As we enter the period we set aside to remember our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection, it seemed to me the right time to discuss the dating of these events in history. This post necessarily simplifies various conclusions for the sake of keeping it (hopefully) a readable length. We will touch on the birth date for Jesus, but only so far as it pertains to properly dating his crucifixion.
No individual in history is more controversial than Jesus Christ. This is true in spite of the fact his life, death and resurrection are among the best documented events in history prior to modern photography. Much is debated about Jesus, not the least of which are the dates of his birth and death. These dates are an obsession to some, a passing interest to others, and of little interest to the rest. No matter the interest level, the dates are at least somewhat important to anyone seeking assurance of the validity of the gospel accounts – or to those trying to prove the gospel accounts false.
The birth of Jesus is almost universally believed to have been somewhere between early 8 BC and the end of 1 BC. Luke states that Jesus was “about 30” when his ministry began. The gospel of John gives us enough information to know Jesus attended at least three Passovers in Jerusalem including the one when he was crucified. This means Jesus would have been about 33 or perhaps a little older when he died. This puts his crucifixion no earlier than about 25 AD and probably no later than about 34 AD.
A great deal of scholarly work has been to determine the birth date of Jesus without universal acceptance of any one date. The modern church celebrates December 25 for various reasons even though most scholars agree this date is highly unlikely. We know Jesus was born before the death of Herod. Many people still believe Herod died in 4 BC, however it is likely he did not die until 1 BC. The date of Herod’s death is commonly associated with a lunar eclipse because Josephus talks about Herod’s sickness and death following a lunar eclipse. There were several lunar eclipses during the possible range of years. The eclipse of 4 BC is strongly suggested by some historians, although an eclipse shortly after sunset in early 1 BC is probably a better candidate because it would have been better remembered.
Other factors to consider when trying to determine the date of Jesus’ birth include prophetic aspects of the feasts of Israel (Leviticus 23), dating of Augustus and Quirinius, the census, the schedule of high priests (relating to Zachariah, father of John the Baptist) and celestial signs (astronomic events). The dating of the government officials and the census narrow the likely range down to about 6 – 2 BC (assuming Herod died in 1 BC). Celestial signs matching Rev 12:1-5 occurred on the evening of 15 Tishri, the Feast of Trumpets, in the year 3 BC. In addition to the alignment of the sun and moon shortly after dusk on that evening, another celestial sign involving Jupiter and the star Regulus began on the same date and continued for months afterward. The former is important for dating the actual birth event, the latter for guiding the magi to the infant Jesus. While all of this information is highly suggestive that Jesus was born on the evening of what we would call 10 September 3 BC, we cannot know with absolute certainty. We do know that Jupiter appeared from earth to come to a halt as it entered retrograde on December 25, 2 BC. This would be a very likely date for the Magi visit. The infant Jesus was about 15 months then, followed by probably about 4 to 6 months of exile in Egypt for the babe and his parents as soon as the Magi departed.
The date of Jesus’ death is more important than his birth historically as well as theologically. The date of birth is primarily important in helping to properly date his death. If Jesus was in fact born in the fall of 3 BC, he would have turned 30 in the year 28 AD. Luke records that Jesus was “about 30” when he began his ministry (Lk 3:23). This makes sense because God told Moses that men serving in the Temple must be at least 30 years old (Nu 4:3). This means Jesus began his ministry in or after 28 AD. If Jesus were born in 4 BC or earlier, he could have started his ministry in 27 AD or before, however any earlier dating for his birth is very problematic. If Jesus were born as late as the fall of 1 BC he would have turned 30 in 30 AD and would have been crucified no earlier than the spring of 34 AD. The likely range for crucifixion dates is from about 30 to 34 AD. Knowing this, it should be easy to identify the exact date of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Between the four gospel accounts we have an excellent picture of the events of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life, the crucifixion, the burial, and the resurrection. The gospels not only tell us what happened, but when. In order to understand the importance, a little background is helpful.
The Hebrew calendar is different from the modern Roman calendars most of the world uses today. Our dates change at midnight, but Jewish dates begin at dusk. Our calendar is based on earth’s motion around the sun with twelve fixed months totaling 365 days. The Jewish calendar uses a combination of lunar and solar activity to keep track of time. The first month of the year starts on the first new moon after the first spring barley which is within a few weeks of the spring equinox (late March). Jewish months begin at the new moon. This means the Jewish month is 29 or 30 days. Just as the Roman calendar adds a day to every fourth February, the Jewish calendar adds an extra month as needed to keep the first month timed to the barley harvest.
All of the feasts of Israel are conveniently outlined in Leviticus 23, although more information about each can be found in various other places. These feasts are prophetic as well as commemorative. Sabbath is celebrated weekly on the seventh day of the week. Sabbath is designated as a day of worship and rest from regular work. Certain other feasts feature special days of Sabbath rest. The first two spring feasts run together. Passover (Lev 23:5) takes place on the 14th day of the first month (Nissan). The Feast of Unleavened Bread starts on the 15th and lasts seven days (Lev 23:6). First Fruits is part of Unleavened Bread taking place on the first day of the week following the weekly Sabbath during Unleavened Bread (Lev 23:11). The next feast, called Weeks (later called Pentecost), takes place 50 days after the weekly Sabbath that falls during Unleavened Bread (Lev 23:16).
Jesus was executed and quickly buried on Passover, his body rested in the grave during Sabbath of Unleavened Bread, and resurrected in the morning of the first day of the week, First Fruits day. We know Sabbath is what we call Saturday. We know the resurrection took place on Sunday morning. Jesus made multiple prophetic statements that he would rise on the third day. This is confirmed by the historical record of the gospels and statements by most other New Testament writers. Although some people suggest Jesus was executed on Wednesday or Thursday, the only day of the week that makes sense for the crucifixion is Friday. Knowing this, the only year in the likely range, with Passover falling on a Friday, is 33 AD.
