New Testament Chronology
New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)
"I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life." (John 8:12) How long was the beacon of Jesus' light shining directly on His apostles and those who came to Him? How long was His ministry as incarnate Deity? How long until He fulfilled the prophesies of old on the cross?
The length of Jesus' ministry can be determined from Scripture independent of the year in which it began or ended. However, when placed in its chronological context the beginning and ending dates must meet any scriptural or historical test. A likely date for Jesus' baptism was January 6, 28 CE, and dating will here be referenced from that point. In the following section it will be demonstrated that Jesus was crucified at Passover of 30 CE. This leaves only two years and three months for Jesus' ministry. This was the length of His ministry. One- and three-year ministries will be discussed in the following chapters.
From the earliest days Christian writers variously supported one-, two- or three-year ministries. In the second century Tatian, Irenaeus and probably Melito of Sardes supported a two-year ministry, even before there was any recorded suggestion of a three-year ministry1. Epiphanius counted His ministry as two years and seventy-four days2. He placed Jesus' baptism on November 8 and began His ministry on January 6, His birthday. He then ministered for a little over two years, which ended Friday, Nisan 14, or March 20. In the fourth century St. Cyril of Alexandria and Apollinarius of Laodicea supported the two-year ministry. In the sixth century Dionysius Exiguus placed the baptism on January 6 and Jesus' crucifixion two years and three months later. Dionysius is the chronographer who established the present counting of the years Anno Domini, or A. D. The two-year ministry has only found scattered support during the intervening centuries.
Modern support for a two-year ministry of Jesus is virtually lacking. There appears no theological reason for a shorter ministry, and this obvious choice has received little attention. Nor has support of a two-year ministry been convincing. Most arguments crux on the placement of an unnamed feast mentioned in John 5:1. This has been incorrectly identified as Purim to support a two-year ministry3. A more creative approach is the suggestion that the earliest version of John was on a scroll and that through a mechanical error Chapters 5 and 6 were exchanged4. Although this makes establishing a chronology easier, the fact cannot be established. In the literature reviewed there was no substantive support for a two-year ministry of Jesus.
A two-year ministry of Jesus can be established from Scripture. Time related references in Matthew, Mark and Luke are somewhat limited. John does give an approximate time frame with the mention of three Passovers, or Feasts of Unleavened Bread. If there are no scriptures to the contrary then this establishes the two-year ministry, plus the time before the first Passover. There is one reference to consider that might extend Jesus' ministry. That is the mention by John of an unnamed "feast" that falls between the first Passover and the following mention of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. A rough sketch of the problem follows.
From the baptism of Jesus, using January 6, 28 CE, until the first Passover was a period of less than three months. The first reference is to forty days in the wilderness, followed by time references of short duration. These are laid out in the harmony, Chart XVIII, at the end of the chapter. There are no Scriptures that necessitate extending Jesus' early ministry before the first Passover to one half year. The first Passover given by John (2:13) then fell on March 29 of 28 CE.
The main area of discussion will be between the first and second Passover. The next festival mentioned by John (5:1) is a "feast," and it is often interpreted as an intervening Passover or Feast of Tabernacles. By this method a third year is interjected into Jesus' ministry. However, it is here suggested that this feast is the second Passover that was part of the immediately following same second Feast of Unleavened Bread when the 5,000 were fed at Bethsaida (John 6:1). Between this Feast of Unleavened Bread, or Passover season, and the last Passover there is little question that only one year passed. The last Passover is recorded at length in all the gospels, as Jesus was crucified at that time.
If the "feast" is established as the same Passover associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread at Bethsaida, then there were only three Passovers and a two-year ministry of Jesus. This can be established by noting the timing and circumstances surrounding the death of John the Baptist.
The second Passover "feast" will here be located by (1) references to the death of John the Baptist, and (2) the fact that the apostles were not with Jesus. The apostles were not with Jesus because he had just sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God. They were reunited at Bethsaida where the 5,000 were fed during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
John the Baptist baptized Jesus about January 6 of 28 CE. His arrest occurred in about November of that year. The withdrawal of Jesus from Judea to Galilee is tied to John's arrest, for "after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee." (Mark 1:14) This return to Galilee is picked up at John 4:3 and is followed by the story of the woman of Samaria and Jesus' comment about four months to the harvest (discussed below), in November/December of 28 CE.
