Josephus and the Timing of the Star of Bethlehem

© 2003 by Robert C. Moler

In my program this month In Search of the Star of Bethlehem the date of the Nativity is key to finding what the Star of Bethlehem could have been. The problem is that the date of the Nativity isn’t known. One clue is in the Gospel of Matthew in which it is stated that Jesus was born near the end of the reign of King Herod.

In Matthew the Magi visit the palace of King Herod looking for the new born King of the Jews. The problem was that Herod wasn’t expecting a successor and decided to kill all boys two years and younger in Bethlehem, the town the scribes mentioned in their scripture passage. Joseph, being warned in a dream to leave. Took Mary and the child Jesus to Egypt until word reached them that Herod was dead. Tradition has it that they stayed in Egypt about two years.

The Bible doesn’t give us dates of either Jesus’ birth or Herod’s death. The source for dating Herod’s death is Flavius Josephus who wrote two histories: War of the Jews, and Antiquities of the Jews.

Josephus was born Joseph ben Mattathias in Jerusalem in 37 A.D. And had quite a life himself, as a negotiator, prophet to the Romans and historian.

It is in Antiquities, published about A.D. 93 that the clue to the date of Herod’s death is found. The only mention of an eclipse in all of Antiquities is that in Book 17. The night after executing someone name Matthias and his followers for sedition, there was a lunar eclipse. Then Josephus rather graphically describes Herod’s health problems at the time. This is the lunar eclipse that was thought to be the one on March 13th, 4 BC. Herod died before Passover, according to how Josephus was interpreted. Actually the reference to the eclipse of the moon is in chapter 6, while the reference to Passover is in chapter 9. Incidentally, this is the only reference to an eclipse of the moon in all of Antiquities.

Others and I have wrestled with the date of that lunar eclipse. In 4 BC, Passover occurs one month after the eclipse. Josephus recounts a rather large numbers of events between the lunar eclipse and Passover. Thus many of us have leaned to the lunar eclipse January 10th of 1 BC, and its four month lead time before Passover. Another reason for favoring the 1 BC eclipse is that the 4 BC eclipse was a partial eclipse seen in the early morning, while the 1 BC eclipse was total and seen in the early evening.

Maybe even the four month separation of the eclipse and Passover isn’t enough for all the events that really happened. Let’s look a the events reported by Josephus between the eclipse and Passover.

It’s been suggested that the 4 BC eclipse would still fit because the Passover in question is the one of the next year, about 13 months after the lunar eclipse. That’s possible. Josephus tends to record external events that are coincidental or add meaning to the story. Perhaps he mentioned Passover because this festival of freedom inflamed the people against Archlaus.

In conclusion, the claim that the 1 BC eclipse is a better landmark for Herod’s Death than the 4 BC eclipse may not stand up. And the four months between the eclipse of 1 BC and Passover may still not be long enough for all the events I’ve detailed.

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Updated: 12/19/03