How Old Was Jesus When He Died?

By: Dave Roos  | 
La Pieta
A replica of Michelangelo's "La Pieta" is seen in Forest Lawn's Great Mausoleum in Glendale, California. The famous sculpture shows Mary sorrowfully holding the dead body of her son Jesus after his crucifixion. Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

During the Easter season, Christians celebrate Jesus' resurrection from the dead, just days after his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Whether you're religious, agnostic or atheist, it's hard to ignore the influence of Jesus Christ and the Bible in Western culture. But how much can we really know about the historical Jesus' timeline from Biblical accounts? Do we even know how old Jesus was when he died?

Helen Bond is a religion professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and the co-host (with this author) of a podcast called Biblical Time Machine. She says that the Bible is surprisingly skimpy when it comes to basic details about Jesus — what he looked like, whether he was married, etc. — and is frustratingly vague or contradictory when establishing facts like when Jesus was born and when exactly he died.


"We don't know the dates of anything with any specificity," says Bond, who nonetheless tried to decipher the exact date of the original Easter in an excellent article titled "Dating the Death of Jesus."

Many people who follow the Christian faith believe that Jesus was 30 when he was baptized, and that his earthly mission lasted exactly three years, citing certain biblical passages. This would mean Jesus died at the age of 33. But a closer look at the Bible reveals some fuzzier math.


Wasn't Jesus 30 When He Started His Ministry?

In the New Testament, there are four separate biographies of Jesus known as the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Biblical scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was written first, and that the authors of Matthew and Luke elaborated upon Mark's account. The gospel of John was written last and includes some stories that are not in the earlier texts. Only one of the four gospels directly addresses Jesus' age.

"Mark, the earliest gospel, says nothing at all about Jesus' age," says Bond. "When Luke rewrites Mark's story, he says that 'Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.' Maybe that comes from specific knowledge, maybe it comes from eyewitnesses, or maybe it's his general take on Mark, but that's the only place where we have any kind of age for Jesus."


That verse in Luke 3:23 is the basis for the widespread belief that at age 30 Jesus began publicly teaching and performing miracles. But the text only says that Jesus was "about thirty," which could mean that he was 29, 31 or even a youthful-looking 40.

The only other clue about Jesus' age comes in the gospel of John (John 8:57-59), when Jesus tells a group of Jewish leaders that he knew Abraham, the Old Testament patriarch. "You aren't even 50 years old!" the Jewish leaders reply. "How can you say that you have seen Abraham?"

Taken together, the two verses in Luke and John paint a picture of a youthful Jesus in the prime of his life, but the gospels are not precise about his age. Today we might find this strange, but it wouldn't have fazed people in the first century C.E.

"This was a society where people didn't know with any degree of precision when they themselves were born," says Bond. "It's a modern thing for us to be able to say exactly when things happened."


Didn't Jesus Teach for Three Years?

"The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist"
"The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist" painting is found in the Art History Museum, Vienna. Jesus' public ministry is said to have started around the time John the Baptist began preaching. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

This is another Bible "fact" that isn't as cut-and-dried as you might think.

Nowhere in the New Testament does it explicitly say that Jesus' ministry — from his baptism by John until his crucifixion in Jerusalem — lasted three years. The way that number has been calculated is by counting how many times the Bible says that Jesus traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, the annual Jewish holiday commemorating the Exodus from Egypt.


In Mark, the earliest gospel, there's only one mention of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, during which Jesus is arrested, tried and sentenced to death. By that calculation, some scholars think that Jesus' ministry was just one year or less.

But in the gospel of John, Jesus appears to make three separate pilgrimages to Jerusalem to observe Passover — John 2:13, John 6:4 and John 12:1 — and is killed during the third trip. That's where we get the idea that his ministry was three years long.

In fact, some experts place Jesus' death age at about 37 bearing in mind that he was born during King Herod's reign around 4 or 5 B.C.E., and that John the Baptist started preaching in the 15th year of Roman emperor Tiberius' reign (according to Luke 3:1), which would be 29 C.E. This is also when Jesus began his earthly ministry. Adding in three years for the three Passovers and these scholars determine that Jesus was 36 or 37 years old when he died.

But Bond says that John's repetition of the Jerusalem pilgrimage might reflect the author's theological interests more than any historical reality.

"The author of John is very keen on Jesus coming down to Jerusalem and being the replacement for Jewish feasts," says Bond, "so you have to ask, are there theological reasons for this or did Jesus' ministry really last that long?"

Another strike against the "three-year" theory is that the gospel of John, while important theologically, is "not generally noted for its historical accuracy," Bond says. John was the last of the gospel narratives of Jesus' life to be written, likely between 80 and 100 C.E., putting at least half a century between the author and the events he described.

Where does that leave us? Since it's unclear if Jesus' ministry was one year or three years long, and it's also unclear if Jesus was 30 or "about 30" when he began his ministry, it's very difficult to calculate with any certainty exactly how old Jesus was when he was crucified.