October 23, 2017

How Old Was Jesus When He Died – And Does It Matter?

cross iconSome matters are not straight forward as they might originally seem. For all we know about Jesus, there is a lot we do not know. The Bible, for example, tells a grand total of one story about his childhood. Jesus’ age at his death is not known with any great certainty, and there is much conflicting information, both Biblical and Historical which makes this difficult to determine. As we have just finished Easter, I thought it would be a good time to discuss these difficulties, and why they may or may not matter. (Some of this material comes from an earlier post I did at EclecticChristian.)

Issue #1. How old was Jesus when he died?

Traditionally, Jesus is said to be about thirty three years old when he died. This date is calculated by beginning with the statement in the Gospel of Luke that states that Jesus “was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.” (Luke 3:23) John’s Gospel mentions three Passovers, so the assumption is that he was about 33 when he died. This is the most direct evidence that we have, so it is the dating that is most commonly accepted and used.

However, we do have another early source for Jesus’ age. The Church Father Irenaeus claimed that Christ was about fifty when he died (Against Heresies II 22:5). His primary argument was that this information has been passed down to him by way of John and the other apostles. We should point out that Irenaeus is a very credible source, a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of the |Apostle John. As such, he is only one generation removed from direct contact with the apostles. Irenaeus was a church bishop who penned this information in his books “Against Heresies” sometime between the years 182 A.D. and 188 A.D. At the time he would have been in his sixties.

So why does this inconsistency occur.  Well it probably started with conflicting information about when Jesus was born.

Issue #2.  When was Jesus born?

6 A.D..  Luke tells us that it occurred during the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Luke 2:2)  According to Josephus( Antiquities 17.355 & 18.1–2) Quirinius was governor of Syria 6-7 A.D.and conducted a census in 6. A.D. (which Luke is aware of and mentions in Acts 5:37).

Prior to 4 B.C., likely around 7 B.C. and possible as early as 9 B.C. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great (Matthew 2).  Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.   Herod ordered the killing of all boys under the age of two. (The Magi would have taken a while to arrive.)  As some time had to pass between Jesus birth and Herod’s command, and some time had to pass between  Herod’s command and Herod’s death,  we can likely date Jesus’ birth to at least two years before Herod’s death.  Tertullian tells us that then census at the time of Jesus birth had been taken by Gaius Sentius Saturninus (not Quirinius).    Saturninus ruled from 9-6 B.C. This information fits with the Matthew passage.

An initial resolution of Conflict #1 and #2.  Luke is not certain of Jesus’ age.  This is clear by his use of the word “about”.  Luke we have to remember is not a direct eye witness.  If he is basing Jesus’ age on the incorrect census, then he would be underestimating Jesus’ age by about 12 years.  This would help to resolve much of the discrepancy between the calculations based on Luke’s Gospel and Irenaeus.  Much, but not all, for there is still much more conflicting information.

Issue #3.  The dating of the ministry of John the Baptist.

We do have some fairly precise dating for the start of the ministry of John the Baptist.  Luke does not give us a calendar date but tells us that John began his ministry in the desert during the reigns of several individuals and at the time of two high priests.

Luke 3:1-2 “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.”

Tiberius Caesar started his rule in 14 A.D. which meant that John started his ministry about 29 A.D.  This date fits with the dates that we know for the others mentioned in this passage.

The conflict comes when we look at when John the Baptist was beheaded? We know that John was imprisoned by Herod Antipas (also known as the Tetrarch) for criticizing Herod for marrying the wife of his brother.   Herod was already married to Phasaelis, the daughter of Aretas IV Philopatris King of the Nabataeans. So Aretas didn’t like what Herod was doing either and so waged war against Herod, defeating him in A.D. 36.   The Jewish historian Josephus noted that many Jews thought that the defeat of Herod Antipas by Aretas was as a result of “a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him” for killing John the Baptist. (Antiquities 18 5:2)

Here is where the numbers start to get a little tricky.  Pontius Pilate, who presided over the trial of Jesus, is sent to Rome in early 37 A.D. to answer to charges that put down viciously put down a Samaritan protest.  He arrives just after Tiberius dies in March of 37 of A.D. (Antiquities 18 4:2)

We know from counting Passovers that Jesus’ ministry continues for at least a year and possibly two after the beheading of John the Baptist.  Because of the dates of Pontius Pilate, the latest that Jesus’ crucifixion can occur is 36 A.D.    This would place the end of John’s ministry in A.D. 34/35To try and move the date of Jesus crucifixion much earlier would cause issues with the dating of John’s ministry.

This of course gives John a public ministry of 5-6 years, longer that what one would assume from reading the scriptures, but not in any way in conflict with it.

We know that Jesus’ ministry had begun roughly a year before the death of John the Baptist (again using Passovers as a dating method.) Let us assume then, that Jesus’ ministry began in A.D. 33/34. This would fit with what Luke believed, as he thought that Jesus was born in 6 A.D and would make Jesus “about 30”. If Matthew is correct, Jesus is much older, possibly 40-43 years old when he begins his ministry, and 43-46 years old when he is crucified. Hmm.  Starts to look a little more like Irenaeus’ statement.

