John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.1, ch. 11 : "In the Fifteenth Year...": A Chronology of Jesus' Life,
pp 372-433

(Detailed summary)

Can we arrive at a chronology of Jesus' life?

  • To situate Jesus in time, we have some points of reference. The four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Tacitus and Flavius Josephus agree to situate the ministry of Jesus while Pontius Pilate exercised his authority over Palestine. On the other hand, according to Flavius Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Philo of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea, Pilate reigned from 26 to 36 CE. Finally, according to Flavius Josephus and Luke, Jesus would have been executed before the end of this reign.

  • The Gospel of Luke (2: 1-2) gives us further points of reference by dating the beginning of Jesus' ministry: "The year fifteen of the government of Tiberius Caesar (between 26 and 29), Pontius Pilate (26-36) being governor of Judea, Herod (Antipas) (from 4 to 39) tetrarch of Galilee, Philip (4 to 33/34) his brother tetrarch of the land of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene under the priesthood of Hannah and Caiaphas (18-36)..." According to a first estimate Jesus would have been executed between 28 and 33.

  • As to the date of birth, Luke and Matthew agreed to place it towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great who died four years before the beginning of the Christian era. Moreover, this statement from the childhood accounts is confirmed by Luke 3: 23: "Jesus, at the beginning, was about thirty years old". If Jesus began his ministry between 27 and 29, we are sent back a few years before Herod's death in the year 4 BC. Other indications come to us from John, first 8: 57: "Then the Jews said to him, 'You are not even fifty years old and you have seen Abraham'" . The number fifty has here more symbolic value to say half a century, whereas Abraham has been dead for several centuries, but nevertheless it confirms the idea that Jesus is less than fifty years old. The other passage from John is 2: 20: "It took forty-six years to build this temple and you would raise it up in three days? "Unfortunately this passage is ambiguous: does it mean that the reconstruction was completed after 46 years of work, or that the reconstruction is still in progress after 46 years of work? According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the Temple of Jerusalem was restored by Herod the Great beginning in 20 or 19 BC. Unfortunately, the temple had two parts, the holy of holies and the whole building, and Josephus does not always specify which part he means. So we cannot rely on Jn 2: 20 to be more precise, but he nevertheless confirms Jesus' ministry around 27-30.

  • Let's try to be even more accurate by going back to Lk 2: 1-2 which states that the ministry of Jesus began in the 15th year of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius. According to the Roman historians Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dion, the emperor Tiberius began his reign in 14 CE. How do we now calculate the fifteenth year of this reign? This calculation varies according to whether one uses the Julian calendar, the Jewish calendar, the Syro-Macedonian calendar or the Egyptian calendar. But since Luke's audience is Greco-Roman, it is very likely that he uses the Julian calendar. So calculating the 15th year from the beginning of Tiberius' reign on August 18, 14 AD, we arrive at 28 AD for the beginning of Jesus' ministry.

  • Let's now try to calculate the exact date of Jesus' death. The difficulty is that the synoptic Gospels and the Gospel according to John disagree about the date of Jesus' last supper with his disciples. However, there is one point of agreement: Jesus' last supper took place on a Thursday evening, a time to prepare for the Jewish Sabbath which begins on Friday evening after sunset. Jesus would have been executed and put in the tomb on Friday. Saturday was the Sabbath rest day and on Sunday, the first day of the week, the women came to the tomb.

  • We do have a problem, however, when we try to place this Thursday and Friday in the Jewish calendar. According to this calendar (see Exodus 12), the Passover lamb was slaughtered in the temple of Jerusalem on the 14th of the month of Nisan (the first month of the year in spring), between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m., and then eaten when the sun went down, when the 15th of the month of Nisan began. Now, according to the synoptics, Jesus' last meal with his disciples was a Passover meal, so when the 15th of Nisan began: "On the first day of unleavened bread, on which the Passover was sacrificed, his disciples said to him, 'Where do you want us to go and make ready for you to eat the Passover?'" (Mk 14: 12) And so, according to the synoptics, Jesus would have died on Friday afternoon, the day of the Passover.

  • For John, however, Jesus' last supper on Thursday evening was not a Passover meal, since the Passover began 24 hours later, at sunset on Friday evening; for John, that year, the Passover and the Sabbath fell on the same day, i.e. from Friday evening to Saturday evening: "Those who brought him (to Caiaphas on Friday) did not enter the house, so that they might not be defiled and might eat the Passover (the next day)" (Jn 18: 28). So the synoptics say that Jesus ate the Jewish Passover with his disciples and was crucified on the same day of the Passover, while John affirms on the contrary that Jesus only had a farewell meal with his disciples and died the day before the Jewish Passover. Who is right? The biblical scholars have tried to reconcile the two versions by proposing two calendars (Pharisees vs. Sadducees, or solar vs. lunar). All these attempts do not hold water, because Jesus always appears as someone who conforms to the Jewish holidays and does not seem to follow the traditions of any sect. It is better to say: the synoptics and the Gospel of John are irreconcilable, and on this point it is probably John who is right.

  • Let's look at the reasons that favor John's point of view.

