As discussed in the previous blog posts on this topic, I decided to write an article on when Jesus died so I can shorten my other blog posts on Christian traditions by simply referring back to the article every time the topic comes up. However, there was so much information to go over that I was forced to divide it into several blog posts.
When considering the time of day, day of the week, year, and month and day of Jesus’ death, we find that these interplay deeply with each other and affect how we determine each. Previous blog posts addressed:
- Part I: Facts from the Bible
- 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
To determine the exact date of Jesus’ death (see Footnote 1), we have to consider all of it: the time of His death, the day of the week of His death, the year of His birth, the year of His ministry, and His approximate death year.
V. MONTH, DAY, AND YEAR OF JESUS’ DEATH
Although we know Jesus died on 15 Nisan, the Jewish calendar is vastly different from the Roman calendar, so it requires some backwards extrapolation to determine the date He died on the Roman calendar.
In the Western Church (that near Rome) in 200 A.D., Tertullian of Carthage wrote that he had calculated the Roman calendrical day on which 15 Nisan fell in the year Jesus died to be 25 March. Because of his extrapolation, Christians began to celebrate Easter on 25 March every year. When Julius Sextus Africanus in 221 A.D. suggested that Jesus entered the world and left the world on the same day—that is, that he was conceived on the same day he died—Christians began to commemorate Jesus’ date of conception as 25 March as well. Because that was the alleged date of His conception, they began celebrating the date of His birth as 25 December sometime around 250-300 B.C.
Coincidentally, the Eastern Church (that near Jerusalem) had calculated a different date based on the same basic rules. The Eastern Church knew that Nisan is the first spring month on the Hebrew calendar (in fact, it’s engineered to occur when spring begins), and that Jesus died on the 14th day of the month, so they set His death as having occurred on the 14th day of the first spring month according to their local Greek calendar, which translated to 6 April on the Roman calendar. They also liked Julius Sextus Africanus’ idea and commemorated His conception on the same day as His death and, like the Western Church, added nine months to that date to obtain 6 January as the date of His birth. In fact, much of the Eastern Church to this day celebrates Christmas on 6 January.
So who was right and who was wrong? Or if neither was right, which was “less wrong”? Finally, does it matter?
- Date of Jesus’ Death
As discussed in Part II, Jesus died in the afternoon at about 3 pm on the Passover. Thanks to this information, we were better able to determine the day of the week of His death, which, as discussed in Part III, was Wednesday. That is, Passover occurred on a Wednesday in the year that Jesus died (specifically, it started Tuesday evening, but is considered to have occurred on Wednesday because approximately 18 of the 24 hours of the event occurred on Wednesday and only approximately 6 of the 24 hours occurred on Tuesday). As discussed in Part IV, Chapter 1, Jesus was most likely born 3 B.C. Using that data and information about Jesus’ ministry, we were able to estimate the year of His death as 29 or 30 A.D. in Part IV, Chapter 2.
So basically, we need to find a year on which the Passover occurred on a Wednesday.
Using the Hebrew calendar converter, I converted the dates for Nisan 14, the day Jesus died, into the date on the Gregorian calendar in the 10 years surrounding His approximate death. Here are the dates on which Passover occurred for the years surrounding Jesus’ death:
- 25 A.D.: March 31, Monday
- 26 A.D.: March 20, Friday
- 27 A.D.: April 7, Wednesday
- 28 A.D.: March 27, Monday
- 29 A.D.: April 14, Saturday
- 30 A.D.: April 3, Wednesday
- 31 A.D.: March 24, Monday
- 32 A.D.: April 12, Monday
- 33 A.D.: April 1, Friday
- 34 A.D.: March 20, Monday
- 35 A.D.: April 9, Monday
I marked the dates on which Passover fell on a Wednesday in the 10 years surrounding Jesus’ possible death in red. As you can see, the closest possibilities are 27 A.D. and 30 A.D. Since our estimates for the year of His death were 29 A.D. and 30 A.D., 30 A.D. is the most likely year. In that case, He most likely died Wednesday, April 3, 30 A.D. at 3 pm. According to the same Hebrew calendar linked above, this date on the Gregorian calendar corresponds to April 5 on the Julian calendar. If true (we must always accept room for error), that means the Eastern Church was only off by one day (late), whereas the Western Church was off by about eleven days (early).
Do I really think we can know for certain the exact date Jesus died? Personally, no, I don’t think we can. Many Hebrew calendar sources specifically state that we don’t know for certain how the Hebrew calendar was figured in the first century. Furthermore, there are many issues to take into account, as described in sources like this and this. Interestingly, though, even when we have confusion as to the exact date, or even the exact year, there is no change to the day of the week–that is, the evidence that Jesus died on a Wednesday remains, even though the exact date (14 Nisan, 15 Nisan, etc.) may change.
- Does it Matter?
In my personal opinion, it kind of does and kind of doesn’t.
