One tradition places Jesus' birth on 6 January, another on the twenty-fifth of a month. Their basis is His true birth date, which was 6 January (25 Kislev on the Jewish calendar) in 5 BC. It was the first day of the feast known as Hanukkah, or the Feast of Lights. The coincidence was intended by God to underscore who Jesus was. He was the light coming into the world (John 1:1-5; 9:4-5).
The date we are presenting for Christ's birth is consistent with all relevant historical and circumstantial evidence. The same evidence is mishandled by all attempts to set His birth earlier than 5 BC or later than 4 BC. For a survey of all relevant questions, see a companion article. This article shows why the general view of scholars has always been that Herod died in 4 BC.
The two dates of Herod's accession
The quest for the true date of Herod's death has been sidetracked into much confusion by failure to follow the best strategy. The right way to proceed is to start with the most reliable information that Josephus provides concerning the timing of events during Herod’s career. If this information can be harmonized on the basis of reasonable assumptions, we then have solid anchors for a whole chronology deserving our confidence. We discount other information at odds with our chronology or seek good reasons for the variance.
Four time markers in Josephus stand out as most specific and credible. The first two are the dates of Herod's accession.
- Josephus reports that Herod conquered Jerusalem in the consular year of Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus (1), which indisputably was 37 BC (2).
- The same writer tells us that Herod was appointed king of Judea by the Roman Senate in the Roman year (running from January to January) when Caius Domitius Calvinus (for the second time) and Caius Asinius Pollio held the office of consul (3), the same as 40 BC (4).
One reason these two time markers may be viewed as trustworthy is that the most likely source of precise Roman dates for events connected with Herod's reign, about a century before Josephus's time, would be a source close to Herod himself; that is, an official source. In fact, we have evidence that the dates sprinkled throughout Josephus’s account of the Herodian melodrama come from record-keepers attached to Herod’s court. At one point in his narrative, Josephus states that he is taking information from Nicolaus, Herod’s official "historiographer" (5). Nicolaus was a courtly sycophant who painted the king as heroic. Therefore, Josephus is at pains to tell us that he while he took information from Nicolaus, he dismissed his flattering slant on Herod’s character and achievements (6). He may be referring to the same source when he says earlier that he has drawn information from Herod’s memoirs (7). The rendering "memoirs," offered by Ralph Marcus and Allen Wikgren (8), is better than William Whiston’s, "commentaries" (9).
The dates of Herod's accession lead us to two insights critical for building a true chronology of Herod's reign.
- The likely reason that the consular years for both Herod's appointment and his conquest of Jerusalem were preserved in official documents and viewed by Josephus as important information to furnish his readers, is that they give the dates that Herod himself considered to be the starting points of his reign. The year 40 BC was the beginning of his de jure reign, and the year 37 BC was the beginning of his de facto reign.
- These dates stated in Roman consular years display Herod's choice to measure his reign according to the Roman calendar. He was, after all, a king appointed by the Roman Senate—a king whose power and position rested on maintaining his image as fundamentally Roman in his loyalties and outlook. Although he was nominally king of Judea, he made no pretense of falling in the line of Jewish kings. He was a Roman vassal, both appointed by the Romans and subordinate to Roman authority. From his point of view, if the Caesars reckoned by Roman years, why should he not use them also? In other words, as Harold Hoehner has persuasively maintained (10), whenever Josephus gives a date in terms of Herodian regnal years, he presupposes a calendar with January as the first month.
The length of Herod's reign
The third time marker most helpful for dating events during the Herodian period is Josephus's statement that Herod reigned 34 years after his conquest of Jerusalem and 37 years after he was appointed king of Judea by the Senate (11). These data commend our respect because the total years of Herod's reign by official reckoning must have been common knowledge readily available to Josephus.
