The Lunar Eclipse of Josephus
It is not difficult to know which eclipse Josephus referred to if historians will do two things. First, they must eliminate unqualified lunar eclipses that could not be seen in Palestine from 7 B.C.E. to early 1 B.C.E. After that, the historical, archaeological and chronological evidence must be evaluated that supports the eclipse that can properly conform to the evidence provided in the records. Astronomy is the key to it all. It is a sure guide to any chronology if one has documentation to provide a historical environment to utilize the evidence of astronomy. In the case of Josephus’ eclipse, there is considerable historical and archaeological documentation to allow historians to pinpoint the precise lunar eclipse to which Josephus had reference even in that dark decade in Roman history.
In the last chapter it was shown how impossible it is to squeeze the events mentioned by Josephus from his lunar eclipse to the next Passover into a twenty-nine day period that the March 13, 4 B.C.E. eclipse demands. There are further points that show that such an identification is contrary to reason. Let us look at a ritualistic requirement of the Jewish people that is fatal to it.
If the March 13, 4 B.C.E. eclipse were the one referred to by Josephus we have an impossible situation concerning an event on the Jewish calendar. The day of the eclipse would have been Adar 15. In the biblical book of Esther it is recorded that the Jewish nation in the time of Ahasuerus, king of Persia, ordained the 14th and 15th days of Adar as days of resting and rejoicing. The days were known as Purim (Esther 9:26, 32). Even Adar 13 was known as “the Day of Nicanor.” This was a day when the Jewish nation rejoiced in honor of the overthrow of Gentile domination back in the early Maccabean period. 1 And immediately following were the two festival days of Purim. If March 13, 4 B.C.E. were the day of Josephus’ eclipse, then it occurred on the night of Adar 15, the second high day of Purim.
Why should this be a problem? The truth is, it is a difficulty of major proportions. Josephus reported that a few days prior to the eclipse two important rabbis had encouraged some of the youth at Jerusalem to destroy a golden eagle which Herod had placed over the eastern gate of the temple. These religious leaders had interpreted the existence of this eagle as being contrary to the Law of Moses. And in broad daylight a number of young boys began to cut down the eagle.
These Jewish youths were caught in the act and about forty of them were ordered to appear before Herod and the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court of the nation) to answer for this outrage. The two rabbis who perpetrated the plan were especially singled out for judgment. Realizing the great popularity of these two religious leaders, Herod felt it wise to move their trial to Jericho and away from the capital at Jerusalem. Herod, himself, was ill and since his winter home was in Jericho he wanted to be in the warmer climate of the Jordan Valley to alleviate the effects of his illness.
This was accomplished. The rabbis and the young men who assisted them were finally convicted of high criminal actions (sacrilege and sedition). While most of the young men were given milder sentences, the two rabbis were ordered to be burnt alive. Now let us take up the story as recorded by Josephus. He will bring us right up to the important eclipse of the Moon about which we have been talking.
“They were found guilty of sacrilege against God therein. But the people, on account of Herod’s barbarous temper, and for fear he should be so cruel as to inflict punishment on themselves, said, what was done, was done without their consent, and it seemed to them that the perpetrators might certainly be punished for what they had done. But with Herod, he dealt more leniently with others; but he deprived Matthias of the high priesthood partly because of this action, and made Joazar, who was Matthias’ wife’s brother, high priest in his stead. Now it happened, that during the time of the high priesthood of this Matthias, there was another individual made high priest for a single day, that very day which the Jews observed as a fast. The situation was this: this Matthias the high priest, on the night before that day when the fast was to be celebrated, seemed in a dream to have sexual relations with a woman; and because he could not officiate himself because of this, Joseph, the son of Ellemus, his kinsman, assisted him in that sacred office. But Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt alive the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his other accomplices. And that very night there was an eclipse of the Moon.” 2
What has this information to do with the significance of our eclipse, assuming it was the one of March 13, 4 B.C.E.? The truth is, it is devastating to it. It means that those rabbis would have been burnt alive on the Jewish day of Adar 14, the first day of the two high days of Purim. No court, unless completely illegal, would have had criminals executed and certainly not rabbis on the special day commanded in the Bible when the Jews “rested ... a day of feasting and gladness” (Esther 9:17–18). The whole nation would have been in an uproar over such a procedure.
