Tag Archives: Josephus

The role of Hebrew in the Jewish-Aramaic World

The influence of Aramaic and Hebrew on Jewish life around the first-century.

The goal of any information gleaned from this inquiry is to find a possible connection with Hebrew being a part of the first-century Corinthian liturgy. A subsequent purpose is to confirm or deny an assertion by the fourth-century Bishop of Salamis, Epiphanius, that the mystery tongues of Corinth had its roots in the Hebrew language.

We cannot assume any synagogue outside of Israel, let alone Corinth, used the Hebrew language as part of their religious service. So, it requires digging deeper into the relationship between Hebrew and Aramaic to find answers.


This is a difficult investigation given that Aramaic was the standard language of the eastern shores of the Mediteranean all the way to the borders of Afghanistan, and maybe even further. Its influence was so great and its similarity to Hebrew quite close, that it is hard to find where Hebrew fit in.

The investigation unfolds how wide and expansive the Aramaic influence became. Secondly, one discovers about the Hebrew language from the most ancient times, its use and disuse throughout the centuries, and how it became a sacred language.

The Greek language and culture had a similar impact, but this is left for another article.

The topic is full of controversies between various scholars. Because of the large breadth of subject matter, this article tends to go on some interesting tangents. It is hoped the reader doesn’t mind, as this has been a fun research adventure.

The universal power of Aramaic, and later, Greek languages were important contributors to the Jewish faith. Both Aramaic and Greek were universal languages of law and commerce that dominated Jewish life and thought during different and often overlapping epochs. However, because of these influences, Hebrew was pushed aside as the mother tongue in Jewish life. On the other hand, it was still retained as a religious language. Small pockets in southern Israel may have used the language in everyday usage, but this was a minority.

Perhaps the assertion about Hebrew is too great. Scholars are all over the map about the use of Hebrew after 500 BC.

The important part of the Hebrew language narrative is this: the Hebrew language became a vital component in retaining a distinct Jewish identity under occupation and in foreign lands.

The use of Hebrew as the native tongue from 1200 to around 700 BC is considered an acceptable theory. The interchangeability of Hebrew and Aramaic throughout the 600 BC to around 400 AD is highly controversial that contains a variety, if not, opposite arguments. Once Alexander the Great arrived on the scene and conquered a great many regions, ethnic groups, and languages, this changed the linguistic story again. Greek overtook Aramaic as the universal language of commerce, law, and literature in the Middle East, but not entirely. The combination of these three make for a complex relationship.

The fall of Hebrew and the rise of Aramaic.

Hebrew and Aramaic are offshoots of Canaanite family of languages (which includes Phoenician). This fact is forwarded by the revered paleographer Joseph Naveh,1 the late influential philologist, linguist and member of the Israeli based Academy of the Hebrew Language, Edward Yechezkel Kutscher,2 and the current professor of the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages, at the Bar-Ilan University, Prof. Gad Sarfatti.3

Both Aramaic and Hebrew drew from Phoenician for their respective writing scripts. In fact, from the tenth to ninth-centuries BC, Phoenician held an international status.4 Phoenician is severely under-represented in historic coverage, but is one of the leading contributors to the writing systems we use today. The Aramaic language remained more closely aligned with the Phoenician writing system until the 700s, where it began to alter its letters.5 The Hebrew writing system began this morphosis much earlier.

The patriarch of the Israeli people, Jacob, was firstly called a wandering Aramean in the Book of Deuteronomy.6 This reference shows how close the Aramean and Hebrew cultures and languages are finely woven together.7

In fact, the influence of Aramaic is seen weaved throughout the Hebrew language history. After the fall of the Persians to the Greeks, the Jewish scribes adapted the Aramaic script exclusive to their culture and language which is called the Jewish Script. The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are representative of this Jewish script. The ancient Hebrew script did continue, albeit in a minority position. This writing system is best represented today in the Samaritan Pentateuch.

Hebrew was supplanted by Aramaic as early as 740 BC when the Assyrians conquered and controlled Northern Israel. As a result, many Israelites were exiled as slaves throughout the Assyrian empire and those that remained were forced under Assyrian rule.8 This was the era where the idiom the lost ten tribes was established. These peoples were never allowed to return in any great quantity.

The Hebrew language likely died in northern Israel with all the Israelites who were deported.

The language story is different with the kingdom of Judah. The tribe remained independent until about 600 BC when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and deported a great number of its citizens.

The Hebrew language still remained intact with the kingdom of Judah. A Biblical account about a Babylonian military buildup around Jerusalem showed vibrancy of the Hebrew language here. The Jerusalem leaders requested the Babylonians to only speak in Aramaic when shouting their demands. When the Babylonians openly shouted in Hebrew, the common person understood. If they spoke in Aramaic, only the elite of Jerusalem could comprehend.9

The Babylonian Empire was overtaken by the Persians, and a new ruler controlled the lands. Aramaic remained the principle language. Around 537 BC, the Persian King, Cyrus, granted exiled remnants of the tribe of Judah to return to Jerusalem. One of the important figures in this re-establishment was Ezra the Scribe.

Not much is known about Ezra, except that he comes from a priestly line and that he was born in Babylon. 10 He was a Levite, not from the tribe of Judah. His aims were to reconstitute the Hebrew faith throughout the Hebrew nation. The center for the Hebrew faith was Jerusalem, and any rebirth or restoration would have to be issued from here.

He came at a critical point of Hebrew history. The nation of Israel, along with the Temple and all its traditions, had collapsed. The people were dispersed and no longer masters of their own destinies. There was an identity crisis. How could a member of the tribe of Judah, or one of the ten tribes, retain their ancient identity? Ezra’s task was for the reconstruction of the ancient Hebrew faith.

The Babylonian influenced Israelites who lived in the more northern reaches of Israel for almost 283 years were totally acculturated. Aramaic customs and language were the norm. Their assimilation into the bigger culture was a great challenge to reverse.

The members of the tribe of Judah were under occupation for over 130 years—a little over three generations. If one uses current immigration stats as a measuring stick, the third generation usually loses the original language in favour of the larger one.11 Ezra himself discovered 50% of Jewish children did not know the language of Judah12 at all during this time. For those 50% that did know the language, Hebrew may have been a second language to them. He did not qualify whether this fluency was beginner or advanced.

Ezra was pragmatic and realized rebuilding the Israelite identity through education and reinstituting the language were two very different but important entities. The following narrative taken from the Book of Nehemiah demonstrates the new direction the Israelite identity was heading:

Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month.

Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam on his left hand. . .

They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.13

Were the people listening in Aramaic or Hebrew?

The text described Ezra the Scribe reading from a podium along with what appears to be a third party explaining what he read in terms the audience could understand.

The word combinations emphasize instructing over translating in either the original or the modern Hebrew sense. The emphasis here was on education, not language.

A shift on understanding this Biblical text happens later on where it is understood more from a language perspective. This is particularly found in later Jewish Babylonian Aramaic writings. The traditional interpretation became this: Ezra read from the Law in the original Hebrew and a translator and/or translators stood by immediately explaining the reading in Aramaic.

The Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 21a and b have an interesting commentary on both the writing script and language employed by Ezra:

Mar Zutra or, as some say, Mar ‘Ukba said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the sacred [Hebrew] language; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashshurith script and Aramaic language. [Finally], they selected for Israel the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the hedyototh. Who are meant by the ‘hedyototh’? — R. Hisda answers: The Cutheans. And what is meant by Hebrew characters? — R. Hisda said: The libuna’ah script.14

The Talmud reference infers Ezra transformed the rite from Aramaic only (often referred to as Assyrian) to a new combination that included both Hebrew as a sacred language and Aramaic as the native tongue. The Hebrew script was dropped for an Aramaic one but the underlying text remained in Hebrew while the old Hebrew script was reserved for the Cutheans – otherwise known as the Samaritans. The Samaritans history is a clouded one. They were allegedly a group of Assyrians, either forced or voluntary, that came to northern Israel after the expulsion of the Israelites and mixed in with the northern Hebrew residents that were allowed to remain. The Samaritans believed (and still do) that they adhere to the true religion of the Israelites before the fall to Babylon. Their main literary source is the Samaritan Pentateuch whose script is in old Hebrew. Traditional historic Judaism has always been at arms-length with this group and often openly hostile.15

What is meant by the libuna’ah script? Rashi is alleged to have explained it as “Large characters as employed in amulets.”16 An amulet is a physical object usually worn by a person that is considered to have magical properties of protection. They were written mostly in Aramaic and sometimes in Hebrew.17

Sanhedrin 21a and b show the progression of Hebrew as a religious language and the cross-over into Aramaic. It is not a complete assimilation but a dual relationship.

A graphic example showing the Aramaic influence on the Hebrew writing system.

The above image demonstrates the influence of Aramaic on the Hebrew writing system. The verse is a portion of Deuteronomy 31:24.

  1. The Israelites around King David’s time used paleo-Hebrew as its writing system. The sample here is from the Samaritan Pentetauch which has traditionally maintained the paleo-Hebrew script even until today.18

  2. This Dead Sea Scroll example comes from a fragment.19 It is written in Aramaic script but has a distinct Judaic influence. Some call it the Jewish Script, while others call it the Square Script. The image has been colourized by me from the black and white original for aesthetic purposes.

  3. This sample is from the Aleppo Codex (10th century AD, copied in Tiberius, Israel).20 Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this was one of the oldest Biblical Hebrew texts available. This style and period is called the Masoretic text. It is an advancement of the earlier Aramaic influenced Jewish Script. This has become the standard Hebrew religious script in use today.

Public Reading in Hebrew. Interpreting in the local language.

The references found in Talmud Megillah 9a to 24b, probably written around the fourth-century, have scattered references to the rite of reading the Scripture in the original language of Hebrew and simultaneously being translated into Aramaic. The amount of readers, and the number of interpreters varied according to the sacredness of the text. The Megillah references demonstrate the tensions between the use of Hebrew and its adaptation to the Aramaic Jewish community. In addition, the resolutions are uneven in application but do show some general evolution.

More information on the Jewish custom of reading in Hebrew with an interpreter(s) can be found at The Jewish Reader in the Ancient Liturgy

Instructing in Hebrew. Interpreting in the local language.

An ancient Jewish custom was created about religious instruction outside of Israel. The instructor teaches in Hebrew while a third party simultaneously translates it Aramaic. This custom was expanded to mean instruction in Hebrew while a third party simultaneously translated it in Greek, Latin, or whatever the local language.

For more information see The Language of Instruction in the Corinthian Church

How invasive was the Aramaic language in the Middle East?

One can see a shift from Biblical Hebrew to Aramaic in many, but not all, pieces of literature after 600 BC. Part of the Book of Daniel was written in Aramaic. The non-canonical books; Tobit, Jubilees, Enoch, the Greek Esther, and the second book of Maccabees were written in Aramaic21

Josephus wrote his War of the Jews originally in what is understood to be Aramaic and later translated it into Greek.22 However, Aramaic may be a leap in thought. He stated that his book, the Wars of the Jews, was originally written in his native language (τῇ πατρίῳ and sent to the upper Barbarians. He did not define his native tongue, which could have been Aramaic, or a cross between Aramaic and Hebrew (Galilean). However, Aramaic is strengthened by the statement about upper Barbarians. The upper Barbarians were likely the eastern reaches of the Middle-East who spoke Aramaic.

There are numerous transliterated Semitisms found in the Greek New Testament that are labelled Aramaic. On first glance, this appears correct. On the other hand, some researchers, especially David Bivin and Joshua Tilton, have found this type of conclusion too simplistic. David Bivin has spent most of his adult life studying the intersection of languages in first-century Judea, and he, along with Joshua Tilton manage a website, jerusalemperspective.com, that is focused on better understanding Jesus’ life and teachings. They have constructed a page devoted to the Transliterations of Hebrew, Aramaic and Hebrew/Aramaic Words in the Synoptic Gospels whereby they caution against any quick conclusions. They find that it is hard to distinguish between Aramaic and Hebrew transliterations found in the Greek. Firstly, because Hebrew and Aramaic are close relatives linguistically. Secondly, because there were Greek transliteration traditions borrowed from earlier texts that don’t reflect the current language. Therefore, one should not use transliterations as a tool for discovering what language was spoken during the first-century.

Aramaic is blamed in a Latin church document called the Ambrosiaster text on the problem in the early church of Corinth — Hebrew women speaking Aramaic in the Corinthian assembly unannounced.23 This too could be the solution to the Corinthian tongues controversy, but Epiphanius’ account of it being the problem of instructing in Hebrew and a dispute between different Greek ethnic groups appears a more viable one.

It is inconceivable to believe that the Jewish faith existed without the Hebrew language. The first century Jewish writer, Josephus, related that Hebrew literacy was up again in the first century, “and it is ordered to bring the children up (in) the letters concerning the Laws and to place upon (them) the works of the ancestors.”24 This may have been restricted to reading by rote. It does not infer written or spoken fluency.

The picture being developed through all this is one of Aramaic being the dominant language of home and civil affairs, and Hebrew, having pockets of localized usage, and emphasized for religious instruction.

Any savvy reader knowledgeable of Aramaic will realize that the references to Aramaic are general terms. Aramaic, like any international language, had many dialects and localisms which should be noted. For those interested in finding out exactly what the important ones relative to this narrative are, go to Israel’s Dead Sea Scroll website. For a later history of the Aramaic language go to peshitta.org’s website for information. Another good historical reference that includes the state of the Aramaic language today is the article Where Do Languages Go to Die?

The rise of Jewish literature

Jewish-Aramaic literature began to slowly grow in prominence after the destruction of the Temple by Vespasian and Titus in 70 AD. The center of Judaism moved from Jerusalem to a central Israel city called Yavneh. This was directly influenced by the Romans. Yavneh was one of many cities whom the Romans moved those who had surrendered.25 This city was of particular interest because this is the place where Johanan Ben Zakkai was placed and began his leadership to rebuild the Jewish identity. His influence was felt both in the Jewish Middle-East and abroad.

Jewish-Greek literature did not follow the same pattern. Publication and distribution of Jewish-Greek literature was hardly existent. Neither is there any indication of a formal Jewish-Greek structure of religious life or leadership hierarchy. This never developed. It is also remarkable that there are so few pieces of Jewish-Greek poetry or literature about the loss of the Temple from the first or second-century.

