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The Catholic Defender: The World of Politics that first Christmas day

Politics and religion have a way to help keep time and history, a great example of this is the first Christmas when Jesus was born December 25, 2 B.C.

Because of the breakdown of the Julian and Gregory Calender's, there have been some long held belief's that have recently come into question.

Traditionally, it has been believed that King Herod had died sometime in the Spring of either 5 or 4 B.C. which is why some thought Christ was born before this time as Scripture is clear that Herod died after Jesus was born. Matthew 2:13-19 tells the story how the Holy Family escaped to Egypt, Herod's order to massacre the infant boys 2 years and younger, and finally his death.

The Jewish Historian Josephus wrote that Herod died following an eclipse that some pointed to one such known eclipse that took place on March 4 B.C. (Antiquities 17. 6-8). Josephus does not give any dates, just the event of an eclipse so historians commonly believed the March eclipse 4 B.C. to satisfy the historical record.

Astronomers had offered possible dates when eclipses took place before the Jewish Passover. In 5 B.C. one took place on March 23 just 29 days before Passover. In 4 B.C., another eclipse took place on March 13, 29 days before Passover. The next possible eclipse is January 10, 1 B.C. which was 12 1/2 weeks before Passover.

Josephus informs his readers of the events happening between the eclipse and the Passover (cf. Martin pp. 85-87). In his writing, Josephus gives a 12 week separation between the eclipse and Passover which fits perfectly with the January 10, 1 B.C. eclipse. January 10 would be in the middle of winter time in which Herod went to Jericho for comfort as he was suffering of chronic kidney disease, complicated by a particularly nasty case of gangrene.

Josephus gives a couple of indications that should be evaluated when studying Christ's birth in relation to Herod's death. He states that Herod had a reign of 37 years from the time he was placed as a king by Rome until his death. Also, Josephus identified 34 years after the death of Antigonus, which happened just after Herod took Jerusalem.

Scholars tried to stretch Josephus statements to fit the March 13, 4 B.C. date but here are some objections to that time. Herod took Jerusalem late in 36 B.C. Josephus says Herod’s siege of Jerusalem was during a sabbatical year, and 36 B.C. was a sabbatical year. Otherwise, there would need to be 7 years before or after 36.

An important observation, all Sabbatical years ended on Yom Kippur. Josephus said Herod’s capture of Jerusalem coincided with Yom Kippur. This event the Jews would remember it well, for it was an outrage to press a siege on Yom Kippur.

Josephus said it was 27 years to the day that Pompey committed his abominations, which he did in 63 B.C. This gives again 36 B.C. for Herod’s capture of Jerusalem. If we use the common accession method of counting years of rule, the date to start his 34 years is the first of Nisan in 35 B.C. So Herod’s 34th year of rule would start with the 1st of Nisan in 2 B.C. and end with first of Nisan in 1 B.C.

Now 34 years after 35 B.C. would give 1 B.C. for the death and end of the reign of Herod, his death, soon after the eclipse of Jan 10, 1 B.C.

King Herod had three successors, Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip, seem to have their reigns starting in 4 B.C. which is why some Scholars look to Herod's death to be 4 B.C.

Archelaus and Antipas were sons of Herod by Malthace, a Samaritan. Philip was a son by Cleopatra of Jerusalem.

Archelaus, Antipas and Philip counted their reigns as starting also in 4 B.C. However, antedating reigns was common, as coins show, and Herod gave his kingdom to them before his death.

It was tactical to antedate the reigns of these three to the death of the two “royal” sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, who were of Hasmonean descent, so that Archelaus, Antipas and Philip would seem successors to these two.

This reason was intensified by the fact that Herod had been demoted by Augustus in 4 B.C. Herod had sent troops to Arabia to end activities of robbers and to collect a large debt owed him by the Arabian ruler. Syllaeus the Arabian misinformed Augustus about Herod’s actions–Herod really had permission from the Governors of Syria for that mission.

Augustus wrote to Herod: “Whereas of old he [Augustus] had used him as his friend, he should now use him as his subject.” This was politically devastating. He had to have Caesar’s representatives for Syria hear the case against Alexander and Aristobulus and the trial was held in Beirut. Later before executing them, Antipater, Varus Governor of Syria heard the case. Also in 4 BC Varus began the joint rule of Antipater with Herod.

With all this taking place in the family, it is easy to see why Scholars would confuse Herod's death with his being demoted by Caesar Augustus in 4 B.C. Herod's death would be more identifiable to Josephus description of Herod's death between an eclipse (January 10, 1 B.C.) and Passover.

This places Christ birth right at the December 25, 2 B.C. as anytime before this date, 5, 4, 3 B.C., would not fit.

Since we are talking about the world of politics of that first Christmas Season, we know from an inscription from Paphlagonia in Asia Minor ( cf. Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, Source Book II, pp. 34-35) that in 3 B.C. all the people took an oath of allegiance to Caesar Augustus. The same oath is also reported by the Armenian historian Moses of Khorene, and by the later historian Orosius.

Augustus was scheduled to receive the great title of Pater Patriae on Feb. 5, 2 B.C. So the actual Governor of Palestine, probably Varus, would have had to go to Rome for the festivities, and since sailing on the Mediterranean stopped about Nov. 1, and did not resume until Spring, he must have gone in the early fall of 3 B.C.

But Quirinius was nearby, had just finished a successful war against the Homonadenses. So he was left as acting Governor. Some translations St. Luke does not use the noun governor, but the participle, “governing”.

Therefore, it is highly possible, even probable, that Quirinius would have been acting as Governor for the implementation of the census in late 2 BC.

"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria." Luke 2:1-2

"And Joseph also went up from Galiliee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and linage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child." Luke 2:4-5

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