Issue #4.  Paul’s ministry.

I have seen some pretty varying dates for the start of Paul’s ministry. Typically it is dated between 33 A.D. and 36 A.D.  These dates assume an earlier crucifixion of Jesus and so conflict with a possible later date for the crucifixion.  There is however direct evidence in Paul’s writing that dates his conversion to 37-40 A.D. Not long after Paul’s conversion, as recorded in  Acts 9, he escapes from Damascus by being let down the outside wall in a basket.  2 Corinthians 11:32-33 states that this happened during the rule of King Aretas.  Aretas was given Damascus as a settlement by Caligula around 37 A.D.  He died in 40 A.D.  Using this later date for Paul’s conversion resolves any conflict with a later date for Jesus’ crucifixion.

Issue #5.  Other verses to consider.

Note what the crowd said to Jesus in John 8:57.

“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him

The early church father, Irenaeus, was the first to point out that you don’t call someone nearly fifty when they are only in their thirties.

There is one other interesting verse that “possibly” speaks of an older age of Jesus. The Apostle John records the following conversation:

The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days? But he was speaking about the temple of his body.

The temple began its reconstruction in 19 or 20 B.C. Add 46 years to that date and it takes you to A.D. 26 or 27. These dates don’t make sense, because we know that John the Baptist only began his ministry in A.D. 29. This could mean one of two things. Firstly either Jesus had a ministry that lasted 10 years which began in relative anonymity two to three years before John the Baptist, or the other option that some have suggested is that the conversation was misunderstood, and the 46 years is in fact a reference to Jesus’ age at the time. While John has this conversation at the beginning of his Gospel, in the other Gospel’s Jesus does not talk about his death until just before his final days.

So what does it matter?

Thirty-three or forty-three or forty-six of fifty? Does it matter? It doesn’t really. How old Jesus was is not really that important. None of the creeds express it, no theology is built upon it, no one is going to burn you at the stake for having a view that differs from the norm. However, the fact that there is so much written about Jesus is important. He was a historical figure. He lived, he died, and many witnesses saw him alive after his resurrection. His life, his death, his resurrection all leave us with a choice. A choice to choose to follow, trust, and appropriate his death as a penalty paid for our own wrongdoings, or a choice to do nothing, to continue on as if Jesus Christ doesn’t really matter.

His age. It doesn’t really matter. In the end it is just a bit of interesting speculation. But all the information that was written about him shows that Jesus was not, and is not, some type of fictional character. His claim to be the Son of God, demands a response, and that response has eternal consequences.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Comments

  1. Robert F says:

    “However, the fact that there is so much written about Jesus is important. He was a historical figure. He lived, he died, and many witnesses saw him alive after his resurrection. ”

    And yet there has been a new, and growing, crop of those who deny, not only that Jesus is who the Church proclaims him to be, but also that he ever existed as a historical figure. His precise age does not make much of a difference; whether or not he actually existed does.

  2. How old Jesus was when he died is critically important as it will validate Harold Camping’s predictions. Or maybe not.

  3. His age. It doesn’t really matter. In the end it is just a bit of interesting speculation. But all the information that was written about him shows that Jesus was not, and is not, some type of fictional character. His claim to be the Son of God, demands a response, and that response has eternal consequences.

    I’m not sure it doesn’t matter. Maybe his age at death doesn’t matter, but all of the discrepancies about the dating of the events and the length of his ministry, etc., raise questions of credibility about the source documents, in this case the Gospels. For documents that are claimed to have been written by or recollected by eyewitnesses, or that were compiled from the testimony of eyewitnesses, these wide discrepancies so soon after the supposed events took place raise questions about their accuracy and factuality. Couple these with the irreconcilable discrepancies between the resurrection accounts and the theological editorializing and editing of the Gospels and you now have even more reasons to wonder how much of the Gospels is fact and how much is fiction or erroneous.

    • This is why I don’t like the word inerrancy.

      The Western mind tends to focus on dates and times when telling history. The Eastern mind was much more interested in the meaning behind the story. We have the same issue when dealing with the Genesis accounts.

      I have attended churches in Africa, and in North America. Even today the different approaches to time is amazingly different. Here in North America Church starts on the dot, and the Pastor better not go past noon. In Africa, we started when just about everyone was there, and we finished when everyone was done. I was at one memorial service that went 6 hours!

      • Richard Hershberger says:

        “Inerrancy” is a wonderfully vague word. If I am asked if I believe in Biblical inerrancy, I can adjust my answer to the circumstances without being unthruthful. There certainly are senses of “Biblical inerrancy” that I believe in. If I don’t wish to have an extended discussion, I can simply answer “yes.” That I strongly suspect that the sense of “Biblical inerrancy” I used to arrive at that answer differs from how my questioner understands it is beside the point. If I am open to a long discussion, I can ask my questioner to clarify what he means, both by “inerrant” and “Bible.” In practice, however, this longer discussion is unlikely to be productive and amounts to messing with the guy’s head. I enjoyed this sort of thing more in my snot-nosed youth than I do today.

