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The Accurate Date of the Crucifixion

A topic that tends to come around during Holy Week is the accuracy of the crucifixion, including when it occurred.  In this episode, Cy and Catholic Answers Senior Apologist, Jimmy Akin, discuss the question of when exactly Jesus was crucified.

 


 

Cy Kellett:
Hello and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers podcast for living, understanding and defending your Catholic faith. I am Cy Kellett, your host. And when exactly was Jesus crucified? That is our question this hour. It’s interesting, at least to me, quite interesting that as you examine that question, you get into some issues of how modern scholars do this, maybe mistakes modern scholars make and what the latest scholarship might say about what scholarship from the 19th and early 20th century had to say. It’s just a fascinating topic. When exactly is that period? Which year did it happen that Jesus was crucified? To help us examine that question, Jimmy Akin, senior apologist here at Catholic Answers and Proprietor of Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World. Hello, Jimmy Akin.

Jimmy Akin:
Very hello, Cy Kellet. And we won’t just be talking to you about what year Jesus died. We’ll be able to name the day and the hour.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. All right. Yes, I love this. Well maybe we’ll get into it as we go about what the sources are for that, but primarily of course it would be the gospels.

Jimmy Akin:
Yes, that’s correct. Although there are things that are mentioned in the gospels, we are able to put some dates based on sources outside the gospels, like the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and the writings of Roman historians that tell us like when certain officials were in office and things like that.

Cy Kellett:
There’s enough details there that you can piece together the mystery a bit. You can do some detective work.

Jimmy Akin:
Indeed, yes. I should say that this is something as we’re going to see, there are two candidate years that are widely supported. Now there are people have proposed others, but there are two candidate years that have been proposed for when Jesus was crucified. One is AD 30 and the other is AD 33. The AD 33 date is the traditional one, but in the last couple of centuries, people have been advocating the AD 30 date. There’s not really a significant disagreement among scholars based on their affiliations or their opinions on other matters. So for example, it’s not like Protestant scholars advocate one date and Catholic Scholars advocate another date. Unbelieving scholars who don’t think Christianity is true at all, they acknowledge, “Yeah, we’ve got historical evidence for these two dates.”

So apart from the Jesus Methodists who are a fringe minority, the vast bulk of scholars, regardless of their opinion, regardless of whether they’re liberal or conservative or believing or unbelieving, will say, “We’ve got evidence that Jesus really did live and he really was crucified and it was in one of these two years.” And you will find both liberals and conservatives advocating for both AD 30 and for AD 33. And so it’s not really something that divides people based on their confessional affiliation. So we don’t need to worry about, “Oh, is one date liberal or is one date not Catholic?” Or things like that. It’s strictly what does the evidence say.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. All right. So if you’re 30 AD, all of you people think that way? Nope. All right, so let’s do the clues then. So it’s a kind of a detective mystery. This is something you’re really good at, Jimmy. So maybe start us with the clues. What are the clues that we have?

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah. And for listeners who want to read what we’re talking about today, I did an article a number of years ago called 7, the number 7, 7 Clues that Tell us Precisely When Jesus died. So if you Google my name Jimmy Akin and Seven Clues Jesus died, it should come up for you. The first clue establishes the broad timeframe because one of the things that the Gospels record, and particularly you’ll find this in Matthew and in John, is that Jesus was crucified during the high priesthood of a man named Caiaphas. His fuller name was Josephus Caiaphas or Joseph Caiaphas. But we know from Jewish sources when he served as high priest. And basically it was from AD 18 to AD 36. So sometime in that basic timeframe, AD 18 to AD 36 is when Jesus was crucified. So that’s our broadest timeframe. But from there, we can start to narrow it down because one of the things that all four of the gospels tell us is that Jesus was sentenced to crucifixion by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.

