Chronological Study of the Life of Christ

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Author: 
Dennis McCallum

The Birth of Christ

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:

  • Irenius: states that it was in the 41st year of Augustus's reign, which would place it at 4/3 BC depending on how you date the beginning of Augustus's reign.
  • Clement of Alexandria: dates it Nov. 18, 3 BC
  • Tertullian: 3/2 BC
  • Julius Africanus: 3/2 BC
  • Eusebius of Caesarea: 3/2 BC
  • Hypolotus of Rome: 3/2
  • Epiphanius: 3/2 BC

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.


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


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:
    • In John 2:13,23 John mentions a Passover which occurred not long after the beginning of Christ's ministry. (Passover is in April).
    • In John 4:35 Christ makes the comment that it would be yet four months until the harvest. The harvest takes place in the months of April or May. Four months prior would be January or February. Thus, between the mention of the lst Passover (John 2:13) which is in April, and the time mentioned here, almost 1 year has passed.
    • John 5:1 refers to another feast. This is often called the unnamed Feast. Many good manuscripts including the Codex Sinaiticus read this as the Feast of the Jews (i.e. Passover). There were 6 Feasts in the Jewish year:
      • Passover which takes place on the 14th of Nisan,(April or May, Ex. 12:6)
      • The Feast of the Weeks, or Pentecost fifty days later (Lev. 23:16, Dt.16:10)
      • The Day of Atonement, which is in the fall (Sept. Oct. Lev. 23:27)
      • The Feast of the Tabernacle (Booths), which is just a few days after the Day of Atonement (Lev.23:34)
      • The Feast of Dedication, which occurs in the month of Kislew (Nov.-Dec. see IMaccabees 4:47-59)
      • The Feast of Purim in the month of Adar (Feb. or Mar. Ester)
    • It seems most likely that this feast was Passover, or possibly, the feast of weeks, which is rarely referred to as "the feast".
    • John 6:4 refers to another Passover, the 3rd Passover mentioned by John. By now 2+ years have passed since the beginning of Christ's ministry.
    • John 7:2 is the Feast of the Tabernacles which occurs in the Fall.
    • John 10:22 mentions the Feast of Dedication which is in Winter.
    • John 11:55 The Final Passover.

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.


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.
    • John 19:42 states that it was the "Day of Preparation" at the 6th Hour (i.e. Noon) when Jesus was crucified.
    • John 18:28 states that it was during the early morning hours on Friday that Jesus was led into the Governor's official residence. He says that the Jews would not enter the house so that they would not be defiled for the Passover Supper, which they had not eaten yet.
    • John 19:31 further states that because it was the Day of Preparation, the Jews wanted to break their victim's legs, hastening their deaths so that they would not defile the Sabbath (the Jewish Sabbath goes from Friday sun-down to Saturday sun-down). This again shows that they were crucified on a Friday.
    • John also says, in this same verse, that that Sabbath was also a "High Day." This may mean that this Sabbath Supper was also the Passover Supper. If so, Jesus could not have eaten Passover because the Passover Lamb could only be killed in the Temple, and the Priests didn't start the ritual killing of the Lambs until Friday, well after Jesus had been taken into custody.
    • Thus Matthew, Mark, and Luke say that Jesus ate Passover on the 14th of Nisan and died on Friday, the 15th of Nisan -- prior to the start of the Sabbath which would have been Friday evening.
    • John agrees that He died on a Friday, but seems to say that Passover would be eaten Friday evening, rather than Thursday. The problem is resolved by the fact that there were two systems in existence at that time for dating days:
      • The ancient dating method which measured a day from morning to morning,
      • The official dating method which measured a day from evening to evening.
      The need for keeping this dual system had arisen because thousands of people would come to Jerusalem to have their lambs ritually slain in the Temple. If they only had one day in which to prepare for the Passover, it would have been extremely difficult to have slaughtered all the lambs brought in to be sacrificed. Therefore, they worked on two different time scales. The Northern part of the country went with the old way of dating (starting from morning and going to the following morning). The Southern part of the country followed the official dating method (from evening to evening). Thus, there were two times when lambs were being killed in the Temple for sacrifice.

      With two calendars in use, it was possible to spread the slaughter procedure over two days. The Galilean worshippers had their lamb killed on Thursday, while the Judeans had theirs killed on Friday. In both cases, the worshippers were eating their lamb on the same evening that it was killed. Thus, the Judeans were technically eating their lamb on Saturday, even though it was only sun-down on Friday by our reckoning.

      Jesus, who was a Galilean, worked off of the old dating system, and ate Passover Supper on the 14th of Nisan (which for Him was on Thursday). This fact is reflected in the synoptic Gospels. At the same time, according to the official method of dating, He was actually killed on the 14th of Nisan--a fact that is brought out in John. This fact is significant, because the corporate sacrifice of a burnt offering for the whole nation was done at 3 p.m. the day of Passover according to the official reckoning. This means that at the very time that Jesus cried out "tetelestai" on the cross, the priest's knife slew the Pascal lamb! (see Jn.1:29 & I Cor.5:7)
    • Since we have been able to determine that Christ died on Friday, the 14th of Nisan, we can now turn to solunar tables to determine which year(s) we would find the 14th of Nisan falling on a Friday. Remember, Jewish months are not reckoned by the Earth's rotation around the Sun, but by the Moon's rotation around the Earth. We find that the 14th Of Nisan would fall on a Friday in the years 30 and 33 AD In the year 31 AD, Passover was on a Tuesday, and in 32 AD, it was on a Monday. Thus, we find that the death of Christ must have fallen on the 14th of Nisan in either 30 or 33 AD.
    • In order to determine which date is the correct one we turn to Daniel 9:25 ff. According to this prophecy, the Messiah should be expected in the year 33 AD Since either 30 or 33 are permissible, we would prefer the 33 date.
    • There is one other piece of data that favors the date of 33 AD This line of reasoning involves the attempted coup that was thwarted at about this time in Rome. The would-be rebel was named Sejanus. He was trying to gradually overthrow the emperor Tiberius. In the midst of his machinations, his plot came to light. Tiberius arrested Sejanus and had him executed. There followed an extremely bloody purge lasting about 2 years, where suspected co-conspirators were tracked down all over the empire and executed. During this period, anyone who was an appointee of Sejanus' was in great danger. One such appointee was Pontius Pilate! Perhaps this explains why the Jewish mob was able to intimidate Pilate into killing Christ with the threat, "If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar!"(Jn.19:12) Historians have for a long time pointed out that this story of Pilate backing down before a Jewish crowd is completely out of harmony with the other descriptions we have of Pilot as a ruthless, brutal, anti-Semitic tyrant. If, however, this incident occurred during the purge of Sejanus' appointees, it is very likely that blackmail of this kind would have been effective.
    • In conclusion, the Gospels contain a chronological record that is consistent with itself, and the known facts of history.