Why is there so little? It is hard to find substantiated information on this subject from open access sites or books. Perhaps most Jews that lived in the diaspora were slaves from the various revolts against Rome and were not granted privileges or luxuries such as the art of writing – a process usually reserved for the wealthy. Or, as a conquered entity, the diasporan Jews were treated as a third-class residents such as Irish-Catholics in the 1800s under Protestant rule, the Incas under Spanish supervision, natives in North America by colonialists, or the African slaves in U.S. by plantation owners. Life and conditions were so harsh with these groups that no leadership, social, or literary culture was allowed to thrive. These thoughts are just speculations. There has been no documentation found so far that conclusively explains this lack of Jewish-Greek documentation around the first-century.

Did Hebrew completely die as a mother-tongue?

This is a highly-disputed question among academics concerned in these matters. The following shows just how divided scholars are.

Bernard Spolsky, Professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, who is well-regarded for his expertise in applied linguistics, looked into the matter of the use of Hebrew in post-deportation Israel and concluded that Hebrew was utilized more in southern than northern Israel.

It does seem however that Hebrew was better maintained, or at least less influenced by Aramaic and other languages in Judea than in Galilee, an area where a great number of other peoples had been settled during the Babylonian exile.”26

Spolsky argues that one should not rule out the use of Hebrew entirely. The Dead Sea Scrolls show Hebrew progressing as a language. He rightly points out the Mishnah was written in a Hebrew form. It could easily have been written in Aramaic if the loss of Hebrew was so dramatic, but it was not. He also does not believe that Hebrew was relegated entirely to the language of academies and rabbis.27

The learned professor from the Academy of the Hebrew Language, Edward Yechezkel Kutscher, if he was still alive today, would have argued a slight emendation to Spolsky’s reference to the Mishhah being in Hebrew form. He believed that Mishnaic Hebrew was an evolving form of literature. Mishnaic Hebrew died out somewhere in the second-century AD, and was used only as a literary medium after that period.28 In fact, the first movement that first composited the Mishnah in written form around 200 AD, did not fully understand the Hebrew words.29

Catherine Hezser, in her book, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, believed that prior to 165 BC, Hebrew was restricted only to the priestly class. After 165 BC (The Maccabean period where Israel became an independent state), Hebrew expanded to a greater mass of people.30 As for education, Greek was preferred because of the economic and business advantages.31 Only a passive knowledge of Hebrew was required by elementary school Aramaic students.32

The book, Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda edited by William Horbury contests that the cultural elite only knew Aramaic, and the peasantry conversed in Hebrew.33

The late Gedaliah Alon, a very well studied professor at the Hebrew University, contended that Hebrew and Aramaic were well documented and coexisted throughout the Greek diaspora. However, he simply teased the reader and stated that he would not dwell on this in any detail.34

Julio Trebolle Barrera, a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic studies at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, also finds that Hebrew continued.

The linguistic map of Palestine around the turn of the era and at the moment when Christianity was born is marked by great differences in language. In Jerusalem and Judaea, Hebrew was spoken for preference, with Aramaic as a second language. Hebrew underwent a period of renaissance starting from the nationalistic revolt by the Maccabess (mid-2nd cent. BCE). At the same time there was also a true renaissance of Hebrew literature (Ben Sira, Tobit, Jubiless, Testament of Naphtali, writing of the Qumran Community, etc.). The coining of money with Hebrew inscription is further proof of the revival of Hebrew and of its official importance. Jesus of Nazareth definitely spoke Aramaic, but it cannot be excluded that he also used Hebrew and even Greek. In the Mediterranean coastal area and in the Galilee region they preferred to speak Aramaic somewhat more than Greek. In this area Hebrew was only a literary language.35

According to Irenaeous, Eusebius, and Jerome, the Book of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.36 This is a discounted theory today, but it shows that the ancient writers appealed to source Hebrew literature for credibility of the faith.

See Hebrew and the First Language of Mankind for more info on Hebrew considered as a divine language of religion.

A reference from the Sefer Haggada demonstrates how far Aramaic was encroaching on the Hebrew language and there was resistance to it. “And the Lord spoke from Sinai. This is the Hebrew language.”37 There was a concerted effort to resist the inclusion of foreign languages in their liturgy and prayers. “For R. Johanan declared: if anyone prays for his needs in Aramaic [ie. a foreign tongue] the ministering Angels do not pay attention to him because they do not understand that language.”38

However, not everything was to be done in Hebrew. This was especially noted with the language of prayer. Whatever language the prayer was originally produced in, was allowed to remain in that language. For example, Talmud Babli Megillah established that whatever prayers were originally written in Aramaic, were to remain in Aramaic throughout the diaspora.39

By the ninth-century AD, Hebrew definitely had been dead for many centuries. The writing system continued to lack vowels. Greek, along with Latin, with their vowels and punctuation, became much easier vehicles for the expansion of literacy. The only way to know how to pronounce a Hebrew or Aramaic word properly was passed on through generations by oral traditions which was easily influenced by localisms. The pressures to adapt the Jewish script had yet another motivation – the transmission of Jewish thought in life was becoming increasingly wrapped in the knowledge of three dead languages – Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, and Aramaic. This skill was very technical and fewer people had this ability as each generation passed. The loss of pronunciation naturally led to ambiguity of interpretation.

A Jewish group of scholars and Karaite scribes in Tiberius and Jerusalem, called the Masoretes, laboured to retain the ancient pronunciation and speech that existed in the ancient Hebrew text. The tradition set-forth by Ben Asher standardized these additions, called niqqud, in the tenth century. The creation of the niqqud system inserted vowels and alternative vocalizations of consonants in the text. This system became common in the eleventh-century and afterwards as part of the Hebrew text. These were placed above and below the consonants.

For more information see A History of Chapters and Verses in the Hebrew Bible

What does this all mean?

In general terms, with a few exceptions, we can conclude the following. Hebrew was spoken as a native language in and around Jerusalem during the first-century, but it did not extend much further. Aramaic was the language for the majority of Jews who lived east of the Mediteranean to the borders of modern day Afghanistan. Jewish leadership after the destruction of the Temple moved to Aramaic as the central language of communication but Hebrew still held the role of a sacred language in religious worship and instruction.

The Aramaic language was so influential in Jewish life, it is conceivable that those Jews who immigrated to Greek-dominated lands brought Aramaic with them: Greek for commerce and civil affairs, Aramaic for family life, and Hebrew for religious needs.

The findings show it is plausible that the role of Hebrew as a sacred language was potentially the cause of Paul’s address about tongues in I Corinthians.


Everyone Should Read Josephus


Why everyone who likes ancient Middle Eastern history should read the works of Josephus.

The contributions of the first century writer, historian, and apologist, Josephus are innumerable. His words wield such rich treasures in historical and theological artifacts, and are so well known for almost two millennia, that he likely is the most taken-for-granted author ever. Old English print copies, online versions, and even a movie has covered a portion or all of his works, which makes him so celebrated, that it feels like qualifying anything from him is stating the obvious. His works are well prepared and documented, and carry little controversy or surprise to almost anything. He simply adds more details to the already known historical records, and does a superb job with this, but his narrative writing form is very gripping – especially the The Jewish War.

There are many parallels to the New Testament record and then some more. Nowhere else can one find such in-depth information about the Herod dynasty than his accounts.

Josephus was captured by the Romans in a rebellion against them, and became a slave and interpreter for the Emporer Vespasian. He was considered a defector by the Jewish community. The majority of his writing was spent to reestablish two things: reacceptance into the Jewish community by defending Jewish values, history, and literature from a Graeco-Roman perspective. Secondly it was to defend Judaism against the Graeco-Roman community who disbelieved the Jewish accounts, and found them inferior to their own religious beliefs and historical records. He covers theology, and Biblical texts in great detail because of this.

