New Testament Chronology

New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)

Kenneth Frank Doig
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Exact Dating of the Birth and Crucifixion of Jesus

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Chapter 12
THE FIFTEENTH YEAR OF TIBERIUS

The beginning of John the Baptist's ministry occurred "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar." (Luke 3:1) John baptized Jesus soon thereafter, and this marks the beginning of the Lord's ministry (Luke 3:13, 16-17). With that year established it is possible to reconcile that Jesus was about thirty years old (Luke 3:23).

Tiberius Caesar succeeded to ruler of the empire after the death of Caesar Augustus on August 19, 14 CE. John the Baptist began to preach during the fifteenth year of Tiberius' reign. These two exact numbers have led commentators to a broad range of possible times for the beginning of John's ministry. The deviation has been caused by a lack of exact knowledge of the calendar system Luke was using. Luke's calendar and his reckoning of the reigns of kings is the controlling factor, not how Tiberius or the Romans reckoned his reign.

I. Luke's Reckoning of the Fifteenth Year

As with his other timed references, Luke, a Greek, was using the Syro-Macedonian calendar familiar to Theophilus, the Greek recipient of his letters in Antioch. This calendar system led to the dating of the Annunciation in the "sixth month" on March 25, coinciding with the appearance of the first nova, or Star of the Magi. Luke's use of this method of dating is here continued. This calendar was in use through much of the Middle East, including Judea, and would here be an expected reference. The usual reckoning was by the years of the Syrian Seleucid Era, which dated by the Syro-Macedonian calendar. The rulers of that area reckoned their reigns by this calendar, as discussed in the chapter on "Herodian Chronology." They used inclusive reckoning, with the new year beginning with the fall lunar month of Dios.1 The dating of the reign of Tiberius can be according to Luke's Syro-Macedonian calendar.

Tiberius became Caesar on August 19, 14, and in that year Dios 1 fell on October 15. Thus, his first regnal year according to the Syro-Macedonian calendar would be from Dios 1, or October 25, 13 until October 14, 14. Luke would have measured the fifteen years from that year one by non-accession, or inclusive, reckoning. Thus, the "fifteenth year" fell from October 20, 27 to October 9, 28. According to Luke's Syro-Macedonian reckoning John the Baptist began his ministry between these two dates. This falls in line with the arrival of Pontius Pilate by the autumn of 27. The earliest first Passover of Jesus' ministry would have been in 28.

II. Other Interpretations

The interpretation of the "fifteenth year" according to the Syro-Macedonian calendar has not been a usual choice of New Testament historians. The selection of the dating method is usually based on backdating three and a half years from a predetermined crucifixion in 30, 31 or 33. These interpretations are here presented in order from the earliest to the latest possible date.

1. Inclusive Reckoning from a Co-regency of Tiberius with Augustus. Some interpretations recognize a decree establishing a "co-regency" in 12 CE, with Tiberius ruling as a colleague of Augustus in the provinces. This is described by the Roman historian, Suetonius: "After two years he (Tiberius) returned to the city from Germany and celebrated the triumph. . . . Since the consuls caused a law to be passed soon after this that he should govern the provinces jointly with Augustus and hold the census with him, he set out for Illyricum on the conclusion of the lustral ceremonies; but he was at once recalled, and finding Augustus in his last illness but still alive, he spent an entire day with him in private." (Augustus 97:1; Tiberius 20-21) The triumphal celebration was on October 23, 12,2 and he became colleague shortly thereafter. Thus, his "co-regency" is usually dated from late October of 12. The fifteenth inclusive year by dynastic reckoning might be dated from the end of October of 26 until October of 27, with a first Passover of Jesus' ministry in 27 or 28. The fifteenth year has also been claimed to be from January 1 to December 31, 26, with a first Passover in 27. Also, if Jesus was baptized early in the year, as on the traditional January 6, then His first Passover could theoretically be as early as 26. This reckoning from a "co-regency" allows a three-and-a-half-year ministry ending in 30 CE.

If Luke reckoned from the fifteenth year that Tiberius was colleague then this might fall before the earliest possible year when Pilate became governor in the autumn of 27. If John baptized Jesus near the end of the fifteenth year from the "co-regency," October of 27, then this interpretation also will satisfy the first Passover of Jesus' ministry falling in 28. The baptism of Jesus still could not fall in 26 CE, with a first Passover in 26 or 27.

