Was Jesus’ Crucifixion in 30CE or 33CE: Reckoning This Elusive Date According to the Ancient Sources
Jesus’ Crucifixion Year: The Significance of the Research into This Legitimate Date
The precise year of Jesus’ crucifixion has been a cause of debate for centuries simply because it is a source for claims of discrepancies in the Gospel accounts surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet, there are many scholars and theologians who believe that knowing the precise date of Jesus’ crucifixion is actually unimportant.
The fact remains though, that knowing the precise date of Jesus’ crucifixion establishes an important timeline for later events, such as the martyrdom of Stephen, the conversion of Paul, and the timeline of other events outlined in the New Testament such as the length of Paul’s ministry.[i] Therefore, research into the significance of each of these matters is indeed essential towards understanding the origins of Christianity.
All scholars agree that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred sometime between 26CE and 36CE while Pilate was Procurator and Caiaphas was High Priest, both of whom were removed in 36CE.[ii] Pilate reigned 10 years, (Josephus, Antiquities, xviii, iv, 2),[iii] and was removed in 36CE by Vitellius and ordered to answer to Tiberius. But, before Pilate had reached Tiberius, Tiberius died after reining almost 23 years, and replaced by Caius as Roman Emperor, (Josephus, Antiquities, xviii, v, 3).
Thus, the only years during this ten-year period that Pilate and Caiaphas reigned and which Passover and Shabbat occurred at such a time to correspond with scholarly opinion, the four Gospel accounts, and Church tradition are the years 27 CE, (a year in which Passover fell on Friday, April 11 of the Gregorian Calendar); 30 CE, (with Passover falling on Friday, April 7); 33 CE, (with Passover falling on Saturday, April 4); and 34 CE, (with Passover falling on Thursday, April 22).[iv]
The majority of scholars believe that Friday, April 7, 30 CE was the day and year of Jesus’ crucifixion.[v] Yet, other scholars believe that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred on Friday, April 3, 33 CE.
For example, the Whiston translation of Josephus Antiquities xviii, iv, 6(106), has a footnote that states: “This calculation, from all Josephus’s Greek copies is exactly right; for since Herod died about September, in the fourth year before the Christian era, and Tiberius began, as is well known Aug. 19, AD14, it is evident that the 37th year of Philip, reckoned from his father’s death was the 20th of Tiberius, or near the end of AD33 (the very year of our Savior’s death also), or however in the beginning of the next year, AD34.” Thus, Josephus, Antiquities xviii, iv, 6(106) provides an important piece for reckoning this elusive date of Jesus’ crucifixion according to the ancient sources.
Even though there is this debate in the scholarly world over the precise year of Jesus’ crucifixion, the fact remains that this debate does demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of scholars believe that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred on a Friday, which is in complete agreement with Church tradition regarding the Church’s belief that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred on a Friday. This fact that the overwhelming majority of scholars, as well as Church tradition believe that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred on a Friday is extremely important in regards to reckoning this elusive date of Jesus’ crucifixion according to the ancient sources.
The first thing that needs to be done in reckoning this elusive date of Jesus’ crucifixion according to the ancient sources is to establish a timetable of events that led up to the date of Jesus’ crucifixion. Now, the Roman Emperor during the time of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus’ crucifixion was Tiberius, and it is known that Tiberius became the Roman Emperor on August 19, 14CE. Furthermore, Luke 3:1-3 clearly states that John the Baptist began his preaching in the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign, which would therefore indicate that John the Baptist’s ministry began around 29CE.
Yet, some scholars, such as John Drane[vi] believe that although Tiberius actually became emperor in 14CE, Tiberius had been sharing power with Augustus since 11CE, and therefore, in Drane’s opinion the 15th year of Tiberius spoken of in Luke’s Gospel would actually correspond to 25-26CE. Drane bases his opinion on Luke 3:1-3 mentioning both Annas and Caiaphas as being High Priests, which occurred around 25-26CE.
