Modern estimates of the year of Jesus’ birth range from 7 to 4 BC. The writers of the second and third centuries, however, consistently dated the event to between 3 and 2 BC, with an outer range of from 4 to 1 BC. Within this range may be cited Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus of Rome, and Eusebius. In particular, three particular dates relative to the reign of Augustus poinpoint a date in 3 or 2 BC:
- According to Clement of Alexandria, Jesus was born in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus’ rule of Egypt. This has to be dated from the battle of Actium, September 2, 31 BC. The Egyptian custom was to count the inaugural year of a ruler’s reign as an accession year, with the next year being “year one.” The Egyptian new year after the battle of Actium fell on August 31, 30 BC. By this reckoning, Augustus’ 28th year as ruler of Egypt would have run from Thot 1 (August 24), 3 BC to Thot 1 (August 24), 2 BC.
- Eusebius states that Jesus was born in the forty-second year of Octavian. (Octavian was only later proclaimed “Augustus” by the Roman Senate.) Octavian and Marc Antony ruled jointly beginning March 17, 44 BC. From this date, forty-two years brings us to a date between March 3 BC and March 2 BC.
- Tertullian and Origen state that Augustus ruled for another fifteen full years after Jesus’ birth. Augustus died August 19, AD 14, which brings us once again to 3–2 BC.
According to Luke 3:1, Jesus began his public ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar. Luke also reports that “he was about thirty years old when he began his work” (Lk 3:23). Tiberius became joint-emperor with Augustus in AD 12 and sole emperor after the death of Augustus in AD 14. His fifteenth year would thus have begun in either AD 26 or AD 28. This would place the birth of Jesus around AD 4-1, with a bit of leeway in either direction to account for Luke’s “about.” In short, this bit of biblical evidence—the only bit of biblical evidence pertinent to the question at hand—is not precise enough help us decide in favor of either an earlier (modern) or a later (patristic) date.
Three main lines of evidence must be untangled to determine the correct year:
- The death of King Herod
- The census
- The star of Bethlehem
In the remainder of this post I’ll address the date of Herod’s death. In subsequent posts I’ll tackle the census and the star of Bethlehem.
The Death of King Herod
Scholars conventionally assume that Herod’s death took place in 4 BC, which thus furnishes the latest possible date for the birth of Jesus. Herod’s three successors seem to have started their reigns in 4 BC, implying that Herod died that year. Furthermore, according to Josephus, Herod died between a lunar eclipse and the Passover following. This eclipse is generally accepted to have occurred on March 13, 4 BC.
The evidence for this date for Herod’s death, however, is not as conclusive as is often assumed. It may, for example, have been that Herod did not die in 4 BC but rather suffered a serious political demotion. After declaring war against the Arabs without Roman permission (a bid to suppress robbers hiding in Arabia), Augustus Caesar condemned Herod and removed from him the title “Friend of Caesar” (amicus Caesaris). He was relegated to the lower status of “subject.” Upon his fall from favor, Herod named his son Antipater as coregent. This immediately creates a potential chronological problem since Herod’s and Antipater’s regnal years overlapped. In the Old Testament, this phenomenon leads to occasional apparent discrepancies as to how long certain kings reigned and when their successors succeeded them.
The closest biblical parallel may be with the reign of king Jotham. Jotham was replaced by his son Ahaz by a pro-Assyrian faction, which caused a number of irregularities in the calculation of their reign-lengths. Sometimes Jotham is granted a reign of 20 years (2 Ki 15:30), which would include the co-regency with Ahaz. At other times, his reign is said to have ended when Ahaz’s began, which cuts his reign-length to 16 (nonaccession) years (2 Ki 15:33). Furthermore, sometimes Ahaz’s reign is calculated from the beginning of his co-regency with Jotham and at other times from the beginning of his sole reign.
But back to Herod and Antipater. It may be that Herod’s reign effectively ended in 4 BC not by his death but his disgrace in the eyes of Rome. Shortly before his death, Herod executed Antipater, and others, in a show of loyalty to Caesar. But this created a problem in political bookkeeping: now the discredited Antipater’s regnal years were no longer valid, but Herod’s effective reign was also long over. His successors may well have later appropriated Antipater’s regnal years into their own reigns. Similar situations can be found in history.
As to the lunar eclipse that was observed shortly before Herod’s death: for centuries this event has been equated with a partial lunar eclipse occurring on March 13, 4 BC. Passover that year fell on April 13. But according to Josephus, there are many events that must have taken place in this 30-day span, including:
- Part of Herod’s body was putrefied and bred worms.
- He took a trip to warm baths 16 km away.
- He ordered all important men in all villages to come (120-130 km).
- His son Antipater is executed; Herod dies 5 days later.
- There is a magnificent funeral, and the body is carried 37 km.
- A seven-day period of mourning, followed by a funeral feast.
- Another mourning period is planned and executed for the patriots killed.
- Only then comes Passover.
It is much more likely that Josephus was referring one of the total eclipses that occurred in 1 BC, the first on January 9 and the second on December 29. Herod therefore must have died in either 1 BC or AD 1. Either of those dates would provide a good two to three months in which all of the recorded events could take place.
Additional lines of evidence tend to favor the eclipse of January 9 as the event connected to the death of Herod. According to Matthew, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt following a dream warning them to escape from Herod’s clutches. Only after the death of Herod did they return to Israel and settle in Nazareth. Although we do not know how soon before the death of Herod Jesus was born, there is no convincing reason to insist that it must have been prior to 4 BC. At any event, the return to Israel would most likely have occurred in the summer of 1 BC.
Conclusion: We have no way of knowing the time span between the birth of Jesus and the death of Herod. Therefore, the higher date range for Jesus’ birth cannot be dismissed solely on the evidence for Herod’s death date. Even so, neither can the lower date range favored by all early writers be dismissed as too late.
Next: The Census