The Star of Bethlehem
Chapter 8 

Astronomy and the Death of King Herod

In the face of the historical evidence against it, the majority of theologians have up to now placed the birth of Jesus before the spring of 4 B.C.E. They have insisted on this early date because of a reference in Josephus that King Herod died not long after an eclipse of the Moon and before a springtime Passover of the Jews. This eclipse has become an important chronological benchmark in reckoning the year of Herod’s death.

Eclipses are powerful astronomical indicators to show the precise times when events happened in history. Even those that happened 2000 years ago can be calculated to within a few minutes of their occurrence, and if one can pick the proper lunar eclipse that Josephus referred to, then further historical inquiry is considered unnecessary because “astronomy” has settled the chronological issue.

Those theologians who adopted this astronomical principle for solving chronological questions are absolutely correct. There is no arguing with eclipses. They are solid and unchallenged witnesses to support the truth of early historical records — if the correct eclipse is considered. But when astronomers in the last century told theologians that an eclipse of the Moon occurred during the evening of March 13, 4 B.C.E. (and could be seen in Palestine), this eclipse is the one that theologians accepted as the one referred to by Josephus. They particularly preferred this eclipse because Josephus also said Herod died before a springtime Passover. Since March 13, 4 B.C.E. was just one month before the Passover, they felt justified in placing all historical events associated with Herod’s death and his funeral within that twenty-nine day period. The truth is, however, it is completely illogical to squeeze the events mentioned by Josephus into that short period of time. By selecting the wrong eclipse, modern scholars have been forced to tighten considerably the historical events into an abnormally compressed space of only twenty-nine days.

Eclipse records are very important, but they must be interpreted correctly regarding the chronological period in which they occur. Over a ten-year period, several lunar eclipses are capable of being observed in most areas of the world. Two or three can even occur in one year. This relative frequency of lunar eclipses can be a problem in identifying the ones mentioned by the ancient historians if the early historians gave no details about the time of night, the day of the week, the calendar date on which they happened, or whether the eclipses were full or partial. With the eclipse of Josephus, none of these factors is evident. Josephus gave the single clue that a springtime Passover was celebrated not long after the eclipse. This would appear a reasonable hint that the eclipse happened sometime in the early or late winter.

It is the mention of this Passover that prompted most theologians up to now to select the eclipse of March 13, 4 B.C.E. as the one that seems to meet the historical circumstances. But this is not possible. A close examination of the records provided by Josephus unearth formidable problems in accepting this eclipse. Using common sense, plus the application of a general understanding of the Jewish social and religious customs in the 1st century, will allow anyone to select the proper eclipse. In no way can it be the one of March 13, 4 B.C.E.

Let us look at the lunar eclipses observable in Palestine during the general time for the nativity of Jesus. From 7 to early 1 B.C.E. there were four lunar eclipses. It is one of these four eclipses to which Josephus has reference regarding the time of the death of Herod. Let us look at them carefully. The following table shows when they happened. For reference, see Solar and Lunar Eclipses of the Ancient Near East, by M. Kudlek and E. Mickler (1971).

Solar Eclipses Visible in Palestine

7 B.C. No eclipses
6 B.C. No eclipses
5 B.C. March 23. Total eclipse. Central at 8:30 pm (elapsed time between eclipse and Passover: twenty-nine days).
5 B.C. September 15. Total eclipse. Central at 10:30 pm (elapsed time between eclipse and Passover: seven months).
4 B.C. March 13. Partial eclipse. Central at 2:20 am (elapsed time between eclipse and Passover: twenty-nine days
3 B.C. No eclipses
2 B.C. No eclipses
1 B.C. January 10. Total eclipse. Central at 1:00 am (elapsed time between eclipse and Passover: twelve and a half weeks ).

Which was the eclipse that was associated with Herod’s death? Most theologians have picked the one that occurred on March 13, 4 B.C.E., but they are clearly three years too early. They have thrown to the wind the testimonies of the majority of the early fathers of the Christian Church who placed the birth of Jesus from 3 to 1 B.C.E. If those early fathers would have been consulted and given a reasonable amount of credibility (which they deserve), then Herod’s death would have been sought for somewhere around 1 B.C.E., not three years earlier as is commonly done today.

