Did Herod the “Great” Really Die In 4 B.C.?

Last Updated: 04/29/2021 21:10    | Print This Page | |

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:

  1. The 3 Herod successors seem to have started their reigns in 4 B.C. -- implying that Herod died that year.
  2. According to Flavius Josephus, Herod died between a Lunar eclipse and the following Passover, and generally this has been accepted to be the eclipse of March 13, 4 B.C.
  3. Luke refers to an enrollment decree by Augustus, which is usually considered to be the tax call of 8 B.C.
  4. It is assumed that Dionysius Exiguus made an enormous mistake (6-7 years) in his calculations for the birth of the Messiah.

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).

Herod’s Successors

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 --

“From the time of Judas Maccabee until King Herod, the Jews were governed by the priestly family of the Hasmoneans. This dynasty seemingly ended when Herod came to power who was half Edomite and half Arab. To solidify his power in the eyes of the Jews He married one of the surviving descendents of the Hasmoneans, Mariame. Through this marriage he had two sons -- Alexander and Aristobulus. It was apparent that these two sons would someday carry on the Hasmonean rule. Yet, Herod had an older son by a Doris, a commoner, Antipater, who saw these two as a threat to his own rule. So Antipater concocted many false accusations against these two Hasmonean sons and finally Herod had them executed. When this happened everything hit the fan so to speak. It was at this time that Augustus revoked Herod’s award as being ‘Caesar’s Friend’ and demoted him to being of subject class. Although this was due to mainly intrigues with the Arabs and Augustus reconciled himself to Herod afterward, Herod was never restored to ‘Caesar’s Friend.’

“At the death of Alexander and Aristobulus, Antipater became ‘co-ruler with his father and in no way different from a king’ (Josephus, Ant. XVII.2). This was in 4 B.C. Yet Antipater schemed to kill his father. When Herod heard about it he recalled Antipater from Rome to try him. He was convicted of high treason and Herod sent a request to Caesar to have him executed. Herod at this time changed his will and completely expunged Antipater’s name from memory. It is assumed by many that shortly after this Herod died and was succeeded by Archelaus. But when Archelaus assumed power he was reckoned by Josephus as one who ‘had long exercised royal authority’ (War II.2.5). Obviously, Archelaus reckoned his rule from 4 B.C.  while Herod was still alive. And Herod remained alive another three years.”

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:

“the eclipse of Josephus had to have been that of January 9/10, 1 B.C. All the events mentioned by Josephus fit quite comfortably with this eclipse, and ONLY with this eclipse....In fact, everything fits beautifully in other ways. There is a Jewish document called the Megillath Taanith (Scroll of Fasting) which was composed, initially, not long after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This scroll mentions two semi-festival days during which no mourning was permitted. One is Kislev 7. The month of Kislev corresponds in most years with our December. The other commemorative day was Schebat 2. This month answers to our late January or early February. No one knows why these two days of feasting are commemorated yet they must have been days of joy ordained before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. What did they honor?”

An early Jewish commentator who probably lived in the seventh century wrote a brief remark to Kislev 7 (December 5th): ‘The day of Herod’s death.’ However, M. Moise Schwab, who studied the information about the scroll very extensively, felt that it was really the second of the days, Schebat 2 (January 28th) that was the actual day commemorating Herod’s death. And interestingly, this latter date fits remarkably well with the January 10th eclipse of Josephus. Herod’s death on this very day would have occurred 18 days after the eclipse. All the information in Josephus about Herod’s activities between the eclipse and his death fit compatibly with the chronological facts....Just before Herod died, he said: ‘I know that the Jews will celebrate my death by A FESTIVAL.’ And Schebat 2 (as well as Kislev 7 for the tearing down of the eagle and Tebeth 9 for the sentencing of the rabbis) fits the historical timetable perfectly. Also, the events that Josephus said happened between Herod’s death and the next Passover can be chronologically placed in a reasonable way (The Star that Astonished the World, pp. 101-102, 104).

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:

  1. Part of Herod’s body was putrefied and bred worms. He is taken on a round-trip to warm baths 16 km away.
  2. He orders all important men in all villages to come to Jerusalem (120-30 km). His son Antipas is executed and Herod dies 5 days later.
  3. There is a magnificent funeral, and the body is carried 37 km. A 7-day mourning period starts, followed by a funeral feast.
  4. Another mourning period is planned and executed for the patriots killed.

Dr. Craig Chester elaborates on this --

“Herod was sick at the time of the execution of the rabbis, and his condition worsened almost immediately. He was treated for a time by his physicians, to no avail. He then decided to pack up the royal household and move to Jericho to take the baths. He tried the baths unsuccessfully for some days and then returned to Jerusalem. Believing that he soon would die, Herod came up with a diabolical plan to insure that all of Judea would mourn his death, in spite of his unpopularity. He commanded the leading men from around the country to come to Jerusalem where he imprisoned them in the Hippodrome and ordered the army to execute them as soon as he was dead. Judea would indeed mourn, he vowed. (Fortunately, the order was not carried out).

“In the meantime, word arrived from Rome that Herod finally had the emperor’s permission to execute his rebellious son Antipater and he promptly complied. Five days later Herod died, but not before decreeing that his to be the largest funeral ever held in the history of the world. His body was embalmed. The army was assembled to carry his body in the funeral procession to a burial site some 25 miles away. The soldiers walked in bare feet, as was required when in mourning, traveling ONE MILE A DAY. A legate from Rome, where word of Herod’s death had been received, arrived to protect the royal treasury. Finally, Herod’s son Archelaus was crowned king and had time to issue a few decrees prior to the celebration of Passover” (The Star of Bethlehem, 1996).

