To tackle the life and death of Herod the Great using the writings of Josephus is to enter a morass of scholarly conjectures, an undertaking beset at times by blatant reading between the lines by academics to justify their pet theories. Nonetheless, some examination of Josephus’ Antiquities must be done, since Scripture itself gives us very little datable information about Herod. In doing my own examination of Antiquities and related extrabiblical histories, I hope to avoid the sort of speculation I fault in others. The reader must judge if I have succeeded.
This article will mainly examine what John 2:12–21 says about the 46 years Herod’s temple had been under construction as of the first Passover of Jesus’ public ministry, bringing in as needed reasons to assign the beginning of the reign of Herod to the traditional date of 37 BC, rather than the 36 BC date some researchers have recently promoted. The sheer volume of material will not permit us to investigate here the date of Herod’s death; I hope to cover this, in the detail it deserves, in a future article.
First, a word about my general approach. In the course of my research I discovered that, even among those who agree with me that an AD 30 Crucifixion best accommodates the diverse data bearing on the question, there are many different opinions out there about which inputs are most valuable. Different researchers may emphasize and/or interpret details in different ways, yet still arrive at the same final destination, just getting there by different routes. Some take into account information from coins, others ignore it. A 3-1/2 year ministry for Jesus is taken as a given by some, requiring an earlier baptism date for Christ than a 2-1/2 year ministry requires. Data derived from Josephus or other classical historians is viewed with various degrees of acceptance or skepticism. There are other inputs as well, these are just a sampling.
In tackling this study, I have brought together contributions from many sources into a hybrid of my own. I have a higher regard for certain types of data than others, and therefore leave unmentioned some forms of evidence which a truly comprehensive examination would be obliged to cover. For example, I purposely ignore evidence from numismatics, deeming it nonessential to making my points, and tending to clutter the case with inconsequential minutiae. Information from ancient historians is a mixed bag; on the whole, Josephus’ Antiquities seems to be solid because it is largely self-consistent, so I focus nearly exclusively on it. (It is not error-free, though; for example, I believe he erred in assigning Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ temple desecration to Kislev 25, 167 BC, whereas 1 Maccabees puts it on Kislev 15 of the same year; it makes a difference when understanding the 2300 “evenings and mornings” of Daniel, discussed in an earlier article.) So, I will pay the most attention to Antiquities when citing an extrabiblical source for establishing dates. Though it may seem I have over-weighted this study with Internet resources, they include citations from scholarly volumes which others can check as desired. And of course, the text of Scripture itself will be my go-to source for making critical points.
There is one other point to make before getting this study underway. I am sharply aware that some scholars, beginning with W.E. Filmer in 1966 (“The Chronology of the Reign of Herod the Great,” Journal of Theological Studies, pp. 283–298), and more recently including Andrew E. Steinmann (“When Did Herod the Great Reign?” Novum Testamentum 51 , 1–29), Ernest L. Martin, and others, have rejected the conclusions laid out below—what Steinmann labels the “Schürer Consensus”—and chosen, for what I regard as dubious reasons, to date the start of Herod’s reign to 36 BC. They also reject the consensus for the death date of Herod, 4 BC, in favor of a 1 BC date—likely because it is more in keeping with the AD 33 Crucifixion they endorse. I considered approaching this study as a detailed negative critique of these scholars’ meandering intellectual journeys through varied classical histories, but in the end concluded that making a positive case from the Bible and the plain sense of Antiquities was the best approach. If the case for the traditional dates of Herod’s reign is as strong as I think it is, its merits will be apparent, and there will be no need to attack the work of others in order to support it.
The Forty-Six Years the Temple was “A-Building”
We will begin by letting the Scriptures speak. Unlike many scholars we will not start with extrabiblical records, since they are not inspired by God. We read the account of the apostle in John 2:12–21 (NASB, with notes in brackets):
12 After this [the wedding at Cana] He went down to Capernaum, He and His mother and His brothers and His disciples; and they stayed there a few days.
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
14 And He found in the temple [hieros] those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.
15 And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple [hieros], with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables;
16 and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father's house [oikos] a place of business.”
17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE [oikos] WILL CONSUME ME.”
18 The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple [naós], and in three days I will raise it up.”
20 The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple [naós], and will You raise it up in three days?”
21 But He was speaking of the temple [naós] of His body.
What Exactly was the “Temple”?
