Addressing Some Other Objections to Herod's Death in 4 BC
In Part 1 of this article, we looked at several historical evidences which indicate the death of Herod the Great took place shortly before Passover in 4 BC. They included the practical effects of closing the Mediterranean to sea traffic during the storm-prone winter months from November into early March; the vandalizing of Herod’s golden eagle over the Temple and the resulting trial at Jericho, closely followed by a lunar eclipse; and the fact that all the events involved in the closing weeks of Herod’s life that Josephus reports can be reasonably fit into the period between that eclipse and the Passover in 4 BC.
We now conclude this study of the death date of Herod by looking at a few additional ideas raised by a few commentators against the 4 BC theory: some points raised by Ernest L. Martin regarding the sheloshim mourning period observed by Archelaus in the aftermath of Herod’s death; perceived problems in accounting for the observation of Purim right after the trial at Jericho; and how the reigns of the sons of Herod impact how we view the date of Herod’s death.
The Sheloshim Mourning Period
In addition to his points covered in the previous article, Ernest L. Martin also presented an argument against 4 BC based on the sheloshim, the extended mourning period that followed the basic seven-day shivah. As Douglas Johnson observed (“‘And They Went Eight Stades toward Herodeion,’” Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan, p. 99):
In another futile attempt to overturn the evidence for Herod’s death in 4 B.C., Martin has introduced the issue of sheloshim. He is, unfortunately, confused about this Jewish practice, which cannot be used to argue successfully for a lengthy funeral or mourning period for Herod. Martin is in error when he says, “The twenty-five or so days it required to carry the bier to the Herodian would have taken up most of Sheloshim.” Rather, sheloshim is a thirty-day period of mourning for the dead observed by Jews, containing an initial seven-day period called shivah, “counted from the time of the burial”—not death.
Does this then mean that thirty days of mourning must be fitted between Herod’s burial and the following Passover? Not at all, since Passover always cancels a sheloshim period. “If the shivah had been completed, then the incoming festival canceled the entire sheloshim period.” Josephus’s funeral accounts fit this practice, for he records that Archelaus mourned Herod seven days (shivah), then put an end to mourning (Antiquities 17:200; Jewish War 2:1). Passover immediately followed. Thus, sheloshim is not an issue at all.
To this may be added the information given at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11191-mourning. It all indicates that no real problem exists in fitting the events leading up to the death and funeral of Herod the Great between the eclipse of March 13 and the following Passover. And despite the eclipse being merely partial rather than a full-orbed, magnificent display, and notwithstanding its occurrence soon after midnight instead of the early hours of the evening when more people might view and recall it, the fact that so many indicators support the March 13, 4 BC eclipse as that of Herod’s last days points to the truth of Arthur Conan Doyle’s well-known dictum: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” It is impossible to reconcile the total eclipse candidates of 5 and 1 BC with the way Josephus' details fit smoothly together when taken at face value, and viewed with an acknowledgement of Jewish inclusive time reckoning. The bottom line is this: the late-night partial eclipse of 4 BC must be the right one.
A Problem with Purim?
Martin also spends some time arguing against the March 13, 4 BC date from the perspective of the celebration of Purim. In 4 BC the first day of Purim coincided with March 13, the same date as our eclipse. Not one to eschew hyperbole when it promotes his point, Martin says this is “a difficulty of major proportions” (http://askelm.com/star/star011.htm) for a March 13, 4 BC eclipse; nay, “it is devastating to it.” He asserts there are several reasons why Herod would not have killed the perpetrators of the golden eagle affair on that day, but they ultimately boil down to one key, false premise: that the trial and executions took place fully after sunset on March 13th, so that they were on Adar 14, Purim proper.
Remember, the Jewish days began at sunset, not midnight. If the trial was completed and executions started before sunset on March 12, they would have taken place on Adar 13, the day before Purim. Though the actual burning of the perpetrators may have extended some hours into Purim itself after sunset, who was going to raise a voice of opposition to the determined Herod after the trial ended and the executions began? As for using the Fast of Esther on March 12 as an argument against the trial taking place that day, in a comment at http://www.billheroman.com/2009/11/eclipse-of-purim-4-bc.html, Paul Tanner, citing “The Origin of Ta’anit Esther” by Mitchell First (Association for Jewish Studies Review Vol. 34, No. 2 [Nov. 2010], pp. 309–351), observed that this fast did not become a part of the Jewish calendar until long after the first century. Thus, this supposed “holy day” would have had no impact on the trial on March 12 of 4 BC, nor on the executions that immediately followed it.