  • It is not totally impossible that Jesus died on Passover day as the synoptics state, but it is unlikely that events such as the arrest of Jesus, the convening of the Sanhedrin, the holding of a formal trial with witnesses, the decision to find him guilty and sentence him to death, and then handing him over to the pagan authorities with a request for execution to death, all took place on the same day, i.e. during the night and the early hours of the morning.

  • Secondly, the biblical scholars acknowledge that Mk 14: 12-26 ("On the first day of unleavened bread, when the Passover was sacrificed... " and Lk 22: 15-16 ("I longed so much to eat this Passover with you before I suffered") are later developments and are editorial, i.e. are the product of Christian reflection and do not come from an ancient tradition. And when we remove these two insertions, we no longer see any reference to a Passover meal in the detail of the narrative. John, on the other hand, devotes five chapters to Jesus' last supper and at no time can there be any reference to a Passover meal. And both words and gestures related to the Christian Eucharist are not part of any Jewish ritual.

  • Thirdly, the gesture of freeing Barabbas on Friday is only fully understood if it precedes the celebration of the Passover, for the purpose of freeing Jewish prisoners was to allow them to celebrate the Passover.

  • Fourtly, it will be noted that the room offered to Jesus by a benefactor for the meal includes only Jesus and his disciples, whereas this benefactor would normally have invited a crowd of people according to Jewish custom if it had been the Passover meal. In short, as John tells us, Jesus' last meal with his disciples is not a Passover meal, but a solemn farewell meal.

  • If John is right, that year the Jewish Passover and the Sabbath fell on the same day, from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Can astronomy help us determine the exact date? The problem comes from the Jewish calendar, which required two reliable witnesses to see the moon on the 29th day of the old month to determine the beginning of the new year. Also, we don't know exactly when the leap year fell. In any case, there are only two dates when Nisan 14 (the date Jesus died) falls on a Friday, April 7, 30 AD and April 3, 33 AD. It is more likely that Jesus died on April 7, 30, because an execution in 33 would mean that Jesus' ministry (which began in 28) would have to be extended for 5 years, which is implausible.

  • The question of the length of Jesus' ministry has been raised. Here again, the synoptics and the Gospel of John seem to contradict each other. When we read Mark, on whom Matthew and Luke depend, we have the impression that everything takes place in less than a year: Jesus preaches in Galilee and then goes to Jerusalem in Judea to celebrate the Passover, where he will die. But if we look more closely, we notice that nothing really requires everything to take place in a year. On the contrary, we can presuppose at least two springs, since Mark mentions the ears of corn that his disciples plucked (Mk 2: 33) and the green grass (Mk 6: 39) at the beginning of his Gospel, whereas we still find spring at the end of his Gospel to celebrate the Passover. Moreover, some passages in the synoptics presuppose that Jesus went more than once to Jerusalem or Judea: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem.... how many times have I sought to gather your children together... "(Mt 23: 37); and again: "And he preached in the synagogues of Judea" (Lk 4: 44).

  • As for the Gospel according to John, Jesus' ministry lasted two years and a few months. In fact, the feast of the Passover is mentioned three times: 1) at the beginning of his ministry, "The Passover of the Jews was near and Jesus went up to Jerusalem" (Jn 2: 13); 2) while Jesus was preaching in Galilee and preparing to feed the crowd, it is mentioned : "It was shortly before the Passover, which is the feast of the Jews" (Jn 6: 4); 3) and finally, this Passover where Jesus will go to Jerusalem to die: "Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany" (Jn 12: 1). Following this chronology of John where Jesus' ministry lasted two years and a few months, we can establish that this ministry began early in the year 28 and ended in April of the year 30.

Here is a possible chronological reconstruction of the main events in the life of Jesus.

Date Events
Around 7 or 6 BC Birth of Jesus in Nazareth
4 BC Death of Herod the Great
Around the end of 27 or beginning of 28 CE John the Baptist begins his ministry
At the beginning of year 28 CE (probably in the summer) Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. After the arrest and death of John the Baptist, Jesus continues his ministry alone. He is about 33 or 34 years old.
From year 28 to 30 CE Jesus continues his activities in Galilee and Judea, going to Jerusalem for the great feasts where he can preach to the great crowds of pilgrims.
Thursday, April 6, 30 CE, in the evening In Jerusalem for the feast of the Jewish Passover and sensing the growing hostility of the temple authorities, Jesus celebrated a farewell meal with his disciples on Thursday evening, just as the Jews were beginning preparations for the Passover.
Night of April 6 to 7, 30 CE Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, undergoes a first examination by certain Jewish authorities.
Friday morning, April 7, 30 CE Jesus is handed over to Pilate who quickly condemns him to death by crucifixion.
The day of April 7, 30 CE After suffering the lashes and mockery, he was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem on the day they killed the lamb in the temple on the Passover feast which was to begin after sunset. He is already dead when evening comes. He was about 36 years old.
  • Aside from these great landmarks, it is useless to look for a detailed chronology of Jesus' life, especially his two years of ministry, and an attempt at a biography is doomed to failure. Most Gospel accounts do not follow a precise sequence. Moreover, each evangelist has his own way of beginning the ministry of Jesus, and these ways are irreconcilable and reflect only their theological thesis. We are therefore faced with a mosaic whose only common thread is the growing hostility of the clergy in Jerusalem which will lead to the violent death of Jesus.

Next chapter: Did John the Baptist really exist and what do we know about him?

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