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The seekers' guide to the Bible

The historicity and accuracy of the New Testament

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A guide to dating

Figuring out the dates of events in the NT is a fun but ultimately frustrating experience. We might hope that we could piece together the various references to times and end up with an accurate chronology. No such luck. There are probably some mistakes in the Gospels that mean we have to decide which dates we will accept.

Let me list the dates associated with the life of Jesus:

  • At 2:1, Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in the reign of Herod the Great. At 2:16 we learn Jesus could have been born up to two years before Herod orders the massacre of the innocents.
  • At 1:5, Luke says that John the Baptist was conceived during the reign of the same Herod and at 1:26 that Jesus was conceived six months later.
  • At Luke 2:1, we find the census that sent Joseph to Bethlehem was the first under Quirinius.
  • At Luke 3:1, John starts his ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberius when Pilate was governor of Judea.
  • At Luke 3:23, Jesus is said to be about thirty when he began his ministry.
  • At John 2:20, the Jews say that the temple has been forty six years in the building as at the present time.
  • There are two Passovers mentioned in John (2:13, 6:4) before the passion although the synoptic Gospels imply that Jesus' ministry lasted only one year.

From external sources (mainly Josephus) we know that:

  • Herod the Great died in 4 BC or 3 BC at the latest.
  • Quirinius's census was in 6 AD when it caused a revolt.
  • Tiberius started to reign in 14 AD, although he was joint emperor from 12 AD. His fifteenth year could have been 26 AD or 28 AD.
  • Pilate was governor of Judea from 26 - 36 AD.
  • The temple was started in the 18th year of Herod the Great's reign (19 BC).

In fact in his Jewish Antiquities, Josephus says the temple was started in the eighteenth year of Herod's reign whereas in his Jewish War he says the fifteenth. John Meier (A Marginal Jew Volume 1, 1992) among others thinks the later date correct. The picture is further confused by the fact that Herod was conferred with the kingship by Mark Antony in 40 BC but only gained control of Jerusalem in 37 BC. Josephus always seems to measure the start of the reign from this later date. However, in the end 19 BC is only the most likely date.

The problem with Luke's chronology is that he seems to connect Quirinius with the birth of Jesus. That means that Mary had a ten year pregnancy (since she conceived at most six months after Herod died) and that Jesus was only about twenty four when He was baptized. So the Quirinius link has to be a mistake. Is it Luke's mistake? Well, it is argued that Luke 2:2 should read that the census was before Quirinius was governor. Alternatively, Quirinius could have been governor before 6 AD or by 'governor' Luke might mean something more general. The most likely answer is that Luke has made a mistake and we should ditch this bit of dating evidence. If we do, the rest fits together rather well.

Jesus was born between 6 and 4 BC. He started his ministry in 28 AD aged about thirty and it lasted for a bit over two years. John's Gospel claims he cleansed the temple at the Passover of 28 AD (although the others say this happened in 30AD) and was crucified under Pontius Pilate in 30 AD. Note, we go for Josephus' later date for the start of the temple being rebuilt and the earlier date for Tiberius' fifteenth year. In fact, I imagine Luke knew Jesus died in 30 AD and, thinking His ministry only lasted a year, counted back a couple of years to 28 AD for the start of John the Baptist's.

There is a final piece of the puzzle that is for me, a physics graduate, conclusive in fixing the day of the crucifixion, if not the year. It also supports the primacy of John's Gospel. On the other hand, most NT scholars, perhaps distrusting science, tend to understate this particular point. As you can read here, the crucifixion must have taken place in either 30 AD or 33 AD on 14 Nisan as reported by John. Scholars do tend to go for one of these two but which one depends on how much weight they put on Luke starting John's ministry in 28AD.  I have found 33 AD and 30 AD to be equally popular while Robin Lane Fox holds out for 36AD which is far too late. When we get on to Paul we will find that even 33 AD does seem to be too late to fit in with the chronology of the letter to the Galatians.  So Jesus must have been crucified in 30AD as traditionally believed

The life of Jesus and early Christianity

Only the Gospel of John enables us to reconstruct the life of Jesus although events in other Gospels help as well. The synoptic Gospels seem to imply that Jesus's ministry only lasted for a year. They also think it all took place in Galilee before a final visit to Jerusalem in the last week. John disagrees and has a three year ministry that involved frequent trips between Galilee and Judea.