The reason, now people who’ve read the nativity stories where Jesus is born in the reign of King Herod, they may wonder, “Well, why was there a Roman governor when Jesus grew up? If he was born under a king, why is there a governor when he grows up?” And the answer is because Herod the Great had been appointed king of the Jews by the Roman Senate. When Herod died though, he had several sons that succeeded him in office and no one of them was given the title King. Instead they split up his territory and they gave different parts of it to different sons. And the sons, since they weren’t kings, they had a different title. They were called Tetrachs, which means rulers of a fourth. One of the tetrachs was a guy named Herod Archelaus.

Now we hear about Archelaus in Matthew’s gospel because when the holy family comes back from Egypt, Joseph discovers that Archelaus is ruling in Judea and he’s afraid to go there so they divert and they go back to Joseph’s other residence in Nazareth. So Archelaus was a bad guy, and readers of Matthew knew that. Well, so did a lot of other people. Archelaus was a bad guy. He treated his subjects really poorly and they complained about him to Caesar because it was Caesar who authorized all this. And so Caesar yanked Archelaus’ tetrarchy. He took him out of power and appointed a Roman governor instead. That’s why you have some of Herod’s sons like Herod Antipas and Herod Agrippa and grandsons reigning in parts of the territories we read about in the Gospels, but not in Judea. There was a Roman governor appointed for that, and there was a series of them.

Normally, Roman governors would reign for like a year, but sometimes they reign longer. And we know how long Pontius Pilate reigned. He reigned beginning in AD 26, so that shaves a few years off of our timeframe, to AD 36, which was the same year that Caiaphas fell from office. And like Archelaus, Pilate also got recalled to Rome and yanked from office, but there were other Roman governors after him. In any event, based on our second clue, the governorship of Pontius Pilate, we can narrow our initial range of AD 18 to AD 36 down to AD 26 to AD 36. So just basically a 10-year period now. So that lets us know the next clue, but we can narrow it down further because there’s a third clue.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
In Luke’s gospel, Luke tells us that the ministry of John the Baptist began in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar. Now, Tiberius began to reign when Augustus died. Augustus was the first Roman emperor, Tiberius was the second. Augustus died in August of AD 14. And then the Roman Senate appointed Tiberius as his successor in September of AD 14. But there are a couple of different ways that the ancients, like Roman authors, would count how many years an emperor had been reigning. They might do it from the moment they became emperor, in which case Tiberius, his first year would begin in September of 14. Or they would count beginning with the next January 1st when the new year began. And in this case, because Augustus died so late in the year and Tiberius didn’t become emperor until September of 14, we’ve only got a leeway of a few months here between the two dates. Mid-September when he became emperor is not that far from January 1st.

So even though you could debate it with a few months leeway, basically Tiberius’ first year, you can treat it for practical purposes as being AD 15. So if you then fast-forward 14 more years from his first year to get to his 15th year, that tells you that the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar is basically AD 29, possibly beginning a couple of months before that in the late AD 28.

Cy Kellett:
Wow.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah. So that’s when John the Baptist Ministry began. And Jesus began his ministry shortly after John the Baptist. He comes to John the Baptist, He gets baptized and then He begins His ministry. So Jesus’s ministry began shortly after that of John the Baptist. And that means that Jesus, we can estimate, began his ministry in AD 29.

Now, what else do we know about when Jesus died? Well, clue number four, all four of the gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified on a Friday. They refer to it as the day of preparation, which was a standard way of referring to Friday because Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath. And so consequently you couldn’t work on the Sabbath. You couldn’t cook for example on the Sabbath. So you needed to make preparations for the Sabbath on Friday. You do all of your meal cooking. On Friday, you’d go fetch water that you could drink on the Sabbath. You fetched that water on Friday. You did everything you needed to do to get ready for a day of downtime with no work on a Friday. So you prepared for the Sabbath on Friday and Friday was thus the day of preparation. We know that it’s the day that it is Friday because they then record all four of the gospels that the next day was the Sabbath and that the day after the Sabbath was the first day of the week.

