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Placing the Cross in History

Biblical History

by Andreas J. Köstenberger on April 1, 2014; last featured December 14, 2014
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Can we know the exact date of Christ’s death? The Bible’s firsthand accounts give us plenty of historical details that narrow down when it fell within the Roman Empire’s tumultuous early days.

Christianity is a historical religion, and the events of Christ’s life did take place in human history alongside other known events.

When did Jesus die? Scholars continue to debate this important question. Admittedly, the Bible does not specify the precise date of Jesus’s crucifixion, and the date is not an essential salvation truth. At the same time, Christianity is a historical religion, and the events of Christ’s life did take place in human history alongside other known events. For this reason it is helpful to locate Jesus’s death—as precisely as the available evidence allows—within the larger context of human history.

Reference to the 15th Year of Tiberius in Luke

The events in Jesus’s ministry are firmly rooted in human history. Among the evangelists, no one makes this point more strongly than Luke. He provides several rather precise historical details that help us set the key dates of Jesus’s life.

In Luke 2:1, he writes that “in those days [that is, when Jesus was born] a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Augustus (ruled 31 BC–AD 14) presided over the Golden Age of Rome, an era of peace and prosperity. Upon his death, he was succeeded by Tiberius (AD 14–37).

In Luke 3:1–3, we read, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, . . . , while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” Later in the same chapter, Luke provides a brief account of John’s baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21–22) and states that “Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23).

In our efforts to reconstruct the most probable date of Jesus’s crucifixion, we are greatly indebted to Luke. In fact, it is hard to imagine a more thorough account of the historical setting of John the Baptist’s and Jesus’s ministries. Most helpful are Luke’s references to various Roman government officials, particularly Tiberius, because several Roman histories detail the lives and reigns of the various emperors. Through such reports, we learn that the Roman Senate confirmed Tiberius as Augustus’s successor on August 19, AD 14.

Implications from the Data Provided by Luke

Scholars have calculated “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” in a number of ways. Most likely, Tiberius’s reign was counted either from the day he took office in AD 14 or from January 1 of the following year, AD 15. The earliest possible date at which Tiberius’s “fifteenth year” began is August 19, AD 28, and the latest possible date at which his “fifteenth year” ended is December 31, AD 29.

So the most likely way to interpret the beginning date of John the Baptist’s ministry is anywhere between August 19, AD 28, and December 31, AD 29. If, as Luke’s account indicates, Jesus began his ministry not long after John, the earliest date would be in late AD 28, but sometime in the first half of the year AD 29 seems more likely because it appears that a few months elapsed between the beginning of John’s ministry and that of Jesus (and the year AD 30 is the latest possible date).

So we can estimate Jesus’s age when He began His ministry. If He was born in 6 or 5 BC, Jesus would have been anywhere between 32 and 35 years of age at the start of his ministry.1 This coheres with Luke’s statement that “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23). Note that Luke does not say Jesus was exactly thirty years old; “about” indicates his approximate age.

Luke’s reference to Tiberius’s fifteenth year is important because it provides a firm historical starting point for calculating the year of Jesus’s crucifixion. If Jesus’s ministry lasted for more than one year, this would seem to rule out AD 30 as a possible date for the crucifixion. John’s Gospel mentions that Jesus attended at least three Passovers, first in Jerusalem (John 2:13, 2:23), then in Galilee (John 6:4), and finally in Jerusalem at the time of His crucifixion (John 11:55; 12:1). In addition, Jesus may have attended one more Passover not recorded in John but in the other Gospels. If so, Jesus’s ministry lasted for about three years (if spanning four Passovers, about three and a half years). With the year AD 29 as the most likely starting point, this places the date of Jesus’s crucifixion in the year AD 33.

Crucifixion on the Day of Preparation for the Passover

Fast-forwarding to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion, John mentions that Jesus was crucified on “the day of Preparation” (John 19:31), that is, the Friday before the Sabbath of Passover week (Mark 15:42). The night before, on Thursday evening, Jesus ate a Passover meal with the twelve (Mark 14:12). In the Pharisaic-rabbinic calendar commonly used in Jesus’s day, Passover always falls on the fourteenth day of Nisan (Exodus 12:6), which begins Thursday after sundown and ends Friday at sundown. In the year AD 33, the most likely year of Jesus’s crucifixion, Nisan 14 fell on April 3, yielding April 3, AD 33, as the most likely date for the crucifixion.

Timeline of Jesus Crucifixion

Luke provides several rather precise historical details that help us set the key dates of Jesus's life. This enables us to determine a possible date for the Crucifixion.

Conclusion

The above calculations may appear complicated, but the argument is easier to follow in chart form (above).

While AD 33 is in the author’s judgment the most likely scenario, it should be acknowledged that many believe Jesus was crucified in the year AD 30. However, if the beginning of Tiberius’s reign is placed in the year AD 14, it is virtually impossible to accommodate fifteen years of Tiberius’s reign and three years of Jesus’s ministry between AD 14 and 30. For this reason, some have postulated a co-regency (joint rule) of Tiberius and Augustus during the last few years of Augustus’s reign. However, there is no reliable ancient historical evidence for such co-regency.

This author concludes that Jesus was most likely crucified on April 3, AD 33. While this is not a salvation truth and while other dates are possible, believers can take great assurance from the fact that the most important historical events in Jesus’s life, such as the Crucifixion, are firmly anchored in human history. The same is true for all of the Bible’s history, including creation and humanity’s rebellion in the Garden that brought death into the world and made Christ’s crucifixion necessary.

As we celebrate Easter, and as we walk with Jesus every day of the year, we can be confident that our faith is based not only on subjective personal assurance but on reliable historical data, which makes ours an eminently reasonable faith.

Dr. Andreas Köstenberger is senior research professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is the founder of Biblical Foundations (www.biblicalfoundations.org) and author of The Final Days of Jesus (with Justin Taylor, Crossway, 2014.)

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Footnotes

  1. This allows at least a few months to pass before Herod ordered the killing of Bethlehem’s infants under two years old. Many date Herod’s death to the spring of 4 BC.

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