by Juan Antonio Revilla
There is a very generalized tendency to select the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction around 7 BC as the time of Christ's birth. The alleged death of Herod in 4 BC has had a great weight on this, being supported by:
-- the 3 Herod successors seem to have started their reigns in 4 BC, implying that Herod died that year.
-- according to Flavius Josephus, Herod died between a Lunar eclipse and the following Passover, and generally this has been accepted to be the eclipse of March 13, 4 BC.
-- Luke refers to an enrollment decree by Augustus, which is usually considered to be the tax call of 8 BC.
-- it is assumed that Dionysius Exiguus made an enormous mistake (6-7 years) in his calculations for the birth of Christ.
The 4 statements above are not only arguable but highly improbable, and it is easy to show that other dates closer to tradition (3 BC -- 1 AD) explain the evidence better.
The discussion that follows is based mainly on John Mosley's "When was that Christmass Star" (The Griffith Observer, Dec 1980), and John Pratt's "Yet Another Eclipse for Herod" (The Planetarian, Dec. 1990). A list of related Internet sites for further reading can be found at the end of this article.
We will start quoting John Mosley regarding the time given to the beginning of Herod's successors' reigns:
<<Herod suffered a grave political demotion in 4 BC, as the result of a misunderstanding over raiders he sent to Arabia to suppress robbers hiding there. Augustus condemned Herod, removed his title "Caesar's Friend" (amic Caesaris), and relegated him to the lower position of "subject". This loss of status was a serious matter. Its ramifications eventually included Herod's execution of his own son Antipater, and others, in a show of loyalty to Augustus. This happened immediately before Herod's death. The execution, however, created a problem in political bookkeeping. Upon his fall from favor with Augustus, Herod had named Antipater as co-regent, and now the discredited Antipater's regnal years were no longer valid...>>[see above, page 3]
Based on a conjecture that the Star of Bethlehem is the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction, and that Herod the Geat died in 4 BC, plus another conjecture concerning the tax call of 8 BC, ideas which are mere hypothesis are accepted as proven facts.
The conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter in 3 and 2 BC around the fixed star Regulus were impressive and unique celestial phenomena. Since the ephemeris of Brian Tuckerman were published in the mid-60's, allowing the experts to know this fact, Jupiter/Venus have been the preferred alternative for the star of Bethlehem in the mind of many astronomers and historians.
And since the publication of Ernest Martin in 1978 ("The Birth of Christ"), scholars have acknowledged the difficulties with the 4 BC date for the death of Herod, which Martin practically proved that it is impossible. The account of Josephus, the succession of rulers, the Lunar eclipse, used to establish that date, have been carefully scrutinized to demonstrate the hypothesis that Herod died in 1 BC or 1 AD. The 4 BC hypothesis is the least probable.
And about the enrollment alluded by Luke, Martin showed that it is not the tax call of 8 BC but a census and oath of allegiance ordered to celebrate Augustus Caesar Silver Jubilee, who was going to receive the title of "Pater Patriae".
All these points have been widely discussed and explained in recent literature. I feel that ignoring them and preferring other hypothesis that contradict tradition is a matter of psychology, related to the unconscious --or very conscious-- need to assume that the Church manipulated everything or that the ancients were wrong and we are right.
This is what John Mosley wrote back in 1980 (capitals are mine):
<<Incidentally, it is often claimed that Dionysius Exiguus made a four-year error in calculating the date of birth of Christ by forgetting to allow for the four years that Augustus ruled under his original name Octavian. Although this claim has been sanctioned by time, IT APPEARS TO BE A MYTH AND FINDS NO SUPPORT WHATSOEVER AMONG HISTORIANS. Dionysius was a prominent scholar who lived in Rome in the 6th Century and who had access to accurate records, including many now lost to us. The reigns of the emperors were well-known, and he was certainly aware of Augustus change of name. Dionysius carefully selected the date of December 25, 1 BC., for the birth of Christ, and counted the commencement of the Christian with January 1, 1 AD., six days later, to agree with the start of the Roman year, and was probably much closer to the truth than we have given him credit for>> [see reference above, page 5]
Josephus mentions that Herod died in the interval between a Lunar eclipse and the following Passover. For centuries this has been thought to be the eclipse of March 13, 4 BC, and the evidence of astronomy has been decisive to establish the dogma that Herod died that year.