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:

“[Augustus] ordered that a census be taken of each province everywhere and that all men be enrolled. So at that time, Christ was born and was entered on the Roman census list as soon as he was born. This is the earliest and most famous public acknowledgment which marked Caesar as the first of all men and the Romans as lords of the world...that first and greatest census was taken, since in this one name of Caesar all the peoples of the great nations took oath, and at the same time through the participation in the census, were made part of one society (quoted by John Pratt).”

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):

“Incidentally, it is often claimed that Dionysius Exiguus made a four-year error in calculating the date of birth of Christ by forgetting to allow for the four years that Augustus ruled under his original name Octavian. Although this claim has been sanctioned by time, IT APPEARS TO BE A MYTH AND FINDS NO SUPPORT WHATSOEVER AMONG HISTORIANS. Dionysius was a prominent scholar who lived in Rome in the 6th Century and who had access to accurate records, including many now lost to us. The reigns of the emperors were well-known, and he was certainly aware of Augustus’ change of name. Dionysius carefully selected the date of December 25, 1 BC, for the birth of Christ, and counted the commencement of the Christian era with January 1, 1 AD, six days later, to agree with the start of the Roman year, and was probably much closer to the truth than we have given him credit for.”

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 --

“Josephus tells us that Quintilius Varus had taken over the governorship when Antipater the heir to King Herod had returned from Rome to Jerusalem and that he succeeded ‘Saturninus as governor of Syria’ (Ant. XVII.8.9). But coins have been found which show that Varus was legate of Syria in the 25th, 26th, and 27th years of the Actian Era (6 to 4 B.C.). This is where historians trip up and conclude that they have proof that Herod must have died in 4 B.C. because Varus is shown to have been active in 4 B.C. But the answer is dangling right before their eyes and they can not see it. An inscription known as the Lapis Tiburtinus speaks of a governor of Syria during the time of Augustus who had been governor twice. Many have tried to identify this inscription with Quirinius in order to show that he held office before his 6 A.D. tenure. But professor Syme has shown that Quirinius is impossible (‘The Titulus Tiburtinus’ in Vestia Akten, Munich:1972). L.R. Taylor suggests that Titius is the subject of this inscription, but Syme has shown that Titius would have been much too old to receive the ‘ornamento trimphalia’ given only after 12 B.C. Yet the inscription was found only a stones throw from Varus’ villa in Tibur. The reason some scholars object to Varus is that the inscription refers to Augustus as divine which was bestowed on him at his death in A.D. 14. whereas Varus died in A.D. 9. But because Varus was defeated in Germany, he was never commemorated while Augustus lived. Yet, when Tiberius came to power who was Varus’ brother-in-law, Tiberius went to the battlefield to bring back the fallen Varus’ remains and his memory was restored as a defender of the Empire. Therefore, this objection is weak in the extreme.”

What About Publius Sulpicius Quirinius?

Writes Paul Finch,

“This brings us to [Publius Sulpicius] Quirinius who conducted the ‘enrollment.’ Luke says that he was governor. Yet, Quirinius was not officially a governor until A.D. 6. But it does seem probable that Quirinius may have been a provisional governor in 3/2 B.C. while the actual legate was away at Rome. Indeed, Justin Martyr called Quirinius the “procurator of Syria” (Apology I.34). The Cambridge Ancient History tells us that ‘Each province had its equestrian procurator who in the eyes of the provincials was almost as important as the governor himself’ (vol. X, 216). Quirinius in the records seems to have been a ‘man-Friday’ by all accounts. Tacitus said that his command in the war of the Homonadenses was a ‘special command.’ An inscription mentions him ‘as holding an honorary municipal office at Antioch-by-Pisidia’ (Sherwin-White, 165). He also became guardian of Gaius Caesar, the heir to the Empire when Gaius acquired residential authority at Antioch over the eastern provinces in A.D. 1 (Tacitus, Annals III.48). Tacitus also said that Quirinius was one who had ‘considerable talents for business’ (ibid.). In A.D. 2 he married Aemelia Lepida, a descendant of Sulla and Pompey. This no doubt gave him much more political standing and in A.D. 6 he became legate of Syria upon the death of Archelaus, at which time Judaea was annexed. This change in government gave reason for Quirinius’s second census of Judaea mentioned in Acts 5:37. This is why Luke distinguished the registration at the time of Jesus’ birth as being the ‘first’ one, while he was [provisional] governor of Syria which Justin Martyr said was actually while he was procurator.”

Finch goes on to say --

“But who was the actual governor at this time? The early Christian apologist Tertullian living in the late second century, who was by profession a lawyer and well acquainted with Roman governmental affairs, said that the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was conducted when Sentius Saturninus was governor of Syria (Answer to the Jews, ch. 8). What’s more, he said it occurred in the 41st year of Augustus answering to 3/2 B.C. Indeed, the early Christian sources were nearly united in stating that Jesus was born in 3/2 B.C. The list includes Clement of Alexandria, Origin, Africanus, Hippolytus of Rome, Hippolytus of Thebes, and Cassiodorus Senator (Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, p. 229). This is strong testimony indeed because these sources were able to consult the vast libraries at their disposals which modern historians no longer have access. But the next best thing to having access to these vital records is to accept the testimony of those who did! Modern scholarship has disgraced itself in an utter unprofessional way by ignoring this testimony in favor of our present fragmentary knowledge for this period.”

With this missing piece of evidence we can now reconstruct the succession of Syrian Governors as follows:

1) M. Titius 13-7 B.C.
2) P. Quintilius Varus 7-4 B.C.
3) Sentius Saturninus 4-2 B.C.
4) P. Quintilius Varus (a second time) 2 B.C.-A.D. 1
5) C. Caesar A.D. 1-4 

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.