The Year Jesus Was Born

Scholars differ on the exact birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth

“Many favor a date in or around 4BC, and for the sake of argument, let us take that as accurate. If so, the birth occurred during or near a truly dreadful time in the history of what was already a troubled and turbulent land. Although these events are familiar to scholars, they are not at all well known by non-specialists.”

 

Scholars differ on the exact birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth, though a fair consensus holds that it was not in the year 1. Many favor a date in or around 4BC, and for the sake of argument, let us take that as accurate. If so, the birth occurred during or near a truly dreadful time in the history of what was already a troubled and turbulent land. Although these events are familiar to scholars, they are not at all well known by non-specialists. This is unfortunate, because memories of this crisis certainly shaped memories and perceptions for decades afterwards, and conditioned attitudes during Jesus’s lifetime. If we don’t understand those conflicts, we are missing the prehistory of the earliest Jesus Movement.

So obscure are these events that they do not even bear a convenient name. Suggested names include the War of Varus and the First Judean War, and the Archelaean Revolt might be another candidate. None of these names, though, is terribly satisfactory, and emphasizing Varus really underplays the extensive history that occurred before his direct intervention. Briefly, King Herod the Great died in 4 BC, amidst political turmoil and religious unrest. Immediately following his death, the country entered a period of revolution and violence that in many ways foreshadows the very well known events of 66 AD, the famous “Jewish War” commemorated by Josephus. Although on a much smaller scale than that later catastrophe, the earlier crisis demands to be remembered for multiple reasons.

In this column, I will describe the events of the crisis, and in my next, I will suggest their long-term significance. My main source is chapter seventeen of the Jewish Antiquities of Josephus, which has provided the material for multiple modern accounts. There is of course a substantial overlap with the early chapters of the same author’s Jewish War.

By 4 BC, Herod the Great was coming to the end of a long career that was bloody and paranoid even by the standards of Hellenistic monarchies. (He had held power since 37). He ruled through tactics of mass terror and widespread surveillance that sometimes sound like a foretaste of the Stalin years. He had killed multiple members of his family, and in the year 4 was in the process of trying and executing his son Antipater for alleged treason. He also systematically wiped out all male claimants from the old Hasmonean royal dynasty. No matter how violent, palace intrigues need not have a wider public impact, but Herod’s growing paranoia and mental illness was becoming a scandal among other rulers, and was presumably well known to any educated member of the Jewish elite.

The question then arose what would happen when Herod died. For 150 years, Jewish Palestine had been deeply divided between warring factions, whose conflicts had been kept in check by Herod’s equal opportunity reign of terror. During Herod’s reign, also, domestic conflicts found a new focus in the response to Roman overlordship. Herod was a Jewish king, but he also had to rule as a Mediterranean monarch, supporting the public symbols and spectacular performances that that entailed. Such activities outraged religious-nationalist opinion as an egregious display of idolatry. Might Herod’s death mark the rebirth of a purified and independent Jewish state?

The crisis reached a perilous new phase when two Jewish activists, Matthias and Judas, destroyed the imperial eagle that Herod had ordered erected at the Temple gate. Reportedly, they did this on the strength of a false rumor that Herod lay dying, so that a new era was at hand. Herod responded furiously, burning alive the two main perpetrators and killing their accomplices. However, his death very shortly afterwards meant that he could not take the wider vengeance that he perhaps would have done earlier.

Read More