In What Year Did Herod Die?

02 Dec

Josephus recorded that Herod the Great died near a lunar eclipse.[1] No data is given as to what time of the year this eclipse occurred nor is the eclipse or Herod’s death mentioned in conjunction with any other historical event that can be fixed in history by itself. Most scholars date this eclipse to March 13th in the year 4 BCE, but could this be Josephus’ eclipse?

Reports of Herod’s death had led two Pharisee rabbis and about 40 of their students to organize a bit of a revolt and tore down the golden eagle that Herod had set up over the Temple’s main gate. The problem was that reports of Herod’s death had been premature. He ordered the seizure of those involved (one of the rabbis was named Matthias), and Herod would try them in Jericho by the laws of the Jews. So, the Sanhedrin met at Herod’s winter quarters in Jericho [2]. After the trial Herod replaced the current high priest, Matthias, with his brother-in-law:

“Herod deposed this Matthias from the high priesthood and burned alive the other Matthias, who had raised the revolt, along with his companions; and the moon was eclipsed that very night.” [3]

There is a huge problem with the March 13th date for Josephus’ eclipse. First of all this eclipse on March 13th would have coincided with the Jewish Holy Day celebration of Purim (Adar 15 according to the Jewish calendar). Imagine, at the very time Herod was executing, burning the Jews’ beloved rabbis alive and executing their 40 students, devout Jews would be celebrating being saved from the evil plans of Haman the Agagite (Esther 9:24-32). This would not have been a wise thing to do, if the king wished to prevent an uprising. Besides, since Herod went to great lengths to carry out his will according to Jewish law (viz. using the Sanhedrin) why would he call the court in session during the festival, when it was against Jewish law to hear capital crimes during holy day seasons?

There is also a time problem with the March 13th date. Josephus has Archelaus celebrating the Passover that year with his friends at Jerusalem immediately after the burial of his father. There simply was not enough time for Herod to die, be buried with all the pomp that his burial entailed and for his heir, Archelaus, to celebrate the Passover that year if March 13th was the date of Josephus’ eclipse.

Josephus records that Archelaus mourned for his father 7 days,[4] but Herod was mourned by the nation for 30 days prior to these seven (cp. Genesis 50:3). Notice in Genesis it took 40 days to embalm Jacob and then the people mourned him for another 30 days. After this Joseph asked Pharaoh to permit him to bury his father in the land of Canaan, which he did and there concluded his own morning another 7 days (Genesis 50:10). This practice of mourning for 30 days for important dignitaries continued in Israel. The people mourned for Aaron and then for Moses for a full month (cp. Numbers 20:29 and Deuteronomy 34:8). After Archelaus completed the mourning of his father, he then began to execute the business of his office, which took a few days, perhaps a week. After doing this, he laid all business aside to celebrate the Passover with his friends.[5]

No matter how one figures these things out, there is simply no way one could fit in a 40 day embalming period, plus a 30 day national mourning period and an additional 7 day private mourning for Archelaus between the middle of the 12 month of the Jewish calendar and the middle of the 1st month. Even if one added an additional intercalary month that year, the time frame is still impossible.

According to astronomical data, only 4 lunar eclipses could have been seen from Palestine between the years: 7 BCE and 1 BCE. They are: March 23, 5 BCE; September 15, 5 BCE; March 13, 4 BCE; and January 10th 1 BCE. We can eliminate the March 23rd date in 5 BCE for the same reasons we eliminate the March 13th date of 4 BCE. The September 15th date of 5 BCE certainly has enough time between it and the next Passover to accomplish what needs to be done, but it is eliminated for another reason. Above I showed that the high priest, Matthias, was replaced by Herod after the trial of the other Matthias on the very day of Josephus’ eclipse. Josephus records an odd event that eliminates the September 15th date:

“During the high priesthood of this Matthias, another person happened to be high priest for a single day, the very day which the Jews observe as a fast. The reason was this: On the night before the day of the fast, the high priest Matthias imagined in a dream that he had intercourse with a woman, and so could not officiate in person, but his kinsman Joseph, the son of Ellemus, took his place as priest.”[6]

According to the Talmud, this “fast” was the Day of Atonement which occurs in the 7th month of the Jewish calendar, occurring in the autumn.[7] The problem is that Matthias served as high priest for only 9 or 10 months. One could not come to the Day of Atonement counting backwards from the eclipse that occurred on September 15th in 5 BCE, because in that year the Day of Atonement occurred after September 15. This reason alone eliminates this eclipse from consideration as far as Herod’s death is concerned.

What we have left is the eclipse that occurred on January 10th in 1 BCE. Herod died not long afterward, perhaps two weeks, give or take. With this date there would be plenty of time for all the events to occur that Josephus records.


[1] Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews; book 17, chapter 6; paragraph 4; compare with Antiquities of the Jews; book 17, chapter 8; paragraph 1

[2] Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews; book 17, chapter 6; paragraph 3

[3] Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews; book 17, chapter 6; paragraph 4

[4] Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews; book 17, chapter 8; paragraph 4; Wars of the Jews; book 2; chapter 1; paragraph 1.

[5] Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews; book 17, chapter 8; paragraph 4; compare chapter 9, paragraph 3.

[6] Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews; book 17, chapter 6; paragraph 4

[7] Horayoth, 12b; Yoma 12b; Megilla 9b

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Posted by on December 2, 2011 in Christmas


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