And note this important point. Josephus shows that the decision to execute the rabbis was made by the Supreme Court of the Jews. And though it appears that some of the judges ― especially the high priest — were reluctant to sentence them, the court still made the decision to have it done. There can be no doubt of the legality of the whole affair. When some of the Jews just before the next Passover expressed their displeasure over the sentence and execution of the rabbis, Archelaus (Herod’s son) tried to calm their outrage by reminding them that their trial had been conducted and the sentence carried out “according to law.” 3 The whole affair was certainly accomplished in a legal manner. Severe punishment such as burning was sometimes interpreted as allowed in the Bible for certain types of crimes (see Leviticus 20:14; 21:9; Joshua 7.25–26). Even the burning of criminals was judged acceptable in extreme cases, 4 and the rabbis were charged with sedition and sacrilege. But were they executed on holy days?
Executions Were Not Performed on Holy Days
True enough, there was a belief in the 2nd century C.E. that one who rebelled against the Court could be retained for execution in Jerusalem until one of the three festival periods. 5 Since the Jewish people who lived in Palestine were expected to be in Jerusalem at those times, the criminal could be executed in the presence of the multitudes to fulfill Deuteronomy 17:13. However, as Krauss has shown, the criminal was not executed during the festival itself but immediately before, when people were gathering in Jerusalem. 6 The Gospel of John shows that such a time was when Jesus was crucified.
Purim, however, was not one of the three pilgrim festivals that required Jewish males to be in Jerusalem. Purim was a time of carnival and celebration by all people throughout the land. It celebrated the former deaths of Haman the Agagite (an Amalekite tribe of Edom) and his ten sons (Esther 3:10; 9:24), plus the deliverance of the Jews from enemies who planned their mass genocide in the Persian period. These days of Purim would have been a most unlikely time for any judicial executions among the Jews, especially on the first day of the festival itself.
No Executions on Purim
There is another reason why Herod would not have planned the executions of the popular rabbis on the high days of Purim. Such a procedure would have been counter to the biblical symbols of happiness and joy that governed that festival period. And note this: Herod who was of Edomite ancestry could easily have been linked, even in a racial way, to the Haman of old, a race that was a mixture of Edomite and Canaanite stock (Genesis 36:11–12).
What has this to do with Herod? From the Jewish point of view, very much indeed. Herod was a descendant of the Edomites. The Jews could well have made capital of the fact that Herod was kin to the ancient Amalekites through his Edomite ancestry. And now (if the eclipse of Josephus were that of March 13, 4 B.C.E.), Herod would have been burning alive two prominent rabbis on one of the very days Jews were celebrating their earlier victory over Haman, the Amalekite.
An ancient custom of the Jews was the burning of an effigy of Haman at the close of the Purim festival. The ceremony is mentioned in the Talmud, 7 and was condemned by the Theodosian code as being a symbolic attack on Christianity. 8 This is sufficient evidence to show that the custom was widespread among the Jews and that its observance no doubt reached back to the time of Herod and earlier. A document found in the Genizah at Cairo describes how young men among the Jews used to make a dummy of Haman and expose it on the rooftop for a few days before Purim. Then, on the festival, they would build a bonfire and burn it amid great merriment and jubilation. The same custom is reported also by an 11th century scholar as having been current in ancient times among the Jews of Babylon and Elam. 9
If the eclipse of Josephus were on March 13, 4 B.C.E., then the two rabbis were burnt to death on the first day of Purim. The Palestinian countryside must have been strewn with countless bonfires during the days of Purim with effigies of Haman being burnt on them. Are we to imagine that Herod would execute by burning two popular rabbis in the period when those “Hamans” were also being burnt? This would be similar to a foreigner now ruling the United States, a descendant of our former enemies, intensely hated by the populace, now burning two of our leading and popular senators in public view on July Fourth, while the Declaration of Independence was being read in all our houses of worship. The Book of Esther was then being read in all Jewish synagogues at Purim. Even Herod would have been too politically wise to attempt such an affront which all Jews would have considered a clear violation of a festival ordained of God.
