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Biblical chronology deals with the dates of the various events recorded in the Bible . It has to consider how far the Bible contains a chronology at all; to what extent the Sacred Writers aimed at exactness, or were satisfied with round numbers; whether, and to what extent, textual errors and other sources of corruption have crept into the numbers of the Bible ; and finally, what relation esxists between the chronologies that have been handed down by neighbouring nations and that which exists in the Bible . "There is no Chronology of the Bible ", wrote Silvester de Sacy; and, though this saying is too sweeping, it may be said with truth that for large parts of the Bible there is little to guide us to an exact determination as to when the events related happened. It is not merely that in the matter of numbers the Hebrew text has not always reached us incorrupt (cf. the differences between the Hebrew, Septuagint, and Samaritan Pentateuchs), but the Books of Scripture, moreover, are not a mere history. Some of them, as the Psalms, are in no sense such. And even those that are so, are not written primarily from the point of view of history. Else, e.g., why two parallel histories of the kingdom — Kings and Chronicles? It is because, as Father Cornely says of the Book of Kings ("Introductio", Vol. II, i, p. 284), it had a higher end than the hsitorical, viz., to show the peoples of Israel and of Juda that it was their wickedness that brought destruction on them, and, by setting before them the proofs of God's mercy, to lead them back to the observance of the Law. On the other hand, the Book of Chronicles (D. V. Paralipomenon ) written after the Exile, by setting forth the splendours of ancient ritual, sought to move them to the worthy celebration of Divine worship (op. cit., p. 324). What complicates the earlier periods of Bible history is the fact that there was no recognized era (such as the Dionysian Era of our own times) to reckon events from, though for the Roman world the founding of Rome in the eighth century B. C. gradually began to be recognized as such, and, in later times, among the Jews, the date of the defeat of Nicanor by Seleucus Nicator, and the establishment of the Seleucid domination in Syria (312 B. C. ) came to be looked upon as a fixed era.
In this article the data that exist for the formation of a chronology of the Bible will be briefly discussed under the following heads: (1) Creation of the World; (2) Creation of Man; (3) Creation of Man to the Flood; (4) Flood to the Birth of Abraham; (5) Birth of Abraham to the Exodus; (6) Exodus to the building of Solomon's Temple; (7) Building of the Temple to Fall of Jerusalem; (8) Destruction of Jerusalem to Jesus Christ; (9) Date of the Nativity; (10) Beginning of the Ministry; (11) Duration of the Ministry; (12) Date of the Crucifixion; (13) The Acts of the Apostles.
(1) Creation of the World
In an article on Biblical chronology it is hardly necessary in these days to discuss the date of the Creation. At least 200 dates have been suggested, varying from 3483 to 6934 years B. C. , all based on the supposition that the Bible enables us to settle the point. But it does nothing of the sort. It was natural that in the early days of the Church, the Fathers, writing with little scientific knowledge, should have had a tendency to explain the days of Genesis, i, as natural days of twenty-four hours. Still, they by no means all did so. Thus the Alexandrian Fathers (St. Clement, Origen, St. Athanasius, and St. Cyril) interpreted the days of Creation ideally, and held that God created all things simultaneously. So did St. Augustine; and St. Thomas Aquinas hesitated between idealism and literalism. The literal interpretation has now been entirely abandoned; and the world is admitted to be of immense antiquity. Professor Dana declares its age to be fifty millions of years; others suggest figures still more startling (cf. Buibert, "In the Beginning"; Molloy, "Geology and Revelation"; Hummelauer, "Genesis"; Hastings, "Dictionary of the Bible "; Mangenot in Vig., "Dict. de la Bible"; Driver, "Genesis". Perhaps the words of Genesis (i, 2): "The earth was void and empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep", refer to the first phase of the Creation, the astronomical, before the geological period began. On such questions we have no Biblical evidence, and the Catholic is quite free to follow the teaching of science.
