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King Archelaus: a Microchronology of 4 BC

It's well known that, but not when, Augustus Caesar demoted Archelaus to 'ethnarch' of Judea. Commentators often write as if the official demotion was retroactive, but I doubt anyone living in 3 BC cared to re-label their memories of Archelaus from 4 BC. Today, we may say "Senator Obama scared Republicans to death" and nobody misunderstands. It's a reference that plays on historical knowledge and requires basic chronological nuance.

Recognizing from Josephus that Archelaus indeed ruled as "King" briefly - and quite impactfully at the time - allows a new reading of Matthew 2:22. It now appears the Gospel writer was employing historical irony, speaking to readers who he assumed could recall (collectively if not individually) the different temporal context between the fresh "King Archelaus" and the humiliated "Ethnarch Archelaus". There are other clues: mentioning "immediately" after Herod's death (twice), using the word Basileuei, qualifying the dominion as being 'anti' Herod's, and playing on the chrono-geographical irony of whether Galilee was safe-already or safe-almost (as Matthew has God predict that it would be).


In the guild, some may suspect this seems too good to be true. Did Matthew really intend to set this episode (whether fiction or non) in such a precise window of historical infamy? And even though this reading only provides a contextual verisimilitude, without proving the historicity of Jesus, Mary or Joseph reacting to these things, how can scholars feel confident this new reading is not merely wishful thinking or christian apologetics in scholarly clothing?

To show more conclusively that this reading deserves pride of place among scholars, a more cautious and rigorous study is underway, examining the verse from exegetical, literary and historical perspectives. However, since the foundation of this reading comes from knowing about the events of the year 4 BC, it's worth considering that in the first place. 

What follows here remains only a sketch for the moment. It may even have mistakes I've not caught yet. But a better version is, alas, for the future. Thus, without further ado, here's what I have at the moment.

King Archelaus: a microchronology of 4 BC


It is famously well known that Herod the Great died about mid to late March, but Augustus cannot have rendered his final verdict on Herod's will until around October. First, the Emperor's judgment followed a final report from Governor Quinctillius Varus on the violence in Judea that summer, and that final stage didn't begin to wind down until at least August, on top of which the imperial post should have taken about 48 days for Varus' report to arrive. Similarly, the last-minute sea voyage of Philip (the Herodian prince, soon to be named tetrarch, who sailed from Antioch no sooner than August, and more probably later) journeying to Rome must have taken a minimum of six weeks, and likely more with the late summer Norwesterlies (the etesian winds) blowing hard throughout August. Basically, September is the earliest possible date for Augustus' decision, and circumstances mixed with probability lean hard toward a slightly later occasion, especially for the Emperor who lived by festina lente.

What and where was Archelaus, in between? From before April until no later than June, Archelaus was in Jericho, Jerusalem, and Caesarea. (Cf. Josephus' Antiquities17.188-222) In Jericho, the soldiers acclaimed him as King, a title Archelaus later claimed he refused, but with title or no title he still ordered them onwards. In Jersuaelm, Archelaus stood high on a golden throne and platform when he made his "I'm-not-calling-myself-king" speech of the week, and afterwards, of course, he made promises only a king could have offered to keep. At the Passover the Judean not-a-King commanded the royal army with such authority they entered the Temple on what Josephus calls the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and brutally massacred thousands of innocent pilgrims along with the outspoken protesters. Following that, the non-King decreed that every non-Jerusalemite at the Passover had to exit the city and return home, immediately. In other non-Kingly actions, Archelaus had also (earlier) sent an appeal to Governor Varus, and obviously commandeered the royal treasury and the royal palace(s) in each city he visited, and presumably also the royal fleet, once the sailing was good.