Further, Herod and Haman can be symbolically associated in several ways. Both had ten sons, 10 and just as Haman had been one of the chief advisors of the Persian emperor in the 5th century B.C.E., Herod was one of the two top friends of Augustus, the Roman emperor of the 1st century B.C.E. 11 Besides this, many Jews considered the existing Roman Empire at the time as the government of the “earthly Edom.” 12 It even became common among Jews to believe that the original Roman people were the actual descendants of Edom. 13
Herod Would Not Execute Rabbis at Purim
Look at what this could have meant to the Jews at the time of Herod. Here was Herod, who was an Edomite, 14 having been made king of the Jews by the “earthly Edom” (Rome). This would mean that both “Edoms” were now conspiring to rule the chosen people of God, the Jews. And note the outrage: on the very days of Purim (if the eclipse of March 13, 4 B.C.E. was the one of Josephus) when the Jews were celebrating their deliverance from Haman and his ten sons, the Edomite Herod (also a father of ten sons) was now burning alive two of the most holy men of the Jews at the time that bonfires were all over Judaea burning effigies of Haman. The use of type and antitype was then a common practice in prophetic interpretation by the Jews as the New Testament and other Jewish literature attest. Such a coincidence of Herod with Haman would have been extremely dangerous to Herod’s political position and he would have been well aware of it.
The whole thing is unthinkable. Herod may have been without principle in regard to laws or customs when the need arose, but he was too wise a politician to risk the outcome of such an insult to the Jewish people and a festival of God while he was alive and in hopes of recovering from sickness. Given the circumstances, two or three days after Purim for the execution of the rabbis would have satisfied Herod.
Besides, Herod knew the eclipse was coming. They were easy to predict at the time. 15 He no doubt timed the execution of the rabbis to coincide with the eclipse that night. He would have told the populace that God himself would show his displeasure at what the rabbis did by darkening the Moon, and many of the superstitious might have believed him. But if the eclipse were that of March 13, 4 B.C.E., the Jews could have turned the tables on Herod himself. The eclipse could have been interpreted as censuring Herod’s killing of two righteous rabbis during Purim and thereby desecrating the sanctity of the holy period. Killing the rabbis on the very days of Purim would have gained no advantage for Herod. In fact, it would have been a major political catastrophe for him to have done so.
A Further Invalidation
There is another argument against the March 13, 4 B.C.E. eclipse. Immediately after the Passover following Herod’s death, Archelaus (Herod’s designated heir) started on his journey to Rome in order to have Augustus confirm him in his kingdom. When Archelaus reached the port city of Caesarea, Sabinus met him on his way to Jerusalem. Sabinus was the officer in charge of financial affairs for the province of Syria. There can be little doubt that Sabinus had just come from Rome. He certainly had not come from Antioch in Syria which was the provincial capital. This is made clear in the narrative of Josephus.
Note that when Archelaus heard that Sabinus was going to Jerusalem to place all of Herod’s effects under imperial control, he immediately sent his trusted friend Ptolemy to Antioch “urgently soliciting” Varus, who was governor of Syria, to come to Caesarea in order to intervene with Sabinus. 16 Varus then left for Caesarea, “he had come in answer to the appeal made by Archelaus through Ptolemy.” 17 Upon arrival, Varus persuaded Sabinus that it was not in Rome’s interest for him to go up to Jerusalem at that time to perform his responsibility. Hearing the appeal of Varus convinced Sabinus that it was better to remain at Caesarea for the time being.
Varus then took the legion of soldiers (about 5000 men plus auxiliaries) which he had brought with him from Antioch and went to Jerusalem. 18 He left the troops in the capital and returned to Antioch. After Varus accomplished these matters, what did Sabinus do? “But after Archelaus had sailed for Rome and Varus had returned to Antioch, Sabinus moved on to Jerusalem and took possession of the palace.” 19
These events tell us several things. First of all, Sabinus could not have had his residence with Varus in Antioch. Had this been the case, Varus would already have known of Sabinus’ authority and would have talked with him about the best manner in which to accomplish his task. But the narrative in Josephus strongly implies that Varus did not know of Sabinus’ intentions until Ptolemy informed him in Antioch of what was happening in Caesarea. The truth is, Sabinus had just come by ship from Rome.
Some, however, might think that Sabinus may have been a resident of Beirut (a major city in the province of Syria), but this is an unlikely possibility. Why would the imperial financial officer for the province of Syria live in a city over 200 miles from the capital and out of reach with the daily affairs of provincial government? The evidence supports the proposition that Sabinus had come directly from Augustus in Rome to take over temporary financial affairs of Herod. Indeed, there is evidence to show that Sabinus had greater authority in this matter than Varus himself.