(2) Creation of Man
The question which this subject suggests is: Can we confine the time that man has existed on earth within the limits usually assigned, i.e. within about 4000 years of the birth of Christ? — The Church does not interfere with the freedom of scientists to examine into this subject and form the best judgment they can with the aid of science. She evidently does not attach decisive influence to the chronology of the Vulgate, the official version of the Western Church, since in the Martyrology for Christmas Day, the creation of Adam is put down in the year 5199 B. C. , which is the reading of the Septuagint. It is, however, certain that we cannot confine the years of man's sojourn on earth to that usually set down. But, on the other hand, we are by no means driven to accept the extravagant conclusions of some scientists. As Mangenot says (Vig., Dict. de la Bible, II, 720 sq.), speaking of the right of Catholics to follow the teaching of science : — "certains tenants de l'archéologie préhistorique ont abusé de cette liberté et assigné une antiquité très reculeé à l'humanité" (certain champions of prehistoric archæology have abused this liberty and assigned to the human race an extremely remote antiquity). Thus Guibert writes (op. cit., p. 28): "Haeckel names more than 100,000 years; Burmeister supposed Egypt was peopled more than 72,000 years ago; Draper attributes to European man more than 250,000 years; according to M. Joly, certain geologists accord to the human race 100,000 centuries; and G. de Mortillet shows that man's existence reaches to about 240,000 years." He adds, however: "These numbers have been built up on such arbitrary and fragile bases, that true science could not tolerate them long." In fact, M. Guibert is of opinion that with our present knowledge there is nothing compelling us to extend the existence of man beyond 10,000 years. Such questions as the antiquity of civilization, which had reached a high pitch in Babylonia and Egypt 4000 years B. C., the radical differences of language at the same early period, differences of race (cf. the white, black, and yellow races), which do not seem to have been modified within the historic period, and the remains of human workmanship going back to a very remote antiquity — all these things seem to lead to the conclusion that the existence of man on earth goes back far beyond the traditional 4,000 years. Professor Driver says ("Genesis", p. xxxvi): "Upon the most moderate estimate it cannot be less than 20,000 years."
(3) Creation to the Flood
The period from the Creation to the Flood is measured by the genealogical table of the ten patriarchs in Genesis 5 and Genesis 7:6 . But the exact meaning of Chapter 5 has not been clearly defined. Critical writers point out that the number ten is a common one amongst ancient peoples in the list of their prehistoric heroes, and that they attribute fabulous lengths to the lives of these men; thus, the Chaldeans reckon for their first ten heroes, who lived in the period from the Creation to the Flood, a space of 432,000 years. This seems to point to some common nucleus of truth or primitive tradition which became distorted and exaggerated in the course of ages. Various explanations have been given of chapter v to explain the short time it seems to allow between the Creation and the Flood. One is that there are lacunæ in it, and, though it is not easy to see how that can be, still it has to be remembered that they exist in St. Matthew (i, 8) in precisely similar circumstances. That there are difficulties about the genealogical table in chapter v, we know ; for, as may be seen from the accompanying table, the total number of years in the Hebrew, Samaritan, and Septuagint differs, in the Hebrew, it being 1656, in the Samaritan, 1307, and in the Septuagint, 2242.Names of the Patriarchs Age at birth of son: —
Hebrew Samaritan Sept. Adam
From Noah to Flood 130
100 Creation to Flood 1656 1307 2342
From an inspection of the above table it is obvious that the diversity is due to systematic change — whether to increase the total length of the period or to reduce the age at which the patriarchs had children or for some other reason, we know not. One thing can be confidently asserted, that the length of time between the creation of Adam and the Flood cannot be restricted within the period traditionally set down. It may also be said that "for this period the chronology of the Bible is quite uncertain" (Vigouroux, Dict., 273), and that the freedom of the Catholic in investigating the chronology of this period is quite unrestricted.