        In the question of Jesus’s age, if the Biblical texts are vague or inconsistent, this is because it isn’t important. In unimportant matters such as this, the Biblical texts act like any other text. This is only a problem if one believes that the Evangelists were taking down dictation as the Holy Spirit whispered in their ears, with the Holy Spirit strangely unable to keep his story straight.

        Viewed in this light, complete consistency would be mighty suspect. Look at eyewitness testimony of some event. Different eyewitnesses will routinely give varying accounts, often widely varying. This isn’t because any of them are necessarily lying: different perspectives and unexamined assumptions and vagaries of memory are ample explanation without bringing deliberate deceit into it. If the witnesses give consistent accounts, it is a good bet that they have gotten together and collectively arrived at an agreed narrative. This need not be malicious, or even conscious. Sit down to dinner and discuss the day’s events with the family and you will do the same thing. This is how human communities work. The point is that consistency between eyewitnesses is not evidence of higher credibility, as there is no particular reason the consensus version should be accurate, and it is a very good bet that it is different from what the eyewitnesses would have said independently.

        • ““Inerrancy” is a wonderfully vague word.”

          I used to take that approach. Not anymore. Inerrancy is only a wonderfully vague word to Evangelicals. To others it has a singular meaning. “Without Error”

          To the evangelicals, outsiders would quote something along one of the lines from Princess Bride:

          Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.

          Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

          • The more I read the Bible and the more I read articles like this, the less assured I become of the Bible’s [verbal] plenary inspiration and certainly its so-called “inerrancy,” as well as the intellectual rigor or honesty of those who formally assert those things for the Bible. I suspect I need to stop calling myself an Evangelical (and I have been using the term loosely for quite some time).

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Because it’s not that far a stretch between Verbal Plenary Inspiration and word-for-word Automatic Writing. And it’s not that far a stretch between “Inerrancy” and It-Is-Written Party Line duckspeak.

      • I’m not so sure it’s an East/West thing; probably more along the lines of ancient/modern, in that history as it’s studied and taught today is a fairly recent development, as these things go.

        You might check out some books (like The Idea of History, am blanking on the author’s name @ the moment). Also keep in mind that archaeology and the idea of precise dating is a *very* new thing, starting in the mid19th c. There were plenty of ruins for people to look at (as in Rome), but the significance attached to them prior to the rise of scientific study of sites, artifacts and digs was vastly different prior to the advent of ideas and techniques that we now take for granted. (Am not an archaeologist, but trained as a historian in grad school, for whatever that’s worth – it was a good while ago!)

        • Also goes for scientific textual analysis, whether of linguistics etc. or actual physical tests of papyrus, paper, inks and more.

          I don’t think it’s at all easy to try and put ourselves into a frame of reference that altogether ignores scientific study and textual analysis in favor of simply reading the text as it might have been read in times prior to our own.

        • P.S.: The Idea of History is by R.G. Collingwood. It’s a very important book for anyone who is trying to study history – one of the main focuses is on the concept of history itself, and how that (and the study of history/attitudes toward history) developed from Herodotus through the mid-20th c.

    • David Cornwell says:

      I agree with Michael Bell about the “Western mind.” I hesitate to get into this at all. But here goes anyway…

      EricW writes

      “For documents that are claimed to have been written by or recollected by eyewitnesses, or that were compiled from the testimony of eyewitnesses, these wide discrepancies so soon after the supposed events took place raise questions about their accuracy and factuality. Couple these with the irreconcilable discrepancies between the resurrection accounts and the theological editorializing and editing of the Gospels and you now have even more reasons to wonder how much of the Gospels is fact and how much is fiction or erroneous.”

      I think this is a “modern” question. The question itself is the result of our “modernity” and thus one of the products of the Enlightenment. Questions as to the historicity of Jesus, however, cannot be adequately addressed using these categories. For a complete treatment of this, one should read Luke Timothy Johnson’s book “The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels.” He wrote this book in response to the Jesus Seminar and scholars such as Bishop Spong. However it also applies to the other end of the theological spectrum, because they demand similar evidence in many ways, and seek to “harmonize” and explain the differences in biblical witness.

      Many other writers are discussing this. One is William H Willimon. Speaking of the resurrection, he says

      “The events were real but inconceivable and therefore nearly indescribable. The biblical stories were acts human imagination, told by witnesses, but they were not merely the product of human inventiveness. Human imagination, disciplined by the mystery of the events themselves do not refer to historically discrete, locatable, and datable ‘facts’ as conceived by modernity. Yet neither do they express subjective human ‘experiences.’ They bear adequate witness to a living, active, surprising subject who acts in the world, yet often ways that are difficult to bring to speech. To my mind, some of the evidence for the validity of the empty tomb accounts in the Gospels is their conflicted diversity. That the Gospel writers had such differing testimony to the aftermath of Resurrection is assurance that something happened, something undeniable in its reality but also almost indescribable in its occurrence.” (from “Conversations with Barth on Preaching”)

      I think our categories of knowledge in today’s world tend to limit understanding, rather than enhancing. Only through the gift of grace will we have eyes to see, and ears to hear.

