II. Delineating an Historical Window for the Passion
In response to the question, ‘when was Jesus born?’ most apologists answer ‘between 4 BC and AD 6 ’ That phrasing is specious, and should read ‘either/or’. Matthew’s answer (when referring to the gospels, I will personalize the author, though we haven’t the slightest idea who actually wrote them) is ‘6, 5 or 4 BC.’ Luke is certain the year was AD 6. Mark and John reply, ‘who cares?’
The Jesus-Hunters are content to accept these contradictory dates as a ‘ballpark figure’ and set about triangulating from other specified dates in the gospels to home in on the precise years of Jesus’ ministry and death.
John the Baptist
Luke says John the Baptist’s ministry began fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, or AD 28/29. Jesus begins his ministry either the day after his baptism (Luke, John), or sometime after the Baptist has been imprisoned (Mark, Matt). The historian Flavius Josephus tells us (assuming the relevant passage is not an interpolation) that John drew the ire of Herod for criticizing the king’s remarriage to his brother’s widow in late 34 or 35, and was executed in 36. Christian apologists regularly push this back to 30-31, without basis.
This gives a time frame of between AD 28 and 36 at its widest for the advent of Jesus’ ministry. Mark & Matthew narrow that window to between 34 and 36.
John has Jesus questioned, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and you want to raise it up in three days?” In the 18th year of his reign (20-19 BC), Herod the Great began a magnificent rebuilding of the temple, which continued right up to its razing by the Romans. This yields a AD 26 – 27 date for Jesus’ visit to the temple. John has Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of this ministry, the synoptics place it just before the Passion.
The Peshitta, or Syriac vulgate version of the bible, mentions that Jesus died during his 6th septennial, that is, between the ages of 35 and 42.
With a Lukan birth, this means Jesus would have died between the years AD 41 and 48. Following Matthew, the range would be AD 29 to 38.
The reference is worthless as corroborating evidence, as the author could simply have derived this age by tacking Luke’s “in his thirties” onto Matthew’s birth year.
The Passover Calendar
The synoptic gospels clearly indicate that Jesus celebrated Passover one (Hebrew) day before the sabbath. John contradicts himself, first describing the Last Supper as a Seder, then saying the crucifixion happened on “the preparation day of the Passover“. The mental gymnastics required to correlate the Jewish weekday with ours has led to widespread confusion, truckloads of special pleading, and accusations by biblical literalists that the Jews have misread their own calendar of six millennia. Even Pope Benno (or his ghost writer) makes a complete arse of himself trying to sort it out.
The first day of Passover, or Pesach I, always coincides with the 15th day of the Jewish lunar month of Nisan. The lamb is prepared for slaughter during the day of Nisan 14, and the Seder meal is held after sunset, that is, at the start of the next day. Let’s dispense with modern day names to construct an abbreviated Passion timeline:
* Sunset — Nisan 15 / Pesach I / Day before Shabbat begins
— Passover meal (“Last Supper”)
— Jesus arrested
— Sanhedrin trial
— Jesus before Pilate
— Jesus crucified
— Jesus buried
* Sunset — Nisan 16 / Pesach II / Shabbat begins
— No activity
— No activity
* Sunset — Nisan 17 / Pesach III / “First Day”, day after Shabbat
— No activity
— Spices purchased
— Empty tomb discovered
We need only consult lunar charts, then correlate between the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars to produce a list of years when Shabbat fell on Nisan 16. That’s easier said than done, but it has been attempted in the past, with results posted on the internet. Unfortunately, the researchers confuse themselves by talking about Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The entire endeavor is made nearly hopeless by the Hebrew practices of calculating the new year by the sprouting of barley in Israel, moving the start of a month up a day if the sky was too cloudy to observe the crescent moon, and inserting entire ‘leap months’ whenever their calendar got too out-of-whack with the seasons. If any doubt remained, a feast was observed two days in a row. These adjustments were made on an ad hoc basis depending on local conditions.