(4) The Flood to the Birth of Abraham
Hebrew Samaritan Sept. Sem (father of Arphaxad)
Arphaxad (father of Cainan)
Cainan (father of Sale )
Sale (father of Heber)
Heber (father of Phaleg)
Phaleg (father of Reu)
Reu (father of Sarug)
Sarug (father of Nachor)
Nachor (father of Thare)
Thare (father of Abraham ) 102
70 Years from birth of Sem
to birth of Abraham
Deduct years of Sem's
age at time of flood
Add for age of Abraham
at time of his call
Hence, number of years
from Flood to Call of
Again, however, the numbers in the table above differ in the Hebrew, Samaritan, and Septuagint, being respectively 367, 1017, and 1147; and it will be observed that, as a rule, the Greek and Samaritan agree against the Hebrew. Indeed they are identical, except that the name of Cainan, whose age at the birth of Sale is given as 130 years, is to be found in the Greek only. Whether or not the original table contained the name Cainan, we cannot tell. Some hold that it was introduced into the Septuagint to increase the length of time between the Flood and Abraham, or again to make the number of the patriarchs between the Flood and Abraham equal to that of those between Adam and the Flood. At any rate this genealogy gives rise to many questions, thus: Is the name Cainan a later insertion, or has it dropped out from the Hebrew? It is given by St. Luke (iii, 36). Again, are there any lacunæ? For, according to science, the length of this period was much greater than appears from the genealogical table. There is no difficulty in admitting such lacunæ, for we know that St. Matthew (i, 8) says: — Jorum begot Ozias ", though between the two intervened Ochozias, Joab, and Amasias. For, as Professor Sayce says (Early History of the Hebrews, 144), "son in Semitic idiom was frequently equivalent to descendant". We have also instances of similar omissions in I Chron., vi, 1, and in I Esdr., vii, 1-5. With critical scholars the Flood was a very partial affair. It is not, however, the business of the chronologist to enter into a discussion of that matter. In any case, whether we follow the traditional or critical view, the numbers obtained from the genealogy of the Patriarchs in chapter xi must be greatly augmented, in order to allow time for such a development of civilization, language, and race type as had been reached by the time of Abraham.
(5) Birth of Abraham to the Exodus
At the birth of Isaac, Abraham is said to have been 100 years old ( Genesis 21:5 ); Isaac was sixty at the birth of Jacob ( Genesis 25:26 ); Jacob arrived in Egypt, at the age of 130 (xlvii, 9). These figures, added, give 290; add to this 430 (the number of years spent by Israel in Egypt ) and we get 720 years, which would be the length of time between the birth of Abraham and the Exodus. A difficulty arises, since the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint read in Exodus, xii, 40: "The abode of the Children of Israel that they made in Egypt and the land of Canaan was 430 years." If this be correct, then only 215 years are left for the sojourn in Egypt, 215 years being required for the sojourn in Canaan, as we have to subtract 75, the age of Abraham when he came to Canaan, from 290 (see above). Still, not all the manuscripts of the Septuagint adopt this reading; and, in any case, we are only face to face with another such diversity between the Greek and Hebrew as is to be found in the genealogies of the Patriarchs.
Let us now bring these facts into relation with the Christian Era. For ( 1 Kings 6:1 ) the fourth year of King Solomon is said to have fallen in the 480th year after the Exodus; and Ussher dates the reign of King Solomon from 1014-975 B. C. But as the Temple was begun in the fourth year of that king, or in 1010, the Exodus took place in the year 1490 B. C. How do these results square with the teaching of science ? Professor Sayce, from the connexion of Abraham with Amraphel in the episode related in Genesis, xiv, says that "we can approximately fix the period when the family of Terah migrated from Ur of the Chaldees. It was about 2300 B. C. , if the chronology of the native Babylonian historians is correct" (Early History of the Hebrews, 12). Then again he tells us that "Chanaan could not have been invaded by the Israelites until after the fall of the eighteenth dynasty. When Khu-n-aten died it was still an Egyptian province, garrisoned by Egyptian troops" (Higher Criticism and the Monuments, 241). This we learn from the Tel-el-amarna tablets. So we are taken to a period after the death of Ramses II in 1281 B. C. for the date of the Exodus, which most likely took place in the reign of Meneptah, son and successor of Ramses, earlier than the year 1200 B. C. This is not the traditional date of the Exodus, but as Father Hummelauer (Genesis, p. 29) says, it is the conclusion of most men in these days. Nor is there anything to prevent the student of the Old Testament from endeavousring to throw all the light he can upon the vexed question of Biblical chronology, considering how involved it often is in obscurity.
