When Did Jesus Begin His Earthly Ministry?

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When Did Jesus Begin His Earthly Ministry?
from 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus
by C. Marvin Pate.

The Basic Time Frame of Jesus’ Earthly Ministry: AD 26–36

The Four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Josephus, and Tacitus agree that Jesus was crucified during the rule of Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea. The works of Josephus, Philo, Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and Eusebius confirm that Pilate held his office from AD 26–36. We can be fairly sure that Jesus was not crucified toward the end of Pilate’s term in office (AD 36). Data from Paul’s letters, Acts, and the Delphi inscription mentioning Gallio as pro-consul of Achaia (Acts 18:12–17) indicate that Paul’s arrival in Corinth on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1) must have occurred around AD 49–51. Joseph P. Meier correctly observes:

When we consider all the events that had to take place in early Church history between the death of Jesus and Paul’s arrival in Corinth ca. AD 50 (e.g., the spread of Christianity in Palestine, the persecution and scattering of the Hellenists, the founding of the church in Antioch, the conversion of Paul and his years of seclusion and activity before he joined the church at Antioch, his first missionary journey and the so-called “Council of Jerusalem”), it is almost impossible to place Jesus’ execution as late as AD 36. It must be pushed back at least a few years in Pilate’s governorship. Jesus there- fore died sometime in the late twenties or early thirties of the 1st century AD. In addition, Josephus tends to confirm an idea often taken for granted but made explicit in Luke 3:1, namely, that Jesus’ entire ministry occurred during Pilate’s rule. Hence the whole ministry of Jesus lasted somewhere between AD 26 and the early 30s.[1]

We are also on good grounds in saying that Jesus’ crucifixion was not toward the beginning of Pilate’s rule, especially when we take into consideration Luke 3:1–2. There Luke correlates the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist with various rulers. We offer here an annotated translation of Luke 3:1–2:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar [who reigned as sole ruler AD 14–37], when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea [AD 26–36] and Herod [Antipas] was tetrarch of Galilee [4 BC–AD 39], and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis [4 BC– AD 33/34], when Lysanius was tetrarch of Abilene [dates unknown], and during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas [Caiaphas was high priest AD 18–36], the word of the Lord came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.[2]

The mention of Pilate places the beginning of John’s ministry within the decade of AD 26–36 and indicates that Jesus’ ministry began after Pilate had already assumed his office in Judea. The mention of Philip, who died in AD 33 or 34, also suggests that Jesus did not begin his ministry at the end of Pilate’s tenure.

But the key reference in Luke 3:1–2 is to Tiberius. The reader will recall that we earlier noted that Tiberius co-reigned with Augustus in AD 12 but did not become sole emperor until after the latter’s death on August 19, AD 14. The issue is, from which of these dates did Luke count? I. H. Marshall and Harold W. Hoehner make a convincing case that Luke has in mind AD 14, for two reasons. First, there is abundant evidence that Tiberius reckoned the first year of his reign from the death of Augustus, AD 14. Second, all the major Roman historians who calculate the years of Tiberius’ rule (i.e., Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio) count from AD 14, the year of Augustus’ death.[3] Thus, John the Baptist began his ministry in AD 29. Yet, technically it may be that Luke counted the de facto regnal years of Tiberius (i.e., the first year was August 19, AD 14 to August 18, AD 29). The fifteenth year would have run from August 19, AD 28 to August 18, AD 29. Meier suspects that Luke then calculated the beginning of the fifteenth year of Tiberius’s sole reign to have begun in AD 28.[4] Assuming that to be the case, then Jesus began his ministry in the same year as John the Baptist, in AD 28. Thus, the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry was not at the beginning of Pilate’s rule over Judea.

The Specific Timeframe of Jesus’ Earthly Ministry: AD 28–33

Now we attempt to be more specific about the dates of Jesus’ ministry. We have just argued that AD 28 was most likely the year Jesus began his ministry. But when did it end? To determine that we must factor in two considerations: 1) the Synoptics’ and the gospel of John’s respective calculations of the number of years Jesus ministered; 2) the date of Jesus’ death.

The Synoptics’ and the Gospel of John’s Respective Calculation of the Number of Years of Jesus’ Ministry

Simply put, Matthew, Mark, and Luke only speak of one observance of Passover by Jesus, whereas the gospel of John mentions at least two, and maybe more. Which one are we to go by? The majority of gospel scholars, rightly in my opinion, recognize that the reason the Synoptics only mention one journey of Jesus to Jerusalem to observe the Passover is because they want to focus only on Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem and observance of Passover; the one that resulted in his death. Therefore, most interpreters prefer the gospel of John’s record of multiple trips to Jerusalem by Jesus for the purpose of celebrating Passover (John 2:13; 4:4; 9:55). Beyond that, it is difficult to determine whether Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover twice or three times.[5] If two times, then Jesus’ ministry ended in AD 30; if three times, then his ministry ended in 31. So which was it? The next point reveals the probable answer.