It will be noticed that two different Greek terms lie behind the word “temple” in this passage. The word naós is defined in the online Strong’s Concordance (G3485) (it can be accessed on BlueLetterBible.org) as “used of the temple at Jerusalem, but only of the sacred edifice (or sanctuary) itself, consisting of the Holy place [sic] and the Holy of Holies (in classical Greek it is used of the sanctuary or cell of the temple, where the image of the god was placed which is distinguished from the whole enclosure)” (emphasis added). On the other hand, hieros is defined by Strong’s (G2413) as “sacred, consecrated to the deity, pertaining to God.” It views the word as having a more general reference beyond just the inner sanctuary, one that encompassed the entire temple complex.
Strong’s, however, though very accessible and useful to many, is not exactly a respected source for scholars. We do well to check a “real” lexicon to see if it upholds Strong’s insistence that naós “only” refers to “the sacred edifice (or sanctuary) itself.” I have at hand a copy of the slightly-dated but still very useful second edition of Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (“BAG”). Rather than drawing a hard line between naós and hieron, this authority notes (p. 533) that naós can also refer to “the whole temple precinct,” and references John 2:20 as an example.
Notwithstanding this cautionary note, however, J. Dwight Pentecost and others have attempted to parse the word “temple” in this passage so as to minimize its implications regarding the date of the Crucifixion. They do this by asserting that the 46 years it specifies refers only to the years that had passed since the edifice, narrowly defined as Strong’s does—the holy place and the holy of holies, to which access was restricted to the priests—had been redone by Herod. Ron Wallace, cited last month for his blog comments (http://www.biblefragrances.com/studies/tiberius.html) about the 15th year of Tiberius, also quoted Pentecost’s opinion about the 46 years of building the temple:
“[Josef] Blinzler feels that A.D. 28 as marking the commencement of Christ's ministry is substantiated by John 2:20 where the Jews state that the temple had been in continuous construction for forty-six years since Herod began to build it in 20/19 B.C. But the Jews are talking about the temple edifice…which was completed in 18/17 B.C. as having stood for forty-six years, that is, the Passover of A.D. 30, rather than the temple precincts…which were still in the building process” (Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ, p. 578, emphasis added).
Pentecost apparently wishes to use a specific interpretation of the temple building time to support placing the Crucifixion in AD 33. Thus, he narrowly defines “temple” to refer only to the refurbishing of the holy place and holy of holies (the naós, technically speaking), which was completed by 18/17 BC (assuming construction began in the fall of 20 BC). So the question before us is, does his assertion that the Jews were only talking about the temple edifice hold up to scrutiny? Was BAG mistaken?
Let us seek clarity by going now to Josephus. He tells us in Antiquities 15.11.1 (Whiston translation from the Greek):
And now Herod, in the eighteenth year of his reign [counted inclusively from the death of Antigonus], and after the acts already mentioned, undertook a very great work; that is to build of himself the temple [neon] of God, and make it larger in compass, and to raise it to a most magnificent altitude: as esteeming it to be the most glorious of all his actions, as it really was, to bring it to perfection; and that this would be sufficient for an everlasting memorial of him… “Our fathers, indeed, when they were returned from Babylon, built this temple [naòn] to God Almighty, yet does it want sixty cubits of its largeness in altitude; for so much did that first temple which Solomon built exceed this temple; nor let any one condemn our fathers for their negligence or want of piety herein, for it was not their fault that the temple [naós] was no higher; for they were Cyrus, and Darius the son of Hystaspes, who determined the measures for its rebuilding; and it hath been by reason of the subjection of those fathers of ours to them and to their posterity, and after them to the Macedonians, that they had not the opportunity to follow the original model of this pious edifice, nor could raise it to its ancient altitude; but since I am now, by God's will, your governor, and I have had peace a long time, and have gained great riches and large revenues, and, what is the principal filing of all, I am at amity with and well regarded by the Romans, who, if I may so say, are the rulers of the whole world, I will do my endeavor to correct that imperfection…” [bracketed comments and emphasis added].
We see that Herod’s stated objective was to broaden (“make it larger in compass”) and increase in height the naós—the temple proper, the holy areas reserved for the priests—to its original Solomonic grandeur. The work began, as stated, in the 18th year of his reign (we will look more closely at this later). Antiquities goes on to note (15.11.6) that “the temple [naou] itself was built by the priests in a year and six months.” “By the priests” is a hint that the naós referred to here, which Pentecost latches onto as justification for his interpretation, is restricted to the holy place/holy of holies. Only priests specially trained in construction techniques were permitted to work in this area, not laymen. It is possible that the only work they did during that short time was on the immediate area around the holy of holies rather than on the holy place containing it, but there is not enough information to make that judgment.
