Jesus’ Birth – The Death of Herod

When Was Jesus Born?

Note: The following Post is taken from an upcoming book by Joseph Lenard entitled Mysteries of Jesus’ Life Revealed—His Birth, Death,  Resurrection, and Ascensions. For an overview and complete chapter listing of this fascinating study, click here.

The Death of Herod – Matthew 2:14–23

 Aside from the accounts in Matthew which include the visit of the Magi to worship the Christ child and of the family’s subsequent escape to Egypt, there is very little in the Bible regarding the death of Herod and the early years of Jesus’ life.

Herod’s death is mentioned in three verses in the Gospel of Matthew:

“So he [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. . .

 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’” (Matthew 2:14–16, 19-23 NIV)

From Matthew we can therefore see that Herod’s death most certainly occurred after the birth of Jesus, after the Magi’s visit, and after the family’s sojourn to Egypt.

Why is it important to establish the date of Herod’s death? Simply because the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi must occur prior to Herod’s death. If the death of Herod occurred after September 11, 3 BC (my argued date for the birth of Jesus) and after December 25, 2 BC (My argued date for the visit of the Magi), then the validity of the argued dates would be greatly enhanced.

The death of Herod is our puzzle piece 7.

Secular History of Herod’s Death

As I detailed in my previous Post Jesus’ Birth – Roman History, reliable secular records from the “Dark Decade” of history (6 BC to AD 4) are largely lacking. But even though secular records are scarce from the period around the death of Herod, astronomy once again (see my previous Post on Jesus’ Birth – Astronomical/Zodiacal References in Scripture) offers us an approximation of the date. This time, rather than the Star of Bethlehem, the planet Jupiter, or various constellations in the heavens, a specific lunar eclipse is key to the determination of the date.

Starting from a verifiable event in the Roman history of Judea – in this case the Roman census/oath of allegiance/registration discussed in the Post Jesus’ Birth – Roman History – we can approximate the death of Herod within a few months.  According to Ernest Martin:

“Josephus mentioned that an oath of allegiance was demanded by Augustus about twelve or fifteen months (12 to 15 months) before the death of Herod. This event would fit nicely with a decree going out from Augustus in 3 B.C. . . .”

I previously established that this is the same census mentioned by Luke (Luke 2:1-5a). Consequently, if we add 12 to 15 months to the date I have established for the birth of Jesus (September 11, 3 BC), we arrive at a period between September and December of 2 BC as the approximate date for the death of Herod.

Specific Lunar Eclipse After the Death of Herod (Josephus)

It also turns out that a specific lunar eclipse can help us confirm the date of Herod’s death.

Several Lunar Eclipses Occurred in 7 BC – 1 BC

Despite historical and astronomical evidence to the contrary, a majority of theologians still cling to the belief that Jesus was born prior to the spring of 4 BC. The reason for their insistence on this date is due to a well-known statement by Josephus that King Herod died soon after a lunar eclipse and before a Passover Feast in the spring. The problem with this is that there were several lunar eclipses in the general period of Herod’s death.

According to Ernest Martin, there were actually four total lunar eclipses visible in Judea during this period: On March 23, 5 BC; on September 15, 5 BC; on March 13, 4BC; and on January 10, 1 BC. Fortunately, only one of these lunar eclipse dates stands up to scrutiny in the validation of our argued dates for the birth of Jesus (September 11, 3 BC) and for the visit of the Magi 15 months later (December 25, 2 BC). The lunar eclipse of January 10, 1 BC is the best candidate, as discussed in the following sections.

Time Frame of Herod’s Death and Funeral

Part of the difficulty in determining which lunar eclipse to associate with Herod’s death had to do with the fact that the amount of time from the lunar eclipse (prior to Herod’s death) to his funeral had to be sufficient to support the planning and activities related to his funeral. On the other hand, the lunar eclipse and his death could not be too far removed from Passover, because Josephus specifically mentioned that Herod’s death was “before a Passover.”

Although Josephus does not provide the precise number of days from the lunar eclipse to the next Passover, this period can be estimated fairly easily; and it is fairly easy to estimate the amount of time required for each of the activities related to Herod’s death and funeral. Ernest Martin estimates that a total of 10-12 weeks would be required for the events associated with the death and funeral. Consequently, almost three-months would be required from the time of the lunar eclipse until the following Passover in order to complete all of the funeral-related activities.

Accordingly, Ernest Martin determined that the best estimate for Herod’s death is January 28, 1 BC (Schebat 2 on the Jewish calendar). This fits all of the chronological parameters, including Josephus’ statement about his death being soon after a lunar eclipse (January 10, 1 BC) and before a Passover. This date is one of the un-designated festival days of the Jews, as mentioned in the Megillath Taanit (a Jewish document referred to as the “Scroll of Fasting”).

As further confirmation of the estimated date of Herod’s death, one of the dates mentioned in the Megillath Taan – which dates back to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 – is Schebat 2 (which we noted previously corresponds to January 28, 1 BC). On this date the Jews apparently celebrated the death of Herod, as Herod was hated by the Jews. In fact, Josephus stated that just before Herod died he said, “I know that the Jews will celebrate my death by a festival.” Turns out he was right.

The Correct Lunar Eclipse

Let’s evaluate each of the four candidate lunar eclipses to confirm our earlier position that the lunar eclipse of January 10, 1 BC is most likely to be the one which occurred following Herod’s death.  The following analysis was provided by Ernest Martin:

What about the eclipse on March 23, 5 BC?

Although this is a spring eclipse and would align with an upcoming Passover, there are only 29 days between this eclipse and the next Passover. This is insufficient time for the elaborate funeral arrangements appropriate to a King of Judea. Remember, we estimated a period of three months would be needed. In addition, an early 5 BC eclipse date causes problems with the chronological markers in the records of both Josephus and the Romans regarding the period of Herod’s death.

What about the eclipse of September 15, 5 BC?

The elapsed time between the eclipse and the Passover is seven months. Josephus would not have referenced a Passover that far removed from the death of Herod.

What about the eclipse of March 13, 4 BC?

This is the eclipse incorrectly chosen by most historians, as they do not properly consider all of the events which would then have had to be completed in a brief 29-day period. Besides, this was only a partial eclipse.  And, as was the case with the March 23, 5 BC eclipse, the period of time between the eclipse and Passover would have been insufficient for all required funeral activities.

What about the eclipse of January 10, 1 BC?

Bingo! This lunar eclipse meets all historical and chronological requirements, including a period of just 12 weeks from the eclipse to the Passover.

According to Ernest Martin, there are a number of modern historians who agree with the selection of the January 10, 1 BC eclipse, including E. Filmer, Ormund Edwards, and, most notably, Dr. Paul Keresztes, who supported the date in his two-volume work Imperial Rome and the Christians (1989). In addition, several notable historians from that past supported the selection, including French scholar Joseph Justus Scaliger (in the 16th century) and German historian Sethus Calvisius (who recorded nearly 300 eclipses as benchmarks for reckoning historical events of the past).  In the last century, English scholars William Galloway, H. Bosanquet, and C. R. Conder affirmed the date, as did German professors Caspari and Reiss.

The “Missing” War – The War of Varus

Who has heard of The War of Varus, a major conflict which occurred within the “Dark Decade” of 6 BC to AD 4? Most people have not. The war was long a mystery to historians because they could not find it in historical Roman records. They could not find this war – which was fought in Judea between the Jews and the Romans – because they tried to place it three years before it actually happened. They got it wrong because they got the death of Herod (and other events) wrong. They incorrectly assumed that the war was fought in 4 BC, rather than in early AD 1.

According to Ernest Martin, with a proper understanding of the actual dates of the birth of Jesus (September 11, 3 BC), the visit of the Magi (December 25, 2 BC), and the death of Herod (January 28, 1 BC), it is now possible to corroborate various Roman documents that mention not only this war but other historical events.

Jewish records clearly indicate that this war occurred; but Roman records (literature, coins, and inscriptions) show no such war in 4 BC. In fact, Rome fought no wars from 7 BC to 2 BC, which we know from Roman troop records, which show that troops were actually being discharged during that period – definitely not a sign that a major conflict was ongoing. Fortunately, in 1 BC we find a number of Roman references to the war.

As reported by Ernest Martin, The War of Varus was no small skirmish. Rome brought in an estimated 20,000 troops from Syria, in addition to support personnel. It has been described as one of the most serious military operations to occur in Palestine between the time of Pompey (63 BC) and the Roman/Jewish War of AD 66/73! According to Ernest Martin, the war took place in Galilee, Judea, and Idumaea and began a little over two months after the death of Herod in January, 1 BC. The war took place in the spring and summer of the year of Herod’s death.

Josephus stated that The War of Varus was directed against the Jews by Quintilius Varus, the Roman governor of Syria and the namesake of the conflict. The final mopping-up of the war occurred in Idumaea – the southern part of Herod’s kingdom – by Gaius Caesar, the grandson of Augustus, who was sent to the region to help Varus with the war effort.  This was in the autumn of 1 BC.

The war was fought because of three specific events: Herod’s death, the killing of two influential rabbis by Herod immediately before his death, and a Jewish rebellion and subsequent Passover massacre by government troops.

According to Josephus, the conflict began when two influential rabbis falsely believed that Herod had died – on December 5, 2 BC (Kislev 7) – and encouraged a number of young men to destroy a golden eagle which Herod had placed over the eastern gate of the Temple. The placement of the eagle was contrary to the Law of Moses. The young men and the two rabbis were tried and sentenced by Herod in Jericho. The young men were given lighter sentences; but the two rabbis were ordered to be burned alive on Friday, January 9, 1 BC, to correspond with the lunar eclipse which was predicted to occur the night of January 10, 1 BC. According to Ernest Martin, Herod had been advised to delay the executions a few nights to align with the pending lunar eclipse so that he could present the eclipse as astronomical evidence to the people that even God was frowning on the actions of the two rabbis.

At the Passover following the deaths of the esteemed rabbis, a riot erupted among the Jewish people.  According to Josephus in this writing Antiquities, Archelaus (the successor to Herod) ordered 3,000 Jewish worshipers to be slaughtered in the temple precincts. The riot and subsequent massacre resulted in the highly unusual cancellation of Passover services (Numbers 9:6-14), something which had never happened before occurred in Jewish history.

The slaughter of the worshipers in the Temple led directly to the War of Varus, during the summer and autumn of 1 BC. Ernest Martin reported that in addition to those killed in the war, 2,000 Jews were subsequently crucified and 30,000 were sold into slavery following the war.

The eclipse of January 10, 1 BC was long remembered by the Jewish people not only because of Herod’s death (which closely followed the eclipse) but also because of the execution of the two rabbis, the massacre of the 3,000 Jews, and the ensuing War of Varus. All these events occurred in 1 BC. The records on the eclipse, Roman historical records for the time, and the written accounts of Josephus are all in agreement as to these events and dates. We have now placed puzzle piece 7.

The angel would have reported Herod’s death to Joseph in Egypt on or after January 28, 1 BC; and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would have traveled back to Israel sometime after that date.

Note: In my next Post I will discuss the impact of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years in the chronology of Jesus’ birth.