We have new historical documentation quite independent of the early Christian fathers or Josephus showing that Herod died in early 1 B.C.E. Later chapters of this book will demonstrate what those historical documents and what new archaeological discoveries indicate to prove the documents. This evidence, along with that given by Josephus, will provide a great deal of evidence to show the eclipse mentioned by Josephus was that of January 10, 1 B.C.E. This gives us a veritable key to open the door of understanding for this obscure period of time. When this is realized the “dark decade” in Roman history from 6 B.C.E. to 4 C.E. will also take on a great deal of illumination. Confusing historical events, which have been and appear contradictory to historians of the early part of the Roman Empire, will become harmonious and consistent. So much depends on selecting the proper eclipse mentioned by Josephus. Let us look at the evidence from Josephus, which is the eyewitness account of Nicolas of Damascus whom Josephus quotes. His records prove that the eclipse of March 13, 4 B.C.E. (almost universally accepted) cannot be the correct one.

The Sickness, Death and Funeral of Herod

What the modern historian needs to do is to catalogue the events that occurred from the day of the lunar eclipse until Herod died, then add on the time that elapsed for his funeral and burial, and then count the period from Herod’s burial to the springtime Passover which found Archelaus (the son of Herod) reigning in Jerusalem. The events are well recorded by Josephus. True, Josephus does not give in his writings the exact number of days from the lunar eclipse to the next Passover, but this interval of time can be generally determined without difficulty. Note the sequence of events recorded by Josephus that shows this.

The day before the lunar eclipse two prominent Jewish rabbis were burnt alive at the command of Herod for tearing down a golden eagle which he had erected over the eastern gate of the temple, “and on that very night there was an eclipse of the moon.” 1 The morning after the eclipse, Josephus said Herod’s illness became worse. He had been sick some two or three months. People began to say that the intensification of Herod’s affliction was a result of the rabbis’ deaths. 2 One has to allow two or three days after the eclipse for Herod’s physical deterioration to become noticeable. His physicians then tried “one remedy after another.” 3 For several remedies to be practiced on Herod in order to cure him occupied at least four or five days ― a remedy for each day. The elapsed time for these events would reasonably occupy (at a bare minimum): one week.

Those various remedies performed on Herod, however, did not improve his condition. The physicians then recommended that he leave Jericho, which was then his temporary residence, and retreat to the mineral baths at Callirrhoe. These baths were located on the Dead Sea about 25 miles southeast of Jericho. Herod heeded their advice. Since he was very ill and getting worse, it would have taken at least a day for him to have been carefully transported to the baths, probably longer. He then began a period of treatment using the mineral waters. The therapy certainly took two or three days to give the chemicals in the waters a chance to work. But use of the baths gave Herod no sign of improving his condition. He then ordered his attendants to carry him back to Jericho. The elapsed time for these events associated with taking Herod to the baths of Callirrhoe and returning to Jericho would have occupied at least one week. The interval of time would now be two weeks away from the eclipse.

Once back at his palace in Jericho, Herod devised a monstrous plan. Since he knew his death was not far off, and realizing that most of the Jewish people had a vehement hatred of him, he decided on a scheme which would have the whole nation in mourning at the time of his death. He had many prominent Jewish elders from all areas of his kingdom assemble at Jericho. Without the elders realizing his intention, Herod’s plot was to place them in custody, then on the day of his death, they were to be executed. In Herod’s warped reasoning this would guarantee that the entire Jewish nation would go into a state of mourning.

This heinous plan was put into action. Messengers were sent from Jericho to all parts of Herod’s realm bearing orders for the elders of the cities and villages to appear at Jericho on pain of death for their refusal. 4 Since the northern cities of Herod’s kingdom were at least 130 miles away, a period of 3 days for the couriers to reach the elders, a day or so for them to prepare for the trip, and then 3 or 4 days for the elders to reach Jericho would occupy, at the very least, a week’s time. Josephus said these municipal elders with other Jewish dignitaries finally arrived at Jericho and were locked up in the hippodrome (the racetrack area). The elapsed time for this assemblage of elders was at the very least one week. The interval of time now being three weeks away from the eclipse.

Josephus said that after this, letters came from Augustus in Rome giving Herod permission to kill his son Antipater. The king had him executed immediately and Herod died 5 days later. 5 Herod’s survivors then determined that the elders imprisoned in the hippodrome were not to be killed. They were released and many were allowed to return home. The elapsed time for these events would reasonably occupy 5 to 7 days (now almost four weeks away from the eclipse).