      • I don’t think it’s a “modern” question. I think the recording of the dates when people lived and events happened and expecting them to be accurate was something even pre-modern historians took seriously. The post presents serious problems of concordance re: dates and events in the NT, documents which partly asserted their factualness by connecting some of their recorded events to actual persons and times.

        • David Cornwell says:

          However the truthfulness of the Resurrection accounts do not depend on times and dates. They depend on the veracity and truthfulness of the witnesses. If times and dates had been important, they would have been given. This is an event that includes, but also transcends history. The Resurrection was believed by the early followers, and thus the Church was born. The Resurrection will never give an adequate answer to those who need such proof. If times and dates are important, then a person will probably not believe. Or one will work and dig and rationalize in an attempt to find such proof, or to deny it.

          • I’m talking about the times and dates and years Jesus’ life and ministry supposedly occurred.

        • David, when I was a student of Zen, there was a teacher who said that, though he was inclined to believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually did occur, he did not accept the traditional interpretation of Christianity regarding the meaning of that event. He said that mysterious, inexplicable, preternatural events sometimes occur, and when they do, it is a mistake to make too much of them, in fact, it is a distraction from real spiritual work, a distraction that he believed Christianity had been involved in for 2000 years. Speaking for himself, he felt no need to offer an interpretation of so singular an event, since to do so would be to embark on a journey down a misleading road, like the road Christianity had taken long ago.

          The understanding of this Zen teacher is not unlike a similar sentiment I’ve come across in rabinnic Judaism, where making too much, or anything, of miraculous events is viewed with great suspicion. And it shows how one may believe in the resurrection without believing in its meaningfulness, a meaningfulness which is necessarily rooted in interpretation.

          • I’m not sure it negates “meaningfulness”, but it does preclude specific xtian claims about the resurrection.

          • Robert F says:

            numo, I was referring to the meaningfulness of Jesus’ resurrection in terms of Christianity’s self-understanding, which both the Zen teacher and rabinnic Judaism obviously deny. They both reject the claims that Christianity has made about Jesus’ resurrection, while not necessarily denying that he actually was resurrected.

          • I think Judaism rejects Jesus’ claim to be the son of God and Messiah, no? The resurrection isn’t the real issue there.

            While I believe what the Creeds say, I have a *whole* lot of sympathy for the Jewish POV, given what we gentiles have done to Jews over the past couple of millennia. They have been demonized by dtians from very early on, with horrific consequences ( I know you agree; just trying to state clearly for the sake of the overall discussion).

          • I do agree with you. I’m not trying to vilify either rabinnic Judaism, or my former Zen teacher. I think they have a point. The resurrection, abstracted from the context of the narrative arc it arises out of, does not signify. As a bare historical fact, Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t, and can’t, prove anything.

          • Robert – agreed on your most recent; I think I was a bit muddled re. your previous reference to Judaism. But yes, both that speaker and many of the writers/compilers of the Talmud (etc.) make very good points.

  4. cermak_rd says:

    One of the reasons I have at times publicly wondered about the historical existence of Jesus is just to spare the feelings of people who do think he was divine. I think it’s a lot less painful for devout listeners to hear me refer to him as possibly fictional than to refer to him as just a human or fraudulent.

    Another reason I have historical doubts is that the books of Luke and Acts have strong parallels to tales in the Hebrew Scriptures Almost like they are a reimagining of the stories. Spong has outlined some of this in one of his works.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      If you have not read it, I recommend Bart Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist?” Erhman certainly doesn’t have a religious ax to grind when he argues for Jesus as a historical person.

      Personally, my reaction to the argument against Jesus as a historical person is that both the arguments and the arguers remind me strikingly of the people arguing that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. These in turn remind me strongly of the argument–not as fashionable as it was a half century ago–that anyone other than Richard III was responsible for the murder of the Princes in the Tower. In each case the argument seems to exist for reasons outside the evidence, and the evidence is a tool to be used or dismissed as needed for the desired conclusion.

  5. I thought Ir enaeus might be referring to that part, when the crowd say “You’re not even fifty and you have seen Abraham?”

    Given that the past was not like our present youth-fixated culture, they might well have said this as a rebuke to a man in his mid-thirties: “Oh, you young whipper-snapper, are we supposed to believe you when you’re not even old enough to be considered fully grown-up?”

    Somewhere in the thirties feels right to me, but as you say: it’s not hugely vital as to whether He was in His thirties or a decade older.

