Date of Jesus' Death

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46 years to build Herod's Temple

"The Jews said, 'This temple has been under construction for forty-six years." [www.usccb.org/bible/john/2:17 (Jn 2:20).]

NAB footnote: "Forty-six years: based on references in Josephus (Jewish Wars 1, 21, 1 #401; Antiquities 15, 11, 1 #380), possibly the spring of A.D. 28. Cf. note on Lk 3:1."

If this is the right way to interpret John 2:20, then that, in turn, suggests that Jesus died in the spring of 30 AD (two Passovers later, therefore two years later).

Synoptics vs. John

Passover is dated by lunar cycles. It can fall on any day of the week. If we can rely on the tradition that Jesus died on a Friday, then John is identifying a different year from that specified in the synoptic gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk).

Pontius Pilate was procurator from 26 AD to 36 AD. That narrows things down somewhat; I think it has to be a historical fact that Jesus was crucified while Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea.

Here is one calculation of Passover dates from 26 AD to 34 AD:

AD Passover Meal (after sunset) Passover Day (until sunset)
26 Sat 20 April Sun 21 April
27 Thu 10 April Fri 11 April
28 Tue 27 April Wed 28 April
29 Sun 17 April Mon 18 April
30 Thu 6 April Fri 7 April[1]
31 Tue 24 April Wed 25 April
32 Sun 13 April Mon 14 April
A: 33 Fri 3 April Sat 4 April
B: 33 Sat 2 May Sun 3 May
34 Wed 21 April Thu 22 April

The author argues for Wednesday being the day of Passover. I'm inclined to disagree with that interpretation.

In the synoptics (Mt, Mk, Lk), the Last Supper is a Passover meal and Jesus dies the day AFTER Passover; in John, the Last Supper is not a Passover meal and Jesus dies the day BEFORE passover. If our liturgical tradition has preserved the truth that Jesus died on a Friday, and if the calculations for the Passover dates given above are correct, and if I have interpreted them correctly, then the synoptic year would be 27 AD or 30 AD and the Johannine year would be 33 AD.

A date of 33 AD seems nice to me--but it places a strain on Luke's estimate that Jesus was born in 4 BC, was "about 30" when He started His public ministry, that the public ministry lasted just a year or less (there is only one Passover in the synoptics), and that Jesus died the day AFTER the Passover meal. If we want to insist that Luke got the birth year right (in or before 4 BC) and that he is right about Jesus' age, then that suggests 27 AD--six years before the Johannine date.

I'm not too anxious about any of this. Our salvation comes from Jesus' priestly action of offering Himself as our Passover Lamb; we are saved by the blood of the Lamb, not by knowing exactly when He made this offering for us.

Different Days for Passover Implies Different Years

There is no universally agreed-on calendar of Jewish festivals at the time of Jesus. There are conflicting rules and conflicting evidence about possible dates.

For the Jews, "Preparation Day" for Passover was 14 Nisan. The lambs for the Passover meal were supposed to be slaughtered late in the afternoon. This is the day and the time of Jesus' death on the Cross, according to John. Our Paschal Lamb--the Lamb of God--shed His blood for us at the same time that the Paschal lambs were being sacrificed.

15 Nisan began after the sunset that ends 14th Nisan. This is when the Passover meal was celebrated, with lamb as the main course.

One last problem in trying to diagram the two different accounts is that a Jewish day runs from sunset to sunset rather than from midnight to midnight. Except for Shabbat (the Sabbath), the other days of the weeks are numbered rather than named.

Synoptics vs. John
Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Fifth day Sixth day Shabbat First day
Synoptics 14 Nisan 15 Nisan 16 Nisan 17 Nisan
         Preparation Day: Lambs killed in the afternoon. Last Supper is the Passover Meal Death of Jesus Sabbath begins at sunset Sabbath rest until sunset First day begins Women find empty tomb
John 13 Nisan 14 Nisan 15 Nisan 16 Nisan
Last Supper not a Passover Meal Preparation Day: Death of Jesus and Passover lambs Passover Meal Passover Day plus Day of the Lord Mary Magdalene visits tomb.

John's gospel seems to be more historically probable than the synoptics because the whole first day of Passover week was a day of rest (a sabbath) in its own right, regardless of which day of the week on which it fell. It seems very unlikely that the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin would have taken place on a sabbath.

In this way of reading John's gospel and the synoptics, the difference about which day of the week on which the Passover meal was eaten (in our terms, on Thursday or Friday) implies a great difference in the year of Jesus' death--27 AD, 30 AD, or 33 AD. The Jews followed a Lunar calendar, so, as happens with Easter, the day of Passover can occur anywhere in a broad range of dates in March and April. A year in which Passover falls on a Thursday is a very different year from one in which Passover falls on a Friday.

Newton's argument for AD 33

Sir Isaac Newton followed John's gospel and searched for the dates during Pilate's reign as prefect of Judea when 14th Nisan fell on a Friday.

Note that Newton made different assumptions about how to calculate Passover, so his dates differ from the table given above--except for 3 April 33 AD.

AD
31 28 March Wed
32 14 April Mon
33 3 April Fri
34 23 April Fri
35 13 April Wed
36 31 Mar Sat

3 April 33 AD was also the date of a solar eclipse seen in Jerusalem, which could correspond to the darkness noted at the time of Jesus' death in some of the gospels.

References

  1. This is the date favored by Raymond E. Brown. He believes Jesus was age 36 at the time of His death.

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