For a long time I have been wanting to read Harold Hoehner’s standard work on the chronology of Christ, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. I finally got around to purchasing and reading the book. Here is my summary of his arguments for dating the birth (5 BC), ministry (AD 29-33), and death of Christ (AD 33). Text in “” reflects my own thoughts/research.
Date of Christ’s Birth
Jesus was born while Herod was still alive (Mk 2:1; Lk 1:5). Herod was declared king in 40 BC byRome, and took physical control of Palenstine in 37 BC. He reigned 34 years.
Josephus tells us there was an eclipse shortly before Herod died. The eclipse occurred on March 12/13, 4 BC. He also tells us the Passover was celebrated shortly after (April 11, 4 BC). So Herod died sometime between mid-March and early April, 4 BC. Jesus must have been born before this. [I would argue that Jesus could have been born as late as winter 5 BC. This would give provide enough time for Jesus to be born, for the wise men to arrive from the east, for Herod to realize that the wise men were not going to return to him, and for Herod to order the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem. Of course, there is nothing to prevent Jesus from being born earlier than the winter of 5 BC. Some scholars propose that He was born in 6 BC. He couldn’t have been born any earlier than 7 BC because if it was earlier than that, John’s statement that Jesus began His ministry at about 30 years of age would be pushed to its limit based on the year Jesus began ministering (as we’ll see in a bit). Paul Maier argues for a winter 5 BC date.]
We are also told of a census just before Christ’s birth (Lk 2:1-5). Censuses happened in various locations in theRoman Empireat various times. In Gaul there was a census in 27 BC and 12 BC, and inCyrenein 7 BC. InEgypta census was taken every 14 years beginning in 9 BC.
It’s possible that Augustus called for a census inPalestinebecause Herod was near death, and Augustus may have wanted to assess the size of his kingdom to plan for its future (since the sons of Herod were full of turmoil, and the successor was always changing).
Would such a census require that Joseph travel to his home town? It would not be required, but there is a precedent for it. In AD 104 the prefect ofEgyptrequired everyone to return to their hometown for the census.
What about Quirinius’ governorship that Luke mentions (Luk2 2:1-2)? Quirinius couldn’t have been the governor of Syriaif Jesus was born in 5-4 BC because Varus was governor from 6-4 BC. Quirinius couldn’t have been governor of Syrian until after Jesus was born. Historical records indicate that he became governor in AD 6 (and continued in this post until AD 12). We don’t know who was governor between 4 BC and 1 BC, when Gaius Caesar took over (1 BC-AD 4).
The best solution is to understand protos (translated “first”) as being used adverbially to mean “before” as it is in Jn 15:18. Luke’s point would be that the census he was referring to was the one prior to the more famous census taken while Quirinius was governor in Syria.
Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry
Luke tells us that Jesus began his ministry when he was about 30 years old (Lk 3:23), and he started his ministry not long after John started his own ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign (AD 29). John, then, provides the temporal marker for the start of Jesus’ ministry.
Luke provides six historical references for dating the beginning of John’s ministry (Luke 3:1-2):
- 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar
- Pontius Pilate was governor ofJudea(AD 26 to late AD 36 or early AD 37)
- Herod [Antipas] was tetrarch ofGalilee(deposed in AD 39)
- Philip was tetrarch ofIturaeaand Trachonitis (died in AD 34)
- Lysanias was tetrarch ofAbilene(no information)
- Annas and Caiaphas were high priests (Caiaphas was high priest from AD 18-37)
The only precise date Luke provides is the 15th year of Tiberius. But how should we calculate this?:
- From his co-regency with Augustus beginning in AD 11/12? If so, then Tiberius’ 15th year was in AD 25/26.
- From the date of his ascension to the throne on August 19, AD 14? If so, then Tiberius’ 15th year spanned from August 19, AD 28 to August 19, AD 29 ([the Senate confirmed Tiberius as emperor on September 17]).
- From the date of his ascension to the throne using the ascension year system of reckoning (the first year of reign is counted from the beginning of the new year after he becomes emperor)? If so, then Tiberius’ 1st year of reign was Jan 1, AD 15 to December 31, AD 15, and his 15th year spanned from January 1, AD 29 to December 31, AD 29.
