Birth of Jesus
This is not an historical event because the birth stories in Matthew and Luke have very little in common. This indicates that their unique spin on the story developed late. The virgin birth claim also not historical because earlier sources like Paul and the Gospel of Mark do not mention it which they would have if they had known about it.
Still these stories do have a kernel of truth because a baby Jesus and his family would have had to flee their home in Nazareth as war refugees.
Dating the Birth of Jesus to the Galilean Revolt (4 BCE)
(July 9, 2022) Jesus was born at a time of Jewish rebellion and Roman repression in Galilee. While growing up he saw the growth of a trade route through Galilee between Mesopotamia and Egypt via the new port city of Caesarea Maritima. As a young man he even lived in the new customs border city of Capharnaum (Capernaum). With all this trade activity Jesus would have been exposed to the ancient Pagan magical ideas. This trade would make Galilee the Mediterranean home of Jewish mysticism (inventers of the Kabala). Matthew even has the infant Jesus visited by the Magi to show Jesus was teaching in the ancient magical tradition.
The best date for the birth of Jesus is 4 BCE, the year in which Herod the Great died. This is the scholarly consensus yet establishing this date is not without its difficulties because the New Testament associates Jesus’ birth with two events which occurred 10 years apart. The first association is with the death of Herod the Great who died in 4 BCE and the second is the census of Quirinius which occurred in in 6 CE.
The infancy narratives of both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod the Great (Matthew 2.1 and Luke 1:5). Such an agreement is significant because the two infancy narratives are independent sources having almost nothing else in common beyond agreeing about that date and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem south of Jerusalem. The two historical signals assigning the birth to king Herod’s time must date to about the time of the Q source of 69 BCE. In contrast, the location of that birth to Bethlehem seems to be false because it can be explained away by the need to show that Jesus's birth was fulfilling messianic "prophecy" of Micah 5:2. If the Micah passage is read fully then it is seen to actually refer to a hoped-for ruler of Israel who will defend Judah from the Assyrians in ancient times and not to any future apocalyptic ruler:(Micah 5:2-5, NIV) 3 But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” .... 4 He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. 5 And he will be our peace when the Assyrians invade our land and march through our fortresses.
In contrast to the double mention of Herod in the infancy narratives, the census of Quirinius is only mentioned in Luke’s infancy narrative (Luke 2:1-3) and that can be explained away because Luke needed a reason explain why the family left their hometown of Nazareth and went to Bethlehem before returning to Nazareth. The Luke infancy story also gets its idea about including shepherds from the Micah passage.
Matthew only needs to explain why Jesus’ family ended up in Nazareth after they were forced to flee Bethlehem. His explanation is that the family fled Bethlehem in order to avoid Herod’s intent to kill Jesus. But instead of returning to Bethlehem after Herod’s death the family settles in the village of Nazareth in Galilee so as to avoid the new king of Judea, Achelous. (who was never given a motivation about why he wanted to kill Jesus).
Matthew’s explanation for the family fleeing Bethlehem out of fear of Herod seems to have had as its source Herod’s final orders which cemented his reputation as a cruel and ruthless tyrant. Yet Herod's final order only affected men and not babies. Josephus relates the story:(Josephus, Antiquities, book 17, chapter 6, 175) “I shall die in a little time, so great are my pains; which death ought to be cheerfully borne, and to be welcomed by all men; but what principally troubles me is this, that I shall die without being lamented, and with such mourning as men usually expect at a king’s death.”
As a consequence of this, he ordered the principal men of the Israelite nation to Jericho where he was living and tricked them into going to the hippodrome with orders to his guards to kill them upon his death. This, he thought, would produce the desired level of mourning. But this was not enough for Herod, for then he ordered that one out of every family should be slain (Josephus, Antiquities, book 17, chapter 6, 181). That these plans were not put into effect is due to Herod’s sister, Salome, who told the guards that Herod had rescinded his orders at the last minute just before his death (Josephus, Antiquities, book 17 chapter 8, 193).
