herod died in 4 B.C. pretend that the following events all happened within 30 days:
Dr. Craig Chester elaborates on this --
Only then came the Passover. The 29 days between the eclipse of 4 B.C. and the following Passover simply did not allow enough time for all of the above events to occur. A minimum of TEN WEEKS would have been required as Ernest Martin and others showed very carefully. Therefore the 4 B.C. date fails to account for what Josephus recorded. But on January 10, 1 B.C., there was a total lunar eclipse visible in Jerusalem which happened near midnight and lasted 51 minutes -- more than enough time to be observed by most people in the city.
The “Pater Patriae”
In the temple of Augustus at Ankara, an inscription was found referring to a census in the year 8 B.C. The relationship of this “tax call” with the enrollment of Joseph and Mary is an UNFOUNDED conjecture, since it would apply only to Roman citizens. And it is even more conjectural to imagine that Mary would have had to travel so far, because the taxes would apply only to Joseph.
On the other hand, historians have identified a combination of a census and an oath of allegiance that would have effectively involved Mary and Joseph -- done between the years 3 and 2 B.C. -- as the result of an imperial decree related to the bestowal of the title “Pater Patriae” on Augustus by the Senate on February the 5th of the year 2 B.C. Josephus recorded that nearly 6,000 Pharisees refused to take the oath, approximately one year before Herod died, and Orosio, a historian of the 5th Century, CLEARLY links this oath with the enrollment of Joseph and Mary:
Later, Orosio identifies the time of the census using two Roman systems that agreed among themselves, implying a lower limit for the death of Herod on the basis of this evidence of 2 B.C.
This census would have included Joseph and Mary even though they were not Roman citizens. Being of royal lineage (“of the Houses of David”), both Joseph and Mary would have had to go specifically to Bethlehem to enroll. Augustus’ decree required that all adults pledge their good will to Caesar, and the complete enrollment was presented to him as part of the celebrations.
Nevertheless, the proponents of the theory that Herod died in 4 B.C. keep repeating over and over again that “Dionysius was wrong” -- even though nobody has ever explained why convincingly! It is an assumption based on a false premise, because Herod did not die in 4 B.C. but in the year 1 B.C. The assertion regarding the year 4 B.C. is refutable on many grounds, and Ernest Martin in 1978 carefully showed its virtual impossibility, of which I have mentioned only the main arguments in this summary.
Dionysius Exiguus and Luke in Error?
I have already mentioned that many accuse Dionysius Exiguus of being wrong by 4 years in his time of the birth of the Messiah. This, however, is a myth and finds no support whatsoever among competent historians. The astronomer and chronologist John Pratt has come to the same conclusion: No satisfactory answer, it appears, has been proposed to this long standing puzzle.
This is what John Mosley wrote back in 1980 (capitals are mine):
According to the theory -- erroneously accepted as fact -- not only Dionysius was “wrong” but also Luke, regardless of his care in recording information that would help to establish a historical perspective, since at the time of baptism, according to them, the Messiah was about 36 years old, not 30 as Luke said, and was about 40 when he died. In my opinion, not only is it true that THIS IDEA CANNOT PASS THE TEST OF THE EVIDENCE AVAILABLE, but maintaining it shows the same “manipulation of truth” of which tradition is accused, except that it goes in the opposite direction, echoing the cynical times in which we live.
The Astronomical Evidence
What astronomical events, possibly in the years 3 or 2 B.C., might have been related to the Star of Bethlehem? A nova -- the unexpected, sudden brightening of a star from invisibility into a bright object for a period of days or weeks -- has been suggested. But there is no historical record of such a nova, nor is it clear what a nova’s astrological significance would be. Origen himself suggested a comet, for comets appear sporadically, move, and can even seem to point down to the earth. But the recorded comets around this time, even Halley’s Comet in 12 B.C., were not very impressive; astrologically, they were considered ominous. Meteors and fireballs are even less likely candidates.
Conjunctions of planets have also long been considered good possibilities. A conjunction is a close apparent approach between two celestial objects. Technically speaking, a conjunction occurs at the moment when both objects have the same celestial longitude; one is due north of the other. The closer the objects, the more visually impressive the event and the more significant astrologically. In 3 B.C. and 2 B.C., there was a series of close conjunctions involving Jupiter, the planet that represented kingship, coronations, and the birth of kings. In the Judean world Jupiter was known as Sedeq or “Righteousness,” a term also used for the Messiah.
On September 14, 3 B.C., and on February 17 and May 8 in 2 B.C., Jupiter the King planet stood next to Regulus the brightest star in Leo, which also represented Royalty. Then came a climax to the display. On June 17, 2 B.C., Venus and Jupiter -- the two brightest planets in the Solar System -- appeared to collide. They stood an incredible 1/50th degree apart and seemed to fuse into one immense ball of light. This was an unprecedented event. This exceptionally rare spectacle could not have been missed by the Magi. But that was not all. On August 27 in 2 B.C. there was a grand meeting of the planets in Virgo. Jupiter and Mars were only 1/7th degree apart and close at hand were Mercury and Venus standing together in the glare of the rising sun.