- From the date of his ascension using the non-ascension year system of reckoning (the partial year in which he is made king is counted as year 1)? If so, then August 19, AD 14 to December 31, AD 14 would be Tiberius’ 1st year of reign, January 1, AD 15 to December 31 AD 15 would be his 2nd year of reign, and his 15th year would span from January 1, AD 28 to December 31, AD 28.
[While some have proposed a co-regency of Tiberius with Augustus, there is no historical documentation to support this thesis. It was proposed to reconcile John’s comment that Jesus began His ministry when he was about 30 years of age, but it says “about 30,” not “precisely 30” so there is no nothing to reconcile.] So depending on the system Luke is using to reckon the year of Tiberius’ reign, John the Baptist could have begun his ministry as early as the autumn of AD 28 or as late as the winter of AD 29. [The Romans typically counted regal years from the first full year of reign (Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius)]. If Luke adopted this norm, then John the Baptist’s ministry would have begun sometime in AD 29.
While the Gospels do not tell us how long it took Jesus to begin His ministry after John began his ministry, they give us the impression that it wasn’t too long afterward. If Jesus began His ministry in late AD 29 or early AD 30 He would have been about 32 or 33 years old when he began his ministry, just as Luke indicated (Lk 3:23).
John provides some additional information to help us ascertain the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In John’s Gospel Jesus goes to Jerusalemto celebrate the Passover early in His ministry. In John 2:20 we read of the Jews telling Jesus that it 46 years since the temple was built. While this verse is often translated to say it took 46 years to build the temple, this cannot be the meaning because the temple was still incomplete at this time (it wouldn’t be completed until AD 63). It’s more likely that they were referring to the amount of time since the main sanctuary had been built (the area inside the court of the priests), rather than the larger temple compound itself (which was still incomplete). Both Scripture and Josephus distinguish between the temple complex (ierov) and the sanctuary (naos). When was the sanctuary completed? Josephus tells us construction began in Herod’s 18th year (20/19 BC), and took 17 months to complete (18/17 BC) (Antiquities 15:420-21). Forty-six years from this date takes us to AD 29/30. This would date Jesus’ first Passover to AD 29 or AD 30. Given the fact that Jesus’ ministry began after John’s, and John’s ministry began in AD 29, this must have been the Passover of AD 30. Jesus, then, began His ministry not too long before April 7, AD 30.
Duration of Christ’s Ministry
If Jesus began His ministry in mid-to-late AD 29 or early AD 30, how long did His ministry last?
Clement ofAlexandriaand Origen both thought it was one year. Apollinaris of Laodicea and Epiphanius of Salamis thought it was two years. Melito of Sardis and Eusebius held to a three year ministry. Irenaeus thought it was between 10-20 years.
While the Synoptics portray Christ’s ministry in such a way that one might think everything happened in the span of one year, that is not enough time for all of the recorded events to have transpired. There are internal clues about the seasons as well. For example, in Mk 2:23 Jesus is pictured plucking the ripened grain, and in Mk 6:39 we are told there was much green grass, indicating that one year had transpired (assuming these events are recorded in chronological order). Of course, Mark 14:1 goes on to record the Passover, which would have been another year later.
John’s Gospel explicitly mentions at least three Passovers (Jn 2:13; 6:4; 11:15), requiring a ministry of at least 2+ years (it seems that Origen’s copy of John omitted at least the words “the Passover” from Jn 6:44, and thus he thought there were only two Passovers, which would only require a 1+ year ministry).
The two year view requires one to transpose chapters 5 and 6, for which there is no warant.
The 3+ year view holds that there is an additional Passover between the Passovers explicitly mentioned in Jn 2:13 and 6:14. There are three reasons to make this conclusion. First, we know the feeding of the 5000 took place near the time of the Passover John records in Jn 6:1-15. We also know the grain-plucking incident recorded in the Synoptics took place before the feeding of the 5000 a year earlier. But the Synoptics portray this event as transpiring well after Jesus had begun His public ministry, and thus it could not have been around the time of the Passover John records in 2:13, since that Passover was shortly after Jesus’ baptism.
Secondly, in John 4:35 Jesus said it was four months before harvest. Harvest was in April/May, so Jesus must have spoken these words in Jan/Feb, approximately nine months after the Passover recorded in Jn 2:13. That places us in AD 31.