  6. I don’t think it matters.

  7. 4. Being thirty years old when He came to be baptized, and then possessing the full age of a Master,?5 He came to Jerusalem, so that He might be properly acknowledged?6 by all as a Master. For He did not seem one thing while He was another, as those affirm who describe Him as being man only in appearance; but what He was, that He also appeared to be. Being a Master, therefore, He also possessed the age of a Master, not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in Himself that law which He had?7 appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself. For He came to save all through means of Himself—all, I say, who through Him are born again to God?8—infants,?9 and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be “the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence,”?10 the Prince of life,?11 existing before all, and going before all.?12

    5. They, however, that they may establish their false opinion regarding that which is written, “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,” maintain that He preached for one year only, and then suffered in the twelfth month. [In speaking thus], they are forgetful to their own disadvantage, destroying His whole work, and robbing Him of that age which is both more necessary and more honourable than any other; that more advanced age, I mean, during which also as a teacher He excelled all others. For how could He have had disciples, if He did not teach? And how could He have taught, unless He had reached the age of a Master? For when He came to be baptized, He had not yet completed His thirtieth year, but was beginning to be about thirty years of age (for thus Luke, who has mentioned His years, has expressed it: “Now Jesus was, as it were, beginning to be thirty years old,”?13 when He came to receive baptism); and, [according to these men,] He preached only one year reckoning from His baptism. On completing His thirtieth year He suffered, being in fact still a young man, and who had by no means attained to advanced age. Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years,?1 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.?2 And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan.?3 Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement. Whom then should we rather believe? Whether such men as these, or Ptolemæus, who never saw the apostles, and who never even in his dreams attained to the slightest trace of an apostle?

    6. But, besides this, those very Jews who then disputed with the Lord Jesus Christ have most clearly indicated the same thing. For when the Lord said to them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad,” they answered Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?”?4 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. But to one who is only thirty years old it would unquestionably be said, “Thou art not yet forty years old.” For those who wished to convict Him of falsehood would certainly not extend the number of His years far beyond the age which they saw He had attained; but they mentioned a period near His real age, whether they had truly ascertained this out of the entry in the public register, or simply made a conjecture from what they observed that He was above forty years old, and that He certainly was not one of only thirty years of age. For it is altogether unreasonable to suppose that they were mistaken by twenty years, when they wished to prove Him younger than the times of Abraham. For what they saw, that they also expressed; and He whom they beheld was not a mere phantasm, but an actual being?5 of flesh and blood. He did not then want much of being fifty years old;?6 and, in accordance with that fact, they said to Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou 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, unless indeed, among their Æons, there be so long years assigned to those who sit in their ranks with Bythus in the Pleroma; of which beings Homer the poet, too, has spoken, doubtless being inspired by the Mother of their [system of] error:—
    ?? ?? ???? ??? ???? ????????? ?????????
    ?????? ?? ??????:?7 [Greek]
    which we may thus render into English:?8—
    “The gods sat round, while Jove presided o’er,
    And converse held upon the golden floor.”

    – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2:22:4-6

  8. based upon dr. paul maier’s research, the best date for jesus’ birth is 5-6 bc, and the best date for his death is april 3rd, 33 ad , which would make jesus around 38 when he died. fyi

    • Hi Pete,

      I am well aware of Paul Maier’s research. 😀

      I would argue that a date of 5-6 B.C. is not the best possible date, but it is the latest possible date. That is, it only works if Herod issued his command to kill the baby boys under two, and then keeled over dead himself. In reality any date from 9 B.C. to 5 B.C. works, and there is nothing which would cause us to favour one year over the other. I picked 7 B.C. as a more likely date as it gives some time for Herod to die after issuing his command.

      The evidence for April 3, 33 A.D. is based on calculating when the Passover occured. While Maier make it sound straight forward, there are issues around this dating method. John and the Synopic Gospels have different days. (Another inconsistency which I was tempted to bring up, but didn’t.) Also John refers to a great Sabbath, which may have referred to the Passover date rather than a regular Sabbath date. If Jesus was crucified in 33 A.D. it would have the beheading of John the Baptist in 31 A.D. which doesn’t seem to fit with Josephus’ evidence.

      • Having two Sabbaths in the week, an annual Sabbath and a weekly Sabbath, helps resolve a couple of other difficulties. 1. It makes sense of Jesus’ claim that he would be in the ground for three days and three nights which does not fit with a Friday Evening to Sunday morning. 2.. It resolves a conflict between Mark and Luke as to whether the women prepared the spices for the body before or after the sabbath.

        Mark:16:1: “Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him.”

        Luke:23:55-56 “And the women who had come with [Christ] from Galilee followed after, and they observed the tomb and how His body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils. And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment.”

        • What is the scriptural basis for multiple sabbaths in a week? When/how was something other than the period from sundown the 6th day to sundown the seventh day officially/religiously called a “sabbath” by 1st-century Jews and Jewish priests? Does Paul L. Maier explain this in his books? Does John P. Meier explain this in his books on Jesus?

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            What is the scriptural basis for multiple sabbaths in a week?

            Would other historical sources do, or are we dueling Chapter-and-Verse quotes?

