Dating the Life of Jesus

The New Testament provides excellent accounts of events that occurred in the first century; nevertheless, rarely does it provide information which would allow us to easily date the events relative to other historical matters. We can maintain full faith in God’s working through Jesus without knowing in exactly which year the events took place. And yet much can be gained, especially in terms of the history of the early church, if we consider what can be known regarding the chronology of the New Testament. Let us begin with the life of Jesus, upon which the rest of the chronology must be based.

We do have certain historical markers that can help us in our chronology. We know that Herod the Great died in the year 4 BCE (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17.8.1, Wars of the Jews 1.33.8); therefore, Jesus’ birth, the visit of the Magi, the flight to Egypt, and the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem all date to the year 4 BCE or immediately earlier (cf. Matthew 1:18-2:23). Likewise, Luke tells us the following in Luke 3:1-2 and Luke 3:23:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.

And Jesus himself, when he began to teach, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli.

These pieces of information will be the most critical in determining our chronology, and we will return to them shortly.

As to the duration of Jesus’ ministry, it would seem from the Gospel of John that Jesus’ ministry encompassed three Passover festivals. These are recorded in John 2:13, John 6:4, and John 11:55:

And the passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now the passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.

Now the passover of the Jews was at hand: and many went up to Jerusalem out of the country before the passover, to purify themselves.

As to this first Passover, we gain an idea of when it occurred by the comment made by the Jews against what Jesus had taught them:

The Jews therefore said, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou raise it up in three days?” (John 2:20).

Let us now consider all of this evidence to see if we can gain a picture of the chronology of the events at hand.

It seems clear enough that the Magi visited Jesus at some point well after His birth: Mary is now in a house, and the star may have risen after His birth (cf. Matthew 2:2, 11). The death of Herod, moreover, occurs soon after he orders the death of the infants of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-15, 19). We can reasonably establish, then, that the visit of the Magi and the massacre in Bethlehem occurred in 4 BCE proper, and posit Jesus’ birth as taking place in 5 BCE. If this is the case, Jesus’ visit to the Temple at age 12 in Luke 2:42-51 most likely occurred in 8 CE.

The next date we are given established the beginning of John’s ministry, and Luke mentioned many individuals. Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea at the time; he was appointed to that position in 26 CE and was removed ten years later. Both Herod and Philip reigned from the death of their father in 4 BCE until after the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Annas and Caiaphas represented the high priesthood from 6 to 36 CE. Lysanias is known from inscriptional evidence from one of his freedman: “for the salvation of the Lord’s Imperial by a freedman of Lysanias the tetrarch” (Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum, 4521, quoted in Merill Tenney, Exploring New Testament Culture, 158). The “Lord’s Imperial” is a technical title referring jointly to Tiberius and his mother Livia. Since Livia died in 29 CE, we know that this inscription must date between 14-29 CE, which corresponds to the time-frame at hand.

The main piece of chronological evidence in Luke 3:1 is that John’s ministry begins in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius began to reign jointly with Augustus in 13 CE and independently beginning in August 14; that would make his fifteenth year either 27 or 28 CE. There is also a tradition in the eastern Mediterranean of fixing the reigns of monarchs by the “royal year” that began in September or October: in this reckoning, year one of Tiberius would have been August-September 14, and therefore the fifteenth year of Tiberius would have begun in September 27 (Tenney, 159). 27 represents a good correlation with Luke’s statement that Jesus began when He was “about thirty years of age”. In 27 He would have been about 32; any later and Luke’s statement begins to strain credibility. Likewise, during the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry, the Jews assert that the Temple has been being built for 46 years (John 2:20). Since it is recorded that Herod began the temple in the eighteenth year of his reign (Josephus, Antiquities 15.11.1-3); 46 years from this is about 26 or 27 CE.

We can make the following reconstructed chronology, then, from the above evidence:

  • 5 BCE: Birth of Jesus
  • 4 BCE: Magi, Bethlehem massacre, death of Herod the Great
  • 8 CE: Jesus at 12 in the Temple
  • 27 CE: Beginning of John’s ministry, early events in Jesus’ ministry
  • 28 CE: First Passover (John 2:26), imprisonment of John, beginning of Jesus’ independent ministry
  • 29 CE: Second Passover, feeding of 5,000 (John 6:4)
  • 30 CE: Third Passover: crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus

Jesus, then, before the resurrection, lived for about 35 years, and the concluding events of His ministry on earth were most likely in the year 30 CE. This corresponds well with the evidence from the development of the early church.

We must stress again that this chronology is based upon all available evidence and is historically likely, but not historically or Biblically certain. Good arguments can be made for Jesus’ death and resurrection in 33 CE and His ministry as lasting from 31 to 33 CE. Regardless, may we take this information and use it to the profit of our consideration of the life of Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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