John was baptising in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1), which would be 29AD. It is widely accepted that Tiberius reigned from 14-37 AD. If the date for Tiberius Caesar’s reign is correct, Jesus must have commenced his ministry fairly soon after John did, as Jesus was about 30 at this time (Luke 3:23). We know that Jesus was born at least a year or two before the death of Herod the Great. Many people think that Herod died in 4BC, but I feel this is unlikely.
We read in Josephus1 of a lunar eclipse not long before Herod’s death. The four astronomically possible lunar eclipses are 8 BC, 4 BC, January 1 BC, December 1 BC. The earlier eclipses would make Jesus too old to be about thirty years old at the start of his ministry. This leads to the conclusion that Herod died in 1 BC or 1 AD. See below for other reasons the 1 AD date is more probable, in my opinion2. If this date is correct, it would accommodate the birth of Jesus in about 2 BC, meshing in with the age described in Luke 3:23 of Jesus being about 30 at the beginning of his ministry.
Determining the age of Jesus at his death
We know Jesus’ age at the beginning of his ministry, so if we add on the length of his ministry, we know how old he was when he died. But how long was Jesus ministry? Scripture doesn’t give us this answer in so many words, but we can work out a possible answer by counting the number of Passovers mentioned. The gospel account by John, refers to 3 Passover feasts and another feast which could be the Passover:
- John 2:23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.
- John 5:1 After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
- John 6:4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.
- John 11:55 Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves.
So during Jesus’ ministry, there were at least 3 Passover feasts, or possibly 4. This means that Jesus’ ministry was at least 2 or 3 years and possibly longer. So, Jesus was about 30 years old at the beginning of his ministry plus probably 2.5 or 3.5 years making a likely guess for the age of Jesus at his death of about 33 years. This would make the date of the crucifixion approximately 32AD.
It has to be admitted that other dates are possible, the present suggestion being the most likely, in my opinion.
1. From Josephus Antiq. xvii Chapter vi Paragraphs 4 & 5:
But Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive. And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon. But now Herod’s distemper greatly increased upon him after a severe manner, and this by God’s judgment upon him for his sins: for a fire glowed in him slowly, which did not so much appear to the touch outwardly, as it augmented his pains inwardly; for it brought upon him a vehement appetite to eating, which he could not avoid to supply with one sort of food or other.
2. Case for Herod the Great dying in 1 AD:
- The eclipse of December 9th 1 BC, according to John Pratt , is likely to be the eclipse Josephus is referring to, due to the high visibility of the eclipse. “Of the candidates to be Herod’s eclipse, the December 29, 1 B.C. eclipse was the most likely to have been widely observed” (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysius_Exiguus#cite_note-j-21)
- For other reasons for Herod dying in 1AD, see http://www.johnpratt.com/items/docs/herod/herod.html
- Herod died shortly before Passover (see Josephus Antiq. xvii Chapter ix Paragraph 3). This would fit in with the timing of the December 1 BC eclipse.