More on the Alleged 1544 Copy Error

I’ve been doing a series on the date of Herod the Great’s death, which was inspired by lawyer Frederick Larson’s Star of Bethlehem.  In that documentary, Larson argues that Herod died in 1 B.C.E. rather than 4 B.C.E.  This is a significant aspect of Larson’s overall argument because Larson demonstrates that certain astronomical phenomena occurred in 2 B.C.E., and he identifies that phenomena with the star of Bethlehem.  But the Gospel of Matthew says that the star appeared during the reign of Herod the Great.  Consequently, Larson’s thesis must coincide with Herod dying after 2 B.C.E., ruling out a 4 B.C.E. date for Herod’s death.

This morning, I read an article that Larson cites on his web site: David W. Beyer’s “Josephus Re-Examined: Unraveling the Twenty-Second Year of Tiberias”, which was on pages 85-96 of Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, ed. E. Jerry Vardaman (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1998).  I may revisit this article in the future, since it expresses key points in a concise yet informative manner—-on such issues as the eclipse during the year of Herod’s death, numismatics, etc.  Beyer also had interesting information about when the church fathers dated Jesus’ birth, and he argues that most of the church fathers who commented on the subject dated it to 2 B.C.E. (though, of course, they did not call the year 2 B.C.E.).

But I was disappointed because I had a hard time understanding Beyer’s main argument, which concerned the manuscripts and editions of Josephus.  Larson appeals to Beyer’s article to support the claim that editions of Josephus after 1544 are inconsistent with pre-1544 editions on an issue that pertains to the date of Herod’s death: the date of the death of Herod Philip, the son of Herod.  According to Larson and Beyer, most post-1544 editions of Josephus’ Antiquities 18.106 say that Herod Philip died in the twentieth year of Tiberius after reigning for thirty-seven years.  For believers in a 4 B.C.E. date for Herod’s death, that is consistent with Herod Philip succeeding Herod the Great in 4 B.C.E., meaning that Herod died in that year.  But Larson says that pre-1544 editions say that Herod Philip died in the twenty-second year of Tiberius, and that is consistent with Herod the Great dying in 1 B.C.E.

In my last post in this series, I noted Andrew Steinmann’s statement that “the twenty-second year of Tiberius” reading is not based on an extant Greek manuscript of Josephus.  I wondered what pre-1544 Greek manuscripts had for Antiquities 18.106, since there are Greek manuscripts of Josephus that predate 1544.  I was curious about whether or not Beyer addresses this issue.  To be honest, after reading his article, I do not know.  Beyer has a chart about early manuscripts (not published editions, in this case, but manuscripts) that say that Herod Philip died in the twenty-second year of Tiberius after a reign of thirty-five (rather than thirty-seven) years.  These manuscripts pre-date 1544.  But Beyer does not identify the language of these manuscripts, as he mentions the languages of the post-1544 editions.  I concluded from a Google search that one of those pre-1544 manuscripts is in Latin.  I’m not saying that Latin manuscripts are necessarily inferior to Greek ones, for the Latin ones may be based on Greek ones.  But I’m racking my brain trying to answer the question: When do pre-1544 Greek manuscripts say that Herod Philip died?  And Beyer does not address this question in a clear manner.  (Beyer does say, however, that the 1544 edition was in Greek, and that he could not find a previous Greek published edition at the British Library, making the 1544 edition “the first printed edition of the Antiquities in Greek.”  There were Greek manuscripts that were earlier than 1544, but, for Beyer, 1544 marked the first published edition of the Antiquities in Greek.)

Moreover, I read a good critique of Beyer by Richard Carrier, who believes that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.E.  (Whereas Larson goes with a 1 B.C.E. date to uphold the historicity of Scripture, Carrier, an atheist, does the opposite: he argues for a 4 B.C.E. date in an article that seeks to undermine biblical inerrancy.)  Carriers’ entire critique of Beyer is worth the read, but I will just quote two arguments that Carrier makes:

“…Beyer examined only manuscripts in the British Museum and the Library of Congress–yet the best manuscripts are in France and Italy–one of which is the oldest, Codex Ambrosianae F 128, inscribed in the 11th century (the oldest manuscript Beyer examined was 12th century); and another is the most reliable: Codex Vaticanus Graecus 984, transcribed in 1354; both confirming a reading of ‘twentieth,’ and thus invalidating all his conclusions from the start.  [A]ll scholarly editions agree: the word for ‘twentieth’ (eikostô) exists in all extant Greek manuscripts worth considering. Where does the reading ‘twenty-second’ come from? A single manuscript tradition of a Latin translation (which reads vicesimo secundo). Beyer’s case completely falls apart here. The Latin translations of Josephus are notoriously inferior, and are never held to be more accurate than extant Greek manuscripts, much less all of them. Indeed, this is well proven here: whereas the Latin has 22 for the year of Tiberius, it also has 32, or even in some editions 35, as the year of Philip, not the 37 that Finegan’s argument requires. Thus, clearly the Latin translator has botched all the numbers in this passage. Any manuscripts that Beyer examined were no doubt either from these inferior Latin manuscripts, or Greek translations from these Latin manuscripts. Therefore, there is no basis whatever for adopting ‘twenty second’ as the correct reading. ”

Carrier does say that Beyer looked at Greek manuscripts, which I am inferring were pre-1544 ones.  But, in the end, Carrier invalidates the significance of 1544 in Beyer’s argument, for Carrier notes that there are pre-1544 manuscripts saying that Herod Philip died in the twentieth year of Tiberius, not the twenty-second (Carrier argues, however, that the quantity and date of manuscripts do not really matter, for there may be numerous manuscripts that are based on a faulty manuscript, and a later manuscript may be based on “older and more reliable archetypes”.)

Carrier also does well to note the variants on the length of Herod Philip’s reign.  To my surprise, Beyer actually comments at length about this issue.  Beyer says, for example, that the thirty-seven year reign for Herod Philip was not used before 1544—-that instead we find thirty-two years, or thirty-five years.  That would place the beginning of Herod Philip’s reign in the C.E. realm., after 4 B.C.E. and 1 B.C.E.  But does this not undermine Beyer’s argument that pre-1544 manuscripts show that Herod the Great died in 1 B.C.E.?  Beyer says that political instability may have been the reason that Herod Philip assumed “full administrative authority” some time after Herod’s death, but, if we’re going to concede that Herod Philip did not take authority immediately after Herod passed away, why should we assume that Antiquities 18.106 is even relevant to the issue of when Herod the Great died?

That’s all I have on this issue for today.  I have some links for you to read, if you are interested in going deeper on the topic of the date of Herod’s death.  I linked to Carrier’s article above, and I will be revisiting that, for it is the best response to those who propose a 1 B.C.E. date that I have encountered thus far.  But I also found Ernest Martin’s book, which Larson strongly recommended (see here).  And here is a list of the manuscripts of Josephus, which I didn’t find user-friendly in helping me to evaluate Beyer’s charts, but there is useful information there.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to More on the Alleged 1544 Copy Error

  1. Chris Cash says:

    It is great to see your rather unbiased research comments here. So many decide beforehand what they will find and then go and find it…. so your genuine inquiry is refreshing. I have watched the Star of Bethlehem numerous times and am very interested in these death dates for Herod as well. Thank you for the info.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, Chris! It’s great that one can find a lot of this information about the date of Herod’s death online! I didn’t go into this topic as deeply as I expected when I wrote these posts, but, if you want to, I’d recommend the Richard Carrier article.


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