Thirdly, Jn 5:1 speaks of “a feast of the Jews.” We cannot be certain as to what feast this was, but it was probably one of the three major feasts that required Jewish males to journey toJerusalem: Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles. [Me: If this was the Passover, then John records four Passovers, and there is no question that Jesus’ ministry lasted 3+ years. Most scholars doubt that it was Passover, however, for various reasons. Even if it were Pentecost or Tabernacles, based on John 4:35 we are still talking about AD 31, and thus the Passover in John 6:14 must have been in AD 32, two years from the one mentioned in John 2:13.]
If this is correct, then the Passover of Jn 2:13 was on Nisan 14, or April 7 AD 30. The Passover of Jn 6:4 was on April 13/14 AD 32.—60-1 The Feast of Tabernacles probably mentioned in Jn 5:1 took place October 21-28, AD 31.
If there are four Passovers during the ministry of Christ, then His ministry must have lasted 3+ years or more (3 ½ years if his ministry began in the autumn of AD 29, or 3 ¾ years if it began in the summer of AD 29). The exact number of years He ministered can only be fully decided by determining the year of His death.
The Date of Christ’s Crucifixion
The Day of Christ’s Crucifixion
To determine the year of Christ’s crucifixion we must first determine the day. There are several different proposals: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
The Wednesday and Thursday views are both based on Mt 12:40 in which Jesus said He would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. In order for Jesus to be in the grave for 72 hours and emerge on Sunday morning, a Wednesday crucifixion would be required.
This is an overly literal reading of Mt 12:40. Jews considered any portion of a day to be a day. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (~AD 100) said, “A day and night are an Onah, and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it” (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbath ix. 3; Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 4a). Biblical examples of including a partial day as a whole day include Gen 42:17-18, 1 Kings 20:29, 2 Chron 10:5,12, Est 4:16,5:1, and 1 Sam 30:12-13. Wednesday/Thursday advocates will counter that while partial days can be counted as whole days, the fact that Jesus specified three days and three nights means he is referring to whole days. But this is not true. Esther 4:16 and 5:1 mentions nights, and yet it also reckons a partial day as a whole day. Esther told the Jews, “Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. … Then I will go to the king.” But in 5:1 we read that Esther went before the king “on the third day.”
[Jesus was only in the tomb for ~1 hour on Friday, but the Jews counted that as 1 day since His entombment happened before the day ended. He was in the tomb all day Saturday (6pm to 5:59pm), and was in the tomb for ~10 hours on Sunday (assuming he rose around 4:00 am before the women went to the tomb at day-break. That is only ~35 hours in the tomb, but since Jesus was in the tomb part of Friday, all day Saturday, and part of Sunday, that was considered 3 days.]
A Wednesday crucifixion would require Jesus’ triumphal entry to have been on the Sabbath. If so, it is strange that we have no record of the Jews complaining about the fact that He was riding an animal, and thus breaking the Law of Moses.
Another problem for this theory is that it fails to recognize that other passages say Jesus will rise on the third day rather than after three days (Mt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 27:64; Lk 9:22; 18:33; 24:7,21,46; Jn 2:19-22; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor 15:4). Indeed, of the four passages which speak of “after” three days, three of them have parallels in other gospels which speak of “on” the third day (Mk 8:31 = Mt 16:21/Lk 9:22; Mk 9:31 = Mt 17:23; Mk 10:34 = Mt 20:19/Lk 18:33) (Mt 27:63 is the only one without a parallel, but in Mt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19 “after three days” is used, making it clear that Matthew did not see a contradiction between the two). If Jesus was in the grave for three entire days, then He would have risen on the 4th days, not the 3rd (unless one wants to maintain that Jesus rose from the dead at ~6pm, ~12 hours before the angel removed the stone—Mt 28:1-11).
To get around this problem, the Thursday view has been suggested which puts Jesus in the grave for three days and two nights. It is claimed (based on Jn 19:31) that the Passover was a Sabbath day, and fell on a Friday, followed immediately by the normal weekly Sabbath on Saturday. Support for this view is found in Mt 28:1 in which the Greek word translated “Sabbath” is actually plural.
