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The Chronology of Jesus depicts the attempt to establish a historical chronology for the events of the life of Jesus depicted in the four canonical gospels (which allude to various contradictory dates for several events). Relating those externally known events to the chronology in the gospels themselves produces the following reconstructed chronology.
When correlated with external secular sources, the accounts of the four canonical gospels describe something like the following outline:
- Jesus was born either around 6-4 BCE or 6/7 CE;
- Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist during John's ministry, which according to began in the "15th year of Tiberius" (around 28/29 CE) and may have lasted up until CE 32;
- Jesus' ministry lasted around one year, according to the Synoptic Gospels, or three years according to the Gospel of John;
- Jesus was executed by Pontius Pilate, the governor of Iudaea province between 26 and 36 CE;
- Jesus was raised from the dead by God "on the third day", appeared to the disciples and others; and according to , , and , ascended to heaven.
c. 6 BCE
c. 5 BCE
c. 4 BCE
c. 3/2 BCE
c. CE 1
c. 26 / 27
c. 36 / 37
The chronology of Jesus is linked to a number of Jewish festivals. There are numerous references to specific times, people, and places in the four canonical gospels, but only a few tie events to a specific year, leaving exact timing uncertain and perhaps impossible to ascertain definitively. For example, the specific years of Jesus's birth, and death are not known. Some events and dates given can be cross-referenced to other sources, such as the tenure of rulers and high priests. The gospels do, however, provide clear references to specific days of the year associated with the yearly Jewish festivals, and provide much evidence to build upon.
In brief, the primary events in Jesus' life are believed to have occurred around these times:
- c. 8 BCE – Suggested birth (earliest estimate based on Matthew)
- c. 5 BCE/4 BCE – Herod the Great's death
- c. 6 – Suggested birth (latest), Census of Quirinius
- c. 26/27 – Suggested death (earliest), Pontius Pilate appointed governor of Iudaea Province
- c. 28/29 – John the Baptist begins mission in "15th year of Tiberius" ( )
- c. 36/37 – Suggested death (latest), Pilate removed from office
Year of birth
Our only sources of information on Jesus' birth are the gospels of Matthew and Luke of the Bible, which provide two different accounts of the nativity. Matthew describes the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem, when Jesus has already been born. Subsequently, King Herod orders the "Massacre of the Innocents" — the killing of all male children in Bethlehem aged two years and under; the family of Jesus flee to Egypt and return after Herod's death while Jesus is still a child. This implies that Jesus could have been up to two years old by the time of the massacre, which would have taken place some time, perhaps some years, before the death of Herod in 4 BCE.
Luke on the other hand relates the birth to the Census of Quirinius which took place in 6 CE, although also implying that the conception took place during the reign of King Herod.
Numerous commentators have attempted to establish the date of birth identify the Star of Bethlehem with some known astronomical or astrological phenomenon. There are, however, too many possible phenomena to single out one of them with certainty, and none seems to match the Gospel account exactly. Raymond E. Brown, having studied the various astronomical explanations, concluded: "no astronomical record exists of what is described in Matthew". Many scholars regard the star as a literary invention of the author of the Gospel of Matthew, to claim fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy (Numbers 24:17).
Because both Gospel accounts seem to assume that the birth took place some time before the death of Herod, most historians assume that Jesus was probably born around 4 BCE or slightly before.
In the 6th century, Dionysius Exiguus made the birth date of Jesus the basis for his chart of Easter dates. Dionysius' labeled the years since Jesus' birth Anno Domini (meaning "in the year of the Lord" in Latin), which is now abbreviated "AD". Later the abbreviation "BC", which stands for Before Christ was added. Dionysius' estimate is generally thought to be inaccurate; "although scholars generally believe that Christ was born some years before AD 1, the historical evidence is too sketchy to allow a definitive dating".
Mediterranean climates such as Judea's have mild winters reaching their coolest in late February.  Thus December nights can be quite balmy and warm enough to graze sheep. Moreover, December/January would have been an ideal time to graze sheep to take advantage of the winter rains. During the hot months, conditions can be quite barren and the grasses dry. But the end of December was the time when the perennial grasses began to turn green again and the annual grasses had sprouted anew. Thus, climatically the ecclesiastical practice of placing Christ's birth between December 25 and January 6 is possible. Controversy over whether Christmas ought to be celebrated on December 25 or January 6 underscores the perceived importance of the day of Christ's birth and the determination of church fathers to be accurate.
It is believed that Christmas' date was chosen to take advantage of the imperial holiday of the birth of the Sun God Mithras, more specifically Sol Invictus, which coincided with the "return of the sun" after the shortest day of the year. According to this theory, the reason was to replace the popular pagan holiday with a Christian celebration of holy communion. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia states: "Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date."