One can find special accounts about Moses, Noah’s Ark and many more not found anywhere else.

Jacob Feeley, a PhD Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania in Ancient History, published a state-of-the-union address on academic pursuits of Josephus’ works entitled, The Understudied and Marginal Josephus: Bringing Him into the Conversation, which is well worth taking the time to read.

The writings of Josephus are a must-read for anyone that has an interest or commitment to the New Testament writings, or Jews, wanting to know their own history. His style is not that difficult to comprehend. It is actually a pleasurable read compared to most historical writers.

It should be the first book outside of the Bible given to novices who wish to understand the history and context related to the life of Christ.

There is a reference to Christ, albeit a very small one, and arguably may not even exist in the original text, and one about John the Baptist, which once again is small piece, but preserves the idea that John the Baptist was a prominent figure during that time. What is the most captivating is his coverage on the insurrection, and utter destruction of Jerusalem. He took into account the political, social, and personal complexities of war from both the Roman and Jewish camps that few writers are seldom able to achieve. It is a sad story, but very much fits into why Christ said, “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!” (Mark 13:14-17 NIV) If you read, or have already read Josephus with this in mind, you will know what is meant here.

Josephus’ stories still come alive. As I once stood on the top of Masada and looked out across to the high hills that border around it, the stone rows used by the Romans for their camps are still clearly visible. Masada and those stones have very little meaning outside of Josephus, but because of his words, it caused me to imagine this fortress two thousand years ago, and brought this place alive again.

My copy of Josephus is worn, as shown by the picture above. Once you start reading, it won’t take long to wear the book out, or if you have it on an e-reader, it may establish the top position on your reader list for historical non-fiction.

The works of Josephus can easily be found online, or as an ebook, or in print.

The Olympiad Calendar and the Birth Year of Christ

An explanation of the ancient Greek Olympiad system especially as it relates to the birth year of Christ.

This is part of an unfinished series on the problems and evolution of the calendar system and how it effects dating the year of Christ’s birth.

The ancient Greeks used Olympiads as their yearly dating system. The first Olympiad was conducted in 776 BC. It was calculated in four-year intervals.

For example the first Olympiad happened in 776 and the second occurred in 772 BC.

776 BC = Olympiad 1, not 0. Zero as a mathematical number in the Greco-Roman world was a later invention. Using a calculator without this knowledge to validate later dates can throw off any Olympiad by four years.

The four year interval is not specific enough for most historic purposes. Most modern readers want to know the exact year, not that it happened somewhere unspecified in the four year interval. Later writers tended to use an alpha system to demonstrate which of the four years the Olympiad meant, such as the 184a Olympiad, which would be the first year of the 184th Olympiad.

The first century Roman-Jewish historian, Josephus, sometimes used the regnal dating system. This system was popular in ancient times throughout the Mediterranean basin which defined time according to the birth and death dates of a great leader. However, Josephus was conscious of the fact that this was not accurate and combined it with Olympiads and then went a step further and aligned it with historic battles.

The following is an important example of his use of the Olympiad dating system. He wrote that Herod was first given his title as king by Rome on the 184th Olympiad,1 which translates anywhere between 44/43 and 41/40 BC.

Josephus is the closest historian to the time of Christ and his dates are rarely challenged. There are few other texts outside the Bible and Christian history available with the level of detail that he provides with regards to the Middle East during this time. One must keep in mind though that there are potential manuscript errors. There are many copies of Josephus’ writings with variants in dates and times, though these transcription errors do not directly affect the Herodian calendars, it does raise some suspicions.2

An alternative to Josephus is Julius Africanus. He was a second-century chronicler who gave a detailed account of histories related to the Olympiads. He may be the earliest Christian historian who tried to parallel Greek and Jewish histories according to some sort of timeframe. He critically attempted to establish the first Olympiad and use that as his basis. He believed that before the Olympiad system came into being, a timeline of any history from a Greek perspective could not accurately be deduced.3

In the Africanus account available today, one can find a problem with the Olympiad calculation which was likely related to a transcription error. He wrote, “the 16th year of Tiberius Caesar, which was the second year of the 102d Olympiad”4— this would make Tiberius’ reign, based on the 776 BC date, to be approximately 368 BC. Fortunately, the text mentions earlier in the same document regarding Tiberius 16th year as, “the 202d Olympiad”, which made it to be properly around 30 AD.5

The eighth-century British-Christian writer and scholastic monk, the Venerable Bede, used Olympiads among many others to define historic time periods, though our present manuscripts attributed to him may contain errors. He recorded the first Olympiad to Julius Caesar to be the 183rd Olympiad–20 years off.6

Olympiads were not the dating system of preference by most of the ancient Christian writers and it was not accepted as a universal calendar. Its was a legacy system after the fourth-century AD. However, because of Josephus’ usage, it is an important clue, though not the ultimate one, for the birth year of Christ.

Josephus’ account does not directly address Christ’s birth in his copy, but one can correlate from Josephus’ dated chronology of the Herod family and the Biblical description roughly what year the birth was. For more details on exactly how Josephus and other historians dated these leaders, see:
A Chronology of the Herods

To read more, see the introductory article, What Year was Christ Born? or go to the series Christian Calendar System homepage for a listing of all the articles on the subject.

A Chronology of the Herods: More Details

This article has been removed. The results have been added to the following article, The Chronology of the Herods.

A Chronology of the Herods

Charting the dates and lives of the Herods in relation to the birth of Christ and making sense of the differences between competing histories.

Herod the Great was a living character described by the Bible narrators in reference to the birth of Christ,1 therefore the reign dates of this leader and his family are of particular value.

Herod the Great
Herod the Great, founder of a family dynasty in the Middle East.

However, there are conflicting time-frames in the major historical sources; especially between the first century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus and a number of ancient church accounts. The goal of this work is to first define what exactly Josephus and the church authorities wrote on the subject, compare the dates, find any common patterns, and hopefully reconcile the differences.

The original writers of the Gospels never related time in relationship to the Herod dynasty. This was likely done on purpose because the Gospels were directed to a universal audience who wouldn’t know or even care about the Herod family. Neither did the christian writers want to refer them in relation to time because they were so cruel and barbarous. This action would be too honorific.

Josephus’ Account of the Herods

An 18th century woodcut portrait of Josephus

Here is a chart to visually demonstrate Josephus’ dating. An explanation and analysis is given afterwards:

Josephus’ First Century Account of the Herods
Name Start Date End Date Total Reign
Herod the Great 37 B.C. 3 B.C. 34 years
Archelaus 3 B.C. 7 A.D. 10 years
Philip 3 B.C. 34 A.D. 37 years
Herod the Tetrarch 3 B.C. 38 A.D. 41 years
Lysinias N/A 38 A.D. N/A
Agrippa I 39 A.D. 44 A.D. 5 years
Agrippa II Not Sure Not Sure

An explanation of Josephus’ calculations.

