New College, University of Edinburgh
When did Jesus die?

When did Jesus die?

(Helen Bond) One of the many things that surprises me in historical Jesus research is the confidence with which a (growing number?) of scholars seem to set the death of Jesus on 7th April 30 CE (see for example Crossan and Borg’s popular study, The Last Week, SPCK, 2008). The calculation depends on astronomical data – determining the date at which Nisan 14/15 fell on a Friday – and is fraught with difficulties, not the least of which is working out when a full moon would have been visible in first century Palestine.

But there is a more serious difficulty. Scholars have long debated the relative merits of John’s dating (according to which Jesus was killed on the day of Preparation for the Passover) or Mark’s dating (according to which Jesus died on the day of Passover itself). A more likely scenario, it seems to me, and one which fits with Mk 14.2, is that Jesus was arrested and killed some days before the start of the feast, perhaps very soon after the incident in the Temple. It would be natural for Jesus’ followers to think of this as a death ‘at Passover’, and soon two competing traditions arose – one which saw Jesus metaphorically as the Passover lamb (and in the course of time moved his death to the day of Preparation, ie John’s account) and another which saw in the last supper a new Passover feast (and so moved his death to the day of Passover itself, ie Mark’s presentation). Both accounts embody theological truths, but neither are historically accurate.

It seems likely to me that Jesus did die on a Friday, and that the tomb was found the following Sunday (afterwards known for this reason as the ‘Lord’s day’). But that Friday may not have been either the day of Preparation or the Passover; more probably the feast was some time the following week. If this is the case, then astronomical calculations get us nowhere at all and Jesus may well have been executed any time between the late 20s CE (assuming some weight to Lk 3.1-2, 23) and 34 CE (Pauline chronology becomes difficult if Jesus died much later than this).

Sometimes it may be best to acknowledge that we know rather less about Jesus of Nazareth than we often care to admit.

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  • CSCO Team,
  • 24th October 2010

Comments

  • Steven Carr, 28th October 2010 at 9:14 am | Reply

    When was John the Baptist killed according to Josephus?

    I’ve read that ‘Herod Antipas married the wife of his brother Herod Philip after the death of this brother in 34 AD.’

    • Helen Bond, 28th October 2010 at 10:52 am | Reply

      Josephus’ reference to JnBap’s death is notoriously difficult to date as it occurs in a flashback relating to Antipas’ defeat by Aretas of Nabataea. Most scholars think that Herodias was married not to Herod Philip but another of Antipas’ half brothers named Herod. According to Josephus, Philip married Herodias’ daughter Salome (presumably the dancing girl of the gospels, though the texts don’t name her). Most would put JnBap’s death at late 20s, though clearly we can’t be certain.
      Best wishes,
      Helen

      • Steven Carr, 29th October 2010 at 8:52 am | Reply

        Luke 3:1 gives the start of the public ministry of John the Baptist.

        Was he killed almost at once?

  • Steven Carr, 28th October 2010 at 9:22 am | Reply

    ‘Both accounts embody theological truths, but neither are historically accurate.’

    So how do we know that a tomb was found on a Sunday?

    Bearing in mind that the accounts are not historically accurate?

    Does any person for 30 years after this discovery mention an empty tomb?

    If there was an empty tomb, why did Christians wait until after Mark’s Gospel was written to begin to defend themselves against charges of grave-robbing?

    Is it because the charges of grave robbing only appeared after the story of the empty tomb appeared?

    If Christians really had been hammered for 30 years by charges of stealing the body,why would ‘Mark’ innocently say the body was left lying around for followers of Jesus to access, if some men could be found to move the stone?

    That story was so embarrassing to Christians that Matthew had to change it to say that the tomb was guarded.

    So why did it take Christians over 30 years to think of saying that the tomb was guarded, as a defense against charges of grave-robbing, if there really had been an empty tomb and a missing body?

  • Steven Carr, 29th October 2010 at 9:02 am | Reply

    Paul refers to ‘the first day of the week’, and warns in Galatians 4:10 about people keeping certain days as ‘special’.

    Revelation refers to ‘The Lord’s Day’, but does not say it was the first day of the week.

    When did Sunday become generally known as ‘The Lord’s Day’?