Similarly, to John Drane, Stewart Perowne utilizes Luke 3:1-3 in combination with the Gospel accounts regarding when and why John the Baptist was arrested, imprisoned and beheaded in order to derive his opinion as to when John the Baptist began his ministry. As Stewart Perowne writes, “Even within Antipas’ own dominions and in Judaea itself his fatal marriage was to undermine his reputation and power. It was consummated about AD27, just when John the Baptist (or dipper) was beginning his ministry.”[vii]
But John 18:13, and Acts 4:6 clear up this actual non-problem by noting that former High Priests were still referred to as if they were the current High Priest. Therefore, Drane has created an unnecessary debate over the date of Jesus’ crucifixion year by way of contradicting himself. For as stated, Drane admits that Tiberius did not actually begin his reign as Roman Emperor until 14CE and not in 11CE! This holds true as well in regards to the erroneous opinion of Stewart Perowne!
Therefore, as pointed out above, Luke’s Gospel states that John the Baptist’s ministry began in the 15th year of Tiberius, or 29CE, and we know that John the Baptist’s ministry lasted until well after Jesus’ ministry began, or in essence, John the Baptist’s ministry lasted longer than a year. Now, Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, iii, xxiv, 6-13 states that the three synoptic Gospels only cover events of one year of Jesus’ ministry after John the Baptist’s imprisonment, or in other words, Jesus’ crucifixion year occurred the year after John the Baptist was imprisoned. Yet, we also know that John’s Gospel covers three years of Jesus’ ministry, for John mentions three different Passovers that Jesus attended, the third being Jesus’ crucifixion Passover.
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, i, xiii, 21-22 also says Jesus’ crucifixion was in, “the three hundred and fortieth year” of what many scholars refer to as the Edessene era. Now, in a footnote of the Loeb Classical Edition of Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History it states that the Edessene era began in 310BCE, meaning, “the three hundred and fortieth year” would be 30CE. Yet other scholars believe that the founder of the Seleucid Empire, Seleucus I Nicator actually founded the city of Edessa, (i.e., the Edessene era) in 305BCE. Therefore, uncertainty surrounds this “three hundred and fortieth year” being referred to, and thus, this does not help us with reckoning the elusive date of Jesus’ crucifixion according to ancient sources.
Another essential part of the research into Jesus’ crucifixion year is to examine a matter, which many scholars seemingly become confused over by believing that there is an obvious discrepancy in the Gospel accounts surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion, and it is believed to be a discrepancy because it is not easily explained nor is it always easily understood.[viii] I am going to utilize the comments of the renowned scholar, Bart D. Ehrman to demonstrate the confusion that many scholars have in regards to their belief that there is an obvious discrepancy in the Gospel accounts surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion.
Bart D. Ehrman,[ix] references Mark 15:42 and states, “… Mark also indicates that Jesus died on a day that is called ‘The Day of Preparation’ (Mark 15:42). That is absolutely true – but what these readers fail to notice is that Mark tells us what he means by this phrase: it is the Day of Preparation ‘for the Sabbath’ (not the Day of Preparation for the Passover). In other words, in Mark, this is not the day before the Passover meal was eaten but the day before the Sabbath: it is called the day of ‘Preparation’ because one had to prepare the meals for Saturday on Friday afternoon.”
Ehrman is correct to a certain degree by what he states, yet, Ehrman is unclear in regards to whether or not he remembers that in Leviticus 23 there are seven “special festival” days that are also referred to as, “Sabbath days,” and as a result, Ehrman’s overall assessment, explanation, and conclusions cause him to have the belief that Mark 15:42 creates a discrepancy surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. For Passover was one of those seven “special festival” days referred to in Leviticus 23 as a “Sabbath day,” to which the Torah assigned duties to be performed on the eve of Passover, and thus, this day was rightly referred to as, “the Day of Preparation” for a “Sabbath day.”