However, our concern is with what the Scriptures mean, not Josephus. Was the naós indeed the limited focus of the whole John 2:12–21 passage, particularly the mentioned 46 years, as Pentecost contended? Many scholars disagree. Wallace cites several:
Merrill F. Unger writes of Herod’s temple in ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT, page 99. “This magnificent enterprise was begun in 20–19 B.C., and although the sanctuary proper was finished in a year and half, the larger plan envisioned by the monarch was not completed until A.D. 64. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees declared that the temple already had been in the process of construction for forty-six years (John 2:20).”
J.W. Shepard in his classic THE CHRIST OF THE GOSPELS, translates John 2:20 as "Forty-six years this temple was abuilding and will you raise it up in three days?” (p. 95, emphasis added).
A.T. Robertson confirms, “As a matter of fact, it was not yet finished, so distrustful had the Jews been of Herod.” (WORD PICTURES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, The Fourth Gospel, verse 2:20).
I find these and the other comments given by Wallace persuasive. Shepard’s translation accounts particularly well for the aorist tense used, giving the sense of a past action of unspecified duration—even still ongoing. This is why Wallace, citing Unger, Shepard and Robertson, emphasized that the temple had been in the process of construction (and was still unfinished) for 46 years. This is the understanding conveyed by other translations of John 2:20:
KJV: “Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?”
RSV: “The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’”
ASV: “The Jews therefore said, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou raise it up in three days?”
Context, Context, Context
In real estate, the aphorism for finding a valuable building or piece of land is “location, location, location.” In hermeneutics, the key to properly interpreting a passage is “context, context, context.” In the end, whatever meaning we assign to naós, it must be consistent with the immediate context in John 2. Look closely at verse 20 again: “The Jews then said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this temple [naós], and will You raise it up in three days?’” If they were indeed restricting their focus only to the edifice of the holy place, we would have expected them to say, “It took a year and a half to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But that is not what they said. Their reply encompassed much more than the time required for the corps of priestly stonemasons to do their job. In this context, I believe it is clear that the Jews were using the part to represent the whole—a figure of speech that grammarians term a synecdoche. As John clarifies in 2:21, Jesus used “naós” to refer to His body in a prophetic foreshadowing of His resurrection after three days. But His hearers could not grasp that meaning. They instead latched onto the word Christ used of Himself, naós, and incredulously threw it back at Him, but with a broader meaning taking account of the entire temple complex. It is the context that gives this broader meaning, not the strict dictionary definition of the word Strong’s limits itself to. Jesus opened the door for the Jews to adopt this broader meaning by calling the sacred precinct not by its technical term, hieron, but instead calling it “the house of God.” This encompassed both the hieron and the naós.
Reading through the entire passage, the focus began on the hieron, the sacred precinct which included all areas open to the public. It is this area of the temple where Jesus took His stand, making a scourge of cords and proceeding to wreak havoc among the commercial interests gathered there. And now, note how He refers to this area: He calls it “God’s house (oikos).” This was a blanket term not only applied to the publicly-accessible areas of the hieron, but encompassing the naós as well. For surely, if the public areas where the sellers plied their wares could be called the “house of God,” much more did the holiest areas qualify! Consistent with this understanding is what Wikipedia observes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple):
In Judaism, the ancient Hebrew texts refer not to temples, the word having not existed yet, but to a “sanctuary,” “palace” or “hall.” Each of the two ancient temples in Jerusalem was called in the Tanakh Beit YHWH, which translates literally as “YHWH’s House.”
It is this understanding that Jesus clearly has in mind. To Him the temple as a whole, both the naós and its surrounding public courtyards, constituted the house of God. He had a wider view of the term, and His hearers adopted it in their scornful response. Therefore, we conclude that John 2:20 should be understood as teaching that, at the time of His first Passover after being anointed by the Holy Spirit when John baptized Him, the temple work begun in Herod’s 18th year had begun 46 years previously, and was still in process.
Before moving on, I wish to draw the reader’s attention to a notable quotation from the Pulpit Commentary at http://biblehub.com/john/2-20.htm:
In forty and six years was this temple built as we see it today. This is one of the most important chronological data for the life of our Lord. Herod the Great, according to Josephus (‘Ant.,’ 15:11 1), commenced the rebuilding of the second temple in the autumn of the eighteenth year of his reign. We find that his first year reckoned from Nisan, A.U.C. 717–718 [37 BC]. Consequently, the eighteenth year must have commenced between Nisan, A.U.C. 734–735 [20 BC] and 735–736 [19 BC]. The forty-sixth year after this would make the Passover at which this speech was delivered—the spring of A.U.C. 781 [AD 28] (Wieseler, ‘Chronicles [sic] Synopsis of the Four Gospels,’ translation; and Herzog, ‘Encyc.,’ 21:546) [bracketed comments added].
