The Date of Christ's Crucifixion

 Wayne Spencer

Jesus Christ's crucifixion is one of the most important events in the history of the world.  It is an important event to all Christians.  Yet there has not been a good consensus among scholars about the exact date of the crucifixion.  I will follow the work of Cambridge professor Colin Humphreys based on his book, "The Mystery of the Last Supper," published in 2011 [1].  Many authors have suggested various means of resolving all the mysteries about the date of the crucifixion.  Why has it been so difficult to determine the exact date of Jesus' death and the dates of the last week of his life?  First, there are differences between the synoptic gospels in the New Testament and the gospel of John that have puzzled Bible scholars.  Second, though the Passover week celebrations of the Jews are well understood, no written records exist regarding the calendar and New Moon from the time of Christ, as the Jews used them.  It was not until the sixteenth century that the Jewish calendar was formally defined precisely.  Some events regarding the life of Christ and the life of Paul the Apostle, which are mentioned in the New Testament can be dated.  There are also complicated issues about various calendar systems in use at the time of Christ that create confusion.  Many Christian scholars have come to question either the synoptic gospels or the gospel of John because of the difficulties of resolving questions about exactly when Jesus was crucified.  I will not go through all the information in Colin Humphrey's book but I will try to summarize the evidence as I see it.  This historical puzzle shows the historical accuracy of the New Testament in a number of ways.  But it is a challenging issue to unravel.  I believe Colin Humphreys is probably correct that the date of the crucifixion of Christ was Friday April 3, A.D. 33.  April 3 would be the Julian Calendar date; the same day on today's Gregorian calendar is April 1, 33 A.D.  Julian dates are usually used by historians and Bible scholars for events in this time in history.  

I would say there are a couple of lines of argument that can be used to date the crucifixion.  First, is what I would call deduction from all available information.  This is what Colin Humphrey's does well in his book, considering a variety of types of information.  He takes the Bible at face value rather than questioning the details in Scripture in some way, which I believe is the right approach.  I would not always agree with him on some interpretational points but he does well in analyzing the crucifixion date question.  I am more concerned in determining the year than the exact date and day of the week, but it seems you cannot really determine the year confidently without figuring out the exact day and day of the week.  I will go into more detail about this process below.  A second line of argument for the crucifixion date comes from historical testimony and the weight of opinion of Christian scholars through history.  There were Jewish, Christian, and Roman writers from the first and second centuries that refer to Christ and the crucifixion.  The writings on the crucifixion of the historians from the first and second centuries is very interesting.  I will address that below as well.  These historians even mention the darkening of the sky and the earthquake which the gospels describe at the time of the crucifixion.  So, these historical extrabiblical sources are also consistent with the AD 33 date.  Furthermore, the greatest number of Christian scholars through history have held to AD 33 as the year of the crucifixion, though they may have had various views on the exact date and day of week on which it happened.   

The Date by Deduction
To me it seems the place to start with deduction from all the available information is with John the Baptist.  Jesus baptism was apparently not long after the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry.  The gospel of Luke mentions that John the Baptist began his ministry in the 15th year of Ceasar Tiberius (Luke 3:1-3).  Luke clearly goes out of his way to be specific about when this year was, by relating it to six different important officials.  This firmly connects Jesus and the gospels to Roman history.  This year would be AD 29 from Roman historical sources.  We also know from the New Testament that at that time Caiaphas was the Jewish High Priest (Caiaphas is mentioned in Jewish writings) and Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea.  From historical sources telling when these individuals were in office you can show that the possible range of years of the crucifixion to be from AD 26 to AD 36.  Then you can go through a process of elimination to to rule out all these years except AD 33.  This is done carefully in Humphreys book [1].  One of the strengths of Humphrey's book is the way it clarifies calendar issues and the way the Jews counted months, days, and nights.  These aspects of the problem are critical and it shows the Jewish mindset about the calendar and counting days was quite different than our modern mindset.  

