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.[6] 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.”[7]

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.[8] 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] “Solar and Lunar Eclipses of the Ancient Near East”, by M. Kudlek and E. Mickler (1971). Citation found in Dr. Ernest L. Martin’s book “The Star that Astonished the World” found HERE; chapter 8.

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

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


Posted by on December 2, 2011 in Christmas


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7 responses to “In What Year Did Herod Die?

  1. Caroline

    January 5, 2014 at 17:40

    I just thought I would send you an update regarding new information on the origina; dating of Herod’sThe information I am sending you has been gained from watching “The Star of Bethlehem” on YOUTUBE. Death in Josephus as 4bc.

    The information I am sending you has been gained from watching “The Star of Bethlehem” on YOUTUBE.

    Apparently a copying error has occurred somewhere regarding the date of Herod’s Death in the manuscripts of Josephus. Rick Larson states that in the British Museum and libraries in the United States – the copies of Josephus dated prior to around 1540 state Herod’s death to be the equivalent of 1bc.

    If you haven’t watched his fantastic documentary – I can highly recommend it

    God Bless you

    • Eddie

      January 5, 2014 at 18:55

      Thanks Caroline, I’ll check out the video. Lord bless you, as well.

  2. the referbished rogue

    July 10, 2012 at 12:17

    I just saw that your next post is on the census. I look forward to reading it.

  3. the referbished rogue

    July 10, 2012 at 11:51

    Truly, Psalms 85:11, “truth shall spring out of the earth,” was inspired by God. I have been researching this, in every spare moment that my children allow me to, for the past 3 days..and the evidence that I have found (as you know, from secular sources as well) give Luke’s account of a census such a strong case. It is unbelievable to me how hard it is to find any information about this that is not ignorantly one-sided and completely damning to Luke’s historic record keeping..this sad biblical bias that runs so rampant also speaks great volumes as to how we may see Jesus, hopefully, soon! One of the greatest things that I have found, even though it may seem trivial to some, is the Pilate Stone which states that Pilate was a praefectus instead of the governer status that has always been assumed. with how Luke used negemoneuotos (i dont know if I spelled that right..forgive me) and with what you mentioned about procurator (as Justin Martyr gives account to) and the information known about Quirinius.. if someone were to look into this with rational consideration they surely would conclude that a census/ registration/ oath could have taken place around the time of the birth of Jesus. I do understand what you mean about people who do not want to believe..people who refuse to see anything other than what condems the bible..and I pray that I am not waisting my time. I really feel led to do this faith is growing stronger through my research, so perhaps, this is not sure..but I know that God is. This is actually just one question on a long list that my friend gave me..with His help, I am going to do a blog for every question. I ran from the Lord for a decade and aquired many friends while doing so.. when I post something on my facebook it’s like preaching on a sidewalk in NYC.. that just one of my friends could find Jesus through this is my prayer. Is there a way that I could ever contact you if I run into a wall? If not, I understand..but, if so, my email address is thankyou so much for all of your insight. – in His perfect peace, briana.

    • Ed Bromfield

      July 11, 2012 at 09:54

      Greetings Briana,

      Concerning the dearth of truth when it comes to supporting the word of God in this world, Romans 1 gives an accurate account of mankind’s relationship with God and truth, when they do not have God’s Spirit. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that it is difficult to find support for what we look for. It is part of the maturing process to find it, and its value is esteemed higher than we’ve ever imagined once if is found.

      Concerning the Pilate stone, yes, at least one authority began speaking out against the existence of Pilate, simply because records of him were not preserved anywhere else but the Bible. His accusation didn’t last long, however, since the discovery of the Pilate stone removed all doubt. If you are speaking of the word Luke uses for “governor”, it is pronounced hegemoneuo, according to Strongs. As for the census, there is no doubt that a census was taken in 3 BCE. It was to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome and the Silver Jubilee of Augustus’ reign as Emperor of Rome. It was celebrated in February of 2 BCE, and Augustus was honored as Pater Patriae or “Father of the Country”. For more information on this, you may click on the “Christmas Tab” above and go to “The World Census of Caesar Augustus”. Again my information is highly dependent upon the research of Ernest L. Martin, whom I referenced earlier in our discussion.

      Concerning wasting your time, time spent in any study of God’s word is never without its reward. You may not find what you have originally sought, but you will be blessed in other ways, learning about other matters that will be of use to you later. God will bless any and all efforts sincerely spent in his word. At times, what you seek is for a time hidden that when you arrive at the truth, its value is that much more increased. On a personal note, I would have it no other way.

      I’ll stop by and read you blog to see your replies to the questions you were asked by your friend(s). The Lord works all things for good even the times we run from him–I know this from personal experience. You have my email address. Lord bless you.

  4. the referbished rogue

    July 10, 2012 at 00:35

    This makes a lot of sense. I am currently trying to show an atheist friend of mine evidence for luke 2:2. I have read numerous articles and I’ve been having a hard time comming to a conclusion on it all. I claimed james 1 : 5 and the next thing I read seemed spot on..until I realized that the time frame didn’t agree with herod’s death in 4 bc. I’m glad to see that there is evidence which points elsewhere. Sometimes it seems like every thing and everyone is against the Bible (maranatha..maranatha) but nothing will stop God’s truth! Thankyou for writing this

    • Ed Bromfield

      July 10, 2012 at 09:24

      Greetings Briana and thank you for your encouraging comment. To be perfectly honest (and I made this clear in at least one of my posts on the subject of Herod’s death), my study is largely dependent upon the work of the late Dr. Ernest L. Martin. If you wish, you may read his interesting book on line HERE. There are many who disagree with him, saying that his conclusion gives rise to other questions, but I believe he is correct, and hence my posts.

      Concerning your friend, I have found that many people are looking for **certainty** or so-called “scientific” proof that could be repeated in a lab. There is no certainty beyond faith when it comes to the word of God. Either God makes his case in his word, or he doesn’t. So, it really comes down to a choice of trust or not trusting that he is true. After all, how do we know the “noise” we here when we try to record no sound is actually the result of the “Big Bang”? We simply trust it is what the scientists tell us it is. There simply is no **certain** proof that they are correct! :-)

      Concerning Luke 2:2, I’ve read that it can be translated **before** Quirinius was governor; but I’ve also read that this is an impossible translation due to other factors. However, the truth need not be dependent upon how this word is translated. According to Josephus (and thanks to Dr. Martin for the reference) there were more than one governor of Syria [see Antiquities of the Jews: 16.9.1]. Luke 2:2 could be referring to Quirinius as a procurator of Syria, for the same word translated “governor” at Luke 2:2 is used for Pilate in Luke 3:1 and 20:20. On the other hand, it could be Quirinius had some other authority as **a** governor in Syria, perhaps having to do with taking the census–an oath of fidelity to Caesar–the first ever [compare JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews; 18.5.3 where Vitellius, the governor of Syria took a census or an “oath of fidelity” from the citizens of Jerusalem to Caius upon hearing of the death of Tiberius].


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