[asa] Josephus, Herod, and Jesus

From: Ted Davis <TDavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Thu Dec 03 2009 - 15:28:23 EST

A few days ago there was some discussion of the star of Bethlehem, and someone brought up the idea that Josephus did not actually imply that Herod died in 4 BC. I looked up the source for this information: David W. Beyer, "Josephus Reexamined: Unveiling the Twenty-second Year of Tiberius," in Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, ed. E. Jerry Vardaman (Mercer Univ Press, 1998), pp. 85-96.
 
Beyer examined all of the editions of Josephus he could find in the British Library and the Library of Congress, including manuscript versions as early as the 12th century that predate Gutenberg. He found, interestingly, that the editions prior to 1544 all put the death of Philip (Herod's son) in the 22nd year of Tiberius' reign (i.e., 36 AD), and most of them also say that he reigned for 32 or 35 years. Later editions usually have both of these numbers wrong; they have 20 years and 37 years, respectively. Differences in the latter number (the length of Philip's reign) probably reflect different ways of calculating the length of his official reign, based on when he was proclaimed tetrarch (1 AD) vs when he effectively ruled in that capacity (4 AD). Coins offer evidence of a 37-year reign which, if reckoned from his father's death, would put that event in 1 BC. Beyer offers further evidence for that date, and concludes that Jesus was born in 2 BC--the date unanimously favored by patristic authors.
 
Other essays in the same book, however, argue no less vigorously for alternatives: Jesus was born either in 6 BC or even as early as 12 BC (a suggestion I have never heard before that seems outrageous to me). In each case some of the evidence seems convincing, but they can't all be right. I remain agnostic about the year of the nativity, but the information about Josephus is very interesting and I tend to favor 2 BC as the best suggestion.
 
Another essay defends the historicity of the slaughter of the innocents, which Josephus did not mention--though he did mention numerous other, much larger, massacres that Herod orchestrated. All of the evidence I am aware of suggests that the murder of children in Bethlehem was small potatoes, from Herod's point of view, and I have no reason to put modern scepticism over St Matthew on this one.
 
Ted

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Received on Thu Dec 3 15:28:48 2009

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