November 3, 2009

The Eclipse of Purim, 4 BC

I have never seen in print, aside from Josephus' own statement, that the famous eclipse of 4 BC happened on a festival night. There are other issues, of course, but this point deserves more consideration in the (amazingly, still active) debate about which eclipse (in which year) marked the death of Herod the Great.
those present said... that the perpetrators should not be exempted from punishment. Herod therefore dealt rather mildly with these others but removed the high priest Matthias from his priestly office as being partly to blame for what had happened, and in his stead appointed his wife's brother Joazar as high priest. Now it happened during this Matthias' term as high priest that another high priest was appointed for a single day - that which the Jews observe as a fast - for the following reason. While serving as priest during the night preceeding the day on which the fast occurred, Matthias seemed in a dream to have intercourse with a woman, and since he was unable to serve as priest because of that experience, a relative of his, Joseph, the son of Ellemus, served as priest in his place. Herod then deposed Matthias from the high priesthood. As for the other Matthias, who had stirred up the sedition, he burnt him alive along with some of his companions. And on that same night there was an eclipse of the moon. (Antiquities 17.164ff, emphasis mine)
The Loeb footnote is almost certainly justified to identify this as the Fast of Esther, which evidently began at sundown on March 12th, several hours before the eclipse that took place after midnight on March 13th. Josephus' language leaves little room for doubt about this. Although it is not unlike Josephus to include random information in an aside, or to render flashbacks with unspecific chronology, his asides are never completely random and their details are usually significant to the surrounding narrative. In this particular passage, the details strongly suggest a very tight correlation of events.

Here is what must have happened. Around dawn on the morning of March 12th, the chief men of Jerusalem were gathering to depart for the meeting Herod had called at Jericho. With good horses, they could easily arrive by noon. But the word must have already spread that the high priest had recused himself. The scandal itself would not have been so outrageous, but only the King could legally appoint new high priests. So when Matthias chose his own replacement, even a temporary one, the chief men were obligated to report it to Herod.

But Matthias must have had both friends and enemies in the Jerusalem embassy. His political opponents would take any opportunity to replace him as high priest, while his friends would be bound by their own safety not to withhold the facts from King Herod. As it turned out, the friends and enemies of Matthias may have compromised. Josephus does not tell us that Herod knew about Matthias' offense, but the high priest has suddenly and somehow, implausibly, come to be "partly to blame" for what happened with the golden eagle some days or weeks before.

So far as we know, Matthias had nothing to do with the two rabbis and their overzealous students. He was not arrested, bound or executed with the others whom Josephus specifically names as responsible for the assault on the eagle. If Josephus' story about the rabbis is accurate, then Matthias was innocent, and therefore someone at the Jericho assembly must have come up with their own reasons to name Matthias "as partly to blame" (ws aition tou merous).

This scenario makes Josephus' flashback/aside perfectly relevant to the content and chronology of the burning. The mention together of a fast and an eclipse naturally evokes Purim, which always occurred at the full moon one month before Passover. Josephus' strong suggestion, therefore, is that this eclipse occurred at the time of that festival - which puts Herod's death solidly in 4 BC.


ab138501 said...


I think that there are some passages in the Talmud that run counter to your theory about Antiquities 17.164ff that is found at

Note: The relevant passage from the Antiquities can be found online at

According to your theory, the day when Matthias was disqualified from the high priesthood for a single feast day was also the same day that a lunar eclipse occurred. The only day when there was a lunar eclipse on a feast day during the relevant time period (i.e. between about 5 BC and 1 AD) was March 13, 4 BC. King Herod the Great died soon after this lunar eclipse. This is, therefore, prime evidence that King Herod the Great died in 4 BC.

Unfortunately, there are passages in the Talmud that seem to indicate that the feast day that is referred to in the passage in the Antiquities was actually the Day of Atonement.

The relevant passages in the Talmud are:
Horayoth 12b
Yoma 12b

The Horayoth 12b passage can be found at

The Yoma 12b passage can be found at

If these passages in the Talmud are correct in implying that the day of Matthias’ disqualification occurred right before the Day of Atonement, then it follows that:
1. The single day when another high priest was appointed in the place of Matthias was not the same day that there was a lunar eclipse because there were no lunar eclipses on any of the Days of Atonement during the relevant time period.
2. The information about Matthias being disqualified from the high priesthood for a single feast day is a piece of random information that Josephus inserted. It is not tightly connected with the rest of the events in this passage.
3. The passage in Antiquities 17.164ff does not serve as clear and unequivocal evidence that the death of King Herod the Great occurred shortly after the lunar eclipse on March 13, 4 BC.


Bill Heroman said...

Paul, thanks for those wonderful references. Btw, I'd appreciate if you enabled access to your profile. I'm not sure who you are, but I greatly appreciate the fine pushback.

Against your point, however, I must respond.