As soon as Archelaus sailed for Rome and Varus returned to Antioch, Sabinus went to Jerusalem and took over the command of the legion. 20 He then began to carry out the imperial administration assigned to him. This clearly shows that Sabinus had more authority over the situation than Varus, the governor of Syria. Had Sabinus not had authority directly from Augustus in Rome, the commanders of the legion at Jerusalem would hardly have let Sabinus take over control contrary to the express wishes of Varus.
But Sabinus took over command of the legion and other auxiliary forces at Jerusalem. Even the Jews called the division of troops the legion of Sabinus. 21 And indeed, when war broke out over the actions of Sabinus, he commanded all the military operations. 22 This superiority of Sabinus is demonstrated in other ways. Had Sabinus been under the control of Varus, the governor of Syria would simply have sent a note with Ptolemy restraining Sabinus from going to Jerusalem. Moreover, Josephus shows that Sabinus sent reports directly to Augustus without submitting them to Varus in Antioch for approval. 23 And when Varus finally came to Jerusalem to rescue Sabinus and the Roman troops from Jewish insurgents when war broke out in Jerusalem, Sabinus did not feel it necessary to report to Varus for his actions. 24 As a matter of fact, Sabinus managed to take 400 talents of money with him for his efforts in Jerusalem. 25
All of this is good evidence that Sabinus was not a subsidiary of Varus in Antioch, but rather that he had come to Palestine directly from Rome with imperial authority to take the financial affairs of Herod’s kingdom in hand.
Since this is the case, look at the impossible situation that this places with the eclipse of March 13, 4 B.C.E. Since Herod must have died about two weeks or so after the eclipse, this would put his death about April 1st. The next event was Passover which lasted from April 11 to 17 in 4 B.C.E. Josephus informs us that Archelaus was on his way to Caesarea before the Passover ended. This means that Archelaus got to the port city about April 17th. And just before he was to sail to Rome, he found Sabinus sailing into Caesarea. Now for the problem: How was it possible for the knowledge of Herod’s death to have gotten to Rome (1700 sea miles away), for Sabinus to have discussed the situation with Augustus, which he must have done, and then for him to have sailed to Palestine (another journey of 1700 miles), and finally meet Archelaus in Caesarea all within a sixteen or twenty day period? Impossible! This point as well shows that the March 13, 4 B.C.E. eclipse cannot be the one of Josephus.
The Eclipse of March 23, 5 B.C.E.
Could all of the above events have occurred one year earlier in 5 B.C.E.? After all, there was an eclipse of the Moon on March 23, 5 B.C.E. This springtime eclipse, however, cannot be the one associated with Herod’s death. There were still only twenty-nine days between this eclipse and the next Passover. All of the impossible situations which the March 13, 4 B.C.E. eclipse encounters are precisely the same with this eclipse. And besides, early 5 B.C.E. for the death of Herod plays havoc with all the chronological indications of Josephus and Roman records regarding the period of Herod’s death. Why even modern scholars have to add an extra year to Herod’s reign of 34 years from Antigonus’ death (reckoning only two or three days of Nisan in 4 B.C.E. as a whole year) to make any reasonable sense out of their calculations. An early 5 B.C.E. date would cause utter chaos in the records of Josephus.
The Eclipse of September 15, 5 B.C.
Several scholars have seen the absurdities in accepting either the March 13 eclipse of 4 B.C. or that of March 23 in 5 B.C. Because of this, it has been suggested that the eclipse of September 15, 5 B.C. is a better eclipse for consideration. 26 But there are major difficulties associated with this eclipse as well. Look at it for a moment.
Scholars recognize that Josephus reckoned the years of Herod’s reign from the Jewish springtime month of Nisan to the next Nisan. In order to make any sense whatever out of Josephus’ statements that Herod reigned 37 years from the time he was proclaimed king by the Romans and 34 years from the death of Antigonus (his immediate predecessor), they have put Herod’s death in the first two or three days of Nisan in 4 B.C.E. and they reckon the whole year (from Nisan 4 B.C. to Nisan 3 B.C.E.) to the reign of Herod. 27 But if one puts Herod’s death back in late 5 B.C.E., then the year lengths of Herod’s reign as mentioned by Josephus become altogether garbled and in no way do they make any sense to the historian. Indeed, the September 15, 5 B.C.E. eclipse is impossible for other reasons.