The Funeral of Herod

Josephus said that Herod ordered his funeral to be the grandest ever bestowed on a king. 6 And Archelaus carried out his father’s wish. 7 The preparations for such a funeral would have taken some time. Josephus shows that the arrangements for the official procession were begun only after Herod died. 8 In no way was it possible for a royal funeral to be arranged in a single day. Indeed, several days would have been needed before the procession from Jericho toward Jerusalem could commence. The final burial place of Herod was to be at the Herodian about 8 miles south of Jerusalem.

It surely took a few days to prepare for the procession in order for it to proceed. This must be the case because we are told that all the royal ornaments were brought to Jericho for the procession. 9 The “crown jewels” and other regalia would have been kept under guard in the palace at Jerusalem and it surely would have taken 2 or 3 days to procure them. Even the abundance of spices to treat the body along the way and at the tomb (e.g. Luke 23:56 and 24:1) which required 500 domestics of Herod to carry no doubt took some time to collect and prepare (e.g. Pliny, XII,41). To keep the body in reasonable condition until the funeral and burial ceremonies were over, the body had to be prepared in a way to prevent putrefaction.

Josephus showed that those having royal dignity were embalmed, and in Palestine this was done with honey. 10 For the time it took the funeral procession to journey from Jericho to Jerusalem and then to the Herodian, Herod’s body had to be prepared to prevent the senses of those attending the funeral solemnities to suffer the consequences of being near an unburied and unembalmed corpse. King Herod’s body, however, was properly embalmed for the trip to the Herodian. Placing the body in honey was one way to prevent putrefaction ― and the 500 domestics carrying spices also had their duties assigned to preserve a proper dignity for the king. This took time to accomplish, but there were other reasons why the funeral cortege could not have started on the day following Herod’s death.

Josephus said the “whole army” was represented in the procession. 11 For military commanders of the armed forces located throughout the realm to be summoned to Jericho and given time to arrive would have taken several days, at least a week and probably longer. There were few pre-arrangements for a massive funeral procession that Josephus said took place since Herod at first believed he could find a cure of his sickness while at his winter home in Jericho. But elite units of the army were not the only ones summoned to Jericho for the procession. It would also have taken some time for the relatives of Herod and other political and religious leaders of the realm (as well as representatives of neighboring nations) to arrive for the procession. These military commanders and other political luminaries gathering at Jericho would have taken a week or so. We are now about five weeks away from the eclipse.

Once all the official dignitaries were assembled for the procession, the funeral cortege then moved toward the Herodian in stages. Notice what Josephus said quoting the eyewitness account of Nicolas of Damascus.

“The body was carried upon a golden bier, embroidered with very precious stones of great variety, and it was covered over with purple, as was the body itself: he had a diadem upon his head, and above it a crown of gold; he had also a sceptre in his right hand. About the bier were his sons and his numerous relations; next to these the soldiers, distinguished according to their several countries and denominations; and they were put in the following order: first of all went his guards, then the band of Thracians, after them the Germans, next the band of Galatians, every one in their habiliments of war; and behind these marched the whole army, in the same manner as they used to go out to war, and as they used to be put in array by their muster-masters and centurions; these were followed by five hundred of his domestics, carrying spices.” 12

Nothing of such grandeur was given to the funerals of ordinary people. They were usually buried within a day and that was the end of the matter. But with kings it was different. An elaborate procession was designed by Archelaus (at the behest of Herod himself) for the grandest kind of funeral that any man had ever had. It was majestic indeed.

The procession set out toward Jerusalem and the Herodian in stately style. The mourners went 8 stades (exactly one Roman mile) toward the Herodian. 13 Plutarch in his account of Caius Gracchus tells us how 8 stades was the distance selected to be reckoned as one Roman mile on the imperial highways (Langhorne, 582). The distance of 8 stades became a standard that all followed in judging distance on the Roman roads. So, Josephus tells us that while all of the military personnel in the funeral procession were fully dressed for war, they did not rush to the burial site. They walked in a slow funeral cadence in a military style called an “eight stades” march, at single mile intervals.

