In my writings on Christian traditions, I’ve frequently had to refer back to the date of Jesus’ death, correcting long-held misconceptions. In order to shorten those posts, I’ve decided to simply collect it all here so that I can briefly refer back to this article rather than re-writing a long explanation every time the topic comes up. However, the information is so legion that I found I had to divide it into multiple blog posts.
I’m going to tackle this in as orderly a fashion as I can. The four major dating considerations for Jesus’ death are time of day, day of the week, year, and month and day. As we will see, these interplay with each other and affect how we determine each. In this series, we’ll first review the date and time facts the Bible gives regarding Jesus’ birth, ministry, and death, and then we will discuss the time, the day of the week, the year, and the exact date of His death in light of those facts.
I. FACTS FROM THE BIBLE
I’ll bring out these facts in the order in which they appear, chronologically speaking. In other words, even though it’s His death date we want to know, the first facts I discuss will be about His birth.
- Jesus Was Born Following Caesar Augustus’ Census Decree.
Luke 2:1-5 (KJV) tells us that Caesar Augustus put out a decree during the governorship of Cyrenius (or Quirinius) in Syria that the Roman Empire should be taxed, and that this law required everyone to go back to his city of origin. Because Joseph was of the lineage of King David, he had to take his still-pregnant wife Mary with him to Bethlehem to be registered for taxation. However, special note should be taken of the assertion that it was the first census taken during Quirinius’ governorship because the Greek word translated “first” can also mean “before,” so Luke could have meant that this census was taken before Quirinius was governor. On the other hand, it could mean that it was the first census of the area and fell during Quirinius’s governorship, or that it was the first of more than one census that Quirinius oversaw. Coincidentally, Luke mentions another census in Acts 5:37, which took place in 6 A.D., when we know Quirinius was governor. So it seems more likely that Luke meant this census occurred under Quirinius’ leadership, alluding to the next census he mentions in his next book, Acts. Another special note should be taken of the phrase translated “to be taxed,” which more accurately means “to be registered” as for a census that would involve swearing an oath of loyalty to the emperor and probably also taxation. Finally, special note should also be taken of the word translated “governor.” It’s actually a verb, not a noun, and means “administrating one’s duties”; it is not a title, such as Legatus (governor). In fact, most English versions of the Bible don’t use the term “governor.” (I’ll discuss all of these translation issues in more detail in Part IV: Chapter 1.)
- Jesus Was Born During the Reign of Herod the Great.
Matthew 2:1 says “…Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king…” In Matthew 2, we read about how King Herod found out from the chief priests and scribes that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and then tried to trick the wise men into telling him where in Bethlehem the infant Jesus was living so that he could kill Him. The wise men, however, did not return to Herod but went home by a different route, and so Herod had all boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2 years killed (a fulfillment of prophecy by Jeremiah), an event which is now known as the Massacre of Innocents. At that point, Joseph had already picked up his family under the instruction of an angel and fled to Egypt, so the infant Jesus survived the attack.
But as it turns out, there was more than one Herod in the first centuries B.C. and A.D. (In fact, Jesus died during the reign of another King Herod.) So during which Herod’s reign was Jesus born? Matthew 2 continues the story, explaining that after Herod died, an angel told Joseph to return to Israel, where he found that “Archelaus reigned in Judea in place of his father Herod” (Mathew 2:22). So the Herod during whose reign Jesus was born was succeeded by a son named Archelaus, which identifies him as Herod the Great.
- John the Baptist’s Ministry Began in the 15th Year of Tiberius Caesar.
Actually, there are lots of little factoids in this descriptor from Luke 3:1-2. Luke tells us that it was the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, that Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, that Herod was the tetrarch of Galilee, that Herod’s brother Philip was tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, that Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, and that Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. As we’ll see later, the only facts that really help us are those regarding Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas. Luke 3:2-3 goes on to explain that it was in this year that John the Baptist began preaching and baptizing.