In fact, we have seen here only the highlights of an impressive series of planetary motions and conjunctions fraught with a variety of astrological meanings, involving all the other known planets of the period: Mercury, Mars, and Saturn. The astrological significance of these impressive events must surely have been seen by the Magi as the announcement of the impending birth of a great king of the Judeans.
But if the planet Jupiter was the Star of Bethlehem, or was a component of the events that triggered the visit by the Magi, how do we view the final appearance of the Star on their journey to Bethlehem? It would have been in the southern sky, though fairly high above the horizon. Could the Star have stopped over Bethlehem? The answer is yes. The word “stop” was used for what we now call a planet’s “stationary point.” A planet normally moves eastward through the stars from night to night and month to month, but regularly exhibits a “retrograde loop.” After it passes the opposite point in the sky from the sun, it appears to slow, come to a full stop, and move backward (westward) through the sky for some weeks. Again it slows, stops, and resumes its eastward course.
This is caused by the orbits of Jupiter and the earth as the earth and Jupiter “take up the slack,” as it were, in their orbital differences. This gives the earth sky viewer the illusion that Jupiter is reversing its movement.
The conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter in 3 and 2 B.C. around the fixed star Regulus were impressive and unique celestial phenomena. Since the ephemeris of Brian Tuckerman were published in the mid-60’s, allowing the experts to know this fact, Jupiter/Venus have been the preferred alternative for the star of Bethlehem in the mind of many astronomers and historians.
And since the publication of Ernest Martin in 1978 (The Birth of Christ), scholars have acknowledged the difficulties with the 4 B.C. date for the death of Herod, which Martin clearly proved was impossible. The account of Josephus, the succession of rulers, the Lunar eclipse, used to establish that date, have been carefully scrutinized to demonstrate the hypothesis that Herod died in 1 B.C. The 4 B.C. hypothesis is the least probable.
And about the enrollment alluded by Luke, Martin showed that it is not the tax call of 8 B.C. but a census and oath of allegiance ordered to celebrate Augustus Caesar’s Silver Jubilee, who was going to receive the title of “Pater Patriae”.
All these points have been widely discussed and explained in recent literature. I feel that ignoring them and preferring other hypothesis that contradict tradition is a matter of psychology, related to the unconscious - or very conscious -- need to assume that the Church manipulated everything or that the ancients were wrong and we are right.
The Question of Quintilius Varus
Sometimes, for example, the argument is made that Josephus records Quintilius Varus as governor of Syria when Herod died, and Varus is shown as such in coins from 4 B.C. The problem with this evidence, as Pratt explains from Martin, is that coins also show Varus governing Syria in 6 and 5 B.C., while Josephus recorded Saturninus as governor during the two following years. Martin mentions an inscription found near the Varus village describing a man who was governor of Syria twice, probably referring to Varus, since his second term would correspond to 1 B.C. and there is no record of any other person as ruler that year.
According to Paul Finch --
What About Publius Sulpicius Quirinius?
Writes Paul Finch,
Finch goes on to say --
With this missing piece of evidence we can now reconstruct the succession of Syrian Governors as follows:
Based upon the writings of Flavius Josephus -- which have proven to be highly accurate -- and the calculations of relevant lunar events, it is clear that Herod the “Great” died in 1 B.C. -- NOT 4 B.C. Placing Herod’s death in 1 B.C. allows us to accept the ANCIENT tradition that the Messiah was born in 2 B.C. The four earliest Christian writers who report the date of the Messiah’s birth are Irenaeus (late second century), Clement of Alexandria (about A.D. 200), Tertullian (early third century), and Africanus (early third century). Africanus specifies the date in terms that can be understood as 3/2 B.C. Both Irenaeus and Tertullian assign Yeshua’s birth to the 41st year of Augustus. If this date presumes that the reign of Augustus began when he was elevated to consulship in August 43 B.C., the year intended is 2 B.C. (Tishri 1, 3 B.C. to Tishri 1, 2 B.C. -- Jewish regnal dating). Tertullian conveniently confirms this conclusion by adding that the Messiah’s birth was 28 years after the death of Cleopatra and 15 years before the death of Augustus. Cleopatra died in August 30 B.C., and Augustus died in August A.D. 14.
The evidence of history, archaeology and astronomy is now showing that Herod died in early 1 B.C. and that the Messiah was therefore born in 3/2 B.C. (regnal dating) -- as confirmed by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Africanus, Hippolytus of Rome, Hippolytus of Thebes, Origen, Eusebius and Epiphanius.
“Be not overcome
of evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21
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