If the eclipse of Josephus were that of September 15, 5 B.C.E., then seven months would have passed before the next Passover. Seven months are far too long for the intervening events to have taken place. Note this point. Herod was in Jericho when the eclipse near his death occurred. The city is a furnace in late summer. It is situated just over 800 feet (c. 240 meters) below sea level and its mid-September temperatures are very high. Why would Herod, who was uncomfortably ill at the time, subject himself to such oppressive conditions in the Jordan Valley when the pleasant environment of Jerusalem was, so near? It might be added, however, that if the eclipse were in the depth of winter, one could easily understand Herod’s wish to be in Jericho. This point alone renders the September 15th eclipse as improbable for consideration.
Yet there is another factor that certainly overthrows it. Josephus said that on the very night of the eclipse the high priest Matthias was deposed from office by Herod. This Matthias had a pontificate of about nine or ten months. This is proved by Jeremias. 28 The proof centers primarily on the fact that Josephus (or rather, Nicolas of Damascus who was eyewitness to the events) said that Matthias had been appointed to the high priesthood when the scheme of Antipater to kill his father (Herod) was first discovered. Josephus records that there was a seven month span from that time until Antipater returned from Rome to Jerusalem for trial. 29 Within three days after Antipater got back to Jerusalem, Herod dispatched messengers to Rome asking Augustus’ approval to have Antipater executed. The couriers would have taken no longer than three months to go to Rome and return. But a few days before news came back from Augustus that Antipater could be executed, the eclipse occurred. Notice what these facts mean.
Matthias the high priest was deposed on the night of the eclipse. So, by adding the seven months between the discovery of Antipater’s plot (when Matthias was promoted to the high priesthood) and Antipater’s arrival back in Jerusalem, plus the two or three months for the messengers to go to Rome and return to Herod, there was a period no longer than ten months (probably closer to nine months) for Matthias’ tenure as high priest.
This may seem technical and complicated, but the results of the inquiry can help us very much in showing that the September 15th eclipse could not be the one referred to by Josephus. It would involve an impossible situation regarding the high priesthood of this Matthias. Indeed, this very Matthias was a famous personality in matters dealing with the priesthood and something happened to him during his priesthood that was remembered hundreds of years afterward. What was this?
Josephus records a remarkable occurrence that happened during the time Matthias was high priest. He had a dream prior to the day of a “fast” in which he was sexually intimate with a woman. This rendered Matthias ritualistically unclean (no one could be sexually intimate even with his wife prior to conducting the sacred ceremonies of the Day of Atonement). Nothing like this had happened before in the history of the priesthood.
The Sanhedrin had to make a decision about the matter. They determined that Matthias should step down from his office for one day. In the meantime a relative of his was commissioned to perform the sacred duties on that fast day. They appointed Joseph, the son of Ellemus, to stand in for Matthias. This incident was so unique in the conduct of temple ceremonies that it was talked about in the Talmud centuries later. 30 And significantly, the Talmud records that the day of Matthias’ disqualification was the Day of Atonement. This was the great fast day of the Jews commanded in the Law (cf. Acts 27:9).
But how does any of this show that the September 15th eclipse could not be the one referred to by Josephus? It is quite simple to disqualify it. If this eclipse were the correct one, it would mean that Matthias’ pontificate ended on that very night (recall that Herod dismissed Matthias on the day of the eclipse), and that his high priesthood lasted nine or ten months at most. To go backwards nine or ten months from September 15th covers a period of time in which no Day of Atonement occurred. The previous Day of Atonement would have happened at least a month or two before Matthias was appointed to the high priesthood. These clear facts of history are certain on this matter. This shows that the eclipse of September 15, 5 B.C.E. thoroughly fails as a candidate’s. 31
The Only Eclipse that Meets All Factors
The eclipse of Josephus had to have been that of January 10, 1 B.C.E. All the events mentioned by Josephus fit quite comfortably with this eclipse, and only with this eclipse as we will soon show. There were three months from this eclipse to the next Passover. The messengers sent by Herod to Rome at the end of Antipater’s trial in the previous autumn would have arrived back in Palestine (to Herod in Jericho) in 2 or 2 ½ months, which is very reasonable. At the death of Herod in late January, messengers immediately would have been sent to Rome to inform Caesar of Herod’s death, thus permitting Sabinus to arrive from Rome just after the Passover to secure to the imperial treasury the property of Herod. Matthias would also have been available for the Day of Atonement in the previous autumn.