- Jesus’ Ministry Began After John the Baptist’s.
In Luke 3:15-17 (see also Matthew 3:11-12), the people hear John the Baptist preaching and begin to muse that he might be the Christ, but he quickly strips them of that notion and explains that the Messiah is coming after him. After this, Jesus came to John to be baptized (Matthew 3:13-17), then went on a 40-day fast (Matthew 4:1-11), and upon hearing that John had been cast into prison after His own baptism (Matthew 4:12; Luke 3:19-22), He returned to Galilee and began to preach (Matthew 4:17). So it appears that Jesus’ ministry began maybe two or three months after His baptism, and His baptism occurred after John the Baptist’s ministry was already established. However, we don’t know for certain how long John the Baptist was preaching before Jesus came along to get baptized. However, for John the Baptist to have gained such notoriety as is implied in the stories about him, he must have been preaching for a while. I think it’s safe to guess that he had been preaching for about a year, give or take several months, before Jesus came to him to be baptized.
- Jesus Was About 30 Years Old at the Beginning of His Ministry.
Luke 3:23—“And Jesus Himself began to be about thirty years of age…” This verse comes immediately after His baptism and is followed by the first story of His ministry. When Luke gives the age of Jairus’s daughter, he says she was “about twelve” (Luke 8:42), so he’s probably not doing a massive rounding of the number for Jesus’ age. That is, it’s likely Jesus was in His thirtieth year or that he was about to turn thirty when He began His ministry.
- There Were 3 Passovers During Jesus’ Ministry.
The book of John records three Passovers during Jesus’ ministry. Passover #1 (John 2:13) occurred near the beginning of His ministry. Passover #2 (John 6:4) probably occurred in the middle of Jesus’ ministry. Finally, Passover #3 (John 11:55) occurred at the end of Jesus’ ministry, the night before and day of His death (see Fact 11). There may have been more than three Passovers during His ministry, but I think it’s a pretty safe reading to assume there were exactly three. For one thing, the stories of the Passovers are spaced relatively evenly throughout John’s book. For another, if he recorded three Passovers, why wouldn’t he have recorded a hypothetical fourth? Of course, there may be arguments either way, but a total of three Passovers during Jesus’ ministry is a convenient and probably very safe way to estimate it.
(I should note that some people point to John 5:1 as the source of a fourth Passover. It says, “After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” However, there were seven annual feast days for the Jews and this one is not specifically identified as a Passover, like the other three are, so in my opinion, there’s no reason to conclusively state that it was another Passover.)
- Jesus Prophesied 3 Days Between Death and Resurrection.
This is extremely important, for reasons I will discuss in detail in Part III. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees, who had asked (v. 38) for a sign proving He was Messiah, that “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” In John 2:18-19, He says “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Two verses later, John explains Jesus was referring to the temple of His body, not the temple at Jerusalem. I can’t stress how incredibly important this fact is. In this instance, He references Jonah 1:17, which states very plainly, “Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Jesus draws the comparison to His own length of burial, stating unequivocally that it will encompass three days and three nights, which must correctly be understood to mean three full days and three full nights. Furthermore, the chief priests and Pharisees came to Pilate the day after Jesus’ death, informing him of this prophecy and asking that the tomb be guarded through the third day (Matthew 27:62-66). Again, I’ll go into far more detail later about why this is so important.
- At the Time of the Above Prophecy, the Temple was 46 Years in the Making.
As described above, Jesus made the prophecy while referring to His body as “this temple,” but the Jews misunderstood Him to be referring to the Temple of Jerusalem, in which they were standing at the time of the prophecy (John 2:18-22). They responded, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?” (John 2:20) Or, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?”
- Jesus Came to Bethany 6 Days and Jerusalem 5 Days Before the Passover.