For what it’s worth, proposed matches for the synoptic gospels include AD 27, 30, 34, and 36, the last widely disputed. John’s timeline matches the years AD 30 and 33. Investigation has been limited to the span of Pilate’s rule.
The Essene Calendar
Some apologists believe they’ve discovered a way to reconcile John’s Passover with the synoptics. The Essenes, who followed a separate calendar, squabbled with the other sects over the marking of holy days. The two often varied by several weeks, but in 30, the Essene Passover fell a day before that of the Pharisee/Sadducee feast.
Assuming Jesus was an Essene (and many do), he could have celebrated the Seder with his brethren, then the next day offered himself to the Sadducees and Pharisees as the sacrificial lamb of their Passover.
Pilate ruled Judea from 26 until 36, when he was recalled for trampling local sensibilities and dispensing justice too harsh even for the standards of the age.
Both Josephus and Philo depict Pilate as “inflexible, stubborn and cruel”, whose preferred method of crowd control was to intersperse among the people soldiers in civilian garb, armed with cudgels, who, at a given signal, would begin pummeling at random and spark a stampede. Hardly the type to bend over backwards to appease the throng gathered for Passover.
The release of prisoners on Passover is unequivocally not part of the Hebrew tradition. The Barabbas tale does bear striking resemblance to the real Hebrew ritual of the scapegoat, as well as the Greek Pharmakos. As such, the pericope serves double duty as exoneration of Rome for Jesus’ death, and allegory of sacrifice to remove sins and tribulations.
Barabbas (whose full name in early manuscripts is “Jesus Son of the Father [bar abba]”) is described as “a man in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.” What uprising? The last recorded uprising was Judas the Galilean’s tax revolt in AD 6. Had Barabbas been languishing in prison for thirty years? Luke amends Barabbas’ crime to “for insurrection in the city.” There had been a recent insurrection in the city — Jesus’ occupation of the Temple the week before! Was Barabbas a follower of Jesus gone bad? Moving past the orthodox time frame, we encounter several revolts — in AD 46, 59, 66, 114 and 132 — each with a messianic leader with résumés similar to our man Jesus. If this sounds absurd, note that all of these predate the first written gospels.
Pilate reportedly crucified 3,000 people during his tenure, including 500 in one day. As Jesus was a common name, Pilate assuredly crucified several. If our man was among them, we’ll never know for certain, as nothing outside of the NT links Pilate to him. We must also entertain the possibility that the original protagonist of the story has been bifurcated into Jesus and Barabbas.
Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin
Caiaphas’ tenure as high priest, running from AD 18 to 36/37 (per Josephus), imposes no constraints on the orthodox time frame.
Considerable disagreement exists between Jewish historians and biblical scholars as the role of the Sanhedrin during the Second Temple Era. Christian apologists are quick to point out an obscure reference in the Jerusalem version of the Talmud, implying that the Sanhedrin voluntarily gave up trying capital cases beginning in AD 30. This, they reason, explains the mystery of why the priests, although “they condemned him as worthy of death“, had to turn Jesus over to the Romans for execution. (John elaborates, “we have no right to execute anyone.“) Jewish scholars note a conflicting mishnah that states capital cases were not abandoned until after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.
Josephus mentions the high priest running afoul of the Romans in AD 15 for conducting executions that had been proscribed. It’s unclear whether all executions or just certain types had been banned, whether the edict was temporary or permanent, or if just this high priest was affected. Far from being confirmation, the reference in Josephus may well be the source material for a 2nd Century embellishment.
The Talmud records thousands of trials that took place over centuries, but not a single mention of our man Jesus’ trial.
Mark displays a certain familiarity with Sanhedrin protocol (at least as they stood when first written down c. AD 200). The priests do not “come to a decision” until daybreak. Capital cases before the Sanhedrin could not be tried at night, and if deliberation went past sundown, a verdict could not be delivered until the morning. The priests are vexed by contradicting testimony: “many testify falsely, but their statements do not agree.” If two witnesses contradicted each other, the Sanhedrin was required to throw out both testimonies. The accused’s testimony in his own defense had to be weighed equally with that of others. When Jesus admits to claiming divinity, the high priest says, “why do we need any more testimony?”