In fact, everything fits beautifully in other ways. There is a Jewish document called the Megillath Taanith (Scroll of Fasting, though it records festival days too) which was composed, initially, not long after the destruction of Jerusalem in C.E. 70. This scroll mentions two semi-festival days during which no mourning was permitted. One is Kislev 7. The month of Kislev corresponds in most years with our December. The other commemorative day was Schebat 2. This month answers to our late January or early February. No one knows why these two days of feasting are commemorated yet they must have been days of joy ordained before the destruction of Jerusalem in C.E. 70. What did they honor?
An early Jewish commentator who probably lived in the 7th century wrote a brief remark to Kislev 7 (December 5th), “The day of Herod’s death.” However, M. Moise Schwab, who studied the information about the scroll very extensively, felt that it was really the second of the days, Schebat 2 (January 28th) that was the actual day commemorating Herod’s death. 32 And interestingly, this latter date fits remarkably well with the January 10th eclipse of Josephus. Herod’s death on this very day would have occurred 18 days after the eclipse. All the information in Josephus about Herod’s activities between the eclipse and his death fits nicely with the chronological facts.
Indeed, even the earlier date of Kislev 7 (December 5th), which the commentator associated with Herod’s death, may have relevance too. Look at what could have happened on that day. This could have been the time when the two rabbis (who were later executed) provoked the young men to tear down the golden eagle from the eastern portal of the temple. Such an occasion could well have inspired some commemorative date in which it was accomplished. In fact, this is the thing that Josephus reports.
The Importance of the Rabbis Who Were Executed
Those rabbis were, as Josephus states,
“two of the most eloquent men among the Jews, and most celebrated interpreters of the Jewish laws, and men well beloved by the people because of the education of their youth; for all those who were studious of virtue frequented their lectures every day.” 33
They urged their students to tear down the eagle which they considered idolatrous in order that “lasting fame and commemoration” be afforded them and their pious act. And interestingly, the reason why the Megillath Taanith was composed in the first place was to put aside days for “lasting fame and commemoration.” It may well be that the day on which the golden eagle was torn down and also the day of Herod’s death were recorded in the Megillath Taanith for commemoration because on that very day was when a cry went throughout Jerusalem that “the king was dead.” 34 Though the report was false, it prompted the young men to storm the east wall of the temple and in full daylight they cut down the golden eagle. Since the Feast of Dedication was fast approaching (a festival commemorating the overthrow of idolatry in the time of the Maccabees), the two rabbis could well have incited the youths to destroy the golden eagle at that important period of time since they were teaching that it was now “a very proper time to defend the cause of God.” 35
Then what happened? The youths were rounded up and the two illustrious rabbis who had instigated the destruction of the eagle were brought before Herod. But strangely, Herod decided not to bring them to trial in Jerusalem. He had their trial transferred to Jericho. The principal reason that Herod did this was no doubt because of his ill health and he needed to be in Jericho. He then ordered that the Sanhedrin should meet together with him in that desert oasis. A quorum of the Sanhedrin followed Herod to Jericho and the trial in which the two rabbis were condemned took place.
Now, the Megillath Taanith records an unknown fast day for commemoration. It was Tebeth 9 (January 6th in 1 B.C.E.). This could very well have been the day the rabbis were tried and sentenced. And three days later on Friday, January 9th, the rabbis were burnt alive to correspond with the lunar eclipse that was predicted for that night. Delaying their execution to the eve of the eclipse (and especially since there were no biblical festival days involved as with the March 13, 4 B.C.E. eclipse) would have allowed Herod to tell the superstitious that even God himself was frowning on the sacrilegious deeds of the two rabbis and that God would express His displeasure that night with an eclipse.
Herod would have died 18 days later on Schebat 2 (January 28th). As mentioned before, this date is one of the undesignated festival days of the Jews mentioned in the Megillath Taanith and that it points to the time of Herod’s death makes good sense. Just before Herod died, he said, “I know that the Jews will celebrate my death by a festival.” 36 And Schebat 2 (as well as Kislev 7 for the tearing down of the eagle and Tebeth 9 for the sentencing of the rabbis) fits the historical timetable perfectly. Also, the events that Josephus said happened between Herod’s death and the next Passover can be chronologically placed in a reasonable way.