The Date of Jesus’ Crucifixion

The key here is to understand the timing of Passover in Jewish custom:

According to the rules of Exodus 12 as interpreted by “mainstream” Jews at the time of Jesus, the Passover lambs were slain in the Jerusalem temple on the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan (March/April). Exodus 12:6 directs that the killing of the lambs is to take place “between the two evenings,” which perhaps originally meant “during the evening twilight.” In the 1st century AD, however, the sacrifice took place between 3 and 5 p.m., according to Josephus (J.W. 6.9.3 §423), though the hour may have been moved up some when the fourteenth of Nisan fell on a Friday. Exodus 12:8 goes on to direct that the Passover lambs be eaten “on that night,” which, in the context, must mean after sundown on the day the lambs were slain. Now, according to the Jewish way of calculating liturgical days at the time of Jesus, sundown would mark the beginning of a new day, the fifteenth of Nisan, Passover Day proper. This type of calculation for liturgical days is already witnessed in the OT (e.g., for the Day of Atonement in Lev 23:27, 32) and is explicitly applied to Passover in the Book of Jubilees 49:1 (written in the 2nd century BC): “Remember the commandment that the Lord commanded you concerning Passover, that you observe it in its time, on the fourteenth of the first month [Nisan], so that you might sacrifice it before it becomes evening and so that you might eat it during the night on the evening of the fifteenth from the time of sunset.”[6]

According to the tables drawn up by Joachim Jeremias, within the range of AD 29–34, the only years in which the fourteenth of Nisan probably fell on a Friday are AD 30 (Friday, April 7) and AD 33 (Friday, April 3).[7] Meier concludes from this:

In my opinion, AD 30 is the more likely date. To begin Jesus’ ministry in AD 28 (which seems to me the most probable year) but to put off his death until AD 33 would result in a ministry of some four to five years. While this is not impossible, it goes beyond what either the Synoptics or John indicate. As a tentative conclusion, then, I suggest that Jesus began his ministry soon after that of John the Baptist in AD 28 and that he was executed on the cross on April 7, 30.[8]

The Most Likely Years of Jesus’ Ministry: AD 28–30

Following John’s chronology, Jesus attended multiple Passovers; how many we do not know. But while Jesus visited Jerusalem more than once, it is not likely that he celebrated five Passovers—that is, that his ministry lasted five years, which is the number that would be required if he were crucified in AD 33. Therefore, we seem to be on firm footing to say that Jesus engaged in ministry here on earth from AD 28–30. As we noted earlier, Luke 3:23 says that Jesus began his ministry at about thirty years of age. If he was born in about 6 BC, as we argued above, then Jesus will have been thirty-four years old at the inception of his ministry and about thirty-six years old when he was crucified.

Conclusion

This chapter has narrowed the circle of the possible years of Jesus’ earthly ministry by moving from AD 26–36 to AD 28–33 to AD 28–30. It is remarkable that in such a short time of two years and a few months that one individual could have accomplished so much, not only on earth but also for eternity. But then again, Jesus of Nazareth was no ordinary man; he was the Son of God.

 

[1] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:373–74. The Josephus reference is Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.

[2] Meier supplies these dates (ibid, 373–74).

[3] I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 133; Hoehner, Chronological Aspects, 31–32.

[4] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 385.

[5] Most commentators believe the Jesus of the Synoptics observed Passover but there is a difference of opinion whether the meal celebrated before his death in John was Passover. I believe it was; see C. Marvin Pate, The Writings of John: A Survey of the Gospel, Epistles, and Apocalypse (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 142–43.

[6] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:388–89

[7]J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (London: SCM, 1966), 39–40.

[8] See Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:402.


This post is adapted from 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus written by C. Marvin Pate. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Answers to critical questions regarding the study of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith

40 Questions About the Historical JesusThe conclusions of the quest for the historical Jesus, which casts the majority of Christ’s life as a myth, are a stark contrast to the orthodox view of Christ as presented in the Bible. Pate demonstrates that a critical analysis of the gospel text along with historical and cultural methods of investigation actually point toward an orthodox view of Christ.

This work argues that the canonical Gospels are the most trustworthy information we have about the gospel writers as well as the life and ministry of Jesus, including his death, visit to hades, resurrection, and ascension. Readers will be encouraged by the reliability of the Gospel writers, the reality of Jesus’ humanity and deity, and the inferiority of the apocryphal gospels.

 


 

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About Author

C. Marvin Pate (PhD, Marquette University) is professor of biblical studies at Ouachita Baptist University. He is the author and editor of numerous works, including Four Views on the Book of Revelation; The Writings of John: A Survey of the Gospel, Epistles, and Apocalypse; Romans (Teach the Text Commentary Series); and From Plato to Jesus.

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