The Decades before the Birth of Jesus

Scroll down to see the events specifically near Jesus’ birth.

71/70 BC : Birth of Herod the Great

47 BC :  At about 25 years of age, Herod became the governor of Galilee through an appointment arranged by his father Antipater, who was one of the chief ministers of the Jewish ruler in Jerusalem, Hyrcanus.

44 BC Spring :  Julius Caesar was assassinated sparking a civil war in the Roman world.

42 BC Fall :  The murderers of Julius Caesar were defeated in Battle at Philippi in northern Greece. Mark Antony and Octavian became the most powerful men in the Roman Empire.

41 BC :  As the chief Roman authority in the eastern part of the empire Mark Antony named Herod and his brother Phasael as high officials of Judaea’s ethnarch Hyrcanus.

40 BC :  The Parthians invaded Roman Syria and much of southern Asia Minor.

39 BC 

Spring :   Having been bribed to intervene in Judaea, the Parthians brought about a coup d’état against the ruling Judaean ethnarch, Hyrcanus.

Summer :  Herod, as a leading official of Hyrcanus, fled to Egypt and then on to Rome seeking help.

Late Summer / early Fall: Unexpectedly, in the imperial capital Herod was named king of Judaea.

Fall : Herod returned to Judaea. He arrived there after the Roman army under Ventidius had already driven the Parthians from Syria, Lebanon and Galilee, Samaria and Judaea. Ventidius and his subordinate Silo were bribed by Antigonus not to contest his authority in Jerusalem. Herod raised an army and a three-year struggle against Antigonus followed. This ended with Herod’s triumph.

Concerning the chronology of the reign of Herod the Great (39 BC to 1 BC) and his death see RESOURCES.

36 BC Fall : Herod was able to take Jerusalem and finally eliminated Antigonus, his rival for the throne.

31 BC Fall : Octavian was victorious over his rivals Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Octavian became the master of the Roman world.

27 BC : Octavian received the title Augustus (the illustrious one) from the Roman Senate. He became known in historical accounts as Emperor Augustus.

20-18 BC

Augustus visited Judaea in the early part of 20 BC. The emperor added several territories north and east of Galilee to Herod’s realm. Herod rebuilt the temple from the foundations all the way to the roof. Work continued on the surrounding structures for many years.

12/11 BC

Work on the city of Caesarea Sebaste was completed.

Events Surrounding the Birth of Jesus

4 BC

Fall: Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias, conceived a son who would become John the Baptist about three decades later.

The year 4 BC is also the probable period of the execution of Herod’s sons Alexander and Aristobulus. Herod’s son Antipater grew strongly in influence in this period. Many of the affairs of the kingdom were put in his charge.

3 BC

Spring: During the Passover celebration or the Feast of Unleavened Bread (also called Passover), Mary conceived by a miracle of God.

The first discreet celestial sign announcing the Messiah’s arrival took place at Passover in 3 BC. It was probably only many months later after many other celestial events took place, that the wise men understood that the Messiah had been born.

Summer: The future John the Baptist was born.

Summer / Fall: A census was proclaimed, which was almost certainly linked to a pledge of allegiance to the emperor. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 17 Ch. 1-7)

December 3 BC : Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem in Judaea from Nazareth in order to participate in the census ordered by Augustus. Jesus was born at the end of 3 BC or the beginning of 2 BC. (See Note 1 below.)

In the Heavens: A series of celestial signs in 3 and 2 BC involving one principal star and other heavenly objects convinced the wise men that the Jewish Messiah had been born.

2 BC

January: Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth.

February: Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem about 40 days after his birth.

Joseph kept his family in Bethlehem during most of 2 BC. He found appropriate housing for his family and he went to work locally in Bethlehem. He may have had family contacts who helped him.

Fall: The star preceded the wise men from Mesopotamia to the skies above Judaea, however it was not visually in front of them. The star became stationary among the background stars in late December 2 BC.

December: The Magi arrived from the Parthian Empire about one year after the birth of Jesus. All of Jerusalem and Herod the king were troubled by the Magi’s appearance.

The Star over Bethlehem: The wise men came to understand that the star that they had seen in the east had again unexpectedly become a celestial sign concerning the Messiah.

1 BC

December 2 BC / January 1 BC: The wise men were able to find Jesus and his parents. After leaving their gifts they left the area by a route other than the one they had used initially. Warned by God in a dream about Herod’s plot to kill the child, Joseph, Mary and the young child Jesus fled to Egypt.

Late January: Herod the Great died within weeks of a remarkable eclipse of the moon. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 17, Chapters 6-8). Herod’s son, Archelaus, provisionally became king. His role as the Judaean ethnarch was confirmed by Emperor Augustus later in the year.

Later: Possibly two months or more after fleeing to Egypt Joseph was afraid to return to Bethlehem because of Archelaus. After Joseph had received divine direction in a dream he took his family to live in Nazareth.

An uprising took place in the land of Israel over a period of many months. This was sparked by events at Passover in 1 BC.

The Ministry, Death and Resurrection of Jesus

AD 29 : John the Baptist and Jesus began their ministries in the land of Israel. Jesus’ efforts continued over a period of at least three years.

AD 33 : Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead during the Passover festival in the spring of the year.

Note 1:  Contrary to popular belief the winter date for Jesus’ birth is not based on efforts to replace pagan festivals with Christian ones. According to very early Church traditions, Mary conceived at Passover in the springtime. Jesus was therefore born nine months later at the end of the year or early in January the next year. (The winters are not generally very rude in the land of Israel. Abraham lived in tents all his life and he had vast flocks.)

In addition, messianic Jewish efforts to place the birth of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles also labor under great difficulties. During the Feast of Tabernacles all the Jewish men were required to be in Jerusalem. This would have posed no problem for Joseph if he was visiting the hometown of his family in Bethlehem (a two-hour walk). However, the census, as it was conducted in the land of Israel, required that people return to the home of their ancestors. If a man was originally from Naphtali in the Galilee region he could not have been present in Jerusalem for the festival and be at his ancestral home for the census. It would have been impossible in both places at once. Messianic Jewish believers who have opted to believe that Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles have usually lost sight of the fact that according to Church tradition Mary conceived at Passover. One can not find a more Jewish date for the conception of Jesus than Passover.