This information is new but supports data from my latest book, Judas of Nazareth.
The Birth Narratives of Matthew and Luke
Most scholars have recognized the impossible task of reconciling the two biblical birth narratives of Jesus. Matthew sets the drama in the narrow timeframe of 9-4 BCE, near the end of Herod the Great’s life (Herod died in 4 BCE) while Luke assigns a date of 6 CE, at the Census of Cyrenius. Obviously, both accounts cannot be correct, and possibly both are in error. Is this error, on the part of Matthew or Luke or both, purposeful or just shoddy workmanship?
Before answering the above question, we should quickly review the birth narratives in question.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with the mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
…After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 2:1-12, 19-20)
First, since Herod dies while Jesus is still a child, the star and the birth must have been just a few years before 4 BCE. Thus, the range can be safely put at 9-4 BCE. Second, the star or celestial event in question must have lasted for some time, as the Magi follow this star from the East. And third, we must question how a star can pinpoint any location on the map.
In fact, the whole star story that includes Magi, gifts, and a locator star seems a bit farfetched. Yet, there may be some truth behind this story. In the Slavonic Josephus “Star of Bethlehem” story, the star represents the star prophecy. In this era, Jews believed that this star prophecy, based upon Numbers 24:17, would usher in a great Messiah figure to rescue the Jews from the Roman occupation. This is explained by another passage from the Slavonic Josephus.
But they were impelled to [make] war by an ambiguous prediction found in the sacred books, saying that in those times someone from the Judean Land would be reigning over the whole world. For this there are various explanations. For some thought it [meant] Herod, others the crucified miracle worker [Jesus], others Vespasian. (SJ War 6.312-313)
To the followers of “Jesus”, the star prophecy points to him as the worldwide savior. That belief is probably behind the Star of Bethlehem story. So, even if some of the details are just story-making, such as the Magi, the gifts, and the locator star, there may have been a spectacular celestial event at the time of “Jesus’” birth. The mixing of fantasy with observable fact may be the truth behind the Star of Bethlehem.
However, if we blindly accept Matthew’s version as fact, we must try to identify the star or celestial event in question. Throughout the years, many scholars and enthusiastic amateurs have tried to identify this wonderful star. Some have even suggested it may have been Halley’s Comet, even though that occurrence was in 12 BCE. So, even though many minor celestial events were chronicled in the period 9-4 BCE, no one event stands out as extraordinary.
In my book, Judas of Nazareth (1), I examine the Slavonic Josephus “Star of Bethlehem” birth narrative. That narrative is located in the text between 27-22 BCE. So, like the many scholars and amateurs who have tried locating the star around 4 BCE, I began my search at 27 BCE. Why not give the Slavonic version as much attention as Matthew’s version?
After a few Google searches, I found a much better candidate for the Slavonic “Star of Bethlehem” than for any suggested by Matthew’s timeline. In August 2014, Dwight Hutchinson, an amateur, published the book, The Lion Led the Way. In it he states:
In 27 and 26 BC a series of celestial events specifically centered on kingship would have been obvious to Babylonian, Jewish, Greek, Zoroastrian, or Roman astrologers as they looked at the constellation of Leo. [From August 27 BC to July 26 BC, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and Mars] did a waltz around the star Regulus (Melech), the king star, in the constellation of Leo. Several times the planets made close approaches to the “king star”. On precisely November 17-19, Jupiter (Tzedek, the planet of righteousness, also often thought of as the “king planet”) and [Saturn] (Shabbattei, the Sabbath planet) both arrived at their first stationary points within a few degrees of Melech [Regulus]. This was the middle of a period of 12-14 days when the planets would have visually seemed to have stopped moving. In addition during the night of the 18th the full moon was facing the constellation of Leo and the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.
…This November 27 BC event was exactly seven lunar months before an impressive gathering of planets in 26 BC. …On June 12th in 26 BC, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn were closely gathered together right beside the fixed star Regulus. While this grouping of planets together with Melech [Regulus] illuminated the western sky after sunset, the full moon rose in the east.
