Date of the Birth of Christ

Author: Fr. William Most


Herod had two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus by Mariamme, a Haasmonean. They were popular with the people, but Herod had designated Antipater his oldest son as his successor, who saw the 2 sons, Alexander and Aristobulus as a threat to him, so he made false charges and led Herod to have them executed. Antipater became co-ruler with Herod in 4 BC. But Antipater plotted to kill Herod, who found out, had him executed in 4 BC.

Archelaus, Antipas and Philip counted their reigns as starting also in 4 BC. Antedating reigns was common enough. (Archelaus and Antipas were sons by Malthace, a Samaritan. Philip was a son by Cleopatra of Jerusalem). They did not actually reign in 4 BC, but antedating was common, as coins show, and Herod gave his kingdom to them before his death. It was tactical to antedate the reigns of these 3 to the death of the two "royal" sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, who were of Hasmonean descent. -- Further reason, Herod was demoted by Augustus in 4 BC. Herod had sent troops to Arabia to end activities of robbers and to collect a large debt owed him by the Arabian ruler. Syllaeus the Arabian misinformed Augustus about Herod's actions-Herod really had permission from the governors of Syria for that. Augustus wrote to Herod: "Whereas of old he [Augustus] had used him as his friend, he should now use him as his subject." This was politically devastating. He had to have Caesar's representatives for Syria hear the case against Alexander and Aristobulus and the trial was held in Beirut. Later before executing Antipater, Varus governor of Syria heard the case. Also in 4 BC began the joint rule of Antipater with Herod.

************************************************************************* OBJECTION 1: Josephus gives two indications of the length of the rule of Herod: A) He says Herod had a reign of 37 years from the time he was proclaimed king by the Romans and; B) 34 years after the death of Antigonus, which happened just after Herod took Jerusalem.

These would make the death of Herod come in 3. B.C. But there was no eclipse of the moon in that year. Nearest one was March 13, 4 BC--so scholars said they had stretch the statements of Josephus.

REPLY TO OBJECTION 1: Herod took Jerusalem late in 36 BC. Josephus says Herod's siege of Jerusalem was during a sabbatical year, and 36 was a sabbatical year. Otherwise would need to be 7 years before or after 36. Also, all sabbatical years ended on Yom Kippur. Josephus said Herod's capture of Jerusalem coincided with Yom Kippur. He and the Jews would remember it well, for it was an outrage to press a siege on Yom Kippur. Josephus said it was 27 years to the day that Pompey committed his abominations, which he did in 63 BC. This gives again 36 BC for Herod's capture of Jerusalem. If we use the common accession method of counting years of rule, the date to start his 34th years on first of Nisan in 35 BC. So Herod's 34th year of rule would start with the 1st of Nisan in 2 BC. and end with first of Nisan in 1 BC. Now 34 years after 35 BC would give 1 BC for the death and end of the reign of Herod, his death, son after the eclipse of Jan. 10, 1 BC.

Alexander and Aristobulus were sons of Herod by Mariamme, a descendant of the Hasmoneans. These two were popular with the people, and many hoped they would gain the crown - to continue the Hasmonean dynasty. But Herod had designated Antipater as his heir. Antipater saw the two sons as a danger, so he made false charges, got Herod to execute them.

Josephus said Herod's 34 years started with the death of Antigonus, which came after his capture of Jerusalem. Again, Herod's death would be 1 BC.

*************************************************************************** OBJECTION 2: Herod's three successors, Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip, seem to have their reigns starting in 4 BC.

REPLY TO OBJECTION 2: We know that antedating reigns was common at the time. But Herod in 4 BC had fallen out of favor of Augustus, who, on basis of a false report, had demoted him from "Friend of Caesar" to "Subject". As a result Antipater began his joint reign with Herod in 4 BC. So when Antipater plotted to kill Herod, was detected, and executed Herod had to get Varus, governor of Syria, hear the case. Then the reigns of Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip were antedated to make them seem successors of the two "royal" sons, Alexander and Aristobulus. Coins confirm that antedating was common. They did not really begin to rule in 4 BC.

************************************************************************* OBJECTION 3: Josephs says Herod had a reign of 37 years after being proclaimed king by Romans, and had 34 yrs after death of Antiognus, which came soon after Herod took Jerusalem. Further, his 3 successors, Archelaus, Antipas and Philip started to reign in 4 BC. So Herod died in 4 BC.

REPLY TO OBJECTION 3: That would make death of Herod actually in 3 BC - scholars have to stretch date, since no eclipse of moon in 3 BC. - But, Herod took Jerusalem late in 36 BC (on Yom Kippur in a sabbatical year, so well remembered - and Josephus says Pompey had taken Jerusalem in 63 which was 27 yrs to the day of Herod's capture of Jerusalem). Using the common accession year dating, we see Herod started his 34 years on Nisan 1 in 35 BC, and those years would end on Nisan 1 BC. So 34 years after 35 BC yields 1 BC for death of Herod after eclipse of Jan. 10. -- As to the 3 successors, Herod lost favor of Augustus in 4 BC, on a false report, was no longer "Friend of Caesar", but "Subject". Antedating of reigns was common - reason here was to make the three seem to connect with the two "royal" sons, of Hasmonean descent, Alexander and Aristobulus, whom Herod executed on false reports from Antipater (do not confuse with Antipas).