Recent calculations, however, showed that this eclipse was only partial, and that the events narrated by Josephus to have occurred between this eclipse and the Passover that followed are impossible if one takes the 4 BC date, while the total eclipses of January 9-10 BC and 29 December BC eliminate those problems.
The proponents of the theory that Herod died in 4 BC pretend that the following events all happened within 30 days:
-- part of Herod's body was putrefied and bred worms.
-- he is taking round-trip to warm baths 16 Km away.
-- he orders all important men in all villages to come (120-30 Km).
-- his son Antipas is executed and Herod dies 5 days later.
-- there is a magnificent funeral, and the body is carried 37 Km.
-- a 7-day mourning starts, followed by a funeral feast.
-- another mourning is planned and executed for the patriots killed.
Only then came the Passover. Ernest Martin showed very carefully that
each event required as a minimum a week, and that it was impossible for
all of them to happen in less than 54 days. Therefore the 4 BC date fails
to account for what Josephus recorded. The 2 eclipses of 1 BC fulfill this
time requirement easily, and the one on Dec. 29th is most probable because
it happened in the evening and would have been observed by many people.
In the temple of Augustus at Ankara, an inscription was found referring to a census in the year 8 BC. The relationship of this "tax call" with the enrollment of Joseph and Mary is an unfounded conjecture, since it would apply only to Roman citizens. And even more conjectural is to imagine that Mary would have had to travel so far, because the taxes would apply only to Joseph.
On the other hand, historians have identified a combination of census
and oath of allegiance that would have effectively involved Mary and Joseph,
done between the years 3 and 2 BC, as the result of an imperial decree
related to the bestowal of the title "Pater Patriae" to Augustus by the
Senate the 5th of February of the year 2 BC. Josephus recorded that nearly
6000 pharisees refused to take the oath, approximately one year before
Herod died, and Orosio, a historian of the 5th Century, clearly links this
oath with the enrollment of Joseph and Mary:
<<[Augustus] ordered that a census be taken of each province everywhere and that all men be enrolled. So at that time, Christ was born and was entered on the Roman census list as soon as he was born. This is the earliest and most famous public acknowledgment which marked Caesar as the first of all men and the Romans as lords of the world ... that first and greatest census was taken, since in this one name of Caesar all the peoples of the great nations took oath, and at the same time, through the participation in the census, were made part of one society.>>" [quoted by John Pratt (see above)]
This census would have included Joseph and Mary even though they were
not Roman citizens. Being of royal lineage ("of the Houses of David"),
both Joseph and Mary would have had to go specifically to Bethlehem to
enroll. Augustus decree required that all adults pledge their good will
to Caesar, and the complete enrollment was presented to him as part of
I already quoted a paragraph by John Mosley to the effect that the idea of Dionysius Exiguus being wrong by 4 years in his time of birth of Christ <<is a myth and finds no support whatsoever among historians>>. The astronomer and chronologist John Pratt asserts the same thing: <<No satisfactory answer has been proposed to this long standing puzzle>>
Nevertheless, the proponents of the theory that Herod died in 4 BC keep repeating over and over again that "Dionysius was wrong", even though nobody has ever explained why convincingly. It is an assumption based on a false premise, because Herod did not die in 4 BC but in the years 1 BC or, more probably, 1 AD. The assertion regarding the year 4 BC is refutable on many grounds, and Ernest Martin in 1978 carefully showed its virtual impossibility, of which I have mentioned only the main arguments in this summary.
Sometimes, for example, the argument is made that Josephus records Varus as governor of Syria when Herod died, and Varus is shown as such in coins from 4 BC. The problem with this evidence, as Pratt explains from Martin, is that coins also show Varus governing Syria in 6 and 5 BC, while Josephus recorded Saturninus as governor during the 2 preceding years. Martin mentions an inscription found near the Varus village describing a man who was governor of Syria twice, probably referring to Varus, since his second term would correspond to 1 BC and there is no record of any other person as ruler that year.