            Because in my experience, “Show Me SCRIPTURE!” is Christianese for “NOTHING YOU BRING AS PROOF WILL EVER CONVINCE ME, HEATHEN!” It was THE standard comeback line of Calvary Chapel’s Raul Rees anytime someone tried to reason with him about anything.

          • God said it, I believe it, that settles it, no, shut up, shut up, shut up.

          • Other sources will do. I’m just wondering when/why/how Jews began having other than once-weekly “sabbaths.” I probably came across this in Leviticus or Deuteronomy at some point, but have forgotten it. Maybe Edersheim discusses it in his two books. I know the multiple/double-sabbaths thing has been used to reconcile John with the Synoptics, as well as determine the year and date of the crucifixion.

          • While I’m having troubles finding the exact original source for this info (i.e. which primary historic/rabbinic/whatever text this comes from), I’ve come across multiple secondary and tertiary texts over the years that discuss the discrepancy between the way the Pharisees and the Sadducees calculated the date of Pentecost during 2nd Temple times. The nature of the controversy is the interpretation of Leviticus 23:15-16,

            “And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the Lord.”

            The Sadducees considered the “sabbath” in whose “morrow” is to be the first day of counting to be the regular weekly sabbath, while the Pharisees considered the “sabbath” to be Passover itself (i.e. 14 Nissan, the “annual sabbath”). Modern Judaism lines up with the Pharisees.

          • Ah, I found it! Mishnah Menachot 10, which discusses an elaborate ceremony at the barley harvest and the counting of the omer that leads up to Pentecost. The rabbis in the text insist that the harvest is based on the conclusion (i.e. day after) the Festival (i.e. Passover itself, Nissan 14), while the “Boethusians” (either the Sadducees or a Qumran sect) do not count it based on the Festival, but on the weekly Sabbath. I.e. the rabbis introduced this ceremony due to the disagreement with the “Boethusians.”

            While the Mishnah was codified (i.e. written down) circa 200AD, it represents the Rabbinic thought and tradition as it developed from the 2nd Temple times until the codification. That is, it is largely the oral tradition of the Pharisees and their theological descendants during late antiquity.

        • He died during Passover… Which might well have affected observances. Thursday evening (at the start of the day) is the Passover meal aka Last Supper; he is crucified during the same day, and taken down from the cross prior to sunset, which is the start of the following day.

          fwiw.

          • Assuming the last supper was a Passover Seder.

          • Well, I am assuming it was a Passover meal, though definitely not anything like the modern Seder (of any kind, Ashkenazic or Sephardic) that spring to mind. (I will not count so-called “xtian Seders,” because imo, they’re not only anachronistic in the extreme, they are not real Seders.)

          • I know how the 1st-century Seder differs from the modern one: Lamb was eaten, romaine lettuce or endive was used instead of horseradish, there were possibly only 2 cups of wine drunk, the entire Hallel (Psalms 113-118) was recited (I forget if that is still the case), as well as some other minor differences.

          • AFAIK, many people still recite the entire Hallel, though the family that invited mine for many, many Seders never made everyone participate in that. It was mostly the dad and, if others who knew Hebrew were present and wanted to join in, that was fine. (The had three daughters and no sons, and all three married gentiles, so…) But they also had Seders on the 1st two nights of Passover. (Both parents were raised Orthodox, by 1st generation parents.) So, customs differed, and, I guess, still do.

          • In other words, there were prayers and recitations proceeding quietly long after the Seder itself was over (for most folks). Hope that makes sense!

          • Eric – OK, did some reading and understand what you mean about the last supper not necessarily being a
            Seder. There are some good points both for/against, I think, and in the end, I’m not sure it much matters whether it was a Seder or not.

        • There is evidence that plays on this idea, and that is that Jesus and the disciples shared the “Last Supper” in the Essene quarter of Jerusalem. The Essenes abided by the solar calendar while the rest of the Jewish world used the lunar calendar. This would result in a Passover three days earlier for the Essenes. A Tuesday night dinner (our reckoning) also provides the legally required time …a 24 hour “cooling off” period …for the Sanhedrin to reconvene to affirm Jesus death penalty. There is more here than meets the eye with a casual read of the Gospels.

          The “Last Supper” may not have been a proper Seder meal as there were no women or children (families) present and the usual rituals appear not to have been followed. Jesus, though, was doing something new here and, fascinatingly, the sacrament he presented may have involved the drinking of the 5th Cup (Cup of Elijah) signifying that Messiah was arrived. I suspect a first century Jew reading the Gospels would have picked up on these things. We don’t.

          I greatly enjoyed your post, Mike, and the literate comments today!

          • Jim – but the Cup of Elijah postdates the first century. Their Seders weren’t very much like what developed later, let alone the way Severe are conducted now (which can vary quite a bit, given the many different cultural and religious strains within contemporary Judaism).

  9. Dana Ames says:

    ISTM that if Jesus was not actually 33 years old, the indications for that would mean that the number 33 would itself have some significance in connection with him. It would be another thing, combined with other things in the Gospels that indicate the meaning of what God was up to, that was saying something true about Jesus, not simply conveying “factual information.”