Josephus wrote the most detailed accounts of the Herods, starting with the rise of Herod the Great’s father, and then installation of Herod as the defacto leader of the Jews and about his later posterity. No other ancient manuscript available today contains the same amount of details as his does. He dated the inception of Herod with this statement:

“And thus did this man [Herod] receive the kingdom, having obtained it on the hundred and eighty-fourth Olympiad, when Caius Domitius Calvinus was consul the second time, and Caius Asinius Pollio [the first time]”2

The 184th Olympiad would traditionally date anywhere from 44/43 to 41/40 BC. However, the mentioning of Caius Domitius Calvinus and Caius Asinius Pollio, who were consuls together at Rome during the year of 40 BC only, strengthens Josephus command that Herod was installed at 40 BC.3

Josephus believed that the Romans and the Jews had two totally different concepts of measuring time and to rule out any uncertainty, he had to address both groups. He knew that the 40 BC installation date by Rome was not recognized by the Jewish people. It was common belief by the Jews that rulership only began with the death of their leader.

He remedied this problem by addressing both issues. Josephus claimed that Herod lived 37 years after the Romans had declared him king4 and 34 years after the death of Antigonus, the last Jewish leader.

He documented the fall of Jerusalem and the death of Antigonus at 37 BC: “The destruction befell the city of Jerusalem when Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus were consuls at Rome, on the hundred and eighty-fifth Olympiad, on the third month, on the solemnity of the fast”5 The politicized death of Antigonus was also documented with the fall of Jerusalem. The fast reference is unknown at this time as to what it means, though Josephus intended it for targeting a specific date. The Olympiad puts the destruction of Jerusalem anywhere between 40 and 36 BC but the mentioning of the consuls explicitly dated it at 37 BC.

Either way, whether 37 years from the instalment of Herod by Rome at 40 BC or 34 years from the death of Antigonus at 37 BC, it would place Herods death at 3 BC. This forces historians to place Christ’s birth before 3 BC and not 2 BC or later stated by many ancient christian writers.

Josephus wrote clearly about the dynasty of the Herods, the length of time each one served, when and the important politics that surrounded their offices.

“But in the tenth year of Archelaus’s government… [Caesar] banished him, and appointed Vienna, a city of Gaul, to be the place of his habitation.”6

Archelaus reigned according to Josephus from approximately 3 BC to 7 AD.

He also stated that Archelaus was willed the whole Herodian empire, but due to his ruthlessness and an appeal to Caesar by some dignitaries, it was never completely fulfilled. Instead, Caesar decided that Archelaus would rule half of what Herod the Great occupied, “But for the other half, he divided it into two parts, and gave it to two other of Herod’s sons, to Philip and to Antipas, that Antipas who disputed with Archelaus for the whole kingdom.”7

Philip’s 37 year reign then was from approximately 3 BC to 34 AD. This was understood from the following: “…Philip, Herod’s brother,8 departed this life, in the twentieth year of the reign of Tiberius”.9

Josephus did not give a clear end-date for Antipas, who was known by two other names: Herod, and Herod the Tetrarch. It is easy to suggest that Josephus believed the start to be 3 BC, and judging from some clues in his book, Antiquity of the Jews, Book XVIII:VII,10 his end rule to be the first or second year of Caligula, whom banished him and handed over the tetrarchy to a nephew, Agrippa. His reign likely lasted 41 years from 3 BC to 38 AD.

Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, received fortune instead of prison bars at the death of Tiberius due to the rise of his friend Caligula to the throne. He initially received Philip’s and Lysinias’ tetrarchs in 38 or 39 AD, then acquired Herod the Tetrarch’s territory from Caligula, and finally granted the whole kingdom of Herod the Great by the emperor Claudius. Three years into the reign of Claudius, Agrippa died.11 This would make a five or six year rule from 38 or 39 AD to 44 AD.

The whole kingdom should naturally go to Agrippa’s son, Agrippa II, but was initially denied by the Emperor Claudius, due to Agrippa II’s young age.12 Agrippa II was later given the Tetrarchy of Philip and a bit more13 by Claudius, and his estate was minorly enlarged by Claudius’ successor Nero.14

Josephus was very scant on information concerning Herod the Tetrarch and Lysinias. He does not give any information on how they received their respective tetrarchies, nor does he make any reference to Lysinias as being a relative of the Herod family.

The Christian Chronographies on the Herodian dates.

Turning now to the ancient christian chronologies. They all demonstrate later dates on Herod the Great and the majority of his posterity. These chronologies will be graphed, documented and compared to Josephus and will attempt to answer the question, why are they different?

The first impression concerning the difference is an internal theological influence. Julius Africanus, Tertullian, Eusebius, Jerome and later the Chronicon Paschale represent historical chronologies heavily influenced by the interpretation of an ancient Biblical prophecy found in the Book of Daniel.

An important exception is the Venerable Bede, the great 8th century chronographer and his portrait is covered in detail later on in this article.

Daniel was a Jewish prophet that lived around the 6th century BC. He had a dream about the future of Israel. God spoke to him and concluded that 70 weeks were required for the restoration of Israel to everlasting righteousness.15 The term 70 weeks is controversial and a ubiquitous meaning in scholarly, orthodox, or fundamentalist camps has never been established.

The ancient chronographers came up with various numbers to figure out the 70 weeks. Some calculated 475, while others have 483 or 490 years, depending on how they interpreted the vision. Whatever number they used became a basis for their calendar system. This influence can often be found in the various dating systems: whether the birth of Christ, the passion of Christ, the destruction of Jerusalem, or combination of these.

Many documents relating to historic events between 521 BC to 70 AD owe its existence to this.

Tertullian stretched some historical facts to make it work. For example his dating the first year of office for Darius the Great was dated at 437 BC rather than the recognized 521 BC.

From their concern on correlating this dream with actual timed events, one can find ancient publications highly focused on identifying the actual dates of the Herods with the life of Christ.

The chronological work of Julius Africanus never became authoritative due to perceived flaws in his Daniel calculations. Later Church writers did not reference Tertullian’s claims. The work of Eusebius, which is now only known to us from the liberal usage by Jerome, became the standard.

The Life of Herods According to Jerome

Jerome lived in Bethlehem during the fourth-century. He is considered a theological and historical literary giant. His writings combined elements of the sacred and vulgar, and also synthesized Greek, Hebrew and Latin works.

Jerome’s Fourth Century Chronological Table
Name Start Date End Date Total Reign
Herod the Great 33/32 B.C. 3/4 A.D. 36 years
Herod the Tetrarch
Agrippa I 37/38 A.D. 44/45 A.D. 7 years
Agrippa II 44/45 A.D. 70/71 A.D. 26 Years

A commentary on Jerome’s Herodian dynasty calculations.

One must realize that Jerome and many of the Church fathers were not so much concerned about historical correctness to dating accuracy of the Herods, but their main emphasis was to align Daniel’s prophecy within a historical framework.

Jerome argued that time period Daniel prophesied began from the rebuilding of the Temple at the 65th Olympiad or 520/519 BC, and ended at the last successive High Priest in Olympiad 186.4 (33/32 BC).

“The rule of the high priests comes to an end, and Herodes, a foreigner, became King of the Jews for 37 years.”16

520 to 33 BC is 487 years. What the 487 signifies, and why the symbolic religious numbers of 490 or 483 were not used is not known.

According to Jerome, the first appointment of Herod by Augustus as King of Judea was a ceremonial recognition in 35 BC. Then in 33 BC, when Herod killed all the remnants of the Hyrcanian dynasty, he gained ultimate control, and was not only ceremonially King, but defacto. The term King of the Jews is then used as his title. I think here the significance by Jerome of the second 33/32 BC date is the emphasis on the destruction of the Hyrcanian dynasty and the fulfillment of Daniels prophecy.