(6) The Exodus to the Building of Solomon's Temple
The Third Book of Kings (vi, 1) states that Solomon began to build the Temple in the 480th year (the Septuagint gives 440 years) after the Exodus. For the Catholic, that passage seems to settle the question. But a difficulty arises from the fact that there is almost a consensus of scientific opinion that the Exodus from Egypt took place in the reign of Meneptah, or, possibly, that of his successor, Seti II. Moreover we are driven to a date later than the years 1400 for the Exodus, since up to that date, Assyriologists and Egyptologists agree, Palestine was an Egyptian province, with an Egyptian governor (Driver, "Genesis", p. xxix). Ramses II, the builder of Pithom and Raamses, was the Pharaoh of the oppression, and as he reigned from 1348-1281 (Sayce) we have to descend to one of his successors to find the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Hence we are driven to his immediate successor, Meneptah, at earliest, and to about the year 1277 (Early History of the Hebrews, 150) for the date of the Exodus. On the other hand, the date of the building of the Temple cannot be put later than the middle of the tenth century B. C. But if we take the time between these two dates, we are left with only about 327 years, as against 480 required by 1 Kings 6:1 . Wellhausen does not treat the chronology seriously (Prolegomena, 229), but, in company with many other critics, pronounces it to be merely artificial. They say that the number 480 is made up of twelve times 40; forty being taken as a generation; and so the number 40 predominates amongst chronological numbers in this part of Scripture. Thus the time in the desert was 40 years; Othoniel, Debora, Geneon, each ruled for 40 years. Aod ruled for twice 40, or 80 years; the land was under the Philistines 40 years, and David reigned for the same period. But the following facts must be taken into consideration. Professor Sayce points out that "40 years in Hebrew idiom merely signified an indeterminate and unknown period of time, and the Moabite Stone shows that the same idiom existed also in the Moabite language" (Early History of the Hebrews, 146). Chronology in those days was in its infancy; and that the dates were only roughly given is obvious from the recurrence of round numbers. If we were to write down all the numbers that occur during this period, as Father Hummelauer does in his commentary on Judges (p. 12), we should find that the number 40 recurs by no means as often as we are led to suppose. The difficulty remains that 1 Kings 6:1 , gives for the length of this period 480 years; science seems to say "not more than 327". But we have to notice the uncertainties that surround the chronology of this period. We have also to point out that Wellhausen and Stade regard 6:1 , as a late insertion (Burney, "Hebrew Text of Kings", 58). If this were the case it would meet the difficulty; and perhaps it is rendered more likely by the fact that in the Greek this verse is inserted before 5:31-32 , and also that it reads 440 instead of 480. We conclude, therefore, that the date of the Exodus was about 1277, the monarchy was founded by Saul, 1020; David mounted the throne, 1002; Solomon in 962, and the Temple was begun, 958 B. C.
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(7) Building of the Temple to its Destruction
"On le voit", says Mangenot (in Vig., Dict. de la Bible, s. v. "Chronologie", 732), "la chronologie de l'époque des rois d'Israël et de Juda n'est pas aussi ferme et aussi assurée qu'on le croit communément. Elle aurrait besoin d'être raccordée avec la chronologie assyrienne" (It is plain that the chronology of the period of the kings of Israel and Juda is not so settled and ascertained as is commonly supposed. It must be made to accord with the Assyrian chronology ). There are certainly textual errors among the numbers. Comparing 2 Kings 8:26 , with 2 Chronicles 22:2 , we find that in the former, Ocozias is said to have been twenty-two years old when he began to reign, in the latter, forty-two. Nor can a critical writer say that the chronicler was ill-informed; one of the principles of Wellhausen and all his school is that Kings was the principal source of Chronicles. Is not this an obvious case of text-corruption? How else, too, can we account for the fact that the Book of Kings gives the sum of the rigns of the kings who reigned from Roboam to the death of Ochozias as 95, whereas it gives the sum of the years from Jeroboam to the death of Joram as ninety-eight, though Jeroboam came to the throne the same year as Roboam, and Ochozias died the same day as Joram? For if the writer of Kings made use of all the clever artificial devices, with which he is credited by critical writers, it is incredible that such an obvious error should have been committed by him. And so it may be said of his giving as the sum of the years from the accession of Jehu of Israel to the fall of Samaria as 143 years, whilst he gives the interval between the accession of Athalia of Juda (who began her reign in the same year as Jehu ) and the same event as 165 years.
