Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

In the days of Herod

Luke is criticized for asserting that Jesus was born "in the days of Herod."[i] Josephus records that Herod died shortly after an eclipse of the Moon seen at Jericho, at the time of a fast and sometime before the Feast of Passover.[ii] This eclipse of the moon is the only eclipse mentioned by Josephus in any of his writings. It has become an important chronological benchmark in reckoning the year of Herod's death. Thus the determination of its exact date is critical. The German scholar Emil Schurer favored the eclipse of March 13, 4 BCE.[iii] The evidence of astronomy seemed to support this date. If Herod died in 4 BCE, there is said to be another inconsistency with respect to the census conducted by Quirenius.

Why was Herod's eclipse the only eclipse mentioned by Josephus in his lengthy histories? A partial answer is that it occurred on the night after the execution of some Jewish patriots, and would probably have been interpreted as a sign in heaven related to their death.[iv] Often during a total lunar eclipse, the moon looks red because of the same phenomenon that produces sunsets. The sunlight refracting through the edges of the Earth's atmosphere absorbs bluer light and allows redder light to filter through. Thus, the blood-red color of the total eclipse would have been far more dramatic and foreboding[v] than a partial lunar eclipse. However the lunar eclipse on March 13 of 4 BCE was a partial eclipse. Dating the death of Herod to a partial (40%) eclipse does not satisfy the tradition the moon was red that night[vi] nor explains why Josephus would mention a partial eclipse.

[i]. Lk 1:5.
[ii]. Ant.17.6.4
[iii] Geschichte des Judiscen Volkes (1901).
[iv] "But Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions. And that very night there was an eclipse of the Moon.” Ant. 17:6,4.
[v]. "I will show portents in the sky and on earth,
blood and fire and columns of smoke;
the sun shall be turned into darkness
and the moon into blood
before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes."
Joel 2:30-31.
[vi]. A partial (40%) eclipse would not have turned the moon red.

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