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I have read the article Did Herod the "Great" Really Die In 4 B.C.? which argues that Herod the Great might have died in 4 BC instead of 1 BC.

What is the evidence of this claim? Is this new date widely accepted among modern historians?

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As John A. Cramer observes,

Trying to date the death of Herod the Great is attended by considerable uncertainty

The main source for information about the death of Herod the Great is the historian Flavius Josephus, who was writing more than a generation after the death of Herod. Josephus states that Herod's death occurred between by “a fast” and the Passover. He also says that on the night of the fast there was a lunar eclipse.

Now, there were four lunar eclipses that occurred in the likely time frame:

  1. September 15, 5 BC
  2. March 12–13, 4 BC
  3. January 10, 1 BC and
  4. December 29, 1 BC

Unfortunately, none of the dates for these four eclipses fits all the other details of the story perfectly, particularly if the "fast" mentioned by Josephus is taken to be Yom Kippur.

As far as I am aware, most historians still accept the conventional date of 4BC. If the the fast mentioned by Josephus wasn't Yom Kippur, but actually the Fast of Esther, which occurs exactly one month before Passover, then an eclipse on March 12-13 in 4BC actually matches with Josephus details is quite well. This point is made by Suzanne Nadaf in the Queries & Comments of Bible Archaeology Review, Vol 40, issue 3 (May/June 2014).

For those who want to accept the tradition that "the Messiah was born in 3 B.C.", based on the calculations of the 6th-century monk, Dionysius Exiguus, the possibility of Herod's death occurring in 1 BC is clearly very attractive.

The truth is, as John A. Cramer concedes (in the reply to Suzanne Nadaf's post, cited above), there are just too many possibilities and we have too little hard information to determine the precise date. The question will almost certainly remain open forever.


A representative "debate" of the various points of view was conducted over a number of issues in the pages of Bible Archaeology Review between 2013 and 2015. (This is one of the links mentioned by Mark in his earlier comment above.) It is well worth reading, if only to highlight the interpretive difficulties, given the equivocal nature of the evidence - such as it is, and the distances between the positions of the proponents of the different dates.

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To prioritize historical view of the bible for a moment rather than a religious view; It appears the article you're sourcing Did Herod the "Great" Really Die In 4 B.C.? is trying to mash together isolated events which occur in different Gospels. As you are probable aware the bible contains many genre of writing not just history. More pertinent to your question though history in the New Testament Gospels is not the history of object facts. The Gospels were not written to reveal objective facts but always about spreading the "Good News" of the coming of Jesus. The underlying truth, if you will.

The reason 4 B.C. is so important as Harod's death is because literalists are trying to balance three dates.

  1. The Birth of Jesus (believed to be around 4 BC) (Matthew and Luke)
  2. The Death of Harod the Great (4 BC), responsible for the infanticide which occurs in the bible upon Jesus's birth. (Matthew)
  3. And the Great Roman Census from the Gospel of Luke, which no other historical records or account exists outside of the gospel of Luke. Some try to shoe horn the Syrian Census of Quirinius of 6 CE (10 years after 4BC) and try to make the dates fit.

Only they don't fit if Harod the Great died in 4BC.

Three events which don't occur in any single Gospel. Two events are spoken of only, in two different gospels, but are not spoken of in any other book Jewish, Roman, or Christian literature from antiquity.

How can the bible be right if these dates don't match up? Even without the controversy of the dates? If objective history is your metric the bible is wrong. In the Gospel of Matthew it says, after Jesus's birth Joseph was warned by an angel of the dangers to his family from Harods infanticide eruption, and took his family into Egypt for safety. In the Gospel of Luke it says, after the birth of Jesus the family stayed in Bethlehem for the purification ritual. Women who had just given birth were considered impure and had to undergo a 30 day purification ritual. It further says that after the purification ritual Joseph and his family went north, not south into Egypt. So given the bible was written by serious men. Men who lived in a time of wide spread illiteracy yet where intelligent and learned enough not only to be literate, but to have written entire books. Men who at the very least believed they had a serious message to convey. How can it be these obvious conflicts found they way into some of the most studied books in history?