Another piece of information which supports the birth of Jesus around 4 BCE is Luke’s mention that Jesus began his teaching when he was “about thirty years old” (Luke 3:23). If Jesus was born in 4 BCE then a 34 year old Jesus would have begun teaching in 30 CE. If instead Jesus was born in 6 CE then Jesus would have begun teaching in 36 CE which is after his death, an impossible situation! So, the earlier birth date is the more likely one.
Traditionally, the birth of Jesus is assumed to have occurred at the beginning of year 1. Yet this date was only estimated by the Christian monk, Dionysius Exiguus, in 525 CE when he dated future Easter holidays relative to the birth of Jesus. The first history to use Dionysius’ dating system was the influential “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” by Bede in 721.
After Herod died his son Herod Antipas inherited a smaller kingdom and built Capernaum as a customs boarder stop to collect trade taxes. Jesus moved here as a young man to work in construction where he would have been exposed to the ideas of the Magi. This trade route also triggered the development of Jewish mysticism in Galilee known as the Kabbala (Cabala).
The Jewish Rebellion in Galilee Occurring When Jesus was Born
(July 9, 2022) Jesus was born into a Jewish revolt assuming he was born in 4 BCE in Galilee. At Herod's death a revolt broke out which likely caused Jesus's family in Nazareth to flee as mentioned in Luke and become war refugees. This is what Josephus says about what happened in Jerusalem right after the death of King Herod the Great in 4 BCE. Notice the participation of the Galileans:(Josephus, Antiquities, Book 17, Chapter 10, 254-254) But on the approach of Pentecost, which is a festival of ours, so called from the days of our forefathers, a great many ten thousands of men got together; nor did they come only to celebrate the festival, but out of their indignation at the madness of Sabinus, and at the injuries he offered them. A great number there was of Galileans, and Idumeans, and many men from Jericho, and others who had passed over the river Jordan, and inhabited those parts. This whole multitude joined themselves to all the rest, and were more zealous than the others in making an assault on Sabinus, in order to be avenged on him; (Whiston 1887)
Judas the Galilean became the main leader of the rebellion against Roman authority from his base in Galilee. The following text mentions that his troops raided the central armory town of Sepphoris for weapons. That city was only 3.7 miles (6 km) north of Nazareth. The rebellion had some success at first. This is what Josephus says about Judas during his revolt:(Josephus, Antiquities, Book 17, chapter 10, paragraph 5) There was also Judas, the son of that Ezekias who had been head of the robbers; which Ezekias was a very strong man, and had with great difficulty been caught by Herod. This Judas, having gotten together a multitude of men of a profligate character about Sepphoris in Galilee, made an assault upon the palace [there,] and seized upon all the weapons that were laid up in it, and with them armed every one of those that were with him, and carried away what money was left there; and he became terrible to all men, by tearing and rending those that came near him; (Whiston 1887)
Another rebel leader was Simon who operated along the Jordan River. He burnt down the royal palace in Jericho before being defeated by the Roman general Gratus with some local Roman troops. Down south in Judea, some 2,000 former soldiers of Herod also joined the fray on the side of the rebels. This rebellion in Judea had to be put down by two Roman legions under the overall command of general Varius. On the way from Syria to Judea, Varius split off some troops under his son to retake Galilee. He captured Sepphoris, burnt it, and made the survivors slaves (Josephus, Antiquities, Book 17, chapter 10, paragraph 9).
The Roman legions under Varius suppressed the main rebellion in Judea and crucified the remaining 2000 rebel soldiers but they ended up pardoning Judas the Galilean and his family in the north to finalize the peace (Josephus, Antiquities, Book 17, 295-298).
After the family of Jesus returned to Nazareth after the first rebellion they would have heard news of the new Jewish rulers of the region appointed by Rome. The Roman emperor Augustus Caesar divided the Jewish lands into three parts, one for each son. Achelous was given the lands of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea to the south. Herod Antipas was given Galilee and Peraea, a land just west of the Jordan River. The smallest piece of land, the Golan area, went to Philip.