  • Rich Griese, 2nd November 2010 at 3:40 am | Reply

    An additional problem is the industry itself. Since Religion, theology, and Divinity departments are set up to give the general public that their religious myths have some kind of historical foundation in truth, even academic promotes religious myths. So they generally ignore the real historical work that should be done in the study of Christian history.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  • Steven Carr, 8th November 2010 at 7:49 am | Reply

    I am also surprised at the number of scholars who claim to be able to date the birth of Jesus as 5 BC or 4 BC, even after they have just written that the birth stories in Luke and Matthew are fictions,created to have Jesus born in Bethlehem.

    Isn’t this like using the fictional stories of President Obama being born in Kenya as data to decide when Obama was born?

    • cscoedinburgh, 9th November 2010 at 12:54 pm | Reply

      Yes, I tend to agree with you. People set a great deal of store by Luke’s detailed dating in 3.1-2, and also the note in 3.23 that Jesus was about 30 years old at the start of his ministry. But since Luke has just dated Jesus’ birth, by way of the census, to 6CE, it does make you wonder how much reliance to set on his other dates.
      Best wishes,
      Helen

      • Steven Carr, 9th November 2010 at 3:27 pm | Reply

        The detailed dating is , of course, in reference to John the Baptist. Jesus is described merely as ‘about 30’.

        Perhaps Christians had forgotten the exact dates of when Jesus was born and started his ministry.

      • Rick Carpenter, 9th November 2010 at 5:33 pm | Reply

        I don’t know ANY Greek, but I’ve seen a reference that Dean Alford states in his Greek Testament that the Greek hosei “about” can imply a certain leeway afterward. i.e., “30+”. But I’ve not seen Alford’s work firsthand. I’ve also seen studies where certain scholars state that the Greek was mistranslated in that the census at Jesus’ birth was one before the infamous one of Quirinius in 6 CE. Though this supposed earlier census is not directly attested, other Roman censuses were taking place at/near the same time. It perhaps would not be an unusual procedure if the Romans officially thought that Herod’s problematic successions might lead to chaos. I believe that they already wanted Iudaea as a Roman province at that time, so why not call for a census then?

        Luke copying from multiple sources may not have recorded everything in perfectly nuanced Koine Greek. I guess I can allow him that. I concur with the scholars of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research that Luke came from Semitic sources.

  • Rick Carpenter, 9th November 2010 at 2:03 pm | Reply

    If 30 CE is being ‘pushed’ by some as Jesus’ death year, how does that (1) leave the timeline of Luke 3.1ff (15th year, etc), and (2) affect the calculated length of His ministry?

    Stephen Carr asked on Oct 29 if John the Baptist was killed very soon after his public ministry began. In my estimation, he had to have had some length of time to establish a set of followers who became loyal to him. Luke 7.18ff seems to be an attempt of John to transfer his disciples to Jesus rather than any sort of doubt on John’s part! Then of course, there is the account in Acts about the disciples of John — notice that they had become self-sustaining.

  • Rich Griese, 9th November 2010 at 4:48 pm | Reply

    I guess the question is what is the archeological evidence, and primary source material that we have that we have for a jesus character, and what is the archeological evidence, and primary source material we have for when he died?

    I think we are making a great deal of assumptions about a jesus character. A jesus character has not yet been domonstrated, to assign attributes like a death date to a jesus character is a mistake.

    for example, we can have all kinds of theories about how a large fat santa character actually get’s down chimney’s, and makes it around the world in one night to give toys to good boys and girls. But if we do not establish first that there actually is a santa claus, these attribute theories are based on nothing but speculation.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  • Rich Griese, 9th November 2010 at 5:50 pm | Reply

    re; Rick Carpenter said on When did Jesus die?

    Irenaeous one of the first and major church father believed that jesus lived well into his 50s.

    I think that we often simply jump to the story line that came from church dogma, and forget that that church dogma was created. Read Irenaeous _Against Heresies_, and do so with a pencil in had writing down the names of the “hesesies” (groups that irenaeous did not like), and you will find you get well over 30 different early christian groups. Many of them saying many greatly different things. The fact that over the years with the help of over 1000 years of legal authority, that we have distilled a story that we now think has some accuracy to history, is kind of childish. Considering, we have no archeological or primary source material for probably the first 200 years of christianity.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

    • larryhurtado, 12th November 2010 at 4:33 pm | Reply

      (Larry Hurtado): Actually, Irenaeus (Against Heresies, II. 22. 4-6) proposes (on the basis of GJohn 8:56-57) that Jesus lived “above 40 years”. But we have to note that Irenaeus here isn’t doing historiographical work, but is trying to refute those who were using number-symbolism to support their schemas. In this case, e.g., the 30 yrs of Jesus’ life as 30 aeons (heavenly emanations), in a gnostic system. Irenaeus wants to emphasize that Jesus really was a human being, and not a phantasm (AH II.22.6), and so really went through key life-stages that enable him to redeem infants, youths, adults, etc. In short, it’s all very homiletical, not historiographical.