Only the Eclipse of January 10 Will Work
Recognizing that the January 10, 1 B.C.E. eclipse is the one mentioned by Josephus has much historical value in another way. Scholars have wondered for years why Josephus referred only to this one eclipse out of the hundreds that occurred over the generations that he covered in his histories. Why single out this one? Indeed, during the reign of Herod there were at least 32 lunar eclipses visible in Palestine (20 partial and 12 total). 37 There must have been special reasons for heralding this single eclipse associated with Herod’s death. And so there were.
Other than the historical importance of Herod’s death itself, it should be remembered that it was also the very day following the martyrdom of the two illustrious rabbis whom the whole nation admired and esteemed. This was an important event for commemoration to the Jewish people. But there was a national event even more disastrous than that. The occasion of the rabbi’s deaths led directly to 3000 Jewish worshippers at the next Passover being slaughtered in the temple precincts. 38 This massacre, which was ordered by Archelaus (the successor to Herod) resulted in the unusual cancellation of the whole Passover services, a requirement mentioned in Numbers 9:6–14.
This was a most extraordinary event. Such a repeal of Passover services because of 3000 dead bodies being within the temple precincts was a most unique circumstance in the history of temple services. Nothing like it had ever happened before. The suspension of this most important Jewish festival in the calendar of the Jews (like our government today forbidding the celebration of Christmas this year) would long have been remembered by the generality of the Jewish people. Yet, there was another event associated with this cancellation of Passover that would equally have brought that year to special remembrance by the Jews.
This slaughter of the 3000 Jewish worshippers in the temple led directly to a major war between the Jews and the Romans that occupied the whole of the following summer and autumn. Josephus said that this war was no minor skirmish. It was the most significant conflict to occur in Palestine from the time of Pompey in 63 B.C.E. to the Roman/Jewish War of C.E. 66 to 73. 39 In order to subdue this Jewish rebellion, the Romans had to muster their three legions in Syria, plus auxiliary forces (about 20,000 armed men in all), to put down the rebellion that erupted. At the end of the war, 2,000 Jews were crucified and 30,000 sold into slavery. This was a very serious war in Palestine. And what started it? It was the death of the rabbis associated with the eclipse of the Moon near Herod’s death. This is one of the major reasons that that eclipse was long remembered by the Jews.
In the next chapter, it will be shown that all these important historical events could only have occurred in 1 B.C.E. This major Roman/Jewish War that Josephus records took place in the summer and autumn of 1 B.C.E. and it was fought as a result of Herod’s death, the killing of the rabbis, and the Passover massacre. For this reason, no lunar eclipses beyond the one of 10 January, 1 B.C.E. need be considered as being the eclipse mentioned by Josephus. The next chapter will demonstrate why this is the case.
1 At the defeat of Antiochus Epiphanes.
2 Josephus, Antiquities XVII. 164–167.
4 Leviticus 20:14; 21:9; Joshua 7:25–26.
5 Sanhedrin XI.4.
6 Kraus, Die Mischna, Sanhedrin, 302.
7 Sanhedrin, 64.
8 The Theodosian Code, XVI.viii. 18.
9 Gaster, Theodore H., Festivals of the Jewish Year, 227.
10 Josephus, War I.35 with 562–563 and Esther 9:10.
11 Ibid., I.400.
12 Philo, Quod. Deus, 144, 148, 166, 180.
13 Rashi, Commentary on Genesis 27:39 and Numbers 24:19.
14 Josephus, War I. 123, 181.
15 E.g. Livy, XLIV.37.
16 Josephus, War II. 18.
17 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.221.
18 Josephus, War II.40.
19 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.222.
21 Josephus, War II.52.
22 Ibid., 46; Josephus, Antiquities XVII.257.
23 Josephus, War II.23.
25 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.264.
26 T. Barnes, Journal of Theological Studies, XIX (1968), 209.
27 Vermes and Millar, The New Schurer, 326.
28 Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 162.
29 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.82; War I.606.
30 Horayoth, 12b; Yoma 12b; Megilla 9b.
31 These factors may be technical, but they are real proofs to the experts.
32 S. Burnaby, The Jewish Calendar, 261.
33 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.149.
34 Ibid., 155.
35 Josephus, War, I.649.
36 Ibid., 660.
37 M. Kudlek, and Mickler E., Solar and Lunar Eclipses of the Ancient Near East, 156.
38 Josephus, Antiquities XVII.218.
39 Josephus, Contra Apion I.34.
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