    Dana

  10. Rick Ro. says:

    Arguing about Jesus’ age is NOT a hill I feel the Lord is calling me to die on.

  11. Christiane says:

    “17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”

    If there are questions of His ‘age’, let that be an exercise akin to arguing how many angels can stand on the head of a pin . . .
    or we can leave the argument to those fundamentalists who say boldly that ‘the Bible clearly states’ and let THEM determine ‘the truth’,

    does the time He spent on this Earth matter?
    in microseconds, in minutes, in days, months, years ?

    or is it for us to be grateful that He entered into our time to be ‘with us’ in a manner that is already far beyond our own understanding ?

  12. flatrocker says:

    I guess next you’ll be telling us His birth certificate was forged and he’s not legally allowed to be the Messiah.
    Will this confounded birther controversy never go away?!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I can see the WND billboards now, all along Route 15:
      “WHERE’S THE REAL BIRTH CERTIFICATE?????”

  13. I sure do wish that the mother of Jesus and the young apostle John sat down one day and said, “You know, someday there are going to people who are going to want details of Jesus’ life…when he was born, when he began teaching, when he died, how long he walked the earth after his resurrection. Let us write this all down and make sure that the information passes unmolested from generation to generation.” BUT…I think that like the apostle Paul, they thought that Jesus would return soon and take all the faithful to his Father at that time. They likely felt no need for all those details and then as the decades went by, the details were lost. 🙁

    We have touched a bit on this before, but I still need more discussion/thought sometime on the fact that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine and that since he was fully human, he had to have DNA from both a male and a female. How did that happen? Did God just whip up all the necessary male DNA on the spot? We know he could since God can do anything, but did he? Or, was DNA from Joseph “magically” transported to Mary’s egg? Or did something else happen? We know that Mary was told by the angel that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her and she would become pregnant. But do we know what that actually means? If Jesus’ DNA was from a human female and a human male, does that make him any less the Son of God if the Holy Spirt and the Most High were with him from his conception to his death and beyond? If God chose to walk the earth through Jesus, doesn’t that make him the Son of God? He said he and the Father were one and I believe him.

    • Your first graph: yep! I wonder if there weren’t multiple calendars and systems of dating (it would seem that there were), which confuses matters further from our POV, but certainly not from theirs. (And from ours only if our primary focus is on attempting to reconcile dates, which is, imo, a fruitless endeavor.)

  14. Michael, when the Pharisees said to Jesus that “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” in John 8.57 I take that as a figure of speech. As you well stated, Orientals are less interested in exact dates and more so in telling a story with a good lesson to be learned from it. Same in Luke 3.23, “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age…”; another figure of speech. As for the date of Jesus’ birth, well, the calendar has been screwed up so many times that anything as far back as 10 BC is plausible. My point is that Jesus could have been anywhere from 30-50 years old at the time of His ministry.

    So, if His age is disputable and irrelevant, then what is point of this post? If the point is purely informational, then the objective was accomplished. I very much enjoyed reading it and am now better informed and equipped as a consequence of it. If the point was to prove something about inerrancy, then that objective was not achieved one way or the other. And the debate continues…

    FWIW, the Church has determined that Luke’s Gospel is inspired of the Holy Spirit, Iranaeus’ writings are not. Which is not to say they are not important or useful, of course, just not inspired. And that means something.

    • Totally agreed re. that being a figure of speech, as Martha also said above.

      I must confess to a near-total lack of interest in the precise dating of events recorded in the Gospels and Acts. That’s partly because memory is faulty, and scribal errors over the past two thousand years have been many. What happened, happened. What didn’t, didn’t. I don’t wish to sound like I’m scoffing at Mike Bell (or anyone else), but it just doesn’t matter all that much to me. Now, if I were somehow dealing with textual analysis and/or physically dating the age of various manuscripts, then it *would* be important – but not necessarily as a guarantor or the accuracy (or lack of it) in any of the accounts in the Gospels and Acts.

    • “If the point is purely informational, then the objective was accomplished. “

      Yeah, pretty much. Some thoughts I had that fit with the time of the year. The whole discussion about inerrancy was a discussion that rose out of the comments that wasn’t too tangential to the post.

  15. One of the things that can get very confusing for us post-enlightenment Westerners is the idea that something can be accurate without necessarily being precise, even though we deal with this all the time in our day-to-day lives. If my wife asks me “what time is it?” I might answer “It’s about 5:00” or I can look at my watch and say, “It’s 4:53.” Both are accurate, but only the latter is precise.

    This happens quite a bit in the Scriptural narratives. A really good example of this is St Matthew’s account of Christ’s genealogy, which skips all sorts of generations so that it would fit into his 14/14/14 scheme of generations from Abraham to David to the Exile to the Messiah. Why is Matthew doing this? It’s obviously to make a point. The speculation on what the point was is varied, but I lean toward the idea that 14 is the numerical equivalent for David’s name in Hebrew, and Matthew was making a point to his audience about Jesus being the heir of David.