The spring of AD 28 just happens to be the year this study already identified, for other reasons, as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, following His baptism by John in the latter half of AD 27. This unsought correlation indicates that, since others have seen the same things, we are that much more likely to be on the right track.
How Do You Reckon?
Let us now dig down into the study by first clarifying some general dating issues. Calendar-related matters in Josephus are somewhat complicated. One might think a New Year would begin on what was regarded as the first month, but not so. Here is the numerical order of the lunar-based months of the Jewish calendar:
1 - Sevat (Jan/Feb)
2 - Adar (Feb/Mar)
3 - Nisan (Mar/Apr)
4 - Iyyar (Apr/May)
5 - Sivan (May/Jun)
6 - Tammuz (Jun/Jul)
7 - Av Jul/Aug)
8 - Elul (Aug/Sep)
9 - Tishri (Sep/Oct)
10 - Heshvan (Oct/Nov)
11 - Kislev (Nov/Dec)
12 - Tevet (Dec/Jan)
Each Jewish month covered a range of our months because, being tied to the phases of the Moon, it varied somewhat year-to-year. There were two main calendars used by the Jews. One was the civil calendar, with its New Year set to the first of Tishri in the fall. This calendar dealt with most agricultural matters, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years when the land was to lie fallow, and the reigns of foreign kings. The other, of greater importance to Josephus, was the ecclesiastical calendar, with its New Year on the first of Nisan in the spring. As the Mishnah—the compilation of Jewish oral law—teaches, Nisan reckoning was tied closely to the Jewish religious festivals, and also used for incrementing the passing years of the reigns of Jewish kings, which would have included Herod the Great:
On the first of Nissan is the [cut off date for the] New Year regarding [the count of the reigns of the Jewish] kings [which was used to date legal documents. If a king began his reign in Adar even if was only for one day that is considered his first year, and from the first of Nissan is considered his second year…]” (http://www.emishnah.com/moed2/Rosh_HaShanah/1.pdf, brackets original, emphasis added).
Thus, we see that the reigns of Jewish kings were reckoned on a spring-to-spring basis, incremented with the passing of each New Year on Nisan 1. In addition, the start date of a king’s reign was always reckoned as belonging to Year 1 of his reign, even if it only preceded Nisan 1 by a single day. This is the essence of inclusive reckoning: a part of a year is deemed to be a whole year for counting purposes. That this policy is enshrined in the Mishnah is strong reason to presume it applies to the reign of Herod.
Moreover, Josephus specifically tells us, in multiple places in Antiquities, that he himself viewed Nisan as the first month of the year:
Antiquities 1.3.3 – “But Moses appointed that Nisan, which is the same with Xanthicus [the Macedonian calendar name for the month], should be the first month, for their festivals; because he brought them out of Egypt in that month. So that this Month began the year, as to all the solemnities [sacred festivals like Passover] they observed to the honour of God: although he preserved the original order of the months [that is, by Tishri (fall-to-fall) reckoning, where the year begins with Rosh Hashanah] as to selling and buying, and other ordinary affairs” (bracketed comments added).
Antiquities 3.10.5 – “But in the month of Xanthicus; which is by us called Nisan, and is the beginning of our year.”
Antiquities 11.4.8 – “And as the feast of unleavened bread was at hand, in the first month; which according to the Macedonians is called Xanthicus; but according to us, Nisan.”
Therefore, in the sections of Josephus we are investigating, we can confidently expect the reigns of Jewish rulers will follow Nisan-based dating. Inclusive reckoning of time periods was part and parcel with this.
Roman emperors, in contrast to Jewish rulers, appear to have had their reigns measured from their actual dates of accession, rather than measured in reference to a default New Year’s date. Thus, Tiberius’ first official Roman year began with his Senate approval on September 18, AD 14, and each succeeding year was incremented on that anniverary.
The Roman consuls of record, however—the “ordinary” consuls—were reckoned as taking office at the start of each year. In this regard Wikipedia notes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_consul):
If a consul died during his term (not uncommon when consuls were in the forefront of battle) or was removed from office, another would be elected by the Comitia Centuriata to serve the remainder of the term as consul suffectus (suffect consul). A consul elected to start the year—called a consul ordinarius (ordinary consul)—held more prestige than a suffect consul, partly because the year would be named for ordinary consuls (emphasis added).
