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The 100-Year Old Mistake About the Birth of Jesus

Herod

You know how people often say that Jesus was born in 4 B.C., 6 B.C., 7 B.C., or a time earlier still? The calculations that lead to these dates are all based on a proposal that was made just over a hundred years ago.

But now scholars are challenging this proposal, because it looks like it's wrong. And it's been distorting our understanding of when Jesus was born for over a hundred years.

Here's the story. . . .

When Herod Died

 
The Gospel of Matthew records that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Luke doesn't say it explicitly, but he does indicate that the birth of John the Baptist was foretold during Herod's reign. If Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great then he must have been born before Herod died. (He wasn't a zombie king.)

Here's where the problematic proposal comes in: In the late 1800s, a German scholar named Emil Schurer proposed that Herod died earlier than previously thought.

Specifically, he claimed that Herod died in 4 B.C. This view caught on among scholars, and so now it's common for people to date the birth of Jesus no later than 4 B.C.

If a scholar takes seriously the account of the slaughter of the holy innocents then, since Herod killed all the baby boys two years old and under, that would push Jesus' birth up to two years earlier, landing us in 6 B.C.

And it could have happened even before that.

So that's why people often date Jesus' birth in this way, even though it is not when the Church Fathers indicated Jesus was born.

Why 4 B.C.?

 
Why do advocates of the Schurer view hold that Herod died in 4 B.C.? Here are several reasons:

  1. Based on statements in the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod was first appointed king in 40 B.C. and then reigned for 36 years (so, he died in 4 B.C.).
  2. Again based on Josephus, after Herod was appointed king, he conquered Jerusalem in 37 B.C. and reigned for 33 years (again, dying in 4 B.C.).
  3. Again based on Josephus, Herod died between a lunar eclipse and Passover. In 4 B.C., there was a partial lunar eclipse 29 days before Passover.
  4. We have various lines of evidence suggesting that Herod's sons took office in 4 B.C.

Sounds like a solid case, right?

Not exactly. It's shot through with problems.

Let's take a brief look at each of the four arguments . . .

1. When Herod Was Appointed King

 
Since the B.C./A.D. system of dates hadn't been invented yet, Josephus used ancient methods of dating that we no longer use.

One method was dating events in terms of which Olympiad they took place in. An Olympiad was a four-year period based on when the Olympic Games took place. (Yes, the ancients were huge sports fans.) Each Olympiad began in midyear and ran for four years.

Josephus says that Herod was appointed king during the 184th Olympiad, which ran from July 1, 44 B.C. to June 30, 40 B.C.

He also says that he was appointed during the consulship of Calvinus and Pollio. Consuls were Roman officials who reigned during specific years, and it was common to date events by the consuls who were in office at the time.

Calvinus and Pollio began their consulship after October 2, 40 B.C. That's in the 185th Olympiad.

See the problem?

The 184th Olympiad ended before Calvinus and Pollio were consuls. Josephus has given us an impossible date. He must be wrong on this one.

2. When Herod Conquered Jerusalem

 
Josephus says that Herod conquered Jerusalem in the 185th Olympiad during the consulship of Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus. That does point to 37 B.C.

But Josephus also says that Herod conquered Jerusalem exactly 27 years--to the day--after it fell to the Roman general Pompey. But Pompey conquered Jersualem in 63 B.C., and 27 years later would be 36 B.C., not 37 B.C.

Furthermore, he says that the government of the Hasmoneans (who ruled Jerusalem prior to Herod conquering the city) for 126 years. According to 1 Maccabees and Josephus himself, they began ruling in 162 B.C., which would put the date of Herod's conquest in 36 B.C. (162 -126 =36).

So Josephus, again, gives contradictory information about when Herod conquered Jerusalem, indicating in some places that it was in 37 and in others that it was 36.

3. When the Lunar Eclipse Was

 
There was, indeed, a partial lunar eclipse in 4 B.C., which took place 29 days before Passover.

However, this was not the only lunar eclipse in the period. There was another lunar eclipse in 1 B.C., which was 89 days before Passover.

Now here's the thing:

1) Since there is more than one eclipse in this period, you can't cite the 4 B.C. eclipse as evidence supporting a 4 B.C. date in particular. You have to consider other eclipses in the right time frame and see which best fits the evidence.

2) The lunar eclipse in 4 B.C. was only partial, but the lunar eclipse in 1 B.C. was full. Josephus doesn't say it was a partial lunar eclipse. He says it was a lunar eclipse, and a full eclipse fits that description better.

