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The Chronology of Herod the great's Reign

Herod the great captured Jerusalem for the Romans in the first century B.C. He rebuilt the Second Temple of Jerusalem, the Temple where Christ later taught. Herod tried to kill the Christ-Child, by killing the male children 2 years of age or younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Not long before his own death, Herod put to death about forty Jews who studied at the Temple, "and that very night there was an eclipse of the moon."

Biblical chronologists generally date the capture of Jerusalem by Herod to 37 B.C., the rebuilding of the Temple as beginning in 20 B.C., and Herod's death to either 4 B.C. or 1 B.C.

This revised chronology dates the capture of Jerusalem to 43 B.C., the rebuilding of the Temple to 32 B.C., and Herod's death to 8 B.C. Some of the evidence for this revised chronology is summarized below. For details and references, please see chapter 12 of the book.

1. According to Josephus, the year in which Herod captured Jerusalem was both a Sabbatical year (which must include the summer before the capture of the city) and a year in which Tishri 10 fell in September. To determine the year of the capture of Jerusalem, we must take both these factors into consideration.
   
Notice, in the Table above, that the usual date for the capture of Jerusalem is ruled out, because Tishri 10 did not fall in September in that year. So far, we have three possible dates for the capture of Jerusalem: 44 B.C., 43 B.C. and 36 B.C. Examining the length of Herod's reign and the year of his death will help us decide between them.

2. Herod's Eclipse

Josephus describes Herodís reign as lasting a few months more than 34 years, from his capture of Jerusalem to his death. Herod captured Jerusalem in September, and he died in the winter, sometime after the fast day (Yom Kippur), after a lunar eclipse, and before the Passover.

By subtracting 34+ years from the possible years for the beginning of Herodís reign (44, 43, and 36 B.C.), we arrive at 9 B.C., 8 B.C., and 1 B.C. as the possible years for the death of Herod. Here the years are given as if the death of Herod occurred in Jan./Feb, during the latter part of the winter, though he may possibly have died in December.

Josephus describes a lunar eclipse occuring on the night after Herod killed some of the teachers and students at the Temple. He places this event after the fast day (Yom Kippur) on Tishri 10. Now, lunar eclipses occur when the moon is full, about the middle of the Jewish month (because the Jewish calendar is based on the phases of the moon). But Herod could not have put to death teachers and students of the Temple in the middle of Tishri. At that time, millions of Jews would gather in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. So, this lunar eclipse must have occurred after the month of Tishri (and before the month of Nisan, when Passover occurs).

Then a number of events occurred between the lunar eclipse and Herod's death. The space of time needed to account for all of these events is a matter of some dispute. After Herod's death, a number of additional events occurred before the Passover. Again, the length of time between Herod's death and the Passover is disputed. (See chapter 12 of the book for details.)

The most often cited lunar eclipse, which many consider to be the eclipse before Herodís death, is the lunar eclipse of March 13, in 4 B.C. However, this eclipse occurred only one lunar month before the Passover of April 11 that year. It is inconceivable that so many events as are described by Josephus could possibly be fit into one month.

Another theory is that the lunar eclipse of September 15 of 5 B.C. was the lunar eclipse preceding the death of Herod. That eclipse occurred 7 lunar months before the Passover of 4 B.C. Thus the eclipse either occurred in the month of Elul or in the month of Tishri, but with the addition of the month of AdarII before the Nisan of 4 B.C. But Josephus clearly describes Herod's eclipse as occurring after the removal from office of the high priestóthe same high priest whom Josephus describes as still being in office on the fast day of Tishri 10. Neither could Herod's eclipse have occurred in Tishri, for at that time there would have been huge crowds gathered for the Feast of Tabernacles. These crowds would not have permitted such an offense, nor would Herod have dared to outrage them and risk a riot or rebellion. Therefore, 4 B.C. cannot be the year of Herod's death.

As concluded above, the possible years for the death of Herod are 9 B.C., 8 B.C., or 1 B.C. In chapter 17 of the book, every eclipse from 10 B.C. to A.D. 1 is examined to see if it meets the criteria for the eclipse preceding the death of Herod. In summary, the only lunar eclipses which fit the criteria established above are the eclipses of Nov. 28 of 9 B.C. (giving us a date of early 8 B.C. for Herod's death) and Jan. 9 of 1 B.C. (giving us a date of early 1 B.C. for Herod's death) All of the other eclipses either did not occur during the winter months, or were not visible from Jerusalem, or were only a month away from the Passover, or occurred during or before the month of Tishri, or were brief, partial penumbral eclipses (i.e. barely noticeable as eclipses to an observer) or occurred during daylight hours (not at night, as specified by Josephus). Also, most of these other eclipses are not the correct number of years from a possible year for Herodís capture of Jerusalem.

In recent years, many Biblical chronologists have argued in support of a date of 1 B.C. for the death of Herod. Though the lunar eclipse of 1 B.C. is a plausible fit for Herod's eclipse, additional evidence from comet and eclipse sightings indicates that events in Roman history during this time period occurred earlier than has been generally believed. The date of Herod's death must be placed in the context of other events in Roman history. The revised date of 8 B.C. for Herod's death fits this context, because all of the events of Roman history during this period of time occurred 4 or 5 years earlier. Julius Caesar died in 49 B.C., not 44 B.C. Caesar Augustus died in A.D. 10, not A.D. 14. Therefore, the date of 8 B.C. for Herod's death fits the some historical context usually given to the date of 4 B.C. On the other hand, a date of 1 B.C. is much too late, given the earlier dates for Julius and Augustus' death.

A date of 8 B.C. for Herod's death gives us a date of 43 B.C. for the capture of Jerusalem by Herod. Again, this date makes sense in conjunction with the earlier date for the death of Julius Caesar in 49 B.C.