The next piece of the puzzle is to determine if Jesus indeed was crucified on a Friday.  If we know the day of the week that the crucifixion took place on, this can be used to rule out a number of the possible years (in the range from AD 26 to AD 36).  Astronomical calculation will help with this, but we first need to answer the day of the week question.  There are a variety of opinions on this question.  Some Christian scholars argue Jesus was crucified on Thursday and some even hold to a Wednesday crucifixion.  There is much that can be brought into the discussion here about the Jewish calendar and Sabbath.  Suffice it to say that the Jewish Sabbath was on Saturday and remember that the Jews considered a 24 hour day cycle to begin at sunset in the evening.  So a 24 hour daily cycle was from sunset to sunset.  The little known aspect of this is something that comes from a famous Jewish Rabbi from the first century, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah.  He made a famous statement to explain how days were counted for certain ceremonial purposes.  He said, "A day and a night are an Onah, and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it."  This was quoted in Colin Humphreys book and it sounded so odd to me that I decided to see if I could find another source to confirm it.  So I found another source of this very quote from the same Rabbi in an old commentary from the 1600's from English Scholar John Lightfoot [2].  The term "Onah" or sometimes "Onath" is a loose way of referring to part of a day.  So the daylight part of a day (or any part thereof) is an onah and the evening is an onah and the entire dark period of the night is also an onah.  This comes from how Jewish scholars would interpret passages such as in Jonah where Jonah was in the belly of the fish for 3 days and also in Esther where Esther prayed and fasted for 3 days when she went to speak with King Xerxes.  Matthew 12:40 says that as Jonah was three days and three nights in the fish, Jesus would be dead three days and three nights.  The difficulty in this is that it mentions three nights as well as three days.  The gospel references where Jesus predicted he would rise in three days are Matt. 12:40, Matt. 26:61, Matt. 27:39-40, Matt. 27:63, Mark 8:31, Mark 9:31, Mark 10:33-34, and John 2:19.  Of all these verses, only Matt. 12:40 mention three nights. The mention of three nights in this verse has prompted some to propose the crucifixion was on a Wednesday or a Thursday.  However, if the crucifixion were on a Wednesday or Thursday this does not seem to fit the proper timing in the Jewish Passover week.  Properly working out the Jewish calendar shows this to work for AD 33 (see C. Humphreys).  It is significant that Jesus be crucified on a Friday because that is the normal time when the passover lamb was sacrificed by the Jews.  Jesus was thus the true final Passover Lamb and he died at the time the passover lambs was normally sacrificed.

So how should we understand the statement about Jesus being dead three days and three nights?  Assume Jesus died Friday afternoon about 3 PM as we reckon time today.  The time from Friday 3 PM to sunset was counted as one day.  Between 3 PM and sunset the Jews had to prepare the body and get it into the tomb, because the Sabbath started Friday evening around sunset.  The onah concept applies to part "days" and whole "days" so that they counted the same.  Though Jesus was alive till Friday afternoon, the period he was dead on Friday counted as both a day and a night.  From Friday evening at sunset to Saturday evening at sunset was an entire 24 hour day cycle, so it also counted as a day and a night.  Then from Saturday evening after sunset till early in the morning on Sunday was a portion of a 24 hour cycle so it also counted as a day and a night, even though Jesus apparently resurrected before Sunrise.  The Jews counted days and nights as if a portion counted like the whole, they did not think in terms of ellapsed time as we do today.  The expression "three days and three nights" then becomes a special idiom that had a different meaning to the Jews than the way we would use it today.  The terms "day" and "night" sort of overlapped in their way of thinking.  Thus, in their mindset, Jesus could say "three days and three nights" and the Jews would not have understood that this had to be a full 72 hours.  Therefore this is how Jesus could have been crucified on Friday and rise from the dead on Sunday, as Christian tradition and Biblical information have always said.

In the Jewish calendar, the first month of a new year was called Nisan.  It corresponds approximately to April in our modern Gregorian calendar.  Nisan was the month the Passover was celebrated, a very important time for the Jews commemorating their deliverance out of slavery in Egypt.  The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar and thus months start with the New Moon.  At New Moon, the Moon is positioned between the Sun and the Earth with the dark side of the Moon facing the Earth.  Thus the New Moon is not visible.  About two weeks after the New Moon is the Full Moon, which corresponds to Passover.  When the Moon "lines up" with the Sun it is referred to by astronomers as being at conjunction (which is the New Moon).  But in the Jewish calendar the Jews would recognize the start of the new month by watching for when the new crescent Moon appeared in the evening, which would be after the conjunction.  When they could see the new crescent Moon in the evening (only visible for a short time in the early evening) they would send runners to announce that the new month had begun.  Passover occurred on either Nisan 14 or 15 about two weeks after the New Moon.  So, we know that when Jesus was crucified had to be a year between AD 26 and 36 in which Nisan 14 or Nisan 15 occurred on a Friday.  This eliminates most of the years in the range from AD 26 to 36, leaving primarily just AD 30 and AD 33 as candidates.  Note that I am oversimplifying a number of calendar complications that are worked out in Humphrey's book.  Those issues do not change the conclusion for various reasons.  One problem with AD 30 being the crucifixion is that it does not allow enough time for Jesus ministry.  Remember that Jesus' baptism was shortly after the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry, which began in AD 29.  Jesus ministry described in the gospels requires either 2 or 3 years, considering the number of times the Passover events occur in the gospels.  Colin Humphreys estimates that Jesus' ministry began in 30 A.D.    

Historical Testimony
There are few historical records that are actually from the time of Christ but there are some records from historians from the second century AD.  There are writings from Roman, Jewish, and Christian writers all known as good historians who mention Jesus Christ in some way, often as they write about Christians.  Among these is a very interesting quote below from a Christian scholar quoting an earlier Roman historian named Phlegon (first and second century).  Jerome (4th century) is quoting Phlegon's 13th book which is a translation of a historical chronicle on the 202nd Olympiad by Eusebius.  Eusebius' records of the Olympics were considered authoritative but were lost, though they are translated and preserved some in the writings of others.  