Kislev 25, 3757 AM is reported in error as the Julian date of November 25, 5 BCE, not December 25, 5 BCE. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the Jews of the Diaspora used a rule-based calendar of the Pharisees to calculate dates, this being formalized into the present fixed calendar by Maimonides in 1178 CE. Extending this calendar back to 5 BCE does not adjust for the precession of the equinoxes, and this gives dates too early according to the Vernal Equinox and beginning of spring.
Extending the present fixed calendar back to Nisan 1, 3756 AM, which precedes the birth of Jesus and yields the bogus November 25, 5 BCE date, is March 9, 5 BCE. This is too early before the equinox and is actually Adar II. Nisan 1 shifted a month and actually began on April 6, 5 BCE.
By contrast, in today's 19-year metonic cycle Jewish calendar, the earliest that Nisan 1 appears is on March 12 in 2016 CE. This date is by the Gregorian calendar, which has adjusted for the precession of the equinoxes. If the new moon was observed as early as March 9 it would have been Adar II, additionally declared that month because of the premature state of the corn crop and fruit trees (Sanhedrin 2:2)
Early Christians sought to calculate the date of Christ's birth based on the idea that Old Testament prophets died either on an anniversary of their birth or of their conception. They reasoned that Jesus died on an anniversary of his conception, so the date of his birth was nine months after the date of Good Friday, either December 25 or January 6.
At least as early as 354 CE, Jesus' birth was celebrated on December 25 in Rome, according to Chronography of 354. Other cities had other traditional dates. The history of Christmas is closely associated with that of the Epiphany. If the currently prevailing opinion about the compilation of the gospels is accepted, the earliest body of gospel tradition, represented by Mark no less than by the primitive non-Marcan document (Q document) embodied in the first and third gospels, begins, not with the birth and childhood of Jesus, but with His baptism; and this order of accretion of gospel matter is faithfully reflected in the time order of the invention-of feasts. The church in general adopted Christmas much later than Epiphany, and before the 5th century there was no consensus as to when it should come in the calendar, whether on January 6 or December 25.
The earliest identification of 25 December with the birthday of Jesus is in a passage, otherwise unknown and probably spurious, of Theophilus of Antioch (171-183), preserved in Latin by the Magdeburg centuriators, to the effect that the Gauls contended that as they celebrated the birth of the Lord on the December 25, whatever day of the week it might be, so they ought to celebrate Easter on 25 March when the resurrection occurred.
The next surviving mention of December 25 is in Hippolytus' (c. 202) commentary on Daniel. Jesus, he says, was born at Bethlehem on December 25, a Wednesday, in the forty-second year of Augustus. This passage also is almost certainly interpolated. In any case he mentions no feast, nor was such a feast congruous with the orthodox ideas of that age. As late as 245, Origen, in his eighth homily on Leviticus, repudiates as sinful the very idea of keeping the birthday of Jesus "as if he were a king Pharaoh." Thus it was important to the early Christians not to have indecorous parties on that day, but to keep it a time of devotion, reflection, and communion.
The first early mention of December 25 is in a Latin chronographer of 354 CE, first published in complete form by Mommsen. It runs thus in English: "Year I after Christ, in the consulate of Augustus Caesar and Paulus, the Lord Jesus Christ was born on 25 December, a Friday and 15th day of the new moon." Here again no festal celebration of the day is attested.
Another argument , that relies only on dates named in the Bible, places Jesus' birth on the 15th day of the seventh Jewish month during Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. This is based on the time when Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, was ministering in the temple and received an announcement from God of Zechariah fathering a son. The Bible states that Zechariah's term of ministry was in the "eighth course of Abia", a period dated according to Hebrew calendar in the Old Testament. If John was conceived soon after, and Jesus' conception was six months after John's, then Jesus could have been born about the first day of the feast of the tabernacles (shelters/bivouacs). There is an engimatic reference in the Gospel of John that introduces Jesus in this manner: "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" (KJV). The word used for "dwelt" means "tabernacled/camped/bivouacked" - i.e. God's Word became flesh and bivouacked among us.