That the year was named for the ordinary consuls of that year explains why Josephus repeatedly mentions their names when providing dates. This detail was not simply a matter of political interest, but had specific pertinence to Roman dating conventions. The Wikipedia article also adds under “Consular Dating,”
Roman dates were customarily kept according to the names of the two consuls who took office that year, much like a regnal year in a monarchy. For instance, the year 59 BC in the modern calendar was called by the Romans “the consulship of Caesar and Bibulus”, since the two colleagues in the consulship were Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus…. The date the consuls took office varied: from 222 BC to 153 BC they took office 15 March, and from 153 BC onwards it was on 1 January.
Besides the Julian calendar, implemented by decree in 45 BC and having its New Year on January 1, there were other calendars used by the Romans. Olympiads, periods of four years, were an inheritance from the Greeks that were used frequently by classical historians, including Josephus. Each was divided into four one-year subdivisions, which ran from July 1 to June 30. The first olympiad spanned 776 to 772 BC. Then there were the AUC years. The acronym stands for ab urbe condita—alternatively, anno urbis conditae—signifying the number of years since Rome was founded. It was the usual way of expressing dates in the classical period, where each year was reckoned as beginning on our April 21st.
Inclusive or Non-Inclusive Counting?
Besides the need to account for varying calendars, matters were further complicated by having to determine whether inclusive or non-inclusive counting was followed. The evidence, as seen in the Mishnah, indicates that the Jews normally used inclusive reckoning. In an earlier study of this series we saw that Scripture itself uses it, notably in reference to the sabbatical years (see also the example of Cornelius in Acts 10, given at the end of this article). Kenneth Frank Doig (New Testament Chronology, http://www.nowoezone.com/NTC04.html) analyzed Josephus’ records and concluded:
Josephus reckoned the reigns of kings according to the Jewish Second Temple calendar that began in the spring. Scripture records that this occurred, “in the first month, which is the month Nisan” (Esther 3:7). This calendar continued in use and is preserved in second century CE Jewish oral tradition in the Mishna, which states, “on the first of Nisan is a new year for the computation of the reigns of kings, and for festivals” (Rosh Hashanah 1:1). Josephus did not use the Jewish civil calendar [with the New Year starting in Tishri] or the local Syro-Macedonian calendar, both of which began the year in the fall. For the Herodian rulers, or “kings,” he used inclusive, or non-accession reckoning. The Babylonian Talmud supports this: “If a king ascended to the throne on the twenty-ninth of Adar, as soon as the first of Nisan arrives he is reckoned to have reigned a year” (Rosh Hashanah 2a). He counted the first year of a reign as year one and any part of the first and last year as a complete year. He appears to have maintained this reckoning without regard to other local calendar systems or how these rulers actually recorded their own reign. Josephus used inclusive reckoning from Nisan [bracketed comments and emphasis added].
As valuable as this Mishnaic information is, though, we have to ask: What about Josephus? Can it be shown from his own writings that he himself followed inclusive dating practices?
A Contribution by Schürer
In the late 1800s, pioneering chronologist Emil Schürer published his five-volume masterwork, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ. That work set forth what was to be, for about 100 years, the standard understanding that Herod’s de facto (“in fact”) reign over Judea spanned 37 to 4 BC. His de jure (“in law”) start date, as reckoned by the Romans, was assigned to 40 BC (Ant. 14.14.5, “And thus did this man receive the Kingdom; having obtained it on the hundred eighty fourth olympiad; when Caius Domitius Calvinus was consul the second time; and Caius Asinius Pollio [the first time].”) We are not appealing to Schürer here as an authority to validate the dating in this study (that would assume what must first be demonstrated), but as a tool for analyzing Josephus. Schürer’s lengthy note 165, on pages 464–467 of Vol. 1, Div. 1 in his 1890 second edition (online at https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044023360308), presents logical evidence that Josephus did indeed use inclusive reckoning:
Herod died shortly before a Passover (Antiq. xvii.9.3; Wars of the Jews, ii.1.3), therefore in March or April. Since Josephus says that he reigned thirty-seven years from the date of his appointment [by the Romans], thirty-four years from his conquest of Jerusalem (Antiq. xvii.8.1; Wars of the Jews, i.33.8), it would seem as if, counting thirty-seven years from the year B.C. 40, he must have died in B.C. 3. But we know that Josephus elsewhere counts a year too much [i.e., he counts inclusively], according to our [non-inclusive] reckoning. Thus he counts from the conquest of Jerusalem by Pompey [63 BC] to that by Herod twenty-seven years (Antiq. xiv.16.4), whereas the true number is twenty–six (B.C. 63–B.C. 37) [counting non-inclusively]. Again, from the conquest of Herod [37 BC] down to that by Titus [AD 70] he counts 107 years [with no year 0] (Antiq. xx.10), whereas there were only 106 (A.U.C. 717–A.U.C. 823). He reckons the spring of B.C. 31 the seventh year of Herod (Antiq. xv.5.2; Wars of the Jews, i.19.3), whereas it was only the sixth year (his reign beginning with July B.C. 37). The reason of this is that he counts portions of a year as a year... [i.e., he counts inclusively! Bracketed comments and emphasis added].