A development in the method of recording dates seems to have taken place among the Jews during this period. Events were dated in Babylonia by the reign of the kings; in Assyria, regular officials were appointed every year, calleed limmi, by whose name the year was known, just as the consuls in Rome and the eponymous archons in Athens. Lists of the limmi for the years 909-666 B. C. have been discovered (Sayce, "Early History of the Hebrews", 147). This chronological system affected the Jews ; records for chronicles were thus kept among them, and are frequently referred to in the Book of Kings. So, too, we read, among the lists of royal officials, of a recorder or chronicler. It is true an objection is sometimes raised (cr. Hastings, Dict., I, 400), that the references are not to the Chronicles themselves, but to works based in some way upon them. This, however, seems a purely gratuitous assertion. That the references are to the Book of Chronicles, and not simply to the chronicles, would seem to imply no more than that the chronicles of the different kings were in some way united so as to form a single volume, of which it is quite possible that copies were made. Nor is it extravagant to suppose that great efforts would have been made to save the royal records at the destruction of Samaria, especially as there was a royal official, called the chronicler, who would have had care of them.
If we come now to the actual figures themselves, there is not a serious divergency between them and the results of profane history, whilst in many cases they correspond exactly. What we should naturally expect is, that the farther back we go, the more general would be the knowledge of chronology shown, and so we find it is in regard to the history of the kings. That for the most part fractions of a year are neglected, makes it clear that the writer dealt in round numbers. And yet we find that from the death of Solomon to the accession of Athalia and Jehu, who began to reign in the same year, there is only a divergency of three years in 90 between the Kingdoms of Juda and Israel ; whilst from that date to the destruction of Samaria the difference is only 21 years on the other side. So that the total difference, in a period of about 255 years, is one of only 19 years. But then it cannot be admitted that this is a pure error. Many writers say that the deficiency in the length of the years of the kings of Israel is to be supplied by the introduction of two interregnums in the list of the kings of Israel, perhaps one after Jeroboam II, the other after Phacee; or again, that two of the kings of Juda reigned contemporaneously with their fathers. It cannot be pretended that the true explanation has been found. The practical point is that the student is at liberty to throw what light he can on the problem from external sources; and that the chronology of the Book of Kings, as it now stands, is quite adequate for the purposes for which it was supplied. One thing is certain, that the equation of Cheyne's "Encyclopædia Biblica" (I, 770) is a mere caricature; "This table shows that at the end of the 258th year after the division of the kingdom, there had elapsed 258 synchronistic years, 241 7 / 12 years of reign in Israel, and 260 such years in Juda ; and we have thus the singular equation 258 = 241 7 / 12 = 260." No doubt this is very clever; whether it is equally instructive, from the point of view of serious history, is another matter. Let one illustration show: in 1 Kings 15:1 , we are told that Abiam reigned over Juda in the eighteenth year of Jeroboam, King of Israel. In verse 9 we are told that, after his death, recorded in verse 8, Asa his son became king, in the twentieth year of Jeroboam. In the second verse we read of Abiam that "he reigned three years in Jerusalem ". Now what does Cheyne's "Encyclopædia" do in the "singular equation"? Computing the years form the eighteenth to the twentieth year of Jeroboam, according to the modern fashion, it puts them down under one heading of the equation as two years, then under another heading it gives the same period, computed, as is known perfectly well, according to the old Jewish fashion, as three years; and having finally drawn up in this way three different lists of figures, it works out "a singular equation". — No wonder; yet the writer, apart from the passage in question, must have known that from the fourth to the sixth year of Ezechias was counted as three years by the Jews ( 2 Kings 18:9, 10 ), and that from Friday to Sunday was likewise reckoned as three days ( Luke 24:7 ).
In places the chronology of the kings is far from clear. What light is thrown upon it by the chronology of the surrounding nations? Egypt may be left out, because little help can be got from it. Sayce says of its chronology that "it is more disputable even than that of Israel." ("Hebrews", 453.) But bringing to our help the fragment of the Tyrian annals quoted by Josephus, the foundation of the Temple may be fixed, according to Sayce, for about the year 969, which would be very near the date given above. Having fixed the year when the Temple was begun, we know that Solomon reigned from 973 to 936, and David from 1013 to 973. So, to speak roughly, the revolt of the Ten Tribes must have taken place somewhere about the year 936.