There were many speculations in the 2nd century about the date of Jesus' birth. Clement of Alexandria, towards its close, mentions several such, and condemns them as superstitions. Some chronologists, he says, alleged the birth to have occurred in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, on the 25th of Pachon, the Egyptian month (May 20). These were probably the Basilideans. Others set it on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi (19th or 20 April). Clement himself sets it on November 17, 3 BCE
The same symbolic reasoning led Polycarp (before 160) to set his birth on Sunday, when the world's creation began, but his baptism on Wednesday, for it was the analogue of the sun's creation. On such grounds certain Latins as early as 354 may have transferred the human birthday from January 6 to December 25 and is by the chronographer above referred to, but in another part of his compilation, termed Natalis invicti solis, or birthday of the unconquered Sun. (Under the Julian Calendar, the winter solstice occurs on December 24, so starting with December 25, the days begin to get longer again.) Cyprian invokes Christus Sol verus, Ambrose Sol novus noster, and such rhetoric was widespread. The Syrians and Armenians, who clung to January 6, accused the Romans of sun-worship and idolatry, contending with great probability that the feast of 25 December had been invented by disciples of Cerinthus and its readings by Artemon to commemorate the natural birth of Jesus. Ambrose, On Virgins, writing to his sister, implies that as late as the papacy of Liberius 352 - 356, the Birth from the Virgin was feasted together with the Marriage of Cana and the Feeding of the 4000, which were never celebrated on any other day but January 6.
Chrysostom, in a sermon preached at Antioch on December 20, 386 or 388, says that some held the feast of December 25 to have been held in the West, from Thrace as far as Cádiz, from the beginning. It certainly originated in the West, but spread quickly eastwards. In 353 - 361 it was observed at the court of Constantius II. Basil of Caesarea (died 379) adopted it. Honorius, emperor (395 - 423) in the West, informed his mother and brother Arcadius (395 - 408) in Byzantium of how the new feast was kept in Rome, separate from January 6, with its own troparia and sticharia. They adopted it, and recommended it to Chrysostom, who had long been in favour of it. Epiphanius of Crete was won over to it, as were also the other three patriarchs, Theophilus of Alexandria, John II of Jerusalem, Flavian I of Antioch. This was under Pope Anastasius I, 398 - 400.
John or Wahan of Nice, in a letter printed by François Combefis in his Historia monoizeii tarurn, affords the above details. The new feast was communicated by Proclus, patriarch of Constantinople (434 - 446), to Sahak, Catholicos of Armenia, about 440. The letter was betrayed to the Persian king, who accused Sahak of Greek intrigues, and deposed him. However, the Armenians, at least those within the Byzantine pale, adopted it for about thirty years, but finally abandoned it together with the decrees of Chalcedon early in the 8th century. Many writers of the period 375 - 450, e.g. Epiphanius, Cassian, Asterius, Basil, Chrysostom and Jerome, contrast the new feast with that of the Baptism as that of the birth after the flesh, from which we infer that the latter was generally regarded as a birth according to the Spirit. Instructive as showing that the new feast travelled from West eastwards is the fact (noticed by Usener) that in 387 the new feast was reckoned according to the Julian calendar by writers of the province of Asia, who in referring to other feasts use the reckoning of their local calendars. As early as 400 in Rome an imperial rescript includes Christmas among the three feasts (the others are Easter and Epiphany) on which theatres must be closed.
Start of Ministry
According to the gospel of Luke (Luke 3:1-2), John the Baptist started his ministry in the "15th year of Tiberius". This is one of the few events in the New Testament for which any clear indication of the year of occurrence is given. Tiberius was emperor of Rome from 14 to 37 CE. All gospel accounts have Jesus beginning his own ministry after John had begun his. Accordingly, the earliest year either John or Jesus could have begun his own ministry would be, if Luke is accurate, the year 29 CE. However, one source, Tertullian (died 230), in Adversus Marcionem xv, expresses a Roman tradition that placed the crucifixion in the twelfth year of Tiberius Caesar, lending support for an earlier date of 26 CE. Josephus implies that Herod Antipas had John the Baptist put to death around 32 CE.
Day of death
Tradition holds that the Last Supper took place on the first night of Passover, which is defined in the Torah as occurring after the day of the 14th of Nisan ( ). In the Biblical calendar, a new day begins after sunset, rather than at midnight as in the modern western calendar. However, in order to determine the Gregorian date of Jesus' death, one needs to know the year, because the 15th of Nisan – corresponding to one of the first two full moons after Vernal Equinox – can occur on any date in late March or April in the western calendar.
All Gospels agree that Jesus died and was taken off the cross on the day before the Jewish sabbath (Friday before sunset), around the time of Passover, (the Jewish calendar counts the day as beginning with the evening). However, before the year 500, the calendar was changed yearly to align with astronomical observations. Therefore, it is not possible to state on which day of the week the 14 of Nisan occurred for any year before 500 without historical documents that attest to a particular day of the week.
More precise calculation of Jesus' date of death is complicated by apparent inconsistencies in the reports in the Synoptic Gospels as compared to the Gospel of John. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper is generally interpreted to be the Passover meal. In this case Passover would have started on Thursday night. This is highly problematic from a historical standpoint — the first day of Passover is a holy day for Jews, during which no work can be performed and many rituals of Shabbat are observed, so many events described by the Gospels (particularly, the trial and the execution) could not have taken place.