Let us now look closely at the references from Antiquities cited by Schürer.
Twenty-Seven Years from Pompey to Herod
Antiquities 14.16.4: “This destruction befel the city of Jerusalem when Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus were consuls of Rome; on the hundred eighty and fifth olympiad; on the third month; on the solemnity of the fast. As if a periodical revolution of calamities had returned, since that which befel the Jews under Pompey. For the Jews were taken by him on the same day; and this was after twenty seven years time” [emphasis added].
This reference contributes a consular date unambiguously locked to 37 BC. Moreover, it is double-dated to the 185th olympiad; the latter half (Jan-Jun) of its third year and first half (Jul-Dec) of its fourth year line up with 37 BC as well. The “third month” refers to the Jewish month Sivan (May/June) as counted from Nisan. The nature of the fast is an interesting question on its own, with a variety of answers proposed (the one I like best is that it refers simply to the Sabbath day, following Dio Cassius 37.16.4 and the discussion at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12264-pompey-the-great), but it lies outside the scope of this study. The takeaway is that every detail in this passage indicates Herod became de facto king of Judea in 37 BC.
107 Years before the Temple Fell
Antiquities 20.10.1: “Accordingly the number of the High Priests, from the days of Herod, until the day when Titus took the temple, and the city, and burnt them, were in all twenty eight. The time also that belonged to them was an hundred and seven years” [emphasis added].
Counting back 107 years inclusively from the sack of the temple in AD 70 brings one, once again, to 37 BC. (As an aside, the number of high priests specified by Josephus is also supported by the lists at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-20.html#EndNote_Ant_20.20b and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_High_Priests_of_Israel. These lists differ only in that Wikipedia also mentions that Ananelus, Joazar ben Boethus, and Jonathan ben Ananus had short periods of restoration, a detail ignored in the margin note in Antiquities.)
The Seventh Year of Herod
Antiquities 15.5.2: “At this time it was, that the fight happened at Actium, between Octavius Cesar and Antony; in the seventh year of the reign of Herod” [emphasis added].
Here we have a universally accepted date solidly anchored in history in the Battle of Actium, when Octavian defeated Antony’s naval forces and cemented his sole rule over the Romans. This is known from multiple Roman historians to have taken place on September 2, 31 BC. Taking 31 BC as the seventh year of Herod, by inclusive reckoning, makes 37 BC his first year yet again.
Others have written about further considerations connected with Actium that reinforce the 37 BC determination for Herod’s first year. Someone named Alexander Frazier posted the following pithy comment in the “Add Your Comments” area on the Biblical Archaeology Review website (https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/herods-death-jesus-birth-and-a-lunar-eclipse/) on March 18, 2018:
Despite any counting methods that may be employed by various authors, whether Nisan to Nisan, Tishri to Tishri, or even January to January, it holds true nonetheless that if the spring of 31 BCE is his seventh year, then the spring of 32 BCE is his sixth year, the spring of 33 BCE is his fifth year, and so on, making the spring of 37 BCE his first year [emphasis added].
Another researcher, Bob Pickle, has a special focus on the sabbatical year cycles. He points out on his website (http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years-more.htm#5):
Some scholars other than Wacholder [i.e., Filmer and those who follow him] would like to have Herod conquer Jerusalem in 36 BC instead, yet this is not possible. Twice Josephus informs us that the Battle of Actium (summer of 31 BC) occurred in the seventh year of Herod's reign (Antiq., bk. 15, ch. 5, sect. 2; Wars, bk. 1, ch. 19, sect. 3). If he took Jerusalem in 36 BC, then 31 BC would have been his sixth year by non-accession-year [inclusive] reckoning, not his seventh year. So the data Josephus gives us regarding the Battle of Actium mandates that Herod's taking of Jerusalem be in 37 BC, not in 36 BC [bracketed comments added].