The Reigns of the Sons of Herod
Changing gears now, we turn to consider what the reigns of the sons of Herod can tell us about the year he died. W.E. Filmer (“The Chronology of the Reign of Herod the Great,” The Journal of Theological Studies 17.2 [October 1966], pp. 283–298), whose arguments we looked at in detail in the preceding installment in this study, saw support for his 1 BC date for Herod’s death in the chronological details Josephus gave about Herod’s sons. Before making his case, he admitted (p. 296):
One of the chief reasons for supposing that Herod died in 4 B.C. is that his sons who succeeded him appear to have begun their reigns in that year. Thus Archelaus, ruler of Judea and Samaria, was banished in A.D. 6/7 after a reign of ten years; Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, who died in A.D. 39 or 40, reigned, according to coin evidence, forty-three years, while Philip, tetrarch of Iturea, died in the 20th year of Tiberius, A.D. 33/34, after a reign of thirty-seven years.
Absolutely, the plain sense of Josephus does indicate 4 BC was the year Herod’s sons took over from their father, clearly indicating that was the year he died. Andrew E. Steinmann (“When Did Herod the Great Reign,” Novum Testamentum 51 , pp. 1–29), who adopted and elaborates on Filmer’s view, similarly confessed (p. 2):
In addition to these reasons, the reigns of Herod’s sons and successors also appear to indicate that he died in 4 BCE. Archelaus was banished in 6 CE after a reign of ten years over Judea, Samaria and Idumea. Herod Antipas lost the tetrarchy of Galilee and Perea in the second year of Gaius (38/39 CE) after a reign of forty-three years according to numismatic evidence. Herod Philip died in the twentieth year of Tiberius (33/34 CE) after a reign of thirty-seven years over Gaulanitis. All of these point to their taking office in 4 BCE.
Except for the points about Herod Philip, these admissions largely follow from the case presented by Emil Schürer in his classic History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, note 165, pp. 464–467:
The chronology of two successors of Herod, Archelaus and Antipas, requires B.C. 4 = A.U.C. 750, as the year of Herod’s death.
(a) Archelaus. He was, according to Dio Cassius, lv. 27 [55.27.6], deposed by Augustus in the year A.U.C. 759 [AD 6], during the consulship of Aemilius Lepidus and L. Arruntius, in the tenth year of his reign. So also says Josephus in Antiq. xvii.13.2, and in Life, 1, where the earlier statement of the Wars of the Jews, ii. 7. 3, that this occurred “in the ninth year of his reign,” is corrected. Hence his reign began in A.U.C. 750.
(b) Antipas. He was deposed by Caligula in the summer of A.D. 39 = A.U.C. 792 (see under § 17b). Since we still have coins of his bearing date the forty-third year of his reign, the year of the beginning of his reign must at latest have been A.U.C. 750.
All these facts therefore yield this result, that Herod died in the year B.C. 4 = A.U.C. 750, shortly before the Passover (bracketed clarifications added).
That general information should make it clear that the plain sense of Josephus’ records indicates Herod’s sons, Archelaus, Antipater and Philip, all began their reigns in 4 BC after the death of their father that spring. And yet, Filmer and those following him choose to ignore this obvious internal consistency, choosing instead to suppose errors in Josephus and reinterpreting him from that assumption. Therefore, we will now look more closely at some details related to the above summary statements, to better judge if there are objective grounds for their dissent from what Steinmann labels the “Schürer consensus.”
Herod Philip: Beyer and the Alleged 1544 Copy Error
Though not addressed by Schürer for some reason, matters connected with the life of Herod’s son Philip enter significantly into the discussion of when Herod died. One of Filmer’s attacks on a 4 BC death date for Herod centers on the existence of some manuscripts of Antiquities 18.4.6 which, instead of placing the death of Philip in the 20th year of Tiberius, put it in the 22nd year. This two-year difference, in Filmer’s estimate, is evidence in favor of dating Herod’s death to 1 BC.