There is more. Standing before Caesar in Rome, at an early hearing, probably sometime in June, one Antipater (son of Salome, sister of the departed King Herod) argued that a primary reason for Augustus to forbid Archelaus the kingship was precisely because "since he had in fact taken over the royal power before Caesar granted it" (Ant.17.230). In Josephus' words, Antipater continued, and "assailed him with reproaches for the changes that he had made among the officers of the army, for publicly seating himself upon the royal throne, for deciding lawsuits as if he were king, for assenting to the requests of those who publicly petitioned him, and for his entire performance, which could not have been more ambitious in conception if he had really been appointed by Caesar to rule." And so forth.

On the larger chronology, the eclipse of March 12/13 was most likely at Purim, with the fast on the 12th an effective occasion for Herod to require Israel's chief men assembled in Jericho; the Passover was then about April 11th (as it ought to have been for all practical purposes, and not because of metonic-cycle hypotheses). When we chronologize the activity required all before the battle at Pentecost (Ant.17.254ff) we see that if Varus' arrival at Caesarea was indeed brought on by Ptolemy's appeal (Ant.17.221) as Josephus claims, then Ptolemy's commission cannot have been given after Passover. [In other words, there was not enough time between Passover and Pentecost for all the additional activity after Varus' arrival, if not only the Legion's departure from Antioch but also Ptolemy's travel to Antioch (300+ miles) had not begun until April 12th. Moreover, beyond chronological impossibility, sending Ptolemy to Varus within hours of Herod's death was the smart thing to do, politically, and Nicolas of Damascus Aunt Salome was supportive enough of Archelaus in those early days that she absolutely would, or at least should have suggested it.]

In other words, Ptolemy's trip to Antioch must have begun prior to April 11th, and not after. However, if Josephus is also accurate in locating Ptolemy among the royal party exiting Jerusalem on the morning of April 12th, then Ptolemy must have had time to both reach and return from Antioch  before festival time. Estimating Ptolemy's speed as much as 50 miles a day (if commandeering fresh horses and nightly lodging en route) the latest King Herod may have died would have been somewhere between March 20th and 24th.

This means Archelaus began ruling as King sometime between March 20th to the 24th. His departure for Rome probably wasn't right at the (slightly dangerous) start of the Mediterranean sailing season, so most likely late April or early May.

Finally, the early hearing around June was dismissed without ruling from Caesar, who waited first until Quintus Varus was satisfied in Judea that all rebellion had ended, plus approximately six weeks for an imperial messenger to arrive in Rome with Varus' dispatch to that effect, plus some further days if not weeks of deliberation before announcing his decision, at the Temple of Apollo, near the Rome's (Jewish) Trastavere district. That was probably October-ish, give or take.

In sum, that means that Archelaus' Kingship - in practical terms - lasted only for about four to six weeks at the most, even though Archelaus' Kingship - in retroactively officialized terms, according to our modern perspective - lasted for either five to six months (if based on Herod's final will) or perhaps zero days long (if based on Caesar's eventual failure to ratify that will).

Despite all modern attempts at categorization or characterization, the micro-chronology of 4 BC shows, first, that Archelaus was proclaimed King in late March, ostensibly declined premature coronation as a show of false humility, but in fact continued right on ruling as if King with complete and virtually unquestioned autonomy, at least until leaving Jerusalem on April 12th. Second, the micro-chronology of 4 BC shows that while the official position may have been murky, the practical situation was entirely straightforward; or to put that another way, if the official political truths were entirely straightforward, then the practical situation contradicted it fully. 

Whether king or not-king, Archelaus was acting as king for those few weeks. What is more, Archelaus' general inactivity after April 11th was unknown to those pilgrims who left Jerusalem, as was the non-King's eventual departure for Rome.

In short, the plain facts not only present an Archelaus who was acting as King for all practical purposes, they show that no commoner in Judea at that time had any good reason to think of him otherwise. Neither did any Passover pilgrim, and thus, neither did Joseph. And thus, it absolutely appears that Matthew 2:22 at least happens to be set within a well known historical context - or what ought to be a well known historical context - with exacting chronological precision.


For more work on Matthew's intention as author, and what modern critics should reasonably expect of his readers...

Stay tuned!

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