Matthew 2:1 BDC: When was Jesus born?

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 120 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Bible Archaeology (2005) by Hoerth and McRay offers a date that is accepted by most Bible scholars, when they write, “It can be known that he [Jesus] was born before 4 B.C.” How do they come up with that date? They go on, “because Matthew writes that he was ‘born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King (Matthew 2:1), and Herod (the Great) died in that year [4 B.C.]; having reigned from 37 B.C.” How do they come up with the date for the death of Herod the Great?

The chronology is largely based on the words of the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus used a “consular dating,” (dates based on events during the rule of Roman consuls [chief magistrate]).

In dating the time that Herod was appointed king by Rome, Josephus uses a “consular dating,” that is, he locates the event as occurring during the rule of certain Roman consuls. According to this, Herod’s appointment as king would be in 40 B.C.E., but the data of another historian, Appianos, would place the event in 39 B.C.E. By the same method Josephus places Herod’s capture of Jerusalem in 37 B.C.E., but he also says that this occurred 27 years after the capture of the city by Pompey (which was in 63 B.C.E.). (Jewish Antiquities, XIV, 487, 488 [xvi, 4]) His reference to that latter event would make the date of Herod’s taking the city of Jerusalem 36 B.C.E. Now, Josephus says that Herod died 37 years from the time that he was appointed king by the Romans, and 34 years after he took Jerusalem. (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 190, 191 [viii, 1]) This might indicate that the date of his death was 2 or perhaps 1 B.C.E.

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It may be that the Jewish historian Josephus counted the reigns of the kings of Judea by the accession year method, as had been done with the kings of the line of David. If Herod was appointed king by Rome in 40 B.C.E., his first regnal year could run from Nisan of 39 to Nisan of 38 B.C.E.; similarly, if counted from his capture of Jerusalem in 37 (or 36) B.C.E., his first regnal year could start in Nisan 36 (or 35) B.C.E. So if, as Josephus says, Herod died 37 years after his appointment by Rome and 34 years after his capture of Jerusalem, and if those years are counted in each case according to the regnal year, his death could have been in 1 B.C.E. Presenting an argument to this effect in The Journal of Theological Studies, W. E. Filmer writes that evidence from Jewish tradition indicates that Herod’s death occurred on Shebat 2 (the month of Shebat falls in January-February of our calendar).—Edited by H. Chadwick and H. Sparks, Oxford, 1966, Vol. XVII, p. 284.

According to Josephus, Herod died not long after an eclipse of the moon and before a Passover. (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 167 [vi, 4]; 213 [ix, 3]) Since there was an eclipse on March 11, 4 B.C.E. (March 13, Julian), some have concluded that this was the eclipse referred to by Josephus.

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On the other hand, there was a total eclipse of the moon in 1 B.C.E., about three months before Passover, while the one in 4 B.C.E. was only partial. The total eclipse in 1 B.C.E. was on January 8 (January 10, Julian), 18 days before Shebat 2, the traditional day of Herod’s death. Another eclipse (partial) occurred on December 27 of 1 B.C.E. (December 29, Julian).

The date of Herod the Great’s death provides an illustration of problems that can be encountered in dating by lunar eclipses. Josephus’ writings (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 167 [vi, 4]; XVII, 188-214 [viii, 1–ix, 3]) show Herod’s death occurring shortly after a lunar eclipse and not long before the start of the Passover season. Many scholars date Herod’s death as in 4 B.C.E. and cite as proof the lunar eclipse of March 11 (March 13, Julian calendar) in that year. Because of this reckoning, many modern chronologers place the birth of Jesus as early as 5 B.C.E.

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However, that eclipse in 4 B.C.E. was a mere 36-percent magnitude and would have attracted the attention of very few people at the early morning hour that it occurred. Two other eclipses took place in 1 B.C.E., either one of which might fit the requirement of an eclipse not long before the Passover. The partial lunar eclipse of December 27 (December 29, Julian calendar) that year was perhaps observable in Jerusalem but probably not as a conspicuous event. According to calculations based on Oppolzer’s Canon of Eclipses (p. 343), the moon was passing out of the earth’s shadow as twilight fell in Jerusalem, and by the time it was dark the moon was again shining fully. On the other hand, it is not included in the comprehensive listing by Manfred Kudlek and Erich Mickler. Thus the extent to which that eclipse was visible in Jerusalem or whether it was visible at all is uncertain at this point in history. More striking than either of the above was the late-night lunar eclipse that occurred in the early hours of January 8, 1 B.C.E. (January 10, Julian calendar). This was a total eclipse in which the moon was blacked out for 1 hour 41 minutes. It would have been noticed by anyone who was awake, even if the sky was overcast. So during the years here discussed, more than one eclipse occurred shortly before a Passover. Viewed from the standpoint of information available now, it seems that the one most likely to have been noted was that on January 8, 1 B.C.E.—Solar and Lunar Eclipses of the Ancient Near East From 3000 B.C. to 0 With Maps, by M. Kudlek and E. H. Mickler; Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany; 1971, Vol. I, p. 156.

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