      We do have to be modest about what we can know, what we can surmise, etc. But it’s taking things way beyond reasonable cognitive modesty to say that we have no basis for asserting that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure. We certainly do have “primary source material” from well within the first 200 yrs of Christianity, indeed from within the first 25 yrs (epistles of Paul). So, steady on.

      • Steven Carr, 12th November 2010 at 10:29 pm | Reply

        No Christian of the first century put his name to a document saying he had heard of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.

        Paul certainly doesn’t.

        We certainly have prima facie evidence of the existence of a Jesus, but then we also have prima facie evidence of the existence of Ned Ludd.

      • Steven Carr, 13th November 2010 at 6:24 am | Reply

        Well, if not 50, then almost 50.

        Iraeneus, Against Heresies, Book 2 Chapter 22
        ‘Now, such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period.’

        ‘He did not then want much of being fifty years old; and, in accordance with that fact, they said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” He did not therefore preach only for one year, nor did He suffer in the twelfth month of the year. For the period included between the thirtieth and the fiftieth year can never be regarded as one year, …’

        ‘Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information.’

        Why is Iraenus intending only homily and not history, when he backs up is claim by citing alleged eyewitness evidence?

      • Joseph Wallack, 15th November 2010 at 3:06 pm | Reply

        JW:
        Oh but it’s not just Irenaeus, it’s Irenaeus’ source here “John” that asserts Jesus was not thirtyIsh when he died/temporarily stopped living. I have an entire Thread at FRDB:

        http://www.freeratio.org/showthread.php?t=217485

        which demonstrates that “John” has exorcised Synoptic evidence for thirtyIsh and replaced it with fiftyIsh. My guess is you are right about the Motivation, the Gnostics, who saw Jesus as having a limited Self Life. Asserting that Jesus had a career and AGED was an orthodox reaction. If Jesus aged, he was human. At least partly. So I think you are right but for the wrong reason.

        Comically here, Irenaeus’ assertion that Jesus AGED is really the only Patristic personal detail about Jesus that has a claimed chain of witness to the Patristic. As a believer, why dismiss it so easily? Also, Irenaeus’ supposed credibility is probably the main reason to accept “Luke” as any kind of authority on Jesus anyway. You are turning Patristic testimony into a magical incantation that can incarnate whenever it supports your conclusion as authoritative oral tradition and just as easily disincarnate as only the opinion of men when you don’t like the conclusion.

        Joseph

  • Steven Carr, 12th November 2010 at 10:38 pm | Reply

    And there is certainly no evidence for the actual existence of Judas, Thomas,Lazarus, Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, Nicodemus, Joanna, Salome, Bartimaeus, Jairus, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene and virtually all the other cast of Gospel characters.

    These people vanished from history in the way that the Angel Moroni vanished.

    They only exist in unprovenanced, anonymous works which plagiarise each other and the Old Testament.

    • larryhurtado, 14th November 2010 at 6:48 pm | Reply

      Ah yes, Steven. The same allegations hurled from your pre-defined position yet again. First time on this site, I guess. But you’ve made them now, and are desperate not to have anything to consider against them. So, you’ve had your kick at the can, and I trust can now let it go. It would be tedious to rehearse the standard scholarly responses to your distorted characterization of the evidence. I and others have done it already.

      • Steven Carr, 14th November 2010 at 8:51 pm | Reply

        Why is it an ‘allegation’ to repeat a perfectly well established fact that no Christian in the first century ever put his name to any document saying he had ever heard of Judas, Lazarus, Thomas, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Simon of Cyrene, Barabbas, Jairus, Bartimaeus,Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Salome etc etc?

        The sheer number of people that are totally ummentioned by Christians writing to each other is not a ‘pre-defined position’, but a well established fact , and the sheer weight of numbers of Gospel characters missing from any Christian correspondence is a fact which is hard to explain except by noting that they only appear in anonymous, unprovenanced works.