The last day of Jesus’ life is detailed in Mt 26:17-27:61, Mk 14:12-15:47, Lk 22:7-23:56, and Jn 13-19. Each gospel identifies this date as the Passover, 14 Nissan. The day is also called “preparation day” at the start of Unleavened Bread. This was also a customary description of the day when the Passover lamb was prepared and consumed (Mt 27:62, Mk 15:42, Lk 23:54, Jn 19:14). Because Passover prepares for Unleavened Bread it is often traditionally considered a part of Unleavened Bread (e.g. Mt 26:17), even though technically it is separate. The essential events include the last supper, the prayer and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the appearances before Herod and Pilate, the flogging, the crucifixion, death, and finally burial. Each gospel writer provides unique as well as common details. Taken together we have an amazingly thorough and unvarnished account.
As important as knowing the crucifixion took place on Passover (14 Nissan) is knowing that the next day was the Sabbath. This can be confusing because the first day of Unleavened Bread is treated as a special Sabbath. Some try to argue that this means 14 Nissan did not necessarily fall on a Friday (starting Thursday evening at dusk and ending Friday at dusk). The gospel writers give us enough information to rule out any other possibility. The next day was not just the ceremonial Sabbath rest of the first day of Unleavened Bread, but also the weekly Sabbath. When the two fell on the same day of the week it was called a high Sabbath (ie Jn 19:31). It was vital that the body be taken down from the cross before the Sabbath began (Jn 19:31). Jesus’ body was removed from the cross and placed in a tomb before nightfall (Mt 27:57-60, Mk15:42-47, Lk 23:53-56, Jn 19:38-42) immediately prior to Sabbath. The next day, which was the Sabbath, the guards were assigned to watch over the tomb and make sure the stone stayed in place until the third day (Mt 27:62-66). It was the very next day, the day after the Sabbath, the first day of the week, when Jesus resurrected and the empty tomb was discovered (Mt 28:1-6, Mk 16:1-6, Lk 24:1-6, Jn 20:1). Jesus said he would rise on the third day (Mt 16:21, Lk 18:33) and he kept his word (Ac 10:40).
The only year in the likely range when Passover fell on Friday was 33 AD. Some argue for a Wednesday crucifixion (30 AD). The reasoning used to justify this is that Jesus’ prophecy of the sign of Jonah requires three nights and three days of death. A Friday afternoon death is day, then night and day Saturday, then night and day Sunday. This reasoning would suggest another night is required. The fact that the first day of Unleavened Bread requires a Sabbath rest (Lev 23:6-7) is used to justify allowing for the crucifixion to take place on a different day of the week than Friday. The logic here is faulty, however. Each gospel account states it was dark for three hours (noon to 3 pm) while Jesus hung on the cross and that it was light again until normal dusk. This darkness has theological as well as prophetic importance. As it relates to supporting the case for the Friday crucifixion, the point is that it was dark when Jesus died. This in turn means that for the Friday crucifixion there were three full cycles of dark and light included from the death to the resurrection. It is not necessary to have any additional days. We know the women came as soon as it was light on the morning following Sabbath and if Jesus were crucified on Wednesday afternoon they would have been able to come on Friday morning, but we know that they actually came on the first day of the week. A Wednesday crucifixion is simply impossible.
Finally, the celestial sign of darkness and earthquakes are attested by Old Testament prophecy, apostolic statement, and extra-biblical records. Joel’s prophecy states the sun would darken and the moon would turn the color of blood (Joel 2:31). Peter quotes this passage during his great Pentecost message (Ac 2:20) referring to the afternoon Jesus was crucified, less than two months prior. Josephus, Tacitus, and Pliny all mention the unusual darkness and earthquakes of that day. The darkness is not explained by a solar eclipse because at mid-month it was a full moon. The blood red moon was the product of a lunar eclipse. NASA calculations (available online) show a lunar eclipse took place during the afternoon of 3 April 33 AD (same date as 14 Nissan 33 AD). During a lunar eclipse the moon often appears red and, at 3 pm (Jerusalem local time) the moon would have appeared red if it could have been seen from Jerusalem. Some believe the sun appeared dark because God supernaturally rotated the earth so that Jerusalem faced away from the sun thus making the eclipsed red moon visible for a short time that afternoon. Once Jesus died, God then supernaturally returned the earth to its normal rotational position and motion. Symbolically this would be like God turning His back on the sin of the world accumulated all together on the cross. It neatly explains the darkness and the red moon appearing during what would normally be the daytime. Regardless of how God went about it, the fact remains that it was dark in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death and there were great earthquakes that same afternoon.
In summation, the evidence favoring a crucifixion date of 14 Nissan (3 April) 33 AD is extremely strong. If Jesus were born in the fall, and if he started his ministry at or after he turned 30, and if his ministry lasted at least 3 ½ years, he would have been at least 33 ½ at the time of his death. This then places his birth at least as early as the fall of 2 BC and potentially earlier. A birth date of September 3 BC is certainly acceptable, although earlier dates are also acceptable.
Regardless of the dates, the point to all this is to know Jesus is a real historic figure. He lived, he died as a sinless sacrifice atoning for our sin, was buried, and resurrected victorious over death. Death has power only in sin. This is why the blood of Jesus is vital to salvation. We must believe and be washed in the atoning blood of Jesus. When we place our faith in the Lord Jesus, he is faithful to forgive our sin. Purified from sin, we are set free of sin’s bondage and its ultimate affect – death.