If Passover occurred on the day before Shabbat, which also had special Torah based matters one was required to perform, then this too was a “Day of Preparation,” or in essence, this could result in two consecutive “Days of Preparation,” (one for Passover and one for Shabbat), or at times the two would coincide creating a “Day of Preparation” for both Passover and Shabbat, as noted in the Mishnah and Talmud Babli Bezah 2, 15b; Josephus, Antiquities 16.6.2, and confirmed by what is stated in Matthew 27:62; Luke 23:54; John 19:14, 31, and 42, and Matthew 28:1 uses a plural for this day, “Sabbaths,” indicating it was both a “Passover Sabbath” and normal “Sabbath.”[x]
Also, Josephus, Jewish Wars 6.9.3 indicates that the Passover sacrifices occurred between the ninth and eleventh hours on the “Day of Preparation” for Passover, (since Passover always began at sunset, or twilight on 14 Abib/Nissan), precisely in accordance with Exodus 12:21-28, which puts the error to Ehrman’s statement that, “this was not the day before the Passover meal was eaten.” For, according to the Gospels this was in fact “the day before the Passover meal was eaten” since the Passover Seder was to be eaten at sunset/twilight on 14 Abib/Nissan as commanded in Exodus 12:6; Leviticus 23:5; Numbers 9:1-5.[xi]
An all-important factor in this matter derives from what is stated in 1 Corinthians 5:7. For as early in Church tradition as the writing of 1 Corinthians by Paul, Jesus’ crucifixion was considered to be the expiation or “substitution” of the Paschal lamb, and as Josephus, Jewish Wars 6.9.3 states, (noted above), in accordance with Exodus 12:21-28, the Passover sacrifices occurred upon the “Day of Preparation” for Passover! Therefore, in order to fulfill Church tradition as early as the time of Paul in conjunction with the four Gospels, we thus have an essential factor for reckoning this elusive date of Jesus’ crucifixion!
One will find that it is actually what is stated in Mark 14:12 that appears to create a problem in regards to Jesus’ crucifixion date. For Mark 14:12 has combined the “Day of Preparation” for Passover, with the actual first day of Passover by writing, “And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the Passover, his disciples said unto him, where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou may eat the Passover?”
Now, John 19:14 states, “And it was the preparation of the Passover, and about the sixth hour: and he said unto the Jews, Behold your King!” Again, the “Day of Preparation” for Passover is the day before the first day of Passover and again, it was upon this day when they “killed the Passover” lambs, (what Mark 14:12 seems to be referring to). So, Mark’s Gospel seemingly has Jesus preparing to eat the Passover meal while at the same time John’s Gospel seemingly has Jesus standing before Pilate as Pilate is setting in motion Jesus’ crucifixion.
It seems that the cause for a great deal of this confusion by scholars regarding these matters as they relate to Jesus’ crucifixion year derives from what the Gospel accounts refer to as, the “Last Supper.” For according to the general interpretation of the synoptic Gospels, Jesus and his disciples would have eaten this “Last Supper,” (generally interpreted as being a Passover Seder), on 13 Abib/Nissan instead of when it is supposed to be eaten at “sunset/twilight” on 14 Abib/Nissan. Yet, we know that by the time of Jesus an “extra day,” which was based on the “oral Torah” and not the “written Torah,” had been added to all of the “special festivals.”
The reason for the addition of an “extra day” being added to the “special festivals” resulted from the scattering of Jews into the Diaspora, and the “Torah” calendar being lunar based. Thus, since the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem declared when a “new moon/new month” began, it took time for messengers to announce this to the Diaspora Jews, and therefore, the scattered Jews did not always know the “correct day” to start a “festival.” Therefore, an “extra day” was added to every major “festival.”[xii]
Now, Luke 22:8 and Luke 22:15 appear to have Jesus clearly indicating that the “Last Supper” was indeed a “Passover Seder,” yet, John 13:1-30, and John 18:28-29, on the other hand, appear to clearly indicate that the “Last Supper” was not a “Passover Seder.”[xiii]
But the actual answer to the matter of whether or not the “Last Supper” was a “Passover Seder” derives from the fact that all four Gospels, (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; John 13:18), use the Greek word arton (or artos), meaning simply, “bread,”[xiv] which is not the Greek word for “unleavened bread” required to be eaten at a “Passover Seder”! The Greek word for “unleavened bread” is azumos,[xv] which again, is not the Greek word that is used in regards to the “Last Supper” in all four Gospels – multiple attestation in other words!