Although St. Jerome says, in writing to the priest Vitalis, that to dwell on such matters is rather for a man of leisure than for a studious person, still we must confess it would be satisfactory to know how the general discrepancy arose between the Biblical dates and the corresponding Assyrian dates — from the accession of Roboam to the taking of Samaria. We have fixed roughly the date of the revolt of the Ten Tribes for the year 936 B. C. But the traditional date is 975, and if we follow the dates for the kings down to the taking of Samaria, it will be found that the usual interpretation of the Biblical chronology makes those dates about 40 years earlier than is possible according to the Assyrian chronological canon. Thus King Achab of Israel reigned from 918 to 896; but in the Assyrian inscriptions he is said to have been present at the Battle of Karkar in 854. Ozias was King of Juda from 810 to 758, but, according to the inscriptions, he was at war with Tiglath-pileser about the year 741. Again, Manahen's reign over Israel extended from 770 to 759, but on the monuments he is inscribed as a tributary of Tiglath-pileser in 738. These examples seem to show that according to the traditional interpretation, the dates of the kings are about 40 years too high.
On the other hand, it has to be remembered that there is no fixed Bible chronology, though there are synchronisms and lengths of reigns given in the Books of Kings. There are, moreover, textual errors, uncertainty in regard to pre-dating and post-dating, unreliability as to the accuracy and interpretation of names on the Assyrian tablets. So that, as we should expect, "few tables of dates furnished by Old Testament chronologists exactly agree" (Hstings, "Bibl. Dict.", I, 403). Another point has to be remembered. Elaborate artificial explanations of the chronology of the Bible from the building of the Temple to the fall of Jerusalem are given. These explanations embrace not only the period from Solomon to Achaz (741 B. C. ), but down from that time to the fall of Jerusalem (586 B. C. ). But it is certain that the chronology of the Books of Kings from Achaz to the destruction of Jerusalem, a period of 155 years, is not artificial (cf. Hastings, 401); it is in agreement with the Assyrian chronology. And does not this fact throw considerable doubt upon the whole theory of artificiality?
Finally, the Moabite Stone, referred to above, states that Israel dwelt in Medeba during the days of Omri and half the days of his son — altogether 40 years. Of this Professor Sayce says: "The real length of time was not more than 15 years" (Early History of the Hebrews, 146). Now, if this be so, may we not at least argue that either the Moabite Stone is accurate or not? If it is accurate, then the number 40 was used in a most loose fashion as a round number in those days; if inaccurate, then it is clear that even the contemporary stone records of the age of the kings cannot be always trusted. How does this affect the Babylonian tablets and their evidence?
The two great authorities for Jewish chronology after the destruction of Jerusalem are the Books of Esdras and the First Book of Machabees. There are other books too, but their evidence is so uncertain, and in certain cases so much disputed, that we do not propose to make use of them. Such are, for instance, the prophecy of Daniel and the prophecies of Aggeus and Zacharias. In the First Book of Machabees and the Books of Esdras we have generally admitted first-rate authorities. Thus Cheyne's "Encyclopædia" (III, 2865) writes of Machabees I, "The book has proved itself worthy to hold the highest rank as trustworthy chronology ", and again, "The accuracy of the dates given being in the main beyond all question". The book embraces the years 175-135 B. C. , and the chief events are dated according to the Seleucid Era, 312 B. C. Of the Books of Esdras, Batten says, in Hastings, "The historical value of these books is very great". Difficulties exist in regard to the names of Darius and Artaxerxes. Is the Darius referred to Darius I or Darius II? — Without much doubt, Darius I. — Van Hoonacker is inclined to identify the Artaxerxes of chapter vi with the second of that name, and so would place the return of Esdras to Jerusalem under Artaxerxes II, in 404, contrary to the view of most commentators. Nehemias, he says, returned under Artaxerxes I in 444. But it is commonly held that Esdras returned in 457 and Nehemias in 444 B. C. The first band of captives returned to Jerusalem under Zorobabel in the first year of Cyrus, i.e. 536 B. C. They laid the foundation of the Temple, which was finished in 516.
