When was Jesus crucified? For this article, I’m not going to get into the day of the week or even the month. We’re just going to see if we can accurately peg the year of Jesus’ death (and resurrection). Answering that question is possible by looking at a few key clues from the New Testament, ancient historical records, and even geology! Let’s begin….
What About That Earthquake?
One of the coolest clues to dating Jesus’ crucifixion can be found in dirt! The Gospel of Matthew tells us that a significant earthquake took place upon the death of Jesus on the cross (Matthew 27:51). According to geologists, sediment depositions point to two major episodes of “seismic activity” near the Dead Sea close to or during the time of Christ. The first and largest quake dates to about B.C. (or B.C.E.) 31, which is interesting, but is of course much earlier than Jesus’ life. The second one fits perfectly. Geologists have determined that a significant earthquake occurred in the region sometime between A.D. (C.E.) 26 and 36, which (as we’re about to see) coincides perfectly with Jesus’ crucifixion. Many believe this earthquake, confirmed by geological studies, may indeed be the one Matthew describes in his Gospel. If so, we can date Jesus’ crucifixion between A.D. 26 and 36, which happens to be the same date range as our next clue…
The Reign of Pontius Pilate
The famed Roman historian Tacitus says that “Christus” (his way of saying Christ) was crucified “during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” Tacitus’ association of Jesus’ crucifixion with Pontius Pilate is consistent with all four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Based on several ancient sources, historians date Pilate’s reign from A.D. 26 to 36. And this puts Jesus’ crucifixion somewhere within that 10-year range, but we can do better than that.
The Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry
The Gospel of Luke tells us that John the Baptist began preaching in the “fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests…” (Luke 3:1-2). Since Jesus began his active ministry shortly after John began his, the beginning of Luke is a gold mine for historians! By looking at the known terms of office of the aforementioned individuals, we can safely conclude that Jesus began his ministry sometime between A.D. 26 and 29.
It does get a little confusing, though, when looking at Tiberius’ reign. In A.D. 11, Tiberius essentially became co-regent with the elderly Augustus and then, in A.D. 14, assumed full powers with Augustus’ passing. When Luke refers to the “fifteenth year” of Tiberius’ reign, does he mean 15 years from A.D. 11 or 15 years from A.D. 14? Depending on how you answer that question, Jesus begins his ministry in either A.D. 26/27 or A.D. 29 (and thus is crucified in likely A.D. 30 or 33).
When Was Jesus Born?
One of the main reasons some scholars prefer having Jesus begin his ministry in A.D. 26/27 is because Luke says Jesus was “about thirty years of age” when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23). In order for Jesus to be close to thirty years of age at the time he starts his ministry, the earlier date (26 or early 27 A.D.) works better than the later date (A.D. 29). The reason is because Jesus’ birth has been dated to between 6 and 4 B.C., based on the timetable of King Herod’s reign and the account in Matthew’s Gospel of Herod ordering the deaths of all babies in Bethlehem under two years of age. The more literal or specific you understand “about thirty years of age” to be in Luke 3, the closer you’ll lean toward A.D. 26/27 as the start of Jesus’ ministry.
Personally, I don’t think we need a literal reading of Luke 3:23. The author’s use of the word “about” is a pretty clear indication of his intentions. It would be like me looking at someone and saying he’s “about” 30 or 40 or 50. No scientific or biological or chronological precision is intended. I’d be providing a basic approximation. Nothing more. That appears to be Luke’s intent, and we should always interpret text based on author intent. Always. And, given Luke’s precision in Luke 3:1-2 and his generalization in Luke 3:23, we should put more weight on the former rather than the latter. Thus, I’m comfortable with dating the start of Jesus’ ministry to A.D. 29 (even though Jesus would likely be closer to mid-thirties in that year, rather than an even thirty).
How Many Passovers?
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus attended at least three annual Passover feasts (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55) during his active ministry. (Some would say four). This requires a ministry spanning about 3 1/2 years. This renders the second most popular date (A.D. 30) almost impossible, raising A.D. 33 as the most likely contender, especially when you study Jewish Passover traditions and juxtapose those traditions against the possible dates during Pilate’s reign (A.D. 26-36).
When Was Jesus Crucified?
So….based on the above clues…in what year was Jesus crucified? There are certainly many scholars (much smarter than me) who date the crucifixion to A.D. 30. They make some good points, but I think the evidence heavily favors A.D. 33 as the year of Jesus’ death on the Roman cross (and most significantly, his resurrection).
This of course is not a salvation issue. And it’s not really a discipleship issue either. Good, decent, honorable Christians can hold to different dates of the crucifixion. The important thing is that He was crucified — and that he rose from the dead! On this Good Friday, let’s remember His sacrificial love as shown on the cross and the Good News of His resurrection.