Notice that these twin totals, 34/37 years, strongly bolster the dates for Herod's accession. The numbers 34 and 37 differ by three, as do the two Roman consular dates. Therefore, the consular dates and the twin totals are mutually corroborating. Agreement would almost certainly fail if any one of the four time markers was erroneous when Josephus set it down, or if any was corrupted in later manuscripts.
The Battle of Actium
In Antiquities, Josephus clearly places two momentous events in Herod's seventh year: the Battle of Actium and a great earthquake in Judea. "At this time it was that the fight happened at Actium, between Octavius Caesar and Antony, in the seventh year of the reign of Herod; and then it was also that there was an earthquake in Judea, such as one that had not happened at any other time" (12). The exact date of this epochal battle, in which Octavian put down his last rival, Antony, and became supreme ruler of the empire, has been fixed with certainty; it was fought on 2 September 31 BC (13). The earthquake fell in the preceding spring, according to Whiston's translation of Josephus's account in Wars: "In the seventh year of his reign, when the war about Actium was at the height, at the beginning of the spring, the earth was shaken" (14).
So worded, this comment leads us to the question whether Josephus mistakenly believed that the battle itself also fell in the spring. If he did, we need not conclude that the stated regnal year extended through the fall. But Whiston's is a free translation shaded with meaning not in the original (15). A better rendering of the Greek is offered by H. St. J. Thackeray. "But while he was punishing his foes, he was visited by another calamity—an act of God which occurred in the seventh year of his reign, when the war of Actium was at its height. In the early spring an earthquake destroyed cattle innumerable and thirty thousand souls" (16). G. A. Williamson's translation captures the same sense. "But while he was settling accounts with his enemies another disaster befell him, an act of God occurring in the seventh year of his reign at the height of the Actian War. At the beginning of spring there was an earthquake which destroyed 30,000 people and numberless cattle" (17). The true meaning is that the Actian war was "at the height" not in the spring, but in Herod's seventh year. The phrases "at the height" or "at its height" are attempts to deal with a slightly problematic construction: the present active participle of "to be ripe" (18). Perhaps the best translation for conveying the thought in Josephus's mind would refer to "an act of God which occurred in the seventh year of his reign, when the war of Actium came to fruition."
Although the battle lasted only one day (19), it was merely the climax of a drama onstage throughout 31 BC. Already in the spring, the opposing armies were preparing for conflict. Octavian gathered his forces at an encampment about seven miles north of Antony's forces, and throughout the following summer the two sides sat poised for engagement (20). From the perspective of a writer living a century later, the battle was a distinguishing mark of the whole year. Thus, we need not accuse Josephus of a mistake. A fair reading of his account finds that he places an event in the spring (the earthquake) and an event in the fall (the battle) in the same regnal year of Herod—his seventh.
If by Roman reckoning the seventh year was 31 BC, the first was 37 BC, a result perfectly in line with the conclusions we have drawn from the other time markers, for 37 was indeed the first year of Herod's de facto reign.
Josephus's date for the Battle of Actium gives us another insight of great importance. If Herod considered 37 BC as year 1, he employed nonaccession year reckoning. He counted the very year of his conquest of Jerusalem as his first de facto year. The Hasmoneans who preceded him on the throne of Judah, as well as the ancient Jewish kings in the line of David, had used accession year reckoning (21), but Herod had no need or desire to follow their precedent, as if he were in some fashion their successor. On the contrary, he was proud to be Roman, and as yet there was no succession of Roman emperors to provide an example, so he felt free to choose the form of reckoning most congenial to his own interests.
Since he himself ousted a Hasmonean, Antigonus, who had proclaimed himself king in rebellion against the Romans (22), Herod wanted to count every year possible as his own rather than his predecessor's. One presumable factor usually behind accession year reckoning did not enter Herod's calculations. He had no desire to honor the deposed Antigonus by allotting him the last partial reign of his year.