Achelous was removed by the Romans nearly 10 years later in 6 CE for bad governance. The new Roman governor of Syria, P. Sulpicius Quirenius (Cyrenius) absorbed Achelous’ small kingdom. The first thing Quirenius did was to initiate a census in the lands he governed. The gospel of Luke 2:1-2 mentions this census as does an inscription found in the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo (Potter 1992).
Remember Judas the Galilean? That old rebel reproached the Jews about acquiescing to the census and that led to a short rebellion led by two of his sons who were soon caught and crucified by the Romans. A 10 year old Jesus would have been a close observer of this new turmoil which was recalled by Josephus:(Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 5, 101-102) Under these procurators that great famine happened in Judea, in which queen Helena bought corn in Egypt at a great expense, and distributed it to those that were in want, as I have related already. And besides this, the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean of that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews, as we have showed in a foregoing book. The names of those sons were James and Simon, whom Alexander commanded to be crucified. (Whiston 1887)
The Biblical book of Acts adds that Judas the Galilean was killed at the end of the rebellion along with all his followers:(Acts 5:37 NIV) After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.
In Josephus’ view, this second short rebellion in the north was the beginning of the chain of events which eventually lead to the big Roman-Jewish war beginning in 66 CE. This is because Judas the Galilean’s “scattered followers” formed the zealot party, the fourth sect of the Jews and the one which believed the Kingdom of God could only come about after revolution:(Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5, paragraph 1) Such were the consequences of this, that the customs of our fathers were altered, and such a change was made, as added a mighty weight toward bringing all to destruction, which these men occasioned by their conspiring together; for Judas and Sadduc, who excited a fourth philosophic sect among us, and had a great many followers therein, filled our civil government with tumults at present, and laid the foundations of our future miseries, by this system of philosophy, which we were before unacquainted withal, concerning which I will discourse a little, and this rather because the infection which spread thence among the younger sort, who were zealous for it, brought the public to destruction. (Whiston 1987)
Jesus was of the same generation as the “younger sort” mentioned by Josephus above but he rejected the Zealot idea of a violent revolution. Yet Jesus is recorded as having a zealot (or maybe a former zealot) among his twelve disciples, one Simon the Zealot mentioned in Mark 3:18.
Besides national and religious pride economic oppression was a factor in the revolt. Despite Herod’s wealth from trade taxes due to the building of the port city of Caesarea Maritima he also imposed heavy taxes on the local population. The taxes imposed by Herod were so heavy that the first request by the leading men of the land to his son and successor, Archelaus, was for a reduction in taxes (Josephus Antiquities, Book 17, 204-205). Archelaus also got the Romans to provide some relief. After a review by the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, Rome accepted a 25% tax reduction for the big, wealthy provinces which did not instigate the revolt (Judea, Samaria, and Idumea) and which were now ruled by Archelaus. No reduction occurred for the small and poor rebellious provinces of Galilee and Perea which came under the rule of Herod Antipas.
The final result was that the rebellious provinces ended up paying a total of 200 talents of silver annually while the wealthier and more populous peaceful provinces ruled by Archelaus payed 600 talents annually (Josephus, Antiquities, Book 17, 318-320). Given that 3000 shekels are in a talent and 4 denarii coins equal 1 shekel, then one talent equals 12,000 denarii (Betlyon 1992). As a single denarius was the daily wage of a common laborer. The tax income for Herod’s son, Archelaus would have allowed him to employ an equivalent of about 19,700 laborers and soldiers each year if he had kept the money all to himself.
Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee when Jesus was living, began a building program of his own. He began by rebuilding and expanding the destroyed Sepphoris as a large Roman style city. Next he founded the city of Tiberius along the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee and that became his capital.
Meanwhile back in Jerusalem, its ruler Archelaus was removed by Rome in 6 CE after 9 years of incompetent rule and he was sent into exile in Gaul. He was replaced by a series of Roman governors, the most famous of which was Pontius Pilot. He became governor of Judea in 26 CE and he continued the appointment Joseph Caiaphas as high priest of the temple who was first appointed by Gratus in 18 CE .