According to the theory --erroneously accepted as fact-- not only Dionysius
was "wrong" but also Luke, regardless of his care in recording information
that would help to establish a historical perspective, since at the time
of baptism, according to them, Christ was about 36 years old, not 30 as
Luke said, and was about 40 when he died. In my opinion, not only THIS
IDEA CANNOT PASS THE TEST OF THE EVIDENCE AVAILABLE, but maintaining it
shows the same "manipulation of truth" of which tradition is accused, except
that it goes in the opposite direction, echoing the cynical times in which
VI. SOME INTERNET REFERENCES:
--details of some of the events mentioned here, and a refutation of
the 4 BC date:
--a discussion including the 3/2 BC census:
--a discussion of the Star of Bethlehem with reference to the unique
Venus/Jupiter conjunctions of 3/2 BC:
--a short but nice summary of arguments regarding the Star of Bethlehem:
--an examination of dating arguments regarding Herod's death and the
star of Bethlehem:
--a historical note about scholarship on the date of Herod's death:
--some skeptic and useful notes and sources:
--the article by John Pratt:
added Dec. 2003:
--"The Date of Herod's Death: The Errors Corrected" by Murrell Selden
--"The Year of Herod's Death"
--"Some thoughts on the Star of Bethlehem"
VII. ADDITIONAL NOTES
A. The year of Christ's birth
In a book by David Hughes on the Star of Bethlehem (1980, p.94) one finds the following table copied from Finegan's Handbook of Biblical Chronology (all dates are BC):
Alogi (heretics) = 4In total it is said that 18 ancient authors (before Dionysius) place the nativity during those years. Not one church father dates the nativity earlier than 4/5 BC, because the idea that Herod died in 4 BC was furnished only recently and was unknown to them. Ormond Edwards ("The Time of Christ", 1986, p.80) includes the passage from Clement of Alexandria and the reference is: 188.8.131.52-6 of "The Miscellanies, 1867-69, 4:445 of the "Ante-Nicene Christian Library".
B. Jupiter/Saturn and Pisces
Ormond Edwards also has more accurate information on the Jupiter/Saturn connection. He explains that the traditional interpretation is found earlier than Kepler in a commentary on the Book of Daniel by the Jewish savant Isaac Abrabanel (1437-1508, it was misspelled in the reference by Mosley), called "The Wells of Salvation" (1497):
<<But where Kepler looked to the massing of the planets Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the vicinity of 0 Aries in March, 6 BC, as the Star of Bethlehem, Abrabanel regarded the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter at 330 (0 Pisces) as signifying the advent of the Messiah and identified the 'mighty' conjunction in AD 1464 as having Messianic Significance>> [O. Edwards, p.61-62]He mentions further that Pseudo-Ovidius 'De Vetula' (13th Century) seems to be the first Christian writer in history who was concerned with the conjunction.
The Jupiter/Saturn conjunction in Pisces in AD 1464 was regarded by medieval Jewish writers as signaling the birth of the Messiah. The tradition comes from the Jewish astrologer Masha'allah (8th century), who wrote a book on astrological world history that was used later by other authors (Ibn Ibinta, Abu-Mashar, Ibn Gabirol). This is the origin of the "chronocrators" doctrine, used to trace religious history by many later authors, which Masha-allah took from Persian sources.
It seems clear that the doctrine of Jupiter/Saturn conjunctions
is of Persian origin, of at least the Sasanian period. But the association
of the Jews with Pisces came much later and was contingent upon the AD
1464 conjunction, seen in the context of the religious world-histories
developed by medieval writers.
C. The following objections have been raised:
- 1. Pisces, not Leo was associated astro-geographically with Palestine.
Point 4 can be dismissed: exact conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter when they fuse into one body to the naked eye in the evening or night sky are very rare. And having such a conjunction happen on both sides of Regulus with Jupiter passing over Regulus 3 times in the interim is unique, and an impressive thing to view. It never happened 2000 years before nor 2000 years after 3/2 BC. This is astronomically more significant than the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction.
Point 1 and 2, are also dismissed because the association of Leo with the Jews is very ancient and many quotes are found in the Bible regarding this, while the Pisces association cannot be traced before the Middle Ages, or even before the writings of Abrabanel in the 15th century.
Ppoint 3 strengthens the case for Jupiter/Regulus/Leo/King of the Jews, since at the time it had been associated with the Jews for centuries already and was recorded in the Bible.
FINAL NOTE: The main part of this article (without
the notes and references) is a translation from a longer article in Spanish
from which the part of the Star of Bethlehem was removed. The complete
account can be read in "La Fecha de Muerte de Herodes
y La Estrella de Belén".
Juan Antonio Revilla
the author concludes: <<This explanation is elegant in its simplicity, but often the simplest answers are the correct ones. This scenario, first presented by Dr. Ernest Martin, is the only one that fits the facts that we have at our disposal and I believe it to be by far the most plausible to date>>.
For very recent scholarly studies please visit:
"WHAT WAS THE STAR"
"DATATION DE LA MORT D'HÉRODE ET DE SA NAISSANCE"