How Long Was Herod King?

24 May
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Josephus tells us that Herod died after reigning as King of the Jews for 37 years from the time he had been declared king by the Romans and 34 years after Mark Antony had slain Antigonus, the last of the Hasmonian dynasty that reigned at Jerusalem,[1] and I have no reason to dispute what he claims there. Furthermore, he dates the actual taking of Jerusalem to 37 BC by naming the Roman consuls, Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Galluse, saying they held that office when Jerusalem fell to Herod[2] and Socius, the Roman general assisting Herod in the war against the Jews to make him king. For this reason many scholars date Herod’s death at 4 BC, after the lunar eclipse occurring at the Feast of Purim in March, thinking this must be the one mentioned by Josephus about two weeks before Herod died.[3] Nevertheless we already know this is an impossible date for Herod’s death (see HERE), if we consider the data Josephus offers us about those times.[4]

If, therefore, 4 BC is an impossible date for Herod’s death, what can we say of Josephus’ record of Herod’s reign:

191 When he had done all this, he died, five days after having Antipater killed, having ruled for thirty four years after having Antigonus killed, and thirty seven since being declared king by the Romans. [JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews 17.8.1 (191)]

Normally, scholars count the 37 years to which Josephus refers, from the time Antony named Herod king in 40 BC. However, if we consider that Socius, the Roman general, made Herod king when he took Jerusalem and deposed Antigonus, the king of the Jews taking him captive to Antony, then we have no problem with what Josephus says in the above quotation. Herod would have become king in the summer of 37 BC and died a little over 37 years later in January of 1 AD. Understanding Josephus this way would mean that Antigonus, the last Hasmonian king, would not have been put to death by Antony until 2-3 years after Herod began his reign at Jerusalem. This seems to be a logical course, because Antony intended to keep Antigonus for his triumphant entry into Rome after the Jews were completely subdued.[5] He would not have hastily killed him, simply because Herod desired him to do so. Josephus quotes Strabo concerning this matter:

“Antony had Antigonus the Jew brought to Antioch and beheaded there. I believe he was the first Roman to behead a king, thinking there was no other way to change the mind of the Jews to receive Herod, whom he had set in his place, for even tortures could not force them to acknowledge him as king. With their great fondness for their former king, he felt that this disgrace would diminish his memory and also lessen their hatred of Herod.” Such is Strabo’s account. [JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews 15.1.2 (009-010).

Notice that Antony had despaired of the Jews accepting Herod as king, and only as a last resort had Antigonus put to death. In fact, Strabo claims Antony was the first Roman to have a foreign king beheaded. This alone seems to be something he would not have entered into lightly. No doubt he would have kept Antigonus alive for his ceremonial triumphant entry into Rome, if at all possible. It may be that Herod reigned two to three years, before Antony had sufficient evidence to understand the Jews wouldn’t accept Herod, unless Antigonus was executed. Therefore, 34 years from Antigonus’ death to that of Herod’s seems reasonable. Furthermore, since it is already proved that a 4 BC death for Herod is a physical impossibility for the limits we are given by Josephus’ eclipse, a reasonable explanation of Josephus’ other data is all that should be necessary to show that whatever else he says about Herod’s death cannot be interpreted to support the 4 BC eclipse.


[1] JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews 17.8.1 (191)

[2] JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews 14.16.4 (487).

[3] JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews 17.6.4 (167).

[4] Once “you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: in the person of Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of the Four; Chap. 6, p. 111 (1880).

[5] JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews 15.1.2 (008)

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Posted by on May 24, 2016 in Gospel of Luke


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