The most that can be said of these details is they are not inconsistent with the time frame. Still, all were accessible from extant sources other than a putative, pre-Markan gospel tradition. They no more confirm the existence of an historical Jesus than do authentic details consistent with the Battle of Chancellorsville found in The Red Badge of Courage confirm the existence of an historical Henry Fleming.
Mark tells us, when Jesus was on the cross “darkness came over the whole land“, leading many bible enthusiasts to scour the astronomical charts for solar ellipses. Passover always begins at the full moon, when solar eclipses are impossible.
Four secular works of antiquity are cited as outside evidence for the existence of Jesus; Josephus’ Antiquities (c. 100), Tacitus’ Annals (c. 110), Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars (c. 119), and Pliny the Younger’s letters (110-112). Each of these works is known to us only through 4th to 15th Century manuscripts copied by Christian scribes from earlier, lost versions. Each of the relevant passages bear the marks of heavy interpolation or outright forgery – anachronisms, stylistic inconsistencies, etc. Even assuming the minimum of tampering, the most that can be ascertained is:
- Pilate executed someone named Jesus;
- In Judea, there was once a man named James who had a brother named Jesus;
- Sometime after when Jesus is assumed to have lived, there were people who worshipped him.
Or more precisely, there existed “followers of Chrestus”, whose worship consisted of communal meals held underground, an utterly unremarkable practice for the era. ‘Chrestus’, meaning “the good” or “useful”, was a common name among slaves and plebeians, as well as an honorific bestowed on popular leaders and deities alike.
More striking is the silence of contempary observers: Aelius Aristides, Appian, Appolonius, Arrian, Damis, Epictetus, Justis, Lucan, Numenius, Pausanias, Philo, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Seneca.
Add It Up
Our window for dating an historical yet gospel-compatible Passion is firmly delineated on the one end by the Baptist’s imprisonment — late 34 at the earliest, early 36 at the latest, 35 most probable — and on the other by Pilate’s recall, likely in late in 36. The gospels never specifically state how many years Jesus was active, though most people assume one year. John mentions three separate Passover feasts, requiring no less than 25 months, which just barely fits into the widest possible stretching of the time frame.
The synoptic Passover dating matches 34 and possibly 36. John’s Passover dating falls outside the window, as does the Essene calendar theory. Again, dating the Passion via the Hebrew lunar calendar is crippled by such inexactitude as to be essentially pointless.
Per Matthew’s nativity, Jesus would have been 40 to 42 years old in AD 36. Luke’s nativity makes Jesus “about thirty” — just as Luke says! The apparent corroboration is worthless. Luke lifts over two dozen passages nearly verbatim from the works of Josephus, which also give the dates for Pilate’s governorship and the Quirinius census. All Luke had to do was count on his fingers then write down the number derived from his assumptions. In any case, the phrase can also be translated as “in his thirties.” John is even more vague, describing Jesus as “not yet fifty years old.”
The 34-36 window does not accommodate a visit to the Temple in 26-27 per John, which also predates The Baptist’s ministry per Luke.
The Peshitta-Matthew link can coexist with a AD 36 crucifixion; Peshitta-Luke cannot.
Accepting the highly-dubious historical mentions, one can only infer sometime prior to:
The year 36 emerges as the only plausible fit, and only if one discards parts of each synoptic, and most of John, as false. The popular date of 33 for the Passion is based on three assumptions: 1) that Jesus was born in AD 1; 2) that he was “about thirty” (Luke) when he began preaching; 3) his ministry lasted three years (John.) The fatal flaws of this formula are apparent, yet it is amazing how often devout Christians, after reviewing the materials outlined above, still arrive at 33 as the year of the Passion!
The only real conclusion that can be drawn from all these convoluted calculations is one already apparent to the astute observer: the canon contains serious contradictions, not only among the four gospels but also within each gospel, and is effectively useless as a dating tool.
(Up next — The Reversed Timeline. View Part I.)
(c) 2013 by Matt Cavanaugh. All rights reserved.