Now some people have tried to say, “Well, maybe the Sabbath is a reference to a high holy day, something other than Friday, like the day of Passover.” Maybe they would consider that a Sabbath. But that proposal won’t work in this situation because it says on the day after the Sabbath, it was the first day of the week or Sunday. So it’s really clear from all four gospels that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, then the Sabbath began at sundown on Friday. And then we get the first day of the week, Sunday, beginning on sundown on Saturday. So we’ve got a clear Friday, Saturday, Sunday sequence. So that is good news because there’s seven days in a week and we just eliminated six of them for when he was crucified.

Cy Kellett:
So it’s one day of the week sometime in about a seven-year period if I’m following your argument right.

Jimmy Akin:
Correct, yes. That’s something I should have clarified. Since Jesus’s ministry began in AD 29, we can shrink our date range even further because we said, “Okay, Pilate range from 26 to 36, but if Jesus’s ministry didn’t begin until 29, we can shrink that date range down to 29 to 36. It’s sometime between AD 29 and AD 36.” And we know it was a Friday in that period.

So in the seven-year period, there’s still a lot of Fridays. So we want to figure out which Friday it was if we can. And we can do that with our fifth clue. Our fifth clue is that the gospels indicate that this Friday was in conjunction with Passover. And so what we can then do is look at that seven year period and say, when was there a Friday in conjunction with Passover? Well, in AD 29, the year that Jesus’s ministry began, Passover was on a Monday, so it can’t be AD 29. In AD 31, Passover was on a Tuesday, so it can’t be AD 31. In AD 32, Passover was on a Monday again, so it can’t be AD 32. In 34, Passover was a Wednesday in 35, Passover was a Tuesday. And in 36, Passover was a Saturday. So none of those years worked. 29, 31, 32, 34, 35 and 36 are all out. That leaves us-

Cy Kellett:
Oh yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
… with AD 30 when Passover was Friday, April 7th and AD 33 when Passover was Friday, April 3rd. So we were left with these two possibilities. It’s either Friday, April 7th of AD 30, or it’s Friday April 3rd of AD 33. It’s got to be one of those two. And that pretty much everyone agrees on. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox or Jewish or atheist or whatever. It doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative. Everybody orients towards those two possibilities.

Cy Kellett:
That’s Amazing how that narrows down so quickly. And just I think that was five clues were narrowed down to two dates from the entire period. Wonderful. Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
But there is a disagreement among those two. And even though, like I said, AD 33 is the traditional date, there’s been this recent proposal that it’s AD 30. And that’s actually the more common opinion these days. You’ll find more scholars advocating AD 30 than AD 33.

Cy Kellett:
And when you say these days?

Jimmy Akin:
Early 21st century.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. Yeah. So this is something that the ancients would’ve said 33, but sometime in the modern period-

Jimmy Akin:
The Medievals would’ve said 33.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. But sometime in the modern period, that changed. People started to say, “No 30 is the more likely.”

Jimmy Akin:
Yes, and there are a few reasons for that, but I think the biggest one concerns the date, not of Jesus’s death, but the date of his birth. Here’s how the argument goes. Here’s this argument for the AD 30 position.

Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. That’s something that Matthew and Luke are both really clear about. He’s born during Herod the Great’s reign. Herod the Great died in 4 BC. So Jesus had to be born by 4 BC. And if you believe what Matthew says about the Magi coming from the east when Jesus was up to two years old, well that had to happen before Herod died too because they talked to Herod after they [inaudible 00:16:41] and, “Don’t come back to tell him who the baby king is.” He decides to kill all the babies in Bethlehem who were two years old and based on the timing that the Magi had told him. So Jesus could have been up to two years old at that point. Now it doesn’t have to be two, it could be one, and maybe Herod just doubled it to be sure. You don’t want to-

Cy Kellett:
Yeah. Right.

