What Date did Herod the Great Die?
For the two of you who may be awaiting the third part of my series responding to the question of why God would create an atheist knowing that he would be sent to hell, I apologize. I had a series of other projects that have come up that have taken priority. I will be posting the third part (hopefully shortly), but in the meantime, a friend reminded me of an article that I thought would be of interest to those of the Apologetics bent, like me.
He initially directed my attention to the video called the Star of Bethlehem that makes the case as to what the Star of Bethlehem may have been. He stated that he had doubts about the video because it required that Jesus be born after 4 B.C., and he noted (correctly) that the present historical consensus is that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.
This reminded me that I had seen an article a while ago that made a very strong case that Herod had to have died later than 4 B.C. In fact, the article makes the case that Herod had to die in 1 B.C. which would clear up many of the problems surrounding dating his death earlier.
The article entitled When Did Herod the Great Reign? by Andrew E. Steinmann (which can be linked from here) shows the following as its abstract:
For about 100 years there has been a consensus among scholars that Herod the Great reigned from 37 to 4 BCE. However, there have been several challenges to this consensus over the past four decades, the most notable being the objection raised by W.E. Filmer. This paper argues that Herod most likely reigned from late 39 BCE to early 1 BCE, and that this reconstruction of his reign can account for all of the surviving historical references to the events of Herod's reign more logically than the current consensus can. Moreover, the reconstruction of Herod's reign proposed in this paper accounts for all of the datable evidence relating to Herod's reign, whereas the current consensus is unable to explain some of the evidence that it dismisses as ancient errors or that it simply ignores.
I think one of the most fascinating parts of the paper relates to the dating of Herod’s death based upon the writings of Josephus who relates that Herod died after a lunar eclipse but before the Passover. As the author notes:
Unlike the dates for the beginning of Herod’s reign, Josephus simply relates that Herod died after a lunar eclipse, but before the Passover. Between 7 BCE and 1 BCE there were three total and one partial lunar eclipses:
Table 1. Lunar Eclipses Between 7 BCE and 1 BCE
[The table lists the following four potential lunar eclipses:
March 23, 5 BCE – Total 29 days between the date of the Eclipse and Passover
September 15, 5 BCE, Total 7 months between the date of the Eclipse and Passover
March 13, 4 BCE, Partial 29 days between the date of the Eclipse and Passover
January 10, 1 BCE, Total 92 days between the date of the Eclipse and Passover]
Since the eclipse in March of 5 BCE would require Herod’s death to have taken place in April of 5 BCE, too early even for the Schürer consensus, that eclipse is not a possible candidate. While the eclipse of September of the same year is possible and has its defenders, it is highly unlikely. It would mean that Herod died in late 5 BCE. Since Josephus reports that Herod was nearly seventy years old shortly before his death, and that he was twenty-ﬁve years old when his father Antipater named him governor of Galilee in 47 BCE, it follows that Herod was born about 72 BCE. He would have been only 66 or 67 in 5 BCE. Moreover, Josephus gives a detailed discussion of the events between the eclipse and the Passover during the year of Herod’s death (see discussion below), and seven months appears to be an excessive amount of time for these to have taken place, even if one discounts some of Josephus’ discussion of these events as tainted by Josephus’ rhetorical and ideological tendencies.
The paper continues by examining each of the possible dates, and concludes that the only possible eclipse that could account for the facts given by Josephus. Steinmann states: “All of the events related by Josephus comfortably ﬁt into the ninety-two days between the eclipse and the following Passover. Moreover, Herod would have been about 70 years old in early 1 BCE.”
Steinmann also examines the New Testament and the information available about the reigns of Herod’s heirs to develop additional evidence for the 1 BCE date for Herod’s death. He concludes the paper with the following:
The consensus about the reign of Herod that is built around Schürer’s interpretation of Josephus is fraught with diﬃculties. It fails to ﬁt any of the veriﬁable chronological data external to Josephus and must resort to unlikely readings of Josephus’ chronological data and dismissal of other data as mistaken. A reexamination of the data demonstrates that Herod actually reigned from 39 BCE to his death in early 1 BCE.
A very worthwhile read.