But this is mistaken. First, it assumes that since no work was to be done on the day of Passover that it was a Sabbath, but it was never called or considered a Sabbath. Jn 19:31 calls the Sabbath a “high Sabbath,” not because it was a Passover Sabbath, but because the Passover fell on the regular weekly Sabbath, making it a particularly holy day. Mk 15:42 is clear on this. He says, “And when the evening had come, because it was the day of preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath….” Jesus died the day before the Sabbath; i.e. Friday. John 19:31,42 also make it clear that Jesus’ body had to be removed before sunset because the next day was the Sabbath.
Secondly, there is no reason to think Friday and Saturday were back-to-back Passovers based on Mt 28:1 (with Friday being the supposed Passover Sabbath). The plural form of this word appears many times in the NT (1 out of every 3 occurrences), and never indicates a back-to-back Sabbath. We even see in Mt 12:1-12 where the singular and plural forms are used interchangeably.
Jesus died the day before the Sabbath (Mk 15:42), making it a Friday afternoon. This means Jesus’ triumphal entry was on Monday Nisan 10 (when the paschal lambs were selected), and he was killed on Friday Nisan 14 at the time the lambs were being slaughtered. On Tuesday he cursed the fig tree, cleansed the temple. On Wednesday Jesus delivered the Olivet discourse, predicted His death, and Judas sought to betray Him. On Thursday Jesus at the Passover supper with his disciples, spoke His last discourse with them, went to pray in the Garden, and was arrested. On Friday Jesus was tried and crucified.
[All evangelists agree that Jesus was killed on the “day of preparation” and that the next day was a Sabbath (Mt 27:62; 28:1; Mk 15:42-43; Lk 23:54,56—24:1; Jn 19:31), so Jesus must have died on a Friday afternoon.]
Year of Jesus’ Crucifixion
There are certain limitations that can be placed on the possible date range. Caiaphas was high priest from AD 18 to the Passover of AD 37 (so Jesus’ death could not be any later than Passover in AD 36). Also, Pilate ruled from AD 26-36. So Jesus must have died by AD 36.
Astronomy helps narrow it down further. Jesus died on a Friday, Nisan 14. The only years in which Nisan 14 could have possibly fallen on a Friday between the years AD 26 and AD 36 are the years AD 27, 30, 33, and 36. AD 27 can be ruled out because Jesus began His ministry after John, and John’s ministry is dated to the 15th year of Tiberius = AD 28/29. This is confirmed by Jn 2:20 which speaks of the temple as having stood for 46 years, which would have been AD 29/30. AD 36 is not possible either because the Gospels do not support a 6 year ministry. That leaves AD 30 or 33. AD 30 is impossible if John started his ministry in AD 28/29, for at best, that would leave us with a one year ministry of Jesus, and yet we have already seen that Jesus’ ministry must have been at least 2+ years, and most likely 3+ years. That leaves us with AD 33, which fits perfectly with a 3+ year ministry of Christ. Jesus began His ministry in the summer/autumn of AD 29, and was crucified 3 ½ years later on April 3, AD 33. This means Jesus was about 32 or 33 when His ministry began (Lk 3:23), and 36 when He died.
The historical record also lends credibility to the AD 33 date. Pilate was ruthless in his dealing with the Jews so long as Tiberius’ anti-Semite equestrian, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, was in power. Sejanus was the prefect of the Praetorian Guard (9000 elite soldiers who guarded the emperor and palace), one of the two highest positions an equestrian could attain. He essentially ran the government after Tiberius retired to theislandofCapriin AD 26 or 27. Sejanus appointed Pilate to his post inJudea, and Pilate could get away with his ill treatment of the Jews so long as Sejanus was in power. But eventually Tiberius stopped being fooled by Sejanus, killed him on October 18, AD 31, and resumed personal command of the empire. Tiberius was more favorable to the Jews, and ordered the governors throughout the empire not to mistreat the Jews. Now everyone who had been sucking up to Sejanus started sucking up to Tiberius. No longer could Pilate get away with his ill treatment of the Jews (e.g. in AD 32 he stopped minting coins that the Jews found offensive). Now he feared complaints to Caesar about his behavior, which explains why, if Jesus died in AD 33, Pilate was so weak-kneed when opposed by the Jews (which would seem out of character for Pilate if Jesus died before AD 31 when Sejanus was still in power). When they said if he did not crucify Jesus he was no friend of Caesar (Jn 19:12), that surely struck fear in Pilate’s heart, causing him to comply with their demands for Jesus’ death.