According to John, Jesus arrived in Bethany to visit Lazarus, Mary, and Martha six days before the Passover (John 12:1). The day after His arrival at Bethany, He made his Triumphal Entry in Jerusalem (John 12:12-15). Making the long journey to either Bethany could not legally be done on a Sabbath, so 6 days before His death could not be Saturday—that is, He had to have made the journey to Bethany no later than Friday. This is important also, for reasons I will discuss in the next post.
- Jesus Died Before the Sabbath.
Facts 8-10 are a little out of order chronologically, but it can get confusing if I put them in chronological order, so we’ll start with this one. John 19:31 describes how the Jews were anxious for Jesus and the robbers to die quickly because they had to bury the bodies before the Sabbath, which starts at sundown, and so they requested of Pilate that the legs be broken so as to speed up their deaths. Mark 14:42-46 also describes how Jesus died during the preparation, the day before the Sabbath, and so Joseph of Arimathea sought Jesus’ body from Pilate and rushed to bury it. Luke 23:50-54 also describes how Joseph of Arimathea begged for the body from Pilate and buried it on the day of the preparation with the Sabbath coming quickly.
- Jesus Celebrated the Passover the Night Before His Death.
The Passover is mentioned numerous times, and is specifically described as approaching before His triumphal entry (Mark 11:1-11; John 11:55, 12:1, 10-15). It is described after His triumphal entry but before the Last Supper as still approaching (Matthew 26:2; Mark 14:1-3; Luke 22:1; John 13:1). When the Passover lamb had just been killed (therefore, the evening of Nisan 14), Jesus’ disciples asked him where He wanted to eat the Passover and He sent them on an errand where they found a room ready for them, and that evening He and his disciples sat down to eat the Passover supper (Matthew 26:17-21; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-14). After eating, while it was still night, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane with His disciples, where He was arrested (Matthew 26:36-57; Mark 14:17-50; John 18)
John 18:28 explains that the high priest and Pharisees had not yet eaten the Passover meal. This could mean they were working so hard to arrest and try Him that they hadn’t yet eaten the Passover, or it could mean that the Passover was actually going to start the following day. That’s part of why the next fact is very important.
However, we already have our answer later in the same chapter. In John 18:39, where Pilate is trying to save Jesus by offering them a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, he reminds them that the Jews had a custom wherein the governor (in this case, Pilate) would release a prisoner to them at the Passover, and he asked whether they desired the release of Jesus or the release of Barabbas. Remember that Passover starts at sunset Nisan 14 and ends at sunset on Nisan 15, so the Passover day on which the governor released a prisoner would have been Nisan 15. All of Jesus’ trials (with the priests/Pharisees, Pilate, Herod, and Pilate again) happened at night. The day of the Passover is referred to as the day of the preparation. During the day after Jesus’ trials, the day on which Jesus died, the Scripture indicates that it was “the preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14; also Mark 15:42). Furthermore, Matthew 27:62 identifies the day after Jesus’ death as the day after the preparation.
The Apostle Paul identifies Jesus as being our Passover (I Corinthians 5:7); however, he makes no mention of the exact day on which Jesus died.
EDIT (28 March 2015): There is plenty of evidence throughout Scripture that Jesus followed the letter of God’s Law rather than the traditions introduced by the Jewish leaders throughout the centuries (for one small example, see Mark 3:1-6 and Luke 13:10-17 when Jesus healed on a Sabbath in violation of the Jews’ modern laws and He made it clear in His responses to the Pharisees that He was not violating God’s Law). According to this source, there is plenty of evidence that in Jesus’ day, the Jews ate their Passover meal on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, but that Jesus celebrated the Passover in accordance with God’s Law (rather than according to accumulated tradition) the day before the Feast of Unleavened Bread. I highly recommend reading the above linked article for more information.