3) The 4 B.C. span of 29 days between the eclipse and Passover is too short. Josephus doesn't just say that Herod died between the eclipse and Passover. He also names a bunch of things Herod did during that period, including trips that required travel time.

As contemporary biblical chronologer Andrew E. Steinmann points out:

"[A]ll of the events that happened between these two [the lunar eclipse and Passover] would have taken a minimum of 41 days had each one of them taken place as quickly as possible. A more reasonable estimate is between 60 and 90 days" (From Abraham to Paul, 231)

Thus, again, the 1 B.C. lunar eclipse--89 days before Passover--better fits what Josephus describes.

4. When Herod's Sons Began to Reign

 
It is true that we have multiple lines of evidence indicating that Herod's sons began to reign in 4 B.C.

That's doesn't mean Herod died then.

It was very common for aging rulers to take their successors as co-rulers during the latter part of their reign. This both took some of the pressure off the aging ruler and helped ensure a smooth succession when he died by lessening the chance of a power struggle after his death (people were already used to the new ruler, who was already in office).

That means that when you have ask whether a particular ruler's assumption of office was as co-ruler or as sole ruler. It could have been either one, so this argument does not prove that Herod died in 4 B.C.

Furthermore, we have evidence that Herod did start giving his sons governing authority before his death.

I'm trying to keep this post as short as possible though, so . . .

The Case for 4 B.C. Is Exceptionally Weak

 
All four of the main arguments proposed are problematic:

  1. The first argument names an impossible date (one that did not exist) for the beginning of Herod's reign.
  2. Josephus contradicts himself about when Herod conquered Jerusalem.
  3. There is another lunar eclipse that fits what Josephus says even better.
  4. We have evidence that Herod began giving his sons rulership roles before he died.

And there is much more that could be said (as there always is with biblical chronology). My favorite resources on this question are Jack Finegan's outstanding Handbook of Biblical Chronology (2nd ed.) and Andrew Steinmann's informative From Abraham to Paul. Both of those are hard to get and/or expensive, though.

Fortunately, if you'd like to tear into the evidence in mind-numbing depth, you can also read this paper by Steinmann for free.

This still leaves us with the big questions: When did Herod the Great actually die? And when was Jesus Christ born?

Stay tuned for my next post on Wednesday....
 
 
 
PS. If you like the information I've presented here, you should join my Secret Information Club. If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email. I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with theology, science, history, and more.

Just sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy sign-up form:

If you have any difficulty, email me at jimmy@secretinfoclub.com.
 
 
Originally posted at National Catholic Register. Used with permission.

Jimmy Akin

Written by

Jimmy Akin is a Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a member on the Catholic Answers Speakers Bureau, a weekly guest on the global radio program, Catholic Answers LIVE, and a contributing editor for Catholic Answers Magazine. He's the author of numerous publications, including the books The Fathers Know Best (Catholic Answers, 2010); The Salvation Controversy (Catholic Answers, 2001); and Mass Confusion: The Do's & Don'ts of Catholic Worship (Catholic Answers, 1999). Many of Jimmy's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Follow Jimmy's writing at JimmyAkin.com.

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  • Thanks, Jimmy, for the interesting history lesson.

    Merry Christmas, Strange Notions!

  • Mike

    So...is 100 years a LONG time or a SHORT time; depends on whether you ask the 1st or the 2nd paragraph... ;)

    PS Thanks for the history lesson (sarcasm off).

  • Doug Shaver

    This still leaves us with the big questions: When did Herod the Great actually die? And when was Jesus Christ born?

    Stay tuned for my next post on Wednesday....

    What I most hope to see on Wednesday is a reason why it makes such a difference.

  • Mike O’Leary

    I found an article I remembered reading last year about dating the death of Herod. I am not a historian, so please don't expect me to defend any statements in it. I just think it combined with Jimmy Akin's article give us some interesting perspectives.The article talks about how we know from outside sources that Josephus's date for the start of Herod's reign is accurate and that working forward we get in or around 4 BCE. It discusses two flaws with the argument that the events listed in Josephus could not have occurred between the eclipse and Passover. One, is that it's argued that Josephus said the funeral procession went about a mile a day for 25 days while the article says that in one specific day the funeral procession went 1 mile. Two, is that if one works from the eclipse that occurred on 5 BCE it allows for more time between then and that year's passover.The article also mentions something called The Scroll of Fasting which also suggests that the death of Herod might have occurred on 5 BCE.Again, I'm not qualiifed to assess either Jimmay Akin's article or the one I've linked to above; but I do hope this gives us all something to chew on.