In his Josephus Reexamined: Unraveling the Twenty-Second Year of Tiberius, David W. Beyer takes this idea and runs with it, asserting that early manuscripts of Antiquities favor the 22nd year reading:
A central argument offered by scholars supporting 4 B.C. as the year of Herod’s death focuses on the dating of his son Philip’s reign. Modem editions of Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews unanimously state that Philip died in the twentieth year of Tiberius, that is, in A.D. 34, after ruling thirty-seven years. Therefore: A.D. 34 - 37 years = 4 B.C.
The logic seems concise and irrefutable. Nevertheless, it is flawed by a contaminated evidentiary source. The discovery of this contamination and its subsequent impact on Herodian chronology is our initial focus here (emphasis original).
Beyer’s criticisms of a 4 BC death for Herod hinge on variant manuscripts of Antiquities 18.4.6, which in Whiston’s edition reads, “About this time it was that Philip, Herod’s brother, departed this life, in the twentieth year of the reign of Tiberius: after he had been tetrarch of Trachonitis, and Gaulanitis, and of the nation of the Bataneans also, thirty seven years.” As James Bradford Pate (http://jamesbradfordpate.blogspot.com/search/label/Date%20of%20Herod’s%20Death) summarizes:
Beyer’s point was that no edition of Josephus (specifically, Antiquities 18.106) prior to 1544 said that Herod Philip died in the twentieth year of Tiberius after a reign of thirty-seven years. Rather, all but three of the pre-1544 editions said that Herod Philip died in the twenty-second year of Tiberius (and I do not know what those three editions said, only that they did not claim that Herod Philip died in the twentieth year of Tiberius) (emphasis original).
This information matters because if, as the accepted text of Antiquities gives it, Philip died in Tiberius’ 20th year—generally taken to be AD 33—and ruled for 37 years, his accession to the tetrarchy took place in 4 BC. This was, of course, the year we have been advocating for Herod’s death. But if Philip instead died in the 22nd year of Tiberius, it throws this synchronization in doubt.
To cut to the chase, Beyer’s criticisms were effectively addressed by Pate at https://jamesbradfordpate.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/the-alleged-1544-copy-error/. In particular, he points out that atheist Richard Carrier leveled a devastating critique at Beyer’s thesis (https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/quirinius.html, the section on “Was Herod Alive in 2 B.C.?”):
Beyer examined only manuscripts in the British Museum and the Library of Congress--yet the best manuscripts are in France and Italy--one of which is the oldest, Codex Ambrosianae F 128, inscribed in the 11th century (the oldest manuscript Beyer examined was 12th century); and another is the most reliable: Codex Vaticanus Graecus 984, transcribed in 1354; both confirming a reading of ‘twentieth,’ and thus invalidating all his conclusions from the start. [A]ll scholarly editions agree: the word for ‘twentieth’ (eikostô) exists in all extant Greek manuscripts worth considering. Where does the reading ‘twenty-second’ come from? A single manuscript tradition of a Latin translation (which reads vicesimo secundo). Beyer’s case completely falls apart here. The Latin translations of Josephus are notoriously inferior, and are never held to be more accurate than extant Greek manuscripts, much less all of them. Indeed, this is well proven here: whereas the Latin has 22 for the year of Tiberius, it also has 32, or even in some editions 35, as the year of Philip, not the 37 that Finegan’s argument requires. Thus, clearly the Latin translator has botched all the numbers in this passage. Any manuscripts that Beyer examined were no doubt either from these inferior Latin manuscripts, or Greek translations from these Latin manuscripts. Therefore, there is no basis whatever for adopting ‘twenty second’ as the correct reading (emphasis original).
The takeaway is that Beyer’s argument against 4 BC as the date of Herod’s death based on considerations connected with Herod Philip is quite unpersuasive. It is ironic that atheist Carrier’s objective is to use careful analysis of Josephus and a text-critical approach to undermine claims for the infallibility of Scripture, which supposedly buttress the 1 BC case. In actuality, however, he is just helping us identify spurious arguments for erroneously dating Herod’s death to 1 BC. Skimming off the dross this way helps the truth rise to the top. The inspiration and infallibility of Scripture are in no way challenged if we discard the 1 BC hypothesis for Herod’s death.