From a theological standpoint, it matters in that it holds up to the theory of Scriptural infallibility. For example, if Luke said that Jesus was born during an empire-wide census while Quirinius was governor, and Quirinius was never governor during any empire-wide census, that makes the rest of Luke’s narrative unreliable and demonstrates that the Bible is fallible. (See Part IV: Chapter 1 for details about how the correct translation is that Quirinius was administrating his duties, not that he was the provincial governor.) As another example, if Jesus said He would be buried for three days and three nights, but He was buried for 1.5 days (one day and two nights), that makes Him a false prophet and therefore not God, which undermines the entire Christian faith. (See Part III for information on how Jesus truly was buried three days and three nights.)
In my research, I’ve seen lots of posts from people about encountering remarkably well-informed skeptics who questioned various aspects of His dates of birth and death, which makes it quite reasonable that we might encounter such skeptics in the future. I keep thinking of Josh McDowell, who was a very dedicated atheist in college and was constantly questioning his Christian friends. Finally, one of these friends, weary from these constant attacks, challenged him to prove Christianity wrong. Josh eagerly set out on the mission to do so, but quickly discovered that he needed to do more research than he had originally bargained for, and ended up traveling to Europe and the Middle East in his quest to prove his Christian friends wrong. In the end, unable to prove them wrong and able only to find more and more evidence in support of Christianity, he converted and wrote many books on the topic. The research he conducted in college and abroad which convinced him of the truth of Christianity is compiled into two volumes called Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and one of my favorite short pieces of his, which is elegant in its simple logic, is called More Than a Carpenter. He was one of the foremost Christian apologists in the 1990s.
So to some degree… Yes, it does matter when He died. When He was born and when He died determines whether the Bible is true, whether Jesus was a false prophet, and whether our faith is founded on a rock or on sand.
On the other hand, from a theological standpoint, I don’t think it matters in relation to how we commemorate His birth, death, and resurrection. For one thing, He never commanded us to commemorate His birth. He did seem to command His disciples to fast when He was “taken from them” (Matthew 9:15), and early Christians took this as a command to commemorate His death annually with fasting, though it could possibly have meant that His disciples were to fast on the day He died (which they may have done coincidentally anyway because it was a Sabbath and they had spent the day watching to see what would happen to Jesus rather than preparing for the Sabbath). He also commanded them to observe the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist) in remembrance of Him, but did not specify how frequently this was to be done. Consequently, some churches commemorate it every week while others commemorate it once per year.
I don’t think we can know with perfect accuracy the exact date Jesus died due to numerous changes to the Hebrew and other calendars over the millennia (see Footnote 2). And if we did know the exact date, we’d either be using a mostly manmade Hebrew calendar or a mostly manmade Roman calendar, and any calendar is fallible, so are we really commemorating His death on the exact day of the year on which it would have occurred? I think that’s unlikely. For this, I refer back to what Paul had to say about Abraham. In Romans 4:1-22, Paul reminds us that the Scriptures say Abraham’s faith in God was credited to him as righteousness (a reference to Genesis 15:6). He goes on to explain that we are not justified by works, and that righteousness comes from faith. In another book, Paul explains further that like Abraham, those who rely on faith are equally blessed, implying (as he wrote explicitly in Romans 4) that our faith is imputed to us as righteousness (Galatians 3:6-9).
In other words, I don’t think it’s important that we commemorate Jesus’ death on the exact day of His death and I believe there’s sound Scriptural reason, as outlined above, to believe that God counts it as righteousness when we act in faith.
The facts we know regarding the time, day of the week, year, and exact date of Jesus’ death, along with facts from history, help us to estimate the date and time of death for Jesus as Wednesday, April 3, 30 A.D. at 3 pm. This fits with all the dateable facts of Jesus’ birth, ministry, and death and with dateable facts from history. Knowing how the date of His death upholds the entire Scriptural account can help us to respond to skeptics the way Peter instructed us: “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (I Peter 3:15). However, knowing the exact, or even the approximate, date and time of Jesus’ death is not necessary in my opinion to please God. As Paul wrote, when we act in faith, God will count it toward us for righteousness (Romans 4:1-22; Galatians 3:6-9). What matters most is that we act in faith.
Footnote 1: Exact Date of Jesus’ Death. In case I wasn’t clear enough in the rest of this series, I hesitate to say “exact date” of Jesus’ death. Even if we use all the available data possible and it shows only one possibility–as I think it does in this case–it’s always possible we overlooked something or that we will discover more data at a later date, such as records we didn’t know existed or an error in our calendars. So if you were planning to make a big deal about this blog post series, please don’t. If you were planning to adjust your entire doctrine based on the information in this blog post series, please think carefully before doing so. If you were thinking it’s sinful for Christians to celebrate Easter on any day other than that I provided here, please think again. I can’t emphasize enough that, as much as I enjoyed researching and writing this series, it is very important not to make a huge deal out of the information it provides. Yes, rest assured that the Bible is correct where it references dates surrounding Jesus’ life. But please don’t use this post series to radically change anything or accuse anyone of sin or even ignorance.
