The following description of Dr. Vardaman’s work is taken from the written materials distributed at a seminar he gave at the Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary in 1998. The seminar was entitled “Chronology and Early Church History in the New Testament.”
Dr. E. Jerry Vardaman has served for 45 years in the academic classroom. He was the founding director of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology at Mississippi State University (1973) and served there also as Professor of Religion until his retirement in 1994. He is a graduate of Baylor University (Ph.D. 1974), and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Th.D. 1957). He taught Biblical Archaeology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for 14 years before joining the Mississippi State University faculty as Professor of Religion, and Director, Cobb Institute of Archaeology, in 1973. He has participated in various Near East excavations – Bethel; Shechem; Ramat Rachel (where Jehoakim built [Jer. 22] “the house of vermillion”); Caesarea: Ashdod, Machaerus (where John the Baptist died) and Elusa (where Hagar was expelled), and is the author of 6 books or dissertations, plus numerous scholarly articles and studies. His most recent research has been in the field of New Testament Chronology. Dr. E. Jerry Vardaman was a well-known Biblical scholar with a particular interest, especially in his latter years, in New Testament Biblical chronology. In his last days, he was preparing a talk for the Herodian Conference at the British Museum in April of 2001. Jerry Vardaman died suddenly, early in the morning of November 18, 2000. He never gave that talk.
I first contacted Dr. Vardaman in early February of 1999. I wrote him a letter noting that his date for the start of the Ministry of Jesus Christ was the same as in my work: the autumn of A.D. 15. He arrived at this date on a completely different basis than I did. Nevertheless, he was interested conversing on this subject and he sent a handwritten letter in reply. We continued to correspond on the topic New Testament Biblical chronology, from time to time, during 1999 and 2000. During this correspondence, he frequently mentioned his on-going work in Biblical chronology, particularly his work with microletters. Some of this material remains unpublished, yet it is important enough that it should be available to scholars with an interest in this topic. To that end, this article presents this material based on letters and e-mails from Dr. Vardaman.
A little-known area of research in Biblical chronology, microletters, written on ancient coins and artifacts, was one of the areas of expertise of Dr. Vardaman. Examples of microletters on coins from the first century A.D. are discussed in Vardaman’s study, “Jesus’ Life: A New Chronology,” in the book Chronos, Kairos, Christos.  Vardaman uses microletters, as well as other sources of data, to place the beginning of the Ministry of Christ in the autumn of A.D. 15. In this book, Vardaman introduces the reader to the idea of microletters.
After the Nativity Conference, at which I presented the foregoing portion of this paper, I made what I consider new and significant discoveries. These discoveries resulted from research done in the coin room of the British Museum in the summer of 1984, when Nikos Kokkinos was working with me. Since Kokkinos and I have not formally discussed the following conclusions, I alone must be held accountable for them, even though we do agree on at least two basic points: the existence of microletters on ancient coins and the date of Jesus’ birth. The findings discussed below yield information on the chronology of the life, public ministry, and death of Jesus, and the date of the conversion of the apostle Paul. On both subjects I present evidence found on coins of the period, coins that are literally covered with microletters. Since the purpose of this article is to present information that Dr. Vardaman did not have a chance to publish, I will refer the reader to the book Chronos, Kairos, Christos for more details on the topic of microletters on coins. In addition to studying microletters on coins, Vardaman has also made a close study of microletters on other artifacts, including the Lapis Venetus, the Lapis Tiburtinus, and the weight of Archelaus, an interesting weight used in the first century A.D.
Also known as the ‘Stone of Venice,’ this artifact is well-known to Biblical chronologists. It is the tombstone of a low-ranking Roman officer, Q. Aemilius Secundus. This artifact would not be of interest to chronologists, except that it lists the officer’s accomplishments in his life. One of those accomplishments was that he conducted a census at Apamea (a city in Syria) under the authority of P. Sulpicius Quirinius. Recall that the Gospel of Luke describes the Birth of Christ as occurring during a census (or enrollment): “This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:2).
Now most Biblical chronologists dismiss this reference on the Lapis Venetus as referring to the second census under Quirinius (Acts 5:37), described in detail by Flavius Josephus (Ant. 18:1-5).  Even so, Jack Finegan writes: “But it should be noted that, in line with his date for the birth of Jesus in 12 B.C. (§ 543) E. Jerry Vardaman finds reason, supported by other inscriptional evidence at Corinth, to believe that the Lapis Venetus inscription is actually mentioning a census conducted by Quirinius in 12/11 B.C. and thus is the census of Luke 2:2.”  [Finegan cites a personal letter to himself of July 10, 1993 in his footnote to this statement.]