This military type of mourning march was slow. The army marched a mile a day. Many scholars recognize this fact (e.g. Professor Wikgren of the University of Chicago who helped translate Josephus for the Loeb edition relates this as the meaning of Josephus, and he is correct). Josephus, who himself had been a military man simply stated that the military cadence of the army was in the “eight stades” mode of military march — a solemn, mournful, funeral march. Indeed, since Herod planned his own funeral ceremonies and since the Jews were accustomed to a thirty day mourning time called a Sheloshim, Herod simply ordered that the procession to Jerusalem (for a brief lying in state) and then to the Herodian for burial would occupy the whole of that required thirty day mourning period.

A Slow Funeral March

It had to be a slow journey for other reasons. Since it was customary for biers in royal funeral processions to be carried on the shoulders of the king’s relatives or important state officials, the journey took considerable time. Transporting the bier by a wheeled vehicle was out of the question. Even good roads at the time were normally paved with cobblestone and ordinary ones were simple dirt tracks with uneven pavements. With the axles of ancient wagons bolted solidly to their frames and not having the convenience of springs to soften the jolts, transporting the king by wagon would have shaken the body into quite an unceremonial condition. This would have jeopardized even the preservation of the delicately embalmed state of the body. To prevent such an undignified condition, it was essential for the close relatives and state officials to carry the bier. It was customary to place horizontal poles at convenient locations under the coffin and then place those supports on the shoulders of the pallbearers.

With this being the case, the procession was only able to proceed to the Herodian in military “eight stades” fashion, a Roman mile a day. There was another reason for this. Funerals were accounted as sacred ceremonies which were conducted in accordance to strict religious laws. They were holy occasions and people had to act accordingly. Both Moses and Joshua were told to take off their shoes because they were standing on holy ground (Exodus 3:5; Joshua 5:15), and in funeral ceremonies it was demanded that people in the procession go barefoot (Ezekiel 24:17; e.g. 2 Samuel 15:30; Jeremiah 13:22). Going unshod at such times was a general custom adopted by most ancient nations as well as the Jews. The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics has the following account to show this prevailing custom among the various peoples of the world at this time in history.

“The women in the procession through the town mourning Demeter went unshod, and so did the Locrian virgins in approaching the altar of Athene. In drought a procession and ritual was intended to propitiate the gods by this token of humiliation and sorrow. Many other instances of this are known. In actual mourning rites going barefoot was used by both Greeks and Romans; e.g. Suetonius describes how the young nobles who removed the ashes of Augustus from the pyre were barefoot. Bion describes Aphrodite wailing for Adonis as barefoot, and Autonoe was unshod at the death of Actaion. It was also a token of distraction, as when the Roman vestals fled from Rome with sacred utensils. Among the Hebrews to go barefoot was also a sign of mourning.

With people in the stately procession having to go barefoot for 25 miles, it can easily be understood why they proceeded by stages (about a mile a day to the Herodian). This has to be the case because the barefoot carriers of the bier being relatives of Herod or dignitaries of the realm were not accustomed to going barefoot. With their tender feet they could not have gone much further in a day carrying the heavy weight of the bier. This would mean that the funeral procession from Jericho to the Herodian lasted about 25 days, but this does not take into account a period of lying in state at the capital of the nation. Such a ceremonial procedure was normal for kings and high government officials. The Romans usually had their dignitaries lie in state for seven days. Herod must have had a similar period (or nearly so) at his capital city of Jerusalem. It would have been entirely out of character to have denied the king such recognition.

The Army of Herod Governed the Funeral March

Some people, on the other hand, have thought that Josephus meant that only the army went a mile from Jericho with the cortege and then they dispersed to their areas of duty throughout the realm. 15 In no way could this be the meaning of Josephus. Such a departure of the army would have left the expensive royal items in jeopardy of seizure. Without the army, the Jewish people, who despised Herod with extreme passion, could well have heaped abuse on the corpse and stripped the bier of all its treasures and honor. Even the life of the new king Archelaus who accompanied the body of his father to its destination could well have been placed in jeopardy. Indeed, it is really inconceivable that the royal troops and servants did not attend the procession all the way to the Herodian. Such a thing would have been entirely out of character with the funeral of any king, let alone one with the immense egotism of Herod. And remember, Josephus said it was Herod himself who planned the entire funeral ceremonies. We can rest assured that it was no fly-by-night affair. It was planned to be grand and impressive. This is why it was necessary for the army, in stately and regimented style, to accompany the bier of the king from Jericho, to the capital at Jerusalem and then to his final resting place at the Herodian. Everything must have been done with complete grandeur and majesty.

