Josephus on Herod's Death
and other matters
by Paul Hill

1. A link to the works of Flavius Josephus
2. A link to a summary essay on the life of Herod the Great
3. Discussion of references in Flavius Josephus re Herod
4. Re: Death of Herod and birth of Jesus
5. Problems of Jewish New Year and Christmas references in Chester

1. For the next time someone says something crazy or even sane about some event before about 70 AD near Jerusalem, here are the complete works of Josephus on-line:

BTW this translation was made by William Weston, who (accordng to the introduction to a hard copy of the same translation) was "born 1667 ... died 1752; Graduated Cambridge 1690. ... Suceeded Newton at Cambridge in 1703. ... His translation appeared 1737. ... He became a convinced Arian ... which led to loss of his professorship. ... He held that the Tatars were the lost tribe and believed that the millennium would begin in 1766."

2. Now, because I keep referencing individual Christian sources, I thought I'd throw in a very reasonable essay by a young Jewish writer that summarizes the life of Herod the Great:

3.To get back to the question of whether someone can justify a fast one day followed by an execution on the following day, which was the same night as lunar eclipse we have:

"But as for Herod, he dealt more mildly with others [of the assembly] but he deprived Matthias of the high priesthood, as in part an occasion of this action, and made Joazar, who was Matthias's wife's brother, high priest in his stead. Now it happened, that during the time of the high priesthood of this Matthias, there was another person made high priest for a single day, that very day which the Jews observed as a fast. The occasion was this: This Matthias the high priest, on the night before that day when the fast was to be celebrated, seemed, in a dream, (7) to have conversation with his wife; and because he could not officiate himself on that account, Joseph, the son of Ellemus, his kinsman, assisted him in that sacred office. But Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive. And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon. (8)" — Antiquities XVII:6:4

Note that the first Matthias mentioned in the passage was denied his high priest status because he incited some of his students to tear down adornments that Herod had placed on the Temple.

There is nothing except the conjunction "But" that joins the act on the night before the fast with Herod firing the second Matthias and executing both of the Matthiases. But notice that this text more explicitly joins the execution event with the eclipse of the moon and places the execution with no ambiguity "on the very night of the eclipse...".

Apparently this is the only eclipse mentioned by Josephus.

If you want to make your own guess as to the number of weeks required to get sick, visit the Jordan River, go home, try to commit suicide and have a few ceremonies, etc., and finally die, all before Passover, read from the above passage to Antiquities XVII:9:3 which starts "Now, upon the approach of that feast of unleavened bread, which the law of their fathers had appointed for the Jews at this time, which feast is called the Passover..."

We also have the following from War of the Jews I:33:4 which picks up the same narrative continuing to the mention of Passover at Book II:1:3.

Reading all of these passages I don't see why any fast (assuming there is one) wouldn't do fine, not just one that may have occured the day right before a lunar eclipse.

4. So what does this suggest for Herod's death and Jesus birth?

The 4 BC, 1 BC or 1 AD all have something that might be thought of as a census before them (as per the Christian Gospel story), so we are left with the symbolic astrology star.

The curious original paper that we started this thread with, namely, "The Star of Bethelehem" by Craig Chester (at, suggested that 4 BC is a little tight on the time period between the lunar eclipse and Passover. It is also the case that the 'census' event predating this is a historical conjecture, but 1 BC and 1 AD work better in this regard. Not only is there a great candidate predating 1 AD or 1 BC for the census; but in that same year, 2 BC, there is great candidate for an interesting conjuntion involving Jupiter and the star Regulus in 3 BC and 2 BC, which sufficient as interesting astrological events that might suggest kings.

Have we definitively placed Herods death? No. So have we tied down a date for Jesus's birth? No.

This would require (1) you know how an important birth is supposed to be marked by such a double conjuntion and retrograde motion of Jupiter and (2) you know how long an empire-wide census was supposed to take and when it started and ended.

All we are left with is the old 4 BC death of Herod conjecture leading to a birth of Jesus somewhere between 8 and 6 BC which is mostly based on the census idea; versus a 1BC or 1AD death which suggests the conjunction event of 3 and 2 BC and the possible census ending before Augustus Ceasar's 25th Anniversary in 2 BC.

Since (1) would require some interesting research into ancient astrology I doubt we'll see many Christian sources covering that ground anytime soon.

5. To bring this paper back to calendar calculations, notice that the original paper that we started this thread with, "The Star of Bethelehem" by Craig Chester, mentions the conjunction in 2 BC and 3 BC. He mentions various conjunction events including a September 11, 3 BC conjunction which he claims was the "Jewish New Year", but puts that date as 2 Tishri (until sunset = 1720581 JD) which is at least a day late, but maybe it was because of observational conventions that this would actually have been Jewish New Years Day.

Also for no particular reason other than maybe dramatic effect, he picks Christmas day and goes on to mention that "Jupiter was stationary on December 25." [ 1 BC ] This might sound nice for a Christmas star show at a planetarium, but it does not really establish a hard date for a birth, even if we assume the Jupiter/Regulus is the right event. December 25 is one of many days when the magi/astrologers could have visited the baby. Going back to the Gospel stories, you discover there is not a statement that this would have been the child's birthday.

I won't even insist on the additional limitation that babies and mothers weren't seen in public for several months after birth, so how would some foreigners get to see the baby before that? and that this practice is even refered to in the Gospels.

So much for trying to pin down a date for either Herod's death or Jesus's birth.

Editor's addition, 2011-12-25: At The Date of Herod's Death: The Errors Corrected Murrell Selden writes:

"There has been considerable confusion among scholars as to the date of the death of Herod the Great. However, this writer believes the matter to be simple. This writer tries to find the date, assuming the traditional date of Shebat 2 for his death. The chief problem has been in finding the correct year. This writer uses the reference information from Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus ... My anchor for dating the regnal years for Herod the Great is a well known date, the battle for the Roman Empire at Actium. ... Based upon the writings of Josephus (which appear to be mostly accurate), the anchor date of the war between Antony and Octavius Caesar, and calculations of relevant lunar events, it appears that Herod the Great died on January 26 (Shebat 2) in 1 B.C.E."

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