As a result of these seemingly apparent problems, many scholars argue that the “Last Supper” was indeed a “Passover Seder.”[xvi]
Yet, many other scholars argue that the “Last Supper” was not a “Passover Seder,”[xvii] and then there are even other scholars who believe that it simply does not matter whether or not the “Last Supper” was, or was not a “Passover Seder.”[xviii]
At the time of the “Last Supper,” and Jesus’ crucifixion there was debate between the Jewish philosophies of that time regarding whether the Jewish calendar should be lunar based, solar based, or a combination of lunar/solar. This debate between the Jewish philosophies is reflected in the writings of Jubilees and 1 Enoch and these two writings were particularly important to the opinions and beliefs of the Jewish philosophy of the Essenes in regards to this debate surrounding the correct calendar.[xix]
The calendar used by the Essenes was a combination of both the lunar calendar of the Torah and the solar calendar of the Greco-Roman world.[xx] One result of this calendar used by the Essenes was that the start of the “festival days” according to the Essenes did not always coincide with when the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem believed was the correct day to start the “festival days.”
Thus, this debate regarding the correct calendar could provide an answer as to why the “Last Supper” might be considered a “Passover Seder” in one Gospel account,[xxi] yet not in another Gospel account. For the Gospels could simply be reflecting this debate regarding the calendar. Now, one of the instructions regarding the Essene calendar was that one was “not to change days or festivals,” which mirrors how the Essenes interpreted Daniel 7:25, and which would also explain the intended meaning of Colossians 2:16.
Therefore, the problems surrounding the “Last Supper” and the debate between the different Jewish philosophies regarding the correct calendar are thereby useless as ancient sources in regards to reckoning this elusive date of Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus, we must look for other clues in the Gospels, New Testament Epistles, Early Church writings, as well as other ancient sources in order to determine correctly when Jesus’ crucifixion occurred.
In John 2:20 is found a reply to Jesus’ statement that the Temple would be rebuilt “in three days,” and this reply states, “It has taken forty-six years to build this sanctuary: are you going to raise it up in three days?” Jacques Duquesne states concerning this reply,[xxii] “We should note in passing that Herod the Great had begun the building of the Temple in 20-19 BC, which would then place the scene in AD 27-28. If we presume that he was born in 6BC, Jesus would then have been thirty-three or thirty-four years old.”
Now, Josephus, Antiquities 15.380.1(380-387) states that Herod the Great only announced to the people his desired intentions to rebuild the Temple, which occurred in 20-19BCE. Josephus, Antiquities 15.380.2(388-390) further states that the people were “affrighted” by Herod the Great’s announcement of this intention, and thus, Herod the Great first “encouraged” the people that he would not “pull down” the current Temple until “things were gotten ready to build it up again.” So, Herod the Great gathered together “1000 wagons,” the “stones for the building,” “10,000 of the most skillful workmen” and had some “taught the arts of stone cutters, and others of carpenters, and then began to build; but this not till every thing was well prepared for the work.”