Jimmy Akin:
If you’re going to murder your successor, you want to make sure you really get it.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah. Don’t be fussy about the dates if you’re going to commit mass murder.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah. But that had to happen at some point before Herod died. Now, it may have been close to when Herod died, but if Jesus was up to two years old when the Magi arrived, and the Magi arrived before Herod’s death, then it would be plausible for Jesus to be born in 6 BC or maybe 7 BC. And so based on this argumentation, many scholars today believe that Jesus was probably born in 6 or 7 BC.

Okay. Luke though tells us that Jesus was about 30. He might’ve been 28, 29, he might’ve been 31, 32, but he was about 30 when he began his ministry. He tells us that in Luke chapter 3. And so if you say, “Well, let’s suppose Jesus was born in 6 BC, he would’ve been 30 in AD 24-ish.” You got to account for the fact there is no year zero on this timeline, but he would’ve been 30 about AD 24. And then if he didn’t get crucified until AD… If that’s when he was 30 and he didn’t get crucified until AD 33, that’s nine years later, he would’ve been 39. If he was born in 7 BC, he would’ve been 40 years old at the time of the crucifixion. And that’s just unimaginable that his ministry lasted for nine years.

And so we don’t have evidence of a nine-year ministry in the Gospels. And so that would lead you to say, “Well, okay, then it must’ve been AD 30.” Because in AD 30 he would’ve been about 36 at the time of his death. And maybe he was 32 when he began his ministry. So he was still about 30 if he was 32. And then he’d have a four-year ministry or a three and a half year ministry and the dates would line up. You can see how there’s an appeal to the AD 30 date based on when Jesus was born, assuming that he was born in BC 6 or 7. And that line of thought is then based on the premise that Herod died in 4 BC. Well, it’s widely accepted today that Herod died in 4 BC. And so that’s one of the key reasons why the AD 30 position has been so widely embraced. But it’s wrong.

The truth is, Herod did not die in 4 BC. This has been shown by a number of recent scholars who have gone back the dating… The reason people date him as dying in 4 BC is based on some stuff that Josephus says about the timing of his death. He says that it was following a particular lunar eclipse and so forth. But the problem is there’s more than one lunar eclipse in the right timeframe. There was one lunar eclipse in 4 BC and there was another lunar eclipse in 1 BC. And so the question is, which of these two lunar eclipses is Josephus talking about?

Well, he didn’t die immediately after the lunar eclipse. He also died in relation to Josephus gives us other chronological clues including its relationship to Passover and a whole bunch of stuff that Herod did between the eclipse and his death. And when you tally up all of these factors, it turns out there just was not enough time between the eclipse in 4 BC and when Herod would’ve needed to die for him to do all this stuff. Furthermore, that eclipse may not have even been clearly visible from Jerusalem, and it wasn’t a total lunar eclipse. But the one in 1 BC was a better eclipse. And the timing did allow Herod to do all the things Joseph has said he did before he died. And so it looks like Herod actually died in 1 BC. And like I said, this has been supported by a number of recent scholars who’ve treated this very carefully. And it also lines up better with the historic understanding of when Herod died.

Cy Kellett:
Well, let me-

Jimmy Akin:
And-

Cy Kellett:
Oh, go ahead.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.

Cy Kellett:
Well, I was just going to ask, this is one of those places where the contemporary scholarship may disagree with the stuff that people learned in school, including myself. So how long does it take, do you think, for this to get straightened out where people actually, “Oh, is my generation going to have to die off, by the way?”

Jimmy Akin:
Well, I believe it was Enrico Fermi who said, science progresses one funeral at a time.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
Because once people get educated in a certain point of view, they tend not to really reexamine it, right? So we’re in a phase where the Herod died 1 BC date is becoming better known because it is the better supported by the evidence, but it’s going to take a while for that to percolate.

In any event, so if Herod dies in 1 BC and Jesus was born a year or two before that, that would put Jesus’ birth maybe in the last half of 3 BC or the first half of 2 BC. And guess what? That’s the date that the church fathers tell us. You have a broad consensus among the church fathers saying Jesus was born in the 28th year of Augustus Caesar, which was 3 BC to 2 BC. So we’ve got independent testimony from there.