In his handwritten letter to me, Dr. Vardaman mentioned microletters on the Lapis Venetus: “But, now I have a micrographic clear date for Quirinius’ census of Apamea, etc – on the Lapis Tiburtinus – it occurred in 12 B.C. (LA CONS P.S.QVIRINI).”  Unfortunately, Dr. Vardaman wrote “Lapis Tiburtinus” when he meant “Lapis Venetus.” I later confirmed this by e-mail. I quote from his e-mail which cleared up this point:
The microletters (but these are clear and definite as far as I am concerned) LA CONS P.S.QVIRINI are on the line referring to the census which A. Secundus took of Apamea, being sent by Quirinius for that purpose on the Lapis Venetus (Inscription of Venice - still there in Arch. Museum). Quirinius was only consul one time - in 12 B.C. For some it will be a problem since here Greek is mixed with Latin, but such critics will have to blame the original writer of the microletters - I am confident of my reading. (In many places on this text Greek is mixed with Latin, and Phoenician, as well - particularly the sign for year - looks like a stretched out “K”). I believe that the Lapis Tiburtinus is also connected with Quirinius, contra almost all modern scholars. Is my “Yes” better than their “No?” Each individual will have to decide on the best evidence that they can muster - and to me it is the evidence of microletters. Concerning the microletters that Dr. Vardaman found on the Lapis Venetus, the microletters read: LA CONS P.S. QVIRINI. The text “LA” was a common way to refer to dates; the “L” is an abbreviation for year (often also seen on Greek coins), and the “A” is a letter used as a number. “A” is the first letter, so it represents the number one. The text “LA” means “Year One.” The text “CONS” is an abbreviation for “Consulship.” Such abbreviations are common on inscriptions and coins. And “P.S.QVIRINI” refers to the name of a person, in Latin. The alteration in the ending from Quirinius to Quirini is due to the case of the noun; the ‘us’ ending is second declension nominative singular and the ‘i’ ending is second declension genitive singular. Thus, the translation of “LA CONS P.S.QVIRINI” is “Year One of the Consulship of P.S. Quirinius.” Dr. Vardaman dates this consulship to 12 B.C., which is the generally-accepted date for the only year that Quirinius was a Roman consul.
Note that the placement of these microletters is significant. They are “on the line referring to the census,” that is, the census of Quirinius, which included Syria as well as Judea (where Bethlehem is located). Therefore, these microletters give the date of that census. According to Vardaman’s research, the census of the Lapis Venetus is the census of Luke 2:2, not the later census of Acts 5:37. The importance of this discovery by Dr. Vardaman is that it provides us with clear archaeological evidence that the Birth of Christ occurred at the time of the first census under Quirinius. This date is much earlier than has generally been believed. [Note that my own date for the first census under Quirinius is 16/15 B.C., four years earlier than the generally accepted date of 12/11 B.C. Consequently, my date for the Birth of Christ is 15 B.C., while Vardaman and Kokkinos date the Birth of Christ to 12 B.C.]
The Lapis Tiburtinus is a stone with an inscription that mentions a man who was twice governor of Syria.
My study which you have on the dates of Christ’s life is based on the Lapis Venetus, not Tiburtinus (though I have made a careful study of the microletters on it as well - it belongs to Quirinius, also, as far as I am concerned. . . .). The significance of the Lapis Tiburtinus to Biblical chronology is that the Roman census of Syria also included a census of Judea, where Christ was born. Quirinius was responsible for the census in this area of the world twice. Establishing that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice would make it much more likely that the census (or enrollment) of Luke 2:2 was the earlier of the two enrollments. “This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:2). If Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, then this first enrollment must be the census of Luke 2:2 and not the later census of Acts 5:37. This would establish that Christ’s Birth occurred earlier than has been generally believed.