If we assume that John the Baptist started to preach in 26 AD we can expect that Jesus was baptized early in 27 AD and was in Jerusalem for that year's Passover. That means that the forty six years mentioned at John 2:20 would be correct. I find this number convincing as usually we expect ritual numbers (three, seven and forty) to feature when the author is unsure of the real one. The use of an exact figure suggests that John must have known that it was accurate.

The synoptic Gospels put the cleansing of the temple in the last week of Jesus's life and this, of course, contradicts John. We can find the solution in Papias who said that Mark did not write what Jesus had said and done in order. We are therefore able to treat the chronology of the synoptics with some scepticism with the backing of the early fathers.

John takes us through over two years of Jesus's ministry until we reach the final week in Jerusalem before the Passover of 30 AD. During that time we also have the feeding of the five thousand (John 6). Many elements of Jesus's last week are also in the synoptics: the anointing (John 12:1); the triumphal entry (12:12); the last supper (John 13 - 17); the arrest, the trial before the High Priest and Peter's denials (John 18:1 - 27); the trial before Pilate and the release of Barabbas (John 18: 28 - 19:16) and the crucifixion (John 19:17 - 37).

From the lunar evidence giving us the date of 30 AD, we can say that the death of Jesus took place on Friday 7 April. After that, dates get harder to come by as Acts does not contain many. We can fix Herod Agrippa I's death (Acts 12:23) to 44 AD from Josephus. We also find the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) must have taken place at least seventeen years after the conversion of Paul (Galatians 1:18, 2:1). This means the Council must have taken place after 48 AD.

Then we know Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians from Corinth where he is placed by Acts 18:12 while Gallio was governor of Achaia (that is, Greece). An inscription from Delphi places Gallio's governorship to 51-52 AD. Paul is finally sent to Rome to appeal by the governor of Judea, Festus, who replaced his predecessor, Felix, in 59 AD. Therefore Acts ends after Paul has been under house arrest in Rome for two years in 62 AD.

The darkness

The point about the lunar eclipse in the link on the date of the crucifixion is one I tend to discount. It is coupled with the sun going dark and is part of an OT prophecy (Acts 2:28 - 32). Besides this great darkness, attested to by all three synoptic Gospels, would surely be mentioned by secular sources. It was, after all, a very public event.

In fact, there are two other attestations but both are only known as quotations from later Christian writings. In ancient history, this is a depressingly familiar situation that rather gives lie to the assertion that Christians preserved everything of use to them.

The two sources are Thallus (quoted by Julius Africanus in about 220 AD) who wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean, possibly in about 50 AD. He mentions the darkness and calls it an eclipse of the sun. This is astronomically impossible as an eclipse cannot take place at a full moon. Another source, Phlegon from around 80 AD, also mentions the darkness, saying it took place at a full moon during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Origen and Africanus quote him.

Triple attestation usually satisfies even the most sceptical historian although it is a pity that Josephus does not mention it. The fact remains that the cause of the darkness is a mystery as it could not have been an eclipse. Given it was probably localized around Jerusalem it might have been a dust storm or just very dark low clouds.

The census

We have already found that Luke's point about Quirinius does not fit. Inerrantists have written at length on this issue to try and show how Luke might be right.  Sceptics take great delight in pointing to the obvious contradiction. I cannot say for sure that Luke has made a mistake on the date but I think he probably did. What about the census?

We find Matthew knows nothing of Luke's account of the annunciation and obviously assumes that Joseph and Mary were previously living in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:23). Luke, however, is aware that Jesus' family is from Nazareth (Luke 2:39) and also that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Even John knows this but makes the point that it was not known during Jesus' ministry (John 7:42).

So Luke needs to explain why Joseph was in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Until recently the census looked like a fabrication to justify this but an inscription by a certain Vibius Maximus from 104AD has turned up in Egypt that shows that moving to the district of one's birth for a census was sometimes the practice. The decree of Augustus is the worldwide move to a different form of taxation that did necessitate a census all over the Empire. It took decades to complete.

The problem remains that we know nothing of a census in Judea before 6AD and the area was a client state under King Herod at the time. The later point is not very serious as Herod ruled because the Romans let him. The senate in Rome had voted for his kingship. When his successor, Antipas, annoyed them he was banished and Quirinius sent in. Herod would have conducted the census at the time of Jesus' birth on the orders of the Romans to determine how much tribute money he owed them. Josephus tells us that Mark Antony only sponsored his kingship for the promise of a great deal of money!