We can also calculate it from Luke, because remember Luke said that John the Baptist ministry began in AD 29 and Jesus was about 30. So you back up 30 years from AD 29 remembering that there’s no year zero and you land in 2 BC.

Cy Kellett:
Yes, okay.

Jimmy Akin:
So that all makes sense. So it looks like Jesus was actually born in 2 BC. He was not just about 30, but 30, when he began his ministry in AD 29. So how can we sort out which of the two remaining possibilities? Well, it applies. Well, if he began his ministry in AD 29 and was crucified in AD 30, he had at most a one-year ministry. Whereas if he began his ministry in AD 29 and was crucified in AD 33, then he would have a three to four year ministry. So at this point, we can go back to the gospels for our 6th clue.

The 6th clue is John records Jesus going to Jerusalem for Passover, which he had to do as an observant Jew every year. He records Jesus going to Jerusalem for Passover three times. Jesus goes to Passover in John chapter 2 right after the wedding at Cana. He goes to Jerusalem for Passover, we’re told. And it’s not just he went to Jerusalem, John tells us he went for Passover. So the first Passover that John records Jesus going is in John 2 right after the wedding at Cana. The second is in John 6 in the middle of Jesus’s ministry. And the third is at the end of John 11, and this is the one where he gets crucified.

So if you’re thinking about the amount of time that involves, if you’ve got three Passovers, the minimum amount of time it’s going to involve is two years and a little bit. So if the first Passover, let’s say that’s April 1st, and let’s just pretend Passover occurs on the same year every day, even though it doesn’t, well then the second Passover would be April 1st a year later, and the third Passover would be April 1st a second year later. So you’ve got the minimum timeframe between three Passovers is two years. So if Jesus began his ministry in AD 29 and He then had a two-year ministry, that’s the minimum time, then he couldn’t have been crucified until AD 31. And that means we’ve knocked out the AD 30 date, so it has to be the AD 33 date. And so we can say with high confidence based on the evidence that Jesus’s actual date of death was Friday, April 3rd, AD 33.

Cy Kellett:
That is so precise. That is wild that you can get it to a single day from that entire era. Nice narrowing down, given all the clues.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah. But with the seventh clue, we can narrow it down further because Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the three synoptic gospels, tell us what time of day Jesus was crucified or when he died actually. And they all three say he died at the 9th hour. Well, there were different ways of reckoning hours in the ancient world. And they weren’t as precise as our method. Today we have clocks of 60 minutes and each minute is exactly 60 seconds, so there’s a little flexibility here. But speaking approximately, what they would’ve called the 9th hour, given the way the synoptic gospels wreck in time, is what we would call 3:00 PM. So Jesus died 3:00 PM-ish, could be a little before or after, but 3:00 PM April 3rd AD 33. That’s when the redemption of the world happened.

Cy Kellett:
That’s extraordinary, Jimmy. That is extraordinary to narrow it down like that. Wow.

Jimmy Akin:
And I didn’t always have this opinion. For some time, I was reading all these scholars who were saying AD 30, and I kind of accepted that. But then when I started studying biblical chronology and looked at the actual arguments, it’s like, “Oh wow, the traditional date is better supported by the evidence.” So I had to change my view.

Cy Kellett:
That’s the interesting thing, is that the ancients… It’s a funny thing really to have disregarded the ancients basically because of a misunderstanding of one lunar eclipse, what the ancients had to say or what the Medievals had to say got completely thrown out.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah. Well, the good thing is biblical chronologists, who are a minority in scholarship, the people who actually study the chronology are a very small group of people, they do look at evidence for multiple possibilities, and they look at both sides of arguments. Unfortunately, most biblical scholars don’t do the chronology work. They just accept whatever their seminary professors told them and they don’t really dig into it in this kind of detail. But there are those who have done so, and I find their arguments very convincing.