Short Answer

Yes King Harod the Great died in 4 BC around the time of Jesus's birth which was also misdated. No that doesn't mean the Gospels are considered accurate history by most secular scholars. The facts are that objective history was unknown in ancient times and is a relatively modern invention. So given that the obvious and understandable conclusion is Gospels were not meant to be read as objective history. Telling stories to reveal the greater meaning or underlying truth the author was trying to convey is a common trait in ancient histories. Even the relatively modern accounts of George Washington demonstrate this phenomena. George Washington never actually skipped a rock across the quarter mile wide Potomac River at Mount Vernon. Never chopped down the cherry tree. And probable even told the occasional lie.

The story of Jesus's origin in Matthew and Luke, is not supposed to reveal objective facts about Jesus, rather the stories in the Gospels are meant to reveal a truth. That Jesus is the Messiah, the new King David, and New Moses, as predicted by the messianic prophets. The stories of Jesus's birth which come from the two Gospels most intent on showing Jesus as the Messiah of the Jews (Matthew) and the Savior of the World(Luke) and only these two gospels, and only in the beginning of these two Gospels and that they disagree on obvious objective facts is evidence enough of this.

Matthew and Luke with regard to Jesus's Birth disagree on:

  • Why Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem. (unknown Matthew,Census Luke)
  • The Star which appeared over the manger ( Matthew )
  • The Manger ( in luke, Jesus was born in a house in Matthew )
  • Who attended the Birth ( 3 wise men only in Matthew, not in Luke)
  • Where Joseph and Mary went after Jesus was born (Egypt Matthew, North Luke)
  • When they left ( immediately Matthew for fear of Harod, 30 days latter after purification ritual Luke )
  • Infanticide. (only in Matthew)

To get more incite on why these obvious conflicts in the events were placed in the bible we look at Jesus's birth in Bethlehem which both Luke and Matthew agree on. The rest of the new testament even most of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew portray Jesus as from Nazareth even calling him the Nazarene. Further evidence can be found in the Gospel of John as I go into below. Jesus's birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the only two gospels which speak of Jesus's birth, are different because both Matthew and Luke are trying to tell different but related truths. Truths which are not tied to the objective facts.

Longer Answer

Background

First a short discussion on the New Testament.

The New Testament has 27 separate books written by 14 or 15 Christian Authors. Almost all written in first century AD and almost all written in Greek(not Hebrew, not Aramaic). Jesus was born around 4 BC. Executed around 30AD. Jesus and his followers all spoke Aramaic not Hebrew or Greek so all of the new testament writings are translations. In the New Testament The books can be broken into 4 major genres.

  1. The beginning of christianity, 4 gospels four different accounts of Jesus life and times. Broken up into synoptic and maverick gospels.
  2. The Spread of Christianity Acts, A theologically driven historical account of the spread of christianity from Jerusalem to the capital of the Roman Empire. Starts just after Jesus's crucifixion.
  3. The Beliefs and Ethics of Christianity The Epistles, 21 letters. Letters to early geographically isolated church leaders and
    individualist different cities about different christian issues in the early church while still under Roman persecution.

    Broken up into three groups:

    • The Epistles of St. Paul (13 but only 7 attributed to St. Paul in the Bible are not disputed) at least six are disputed as whether they actually came from St. Paul. The 7 undisputed letters are all written by Paul to his various churches he established.
    • The Dutro or pseudepigraphic Letters (6) disputed letters. Some say written by followers of Paul, in Paul's name.
    • The Catholic or Universal/General Epistles(8 of them)
  4. The Climax of Christianity, Apocalyptic Vision of the End of the World. The book of Revelations or sometimes called the Apocalypse of John.

The Gospels

The Gospels are broken down into the Synoptic Gospels and the Unique or Maverick Gospel.

Synoptic Gospels - Mark, Matthew and Luke; Synoptic means "seen together", these gospels tell many of the same stories, often in the same order and often using the exact same words. Verbatim agreements in places. Most scholars explain Verbatim agreement in the wordings of the synoptic gospels by saying the authors of these gospels copied parts of their gospels from existing gospels. One gospel was the source for the other two.