Thus, according to Josephus, Antiquities 15.380.1(380)-2(390) there was some unknown length of time that elapsed between when Herod the Great simply announced that he was going to rebuild the Temple in 20-19 BCE and when the actual construction of the Temple began! Therefore, doubts surround Jacques Duquesne’s claims that the “scene” mentioned in John 2:20 occurred around 27-28CE. As a result of these unknown facts, John 2:20 is also of no help in reckoning this elusive date of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:25; Luke 23:45 all mention an eclipse, and Matthew 27:51 makes mention of an earthquake that occurred at Jesus’ crucifixion. Now, both an eclipse, and an earthquake did indeed occur on Friday, April 3, 33CE as confirmed by several other ancient sources – Origen, Against Celsus, 2.33; Julius Africanus, Chronology, Fragment 18.1; Jerome’s Translation of Eusebius’ Chronicle, 202 Olympiad; Tertullian, Apologeticus, 21, 19; Roman Historian Thallus, History,3.263 (multiple attestation, in other words) – and which both modern day astronomers and paleoseismologists also confirm that both of these events did indeed actually occur around Friday, April 3, 33CE! Yet, it is true that modern astronomers are debating whether this eclipse was visible as far west as Jerusalem.
As a result, we now finally have two events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion that are mentioned in the three synoptic Gospels, and which is confirmed by other ancient sources as well as being confirmed by modern sciences that conform with New Testament scholars’ opinions and Church traditions for which we can use towards reckoning this elusive date of Jesus’ crucifixion, and thereby concluding that this elusive date of Jesus’ crucifixion was indeed, Friday, April 3, 33CE!
[i] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, vol. I, n. 6, p. 411; Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, St. Paul’s Corinth, pp. 129-40; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Paul,” NJBC, 1332; Robert Jewett, A Chronology of Paul’s Life, p. 100; Gerd Luedemann, Paul, Apostle of the Gentiles: Studies in Chronology, pp. 157-77, 262.
[ii] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus, pp. 89-90; John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalists, p. 80; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, vol. I, p. 373.
[iv] See Pastor G. Reckart, “Passover Crucifixion Dates (26-34AD).”
[ix] Jesus Interrupted, Bart D. Ehrman, p. 27.
[x] See BDAG Greek-English Lexicon, p. 910.
[xi] See D. C. Thielmann, You Say So: The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth, pp. xii-xvi.
[xii] See Tracey R. Rich, Judaism 101, (1995-2011); Joseph Jacobs and Cyrus Adler, “Calendar, History of,” Jewish Encyclopedia; Kaufmann Kohler and Wolf Willner, “Second Day of Festivals,” Jewish Encyclopedia; Marcus Jastrow and Michael Friedlander, “Bezah (‘Egg’),” Jewish Encyclopedia.
[xiii] John Drane, Jesus and the Four Gospels, p. 74.
[xiv] See BDAG Greek-English Lexicon, p. 136; Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, p. 121.
[xv] See BDAG Greek-English Lexicon, p. 23; Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, p. 16.
[xvi] Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth p. 329 and n. 32, p. 329; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Volume I, pp. 386-401; Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, pp. 36-89; Robert H. Gundry, Mark, pp. 638-643; M. H. Shepherd, Jr., “Are Both the Synoptics and John Correct About the Date of Jesus’ Death?” Journal of Biblical Literature 80, (1961), pp. 123-132; Edgar J. Goodspeed, Problems of New Testament Translation, pp. 62-63.
[xvii] Howard C. Kee, The Origins of Christianity: Sources and Documents, p. 55; Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Hillel, p. 13; Kaufmann Kohler, “Lord’s Supper,” Jewish Encyclopedia; Hyam Maccoby, Revolution in Judaea, pp. 132-135, 141, 153, n. 4, p. 233, n. 7, p. 234 makes the longest and strongest such argument.
[xviii] Ratzinger and Pope Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two, pp. 103-145.
[xix] See Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah, George W. E. Nickelsburg, pp. 47-48, 74-75; The Apocalyptic Imagination, John J. Collins, pp. 46-47, 58, 64-67, 116; On Earth As It Is In Heaven, D. C. Thielmann, pp. 583-584.
[xxi] Thomas Sheehan, The First Coming, n. 54, p. 250; Jaubert, The Date of the Last Supper, p. 71; Richard M. Mackowski, Jerusalem, City of Jesus, pp. 163-166; Eugen Ruckstuhl, Chronology of the Last Days of Jesus.
[xxii] Jacques Duquesne, Jesus: An Unconventional Biography, p. 187.