In trying to match the Daniel prophecy with the incarnation of Christ, we learn Jerome and/or Eusebius believed that Herod the Great reigned 33/32 BC to 3/4 AD.

There is a dating problem between Jerome’s Chronological Tables and Josephus’ account. Both agree that Herod reigned 37 years but they disagree on the start date and whose death to go by. Josephus believed that Herod the Great’s reign began when he was appointed by Rome at 40 BC, and that Antigonus, the last bloodline Jewish King died at 37 BC. The Chronological Tables boldly state that the 37 years should begin 33/32 BC at the death of the last traditional Jewish High Priest called Hyrcanus. This was surprising to find a contradiction with Josephus, as Jerome and Eusebius were aware of his writings and even quoted him. For example, Jerome thought it important to pen the arrival of his books in his Chronological Tables, “In these days Flavius Josephus writes the twenty books of the Antiquities.”17 He dated the time of publication at 93 AD Perhaps he simply did not agree with Josephus’ chronology, or the Josephus manuscript he read from was different than ours. It is odd why the ancient christian authors never acknowledged a difference in dating between the accounts.

The discrepancy between Josephus and Church accounts is puzzling.

The Chronicon Paschale

“Chronicon Paschale (the Paschal Chronicle), also called Chronicum Alexandrinum, Constantinopolitanum or Fasti Siculi) is the conventional name of a 7th-century Greek christian chronicle of the world. Its name comes from its system of chronology based on the christian paschal cycle; its Greek author named it Epitome of the ages from Adam the first man to the 20th year of the reign of the most August Heraclius.”18

Chronicon Paschale’s Seventh Century account of the Herods
Name Start Date End Date Total Reign
Herod the Great 34 B.C. 3 B.C. 37 years
Archelaus 4 A.D. 13 A.D. 9 years
Herod the Tetrarch 14 A.D. 42 A.D. 28 years
Agrippa I
Agrippa II

A commentary on Chronicon Paschale’s Herodian dynasty calculations.

The Chronicon Paschale discarded Jerome’s assertion that Daniel’s prophecy had ended at 33 BC with the death of the last Hyrcanian leader and instead it was at the death of the last Hasmonean priest, Alexander Jannaeus in 74 BC.

“The anointed leaders lasted from Cyrus the king of the Persians up until Janneaus Alexander, for 483 years, which is 69 “sevens” of years, which were foretold by Daniel in this way”.19

The first year of Augustus Caesar’s reign according to this table was 42 BC, therefore the start reign of Herod was 34 BC, if calculating from the start reign of Augustus, or 35/34 BC based on the Olympiads. “In the 8th year of Augustus Caesar, the Romans gave the kingdom of Judaea to Herodes the son of Antipar and of Cypris, an Arabian woman. Herodes killed Hyrcanus and bestowed the high priesthood not according to the traditional succession, but to some insignificant men.”20

It does succinctly state that in Olympiad 186.2 (35/34 BC), “In the 8th year of Augustus Caesar, the Romans gave the kingdom of Judaea to Herodes the son of Antipar and of Cypris, an Arabian woman. Herodes killed Hyrcanus and bestowed the high priesthood not according to the traditional succession, but to some insignificant men.”21 The first year of Augustus Caesar’s reign according to this table was 42 BC, therefore the start reign of Herod was 34 BC, if calculating from the start reign of Augustus, or 35 BC based on the Olympiads.

The Chronicon Paschale then follows with the statement, “Herodes was king of the Jews for 37 years. In his 35th year, Jesus Christ was born at Bethlehem in Judea”.22 This passage had an earlier illustration that Herod was installed in the “8th year of Augustus Caesar”,23 which subtracted from 42 BC, according to the Chronicon Paschale, would make Herod the Great’s rule from 34 BC to 3 AD and the birth of Christ at 1 AD.

The Venerable Bede

Bede was an eighth-century monk who lived in the Kingdom of Northumbria (northern England, south-east Scotland). He had a comprehensive set of skills from music, astronomy, theology, to natural studies. He is best known for his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis AnglorumThe Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He had a particular interest in calendar systems and is one of the best sources on the subject.

The Venerable Bede’s Late Seventh Century account of the Herods
Name Start Date End Date Total Reign
Herod the Great 35 B.C. 1 A.D. 36 years
Archelaus 1 A.D. 10 A.D. 9 years
Herod the Tetrarch 10 A.D. 34 A.D. 24 years
Agrippa I
Agrippa II

A commentary on the Venerable Bede’s Herodian dynasty calculations.

The Venerable Bede’s chronology of the Herods published in his De Tempore Ratione noted that Herod the Great received his title in 35 BC and reigned for 36 years:

“Lacking in the 11th year of Augustus a principle leader in Judaea, Herod has no relation to go with, since indeed is the son of Antipatri of Ascalon and of Cyprid of Arabia, he assumed the leadership of Judaea under the Romans, which he held fast for 36 years.” 24

The text here relates the difficulty that Herod had in becoming a recognized King, as he was not a Jew by lineage, and his title was forced upon the Jewish nation by Rome. One must note that there was no reference to the death of the high priest as a reference point similar to what previous christian authorities had done. Herod’s year of death was clarified by his statement, “In the 47th year of Augustus, Herod with a disease of intercuris25 water, and worms gushing all over the body, miserably and worthily died.”

He further wrote:

“. . .Archelaus, he reigned 9 years, that is, until the end of Augustus himself. But certainly at this time does not carry on beyond for the ferocity of the Jews against him in the accusations before Augustus, he was exiled to Vienna, a city of the Gauls and for the purpose of reducing the power of the kingship of the Jews, for the arrogance had to be subdued, tetrarchies were made for the four brothers instead of him; Herod, Antipar, Lysias26 and Philip, of which Philip and Herod who was first called Antipas, the tetrarchies were also allotted from the living Archelaus.”

This would make the time of Archelaus reign from 1 – 10 AD.

The text concerning the tetrarchy is confusing. Bede suggests that the tetrarchy, which literally means divided by four, was given immediately to the four brothers from Archelaus, but if one reads further, especially the last sentence, Philip and Herod Antipas (later known as Herod the Tetrarch) received their allotment sooner.

This contradicts Josephus. Josephus believed the area of Judea, including Jerusalem, became a Roman protectorate, never being restored to the Herods again. This is not included in Bede’s analysis.

Then Bede proceeded to state, “Herod the Tetrarch27 holds on as leader of the Jews for 24 years”.28 This would make Herod the Tetrarch’s reign from 10 AD to 34 AD.

The dates given by Bede have been adjusted to correlate with his view that the Church’s conception of 1 AD was wrong and believed the real 1 AD started at our 2 BC. For more information see Bede on the Problem of 1 AD

Bede’s table in this article did not originally have this incorporated in the table and it has been updated.

Hippolyti Thebani

Hippolyti Thebani, otherwise known in English as Hippolyti of Thebes, is an elusive one to describe. The EJ Brill website describes him this way:

6th-9th century. Greece. Author of a universal chronicle (Χρονικόν) in Greek prose, which survives only in fragments. The only clues to the date of composition are doctrinal information apparently known to the author, which places him not earlier than the sixth century, and the manuscript tradition, which begins in the ninth. As he apparently was not familiar with Egyptian geography, we conclude that the Thebes in his toponym is Thebes in Greece (Boeotia).29

Hippolytus of Thebes early 11th Century account of the Herods
Name Start Date End Date Total Reign
Herod the Great
Herod the Tetrarch 4 A.D. 34 A.D. 30 years
Agrippa I 34 A.D. 41 A.D. 7 years
Agrippa II 41 A.D. 67 A.D. 26 years

A commentary on Hippolyti Thebani’s Herodian dynasty calculations.

