Chronological Study of the Life of Christ

By Dennis McCallum


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Sections in this study:

A. The birth of Christ
B. The beginning of Christ's ministry
C. The duration of His Ministry
D. The date of Christ's death and passion week

The Birth of Christ

  1. Luke 2:1 mentions that Christ's birth was during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Augustus Caesar reigned from 44 BC to his death in 15 AD The method of measuring time in the ancient Roman world was based on the reigns of the Emperors. Thus the early Church fathers dated the birth of Christ according to the accepted method used by the Romans, Arriving at the following figures:

However all of these people are wrong - see Matthew 2:1

  1. Matthew 2:1 says that Christ's birth was in the time of King Herod the Great. We know about King Herod from the writings of the Jewish Historian Josephus, who wrote in the 70's AD. He states that Herod died 37 years from the time the Romans declared him King, and 34 years from the time he actually became King. Both these figures arrive at a date of 4 BC
  2. Shortly before the death of Herod, Josephus says there was an eclipse of the Moon. This is the only mention that Josephus makes of an eclipse in his entire volume of History (thus demonstrating that he was not fanciful about omens in this area like other historians of the period). Through astronomical calculations we find that a lunar eclipse occurred on Mar.12/13, 4 BC We also know that no lunar or solar eclipse occurred in either 3 or 2 BC
  3. Shortly after his death the Jewish Passover occurred (which in that year should have occurred on April 11, according to astronomical calculations). Therefore, Herod's death occurred between March 12 and April 11, in 4 BC Since Christ's birth occurred during his reign, it would must have occurred prior to the period from March 12 to April 11,4 BC
  4. Matthew 2:1 also states that, "certain Magi came from the East." Matthew 2:11 states that they came and saw the child. Matthew 2:16 notes that King Herod ordered all male children under two years of age be slain. Considering the paranoia and brutality that are known to have been a part of Herod's character, we can be sure that he had good reason to limit the killing to less than two years old. The time that the Magi arrived was prior to the death of Herod, possibly very shortly before his death. Thus Christ was probably born no earlier than 6 BC which would be 2 years prior to Herod's death (Note that Herod had ascertained from the Magi the time that the star appeared, and apparently based his decree upon this information.) This line of reasoning will not give us an exact date for the birth, it only shows that he was likely born later than 6 BC, and earlier than 4 BC.
  5. Luke 2:1,2-- At approximately this time a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken. We have no record of this census from secular Roman sources. However, there is indication from Egypt that a census was taken approximately every 14 years, and that a census had been taken shortly after 20 BC
  6. Likewise, Luke says that this census was during the time that Quirinius was governor of Syria. We have no record of where Quirinius was at this time, but prior to 6 BC we know that he was fighting a war in Macedonia. Thus we know that the census referred to had not taken place prior to 6 BC Further, we know that in the early AD years Quirinius was Governor of Syria, and during the years 6-3 BC he was somewhere "in the East," (a passing comment in Tacitus). Syria was, of course, considered an Eastern Province by the Romans. He could have very easily been Governor of Syria at this time, there being no evidence to the contrary.
  7. Justin Martyr and Tertullian say that this census can be verified in the archives in Rome. Even though these archives no longer exist, the fact that these contemporaries appealed to them suggests that they did exist at the time. In the 100's AD these men and others had access to this information and their writings could easily have been refuted if it were not so.
These considerations leave us with the following scenario:

Timeline showing possible range of Christ's birth

Jesus Christ's birth would not have taken place prior to 6 BC and no later than Spring of 4 BC which was the time of King Herod's death.

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The Beginning of Christ's Ministry

  1. Luke 3:1 states that John the Baptist began his ministry in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, who was the next Emperor after Augustus. Unfortunately, one can date the beginning of Tiberius's reign from 2 dates.

    1) the beginning of his co-regency, (when he and Augustus ruled together), which was 12/13 AD or

    2) from the date where he assumed total power on Augustus's death which was 15 AD

    Adding 15 years, we see two possibilities for the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry-- 26/27 AD starting from the co-regency or 29/30 AD starting from the year Tiberius began to rule alone.
  2. John 2:20 states that it had taken 46 years to build the Temple. The superstructure was started on the 1st of Nisan 19/18 BC 46 years hence brings us to 27 AD for an event that occurred during the first year of Christ's ministry. However, they did not start to build the Sanctuary, itself until 15/14 BC Adding 46 years, we arrive at 30/31 AD for the first year of Christ's ministry. Note that when adding across the transition from BC to AD (the so-called "zero year") we have to deduct one year from the sum in order to correct for the fact that there is no zero year. Likewise, if subtracting from a date AD, yielding a difference that is negative (BC), we have to add one year. Thus, we again have two possible dates for the beginning of Christ's ministry--either in AD 29 or AD 26.
  3. Luke 3:23 states that Jesus was "about 30 years" of age when He started His ministry. If He was born in 4 BC then according to the later time line above he would have been 33 years old at the time of the incident recorded in John 2 (remember to subtract 1 from the figure for crossing from BC to AD). Since the statement in Jn.2 was made prior to the Passover, probably in 30 AD, this indicates that He would have begun His ministry in the fall of 29 AD Since He could have been born as late as the early winter of 4 BC this would make Him 32 years old. Note Luke obviously didn't know His exact age. Otherwise he would not have used the word "about". Thus 32 is close enough to justify the use of the phrase "about 30 years of age". If the same calculation is made for the first time line, we arrive at 30 years for Christ's age at the beginning of his ministry. Thus, both theories are still possible.

Early and Late date scenarios for the ministry of Christ

Timeline showing two possible ranges for Christ's ministry

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The Duration of Christ's Ministry

There is an apparent discrepancy between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) and the Gospel of John.
  1. The Synoptic Record-- In the Synoptic Gospels there are very few statements about time in the life of Christ. There is a record of the last Passover (at which Christ was killed) and a mention of an earlier Spring recorded in all three Gospels: (Mt.12:1, Mk. 2:23, Luke 6:1). This last reference is the account of the disciples walking through the field and picking some grain to eat. In view of what we know about agriculture at that time, we know that this would have had to be in the Spring time. We know that they harvested at about the end of May, after planting in March or April. Since Passover also takes place in the Spring, we know that approximately 1 year (at least 10 months) had to pass between the reference to the Spring and the reference to the last Passover.
  2. The Johannine Record-- John makes it clear that the duration of His ministry would have to have been longer than 10 months. However, the chronology of the Gospel of John is hard to ascertain exactly. The following points should be noted:

Thus, John records Jesus ministering through 4 Passovers, or a total of 3 years. Since His ministry started prior to the first Passover, we have an additional portion which brings the total to approximately 3-1/2 years.

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The Death of Christ (Last Week)

  1. The Synoptic Gospels seem to say that Jesus and His disciples ate Passover together on the 14th Day of Nisan and that He was killed on the 15th Day of Nisan, a Friday. (Mk. 14:12 is a reference to the orders He gave His disciples to prepare the upper room for their Passover supper).
  2. John however disagrees with this chronology.

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