[In 1000 years before this celestial event, this alignment only occurred 2 other times, in 940 BC and in 880 BC.] (2)
While Hutchinson was hoping to find evidence for Matthew’s “Star of Bethlehem”, he may have found the actual “Star” in the years 27-26 BCE. So, we have two possibilities for the Star of Bethlehem, the 9-4 BCE event as put forth by Matthew and the 27-22 BCE event attested to by the Slavonic Josephus. And the greatest celestial events support the Slavonic version of 27-26 BCE.
Keeping this 27-26 BCE date in mind, we will examine Luke’s very different birth scenario.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)
To understand the timeframe of Luke’s birth narrative, we must date several individuals and events included in the Gospel. First, Caesar Augustus reigned from 27 BCE to 14 CE. Second, Herod the Great was King of Israel from 37 BCE to 4 BCE. And third, the census that took place under Quirinius (Cyrenius) occurred in 6 CE. In Luke 1:5, the birth of John the Baptist, and six months later the birth of Jesus, occurred during the reign of Herod the Great. So, from that, the birth of Jesus had to have occurred between 37 BCE and 4 BCE. Both Matthew and the Slavonic Josephus dates fall within this range.
Can the above mentioned census dates from Luke 2:1-2 narrow the search? When did Augustus issue a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world? According to Harvard Professor Mason Hammond, a general census of the whole empire for the purpose of taxation began in 27 BCE. (3) Commenting on Hammond’s conclusions, Paul L. Maier agrees that the 27 BCE census was “congruent with Luke 2:1” but that the Biblical census had to be in 8 BCE, consistent with Matthew’s nativity account that placed the event in the last years of Herod the Great. (4) Another amateur Christian historian writes the following:
Thus, Caesar’s 27 BC decision to start provincial registrations is the only event that we know of which could possibly be what Luke was trying to reference.
However, if Luke meant for 2:1 to refer to an event which took place in 27 BC, and if Luke 2:2 refers to the well known Governor of the year AD 6, then this odd juxtaposition may be more of a boon than a hindrance. The combination of these references … make it appear that Luke was trying to collapse more than three decades of time into one sentence. (5)
Of the two censuses mentioned in Luke 2:1-2, the 27 BCE Augustan census occurred during the reign of Herod the Great. The 6 CE Quirinius census was after the ouster of Herod’s son Archelaus and postdated the reign of Herod by ten years.
An actual candidate for the “Star of Bethlehem” and the first Augustan census both occurred in 27 BCE. This dating for the Messiah is consistent with the account in the Slavonic Josephus. And, this date would also approximate the birth of Judas the Galilean.
Finally, one last question must be asked: why does Matthew assign a date of 9-4 BCE and Luke a date of 6 CE? Both authors are Herodian and know the facts well. The 27 BCE date is when we would expect the birth of Judas the Galilean. To distance the newly created Jesus of Nazareth from the historical Judas the Galilean, the Gospel writers assign a birth date for Jesus that correspond with Judas the Galilean’s major deeds: the 4 BCE Golden Eagle Temple Cleansing and the 6 AD tax rebellion. Both events are recorded by Josephus and are anti-Roman in nature. The fledgling Christian movement could not be seen as anti-Roman, so the dating of the Messiah’s birth is fudged by the Gospel writers. And this sleight-of-hand has worked wonderfully for two thousand years.
1. Unterbrink, Judas of Nazareth, 321-324.
2. Hutchinson, The Lion Led the Way, 154-155.
3. Hammond, The Augustan Principate, 91.
4. Meier, Chronos, Kairos, Christos, 114.
Hammond, Mason. The Augustan Principate. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968.
Heroman, Bill. http://www.billheroman.com/2011_07_01_archive.html
Hutchinson, Dwight. The Lion Led the Way. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
Vardman, Jerry and Yamauchi. Edwin M.. Chronos, Kairos, Christos. Winona Lake, In.: Eisenbrauns, 1989.