The Advent of the (Rival) King: Part 1

three kings

In honor of Advent, the “Subversive Verses” nomination for December 2005 will be Matthew 2:1-3. Although strictly speaking these verses apply more to Epiphany, since the topic of the passage relates to the announcement of the birth of Christ I think they remain valid for Advent. Like most of the “Subverses” award nominees, this passage contains elements that will give pause to both conservative and liberal readers alike. In the Context Group Version, this passage reads as follows:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, look, Astrologers from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Judeans? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him. And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

The first peculiarity of the passage is the historical marker it gives. Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king. The lifetime of Herod can therefore give us pointers as to the date of the birth of Jesus. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The death of Herod is important in its relation to the birth of Christ. The eclipse mentioned by Josephus (Ant., XVII, vi, 4), who also gives the length of Herod’s reign — thirty-seven years from the time he was appointed by the Romans, 40 B. C.; or thirty-four from the death of Antigonus, 37 B. C. (Ant., XVII, viii, 1)– fixes the death of Herod in the spring of 750 A. U. C., or 4 B. C. Christ was born before Herod’s death (Matthew 2:1), but how long before is uncertain: the possible dates lie between 746 and 750 A. U. C.

However, the pointers to the 4 BC date are not as established as the Catholic Encyclopedia and the majority opinion indicate. The Wikipedia gives strong reasons for a 1 BC date for Herod’s death.

According to Josephus, Herod died not long after an eclipse of the moon and before a Passover. (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 167 [vi, 4]; 213 [ix, 3]) Since there was an eclipse on March 11, 4 BC. (March 13, Julian), some have concluded that this was the eclipse referred to by Josephus. On the other hand, there was a total eclipse of the moon in 1 BC, about three months before Passover, while the one in 4 BC was only partial. Another line of calculation centres (sic) around the age of Herod at the time of his death. Josephus says that he was about 70 years old. He says that at the time Herod received his appointment as governor of Galilee (which is generally dated 47 BC), he was 15 years old; but this has been understood by scholars to be an error, 25 years evidently being intended. (Jewish Antiquities, XVII, 148 [vi, 1]; XIV, 158 [ix, 2]) Accordingly, Herod’s death occurred in 2 BC or 1 BC.

If the Wikipedia entry is correct and Herod the Great died in 1 BC, the visit of the Astrologers obviously had to be before that time. It was probably within a year of Herod’s death, though, for the subsequent chronologies of the Luke to have any historical accuracy. So the visit probably happened between 2 and 3 BC. Jerusalem is located only 5 miles from Bethlehem, so the added travel time for the Kings at this point would be minimal. It would add no more time to chronology.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the Astrologers, was exceeding angry, and sent out, and killed all the boys that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had exactly learned of the Astrologers. (Matt. 2:16)

Since Herod gives the order for the death of the infants in Bethlehem two years old and younger, this gives the outside age for Christ at about two years at this time. Adding two years to 2 or 3 BC gives a date range of 4-5 BC for the birth of Jesus. So 4 BC seems a good approximation. (It also make it possible for Christ to have been baptized in the year 26-27 AD at the age of 30 while Pilate was still Governor of Jerusalem, as Luke describes in 3:1 & 23).

So, for a strict chronology to be accurate, we have the unusual circumstance of Christ being born approximately four years Before Christ! Apparently, the Monk Dionysius Exiguus made a calculation error when determining the year of the birth of Christ. Probably a little too late to correct it now!

Up until recently, the modern years of our calendar were numbered AD, or anno Domini. Anno Domini is Latin for “Year of the Lord.” It was meant to divide the Calendar by the Birth of Christ. It was developed in the sixth century and was in widespread use by the ninth century. This standardization of years became one of the greatest gifts of Christianity to historians. It gave an “independent” fixed reference from which all other dates could be hung. It increased the accuracy of subsequent chronologies beyond measure. Prior to this standardization, history was largely guesswork based on chronologies of local kings and rulers. Creating histories based on all these different local reference points was difficult, if not often impossible. (If the reader doubts this, just try to reconcile the chronologies of the books of Kings with that of the book of Chronicles.) With the AD convention used world wide, an accurate world history become feasible.

On the other side, the secular historians have now taken over the scheme, replacing AD (Year of the Lord) with CE (Common Era). “Although common era was a term first used by some Christians in an age when Christianity was the common religion of the West, it is now a term preferred by some as a religiously neutral alternative.” The CE convention allows the secular historian to take the over one of the advantages of the birth of Christ without paying the price of overtly acknowledging him.

Like many conservative Christians, I fight against this substitution. I use the AD label and, if you excuse the pun, religiously avoid the CE designation. Now, however, I will have to hold this conviction less tightly than before. In view of the fact that the AD designation is inaccurate by about 4 years, I must give more grace to those who use CE instead. After all, how strictly do you want to enforce a mistake!

In the end, CE or Common Era is the more correct label now that we admit the division of history is based more on its common usage rather than its precision. In many ways the calendar has become like the Christmas season itself: based on Christ but done rather loosely.


~ by heretic on December 7, 2005.

3 Responses to “The Advent of the (Rival) King: Part 1”

  1. Uh, which Matthew Johnson is this, ’cause it ain’t me 🙂

  2. Sorry

  3. Sorry, my fault. I clicked on the category “Matthew” assuming it was classifying my post as belonging to the Gospel of Matthew, not Matthew Johnson.

    Just one of the hazards of posting on an unfamiliar website.

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