There have been a number of objections to this interpretation from a "co-regency." There is a total lack of hard evidence from either historical documents or coins of the period which date the reign of Tiberius from a co-regency.3 There is abundant evidence that historians of the period reckoned Tiberius' reign from August 19, 14 or shortly thereafter, the time at which he became sole ruler.4 Also, Tiberius' time in the provinces was limited to a short stay in Illyricum, western Greece. His presence there would have had little or no effect in faraway Syria or Judea. A Syrian Greek, such as Luke, is unlikely to have used such dating. Tiberius was awarded a special honor, but there is no evidence that anyone during the first century reckoned from such a date.

Augustus favored Tiberius and selected him to follow as emperor. Tiberius "was adopted as a son, as a colleague in empire and a partner in the tribunation power." (Tacitus, Annals 1:3) However, the consuls caused the law to be passed making Tiberius a colleague. This title did not automatically confer on him control of the Roman Empire, which was not confirmed until after the funeral of Augustus (Annals 1:12). A "colleague" was not a co-regent in the usual sense, as there might even be more than one colleague (Suetonius, Tiberius 25). No one, excepting some modern Biblical scholars, dates Tiberius' reign from 12 CE. And, such reckoning scripturally and historically conflicts with Pontius Pilate's term as governor of Judea.

2. Inclusive Reckoning from Tishri. Many have assumed that Luke used the Jewish calendar of the Diaspora, which began the year in the fall month of Tishri. The "fifteenth year" would have fallen between September 21, 27 and September 8, 28. Again, the earliest first Passover of Jesus' ministry would have been in 28, on in the following year in 29. There is no reason to presume that Luke used this calendar, which was similar to the Syro-Macedonian calendar. The use of this calendar is usually presumed because of its similarity to the present fixed Jewish calendar.

3. Inclusive reckoning from Dios. This was likely the method by which Luke reckoned the reign of Tiberius. As discussed above, this was from October 20, 27 to October 9, 28.

4. Inclusive Reckoning from January. The fifteenth year would be from January 1 to December 31, 28. Since Luke's reference was to the reign of the Roman emperor, might not his dating be according to the Julian calendar of the Romans? To support such a possibility, it is contended that Theophilus, the recipient of Luke's letter, was a Roman, not a Greek. As discussed in the chapter, "The Sixth Month," this is based solely on the term of address, "most excellent." (Luke 1:3; Acts 23:26, 24:3, 26:25) It is contended that this term of address was only applicable when speaking to a Roman, that Theophilus must be a Roman and that Luke must be using Roman dating. However, just because Paul and Lysias used this term when addressing a Roman does not mean that Theophilus was a Roman. Luke was using a term of respect, not an ethnic address reserved for Romans. The use of Roman dating by Luke is not found in any other part of his writings and is inconsistent with the conclusions about the birth of Jesus. It is unlikely that he here uses Roman dating. However, since the traditional date for the baptism of Jesus is January 6, again the earliest first Passover would be in 28.

5. Inclusive Reckoning from Nisan. The fifteenth year of Tiberius' reign by non-accession, or inclusive, reckoning from Nisan was from March 16, 28 to April 3, 29. Jesus' first Passover must then be in 29. The Nisan interpretation is in an expected usage by a Jewish writer such as Josephus, and it is in accord with the later Mishna. However, neither Luke nor Theophilus were Jews, and they are unlikely to have used the Jewish Second Temple calendar.

6. Dynastic Reckoning From The Beginning of Tiberius' Sole Reign. This was the usual Roman method for reckoning Tiberius' reign. It is the only reckoning, besides use of the Syro-Macedonian calendar, that makes sense in the historical context of the Scripture. The calendar year is not considered, and inclusive reckoning is used. The fifteenth year was from August 19, 28 to August 18, 29.5 Jesus' first Passover might then be in 29 or 30.

The Roman coins of Tiberius, including the coins of the prefects of Judea, are dated by dynastic reckoning. From Madden's study,6 "It is almost certain that the regnal years of Tiberius were computed from the nineteenth August, A.D. 14, after the death of Augustus, and his tribunation year from June twenty-seventh, A.D. 4, the year of his adoption. His second year would therefore commence on the nineteenth of August, A.D. 15." No coins exist that can be dated from a co-regency beginning in 12 CE.