  • Mark Neal

    Good article, Mr. Akin. Well-researched as usual.

    I've always thought that the best argument in favor of Jesus being born in 1 A.D. is the simple fact that Christians have been keeping track of it since Pentecost. All you have to do is add "1" every year! A man (even a child) is perfectly capable of keeping track of his own age - he just adds "1" every birthday. Keeping track of the age of your Church is just as easy.

    Christ's mother, of all people, was alive on earth for the first couple decades of the Church, and like any mother, she would know precisely how old He was at Pentecost, and the exact circumstances of His birth. Other inhabitants of Bethlehem, friends and acquaintances of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, would have known many of those details as well. It would have been rather easy for early Christians to ask around and discover that Christ was 33 years old when he was crucified.

    • David Nickol

      Whenever a skeptic disputes the year of Christ's birth, I like to ask him how he knows his own age.

      I will be interested to see your reaction to tomorrow's (Wednesday's) follow-up article by Jimmy Akin in which he concludes (I predict, with a remarkable degree of confidence) that Jesus was born in 3 or 2 B.C.

      Your scenario presumes that Jews (and early Jewish and Gentile Christians) in first-century Palestine attached the same significance to birthdays as we do today, and that it would have been important to the followers of Jesus to remember and commemorate his birthday. This does not seem to have been the case.

      Whenever a skeptic disputes the year of Christ's birth, I like to ask him how he knows his own age.

      The Catholic Church requires no one to maintain that Jesus was born on December 25th (or any other specific day) of 1 A.D. (or any other specific year). The exact day and year of his birth is not a matter of doctrine, dogma, Tradition (with a capital T) and hence the concept of skepticism about it does not apply. Of course, that Jesus was born is a fact in the most important Christian creedal statements, but the exact day and year he was born is of no significance to Christian belief at all.

      • Loreen Lee

        Quote: I predict, with a remarkable degree of confidence) that Jesus was born in 3 or 2 B.C.

        I feel like having a bit of fun. I'll see your quote and raise you a couple of years.
        Since Herod died in 4B/C. I'll bet that Jimmy puts Christ's birth at say 8 to 6 B.C. !!!!

      • Mark Neal

        "Your scenario presumes that Jews (and early Jewish and Gentile Christians) ... attached the same significance to birthdays as we do today ... this does not seem to have been the case."

        True, but they did attach significance to great historical events, such as the first Olympiad, or founding the city of Rome, or the establishment of the Universal Church. This may have been more the case with Gentile Christians than with Jewish, but most Christians have been Gentiles since the end of the 1st century. And any Christian, Gentile or Jewish, is going to consider the birth, death, and resurrection of the Messiah to be highly significant events!

        BTW, I'm not saying that it's heretical to believe that Jesus was born in 4 or 8 B.C. - I'm just saying that it's probably not correct.

        • David Nickol

          True, but they did attach significance to great historical events, such as the first Olympiad, or founding the city of Rome, or the establishment of the Universal Church.

          Well, note this paragraph about the date of the founding of Rome:

          According to tradition, on April 21, 753 B.C., Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, found Rome on the site where they were suckled by a she-wolf as orphaned infants. Actually, the Romulus and Remus myth originated sometime in the fourth century B.C., and the exact date of Rome's founding was set by the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro in the first century B.C.

          Or see the following about the First Olympiad:

          Though the exact date of the first ancient Olympics is not known, it is reported that the first ancient Olympics was held in 776 B.C.

          Though this is the first recorded date of the ancient Olympics, this may not be the exact date when it started because there have been archaeological findings that hint that the ancient Olympics could have possibly started as early as the 9th century BC.Therefore, one cannot be sure about the exact date of the first ancient Olympics in the absence of any historical evidence.

          As for the "establishment of the Universal Church, the earliest followers of Jesus had no idea they were establishing the Christian Church. They were Jews trying to convince fellow Jews that Jesus was the Christ. Even if, in retrospect, we try to fix a date for the establishment of the Church, what exactly would that date be? There are a number of other dates of monumental importance for Christianity, such as the Annunciation/Incarnation. Do we have a date for that? Is there a consensus on the date for the Crucifixion and Resurrection?

          All the attempts to calculate the birth date of Jesus are based on the information in the Gospels. Even assuming the Gospels are accurate, it is then necessary to use dates extrinsic to the Gospels, since the Gospels themselves name events and not dates of events. (If the Gospel authors knew the birth date of Jesus and considered it important, why didn't they just include it in the Gospel accounts?)