Footnote 2: Changes to ancient calendars. I briefly mentioned that we can’t know the exact date for certain due to changes in ancient calendars. The Hebrew calendar changed at some unknown point from an observation-based calendar to a rule-based calendar. This change occurred sometime before 358 AD, the first date on which it is recorded in ancient writings (specifically, by Patriarch Hillel II). When using a calendar that calculates any exact date on the Hebrew calendar, it does so by extrapolating the current formula back in time and therefore provides only an estimate of what the dates were and, according to one scholar, may be off by as much as a month (Eldridge, 1997). Therefore, even if we take the difference between the current Gregorian calendar and the ancient Julian calendar into account, we cannot extrapolate backward and convert to the date on the Hebrew calendar to figure out the actual dates on the Julian calendar (or the Gregorian, extrapolated backward) on which the Passover fell during years around or before 358 AD without allowing for some (possibly very significant) error.
Another possibility is taking information we have from the Old Testament regarding days of the week on which certain dates from the Hebrew calendar fell. For example, we can know with certainty that in the year of the first Passover, 10 Nisan and 17 Nisan both fell on a Saturday, and 14 Nisan (the Passover) fell on a Wednesday (Reinhold, 2010). However, it is impossible to extrapolate forward from that for one incredible reason. According to all extant ancient records, ancient peoples had a 360-day calendar composed of 12 months of 30 days each. Furthermore, ancient astronomers also wrote of exactly 15 day waxing and 15 day waning in the lunar cycle, thus having a lunar cycle of exactly 30 days. Then, sometime around approximately 725 BC to 675 BC, over a period of about 50 years, the entire world’s calendars (including 30 cultures from the Incas and Mayas of the Americas, to the Persians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians of the Near East, to the Indians and Chinese of the Far East) were essentially rewritten and ancient peoples added 5 or 5.25 days to the calendar to come to a total of 365.25 days in the solar cycle (we now know each year is 365.2425 days, so those changes were pretty darn accurate) and a lunar cycle of 29.5 days. Why the change? And why all over the entire world at the same time, even between cultures that had no contact with each other whatsoever? One theory is that the earth had a near-collision with a planet-sized object, which tilted the earth’s axis just enough to throw off the previous calendar. One Biblical scholar points out that the event in which God made the sundial reverse 10 degrees for King Hezekiah (II Kings 20:8-11) occurred approximately 713 BC, right before the worldwide calendrical flux, and suggests that God accomplished this by moving the orbits of the earth and moon (Reinhold, 2010). At any rate, the point is that we can’t really approach the first century AD with data from the Hebrew calendar in 1446 BC (the year of the Exodus) due to the worldwide flux in calendars that occurred approximately 725-675 BC.
APPENDIX: REFERENCES FOR THE SERIES
Following is my list of references for the entire series of blog posts on when Jesus died.
Akin, J. (10 April 2013a). “7 clues tell us *precisely* when Jesus died (the year, month, day, and hour revealed).” National Catholic Register. Retrieved from <http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/when-precisely-did-jesus-die-the-year-month-day-and-hour-revealed/>.
Akin, J. (13 April 2013b). “The 100-year old *mistake* about the Birth of Jesus.” National Catholic Register. Retrieved from <http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/the-100-year-old-mistake-about-the-birth-of-jesus/>.
Akin, J. (17 April 2013c). “Jesus’ birth and when Herod the Great *really* died.” National Catholic Register. Retrieved from <http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/jesus-birth-and-when-herod-the-great-really-died>.
Akin, J. (21 April 2013d). “What year was Jesus born? The answer may surprise you.” National Catholic Register. Retrieved from <http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/what-year-was-jesus-born-the-answer-may-surprise-you/>.
Bucher, R.P. (N.d.). “Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, and the Census.” Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. Retrieved from <http://www.orlutheran.com/html/census.html#Anchor4>.
Conte, R.L. (2003). “The Chronology of Herod the Great’s Reign.” BibleChronology.com. Retrieved from: <http://www.biblicalchronology.com/herod.htm>.
Eldridge, L. (1997). “What Day of the Week Was Christ Crucified?” Retrieved from <http://www.loriswebs.com/lorispoetry/crucifix.html>.
Reinhold, R.A. (2010). “What Day of the Week Did the Original Passover Occur?” Retrieved from <http://ad2004.com/prophecytruths/Articles/OriginalPassover.pdf>.
Wellman, J. (2014). “Was Jesus a Jew? Did Jesus Follow Jewish Rituals?” Christian Crier. Retrieved from <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2014/06/13/was-jesus-a-jew-did-jesus-follow-jewish-rituals/>.
United Church of God (N.d.). “When Was Jesus Christ Crucified and Resurrected?” In Jesus Christ: The Real Story. Retrieved from <http://www.ucg.org/booklet/jesus-christ-real-story/did-jesus-really-die-and-live-again/when-was-jesus-christ-crucified-/>.