We know nothing of the chronology of the Jews after this till the time of the Machabees. But the First Book of Machabees gives information about the period 174-135; it opens with a description of the position of the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes. Then comes an account of the rising under Mathathias, in 167, and his death. Next followed his son Judas who continued the struggle till he died in 161. Jonathan, Judas's brother, was the next leader till independence under Simon. Simon was made ruler in 141, was murdered in 135, and was succeeded by his son John Hyrcanus in the same year.
(9) Date of the Nativity of Jesus Christ
At first sight it seems a simple thing to fix the date of the birth of Jesus Christ. Was it not in the beginning of the first year of the Christian Era ? It was a monk of the sixth century, named Dionysius Exiguus (the Little) who fixed our present Christian Era, laying down that Jesus Christ was born on the 25th of December, A. U. C. 753, and commencing the new era from the following year, 754. That date, as we shall see, cannot be correct and, instead of being an improvement on, is further from the truth than the dates assigned by the early Fathers, St. Irenæus and Tertullian, who fixed the date of the Nativity in the 41st year of Augustus, that is to say, 3 years B. C., or a. U. C. 751. We must note first that St. Matthew says (ii, 1) that Our Saviour was born "in the days of King Herod ". Josephus tells us (Antiquities, XVII, viii, 1), that Herod died "having reigned 34 years de facto since the death of Antigonus, and 37 years de jure since the Roman decree declaring him king". We know also that he began to reign in the consulship of Domitius Calvinus and Asinius Pollio, 40 B. C. , in the 184th Olympiad (Ant., xiv, 5); and that he became king de facto in the consulship of Marcus Agrippa and Canidius Ballus, in the 185th Olympiad (Ant., XIV, xvi, 4). These calculations do not make it sure whether Herod died in the year 3, 4, or 5 B. C., but it is most probable that it was in the year 4 B. C. That date is corroborated by an eclipse of the moon which occurred (Ant., XVII, vi, 4) on the very night that Herod burnt Matthias alive, a few days before his own death; for there was an eclipse of the moon from 12 March to 13 March, 4 B. C. All this points to the fact that Herod died in the year 4 B. C., and that so Our Saviour must have been born before that date. In May, October, and December of the year 7 B. C., a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn took place. Kepler, the astronomer, suggested that perhaps this phenomenon was connected with the star seen by the Magi ( Matthew 2:2 ). But this idea is altogether too uncertain to be entertained seriously, or to form a basis for any reliable chronology. Nor can we come to any more definite conclusion from what St. Matthew says of the sojourn of the child Jesus in Egypt (ii, 14, 19, 22), where he remained till the death of Herod. Herod ordered a massacre of the children up to two years old according to the information about the date of the Nativity which he had received from the Magi. In itself there is nothing unlikely in that, for we know that Herod was a most cruel and whimsical man, having, for instance, summoned to his bedside all the principal men of the Jewish nation with a view to having them shot with darts at the moment of his death, so that there might be universal lamentation when he left this life. We do not, however, know what information Herod possessed as to the date of the Nativity, whether the Magi gave him accurate information, or whether they possessed it themselves; what the incident would seem to show was that Our Saviour was born some time before Herod's death, probably two years or more. So that, if Herod died in the year 4 B. C. , we should be taken to 6 or 7 B. C. as the year of the Nativity.
But a difficulty is raised as to the date of the Nativity in connexion with the Roman census mentioned in the second chapter of St. Luke. The Nativity took place after a decree had gone forth from Cæsar Augustus that the whole Roman Empire should be enrolled. The words "This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria " (verse 2), or, more correctly, "This first census was taken whilst Quirinius was governor of Syria ", are the source of the difficulty. For we know that Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was governor of Syria, and that a census was made in A. D. 7, about eleven years after Herod's death, and it is not denied that Cyrinus was Quirinius. Schürer, in "The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ" (Div. I, Vol. II, 105-143), endeavours to prove that the statement is an inaccuracy on the part of St. Luke, and, with more or less emphasis, practically all the critical school takes up the same attitude. But prima facie we are not disposed to accept the contention that St. Luke was in ignorance on such a very elementary subject. C. H. Turner, in Hastings' "Dictionary of the Bible ", thinks he may have been misinformed, since "his acquaintance with Palestine was perhaps limited to the two years' imprisonment of St. Paul in Cæsarea". Such an idea seems most unlikely. St. Luke had made careful inquiry about the facts he relates in his Gospel; he had "diligently attained to all things from the beginning", and that too from those who "were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (i, 2, 3). For such a man it seems incredible that he should not have taken the trouble to inquire, not as to some petty Jewish custom, but as to such a public and important event as a Roman census, and to have made himself acquainted with the name of the Roman governor at the time.