 

"In the fourth year, however, of Olympiad 202, an eclipse of the sun happened, greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it; at the sixth hour, day turned into dark night, so that the stars were seen in the sky, and an earthquake in Bithynia toppled many buildings of the city of Nicaea." (Jerome) [4]

Another writer, a Christian historian named Sextus Julius Africanus, also commented about Phlegon's writings which connect the above event to the the crucifixion:

"Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Csar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth - manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? . . . And calculation makes out that the period of 70 weeks, as noted in Daniel, is completed at this time."  (Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18.1) [4]


Julius Africanus elsewhere makes the point that what was sometimes referred to as an eclipse of the Sun by Roman writers could not possibly be a solar eclipse because it happened at the wrong time of the month [5].  It is impossible to have the Moon block the Sun at Full Moon, which is when Passover took place.  Thus the darkening of the sky at the crucifixion is very extraordinary.  In fact, it is also quite impossible for a solar eclipse to last for 3 hours.  The source from Jerome above is interesting in that it dates the unusual darkening of the sky by the Olympiad numbering system.  There are some uncertainties in the Olympiad numbering system but it seems from various sources the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad would be either AD 32 or AD 33.  The fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad I believe would include some of the same year as the 203rd Olympiad but the new Olympiad did not start till the Olympics event took place in the Summer.  Since Passover took place in the Spring before the Olympics, I think the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad would be Summer 32 AD to Summer 33 AD.  This would include the April 33 AD date I have used above for the crucifixion.

Another issue to notice in Jerome's quote above is regarding an earthquake that took place at the same time as the mysterious darkening of the sky.  It even mentions buildings collapsing in Nicea, which would be over 1,000 miles Northwest from Jerusalem by land.  I found further confirmation of this earthquake from other sources that also dates it in the year 33 AD.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) keeps a database of what are called "significant" earthquakes.  The website for this is the National Geophysical Data Center (http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov).  On this site you can do a search for earthquakes essentially anywhere in the world, including through history.  I did a search for the years 25 through 35 AD for the nation of Israel.  Only one earthquake in this span of years came up in the results, in 33 AD  The database showed two published geological sources regarding this earthquake.  So that means there has been at least some investigation of it by geologists though I do not know how much.  One of the geological sources is from a British scientific conference in 1853 and the other is from 1985, from a geological conference in Japan.  Thus geological data seem to confirm the 33 AD date.  This is especially significant I think because no other significant earthquakes turned up in Israel for the entire range of years from 25 to 35 AD.  This earthquake did not center near Jerusalem exactly but it was strong enough to be very noticable in effects at Jerusalem if it did damage in Nicea.  

From all the information above I believe there is a fairly strong convergence of evidence that Christ's crucifixion was in April of 33 AD. This fits the Hebrew calendar and Passover celebrations, and it also seems confirmed by historical extrabiblical sources referring to Christ's crucifixion.  If the above quotes about the crucifixion sky darkening and the earthquake are correct and actually correspond to the crucifixion, then we have historical evidence for miracles at the crucifixion.  The darkening of the sky I suspect was just a pure miracle, not caused by any natural phenomena.  The earthquake on the other hand was a natural process miraculously timed to occur at the crucifixion.  The evidence for Christ's resurrection is also historical evidence of a miracle.  This may seem hard to accept for some.  But consider how do we know anything about history?  What constitutes good historical evidence? Archeological study of artifacts or buried structures is helpful but archeologists would often consider an ancient written source to be more important than an artifact because you need to know something to give the artifact a context.  The written testimony from outside the Bible confirms some of the main events, people, and places mentioned in the New Testament.  So, we have evidence as strong for these miracles at the crucifixion and resurrection as we have for many other events in history that no one ever questions.  Though historical data may be sketchy on some issues sometimes, regarding Christ's crucifixion, the evidence we have confirming the New Testament is I think very persuasive.  Roman historical sources confirm that Jesus Christ lived on Earth and died by crucifixion.  Every person needs to deal with the questions of who Jesus is and what his death means.  Christ still changes lives like he did in the first century.

 

References

  1. Humphreys, Colin J., The Mystery of the Last Supper  Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2011.
  2. Barton, Bill, This webpage quotes John Lightfoot explaining the "onah" concept.  It also gives a link to download Lightfoot's entire New Testament commentaries in four volumes as free PDF files.  Volume 2 contains the quotes on this webpage.  http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-greek/2000-May/011873.html
  3. Pratt, John, webpage by astronomer John Pratt on Isaac Newtons approach to determining the date of the crucifixion: http://www.johnpratt.com/items/docs/newton.html.  Another related page by Pratt regarding the seventy weeks prophecy of Daniel and Newton's analysis is http://www.johnpratt.com/items/docs/lds/meridian/2004/daniel.html
  4. http://www.neverthirsty.org/pp/historical-secular-quotes-about-jesus/phlegon.html
  5. http://www.ichthus.info/CaseForChrist/Archeology/intro.html

 

Updated May 2013
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