- Jesus Died During the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Four days before the Passover, on Nisan 10, the Passover lamb is to be set aside (Exodus 12:3), and it is to be killed in the evening on Nisan 14 (Exodus 12:6) and eaten that night (Exodus 12:8). Leviticus 23:5-7 explains that Nisan 14 from sunset to sunset is the Passover, and that Nisan 15 starts the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which lasts seven days (see also Exodus 12:15). Beginning with Passover on 14 Nisan and ending with the last day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread on 21 Nisan, no unleavened bread may be eaten; this lasts a full seven days (Exodus 12:15-20). Furthermore, the Leviticus passage describes the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread as a holy convocation (Exodus 12:16 describes the first and last days thus), the same as the Sabbath, and states plainly that they cannot work on that day.
There are seven such annual festivals, which occur on a set date every year and therefore do not necessarily fall on Saturday, but which follow the same rules as the weekly Sabbaths, such as prohibition of working. These special Sabbaths, which may (and usually do) occur on a weekday, are called miqra in Hebrew and are now known in English as “high days” or “high Sabbaths” due to the King James Version’s use of the term in John 19:31. In modern times, the Passover may be the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, may precede the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or may itself be the weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread. And to be fair, the Exodus and Leviticus passages are a bit confusing in that one (Leviticus) specifies that Passover starts on Nisan 14 while the 7-day-long Feast of Unleavened Bread starts on Nisan 15, but the other (Exodus) specifies that the Jewish people may not eat leavened bread for 7 days, including Passover. Judging by the passages in Exodus, Leviticus, and the four Gospels, it seems the Jews celebrated the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread the day after the Passover as the miqra but colloquially referred to the Passover as part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, probably because of their proximity and deep connection.
Three of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) specify that Jesus died during or before the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:1, 12; Luke 22:1, 7). John is a little more ambiguous. He tells us that the approaching Sabbath, which would start at sunset just a few hours after Jesus’ death, was a “high day” or “high Sabbath” (John 19:31). We already know Jesus died on the Passover, and so we can easily extrapolate that the Sabbath before which He died was a high Sabbath—specifically, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which may or may not have occurred on a Saturday.
- Pilate Handed Jesus Over to the Jews Early Morning.
Jesus’ audience with Pilate occurred in the early morning (John 18:28), and this is also stated by Mark (15:1). After this trial, Pilate handed Him over to the Jews; the Apostle identifies the time at which Pilate presented Jesus to the Jews for crucifixion as about the sixth hour (John 19:14).
- Jesus Was Crucified Mid-Morning.
After being handed over to the Jews, Jesus was crucified. However, it wouldn’t have happened immediately, since some preparation must take place, especially considering that there were two other criminals who were to be crucified the same day and that all three had to carry their crosses to the hill where they were to be crucified. Therefore, Jesus was probably crucified at least an hour or two after being handed over to the Jews. Mark 15:25 records the exact time as the third hour.
- Jesus Died In the Afternoon.
As discussed in Fact 10, the Jews were in a rush to get Jesus and the criminals dead and buried because the Sabbath was approaching, and that they succeeded partly because Jesus was already dead and partly because they broke the legs of the two criminals to speed up their deaths. The Sabbath starts at sunset, so Jesus had to have died sometime in the afternoon. Three of the Gospels record Jesus’ death as occurring at about the ninth hour (Matthew 27:45-50; Mark 15:34-37; Luke 23:44-46).
- The Women Bought Spices to Anoint Jesus.
Yes, I said “bought,” not “brought.” The “bought” is the most important part of that. Mark 16:1 says that the women came to anoint Jesus at sunrise on Sunday with spices they “had bought.” They couldn’t have purchased the spices on Sunday, because they arrived at or before sunrise, before any shops would have been open. They couldn’t have purchased the spices on Saturday, because it was a Sabbath, during which time they couldn’t do any unnecessary work. This means they had to have purchased the spices on Friday. However, it’s important to note that Friday, being the day before the Sabbath (or, more accurately, the day on which the Sabbath starts, since it begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday), is only a half-day of work because people spend the afternoon preparing for the Sabbath. This means the women would have had only the morning to purchase and prepare the spices, after which the shops would be closed and all Jews, including these women, would have been preparing for the Sabbath. Again, this is important, and I will explain why in the next post in this series.