At the same time it is not clear what the explanation of the note about Quirinius is. Some suggest that próte has, as it undoubtedly has sometimes in classical Greek, the force of prótera, so that the sense of the passage would be: "This census was held before that which took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria ". But there is another explanation. It is true the writer of the article on Chronology in Cheyne's "Encyclopædia" says, with characteristic positiveness, that "any census in Judea before the well-known one in the year A. D. 7 is impossible". But on the other hand, Turner, in Hastings' "Dictionary", thinks that there is no inherent improbability in the hypothesis of a census in Judea somewhere within the years 8-5 B. C. There is very little doubt, from an inscription found at Tivoli in 1764, that Quirinius was twice governor of Syria ; once, as is well known, from a. D. 6-11, but also once at an earlier period. Not at the time of Herod's death, for Quinctilius Varus was then governor; and before him came Sentius Saturninus from 9-6 B. C. , before him Titius. But there is no reason why Quirinius should not be placed after Varus. In that case Saturninus would have been the one to begin the census ; it would have been suspended for a time, on account of the death of Herod, and then continued and completed under Quirinius, so that his name would have been associated with it. Perhaps this may explain why Tertullian speaks of a census made by Sentius Saturninus under Augustus (Adv. Marcionem, iv, 19); but it is hardly likely, if he had found another and, apparently, a wrong name in St. Luke, that he would not have taken any notice, or given any explanation of it.
From the evidence it seems that the date of the Nativity given by Dionysius Exiguus is not the right one, for it is after Herod's death. Tertullian and Irenæus are nearer to the truth with the years 2 or 3 B. C. ; but it must be placed still further back, and probably the year 7 B. C. will not be found to be much astray.
(10) Date of the Beginning of the Ministry
There is reason to suppose that the early Fathers (such as St. Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian ) and later writers (as Dionysius Exiguus ), in trying to fix a date for the Nativity, argued back from the synchronisms connected with the beginning of Our Saviour's public life, joined with St. Luke's statement, "And Jesus himself was beginning about the age of thirty years" (iii, 23;– a’utòs ên ’Iesoûs ’archómenos ‘oseì ’etôn triákonta ); for they took that passage to mean that Jesus Christ had not completed thirty years, but was in the beginning of his thirtieth year (cf. Epiphanius, "Hær.", ii, 16). But ’archómenos does not bear such a meaning here; it is not immediately connected with the phrase ‘oseì ’etôn triákonta , which means "about thirty years", and might without any straining of its sense be used for a year or two more or less than thirty. So that, to determine the date of Our Lord's baptism from this passage, we should have to add on about thirty years to the date of the Nativity (about 7 years B. C. ), which would leave us with the indefinite result that it might have taken place anywhere between A. D. 23 and 27. But in the Gospel of St. John (ii, 20), shortly before the Pasch, and after the miracle of Cana, Jesus cast the buyers and sellers out of the Temple ; and the Jews in upbraiding Him used the words, tesserákonta kaí ‘èks ’étesin ’okodométhe ‘o naòs oûtos (Six and forty years has this temple been a-building), meaning, that at that time the Jews had been forty-six years at work building the Temple. In that passage is contained a clear mark of time. For though Josephus tells us in one place (Bell. Jud., I, xxi, 1), that the Temple was begun in the fifteenth year of Herod, and in another (Ant., XV, ii, 1) in the eighteenth, still in all probability, as Turner says in Hastings (p. 405), the former is a correction of the latter date, and the fact is that the Temple was begun in the eighteenth year of Herod's de facto reign (which began in 37 B. C. ), or in other words, that it was begun in 19 B. C. We should thus arrive at the year A. D. 27, for the date of the Pasch following Our Saviour's baptism. Again, St. Luke (iii, 1), assigning a date to the beginning of St. John the Baptist's mission, says it was "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cæsar ". The fifteenth year of Tiberius Cæsar would be A. D.
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