“For in the fifteenth year of the year of Tiberius was the Divine crucifixion and the Creator of Life was made alive from the dead. And thus Antipas, the son of Herod reigned for 24 years [The Latin reads 23 years]. This is clearly the Herod who struck down the Forerunner [John the Baptist] and on the occasion of the passion of the divine in Jerusalem, he took audience and judged the Lord. And he reigned for another five years after the Creator of Life rose from the dead. He was sent into exile with Herodias to Vienne. After him Agrippas reigned, a descendant of Herod, the son of Aristoboulous, from Miriam, of the son of the first Herod. For this Agrippa, also of Herodian descent, is the one who put to death Jacob Zebedaiah. And he wished to put to death Peter the leader of the Apostles, in order that he would be accepted by the Jews. For he reigned seven years. And after him Agrippa II reigned, under whom Paul was judicially examined along with Festus, 26 years.”30

He based all his calculations on the emperorship of Tiberius Caesar, whom we know began his reign in AD 14. The crucifixion of Christ would then have happened at AD 29. This is a very tight date, as Jesus’ baptism was in the same year, based on the fact that the author Luke said He was baptized in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar and the Apostle John wrote that lived on earth three passovers after this.31 Hippolyti then goes on to write that Herod Antipas reigned 24 years before the crucifixion, which would make the beginning of his reign at 4 or 5 AD. He adds that Antipas reigned 5 years after the crucifixion, which would make the end of his rule to be 34 AD, while most historians mark his end at 39 AD.

The start and end-date of Herod the Tetrarch has an 11-year discrepancy between Josephus and himself.

Hippolyti also left Archelaus totally out of his history. He may have rightly argued that his rulership was not important to his chronology and that Herod the Tetrarch was the central figure in the Biblical narrative.

But there is something unusual going on between the Greek and Latin parallel text in Migne Patrilogia. The Greek states that Antipas reigned 24 years before the crucifixion, and the Latin reads 23. Why? Was the Latin translator aware that there was some error or some history that we do not have today that he had to correct the text? Shouldn’t he have added years than decrease them? A reply to this question cannot be made as we do not have this alternate version available.32

But this problem may have just been a transcription error.

Agrippas I then reigned for seven years after him, which would make his rule from 34/35 to 41/42 AD. The chronology of seven years is correct with most historians, but many note his rule was from 37-44 AD not Hippolyti’s calculation as above,33 though it is very close.

Then after Agrippa I’s reign came Agrippa II, whom many historians tend to date his rulership to begin six years after the end of Agrippa I’s reign, 50-100 AD. The six-year lapse was explained by Josephus to be a time in waiting for the young Agrippa II, who was then only 17, to mature. The Romans reduced this region to a province during this interval.34

Hippolyti doesn’t give a six-year interval at all and begins his reign directly after Agrippa I’s.

Hippolyti puts his reign from 41 to 67 AD. A total of 26 years compared to 50 years by many historians. The end date according to Hippolyti is likely according to Jewish, not Roman calculations. If using Josephus’ previous Jewish example where he dated Herod the Great’s reign from the fall of Jerusalem, then Agrippa II would be dated to end according to the fall of Jerusalem. Agrippa II lost his power when the revolt began in AD 67.

Dating According to a Lunar Eclipse.

Herod died shortly after an eclipse of the moon according to Josephus35 and modern history has used this passage, along with Whiston’s commentary to define the death date of Herod. William Whiston, who translated Josephus into English and his edition is ubiquitous in the English world, boldly asserted:

This eclipse of the moon (which is the only eclipse of either of the luminaries mentioned by our Josephus in any of his writings) is of the greatest consequence for the determination of the time for the death of Herod and Antipater, and for the birth and entire chronology of Jesus Christ. It happened March 13th, in the year of the Julian period 4710, and the 4th year before the christian era. See its calculation by the rules of astronomy, at the end of the Astronomical Lectures, edit. Lat. p. 451, 452.” 36

Whiston attempted to champion a point not intended by Josephus. Josephus did not write about the eclipse as a date identifier but as a solemn sign of a significant event. Josephus’ dating by Olympiads and regnants are totally sufficient, making a lunar eclipse an unnecessary symbol for dating.

He tried to date the eclipse using information and technology from the 1700s and his conclusion today is questionable. The NASA Eclipse website has a listing of all the historic eclipses according to mathematical calculations. If these historical solar eclipses are correct then no eclipse would have been visible in either Rome, or in Israel. from 6 to 1 BC. The lunar eclipse used by Whiston therefore was incorrect and cannot be used as a valid reference point.

The math doesn’t make sense either. Josephus clearly stated that Herod lived until 3 BC. Whiston’s attempt to date Herod’s death at 4 BC is in contradiction to Josephus’ account himself.

For more information on the death of Herod and the lunar eclipse, the following links may be of help, The Lunar Eclipse of Josephus, and Yet Another Eclipse for Herod.

Jewish Sources

The assumption throughout this essay has been that Josephus and his copious use of Roman sources is the definitive guide to dating the year of the birth of Christ, and that christian tradition has based much of its dating presuppositions on faulty logic with the Daniel prophecy. However, Jewish tradition surprisingly supports the historic christian position.

Both the Talmud Babli and the much later Otzar Midrashim, which is a re-composition of midrashim texts, succinctly confirm this.

Abodah Zarah 9.1 (עבודה זרה ) reads:

מלכות פרס בפני הבית שלשים וארבע שנה מלכות יון בפני הבית מאה ושמונים שנה מלכות חשמונאי בפני הבית מאה ושלש מלכות בית הורדוס מאה

Persian rule lasted thirty-four years after the building of the Temple, Greece ruled one hundred eighty years during the existence of the Temple, the Hasmonean rule lasted one hundred three years during temple times, the House of Herod ruled one hundred three years. Thence onward, one should go on counting the years as from the Destruction of the Temple.38

Most importantly, the writer stated that the house of Herod reigned 103 years. This timeframe was found not only in Abodah Zarah, but also Otzar Midrashim The Diaspora Chapter 5, and again in Chapter 25. It appears that the different chapters have different authors as the details of other events do not remain consistent, but the dates of the Herod dynasty are the same. It was clear from both Abodah Zarah, and the Otzar Midrashim The Diaspora, that the dates were relevant to the destruction of the Temple. If one subtracts the 103 years of the dynasty of the Herodian dynasty from the modern accepted date of AD 70 of the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus and Vespasian, then King Herod’s rule would have begun in 33 BC. There are no records in the Talmud that give the length of Herod the Great’s rule, though if one adds either the traditional 34 or 37 year numbers for number of years Herod reigned, this would make Herod’s death at either 1 or 4 AD.

It can certainly be argued that this 103-year date was sheer conjecture from the Jewish sages, as good math was abandoned for an important theological statement relating to their perception of Daniel’s prophecy. It also could be argued that Abodah Zarah, being published in the sixth century or later, was contaminated by christian influences or forced to render the dates under severe Church censorship.39

Julius Eisenstein in his 1915 collection of minor midrashims called Otzar Midrashim (אוצר מדרשים) continued to leave the 103 year phrase with no change. If the concept of 103 years was forced, it would have been corrected or addressed by the time of Eisenstein’s work.