While I am thrilled to see the incident with Joseph's 1 day as high priest being mentioned in both sources, I do not see where either the Horayoth passage or the Yoma passage specifically ties that particular event to the additional discussion about special vestments for Yom Kippur, much less where either passage ties the Joseph event specifically to the date of Yom Kippur.

While I agree the High Priest wore special vestments only on that day, and performed special duties only on that day, the passage in Josephus does not say that either Matthais or Joseph had to "serve" that day in any particular capacity.

In other words, Paul, it is my understanding that a High Priest would "serve" as High Priest all year long, regardless of whether he officiated in any particular festivals or not.

Beyond that, I'm also not aware that the High Priest didn't ALSO have some small ceremonial customs to perform on the fast day of Purim. Any such customs would certainly not be in the OT, anyway, but I'm unaware whether anything might be in the Talmud. I'm not saying the High Priest necessarily *did* have specific duties to perform on Purim, but I'm saying we don't know that he *didn't* either.

In any event, the High Priest woke up that morning unable to "serve" as High Priest, e.g. unable to hold his position officially.

Beyond that, Paul, the Roman synchronicities [Varus' governorship of Judea, Gaius' presence at the trial in Rome, and more] mean that - even if your very stretchy interpretation of Horayoth and Yoma were accurate, which I don't think it is, you'd only be able to move Herod's death back as far as the Autumn of 5 BC.

With that said, I'm note sure if there was or wasn't an eclipse around mid-September of 5 BC (as the internet sometimes alleges). If there was, we could revisit this with significant interest... but I still don't see where your analysis of the Talmud passages ties together [what you think it does].

Without that, the decision between September of 5 BC or March of 4 BC still falls hard to the traditional answer. Although I can plausibly see how Archelaus and company might have cooled their heels through the winter, it is hard to believe Varus and Sabinus would not have heard somehow (since Israel's chief men were all let out of the hippodrome by Salome after Herod was dead), but Josephus has Varus and Sabinus arrive in Judea not before Passover.

For those, and many other reasons, the eclipse of 4 BC is still the most solid.

ab138501 said...


I don’t blog all that often. I’ll have to look into opening up my profile and adding more information to it. My full name is Paul Tanner. I had an extended email conversation with you about the date of the death of King Herod the Great in October/November 2010.

In my previous comment, I made some mistakes. Several times I used the word “feast” when I should have been using the word “fast” instead.

The section of Horayoth 12b that I’m most interested in is the sentence where it says, “Said R. Jose, once it happened with Joseph the son of Ailim of Sepphoris that, a disqualification in the High Priest having occurred, he was appointed in his stead”.

There is modern footnote #3 in this section. Footnote #3 says, “He was a kinsman of Matthias, a High priest, at the time of Herod. ‘This Matthias the High Priest, on the night before that day when the fast was to be celebrated, seemed in a dream to have conversation with his wife, and because he could not himself officiate on that account, Joseph the son of Ellemus his kinsman assisted him in that sacred office.’ (Josephus. Ant. XVII, 6, 4).”

The context for this remark in the Talmud is an extended discussion about the Day of Atonement. I personally take it that the upshot of this is that the Talmud is implying that Matthias was temporarily disqualified from his duties at the Day of Atonement rather than at the Fast of Esther that occurs right before the Purim festival.

Granted, the commentaries in the Talmud were most likely written hundreds of years after the fact. Therefore, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that the Talmudic commentators were just plain wrong about which fast day was actually involved.

But, I am still personally inclined to trust the implication of this passage more than guesswork of Loeb and other modern commentators.

I have done a lot of reading on the date of the death of King Herod the Great. I have read pertinent articles, chapters, excerpts, etc. by the following writers:
P.M. Bernegger
Timothy David Barnes
Harold Hoehner
Douglas Johnson
Paul L. Maier
Ronald Syme
Claude Eilers
Edward Dabrowa
Peter Michael Swan
Richard Carrier
Emil Schürer
Daniel Schwartz
J. van Bruggen
W.E. Filmer
Andrew Steinmann
And others

I am unconvinced by the arguments that King Herod the Great died in 4 BC.

I’m an advocate of the dreaded arguments that King Herod the Great died in 1 BC.

There are many reasons why I have taken the position that I have. I’ll guess I’ll stop there for now.


Paul Tanner said...

In the past week, I have been studying the Fast of Esther and in the process, have discovered new information that seems to invalidate the interpretation in the article above.

What I discovered is that Purim is an ancient holiday, but the Fast of Esther is a much more recent innovation. In other words, the Fast of Esther did not become a part of the Jewish calendar until long after the first century.

In the first century, the 13th of Adar was a feast day that was known as Yom Nicanor.

For more information about the day of Nicanor and the origin of the Fast of Esther, see the following articles:


The Origin of Ta'anit Esther
Mitchell First
Association for Jewish Studies Review
Vol. 34, No. 2 (NOVEMBER 2010), pp. 309-351


Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget