New Testament Chronology
New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)
It appears probable that the conception of Jesus occurred on about March 25, BCE, which coincided with the first appearance of a nova interpreted as the first Star of the Magi. This would place Jesus' birth on about December 25, 5 BCE, the traditional day for Christmas. These dates will be used in the following discussions.
After Jesus' presentation at the Temple on the forty-first day, the holy family returned to Nazareth. Later they returned to Jerusalem for the following Passover. Shortly after this the "Star of Bethlehem," the second supernova of April 24, 4 BCE, led the Magi to Jesus in Bethlehem. Then followed the flight into Egypt and Herod's massacre of the children of Bethlehem. After Herod's death on November 27, 4 BCE the holy family bypassed Jerusalem on their return to Nazareth. A summary of the probable course and dating of these of these and following events will now be considered.
After the birth of Jesus, "when the days of their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord." (Luke 2:22) According to the law of Moses after the birth of a male child a woman is unclean for seven days. On the eighth day the child is circumcised and the mother continues her purification for thirty-three additional days, or forty days total (Lev. 12:2-4). After that, from the forty-first day the child was to be presented at the Temple with a sin offering (Lev. 12:6-8). The forty-first day was February 2, 4 BCE, when Joseph and Mary presented Jesus at the Temple. At that time Simeon and Anna recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah. "And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth." (Luke 2:39) This would have been their first departure from the Bethlehem/Jerusalem area since Jesus was born.
What brought the Holy Family to be again in Bethlehem for the later visit of the Magi? "His parents used to go to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover." (Luke 2:41) This means that they returned several months later for that feast. In 4 BCE, the Passover and following Feast of Unleavened Bread was observed April 11 to April 18. It would appear that after the Feast they went to Bethlehem. This may have been to visit relatives or friends made earlier at the time of Jesus' birth. It may have also been with the intent of possibly relocating their home to the town of Joseph's ancestry. They were in Bethlehem shortly after the Passover.
Then "magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, `where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and we have come to worship Him." (Matt. 2:1-2) Herod "secretly called the magi, and ascertained from them the time the star appeared." (Matt. 2:7) He sent them to look for the Messiah in Bethlehem and to report back to him. The following morning as the Magi left Jerusalem they again saw "the star, which they had seen in the east." (Matt. 2:9) This supernova appeared high in the sky over Bethlehem, the Star of Bethlehem. It was just before sunrise in the early morning of April 24, 4 BCE. On that day the Magi presented their gifts to Jesus. The prior night they were "warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod." (Matt. 2:12) The afternoon of April 24 they left by another route.
It is probable that Herod sent spies to Bethlehem that day. The local people probably gave them little information, but the spies would have reported to Herod the disappearance of the Magi.
During the evening of April 24 "an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, `Arise and take the child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the child to destroy Him." (Matt. 2:13) That night they left for Egypt. When Joseph and his family crossed the Wadi El Arish, about a three-day journey from Bethlehem or Jerusalem, they entered Egyptian territory. They were beyond Herod's jurisdiction. They would have gone to the town of Rhinokalura, modern El Arish. They may have remained in that area or made the additional journey of about a week to the Egyptian delta.
In the early morning hours of April 25 Herod's assassins entered Bethlehem and the surrounding area. They killed all the male children who were two years or younger. The two years were based on the Magi's report of the first Star to Herod, "according to the time which he had ascertained from the magi." (Matt. 2:16) The earlier nova had appeared a little over a year earlier, and the two years were Herod's safety margin. Based on population estimates, the number killed was probably no more than twenty to twenty-five children.1 The Messiah was gone, secretly on the way to Egypt.
Possible historical support for the killing of the children is found in a passage by Macrobius (Saturnalia II 4:2), written about 400 CE: "when he heard that among the boys up to two years old whom Herod king of the Jews ordered to be killed in Syria Herod's own son was also killed."2 The report is a bit mixed and may only be based on a knowledge of Christian teachings. However, the killing of the children of Bethlehem would have preceded by six months Herod's killing of his son, Antipater, five days before his own death, as in the sequence of Macrobius.
Herod's kingdom was in a state of discontent. Shortly before the Passover there had been the sedition of Matthias. He and his followers were burned alive on the night of the eclipse, March 13, 4 BCE. Herod was in terrible health, and with that incident and the following Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem, he then left Jerusalem. He was never to return.
On November 27, 4 BCE Herod the Great died. God told Joseph in a dream that Herod was dead, and the Holy Family returned to Galilee (Matt. 2:19-23). Joseph knew of Herod's death before the news travelled to Egypt. Presumably they would have left quickly. Soon after this the Holy Family returned from Egypt, bypassed Jerusalem, and returned to Nazareth by December.
The Holy Family always went to Jerusalem for the Passover, "and when He became twelve, they went up there according to the custom of the Feast." (Luke 2:42) Based on prior conclusions, this would have been the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread from March 30 to April 6 of 9 CE. The last day of the Feast was a Saturday, and the caravan for Galilee would not have left until the following morning. At the end of the first day Joseph and Mary could not find Jesus. They returned to Jerusalem, and "after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions." (Luke 2:46) That day was likely Tuesday, April 9, 9 CE, the third inclusive day from when Jesus was found missing.3
Based on the conception of Jesus having occurred on March 25, 5 BCE, coupled with the Magi's first star, or nova, it is possible to lay out a likely chronology for the early years of Jesus that satisfies Scriptural, historical and astronomical considerations. This is found in the following Chart XV.
Events Surrounding the Birth of Jesus
1. P. L. Maier, "The Infant Massacre - History or Myth?," Christianity Today (December 19, 1975), 9.
2. Quoted in R. T. France, "Herod and the Children of Bethlehem," NT 21, 2 (1979), 117-118.
3. E. W. Faulstich, "Chronological Details Between the Birth and Death of Christ," IAT (Aug., 1986), 6-7 presumes that Jesus taught in the Temple on the Sabbath, which would fall on Nisan 24, or April 28 in 7 CE. However, Luke elsewhere (4:16, 4:31, 6:6, 13:10, etc.) specifically notes when Jesus taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath, but he does not specify that day here. Also, the implication is that the holy family arrived back in Jerusalem that same day and left again; they would not have travelled on the Sabbath.