Indeed, even after Antigonus had been removed and delivered into the hands of Antony, Herod was afraid of him. He paid Antony a large sum of money to execute Antigonus. Herod's obsessive worry was that Antigonus might find his way to the Roman Senate. There he might plead successfully that although he did not deserve to be king because he had defied the Romans, the throne should be given to one of his descendants, who had royal blood as he did; also, that Herod, being nothing but a commoner in his ancestry, had no right to the throne (23). Herod was therefore strongly motivated to undermine Antigonus's appearance as a legitimate king. Since Antigonus set himself up as king in 40 BC (24), the same year Herod was appointed king by the Senate, Herod used his regnal years to emphasize the illegitimacy of Antigonus's claim to the throne. Thus, he numbered his years from his appointment as well as from his conquest of Jerusalem, and he increased his total years by including 40 BC, his accession year.
Although less easily converted into a precise date on our calendar, three more dates supplied by Josephus are nevertheless useful for checking our conclusions so far. All support our placement of Herod's first de jure and de facto years in 40 and 37.
Famine in Judea
Josephus states that a severe two-year famine fell upon Judea and Syria in Herod’s thirteenth year (25). By our reckoning, his thirteenth was 25 BC. Continuing, he says that the famine persisted into a second year, which we would equate to 24 BC (26). Later in the narrative, he records that at about the time when the land recovered, Herod sent troops to assist the expeditionary force of Aelius Gallus (27). The Roman historian Dio Cassius places Gallus’ campaign against Arabia Felix in the year when Augustus was consul for the tenth time, also Gaius Norbanus (28); that is, in 24 BC (29).
Caesar's visit to Syria
Another chronological datum appears in Josephus’s account of Caesar’s visit to Syria (30). Dio locates this visit in the consulship of Marcus Apuleius and Publius Silius (31); that is, in 20 BC (32). Josephus says that the visit came after "Herod had already reigned seventeen years" (33). Josephus evidently means that Caesar’s visit occurred sometime after Herod’s seventeenth year, which was 21 BC by our reckoning.
Construction of Caesarea Sebaste
Here our conversion of the date to a modern calendar is limited to a rough approximation, but still it is worth noting that according to Josephus, Herod finished building the city of Caesarea Sebaste in his twenty-eighth year within Olympiad 192 (34). In our scheme, the year was 10 BC. The named Olympiad ran from 12 BC to 8 BC (35).
Inaugural years of Herod's successors
The great difficulty for theories setting Herod's death in 1 BC is the unassailable evidence that all three of his successors—his sons Archelaus, Philip, and Antipas—dated their reigns from 4 BC (36).
Josephus records that Archelaus was deposed in his tenth year (37). Dio Cassius identifies it as the consular year of Aemilius Lepidus and Lucius Arruntius (38); that is, AD 6 (39). If his years were reckoned on a Roman calendar starting with his accession year, the first was 4 BC.
We deduce from various sources including Josephus that Herod Antipas was deposed in AD 39 (40). His last dated coins refer to his forty-third regnal year (41). On a Roman calendar counting his accession year as the first, the first was no later than 4 BC.
In Josephus, we find that after reigning thirty-seven years (42)— presumably, while in his thirty-eighth year—Philip the Tetrarch died in the twentieth year of Tiberius; that is, AD 34 (43). The first was therefore 4 BC.
We are depending on what might be called the received text of Josephus, employed by popular translations. Some manuscripts give the year of Tiberius as the twenty-second, an issue we will examine later (44).
Filmer's attempt to revise Herodian chronology has left many scholars unconvinced. Rather than accept the implausibilities in setting Herod's death in 1 BC, they have held to the traditional date, 4 BC or possibly 5 BC. Those who have in recent years published an endorsement of the traditional date include Timothy D. Barnes, Geza Vermes and Fergus Millar, Harold W. Hoehner, P. M. Bernegger, Paul L. Maier, Douglas Johnson, Daniel R. Schwartz (45).
A further, even more detailed rebuttal of Filmer's thesis is forthcoming to this website.