Possible Years for the Crucifixion


Based on astronomical calculations taking into account all factors determining the visibility of a new moon in Jerusalem, two British physicists, Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington, have shown that in only two of the years framed by AD 26 and AD 36 (the years spanning all Passovers when Pilate was governor of Judea) could the fourteenth of Nisan have fallen on a Friday: in AD 30 and 33 (1). We can therefore find the correct year of the Crucifixion by a process of elimination. The year 30 is impossible for two reasons.


Reasons AD 30 Cannot Be the Year of the Crucifixion


First reason

Luke says that John the Baptist began to preach in Tiberius’s fifteenth year (Luke 3:1–3). By official Roman reckoning— as exhibited, for example, in the histories of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius—Tiberius’s fifteenth year ran from January 1, AD 29, to January 1, AD 30 (2). It is remotely possible that Luke is using a form of Jewish reckoning. But even if he is, he is placing the beginning of John’s ministry no earlier than Nisan of 28 and the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry no earlier than Nisan of 29 (3).

Yet Luke’s Gospel is addressed to the "most excellent Theophilus," doubtless a Roman official. It is probable for this and other reasons that the writer uses ordinary Roman reckoning in his dating of events (4). Thus, John’s ministry began in 29. Placing Jesus’ first Passover in the same year crowds the prior events both in John’s ministry and in Jesus’ own ministry. If the first was actually in 30, this cannot be the year of the Crucifixion. We reach the same conclusion even if the first Passover was in 29, since the remainder of Jesus’ ministry extended beyond another year.

A century ago, many scholars and Bible teachers nevertheless favored 30 as the year of the Crucifixion. They supposed that when Luke figured the regnal years of Tiberius, he included the term when he held high authority under Augustus before the emperor’s death in AD 14. But a century of new discoveries has discredited this view. No trace of reckoning from an earlier starting point appears in any of the papyri, coins, and inscriptions that have come to light (5). The same enumeration of the emperor’s years was used throughout the empire, and by that enumeration, the fifteenth year of Tiberius was AD 29. Since Luke obviously expected his date to be understood by readers everywhere, it is inconceivable that he used some obscure method of reckoning.


Second reason

In 26, when Pilate was given his post in Judaea (6), the emperor Tiberius relied heavily upon a certain Sejanus to manage the everyday affairs of government (7). It is therefore likely that Pilate was the choice of Sejanus. According to the Jewish writer Philo, this Sejanus was strongly anti-Jewish (8), so it is not surprising that his appointee Pilate was, during his earlier years in office, severely repressive of the Jews. On several occasions, Pilate deliberately offended Jewish religious scruples, and at least once he then severely punished those who protested (9).

But in the Gospels we see a different Pilate. Instead of standing firm in his desire to release Jesus, he meekly bows to pressure from the Jewish leaders to crucify Him. What accounts for his inconsistent behavior? The best explanation notices the political climate in Rome. In late 31, Sejanus was put to death after he was discovered plotting against the emperor (10). As a result, any official associated with Sejanus must have found himself under suspicion and in danger of dismissal or even worse forms of censure. Pilate was in particular danger because he had so frequently stirred up unrest among the people under his authority, and because, after Sejanus’s death, the emperor adopted a new policy toward the Jews, a policy of conciliation rather than repression (11). In fact, Pilate survived in office only until 36 (12). If the Crucifixion fell in 30, Pilate’s behavior at the trial of Jesus is out of character. If it fell in 33, his behavior was a symptom of his precarious situation.

At last we are ready for a conclusion of prime importance. The only year we can reasonably assign to the Crucifixion is AD 33. A consensus that this was the actual year continues to build among New Testament scholars (13). Those who have now endorsed it include Jack Finegan, widely regarded as the doyen of Biblical chronology (14).

Many scholars in the past shied away from this date, doubting that Christianity could become a worldwide movement already by the early 50s if the church in Jerusalem originated as recently as 33. Pushing the date back to 30 made the wildfire expansion of Christianity less miraculous. So, in recognizing that 33 was the true starting date, we learn how miraculous this expansion was, and we can respond by giving full credit to the power of God.


Julian Date of the Crucifixion


In previous lessons we have established beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus died on Friday, the fourteenth of the Jewish month Nisan. Humphreys and Waddington have shown that in AD 33, the Julian date of Nisan 14 was April 3 (15). We conclude that the correct date for the Crucifixion was April 3, AD 33.

Footnotes

  1. Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington, "Dating the Crucifixion," Nature 306 (1983): 744. Roger T. Beckwith, in "Cautionary Notes on the Use of Calendars and Astronomy to Determine the Chronology of the Passion," in Chronos, Kairos, Christos, ed. Jerry Vardaman and Edwin M. Yamauchi (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1989), 192–193, charged Humphreys and Waddington with basing their reconstruction of the Jewish calendar on a questionable assumption. According to Beckwith, they accepted Emil Schürer's dictum in his standard work on ancient Jewish culture that the main object of intercalation was to prevent Passover from arriving before the vernal equinox. See Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, revised and edited by Geza Vermes and Fergus Millar (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1973), 1:593; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 11b, 13b. Beckwith, claiming that Palestinian Jews in the first century AD were more concerned with other factors, believed that he discovered another possible year for the Crucifixion. He said that the fourteenth of Nisan fell on a Friday also in 36 if the Jews decided against adding a thirteenth month to the previous year. Although the twelfth fell short of the vernal equinox, perhaps they left out an extra month because the crops were unusually early. The fallacy in this argument is that Humphreys and Waddington also looked at possible intercalation before Nisan of 36. The resulting fourteenth of Nisan would not have fallen on a Friday. See Colin J. Humphreys, The Mystery of the Last Supper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 58-59.
  2. Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, revised ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 338-341. Tacitus, Annals 4.1, states that AD 23 was the ninth year of Tiberius. Dio Cassius, Roman History 58.24.1, says that the Roman government itself regarded AD 34 as the twentieth year of Tiberius. Hence, his fifteenth year was AD 29. For conversion of the consular years reported by these historians into years of the Christian era, consult Elias J. Bickerman, Chronology of the Ancient World (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1968), 184.
  3. Humphreys, 65-66; Finegan, 334-337.
  4. Finegan, 338-341.
  5. George Ogg, The Chronology of the Public Ministry of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940), 178, 270–271; Paul L. Maier, "Sejanus, Pilate, and the Date of the Crucifixion," Church History 37 (1968): 6; A. Kindler, "More Dates on the Coins of the Procurators," Israel Exploration Journal 6 (1956): 54–57.
  6. Josephus states that Pilate succeeded Valerius Gratus as procurator of Judaea after Gratus had served eleven years under Tiberius Caesar. See Josephus Antiquities 18.2.2.
  7. Maier, 8–9.
  8. Philo De Legatione ad Gaium 24, In Flaccum 1.
  9. E. M. Blaiklock, The Archaeology of the New Testament (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 52–55; Maier, 9–12.
  10. Maier, 11.
  11. Philo De Legatione ad Gaium 24.
  12. Josephus places Pilate's removal a few months before the death of Tiberius, which occurred early in AD 37. See Josephus Antiquities 18.4.2.
  13. Ogg, 244-277; Bo Reicke, The New Testament Era, trans. David E. Green (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), 183-184; Maier, 2-13; Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), 114; Ormond Edwards, A Chronology of the Incarnation (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1986), 9, 147; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 384.
  14. Finegan, 368.
  15. Humphreys and Waddington, 744.