          I am unable to find any evidence to support he idea that there was a remembered date of birth for Jesus passed along but not recorded, which date Dionysius Exiguus used in the sixth century to date things "Anno Domine."

    • Mike

      Oh do you mean that he was probably born in 1 ad simply bc the church has dated itself from his birth which would mean that it is as old as he is therefore 33 at his death AND bc it was the church who came up with the dating system in the first place and therefore wouldn't have said something like well we are 450 years old as it's been 450 years since christ's birth but we're going to say that it is actually 453 AD bc we forgot to count a few years, something like this?

      • Mark Neal

        Basically, yes.

        The only thing I would add is that the Church didn't come up with the dating system - the Roman and Jewish calendars both existed prior to the Church, which would eventually adopt the Roman calendar.

        • Mike

          ok so in say 33 ad rome may have said it was year "1254" or whatever but later the church adopted the roman calendar and "reset" the date to 450 ad or whenever it was?

          • David Nickol

            There is no need to speculate on how numbering calendar years from the birth year of Jesus came into existence, since the history of the use of Anno Domini is well known. Wikipedia says, "This dating system was devised in 525, but was not widely used until after 800." It goes on later to say,

            The Anno Domini dating system was devised in 525 by Dionysius Exiguus to enumerate the years in his Easter table. His system was to replace the Diocletian era that had been used in an old Easter table because he did not wish to continue the memory of a tyrant who persecuted Christians. The last year of the old table, Diocletian 247, was immediately followed by the first year of his table, AD 532. When he devised his table, Julian calendar years were identified by naming the consuls who held office that year—he himself stated that the "present year" was "the consulship of Probus Junior", which was 525 years "since the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ". Thus Dionysius implied that Jesus' Incarnation occurred 525 years earlier, without stating the specific year during which his birth or conception occurred. "However, nowhere in his exposition of his table does Dionysius relate his epoch to any other dating system, whether consulate, Olympiad, year of the world, or regnal year of Augustus; much less does he explain or justify the underlying date."

            Now, I suppose we could imagine that Christians had, without writing it down in any records that survived, used some kind of dating system for almost five centuries that included the birth date of Jesus, and Dionysius was the first to write it down. But those who try to come up with the correct date based on the Gospels seem universally to agree that Dionysius had the birth year of Jesus at least two years late.

            In short, those who believe as a matter of "religious faith" that Jesus was born in 1 A.D. have invented their own personal belief system, since there is nothing in the Christian faith that says Dionysius was right, but there is historical evidence that he was wrong. (Even Pope Benedict in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives says Dionysius miscalculated.) It is not a show of confidence in the authority of the Catholic Church that Jesus was born in 1 A.D., because the Catholic Church doesn't teach that Jesus was born in 1 A.D. The exact date of the birth of Jesus has nothing to do with doctrine, the authority of the Church, or the reliability of Christian memories about Jesus. It is purely a historical question, not a religious one.

          • Mark Neal

            "It is purely a historical question, not a religious one."

            I agree with you!! I'm not saying that it's an Article of Faith.

            But I will say that the historians who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries had access to ALL the same documents that we have today, and possibly more, and they also spoke the original languages of those documents and were much more familiar with the culture and times which they speak of.

            In short (and I know you're not going to like this), scholars who lived 400 years after Christ are by default more reliable than those that live 2000 years afterwards. They have every possible advantage over us!

          • David Nickol

            I am wondering what you think of Jimmy Akin's next post in the series, particularly this part:

            There is a startling consensus among early Christian sources about the year of Jesus’ birth.

            Here is a table adapted from Jack Finegan’s excellent Handbook of Biblical Chronology (p. 291) giving the dates proposed by different sources:

            The Alogoi

            4 B.C. or A.D. 9

            Cassiodorus Senator

            3 B.C.

            St. Irenaeus of Lyon

            3 B.C. or 2 B.C.

            St. Clement of Alexandria

            3 B.C. or 2 B.C.

            Tertullian of Carthage

            3 B.C. or 2 B.C.

            Julius Africanus

            3 B.C. or 2 B.C.

            St. Hippolytus of Rome

            3 B.C. or 2 B.C.

            “Hippolytus of Thebes”

            3 B.C. or 2 B.C.

            Origen of Alexandria

            3 B.C. or 2 B.C.

            Eusebius of Caesarea

            3 B.C. or 2 B.C.

            Epiphanius of Salamis

            3 B.C. or 2 B.C.

            Orosius

            2 B.C.

            Dionysius Exiguus

            1 B.C.

            The Chronographer of the Year 354

            A.D. 1

             

            As you can see, except for a few outliers (including our influential friend, Dionysius Exiguus), there is strong support for Jesus being born in either 3 or 2 B.C.