To give stateliness to the procession, Josephus shows it journeyed from Jericho by stages — proceeding about a mile a day in the direction of the Herodian which was about 25 miles away. This means the procession would have lasted four weeks (because the cortege would not have traveled on the three Sabbath days). If the king, however, lay in state in the vicinity of Jerusalem for a period of time, additional days would have to be given to the interval. Since to reach the Herodian from Jericho in this fashion took at least four weeks (which was designed by Herod to occupy the whole of the required thirty day mourning period known as the Sheloshim), then Herod was buried eight weeks away from the eclipse if we allow the bear minimum of time for these things to be accomplished.

Royal Funeral Marches Went by Stages

For royal funeral processions to proceed by stages, with each stage being a daily stopping of the procession, is well attested for this period. When Herod’s benefactor, the emperor Augustus, died at Nola in southern Italy, his body was conveyed over the 120 miles to Rome by stages. 16

Starting from Nola, senators from the various communities along the route carried the body of Augustus by night from one town to the next until it reached the outskirts of Rome. During the day the bier rested in the town hall or principal temple of each halting place. When the body reached Bovillae just outside Rome, knights of the Empire then conveyed the body of the dead emperor to Palatine Hill inside the city. From there the final part of the procession began. The body was taken to the Forum where it lay in state (as mentioned before, lying in state for Roman leaders was usually for seven days). 17 And then, with great solemnity, the body was carried to the Campus Martius for cremation. The ashes were finally taken to the Augustan Mausoleum in the north of the city. This terminated the procession. A funerary feast was then held and a nine-day mourning period begun. 18 The whole funeral period for Augustus lasted from the 19th of August to the 11th or 12th of September. This means the solemnities lasted just over three weeks.

The funeral of Herod would no doubt have had a solemnity certainly equal to Augustus and it was probably even more grand. Herod had an excessive feeling of personal worth and he ordered his funeral to be “most splendid.” 19 It was to be “a majestic funeral such as no other king ever had.” 20 And we are told by Archelaus, that Herod did indeed obtain his wishes. 21 And with royal Jewish funerals the official time of mourning for the general public was thirty days (called a Sheloshim) and this was followed by a further seven days mourning period for the family of Herod. While the Roman time of mourning was for only nine days (with Augustus’ procession and funeral rites taking just over three weeks), Herod’s funeral ceremonies lasted much longer to accord with biblical and Jewish mourning customs.

Royal Funerals Involve Much Preparations

One thing for certain, royal funerals took time to accomplish. This is the case even today. Witness the funeral ceremonies a few years back associated with Emperor Hirohito of Japan. It took about a month and a half for all the funeral protocol (both religious and secular) to be accomplished. Hirohito’s funeral rites occupied slightly more time to celebrate than even those of Herod, and they were about twice as long as those of Augustus. Recall that it took a lot of time for heads of state and other dignitaries from around the world to attend the final funeral ceremonies of Hirohito.

Something similar to this would have taken place with the funeral of Herod. When Herod’s younger brother Pheroras died, Herod himself “prepared him for burial and brought him to Jerusalem, where he provided a burial place and ordered a solemn mourning for him.” 22 And later, when Herod’s son Philip died, “his body was carried to the tomb that he himself had built before he died and there was a costly funeral.” 23 These ancient solemnities are not practiced in modern Jewish customs. The funeral and mourning services of Prime Minister Rabin (who was recently assassinated) occupied only seven days, but ancient funerals were much longer.

A Thirty Day Mourning Period

Let us look at the important mourning periods which accompanied Herod’s funeral rites. These necessary religious ceremonies show that just over a four-week period elapsed from the death of Herod until he was finally buried at the Herodian. Note the periods of public and private mourning. This point is a very significant factor in determining the interval of time between Herod’s death and his burial. The fact is, there were two types of mourning periods that were accomplished at the death of a king or someone who was of national prestige. As mentioned before, the first was a public mourning period of thirty days begun immediately after the death of an important person (Numbers 20:29; Deuteronomy 34:8). There was also a further seven-day mourning period for the close relatives which took place after the burial (Numbers 19:14). It was possible for the separate public and the private mourning periods among the Jews to overlap one another either completely or partially depending on when the burial itself took place. But it is highly unlikely that they overlapped in Herod’s case.