Synoptic Gospels overlap broadly in:

  • (Only Matthew and Luke tell a Jesus birth narrative)
  • Jesus Baptized by John the Baptist.
  • Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil
  • Returns and starts proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God
  • Teaches the crowds in Parables.
  • Performs miracles including casting out deamons.
  • Goes up on a mountain (Mount Transfiguration), and is transfigured
  • Predicts he needs to go to Jerusalem to be betrayed, denied, tried and executed.
  • Then goes to Jerusalem
  • Then turns over the tables at the high temple and is turned over to the - Romans by the priests of the high temple
  • Condemned by Punches Pilot, and is Crucified and Died on the Cross.
  • On the third day rises from the dead ( only Matthew, and Luke)

Unique or Maverick Gospel - Gospel of John, Doesn't have most of the same stories. No account of Jesus's Birth, or Baptism, no account of going to the wilderness, Jesus never tells a parable, never casts out a daemon. Does not go onto the mountain of Transformation in the Gospel of John. Does not tell of the last supper. Jesus does not stand trial before the Jewish sanhedron in the Gospel of John. Different set of stories, different set of Miracles. Many dialogs between Jesus and others. (Nicodemus(ch 3), and Samaritan Woman (ch 4) only occur in John).

Synopsis of each Gospel

Gospel of Mark: Shortest and probable first gospel. Jesus shows up in this Gospel as an adult. Focuses on Jesus's ministries. Baptized by John, comes back from "wilderness" proclaiming kingdom of God, and begins his ministry. Performs spectacular miracles. Raises Jabirus's 12 year old daughter from the dead (mark 5). Jesus swears all the beneficiaries of his miracles to secrecy, even commands demons he casts out to silence. Theme, nobody understands who Jesus is except ( God, Jesus knows because God tells him, Demons know because when cast out they proclaim it. The people Jesus's healed know but Jesus swears them to secrecy.) Even Jesus's disciples are ignorant of who Jesus is. Half way through the Gospel of Mark when Peter proclaims Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus says he has to go to Jerusalem to be betrayed and crucified, Peter says not you lord?.. Demonstrating even Peter didn't really understand who Jesus was. The reader of the Gospel of Mark knows because the Gospel of mark says so, no one else in the Gospel of Mark knows. Then comes the Passion, as Jesus dies on the cross proclaiming he has been forsaken, the curtain in the Temple on the Mount rips in half. The barrier between where god dwell and everywhere else is destroyed. Lesson, Through the death of Jesus god now has direct access to the people. Then Jesus is recognized by the centurion who just crucified him. "Truly this man was the son of God"!! The only human being who understands Jesus (suffering son of God) in the Gospel of Mark is the pagan who crucified him. Mark is also silent on Jesus's resurection.

Gospel of Matthew is said to have been written later than the Gospel of Mark, with mark being used as a template. The Gospel of Matthew is both the most Jewish and most anti Jewish gospel. Matthew again portrays Jesus as the son of God, but Matthew also goes out of his way to portray Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish People in fulfillment of the scriptures. Matthew begins with a Genealogy. 16 verses. Traces Jesus's ancestry through his father Joseph to the line of King David, and Abraham (father of the Jews). Emphasis is Jesus came in fulfillment of the Jewish law. Birth narrative is given in order to fulfill what was spoken of by the prophets. Jesus tells his followers that he wasn't sent to abolish the law but to fulfill the law of Abraham. Jesus says anyone who follows him must keep the law. (keep the law even better than the scribes and Pharisees!) Huge contrast with what the Apostle Paul says. Theme, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.

Gospel of Luke is written around the time the Gospel of Matthew was written and is also believed to have used Mark as a template. It is also continued by the Book of Acts.. It like Matthew shows Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Then Luke goes farther. Luke says Jesus came for the salvation of not just the Jews but the whole world. Luke too contains a Genealogy. To demonstrate Luke's theme, unlike Matthew which traces Jesus's lineage back to King David and Abraham, Luke's Genealogy traces Jesus back to Adam and Eve. Back to the common root of all humans. Jesus is portrayed as a Jewish prophet who is rejected by the Jewish people. Jesus goes home to Nazareth and proclaims his teachings, and the town people drag him off into the desert and try to throw him off a cliff. This occurs over and over again in this gospel. Jesus proclaims speaks out publicly and is rejected. In Acts, the continuation of the Book of Luke, not only is Jesus rejected but Christianity (Jesus's followers) are rejected. Because they were rejected, they take their message to the gentiles. Luke and Acts taken together tell how Jesus's message was taken and given to the gentiles (non Jews). Jesus as a prophet knows exactly what is going to happen to him in the end and unlike in Mark, is not portrayed as anxious or nervous in the face of death. Luke's theme is Jesus was a Jewish Prophet who was sent and rejected by the Jews and was then tasked with spreading his message to the entire world.