The census is therefore not very unlikely and the fact that Luke knows that Jesus' family was from Nazareth and that he was born in Bethlehem seems to suggest there must be a reason for this odd move.

Acts and Paul's letters

It is often alleged that Paul, in his letters, contradicts the parts of Acts that deal with him. I have never been able to get very excited about his because Luke is not always being as exact as we might like. For instance, at Acts 9:25 we find that Paul left Damascus not long after his conversion by being lowered over the walls. In the next paragraph he seems to be going straight to Jerusalem but we know from Galatians he fled instead to Arabia. Indeed, going to Jerusalem when the Jews are after your blood would be a bit foolish.

Likewise, when he finally got to Jerusalem, Paul says he only saw Peter of the apostles and James. Luke says he met the disciples - that is not the twelve themselves who would have been dispersed far and wide my then. From Acts 12:17 we learn that James was probably head of the Jerusalem church when Peter was away so it is these two we would expect Paul to meet.

We also do not know whether the meeting described in Galatians 2 is the one in Acts 11 or Acts 15. As I have mentioned above, for timing reasons I strongly prefer the later. There is also a problem with the worldwide famine mentioned by Luke at Acts 11:28. Luke is exaggerating here and the famine is probably a poor harvest in Egypt - the Empire's bread basket. Any surplus grain would be shipped to Rome before it was available for less important locales.  Papyrus fragments unearthed in Egypt show that grain prices were exceptionally high in 46AD.

The final question on Acts is why it ends where it does. You might expect a biography of Paul to end with his death rather than him under house arrest. The simplest answer is that Acts was written in 62 AD while Paul was still at Rome. This would explain its lack of reference to his movements after that date. Naturally, liberal scholars could never accept such an early date for Acts and say that Luke ended when he did because he did not want his work to finish on the sad note of Paul dying.

A long analysis of the challenges to Acts is given here by a knowledgeable, if highly partisan, writer. I would admit that given Luke is writing after 62 AD about events twenty years before at which he was not present, one or two errors might have crept into his work.


The first half of Acts is all about Peter but he does not get a mention after 15:7. However, we know he went to Antioch because he had a row with Paul there (Galatians 2:11) which seems to have occurred after the Council of Jerusalem. We know Peter was married (1 Corinthians 9:5, Mark 1:30) and had been since before he met Jesus. Little else is known for certain and we have to feel around for clues.

Acts 12:17 has Peter escaping from Herod Agrippa I's clutches in Caesarea and heading for 'another place'. Exactly where is a mystery but Rome has been plausibly suggested. It probably was not Jerusalem as that would have meant he remained at the mercy of Agrippa.  Peter also asked for news to be sent to James who was head of the church there. The other possibility is Antioch although Paul only reports he was there later. Given that Paul could write to the Romans in 55 AD, someone must have gone and preached to them. Earlier still, the Roman historian Suetonius in his life of Claudius at 25.4 tells us that the emperor had kicked the Jews out of Rome in about 49 AD and associates the trouble with one 'Chrestus'. It looks like Jewish Christian converts and orthodox Jews had been disturbing the peace so the Emperor had ordered them all to leave. At Acts 18:2, Paul meets one of the Jews who had been forced out.

All this suggests someone had been to Rome before 49 AD and Peter would definitely be the man for the job. Still, we are miles short of proof. Clearly Peter would have had to return for the Council of Jerusalem in 48 AD.

Much later on we find Peter was probably in Rome again. Babylon is used in the NT to describe Rome, especially in Revelation. At 1 Peter 5:13, the writer of this letter says it comes from Babylon which we can safely assume means Rome. Whether or not we accept 1 Peter is actually by the apostle, this is strong evidence that he was at Rome late in his life as a pseudographer would only put in details that could apply to Peter.

John 21:19 gives an early clue as to how Peter met his end. It clearly means that he was crucified. That it happened in Rome under Nero is suggested by the famous passage from the Annals of Tacitus (written in 109AD) that describes how Nero blamed the Christians for the fire in Rome during 64AD. That Peter was crucified upside down is an early church tradition attested by Tertullian at the end of the second century. We can speculate on little more than that.

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� James Hannam 2003.
Last revised: 08 June, 2013 .