Roman historians also used the above dynastic reckoning for Tiberius. Tacitus (Annals 4:1) wrote, "The year when Caius Asinius and Caius Antistius were consuls was the ninth of Tiberius' reign." The year of the consuls was 23 CE, beginning January 1.7 The ninth year was from August 19, 22 to August 18, 23, which included the beginning of the year twenty-three. Further, Tacitus (Annals 6:51) wrote that Tiberius ruled "the Roman world, with absolute sway, for about twenty-three." It was twenty-three inclusive dynastic years from August 19, 14 until Tiberius' death on March 16, 37. Also, Suetonius (Tiberius 73:1) described Tiberius' death as, "In the seventy-eighth year of his age and the twenty-third of his reign on the seventeenth day before the Kalends of April, in the consulship of Gnaeus Acerronius Proculus and Gaius Pontius Nigrinus." If Tacitus or Suetonius had reckoned the regnal year from January 1, then they would have written twenty-four years. However, there was only a twenty-three year reign by dynastic reckoning from Tiberius' accession. For a Roman the fifteenth year of Tiberius caused no confusion and was the year beginning August 19, 28. For a Greek from Antioch, such as Luke, such dating is not so certain.

7. Accession Reckoning from January. The fifteenth year of Tiberius' reign reckoned by accession reckoning was from January 1 to December 31, 29. This would again place Jesus' first Passover in 29 or 30.

The point of attempting to establish Roman dating from January by Luke often finds its fulfillment in this interpretation. If Jesus was baptized during the fifteenth year of Tiberius according to dynastic reckoning, then the latest time would be early August of 29. Then it would be a little more than three and a half years to a crucifixion in 33 CE. With accession reckoning from January, Jesus might have been baptized as late as December of 29, thus giving some flexibility in dating. This method is based on the claim that Roman historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius used accession reckoning according to the Roman calendar year. This was shown to be incorrect in section 6 above. In those examples the twenty-three-year reign of Tiberius would be correct if the portion of the year from August 19 to December 31 of 14 CE was not counted, with year 1 beginning January 1, 15 CE. There is no historical support for this supposition. Even if there was support, Luke was not a Roman historian, and it cannot be demonstrated that he used such a method. There is little to commend accession reckoning in the interpretation of Luke's "fifteenth year."

III. About Thirty Years of Age

John the Baptist began his ministry in the "fifteenth year" of Tiberius according to the Syro-Macedonian calendar, between October 20, 27 and October 9, 28. Pontius Pilate arrived in Caesarea at about that time, by the fall of 27. John was thirty years of age from about July of 26 to July of 27, and he would likely have begun his ministry by the autumn of 27.

It was the custom for a Levite to begin his official ministry for the Lord when he became thirty years old. John the Baptist was a Levite, as was his father, Zacharias. He was a Nazarite (Luke 1:15), and "he lived in the desert until the day of his public appearance to Israel." (Luke 1:80) His public appearance would have been soon after he reached thirty years of age, as, "from thirty years and upward even to fifty years old" the Levites were to enter the service of the Lord (Num. 4:35).8 Josephus (Ant. VII 14:7) confirmed that the Levites were numbered "from thirty years old to fifty." John would not have delayed much past his thirtieth birthday and would have begun his ministry by the fall of 27.

Soon after John began his ministry, he baptized Jesus. For purposes of discussion the early traditional date for Jesus' baptism on January 6 will be examined, here in 28 CE. Can such a date have been true?

Luke noted that at the time of His baptism, "when He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age." (Luke 3:23) How can an accurate and inspired writer such as Luke not have determined the date of the birth and baptism of Jesus? Luke said he, "investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out in consecutive order." (Luke 1:3) He would have accurately determined these times. And such is true, as he knew that the Annunciation to Mary of the conception of Jesus was in the sixth month of the Syro-Macedonian year. If the tradition that brought forward the day of Jesus' birth as December 25 is accurate, then that dating was available when Luke wrote to Theophilus. Luke would likely have heard that date. Or, it was an easy matter for him to count forward from the known sixth calendar month and place the month of Jesus' birth. Luke also knew the year, as he dates it specifically by the first military taxation and census decreed by Augustus, of which he had information. Luke most likely accurately knew the date of Jesus' birth.