Gospel of John is unique among our four Gospels. Mark Matthew and Luke often tell some of the same stories and often in the same sequence, sometimes even using the same words. John is different. John doesn't contain the same stories until you get to the passion narratives. The passion stories are similar but told in a different ways. In Matthew Mark and Luke Jesus never proclaims his own divine identity. In Mark, Matthew and Luke others proclaim the divinity of Jesus and Jesus always demures or silences them in some way. In the Gospel of John Jesus several times proclaims his own divinity. The Gospel of John Begins by saying

"In the beginning there was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. This word became flesh and it dwelt among us and we have beheld his glory. Glory only begotten from the father."

The divine word is Jesus. In the Gospel of John Jesus says, "I and the Father are one"!! "before Abraham was, I am." "I am" is the name of God in Exodus(chapter 3). Unlike other Gospels, In John Jesus also performs miracles to prove who he is and what he's saying is true. Where as in the other Gospels he performs miracles almost because he can, and not to prove who he is. In the other gospels he constantly silences people who proclaim him as Messiah. In John it is all out in the open...

  • "I am the resurrection and the life", and Jesus raises Lazureth from the dead to demonstrate this.

  • "I am the bread of Life", and feeds the masses with a few loaves of bread.

  • "I am the light of the world", and gives site to the blind.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the divine being who comes from heaven who proves himself to be what he says by doing divine acts. By the end of John even doubting Thomas proclaims Jesus as the son of god. Jesus's miracles are portrayed very differently in Matthew Mark and Luke.

Answer

The Gospels while having broad similarities also have vast differences. What they are uniquely trying to convey is found in these differences. The Gospels are narratives which each have a specific point. Generally they all proclaim the "Good News", the literal meaning of the word gospel. However they can be interpreted based upon the different Christian Truth each uniquely teaches rather than as literal histories or objective truth. They are all basically narratives written to persuade the reader to believe in Jesus and prove different aspects of Jesus's sacrifice.

Specially Jesus's origin story which your question regards, are believed to have been written to prove Jesus as Messiah and thus link him to other Messiah's (Abraham, King David, and Moses) for the benefit of the skeptical, than to be an actual verbatim retelling of events.

Only two of the four gospels cover Jesus's birth. (Matthew and Luke). Only these two Gospels claim he was born in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth where the rest of the bible, even Matthew and Luke says was his origin. In fact Bethlehem only appears in one other place in the entire new Testament. John (7.41-42). That passage in John has the clue to why Bethlehem and Jesus's birth were so important.

Setting the scene.
In the Gospel of John(7.41-42) It is early in Jesus's ministry. Jesus has only taught in Galilee in and among his family, friends and neighbors. His family is going to Jerusalem to take part in an annual festival to celebrate a plentiful harvest and they entreat Jesus to come with them. Jesus is wary saying it is not my time. Jesus at first refuses to accompany them, but then after they have left secretly goes. Once at Jerusalem the Gospel of John says, when he teaches the crowd they is split on who he is and what his meaning is. When Jesus tries to say who he is the crowd responds.

John 7.27-28:
But we know where this man is from; when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.”... Then Jesus, still teaching in the temple courts, cried out, “Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from.

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The Crowd knows him and they know where Jesus is from, Jesus's entire family is there, and the inference is he is from Nazareth, in Galilee not from Bethlehem.

John 7.41-43:
“How can the Messiah come from Galilee? 42 Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” 43 Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. 44 Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.