If one calculates up all the Herods together that Josephus documented, the sum adds up to 107 years – 4 years off from the Talmud.


The research so far has succeeded in one of its two aims. The first goal was to establish exactly what dates Josephus and the Church leaders selected in their chronologies.

It however fails to resolve why the two parties differ. The Church leaders knew and well-respected Josephus’ works, but on the issue of historically mapping the dates around the 80 or so years surrounding the birth of Christ, they differ considerably. None of the Church fathers make mention of the difference and try to resolve the disparity.

While examining these calendars, along with others not listed here, many, if not most, ancient histories have a 4–10 year discrepancy in their accounts. A comparison between the accounts demonstrate the 4–10 year window never appears in the same place. It is difficult to find any pattern.

One possibility is that the histories did not agree on how to convert older lunar-based accounts into their solar calendars. The exclusive lunar year was shorter by about 11 days a year. Over a 165 year period, the lunar calendar is off by 5 years. For example starting a history at 200 B.C. and tracing the history over a 165 year period, the solar date would be 35 B.C. and the lunar date would be 30 B.C.40 It may be that every account has reconciled the lunar-solar calendar problem at different points in their histories. This has not been confirmed but it is a possibility that has to be looked into further.

A second solution may be found in understanding the complete work of the medieval Church writing, Chronicon Paschale. The Chronicon Paschale has a historical record that dates epochs earlier than the time of Christ. It also includes a parallel Roman consular list. The comparing of the Chronicon’s consular list with a Roman-based one, especially the Fasti Consulares and the Varronian Chronology may uncover the difference between Josephus and other accounts.

A third alternative is based on a theological conflict. Many of the Church writers wrote a chronological history to align with a prophecy given by a prophet named Daniel in 580 BC that is slightly obscure but perceived to be fulfilled near the arrival or passion of Christ, the destruction of Jerusalem or a mixture of these and other elements. The Church fathers were not so much concerned about historical correctness regarding accuracy of the Herods, but their main emphasis was to align Daniel’s prophecy within a historical framework.

The attempt to explain the difference because of the theological influence of Daniel’s vision in christian writings appeared tenable, but the Talmud weakened such an argument.

Another answer is that of perspective. Maybe the ancient christian chronographers never recognized the Church’s authoritative stance that Christ only lived 30 years before His passion, and held onto the idea that it was 33 years. This would mean most ancient Christian chronologies understood 1 AD to be our 2 BC. This means that modern historians should always should calculate this variance in all their citations.

This problem of a 4 – 10 year variance in historical chronographies cannot be solved by doing a comparative literature study on the lives of the Herods. The answer is found somewhere else, but that somewhere still remains a mystery.

For more information:

What Year was Christ Born?

What year was Christ born? This may seem like a simple question but it is actually very complex.

It is not a problem of Biblical accuracy that the date is difficult to exactly come by but a problem of human dimensions.

The answer is found in understanding the ancient calendar systems along with their complex histories and reconciling them into a unified corpus. Along the way, one will see a picture of how our present calendar system came into being.

At the time of Christ’s birth, there was no universal time system. Actually, there have been well over 10 major time systems and many more regional ones used over the course of history to define Christ’s birth-year. The majority of these ancient systems are not the most accurate, consistent or in agreement with other calendars.

Here are a few of the more prominent ones which have had an influence on the calendar we use today.

The regnal time system. This is where time is calculated from the time a Roman leader took office. A good example can be found in Luke’s narrative of the birth of Christ ” In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) NIV. Another example can be found in the Bible as well. Jesus was baptized in the 15th year of the Emperor Tiberius. However, we don’t have accurate historical records when the census happened with Quirinius, and there is also invariably disagreements on when exactly a ruler began and ended his career such as gauging when the 15th year of Tiberius exactly occurred.

The popular first century historian Josephus avoided using this system exclusively and liked to use Olympiads associated with political events for his reckoning. An Olympiad is a time-system invented by the Greeks that ran in 4 year rotations. His political work on the middle-east is so detailed and close to the time of Christ, that it is the de-facto standard to dating the birth year.

He hardly wrote about Jesus and gave no time-frame when he did mention Christ. So many try to apply Christ’s birth-date according to the events of Herod’s life as illustrated by Josephus. This has its problems too.

Many of the Church Fathers preferred to date using the Adamic method, that is dating everything from what they believe was the creation of the world. This is sometimes called the Anno Mundi system or A.M. for short.

Then there is the Roman consular system which dates everything in relation to who were the consuls in Rome at the time. Problem is, not all the records consistently have these people dated.

Around 526 AD, the calendar system we use today had its origins. It was popularized by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus. He wanted to create a new time system that would no longer honour the wicked and cruel Roman emporer Diocletian. This was what the A.D. first stood for-Anno Diocletiani. He changed it to “Anni Domini nostri Jesu Christi” or A.D. for short.

See Dionysius Exiguus and the AD Calendar System for more info.

It was originally used for Easter calculations. It was not intended as a calendar system for daily living and was not accepted initially as a year time system either.

Many medieval Church Fathers preferred to date everything from the passion of Christ, but to the angst of the great 8th century theologian, the Venerable Bede, it was at least two years wrong.

Bede made a strong attempt using his skills in mathematics, astronomy, history, knowledge of regional calendars, and theology to reconcile the calendars into one cohesive system. At one point when he tried to publicly correct the Anno Mundi system, he got into a lot of controversy and was almost branded a heretic. In the end, he set a general basis with some minor variations for the calendar we have today.

He was one of the first authors to differentiate between before Christ and after in an A.D. type calendar system, though his abbreviations are not quite the same as ours.

See Bede on the Problem of 1 AD for more info.

As one delves even more deeper into the subject, it gets into astronomy, lunar phases, solstices, solar calculations and more. To make matters worse, since many of these calendars are based on lunar rather than solar, some years are 11 days shorter than others. So what they thought was March 21 may actually be March 10th or if the lunar calendar has been used for many years without any reconciliation with a solar one, it may be even more.

To top it off, not everyone was in agreement that the year started January 1st. Some thought it to start in March.

There are other calendars used such as the Roman indiction system (which operated on 15 year cycles), and Christian Arabs traced time from Alexander the Great. The Jews at one point, at least according to Bede, liked to use the 49 year Jubilee calendar system.

One must not forget the AUC method too. “Ad Urbe Condita”–from the founding of Rome. Annual times were calculated from the year that Rome was established.

“Modern historians use it much more frequently than the Romans themselves did.”1 Many contemporary writers use 753 AUC as the birth date of Christ. But there are debates with this one too as to what year one should begin dating from.

To top it all off, the mathematics was very primitive. The Romans didn’t use the numeral zero “0” in any calendar calculations. This modification came later. It makes this investigation all the more interesting.

Throughout all of these time systems there is a 2 to 5 to 10 year discrepancy that pops up in a different location with each system that effects accurately dating the birth-year. This is a challenge to figure out.

This is just an abbreviated form of the research done so far. The birth year of our Lord is an interesting journey into human time systems.

This is why this subject is looked into more detail than many others and is listed as a special project under the main menu. More posts will be coming…