Luke also would have heard, if true, the early traditional date of January 6 for the baptism of Jesus. Can the birth of Jesus on December 25, 5 BCE and His baptism by John on January 6, 28 be reconciled? According to the Roman or our current calendar, Jesus' thirty-first birthday was on December 25, 27. By the Babylonian calendar Jesus also would have been thirty-one years old. If Luke knew all the dates why did he say "about thirty?"

It is probable that Jesus would have begun His ministry while He was still thirty years old. According to the theology of "types," one might expect Jesus, as a type of Levite, to have begun his ministry while he was still thirty years old. Although Jesus was not descended from the Levites, He was more. He is our "High Priest." (Heb. 3:1-3) Jesus "entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption." (Heb. 9:12) As the High Priest who could enter the Holy of Holies, Jesus was spiritually a Levite. Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law (Luke 24:44), and would have fulfilled the requirement to begin His ministry while He was thirty years old.

According to Luke's Syro-Macedonian calendar Jesus was still thirty years old when He began His ministry. He was born on Audynaios 26 (December 25, 5 BCE) and His ministry possibly began Audynaios 21 (January 6, 28 CE). Jesus would not have had His thirty-first birthday until five days later.

Luke would have likely been familiar with the Jewish dating of the Old Testament and the Second Temple calendar, which began the year with the sunrise on Nisan 1. Might Luke not also consider the age of the Son of God by the calendar system established by God? According to this calendar Jesus was born on Kislev 25, or Hanukkah. January 6 in 28 fell on Kislev 20, and Jesus was still thirty years old. Jesus was thirty years old according to God's calendar and Luke's Syro-Macedonian calendar. He was thirty-one years old according to the old Babylonian calendar and the newly instituted Julian calendar of the Roman conquerors. Without going into a long discussion, Luke described Jesus' age as "about thirty." By placing the date of Jesus' baptism on January 6 an explanation is found why Luke used the imprecise word, "about." January 6, 28 can be established as a convenient date for the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

By placing the birth of Jesus earlier than the end of 5 BCE or placing His baptism after early 28 CE, Jesus' age when He was baptized moves from thirty-one, to thirty-two, to thirty-three, etc. After attempting to establish exact dating from Luke, is it then reasonable to try to justify that Luke used the term "about" because he really did not know the exact dating? Jesus was not likely thirty-two or thirty-three years old when He began His ministry. Jesus was thirty or thirty-one, depending on the calendar used, or "about 30" if Luke only knew His birth to the month and not the day.

IV. Not Yet Fifty Years Old

During Jesus' ministry, "the Jews therefore said to Him, `You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?'" (John 8:57) Since this statement was made by an uninspired speaker and Jesus was then in His early thirties, this statement has no value to the chronology. The comment may have been a reflection that fifty was the age for retirement of priests, thus emphasizing Jesus' supposed lack of experience and obvious youth.

V. Conclusion

Based on Luke's use of the Syro-Macedonian calendar it was established that John the Baptist began his ministry between October 20, 27 and October 9, 28. This was the "fifteenth year of Tiberius." John began his ministry after the arrival of Pontius Pilate, by the fall of 27. John baptized Jesus soon thereafter, and the traditional date of January 6 is here used. This date is supported by an understanding of Luke's usage of Jesus being "about thirty years" old at that time, and the thirty years are exact by the Jewish or Syro-Macedonian calendars. The chronology will proceed using January 6, 28 as the probable date for the baptism of Jesus. This will place the first Passover of Jesus' ministry in 28, as will be confirmed in the following chapter.



Notes:

1. In the later version of the Syro-Macedonian calendar the new year began with the month Hyperberetaios, which was permanently  aligned with October 1 of the Julian calendar. See J. Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964), 61-69.

2. Finegan, Handbook, 259.

3. H. W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 31-32.

4. For example, see Josephus, Ant. XVIII 4:6 and 6:10; Wars II 9:6; Suetonius, Tiberius 73:1; Tacitus, Annals 1:5.

5. "Chronology of the New Testament," The International Standard Bible Encyclopædia, 646.

6. F. Madden, History of Jewish Coinage (Argonaut, 1864, rev. 1967), 23.

7. A. E. Samuel, Greek and Roman Chronology (Munich: Oscar Beck, 1972), 268.

8. The age of 25 is given in Num. 8:24.

 

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