When was Jesus born and when did he die?

I will start this new series that I have translated from my Danish pages by making clear that I actually do believe in the existence of someone who has later become the Jesus of the Gospels and the foundation for the Christian faith, even if I do not believe this person neither was, nor wanted to be, the founder of a new religion. But let me start out with giving my interpretation of when this Jesus lived (his name may actually have been something else, but I will get back to that in a later article).

Jesus lived from year 1 to year 30!
That is what everybody is taught in shool, or rather it was at least in my school days endless years ago. Even then, of course, Bible scholars knew that this was not correct. The time of Jesus' birth was determined hundreds of years after his death by calculating from some most likely misinterpreted facts. The Christian calendar that we use in the West was established by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in 525 AD. The basis of his calculations was a highly uncertain indication of the time of when Jesus began his public ministry; a indication which is mentioned only in the Gospel of Luke. More on that below. Most monks and priests of the period, "knew" that Jesus was born about 750-760 years after the founding of Rome, which was the starting point for the commonly used calendar in the Roman Empire. Dionysius Exiguus based his calculations on this information, but he also wanted to prepare a new Easter calendar which most likely was more important to the early Church than getting the year of Jesus' birth correct. Anyway he determined that Jesus was born in the year 754 after the founding of Rome. However, this year fits very poorly, with indications otherwise mentioned in the New Testament.

Only two of the gospels mention the birth of Jesus and these two gospel do not agree on the year. Luke does not even agree with himself as he suggests two different events from which to set the time of Jesus' birth.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst in the Pomeranian State Museum (source commons.wikimedia.com)

Matthew states that Jesus was born while Herod was king. Herod the Great reigned from 37 BC to 4 BC. If Jesus was born during his reign, he was therefore born no later than 4 BC! However, there is nothing in the Gospel of Matthew that indicate that he was born just before Herod died. The desctiption of the Massacre of the Innocents indicates that he was born at an earlier date. The Massacre of the Innocents will be discussed in more detail in another article. According to Matthew (2.16), Herod ordered that all male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding area that were under two years old should be killed, as it was consistent with the wise men's proclamation that a new king had been born. Jesus thus may have been born up to two years before the infanticide. And this event need not have happened in Herod's last year of life, so the probability indicates that Jesus was born at the latest in the year 6 BC, and perhaps even earlier. Some have suggested that the Star of Bethlehem might have been Halley's comet, which passed the earth around 12 BC. I will get back to the Star of Bethlehem in my next article. Matthew lets the family escape to Egypt, and they only return home when they learn that Herod is dead, suggesting that the family had been abroad for some time.

Luke also suggests in his gospel that Jesus was born "while Herod ruled". At least he mentions that John the Baptist was born while Herod was king (Luke 1.5), and although he does not say so directly, he implies that Jesus was born six months after John. However, the only thing he actually do say, is that the annunciation of Mary took place at the time when Elizabeth was six months pregnant. But maybe Mary was just told that she would have a baby 10 years later? Actually, the gospel just states that Mary visited Elizabeth and stayed there for three months. There is no indication that Mary was already pregnant at this time. In fact, in Luke 1.80, it is told that John grew and became strong in spirit "and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel", and Jesus' birth is not mentioned until the next chapter.

In Luke 2.1-2.2 it says: "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)" Publius Sulpicius Quirinius took over as governor of Syria (of which Palestine was part) in the year 6 AD, and the census was carried out in his first year of government. This contradict the story in Matthew, but as mentioned above Luke also contradicts himself, as Jesus cannot both have been born 6 months after John and therefore at least 10 years previous to Quirinius as well as being born while Quirinius ruled. Also, Luke states that when Jesus began his ministry, he was about 30 years old (Luke 3.23), but at the same time he also states (Luke 3.1 ff) that John began his ministry in the 15th year of Emperor Tiberius, and implies that Jesus began his ministry not long after, when he had been baptized by John. The fifteenth year of Tiberius' was been 28 or 29, and either Jesus must have been born in 2 BC or he was not baptized by John until after the latter had been baptizing and preaching for a few years. The Gospel of John suggests that John and Jesus began their ministries at about the same time, and that their preachings and baptizings overlapped for quite a while (John 3.23). I will get back to the issue on when Jesus was born in my next article about the Star of Bethlehem.

Also, when Jesus was crucified is in fact very uncertain. Cf. above, John the Baptist began his ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius, and it is believed that Jesus began his a short while after that. The three so-called synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) let the time period when Jesus was active be very short. Without being very specific, they all indicate that Jesus was executed on the first Passover after he began his ministry, thus in year 30 AD, which harmonizes very well with the idea that he was around 30 years of age. (Unfortunately, birth year 1 doesn't fit very well as mentioned above as the actual year of his birth). On the other hand the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus' active period lasted for at least 3 years, so if he came forward in 29, he cannot have been executed until 32 AD at the earliest. Several other places in the gospels also indicate between the lines that Jesus preached for a relatively long time alongside John.

The best dating of Jesus' death that can be given, is probably that it could not have happened after the year 36, because that was when Pontius Pilate was summoned back to Rome. He took the position as Prefect of Judaea in the year 26 AD, so Jesus must have been crucified somewhere between 26 and 36. If we disregard the late time table of Luke and believe Matthew, Jesus may have reached the age of 30 already in the early 20s AD, and then his execution may have taken place at any time throughout Pilate's reign. However, there are indications that it was near the at the end of Pilate's term. All the gospels agree that Jesus wass only arrested after the execution of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas. The reason for the execution was that John spoke against Herod's marriage to his sister-in-law, Herodias, who had previously been married to his half-brother. This wedding is believed to have taken place around 33 or 34, and John was in jail for a while before being executed. Jesus also managed to preach for some time after John's execution, so Jesus was probably crucified in either 35 or 36. At least it couldn't have been later as Pilate left Judaea in 36 AD, and in 36 Caiaphas also ended his term as high priest, and it was, according to the gospels, Caiaphas who questioned Jesus before he was sent to Pilate.

Why now this uncertainty? This is probably due primarily to the fact that none of the evangelists aims to portray the historical Jesus. Possibly one or both of the birth stories are later inventions and additons, but if one of them is true (or at least true in some parts), most scholars agree that it is the story in Matthew. He was apparently a Jew, and wrote before Luke. Even if most doubt it, the author of Matthew may have been an eyewitness to some of Jesus' work, which Luke, who was probably a Greek, definitely never was. Most likely, however, none of the evangelists had experienced the events first hand. I have a tendency believe in Matthew more than Luke though, as there are some details in the gospel that make it more believable.

Without being able to say with certainty whether this is a correct assumption, I have a possible explanation for the erroneous timing of Luke. This one is related to where Jesus was born, and I return to that in a future article, but it briefly suggests that Luke wanted to explain why a man, who was know to be a Galilean, was born in Bethlehem in Judea.

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