What year did Jesus die?
Several proposals for solving the Passover dating of Jesus’ death rely on astronomical calculations that are tied to the calculated year that Jesus died.
Three researchers whose work appeared long before I began to even think about these things are Roger Rusk, a former professor of Physics and two Christian ministers, Arthur M. Ogden and Jack W. Langford. The former two, writing in 1984 and 1987 respectively, seem to base their astronomical data on the work of Rusk in 1974. Rusk and Langford use similar reasoning to my own to come up with a Thursday Passover, while Ogden is uncertain of whether Jesus died on Thursday or Friday, but concludes with the other two that Jesus died on Passover, just before the First Day of Unleavened Bread in A.D. 30.
Dating From the Start of Jesus’ Ministry
A direction many have tried to start from is to calculate the year of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Luke 3:1-3 provides a clue by mentioning that John the Baptist’s ministry began in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. There are complications regarding exactly which year Luke is using as the start of Tiberius’ reign, since he was co-regent with his predecessor for about one year. Did Luke begin with his co-regency (11 A.D.) or with his solo reign (14 A.D.)? The former would place the start of John’s and Jesus’ ministries in 26 or 27 A.D. The latter would begin the ministries in 28 or 29 A.D.
Also, we are not told exactly how long between John’s ministry start and that of Jesus’. We are not told exactly how long Jesus’ ministry was, though the mention by John of three Passovers in his Gospel implies a 3 year or 3.5 year ministry. This would narrow the range of Jesus’ death from 29 to 32 A.D.
In an article in Truth Magazine (Volume 28, no. 10, pp. 296-297, May 17, 1984) Arthur Ogden points out another clue, found in a rebuttal to Jesus’ statement “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19-20). They reply, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and will thou rear it up in three days?”
As Ogden notes, “There statement is significant because the temple at that time was still under construction and was not completed until A.D. 64. The temple work was started by Herod the Great in the eighteenth year of his reign, or 19 B.C. Counting forty-six years from 19 B.C. brings us to 27 A.D. Jesus was in Jerusalem for the observance of the first Passover of His ministry (A.D. 27) when this discussion took place (Jn. 2:13). It is thought that John records three other Passovers observed by Jesus during His ministry (Jn. 5:1; 6:4; 12:1). If so, Jesus’ death came in 30 A.D. three years after His first Passover observance.”
Ogden also tells that a table reconstructing Passover dates for the years 27 to 34 A.D. appeared in the March 29, 1974 Christianity Today. According to historical sources A.D. 27 is too early and A.D. 34 is too late, so it must be between 28 and 33 inclusively. In A.D. 30 Passover (Nisan 14) fell on a Thursday according to that calendar. He also notes that A.D. 30 is the only year between 28 and 33 in which Passover falls on a Thursday.
At this point Ogden does not know for certain whether Jesus died on the 14th or 15th of Nisan, which correspond respectively to April 6 and 7, A.D. 30. But he is certain he has the right year.
The table that Ogden refers to is available online. It was compiled by Roger Rusk for the Christianity Today article titled “The Day He Died” that was mentioned by Ogden. A similar table has been published by the United States Naval Observatory. The USNO chart indicates that the full moon following the new moon after the spring equinox occurred on Thursday, April 6 in A.D. 30, following a March 22 new moon at 6:00 p.m. It seems to confirm Rusk’s chart.
Rusk is also certain that the year was A.D. 30. He also used reasoning similar to mine to conclude that Jesus died on the Thursday at 3:00 p.m. A Friday crucifixion would have Jesus making the journey from Galilee to Bethany on the Sabbath, which is exceedingly unlikely.
A Thursday crucifixion would allow Palm Sunday to be the 10th day of the Jewish month, making it the day Jews separated the Passover lambs from the herd. Doing the math and checking against astronomical calculations of new moons from A.D. 26 to A.D. 35 (the years of Pilate’s Governorship) he concludes the most likely date was April 6, A.D. 30.
As noted in the previous post, Jack W. Langford also used similar reasoning to arrive at a date of April 6, A.D. 30 in his Bible study (originally compiled in 1984) “Christ Our Passover: A Harmony of Events at the Death of Christ With the Annual Jewish Passover.” Not only does he harmonize the Passover lamb separation on the 10th with Jesus’ triumphal Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, he also goes so far as to coordinate Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday morning during the Jewish priestly offering of the “wave sheaf” with the 7-week countdown to Pentecost Sunday.
It is good to know that this information has been available in print for up to four decades now. I was simply re-inventing the wheel with my own investigation.
Dating From the Fall of Jerusalem
A direction that some church historians have tried to work from is to count the time from the destruction of Jerusalem backward to Jesus’ death, based on some clues from history and the Babylonian Talmud.
On the 10th of August, in A.D. 70 — the 9th of Av — in Jewish reckoning, the very day on the Jewish calendar when the King of Babylon burned the Temple in 586 B.C., the Temple was burned again. Titus took the city and put it to the torch, burning the Temple.
According to the Babylonian Talmud, Mishna, Yoma 39a, four series of unusual events took place over the 40 years before the destruction of the Temple.
1 – The lot used to select the goat “for the Lord” for the ceremony of the Day of Atonement always came up in the left hand of the priest, and never the right hand. (Before this, during the leadership of a priest nicknamed Simeon the Righteous it had always come up in the right hand and never the left as in indicator of God’s blessing. After Simeon’s death and prior to the 40 years it alternated between left and right hands.)
2- The red thread or “strap” that had usually become white on the Day of Atonement during the leadership of Simeon the Righteous never became white again during the 40 years prior to the destruction. This apparently indicated God’s displeasure.
3 – The Temple doors, which normally would require 20 strong men to open or close, would swing open at random intervals for no apparent reason at the beginning of those 40 years, until a Rabbi rebuked them.
4 – A bright light that had begun appearing from the west at specific times during Simeon’s tenure never appeared again during that 40 year span until the Temple was destroyed.
If the Talmudic source is correct, Jesus’ death probably occurred about 40 years before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., making 29 or 30 A.D. the most likely years that Jesus died. Note that the Day of Atonement prior to Jesus’ death would have had to be when the strange events began happening if A.D. 30 was the year of Jesus’ death. Nobody would have noticed anything strange until at least the second or third year.
In conclusion to this series, my analysis of the 3 days/3 nights of Jesus’ prophecy led me to the conclusion that Jesus was probably killed on a Thursday afternoon at about 3:00 p.m. If the Christianity Today Passover calendar by Rusk, and Ogden’s, Langford’s and my analyses are correct, Jesus died Thursday, April 6, 30 A.D. and rose from the dead just before dawn on Sunday, April 9, 30 A.D.
It is not necessary for salvation to know exactly when Jesus died. It does, however, enable me to confidently tell people that Jesus Christ was a real, living person who changed the world with a revolutionary life, death and resurrection.
Since Sunday, April 9, A.D. 30 Jesus has been alive and leading his church from his seat at the right hand of the God Father.
I am pretty confident that, just as his first coming, death and resurrection fulfilled many Old Testament types and prophecies already, his return will also fulfill any remaining biblical types and prophecies. I am completely confident that God knows exactly what he is doing.
He promises. He delivers.
When his work of saving is fully completed, he will be fully glorified.
And all of humanity will be in complete awe of our amazing God’s grace and justice.