Biblical math is tricky stuff, and centuries of Bible scholars (and even some scientists) have scoured the New Testament trying to calculate the exact date when Jesus died. The leading contenders are April 7, 30 C.E. or April 3, 33 C.E. Why two different dates? You'll see in a minute.
For expert assistance, we recruited Helen Bond, religion professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and co-host (with this author) of a podcast called Biblical Time Machine.
The Jewish calendar at the time was lunar, meaning that the first date of each month was determined by when the light of a new crescent moon was visible in the holy city of Jerusalem. The setting sun meant the end of one day and the new moon meant the beginning of the next. Daylight hours were measured from sunrise, so the first hour was 6 a.m., the third hour was 9 a.m., the sixth hour was noon, and the ninth hour was 3 p.m. Some of these times were included in the biblical accounts of Jesus' crucifixion. For instance, Luke 23:44-46 says:
"It was now about the sixth hour [noon], and darkness came over the entire land until the ninth hour [3 p.m.], because the sun stopped shining; and the veil of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last."
All four of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) agree on a basic chronology of events ending with Jesus' crucifixion on a Friday:
● Thursday evening: Jesus Christ shared a meal (known as "the Last Supper") with his disciples and was arrested later that night.
● Friday morning: Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, and executed Friday afternoon.
● Friday evening: Jesus was hastily buried in the tomb right before sunset on Friday, the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
We can be fairly sure that the date we're looking for has to land on a Friday. So far, so good.
What about the year? The Bible does not give us a lot of specific dates, but it does reference specific historical figures. By cross-referencing those names with dates provided by outside sources (mostly the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus), we can be fairly certain that the death of Jesus happened sometime within these time frames:
● The reign of Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor: 14 C.E. to 37 C.E.
● When Pontius Pilate was prefect in Judaea: 26 C.E. to 36 C.E.
● When Caiaphas was high priest in Jerusalem: 18 C.E. to 36 C.E.
However, there are still some other timeline issues to try and resolve.
Was Jesus Killed on Passover or the Day Before?
Here's where we run into our first disagreement. All four gospel accounts agree that Jesus was killed on a Friday sometime during the Passover holiday, but was it on Passover itself or was it the day before?
● In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (known collectively as the "synoptic" gospels), Passover falls on a Friday, so Jesus was tried and killed on the very day of Passover.
● In the gospel of John, however, Passover falls on a Saturday, so Jesus was tried and killed the day before Passover, known as the Day of Preparation. (A Passover feast would have had to be prepared the day before the Sabbath, because of the biblical injunction to do no work on the Sabbath.)
Why is it so important whether Passover landed on a Friday or a Saturday? Because that will determine in which years the crucifixion could have happened. Thanks to computers, we can search for dates between 26 and 36 C.E. (when the date ranges above overlap) and when Passover either landed on a Friday or a Saturday.
● April 11, 27 C.E. (Mark, Matthew, Luke) on Passover
● April 7, 30 C.E. (John), the day before Passover
● April 3, 33 C.E. (John), the day before Passover
Most scholars think that 27 C.E. is too early, since the gospel of Matthew indicates that John the Baptist began preaching in the "fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius," which would have been 28 C.E. at the earliest. In the Bible's chronology, Jesus begins his mission after John, so 28 C.E. is the absolute earliest starting date.
And that's how biblical scholars ended up with two finalists for the date of Jesus' crucifixion: April 7, 30 and April 3, 33.
Bond writes that the majority of scholars side with April 7, 30, as the true date. This is the date favored by people who believe that Jesus' mission was relatively short or that it began as early as 28 C.E. A smaller group of scholars are just as certain about April 3, 33, believing that Jesus' mission lasted three years and started closer to 30 C.E. They also affirm this date because it coincided with a lunar eclipse, which Pilate may have referenced in a letter to the emperor Tiberius.
Or Was It Another Date?
Faced with contradicting gospels and four possible dates for the crucifixion, Bond has her own theory: They're all wrong. Or to put it another way, the gospel writers were less concerned with historical accuracy than with writing a spiritually and theologically compelling narrative.
In John's gospel (specifically John 19:14), Jesus is crucified at noon on the Day of Preparation for the Passover, the exact time when the paschal lambs were being slaughtered for the ritual Passover meal or seder.
"John chose to time the crucifixion with the Day of Preparation for theological reasons," says Bond. "The whole point for John is that Jesus is the new Passover lamb. He's going to die on the cross as the new Passover sacrifice."
Mark's gospel, too, had its own theological motivations for choosing Passover itself as the day that the Romans crucified Jesus.
"According to Mark, the Last Supper takes place at exactly the same time as the other Jews are celebrating the Passover seder," says Bond. "Mark wants to say that the Last Supper, with its institution of the Lord's Supper (the bread and wine), is a sort of replacement for the Passover meal."
Bond thinks that it's far more likely that Jesus was arrested and killed several days or even a week before Passover. It makes sense that both the Jewish authorities and Pilate would have wanted to be rid of this "troublemaker" before the holiday began. But if Jesus' followers knew that he was crucified "around Passover" or "at Passover time," the juxtaposition of Jesus' death and Passover would have grown increasingly significant.
By the time the gospels were written, decades after the events they describe, "Passover would have had this magnetic pull, so that everything ends up happening 'on the Passover' instead of 'around the time of Passover,'" says Bond. "Both of the dates in John and Mark are probably wrong historically, but they represent important early reflections on the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection."
Now That's Interesting
While a Friday crucifixion date is the leading candidate, some scholars argue for a Wednesday crucifixion. The reason is that Wednesday would allow Jesus to be buried for three full days and nights, as the biblical accounts say, although knowing what we now know about the Jewish calendar of the time, a part of a day would be included in a day count. So, a Friday-to-Sunday death, burial and subsequent resurrection would count as three full days in the Jewish calendar.
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