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John 7.52: (Pharisees speaking to a soldier who was sent to arrest Jesus. The soldier though was impressed with Jesus and did not arrest him, but returned to tell the Pharisees what he saw. )They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”

So John tells us the Jews did not believe that Messiahs came from Galilee. The Gospel of Luke thus places Jesus Birth in Bethlehem and directly ties Joseph to the house of David. Luke does so with a Roman Census, where the entire Roman world is getting registered for taxes. Only nowhere other than the Gospel of Luke is this census documented which covers all of Rome. ( There was a census in Syria, 10 years after the death of Harod the Great in the year 6CE when Judea officially became a Roman Province, The Syrian Governor Quirinius called for a census in his province. Upon his death, Harod the Great's kingdom was broken into four provinces and Quirinius only ruled one. His census did not effect Galilee where Jesus's family was from, nor Bethlehem where they travelled too according to Luke. Also since the entire reason for the census was taxes it did not require people to travel to the homes of their distant ancestors, or even the places of their own births as portrayed in the Gospel of Luke, Rather Quirinius's Census taxed them, their possessions where they were currently living.

Luke's suggestion that the entire Roman empire was periodically placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and travel great distances to the homes of their birth, and wait there for months until a Roman official could take stock of their possessions. Possessions they would have been forced to leave in their place of residence; doesn't seem very reasonable..

What is interesting about this is not only would Luke writing about a generation (25-30 years) after Jesus know his story was factually false, but also his immediate audience all living under Roman Rule would also recognize Luke's account was factually inaccurate. This is a hard topic to grasp but modern scholars do not believe Luke meant for his story of Jesus's birth to be understood as historical objective fact. Luke would have had no idea what we in the modern world even meant by history. The entire concept of history as objective fact was foreign to a person in the time of the Gospel of Luke was written. To the Gospel writers history was not about covering facts, but uncovering truths. People in the ancient world did not make a sharp distinction from stories of myth and reality. The two were tied together. That is to say they were less interested in what actually happened than what it meant. It would have been perfectly normal for an author in the ancient world to tell stories of gods and heroes which the audience recognized were technically inaccurate. Hence Matthews stories of King Harod's infanticide which forced Joseph, Mary and young Jesus into Egypt. Like the census in Luke, Harod's infanticide is not written about in any book(Jewish Christian or Roman), not even in any other Gospel or New Testament book outside of the Gospel of Matthew. Which is an amazing fact given we have many chronicles of King Harod the great which come down to us through Roman texts. King Harod, who was after all the most famous Jew in the Roman Empire up to that point. As Lukes Census, Matthews infanticide was not meant to be read as what we would call history.

Matthew needs Jesus to come out of Egypt for the same reason Luke needs him to be born in Bethlehem. If fulfills the words of the messianic prophecies, and answers the peasants in the Gospel of John. Jesus was born in Bethlehem as was King David. Jesus crossed the Sinai from Egypt as Moses did.

Matthew has Jesus coming out of Egypt because the Prophet Hosea said the Messiah would come out of Egypt like Mosses did.

Book of Hosea Ch 11.1
When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.

Luke has Jesus being born in Bethlehem because the Prophet Micah said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem as King David was.

Micah 5:2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans[a] of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel,

The Stories are not supposed to reveal facts about Jesus, rather the stories in the Gospels are meant to reveal a truth. That Jesus is the Messiah, the new King David, and New Moses, as predicted by the messianic prophets. The stories coming from the two Gospels most intent on showing Jesus as the Messiah of the Jews (Matthew) and the savior of the World(Luke) and only these two Gospels demonstrates this..

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    +1 for an excellent answer! – ed.hank Jul 29 '18 at 14:32
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Perhaps the best way to answer this particular question is by rephrasing it in the following manner :

How did Dionysius Exiguus determine the Christian Anno Domini era in the first place ?

The answer is quite simple : By counting back 15 x 19 = 285 years from the very first spring equinox of the Diocletian Era or Era of Martyrs, since, by his time, the date of March 25th as the date of Christ's conception1 had already become well-established throughout medieval Christendom.

Since this epoch is relatively compatible with the few biographical details glimpsed in the Christian Gospels2, it went on to become the prevalent chronological convention in the West for dating years, especially after its adoption and popularization by Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in the early eighth century.


1 His focus on the Feast of the Annunciation is due to its close liturgical proximity to that of the Resurrection (both being spring festivals), since the main purpose of his work consisted in establishing the date for celebrating Easter.

2 Such as the crucifixion under Pontius Pilate (AD 26 - 36), following a religious activity which began in the fifteenth year of Tiberius (Luke 3:1), at the age of thirty (Luke 3:23), and spanned over three consecutive Passovers (i : John 2:13-23, ii : John 6:4, iii : John 11:55-19:14).

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