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King Herod's Tomb Found

May 09, 2007

Yesterday people were all excited to hear an announcement by an Israeli archeologist that Herod's tomb had been found during the excavation at Herodium. You can read the story at:


This is of interest to me because Herod's death and funeral is one of the primary clues that we have to determine the date of Jesus' birth. Recall that Herod is best known for the massacre of the children at Bethlehem in the attempt to kill Jesus. But Joseph and Mary had been warned in a dream to leave Bethlehem and to go to Egypt. Jesus was three months old at the time--the age when Moses (a type of Christ) was taken into Pharaoh's house for his protection (Ex. 2:2).

Jesus was born, I believe, on the evening of the Feast of Trumpets in 2 B.C., which in that year fell on Sept. 29. Three months later the magi arrived from Parthia asking about the "King of the Jews." The magi were the learned men--the experts--of the day, who advised the kings and the senators in Parthia. King Herod was quite upset--"and all Jerusalem with him" (Matt. 2:3), first, because he no doubt remembered his own flight from Herodium in 43 B.C., when the Parthians invaded Palestine to free the people from the Romans. Secondly, he was upset at a potential rival to the throne, and he remembered how one man, Moses, had succeeded in overthrowing Egypt many years earlier.

Also, during December of 2 B.C., King Herod was still investigating the high priest and others who had torn down Rome's golden eagle from the wall of the temple. To him, this was an act of rebellion and sedition. On January 9, 1 B.C., about two weeks after the Magi incident, Herod's investigation was complete, and he deposed Matthias, the high priest, replacing him with Joazar. He also condemned another rabbi named Matthias to be burned at the stake. And Josephus tells us in Antiquities of the Jews, 17, VI, iv,

"But Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive. And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon." 

The 19th century editor of Josephus says in a footnote, "This eclipse of the moon (which is the only eclipse mentioned by Josephus) 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." He goes on to mistakenly say that this was a reference to the eclipse of March 13, 4 B.C. Actually, it was the eclipse of January 9, 1 B.C.

Josephus tells us that Herod died about two weeks after this lunar eclipse, that is, the end of January. It was customary to have a 30-day period of mourning for the funeral, and this was no exception.

The body was carried upon a golden bier, embroidered with very precious stones of great variety, and it was covered over with purple as well as the body itself; he had a diadem upon his head and above it a crown of gold. He also had a scepter in his right hand. About the bier were his sons and his numerous relations; next to these was the soldiery distinguished according to their several countries and denominations...these were followed by five hundred of his domestics, carrying spices. So they went eight furlongs [“eight stadia”] to Herodium for there by his own command, he was to be buried; and thus did Herod end his life." (Antiquities of the Jews 17, VIII, iii).

This is known as an "eight stadia march," because they walked eight stadia per day to the place of burial--in this case, to Herodium. It is about one mile per day walking very slowly. The footnote in Josephus says about this, "At eight stadia or furlongs a day, Herod's funeral, conducted to Herodium, which lay at the distance from Jericho, where he died, of 200 stadia or furlongs, must have taken up no less than twenty-five days."

Herod's son, Archelaus, then continued the mourning period for another seven days, as Josephus says. This brings us into the month of March of 1 B.C. Then in the next chapter of Antiquities of the Jews, we read how the people wanted Archelaus to reinstate Matthias as high priest and to avenge the death of those burned at the stake. After a few weeks of negotiations, the people came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover (Antiquities, 17, IX, iii). The people became so seditious that Archelaus sent troops, who killed 3,000 people.

It is because of that Passover celebration that we know the year that Herod died--and by extension the year that Jesus was born. The lunar eclipse of Jan. 9, 1 B.C. is the only eclipse possible for the deposition of Matthias, whereby we can fit Herod's funeral and the subsequent negotiations leading to the feast of Passover in early April.

If we were to believe that the lunar eclipse in question were the one on March 13, 4 B.C., we would have to try to cram Herod's funeral and the other events into a space of less than a month. It just doesn't fit. Hence, Jesus was born the previous Sept. 29 in 2 B.C.

Anyway, this recent discovery of Herod's tomb at Herodium is of interest to us, because of my study on When REALLY Was Jesus Born?

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Category: Commentary

Dr. Stephen Jones

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