In passing I will note that the sabbatical year determinations published by Benedict Zuckermann match up perfectly, from the time of Ezra on, with the results of my own independent study of Daniel 9. A chart of Zuckermann’s dates can be found at http://www.pickle-publishing.com/papers/sabbatical-years-table.htm.
The Eighteenth Year of Herod
In a roundabout way, this brings us back to considering the 46 years the temple was said to be “a-building” by the Jews in John 2:12–21. We have first established solid reasons, based on multiple converging lines of evidence, to regard 37 BC as the beginning of Herod’s reign, with 31 BC as his seventh. The same inclusive dating method used earlier makes the spring of 20 BC the start of Herod’s 18th year. Construction of Herod’s temple began in the fall of 20 BC (a conclusion indicated by the timeline seen in Antiquities 15—see also Pulpit Commentary, cited earlier).
However, in contrast to the normal method of counting inclusively, in this case we are looking at elapsed time. For us to say the temple had been “a-building” for 46 years, we must count the passing years not inclusively, but non-inclusively, like counting birthdays—in other words, we need to look back over 46 already-completed years of construction. We basically want to know when the temple became 46 years old. We are not dealing here with the reign of a king, where the conventions expect inclusive dating from Nisan, but with elapsed time after an event. This means year 1 of the count begins with the fall of 19 BC, after the first anniversary of the start of construction had passed, and continues through the spring of 18 BC. To this we add 45 additional years (with no year 0). This brings us to the spring of AD 28—the 46th year counted non-inclusively, which began the fall of AD 27—the year our previous studies indicated that Christ began His public ministry, and when he cleansed the temple near Passover. The analysis is a bit complex, but I have been over this multiple times, and it seems to fit; the chart below may help. Non-inclusive counting of elapsed time seems to be the key.
“An Hundred, Twenty and Six Years”
In addition to the previous three examples of inclusive dating Schürer described in Josephus, we can mention another detail found near the end of Antiquities 14.16.4 that points to 37 BC as the beginning of his actual reign: “And thus [after Herod had Antigonus, the last of the Hasmonean dynasty, put to death by Antony] did the government of the Asamoneans cease; an hundred, twenty and six years after it was first set up.”
This statement is kind of tricky to figure out. If we assume Herod put Antigonus to death just after he took Jerusalem, then using the 37 BC date for the start of Herod’s reign, counting inclusively 126 years back in time takes us to 162 BC. History knows nothing of note for that year. What about if non-inclusive reckoning is used, and Josephus, as in the case of the 46 years of the temple’s construction, was dealing with elapsed time? In that case, 37 BC counts back to 163 BC. In the spring of that year, Antiochus IV Epiphanes died in Persia, vacating the Seleucid kingship over Judea (his death is given in 1 Maccabees 6:16 as the last half of the year 149 of the Seleucid Era, matching with the first half of 163 BC).
My suggestion, therefore, is that Josephus’ words, “after it was first set up,” signify that he is here counting elapsed time non-inclusively from an event, as we do today: i.e., 163 BC-126 years=37 BC. He is counting the passing of actual years in reference to an event. The word “after” almost seems to be a signal to look at what follows as a non-inclusive count of elapsed time. Understood this way, the 126 years from the spring of 163 BC takes us to the spring of 37 BC. This end date fits perfectly with the three examples given by Schurer previously, increasing our confidence in this approach.
We will have other occasions in the future to put this idea—that elapsed time is reckoned non-inclusively—to the test. In particular, it seems to be the way we must deal with counting the 70 years of the Babylonian exile. The Talmud Mas Arachin 12a validates this approach: “What you must therefore say is that [the counting] excludes the year in which they were exiled.” So the start of the 70-year count—elapsed time—is the year after the exile began.
A Succinct Summary
A succinct summary of the case presented above was given by “Alexander,” cited earlier in reference to the seventh year of Herod. He lists many original source references for the “irrefutable facts” he cites for establishing the start date of Herod’s reign in 37 BC. I highly recommend all who are really interested in this subject to read his comments and check his references. Leaving most of those references out for brevity, here is the case he makes:
We know that Herod traveled to Samosata in 38 BCE to aid Antony in his campaign against Antiochus....Once Antiochus surrendered, Herod returned to Judaea that same year, arriving in the winter of 38/37 BCE (Joseph AJ 14.447, 461; Joseph BJ 1.321). He began his siege of Jerusalem shortly thereafter, in the month of Shebat, as soon as the rigor of winter had passed (Joseph AJ 14.465-466). Jerusalem was then taken in Sivan, the third month of the Jewish ecclesiastical year, in late spring of 37 BCE (knowing that the five-month siege of Jerusalem ended in “the third month” of 37 BCE, or Sivan, this siege began at some point in Shebat of 37 BCE)….
We can further determine by this information that Herod’s reign from the time the Romans declared him king is counted from Nisan to Nisan in the spring. His fourth year of this enumeration has to coincide with his first year from his conquest of Jerusalem, which we know deduces to the spring of 37 BCE. Since the winter preceding the siege of Jerusalem in Shebat of 37 BCE is stated as his third year from his Roman appointment (Joseph AJ 14.465), and it was his fourth year in Sivan of 37 BCE at the conclusion of the siege according to the regnal parallel, we can say with confidence that the transition from one regnal year to the next occurred in the spring. And with Herod’s fourth year from the time the Romans declared him king established as beginning in the spring of 37 BCE, his first year, by deduction, is counted from 40 BCE, reckoned ex post facto to the spring of that year.
These facts are in perfect agreement with Josephus, who tells us that Herod was made king by the Romans in [August of] 40 BCE, during the 184th Olympiad, when Caius Domithis Calvinus was consul for the second time and Caius Asinius Pollio the first time (Joseph AJ 14.389), and that Herod then captured Jerusalem in June of 37 BCE, during the 185th Olympiad, when Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus were consuls (Joseph AJ 14.487-488, 14.66), which was twenty-seven years, inclusively, from the time that Pompey captured Jerusalem in June of 63 BCE, during the 179th Olympiad, when Caius Antonius and Marcus Tullius Cicero were consuls.
By these facts, the starting points for his two lengths of reign are unquestionably and unambiguously 40 BCE and 37 BCE respectively, as is further corroborated by other datable events.…With Herod’s third year from his Roman appointment being in the winter of 38/37 BCE, and his seventh year from his conquest of Jerusalem falling in the spring of 31 BCE, an accession year method of counting is blatantly incorrect, as is progressive counting rather than inclusive.
The third point I’d like to make is that it shows poor scholarship to refer to inclusive counting as “so-called.” That IS how they counted in the first century. Evidence of it is readily available in any Roman calendar still extant. There are also examples of it in Acts 10:1–33, where Cornelius says four days had passed when it had been only three by modern, non-inclusive counting.
The example of Cornelius which “Alexander” cites is a particularly clear example of inclusive reckoning in Scripture. Here is the Reader’s Digest condensed version of Acts 10:1–33, summarized from the NASB, with the transitions between days highlighted:
Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion.…About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God…When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier and…sent them to Joppa. On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter…fell into a trance…the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you”….Peter went down to the men and…invited them in and gave them lodging….And on the next day he got up and went away with them…On the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them…Cornelius said, “Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour…”]
Three days had passed as we count them, but four as Cornelius reckoned them. This is inclusive counting clearly on display in inspired Scripture. This corroborates it as a normal way of counting for both the Romans and the Jews. At the same time, it does not rule out elapsed time being reckoned non-inclusively on occasion. We have to take the full picture of each situation into consideration.
When all is said and done, one of the great strengths of Josephus and the straightforward treatment of his data epitomized by Schürer lies in how his presentation is self-consistent, indicating it most likely represents true history. In contrast, when we try to adopt other modern, questioning reinterpretations of Josephus, the synchronisms found in Josephus’ writings, apparent when they are read in a straightforward manner, break down. Trying to synchronize all of the various classical historians, as Steinmann (Herod, p. 28), for one, has attempted to do, means picking winners and losers when conflicts arise between their data and that of Josephus. That Josephus is the one whose data gets reinterpreted in the recent scholarly rebellion against the “Schürer Consensus” indicates he has consistently gotten the short end of the stick. I am unable to see a truly objective reason for singling him out this way.
For those who would like to see a graphical representation of the synchronisms discussed, below is a truncated chart derived from my master Excel spreadsheet, covering the Herodian data and things already discussed in previous articles in this series. (As of December 2018, this chart is no longer entirely accurate. Please see my later article, Pinpointing the Date of Christ's Birth, for a more precise accounting that places His birth in the spring of 6 BC.)
With these observations on the beginning of the reign of Herod the Great and the 46 years that passed from the time he began construction on the temple, we have said as much as we can for the moment. I plan to discuss the death of Herod in the next installment of this study.