Cy Kellett:
Jimmy, thank you. Thank you very much for taking the time to walk us through it as we’re approaching the annual commemoration of the date of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. Passover is a movable feast from what you’ve said. I guess I should just emphasize that Passover is not the… It’s not like-

Jimmy Akin:
It’s the same day every year. It does vary. And that’s also why Easter varies from year to year because the Jewish people used a Luna Solar calendar. That means it incorporated information from both what the sun was doing and what the moon was doing.

Now, today in modern America, we use a purely solar calendar. The Gregorian calendar that we use is based on what the sun is doing. It doesn’t care at all what the moon does, and that’s because our months have a fixed number of days. January has 31, February has 28th, although sometimes 29. March has 30 and so forth. But each has a fixed number of days. In the ancient world though, in Jewish world, they determined the length of the month by the sighting of the New Moon. And specifically in Judea, they determined it by the sighting of the New Moon in Jerusalem. It’s actually an interesting study to read about how they did it.

The Jewish people were ruled by the Sanhedrin, and so you needed people to cite the New Moon to say, “Okay, it’s time to announce that we’re in a new month.” But different people have different levels of eyesight. Some people are sharp-eyed, some people are almost blind. So what do you do to figure out whether the new Moon has risen? Well, it required testimony from at least two witnesses since in Jewish law, things shall be confirmed by the mouth of two or three witnesses. So you needed two people to cite the New Moon from Jerusalem.

How do you know they got it right? How do you know that there aren’t lying to you for some reason? Well, they would test them. So if the two witnesses come up to the Sanhedrin and say, “We just saw the New Moon,” they would say, “Okay, so which way were the horns of the new moon pointing? To the right or to the left?” And if they didn’t answer correctly, they’d say, “Ah, we don’t believe you.” And they would declare the New Moon to have been cited the next day because it wasn’t allowed to vary by more than a day.

So because Jewish months are based on the sighting of the New Moon, they don’t have an exactly equal number of days. And so the month in which Passover occurs would drift a little bit on the Jewish calendar, and that’s why Passover would vary a little bit from one year to another.

Now, today on the Gregorian calendar, Easter, the timing of Easter is not determined by the timing of Passover, but it is determined by the first full moon following the spring Equinox. And so because when exactly the first full moon is following the spring equinox on or after the spring Equinox, that varies from year to year. And so that’s why Easter varies from year to year on our calendar.

Cy Kellett:
Jimmy, thanks very much. And all of this, I’m thinking about Dennis the Short too. He did better than Modern Scholars gave him credit. He was a few years closer than-

Jimmy Akin:
He did, yes. So for people who may not know, Dennis the Short or Dennis the Little, to use his Latin name, Dionysius Exiguus, was the monk at Rome who calculated how many years it had been since Jesus was born. And that gave us our modern AD system. That calculation was done by Dionysius Exiguus or Dennis the Short. He calculated that Jesus was born in 1 BC and our best evidence today is that he was born in the back half of three or the first half of two. So he was off by like a year.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, after almost 500.

Jimmy Akin:
[inaudible 00:33:35].

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah, yeah.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah. Pretty good work, Dennis. So sometime 2 or 3 BC Jesus is Born, begins his public ministry at around 29 AD. Dies, as you said, on April 3rd, 33 AD.

Jimmy Akin:
That’s right.

Cy Kellett:
Thank you, Jimmy. I really appreciate that you took the time.

Jimmy Akin:
My pleasure.

Cy Kellett:
All right, that will do it for us. Thank you for listening. If you’ve got a question or a comment about this episode, maybe you want to suggest a future episode, you can always reach us by sending an email to focus@catholic.com. If you would like to support us financially, help keep the lights on as we do this each week, you can do that by going to givecatholic.com, givecatholic.com, and wherever you listen, if you would give us those 5-stars and write a few words in support of what we do here, maybe a nice comment that helps other people to decide whether they’re going to listen and it helps to grow the show. We thank you for your support. That’ll do it for this time. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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