Archelaus and Antipas
Equally weak, asserts Carrier, are efforts like those of Filmer, Steinmann, and Finegan (in his revised edition) to argue against the evidence for Herod’s 4 BC death based on suppositions regarding backdating the reigns of his other two surviving sons. Here is how Carrier addresses this:
For example, it is a fact that all three regnal dates of Herod’s successors match a coronation date of 4 B.C. (§ 516). This includes Archelaus, whose dates are also corroborated by Cassius Dio (55.27.6), and Josephus does not have Archelaus declared king until Herod dies (Jewish War 1.670), but has Archelaus deposed in 6 A.D. after 10 years rule [Ant. 17.13.2] …which also puts Herod’s death in 4 B.C. (or shortly before). And then there is Antipas, whose dates are confirmed in extant coinage, according to Finegan himself. Finegan tries to suggest against this evidence that all three of these kings were made co-regents with Herod in 4 B.C. until his death in 1 B.C., a claim that is groundless and prima facie absurd. With Antipater, that would make five kings ruling simultaneously! It is inconceivable that Josephus would not mention such a remarkable action. Indeed, the political atmosphere of heated tensions and indecision about who would inherit makes such a massive coregency profoundly unthinkable for Herod--his coregency with Antipater (the only one Josephus mentions) was already such a disaster that Herod had him executed a week before he himself died, and the other three were only assigned their territories by Herod’s will and confirmed by Augustus after Herod’s death. Josephus is absolutely clear on this. And it is the only logical way things could have happened (emphasis and bracketed note added).
Incidentally, the Dio 55.27.6 citation, where “Herod” refers to Archelaus, reads:
Herod of Palestine, who was accused by his brothers of some wrongdoing or other, was banished beyond the Alps and a portion of the domain was confiscated to the state.
Dio’s information is presented in yearly fashion, seen in the repeated mention of the consuls in office from time to time. This allows us to confidently date the above information to AD 6—the consulship of Aemilius Lepidus and Lucius Arruntius (as Finegan agrees on page 84 of the revised edition of his Handbook of Biblical Chronology). Thus, we have solid, straightforward evidence attested by multiple ancient sources that in 4 BC, ten inclusively-reckoned years back from AD 6, Archelaus inherited the kingdom according to Herod’s final will written only days before his death:
And now Herod altered his testament, upon the alteration of his mind. For he appointed Antipas, to whom he had before left the Kingdom, to be tetrarch of Galilee and Perea: and granted the Kingdom to Archelaus (Ant. 17.8.1, emphasis added).
If it is only at this late point in his life that Herod “granted the Kingdom to Archaelaus,” who in his previous will had been disinherited just as surely as his brother Philip had been, what excuse is there for engaging in complex reading between the lines to suggest there had been backdating of the reigns of Herod’s sons from 1 BC to 4 BC? Only someone with an agenda to defend would suggest such a thing. And the fact that Archelaus is depicted in Antiquities 17.9.1–3 as urgently pursuing Caesar’s approval for taking over the kingdom, even competing with his brother Antipas (Ant. 17.9.4) for this approval very shortly after Herod’s death, is further evidence against any such coregency manipulations.
As regards Antipas, in a previous article, The First Year of Herod the Great's Reign, it was noted:
It should also be observed that Steinmann deals with coin matters very carefully, pointing to the “year three” notation as evidence Herod dated his reign from his Roman appointment, yet in the case of Herod’s son Antipas going to great pains to argue against the numismatic evidence:
Antipas lost the tetrarchy of Galilee and Perea in the second year of Gaius (38/39 CE) and the latest coins minted under his authority are dated to his forty-third year. This means that he claimed to have begun his reign in 5/4 BCE. Why would Archelaus and Antipas claim to have reigned from 4 BCE if Herod did not die in that year? Is this not proof that Herod must have died in 4 BCE and not 1 BCE? (p. 20).
It would seem so on the surface, but Steinmann then goes on to argue at length (devoting five pages to this), on a conjectural basis with considerable reading between the lines, that Herod actually did not die in 4 BC, and the evidence of the coins is misleading in this case.
This is the coin evidence to which Carrier alludes above. If we approach this data without a bias, surely we must conclude that the prima facie evidence is very strongly in favor of Herod dying in 4 BC.