Luke 23:55-56 also describes how the women watched Jesus get buried, then went home, prepared spices and ointments, and rested on the Sabbath. These passages are very explicit that the women did not visit the tomb until the first day of the week, after the Sabbath.
- The Tomb Was Empty Before Sunday Morning.
All four Gospels describe the group of women (except John, who describes only Mary Magdalene) coming to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices (except Matthew, who says they came to see the tomb, making no mention of the spices) at the end of the Sabbath, on the first day of the week (Sunday), either right before sunrise while it was still dark or right at sunrise, and found the stone rolled away and the tomb already empty (Matthew 28:1-2; Mark 16:1-4; Luke 24:1-3; John 20:1). This means the tomb was empty and Jesus had resurrected during the night spanning Saturday to Sunday at the latest, though He could have resurrected at almost any time on Saturday without the Jews knowing about it since they couldn’t visit the tomb.
As described earlier, the chief priests came to Pilate after the Passover to request guards be placed watching the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66). Matthew 28 describes the tomb opening as the women approach at about sunrise accompanied by an earthquake and an angel, and that the guards were so frightened by the angel that they fainted (vv. 1-4); however, the angel explains to the women that Jesus is already risen (vv. 5-6). (See Footnote 1.)
In this post, I have presented seventeen basic facts including dates and times from the Bible which will help us determine when Jesus was born, when He died, and when He resurrected. The following posts will address:
- Part II: Time of Jesus’ Death
- Part III: Day of the Week of Jesus’ Death
- Part IV: Year of Jesus’ Death: Chapter 1: Year of Jesus’ Birth
- Part IV: Year of Jesus’ Death: Chapter 2: Year of Jesus’ Ministry
- Part V: Full Date of Jesus’ Death
Footnote 1: Sleeping Guards. This comes back to the stolen body theory, about which I will write a very brief synopsis. Articles about the stolen body theory abound, so I won’t go into much detail since you can easily find the information elsewhere.
Since at least 110 B.C., the Roman law held that a Roman soldier who fell asleep on duty would be punished by fustuarium, a fierce beating that most often resulted in his death: “If the Roman soldier is found guilty (of falling asleep on duty), he is punished by fustuarium. This is carried out as follows. The tribune takes a cudgel and lightly touches the condemned man with it, whereupon all the soldiers fall upon him with clubs and stones, and usually kill him…” (Simkin, N.d.). Therefore, it’s unlikely that every one of the Roman soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb really did fall asleep on duty, because to do so would mean almost certain death.
As mentioned above in Fact 17, Matthew explains that the guards passed out in fear at the sight of the angel. He continues the story in 28:11-15, telling how the guards then went to the chief priests, rather than to their superior officers, to tell them what happened. This makes sense within the context of the Roman law, because they would have known that their superior officers wouldn’t believe them and would simply think that they had fallen asleep and were trying to make up a story to save their skins, and then order fustuarium. However, the soldiers would also have thought that the Jews, whom the Romans viewed as superstitious, might believe them. Furthermore, they would also have known that the Jewish leaders hated Jesus and did not want Jesus’ body stolen because that was the whole reason the soldiers were given this duty in the first place. After hearing the Roman soldiers’ story, the priests and elders gave them a lot of money and told them to say that Jesus’ disciples came and stole the body while the guards were sleeping, adding that if the governor (Pilate) were to find out about it, the priests and elders would protect the guards from any repercussions.
Simkin, J. (N.d.). “The Roman Army.” Spartacus Educational. Retrieved from <http://spartacus-educational.com/ROMarmy.htm>.
I will periodically edit this post to add links to the next posts in this series as they are published.