According to John, however, the Passover meal was to be eaten on the last evening before Jesus was crucified, so that the Last Supper was eaten on the evening of the 14th of Nisan and the crucifixion was on the 14th during the following daylight, with Jesus dying approximately at the same time that the lambs for the Passover were being slaughtered in Herod's Temple of Jerusalem — around 3 PM ("at the ninth hour"), so that the Jews could celebrate the Passover that evening (starting Friday night).
According to Orthodox theology, the Last Supper celebrated on Thursday evening was not the Jewish Passover meal[reference required].
Year of death
One of the facts considered by historians to be practically beyond dispute is that Jesus was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. Pilate held this position from 26–36 CE, during which the only years in which Nisan 14 fell on a Friday were 27 CE, 33 CE, 36 CE, and possibly also 30 CE (depending on when the new moon would have been visible in Jerusalem). Different scholars have defended all of these dates. Maximus Monachus, Eusebius, and Cassiodorus recorded the death of Jesus in 31 CE. The 3rd/4th century Roman historian Lactantius states that Jesus was crucified on 11 April 29 CE.
The most commonly cited dates are 7 April 30 CE and 3 April 33 CE. In the Gospel of Luke, it is stated that Jesus was "about 30 years old"  when he was baptised by John the Baptist. However, if Jesus' birth was in 6 BCE, this would imply that he began preaching around 24 CE.
Another fact to be considered is Luke's statement that John the Baptist's ministry began in the fifteenth year of the reign of emperor Tiberius (Luke 3:1-2). Tiberius' reign began after Augustus' death on 19 August 14 CE, placing John's appearance in 28 or 29 CE by official Roman reckoning (counting August 14 CE to August 15 CE as the first year), too late for the beginning of Jesus's ministry as calculated above. On the other hand, Tertullian writes in his Adversus Marcionem of a Roman tradition that placed the crucifixion in the twelfth year of Tiberius' rule, i.e. 25 or 26 CE. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John points to three separate Passovers during Jesus' ministry, which would favour 33 CE.
- David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, Astrid B. Beck, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, (Eerdmans, 2000), page 249.
- Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus (Oxford University Press, 2002), page 185.
- Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, The Women's Bible Commentary, (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) page 381. Google Book Search preview
- John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, v.1, ch. 11.
- Josephus' Antiquities 18.4.2: "But when this tumult was appeased, the Samaritan senate sent an embassy to Vitellius, a man that had been consul, and who was now president of Syria, and accused Pilate of the murder of those that were killed; for that they did not go to Tirathaba in order to revolt from the Romans, but to escape the violence of Pilate. So Vitellius sent Marcellus, a friend of his, to take care of the affairs of Judea, and ordered Pilate to go to Rome, to answer before the emperor to the accusations of the Jews. So Pilate, when he had tarried ten years in Judea, made haste to Rome, and this in obedience to the orders of Vitellius, which he durst not contradict; but before he could get to Rome Tiberius was dead."
- For example, astronomer Michael Molnar identified April 17, 6 BCE as the likely date of the Nativity, since that date corresponded to the heliacal rising and lunar occultation of Jupiter, while it was momentarily stationary in the sign of Aries; according to Molnar, to knowledgeable astrologers of this time, this highly unusual combination of events would have indicated that a regal personage would be (or had been) born in Judea. Michael R. Molnar, "The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi," Rutgers University Press, 1999.
- Raymond E. Brown, 101 Questions and Answers on the Bible, Paulist Press (2003), page 79.
- Joseph J. Walsh, Were They Wise Men or Kings?, Westminster John Knox Press, (2001), p. 40
- E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, Penguin Books, 1993, pp. 10–11.
- Doggett. (1992). "Calendars" (Ch. 12), in P. Kenneth Seidelmann (Ed.) Explanatory supplement to the astronomical almanac. Sausalito, CA: University Science Books. ISBN 0-935702-68-7.
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Christmas
- Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus (Oxford University Press, 2002), page 185.
- The Complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller, ed., 1992, page 195, Introduction to the Gospel of John: "From early times Christians have recognized that "the Gospel according to John" is dramatically different from the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke)."
- The Complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller, ed., 1992, translation note to John 19:31: "...the day of preparation (here and in v. 14) can mean either the day before Passover or simply Friday; in this case it is both."
- E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin Books, London 1993), page 11.
- Lactantius, Of the Manner In Which the Persecutors Died 2: "In the latter days of the Emperor Tiberius, in the consulship of Ruberius (sic) Geminus and Fufius Geminus, and on the tenth of the kalends of April, as I find it written".
- Catholic Encyclopedia (1910): Chronology of the Life of Jesus Christ
- Catholic.org Chronology of Jesus
- New Testament Chronology
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