Rufus, Gratus, Pilate
In the book Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, Dr. Vardaman wrote a study called, “Were the Samaritan Military Leaders, Rufus and Gratus, at the Time of Herod’s Death, the Later Roman Judean Governors Who Preceded Pontius Pilate?” His reflections on this question suggest that Pilate began his rule as governor (Procurator) of Judea much earlier than has been generally believed by other scholars. His correspondence about his research into microletters confirms this earlier chronology:
And Ron, believe me when I say that I now have microletters for Pilate in Palestinian areas slightly later than Rufus/Gratus [see CKC II - my article on Rufus/ Gratus; unfortunately the publisher's editor made a mistake in the last sentence of editing that article and it should read A.D. 15/16 when these persons (Gratus esp., who followed Rufus) end their careers in the Holy Land and Pilate assumes control; I was in Hong Kong when final editing was complete on CKC II, teaching in an institution there, and did not see final proofs]. If I can believe the microletter again, I have Rufus serving in Holy Land as early as 12 BC? On the weight of Archelaus, Pilate is Rex Sacrorum already in A.D. 3 (presumably in the Sebasteion at Caesarea [?] but I can not be sure where as yet), but apparently it is the second or third year for "Pontius Peilatvs" - as he is so designated - making him be in Holy Land already by 5 or 4 B.C. Thus if he serves until A.D.25 he will have served already in the area a tenure of almost 30 years, though not all of this time strictly in the military. In regards to the editing error in CKC II, the last paragraph reads: “If Gratus was strategos as early as 4 B.C., his career had to start much earlier (say, at the latest, 10 B.C.?). By A.D. 16, he would have completed the twenty-six years normal for a military career, and this fact strengthens the view that Pilate took his place about A.D. 25/26.” That last date, according to the above-quoted e-mail, should read: “Pilate took his place about A.D. 15/16.”
I menton above that Pilate served until 25 or 26; apparently he departed from Palestine in A.D. 25, but did not arrive in Rome until Tiberius had just moved to Capri in the spring of A.D. 26. Dio Cassius uses the same word which Josephus uses - metatithemi - for Tiberius' move to Capri, and we moderns have been cursed by Whiston's understanding of the passage (Ant. 18.89 - I would have to look it up to be certain) as meaning that it was after the death of Tiberius - a decade later. The reference to the passage Ant. 18.89 (which is the correct reference) describes the situation at the end of Pilate’s reign. He was ordered to go to Rome by Vitellius, “but before he could get to Rome, Tiberius was dead.”  Dr. Vardaman reads this last phrase as, “Tiberius moved,” i.e. to the island of Capri. The word used in the original text can refer either to death (similar to the English expression ‘passed away’) or it can refer to moving from one place to another. So Vardaman believed that Pilate’s reign should be dated from A.D. 15/16 to A.D. 25/26.
The Weight of Archelaus the Ethnarch
I have just identified the first known inscription of Archelaus the Ethnarch. It is a very strange lead weight with a design like a Union Jack (British flag). Value = one third of a Corinthian Mina (135 Grams). Dates 6th year of Archelaus and mentions the 7th year of Herod's death. The microletters seem fine to me, but others will scoff at my methods. So be it. The weight dates to A.D. 3 (all of the consuls that year are mentioned in microletters). This evidence will likely not change the positions of Jack Finegan, E. Martin, D. Beyer, etc. - see Finegan's new Handbook of Bibl. Chron., 1998, p. 301, but as far as I am concerned the late date for Herod's death (after 4 B. C.), is no longer viable. Finegan (influenced by Martin and Beyer) pulls the year of Herod's death down to 1 B.C.; the birth of Jesus to 3 or 2 B.C. I do not care if these small letters are minute and cramped - they make perfectly good sense when one knows how to work with them - and just because letters can be bigger does not mean necessarily that such are more important (skywriting with airplanes vanishes immediately but these microletters have remained since the time they were written and are still there to provide us with historical information). Notice that Vardaman dates the weight to A.D. 3 (based on consuls mentioned on the weight). If A.D. 3 is the 7th year from the death of Herod, then he died (early in the calendar year) in 4 B.C. [In my own chronology, I doubt the accuracy of the usual assignment of consuls to particular years and I date Herod’s death to 8 B.C.] Dr. Vardaman believed that any date later than 4 B.C. was too late a date for the death of Herod. He may have considered earlier dates than 4 B.C. (since his date for the Birth of Christ is 12 B.C.), but he eventually settled on 4 B.C. as the date of Herod’s death.
Research on Herod
Dr. Vardaman did a significant amount of research on the topic of Herod the great. Just prior to his death, he was preparing a lecture for a conference at the British Museum.
My research lately has been on Herodian inscriptions. Have a lecture in Brit. Mus. in April 2001 which is straining every fiber of my being. I do not have a copy of Dr. Vardaman’s Corpus of Herodian inscriptions and, as far as I know, it has not been published. He did mention an inscription giving the full name of Herod I (the great).