        I have seen the ‘standard scholarly responses’.

        What I want to see is evidence that Judas (to take one name) existed, rather than ‘standard scholarly responses.’

        Could you give the name of one Christian who claimed to have seen Judas, for example,and the name of the work in which he claimed to have seen Judas, giving me the text reference of where that person is named?

        At present, Judas,Lazarus, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene Simon of Cyrene are as historical as the second gunman who shot JFK, or as historical as Nedd Ludd.

      • Steven Carr, 15th November 2010 at 11:32 am | Reply

        I did see your response on your web page, before you closed comments, that Paul was talking about Jews who had heard about Jesus.

        That was because Paul knew people had been sent to preach about Jesus.

        Or else Jews would not have heard about Jesus, and remained in ignorance.

        The fact remains that Paul takes it for granted that Jews were in ignorance about Jesus until people had been sent to preach about him.

        The standard scholarly response is to claim that many Jews knew about Jesus without having heard about him from missionaries.

        But, as Helen Bond, pointed out, there is so little history in the Gospels, that scholars are unable even to determine the year Jesus died.

  • larryhurtado, 15th November 2010 at 12:24 pm | Reply

    Dear oh dear. It’s really wearying to do so, Steven, as nothing suffices for your adamantine opinions. But for the sake of any others, the following (and final) response to your assertions. And then, as I’ve asked, let’s move on.
    –The Gospels mention all the characters you list, and they’re all first-century Christian texts. You ask for an affidavit signed by first-century Christians, but unfortunately we don’t have any such affidavit for most people from history. We don’t have such a first-century source claiming to know, inter alia, the apostle Paul. All we have are letters purporting to be from him. Damn, no good I guess.
    –My colleague, Helen Bond and most other scholars (myself included) are entirely ready to note the shortcomings of ancient reports. But such shortcomings don’t invalidate them entirely. Instead, critical scholarship involves the weighing of difficulties, comparison of various evidences, and then inferences set out for other scholars to assess.
    –You misconstrue Paul’s comment in Romans 10:14-15, if you take it to mean that no Jew had ever heard of Jesus. Read the context, Romans 9–11, which is all about the refusal of the main part of “Israel” to embrance the gospel. Rom 10:14-15 is about the proclamation of *the gospel about Jesus* (i.e., Jesus’ significance).
    –If, Steven, you have so little regard for historical scholarship, then desist from engaging on this (in your eyes) worthless site, and proclaim your settled views elsewhere where you will not have to contend with ignorant people like me. OK?

  • Rick Carpenter, 2nd May 2012 at 6:18 pm | Reply

    Maybe it’s not too late to re-wade into this conversation…

    Has anyone looked into the statements of Brent Kinman in “Pilate’s Assize and the Timing of Jesus’ Trial” (Tyndale Bulletin, 42(2), 1991) and used them to figure when Jesus’ death could and could not have occurred? Kinman asserts there were days (dies fasti) when legal and public business could be conducted and when it couldn’t (dies nefasti) and that in that time in the Land the Roman and Jewish dies nefasti were both honored. The rather hurried description of Jesus’ whole arrest-trial-execution seems to mesh with the dies fasti and dies nefasti limitations. He asserts that customary Roman assizes took place in the general timeframe of Jesus’ trial and that it was also Pilate’s habit to visit Jerusalem during festival times to keep any eye on things. Thus, circumstances point to me that Pilate was in Jerusalem _on official business_ when Jesus’ trial came to him. John 18.31b could reflect that at that particular moment when Pilate was in Jerusalem they could not carry out an execution, Kinman states that the Roman authority would take over several procedures while on assize. That couples with the later Jewish observance that a Sanhedrin that put to death anyone once within 70 years is a bloody Sanhedrin. And yes, Helen, I recall the statements in the blog about the historicity of the Sanhedrin in Jesus’ time, but avoidance of capital punishment was the official Jewish sentiment at that time (see Israel Drapkin, “Crime and Punishment in the Ancient World” (1989)). Drapkin asserts that Rome used native legal systems as much as possible, and would have used the supposed “Jewish trial” of Jesus as an inquest prior to a Roman trial. I’ll have to reread him to see if he mentions assizes.

    If any of the days excluded by traditional reckoning could be relied upon and combined with those Kinman states were excluded, we might have a slightly less murky picture of the times of the events immediately leading up to the Crucifixion.

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