At http://www.billheroman.com/2012/05/, Bill Heroman quotes footnote 18 from John P. Meier’s famous Historical Jesus series, A Marginal Jew. It is so clear and concise, I want to repeat it here as an appropriate summary of this article:
The attempts by a few historians to prove that Herod the Great died in some other year [than 4 BC] have not met with general acceptance. For example, W. E. Filmer (“The Chronology of the Reign of Herod the Great,” JTS 17  283–98) uses contorted arguments in an attempt to establish that Herod died instead in 1 B.C. As Timothy D. Barnes points out very well (“The Date of Herod’s Death”, JTS 19  204–9), Filmer’s thesis collides with two major pieces of evidence: (1) Herod’s successors all reckoned their reigns as beginning in 5–4 B.C. (2) The synchronisms with events datable in the wider context of the history of the Roman Empire—synchronisms made possible by Josephus’ narrative of the circumstances attending Herod’s death—make 1 B.C. almost impossible to sustain. Barnes goes on to suggest that perhaps December of 5 B.C. may be a better candidate for the date of Herod’s death than March/April of 4 B.C. As is the case with other alternatives, this innovation has not met with general approval.
The question of Herod’s death is taken up once more in a number of essays in the Chronos, Kairos, Christos volume edited by Verdaman [sic] and Yamauchi. Ernest L. Martin (“The Nativity and Herod’s Death,” 85–92) revives the theory that Herod died in 1 B.C., with Jesus’ birth placed in 3 or 2 B.C. This does not receive support from the other contributors to the volume who address the same issue. Douglas Johnson (“‘And They Went Eight Stades Towards Herodeion,’” 93–99) defends the traditional date of 4 B.C. for Herod’s death, pointing out that Martin has mistranslated a key text concerning Herod’s funeral in Ant. 17.8.3 §199. Harold W. Hoehner (“The Date of the Death of Herod the Great,” 101–11) likewise champions 4 B.C. Paul L. Maier (“The Date of the Nativity and the Chronology of Jesus’ Life,” 113–30) adds still another voice in favor of 4 B.C.... All in all, the scattered attempts to undermine 4 B.C. as the year of Herod’s death must be pronounced a failure (emphasis and bracketed clarification added).
In taking on this study of the ramifications of Herod’s regnal years and death date, a great deal of material, both online and in print, has been consulted. There were also discussions with friends who hold to the Filmer/Steinmann/Finegan/Martin position, and this “iron sharpens iron” experience challenged me to very carefully examine the evidence they believe supports the position that Herod died in 1 BC. I am grateful for the resources they brought to my attention and generously shared with me, for otherwise these articles could not have been written. But in the end, the accumulating data and my detail-focused analysis of it forced me to disagree with their position.
For the reasons set forth in this and the preceding articles, then, the conclusion is that only a 4 BC date for Herod the Great’s death, following a de facto reign that began in 37 BC after the death of Antigonus and lasted for 34 inclusively-counted years, accommodates all of the evidence and does not involve adopting a hyper-skeptical view of the data given by Josephus. And since the birth of Christ appears to have preceded the onset of Herod's last illness, accounting for the age of the slaughtered infants of Bethlehem carries with it certain implications, which we plan to look at next month.
Our goal all along has been to work towards a defensible case for the literal fulfillment of the prophecy in Daniel 9:24–27. As will be made clear subsequently, for all the details of this prophecy to fit together, a very specific year for the revealing of the Messiah, the Anointed One, is required. By establishing 4 BC as the year of Herod’s death, an AD 33 Crucifixion is shown to be unrealistic, while AD 30 fits very well. A close examination of Scripture itself indicates only an AD 30 Crucifixion date comports with the data given in Acts and Galatians. In turn, an AD 30 Crucifixion supports an AD 27 date for Christ’s baptism by John, followed by the start of His public ministry in early AD 28. The interconnections of the various events are such that if even one does not line up with the rest, the prophecy is hard to defend to a skeptical mind.
But praise God, the details do line up! In future articles in this series we will continue back before Herod’s time, showing how further details demonstrate God’s superintending power and wisdom showcased in the prophecy of Daniel 9:24–27. And God willing, we hope to eventually examine aspects of Daniel’s centuries-spanning prophecy that still remain to be fulfilled.