Did I share with you information on the the important new inscription about Herod I from Cos - giving his full name as Gaius Julius Herodes - which is exactly what I read on microletters in 1974 when I published a Ph. D. dissertation on him (Corpus Inscriptionum Herodianarum)? Dr. Vardaman also discussed the date of Herod’s death, which is of interest to Biblical chronologists because Herod must have died sometime (perhaps 2 years or more) after the Birth of Christ.
I am open to examine other dates besides 4 B.C. for Herod's death year. If one fixes on 8 B.C. or earlier it does not violate my date of l2 B.C. for the year of Jesus' birth of course. Finegan has done a rather full job of tracing other opinions on the date of Herod's death. Evidence I have on microletters make it impossible to date Herod's death earlier than l0 B.C., at least as far as I can now judge the matter. As you well know the tendency among those dabbling with chronology today is to lower the date of Herod's death closer to the turn of the First Cent. B.C. to the First Century A.D. Dr. Vardaman mentions 8 B.C. because that is the date in my chronology for the death of Herod. However, his own date for the death of Herod was clearly 4 B.C. (as indicated in his note above about the Weight of Archelaus the Ethnarch).
In my view, Dr. Vardaman made important contributions to the field of Biblical chronology. (However, I am not competent to assess his many contributions in other areas.) His two most important contributions to Biblical chronology are as follows.
First, he established using archaeological evidence (e.g. microletters on the Lapis Venetus and Lapis Tiburtinus) that the Birth of Christ occurred during the first census under Quirinius, much earlier than has been generally believed.
Second, he established (partly from microletters on coins) that the public ministry of Christ began in the autumn of A.D. 15 and that the Crucifixion of Christ occurred years earlier than has been generally believed.
The two most important dates in New Testament Biblical chronology are the dates for the Birth of Christ and for the Ministry and Crucifixion of Christ. All other New Testament dates depend on these two. Therefore, his work has an enduring value for Christians of all future generations.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Dr. E. Jerry Vardaman, Lecture Notes - a rare copy of lecture notes on Biblical chronology from this Biblical scholar and archaeologist, in PDF format. Lecture 1, Lecture 2, Lecture 3, New Testament Chronology Summary, (right-click any link to download file).
1. E. J. Vardaman, Chronology and Early Church History in the New Testament, Seminar at the Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, (Hong Kong, 1998). Taken from the Seminar material sent to me by mail by Dr. Vardaman. I have scanned this material and made it available online, in PDF format:
2. E. J. Vardaman, “Jesus’ Life: A New Chronology,” Chronos, Kairos, Christos I, (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1989), p. 55 – 82.
3. Vardaman, “Jesus’ Life: A New Chronology,” p. 66.
4. Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews,” The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston, (Hendrickson Publishers: 1987), p. 476.
5. Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, paragraph 521, p. 303 – 304.
6. Personal letter from E. Jerry Vardaman to Ronald L. Conte Jr. The letter is dated “Feb. 12, ’99” handwritten on one sheet of small stationary printed with his address: “505 Colonial Circle, Starkville, Mississippi 39759” and signed “J. Vardaman”. [The underlined words were underlined by Dr. Vardaman in his letter.]
7. E-mail from E. J. Vardaman to Ronald L. Conte Jr., Re: Augustus’ reign, Thursday, May 18, 2000.
8. E-mail from E. J. Vardaman to Ronald L. Conte Jr., Re: Augustus’ reign, Monday, January 10, 2000.
9. E-mail from E. J. Vardaman to Ronald L. Conte Jr., Re: consular dates and Augustus’ reign, Tuesday, May 23, 2000.
10. E-mail from E. J. Vardaman to Ronald L. Conte Jr., Re: consular dates and Augustus’ reign, Tuesday, May 23, 2000. Note that the word ‘mention’ is misspelled in the original e-mail as ‘menton.’
11. Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews,” The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston, (Hendrickson Publishers: 1987), p. 482.
12. E-mail from E. J. Vardaman to Ronald L. Conte Jr., Re: Augustus’ reign, Thursday, May 18, 2000.
13. E-mail from E. J. Vardaman to Ronald L. Conte Jr., Re: revised chronology, Sunday, September 24, 2000.
14. E-mail from E. J. Vardaman to Ronald L. Conte Jr., Re: Herod I, Sunday, October 22, 2000. [This was his last e-mail to me.]
15. E-mail from E. J. Vardaman to Ronald L. Conte Jr., (no subject), Sunday, October 15, 2000.
16. E-mail from E. J. Vardaman to Ronald L. Conte Jr., Re: Response to your letter, Wednesday, February 17, 1999.