May 28, 2012

John P. Meier on the Year of Herod's Death, 4 BC

Published scholarly research makes the case overwhelmingly, imho, but Google searches online can still give some the impression that perhaps History's jury may be somewhat undecided about this question. Quite to the contrary, 4 B.C. as the date of Herod's death should be considered as firm as nearly any other from antiquity. I last blogged about this in 2009 (The Eclipse of Purim, 4 BC and Give up on 1 BC), but of course more information from professional scholars should be online to address this effectively.

It is therefore for the sake of online posterity that I hereby take the liberty of quoting in full the following two paragraphs from John P. Meier's famous Historical Jesus series, A Marginal Jew. Incidentally, these two paragraphs amount to a single footnote from Chapter 11, A Chronology of Jesus' Life (footnote #18):
The attempts by a few historians to prove that Herod the Great died in some other year have not met with general acceptance. For example, W. E. Filmer ("The Chronology of the Reign of Herod the Great," JTS 17 [1966] 283-98) uses contorted arguments in an attempt to establish that Herod died instead in 1 B.C. As Timothy D. Barnes points out very well ("The Date of Herod's Death", JTS 19 [1968] 204-9), Filmer's thesis collides with two major pieces of evidence: (1) Herod's successors all reckoned their reigns as beginning in 5-4 B.C. (2) The synchronisms with events datable in the wider context of the history of the Roman Empire - synchronisms made possible by Josephus' narrative of the circumstances attending Herod's death - make 1 B.C. almost impossible to sustain. Barnes goes on to suggest that perhaps December of 5 B.C. may be a better candidate for the date of Herod's death than March/April of 4 B.C. As is the case with other alternatives, this innovation has not met with general approval.  
The question of Herod's death is taken up once more in a number of essays in the Chronos, Kairos, Christos volume edited by Verdaman and Yamauchi. Ernest L. Martin ("The Nativity and Herod's Death," 85-92) revives the theory that Herod died in 1 B.C., with Jesus' birth placed in 3 or 2 B.C. This does not receive support from the other contributors to the volume who address the same issue. Douglas Johnson (" 'And They Went Eight Stades Towards Herodeion,' " 93-99) defends the traditional date of 4 B.C. for Herod's death, pointing out that Martin has mistranslated a key text concerning Herod's funeral in Ant. 17.8.3 §199. Harold W. Hoehner ("The Date of the Death of Herod the Great," 101-11) likewise champions 4 B.C. Paul L. Maier ("The Date of the Nativity and the Chronology of Jesus' Life," 113-30) adds still another voice in favor of 4 B.C., though his further thoughts on the exact year of Jesus' birth betray an uncritical use of the Infancy Narratives. (Indeed, most of the authors never face the critical questions addressed in Brown's Birth of the Messiah.) All in all, the scattered attempts to undermine 4 B.C. as the year of Herod's death must be pronounced a failure.
Meier lays out enough there to provide vigorous research opportunities, for those still desiring to contest this, what ought to be a dead issue, no pun intended.

Incidentally, my second contribution on this (Give up on 1 BC) goes into detail about some of the scholars listed in Meier's review here and a bit about how the counterarguments worked.

My earlier contribution (The Eclipse of Purim, 4 BC) actually stemmed from an original observation that the eclipse of 4 BC is the only one which satisfies certain details attached to it by Josephus' narrative. In fact, some graduate student (reading this now) should feel free to steal and publish all by themselves. Alternatively, I'll happily co-author, but only if you insist.

All in all, until the quality of research material generally available online begins to equal the quality of research material available to those with professionally credentialed access, here is one more attempt to set the record straight.

Herod died in 4 BC. Get your chronology straight!
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