There is such an example in the Bible itself of the various ceremonies associated with the death of a prominent person. We need to look at the mourning periods involved in the wake of this person’s death, and also the procession that accompanied the person to his final resting place. The biblical example is that of Jacob, the father of Joseph. Immediately at the death of Jacob in Egypt, the Egyptian embalmers took their normal forty-day period to prepare the body. It was the custom in ancient Egypt for people to mourn during the period for embalming the body. Then there followed a thirty-day mourning period which became the common custom among Israelites. This was known as a Sheloshim (thirty days), which became the official mourning period for all people honoring any dignitary. Then Joseph arranged a magnificent procession of all the top people in Egypt and Israel with “chariots and horsemen: and it was a very great company” (Genesis 50:9). Jacob’s regal procession went all the way to the border of Palestine. Then was accomplished a further seven days of mourning (verse 10). Thus, in this example (which Herod would have been well aware of and would have wanted to emulate), the Sheloshim (thirty days) after the embalming was completed and the seven days after Jacob’s burial, were two separate periods of mourning that did not overlap. A similar situation must have occurred with Herod’s procession to Jerusalem and to the Herodian with its funerary ceremonies.

Long Mourning Periods for Dignitaries

While the public mourning period for the Romans was normally only nine days, the Jews were subjected to an extended period of time. From the time of Jacob onward, public mourning lasted thirty days. As I have shown, that thirty day mourning period was known as a Sheloshim. It was common for all dignitaries in Israel to be honored with such a period of mourning that began at the time of their deaths. Moses and Aaron were formerly honored with such a “Sheloshim” and Josephus informs us that Miriam their sister was similarly mourned. 24 And interestingly, there is absolute historical information that such a public mourning period for national figures was commonly practiced by the Jews in the 1st century. When the Jews in Jerusalem erroneously heard that Josephus had been killed in the line of duty (who was then commander of Jewish forces in Galilee at the beginning of the war with the Romans in C.E. 67), the people of Jerusalem immediately went into a period of public mourning for thirty days (the Sheloshim). 25

If a military commander such as Josephus was given a Sheloshim at the announcement of death, we can be utterly assured that King Herod was given a similar Sheloshim by his son Archelaus and the people of Judaea when his death was announced. Indeed, Josephus informs us that there was a public mourning conducted throughout the realm and that the people of Judaea showed an honorable respect for the whole of the funeral ceremonies for the dead king. 26

This is a very important indication regarding our question of the interval of time between Herod’s death and the end of the public mourning which happened near the time of Herod’s burial at the Herodian. 27 This fact standing alone shows there had to be just over four weeks between Herod’s death and his burial, and this dovetails remarkably with the 28 to 30 days or so (traveling about a mile a day) for the funeral procession to reach the Herodian from Jericho.

But there is even more. Once Herod was buried, then Archelaus and the immediate family had to undergo their further seven days’ private mourning period. 28 After those seven days, a funeral feast was then ordered by Archelaus for the people of Jerusalem. This would mean that the public mourning period (called the Sheloshim) and also Archelaus’ private mourning period, as well as the funeral feast would have been concluded (at the bare minimum) about nine weeks after the eclipse of the Moon, probably a little longer.

The Passover of the Jews

Josephus records that other things took place in Jerusalem before the springtime Passover occurred that year. After both mourning periods and the funeral feast were over, Archelaus then assumed his normal activities as the new king of Judaea. He gave audience to the people as a king. He made changes in the duties of army personnel and he conferred promotions on numerous officers. He also took time to liberate many prisoners confined by his father, and publicly heard and made decisions on a number of lawsuits occurring in the courts. 29 The hearing and judging of several lawsuits certainly took a few days to accomplish. Josephus (or rather, Nicolas of Damascus whom Josephus was quoting) said Archelaus did these official duties “and many other things” 30 between the time when all the public and private mourning periods and the funeral feast were completed and when the beginning of the Passover season took place. Sheer reason would have to allow a minimum of one week for these official duties of Archelaus to have taken place when he resumed his normal executive activities. And after Archelaus and the general population met all these requirements, then came the Passover.

Now for an important point. Because it is clear that Archelaus resumed his normal duties as king before the start of the Passover season, this proves conclusively that both the Sheloshim (thirty days) mourning period and the personal and private mourning period of seven days were fully completed before Passover. This is important is because some people have imagined that the mourning periods for the dead ceased if the Passover season came on the calendar before the mourning periods were fulfilled. This is true, but in this case we find from the records of Josephus himself that the mourning periods (both of them) were entirely fulfilled before the Passover that year commenced. This is proof positive that there were at least five weeks of time between Herod’s death and the start of Passover in the year that Herod died.