    • Agreed, though I’m not sure what it has to do with the Enlightenment per se. It’s more about developments that were happening long prior to the Enlightenment and that proceeded apace… like atomic clocks, for example. they really are precise (so long as they’re accurate – hee!); everything else is an approximation, pretty much.

    • I spent part of my adolescence at a summer camp where I spent large portions of time outdoors every day, and it was pretty easy to learn to tell approximate time by the position of the sun and shadows. Every year when I went back to school, I completely lost my connection to that ability. it was like losing one of my senses (which is pretty much what happened).

      People didn’t have precise means of measuring much of anything – time, weights, measures – until the last century or so. Which is probably one of the reasons that many texts from earlier times appear sloppily imprecise to us, accurate though they might be. I think we have real difficulty imagining ourselves into the povs of those who lived before us, whether 80, 800 or 8000 years prior, you know?

  16. Randy Thompson says:

    I normally don’t spend time thinking about subjects like this, but having read Mike’s article, I’m glad somebody does. Interesting stuff. Thanks.

  17. There is no reason to suppose that any of the gospels are arranged chronologically, so it would be a mistake to try to tease a “length of Jesus’s ministry” from them. The synoptics seem to be organized into narrative units which thematically match the weekly Torah readings. John is less clear, but its septenary division is suggestive. The main boundaries for Jesus’s career are the dates for JBap on one hand, and the dates for Pilate on the other.

    The infancy narratives are unlikely to be historical. In particular neither the “census of Quirinius” nor the Massacre of the Innocents seem ever to have occurred (the latter parallels the story of Moses), and are improbable on their face. The behavior of the “Star of Bethlehem” does not match any known astronomical phenomenon, and so cannot be of any use in establishing a date (even if we do not dismiss it as fabulous). In short, we have no idea when Jesus was born, and any “estimates” claiming otherwise are arbitrary and misguided.

    The evangelists and pagan authors agree that Jesus was executed during the governorship of Pontius Pilate (AD 26-36). The synoptics say this happened on a Friday which was also the day of Passover (15 Nisan). John says it happened on the Day of Preparation (14 Nisan), unless he really means the Friday after that (21 Nisan). If the synoptics are right, the year could have been 27, 30, or 33. (Can’t be 36 because Pilate left the country before that year’s Passover.)

    A complication occurs if we doubt gospel accounts of the sequence of unusually speedy trials all in one night. (A more logical response on Pilate’s part would be to arrest perceived troublemakers before the holiday, and execute them afterwards–i.e. a week later, after the Days of Unleavened Bread). In that case we don’t know when Jesus was executed, and therefore can’t know the year beyond a range of (say) AD 26 to 35. (If Luke is right about John’s years, then AD 29 to 35.)

    Leo Depuydt, “The Date of the Death of Jesus of Nazareth” (Journal of the American Oriental Society, issue 122, 2002, pp. 466-480) argues for the year AD 29, or at least that it not be excluded as a possibility.

    • “It would be a mistake to try to tease a “length of Jesus’s ministry” from them.”

      We can determine a minimum length by passover counting, but not a maximum length.

      “Can’t be 36 because Pilate left the country before that year’s Passover.”

      According to Josephus, Pilate arrived in Rome after Tiberius died. Tiberius died in March, 37 A.D. The sea journey is only three weeks to a month. So Pilate is likely to have left in February 37 A.D.

    • There is no reason to suppose that any of the gospels are arranged chronologically,

      Luke’s introduction seems to suggest it was to be regarded as a chronologically-ordered account of Jesus’ life.

  18. This is the sort of thing that drives inerrantists crazy: “If there are discrepancies in the source documents concerning something simple like the dating of Jesus’ ministry then how can we trust the Bible when it says Jesus was raised from the dead?”

  19. Haven’t read all the comments, hope this hasn’t come up.

    I read an article a week or so before Easter about 5 errors to not make in your Easter sermon. One of them was saying Jesus was 33 1/2 years old. For all the years I’ve spent in church, blogging and reading the informed sources at Internet Monk, I’ve never come across this controversy. I wonder if it recently became a bigger deal or if I’ve just been missing the discussion all these years.

    I wanted to defend the 33 1/2 years of age position but found I didn’t have any firm ground to stand on. Then Matt Smethurst suggested I read Andreas J. Köstenberger’s entry in the ESV Study Bible on this subject. Köstenberger was one of two authors of the CT piece and I realized I was in way over my head.

  20. I’ve read this passage in Irenaeus dozens of times, and as far as I’m concerned he is claiming that Jesus is older than 40 and less than 50. Anyone who says he is claiming he is over 50 is not reading him carefully, as far as I see.

  21. Two things I’m very certain of;

    1. I’ve lived longer than Jesus did before his stake out.

    2. Even though I’ve lived in this mortal coil longer than Jesus did, he was waaayyyy more wise than I.