3. The Holy Innocents

Herod tried to kill the Christ-Child by killing male children 2 years of age or younger (Mt 2:16). At the time of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, Herod thought that as many as 2 years might have passed since the Birth of Christ. Therefore, Herod must have lived for at least 2 years after the Birth of Christ. If Herod died in early 8 B.C., then Christ must have been born before 9 B.C. The conclusion that Herod died in 8 B.C. effectively rules out any year for the Birth of Christ later than 10 B.C.

   
4. The Rebuilding of the Temple

Josephus makes several conflicting statements about when the Temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt. In Antiquities of the Jews, he states that Herod undertook the rebuilding the temple in his 18th year. But in Wars of the Jews, he states that Herod rebuilt the temple in his 15th year. The generally-accepted view is that the rebuilding of the temple began in Herodís 18th year. However, there is a third possibility.

Josephus counts the beginning of Herodís reign from the time that he captured Jerusalem and brought about Antigonusí death. Book 15 of Antiquities of the Jews begins with the capture of Jerusalem and Antigonusí death, which was the beginning of Herodís reign over Jerusalem. In the title of book 15, Josephus writes: ďBOOK 15 CONTAINING THE INTERVAL OF EIGHTEEN YEARS FROM THE DEATH OF ANTIGONUS TO THE FINISHING OF THE TEMPLE BY HEROD.Ē Since book 15 covers a period of 18 years, from the beginning of Herodís reign to the completion of the temple, work on the temple must have been completed (not begun) in Herodís 18th year.

Also, Josephus places the description of the rebuilding of the Temple at the very end of book 15. If the rebuilding had begun in Herodís 18th year, then the description of the completion of the rebuilding would fall into the middle of book 16. But book 16 instead mentions the rebuilding of the Temple in the title of the book as having already been completed: ďCONTAINING THE INTERVAL OF TWELVE YEARS FROM THE FINISHING OF THE TEMPLE BY HEROD TO THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER AND ARISTOBULUS.Ē Notice from this title that book 16 begins at the time of the completion of the rebuilding of the Temple. Therefore, the Temple rebuilding did not begin in Herodís 18th year, but rather was completed in his 18th year.

Further confirmation that the rebuilding of the Temple was completed in Herodís 18th year is found in Josephusí description of another major building project, Cesarea Sebaste. Josephus tells us that Cesarea Sebaste took nearly ten years to build and was completed in Herodís 28th year. This building project began nearly 10 years earlier, about the 19th year of Herodís reign. But if Herod had begun to build the temple in his 18th year, he would have had two major building projects going on at the same time.

According to Josephus, the rebuilding of the Temple, including the outer enclosures, took 8 years. If the work was completed in Herodís 18th year, it must have begun 8 years earlier, in Herodís 11th year. The work on the Temple itself took only 1Ĺ years.786 Josephus notes that the completion of the rebuilding of the Temple Sanctuary was celebrated with a festival which coincided with the anniversary of Herodís inauguration as king of Jerusalem. Herod captured Jerusalem in the autumn and must have been inaugurated as king shortly thereafter, so the rebuilding of the Temple Sanctuary was completed in the autumn. Therefore, the work on the Temple Sanctuary began in the springtime during Herodís 11th year, continued for 1Ĺ years, and was completed at the end of his 12th year as king of Jerusalem.

Herod captured Jerusalem in autumn of 43 B.C., on the fast day (Tishri 10), which fell in mid September that year. The work on the Temple of Jerusalem began in spring of Herodís 11th year, which would be spring of 32 B.C. (Regardless of whether one counts each year of Herodís reign from the autumn at his inauguration, or from the beginning of the calendar year in January, or from the beginning of the Jewish sacred calendar in Nisan, the spring of his 11th year would still be 32 B.C.) The Temple Sanctuary was completed 1Ĺ years later, in autumn of 31 B.C. And the entire Temple, including the outer enclosures, was completed about 8 years after the work had begun, in Herodís 18th year, which was 25 B.C.

5. It has taken 46 years to build this Temple

ďJesus answered them, ĎDestroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.í The Jews then said, ĎIt has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?í But he spoke of the temple of his body.Ē (John 2:19-21).

According to the ancient Jewish Roman historian Josephus, the rebuilding of the Sanctuary itself took 1Ĺ years, and the rebuilding of the outer enclosures took 8 years. Therefore, the Jews were not referring to the number of years of reconstruction, but to the number of years since the temple was rebuilt. Even so, some work related to the temple did continue up to and beyond the time of Jesus Christís Ministry.

The rebuilding of the Temple itself was completed in autumn of 31 B.C. Adding 46 years, (remember that there is no year zero,) brings us to the autumn of A.D. 16. There were 46 Passovers between fall of 31 B.C. and spring of A.D. 16, including the Passover of A.D. 16 when this conversation (John 2:19-21) occurred. Since the new year of the sacred calendar begins with the month of Nisan (Ex 12:2), and the Temple Sanctuary is sacred, they must have been keeping track of the number of years by the sacred calendar. They would then have counted either the number of Passovers, or the number of Nisan 1 dates, which had passed since the rebuilding of the Temple itself was completed. Because the Passover is of much greater importance in the Jewish religious calendar than the first day of Nisan, (and easier to mark in oneís memory), they simply counted the number of Passovers since an important event, like the rebuilding of the temple, rather than counting the number of Nisan 1 dates which had passed. In this way, the Jews counted the 46 years, with each Passover marking the completion of a year, and with the first partial year, in effect counting as a full year. Thus, the Jews made a point of stating the number of years. They were speaking during that Passover which was the 46th Passover since the rebuilding.

See chapters 6, 8, and 12 of the book for more on this point.


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