If one were conservative in estimating the interval of time between the lunar eclipse (which occurred just after the two rabbis were executed) and the arrival of the springtime Passover, one has to allow (at a bare minimum) ten weeks. But, to be reasonable, one has to admit that a few days more would make the historical scenario fit better. It would allow for a more comfortable timetable. The interval of time was probably near twelve weeks.

The Importance of this Information

The above historical events can easily be seen in the records of Josephus. And importantly, they allow us to determine the exact eclipse of the Moon that Josephus was referring to. It will also help us to eliminate in a decided way the principal eclipse that most all modern theologians have erroneously accepted as the one intended by Josephus.

For the past 200 years it has been common for theologians to accept the partial lunar eclipse on the night of March 13, 4 B.C.E. as the one referred to by Josephus. But they are wrong. Since lunar eclipses can only occur at Full Moon, the interval of time from the Full Moon day of March 13, 4 B.C.E. to the beginning of Passover in 4 B.C.E. (the next Full Moon day) is a period of only twenty-nine days on the Jewish calendar. In no way, shape or form can all the many events associated with Herod’s death and funeral as recorded by Josephus be squeezed into that short twenty-nine day period.

This major difficulty in accepting the March 13th eclipse has been noted by the Roman historian, Timothy Barnes. 31 To alleviate the problem, some scholars have suggested that the Passover to which Josephus referred was that of the next year, 3 B.C.E. But the Passover a year hence is far too remote for consideration. Among other things, Josephus said the people at that following Passover were still mourning for the two rabbis that Herod killed on the eve of the eclipse. This would hardly have been the case some 13 months later. Also, Josephus shows that the new king, Archelaus, went to Rome after that Passover (“in haste to depart” 32) in order to confirm his kingship with the Roman emperor. Archelaus would not have delayed his trip a whole year. And too, Sabinus, Caesar’s financial officer for Syrian affairs, met Archelaus at the port city of Caesarea as Sabinus was going to Jerusalem (Sabinus had just arrived from Rome) in order to secure to the imperial treasury the effects of the dead king. Josephus said Sabinus had been going “with haste.” 33 In no conceivable way can one imagine that Sabinus waited 13 months to take charge of Herod’s property.

All these events prove that the Passover after the eclipse of Josephus was the very next Passover, not one year away. But they also prove that the eclipse of March 13, 4 B.C.E. cannot be the one mentioned by Josephus because it is impossible to compress those historical and ritualistic requirements into a period of twenty-nine days!

In the next chapter I will give further information that will show the only eclipse that can possibly fit the historical scenario that Josephus recorded from the eyewitness account of Nicolas of Damascus whom he quoted. It was that of January 10, 1 B.C.E. As a matter of fact, we do not need exact chronological dates given in the text of Josephus to determine the time of Herod’s death. The historical context in which that lunar eclipse was mentioned is sufficient enough to give us the precise period for the death of Herod. It occurred somewhere between the eclipse of January 10, 1 B.C.E. and the following springtime Passover.

When this fact is recognized by historians today, even that “dark decade” over which classical historians lament in regard to the fragmentary history of the early Empire of Rome will be greatly illuminated and made clear. Astronomy is the key to it all, and it is time to pay attention to it.


1 Josephus, Antiquities XVII–167.

2 Ibid.

3 Josephus, War I.657.

4 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.174.

5 Ibid., 177.

6 Ibid. and also Josephus, War I.670.

7 Josephus, Antiquities XVII. 196.

8 Josephus, War I.670.

9 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.198.

10 Josephus, War I.184.

11 Josephus, Antiquities I. 196.

12 Ibid., 198.

13 Ibid., 199.

14 The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, XI.475.

15 This was suggested by Douglas Johnson in Chronos, Kairos, Christos.

16 Suetonius, Augustus, 100.

17 Toybee, Death and Burial in the Roman World, 45.

18 Ibid., 50–51.

19 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.177.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Josephus, Antiquities IV.78.

25 War, III.437.

26 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.311.

27 Ibid.

28 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.200.

29 Ibid., 232–233; Josephus, War II.27–28.

30 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.233.

31 T. Barnes, Journal of Theological Studies, XIX (1968) 209.

32 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.218–219.

33 Ibid.


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