            Note that some of the sources in this table are quite ancient. Irenaeus of Lyon, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Julius Africanus, and Hippolytus of Rome all wrote in the late 100s or early 200s.

            We thus have strong indication–from a careful reading of Matthew, from Luke, and from the Church Fathers–that Jesus was born in 3 or 2 B.C.

          • Mark Neal

            Oops ... I stand corrected!

            I got a little bit mixed up with the dates of Christ's birth and his Crucifixion. The establishment of the Church would correspond to the latter, and that date is known with a high degree of accuracy to be April 3, A.D. 33. My argument about adding "1" every year applies to that date, not to the Incarnation or Nativity.

            That being said, the Church has a tradition (small "t") that Christ was 33 years old when he died - hence the Crucifixion is fixed at A.D. 33. That would, if true, mean that Christ turned one year old in A.D. 1.

            Sorry about the mix up. Our calendar is actually anchored on the Crucifixion, not the Nativity.

            I'll shut up now...

          • Mark Neal

            Correct.

            It would be like saying that the Year of Our Lord 2014 is the same as the Year of America 239 (year 1 being A.D. 1776). In a few days from now, it will be New Years Day, and we could, if we were Freemasons or something, celebrate it as the year 240. We wouldn't even need a new calendar, just a new starting date.

            So yes, A.D. 1, by our reckoning, would have been the Year of Rome 754 (according to most scholars, anyway). Christ died in the Year of Rome 786. At that time, the city of Rome was using the Julian calendar, which remained in use clear until the 16th century A.D., when it was modified and became the Gregorian calendar.

            It would have been just as straightforward for the early Christians to keep track of the Church's age as it is for us to keep track of America's.

          • Mark Neal

            Ok, I want to just make sure I didn't mislead.

            The calendar we use is actually based, not on the year of Christ's birth, but the year of His Crucifixion. According to tradition (small "t"), He was 33 years old when he died, hence that is the calendar date A.D. 33. Now, that date is known to a high degree of accuracy, and there has never been any (serious) dispute over it.

            But that would mean that Christ was not born in A.D. 1, but rather, he turned one year old in that year. Thus, while the argument I used does apply to the Crucifixion, the exact year of the Nativity allows for some wiggle room.

          • Mike

            I think i understand, thanks.

    • Doug Shaver

      Whenever a skeptic disputes the year of Christ's birth, I like to ask him how he knows his own age.

      I have two sources of information about my date of birth. (1) I've been told by three people who were present: both of my parents, and my older brother. (2) I have a copy of my birth certificate, issued by the county where the aforementioned three witnesses told me that my birth occurred.

      • Mark Neal

        (3) You can also subtract your age from the current calendar year.

        And you have been keeping track of your own age ever since you were 3 years old: you just add "1" every time your birthday comes around.

        Likewise, the early Christians had the same sources of information: (1) Mary and other close family and friends of Jesus were around to tell them when he was born and how old he was at his death, at least for a while. (2) They had the Roman and Jewish dating systems to plot various dates on. (3) They added "1" to the age of the Church every year.

        • Doug Shaver

          And you have been keeping track of your own age ever since you were 3 years old:

          How do you think I knew I was 3 years old?

          • Mark Neal

            Your parents told you, as per method (1).

            Method (3) didn't become available until you were old enough to understand what a birthday is.

            And method (2) didn't become available until you were old enough to read.

            Likewise, the early Christians initially had to be told by Mary, or others, the age of Christ at his death. But once that was established, adding "1" every year became the easiest way to track the Church's age.

            Just as it is the easiest way for a man to track his own age!

          • Doug Shaver

            Likewise, the early Christians initially had to be told by Mary, or others, the age of Christ at his death.

            Yes, if the early Christians actually knew that, then somebody had to have told them.

          • Mark Neal

            Yes, if the early Christians actually knew that, then somebody had to have told them.

            Yep.

  • Great Silence

    That was an important birthday, of course. The really important one is when Christ gets reborn in us.

    Merry Christmas everyone. Rest well.

  • Dick Silk

    I appreciate the effort you went to in describing the differences between the evidentiary statements. If you're up for some constructive criticism, it would help considerably if you proof-read your comments before your final posts. There were at least two locations where the flow of thought was seriously interrupted with segments of "syntax interruptus."