The following season John was still alive about mid March, 29 CE (Mark 2:18-22), and about a week later (Luke 7:18-35). However, shortly thereafter Herod was perplexed because he had heard that John the Baptist had risen from the dead (Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9). These later passages occurred after Jesus sent out the twelve Apostles (Mark 6:7; Luke 9:1), about early April, and before their return for the feeding of the 5,000 during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, April 17-23, 29 CE. Jesus was free to travel alone then. Herod Antipas must have had John beheaded shortly before the Passover feast. Herod's later fears were probably based on stories about Jesus, who arrived for the "feast" on the approach of Passover, that is Nisan 8. Jesus had never missed a Passover, and since He was alone there was no reason for Him to miss this second Passover of His ministry. On the Sabbath He cured the man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:9). This Saturday was the day before the Passover, Nisan 13, or April 16. Jesus mentioned John the Baptist in the past tense, as if he were already dead: "He was the lamp that was burning and shining and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light." (John 5:35) This would place the "feast" after the death of John the Baptist, which had just occurred. Jesus' discourse claiming His equality with God angered the Jews, and they sought to kill Him. Thus, He left without waiting for the Passover and returned to meet the twelve apostles returning from their mission. They proceeded to Bethsaida and the feeding of the 5,000 during the week of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Jesus was alone when He cured the man at the pool. He was alone because He had sent out the twelve apostles for their first independent witnessing. This shortly preceded the second Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Only at this point in His ministry is it clear that He was alone to travel to Jerusalem for a "feast." The "feast" must be the second Passover.
Josephus mentioned the death of John the Baptist (Ant. XVIII 5:2) in connection with the destruction of Herod Antipas' army by Aretas IV in about 34 CE5: "Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him."
1. John 4:35 - "Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest?'" Although translated as though a proverb, there is no known proverb that can be related to this statement. This appears to be a direct reference to four months before the harvest season in March/April. This statement occurred in Samaria just after the arrest of John the Baptist. Jesus had completed His first season of ministry and was returning to Capernaum for the winter. This places Jesus' statement in November/December of 28 CE.
2. Luke 6:1 (also Matthew 12:1 and Mark 2:23) - "Now it came about that on a certain Sabbath He was passing through some grain fields; and His disciples were picking and eating the heads of grain." Barley comes into ear in early March, and should be ready for harvest by Passover; wheat comes into head by that time. There is some variation for elevation and the weather each year. This event is here dated Saturday, March 26, 29 CE, about three weeks before the second Passover.6 This was two weeks after Jesus had begun his ministry that season, about four months after His statement in Samaria.
3. John 5:1 - "After these things there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem." The healing of the man at the pool occurred Saturday, Nisan 13, or April 16, 29. The correct placement of this passage confirms Jesus' two-year ministry.
By identifying the "feast" of John 5:1 as the same Passover preceding the Feast of Unleavened Bread mentioned in John 6:4 the Scriptures fall into place with a two-year ministry. There are two reasons to make this identification. The timing of the death of John the Baptist indicates this was Jesus' second Passover, and also that Jesus was in Jerusalem without His disciples.
John baptized Jesus January 6 of 28 CE. After forty days in the wilderness He attracted his first disciples and proceeded toward Galilee. About a week after His return from the wilderness He attended the wedding in Cana and performed His first miracle, turning water into wine. After a short stay in Capernaum He went to Jerusalem and the first Passover of His ministry. There His claim to raise the "temple" of His body in three days was challenged with the claim that it had taken forty-six years to raise the stone Temple. He cleansed the Temple and had His discourse with Nicodemus.
The balance of the summer and fall season was spent at the Jordan River, with His disciples also baptizing. When John the Baptist was arrested in about November of 28, Jesus withdrew to Galilee.7 On the way home He encountered the Samaritan woman and made the comment about four months to the harvest. Several days later He went to Cana and healed a nobleman's son. This is described as the "second sign that Jesus performed, when He had come out of Judea into Galilee." (John 4:54) This does not mean that this was only the second sign at Cana or the second sign after He had withdrawn to Galilee. This is the only other sign He performed since His first sign changing water into wine. As such, any descriptions of "signs" in the other gospels must come after this, about December of 28. Jesus stayed in Capernaum for the winter. John's account is silent from this point until just before the "feast," the following Passover.
The ministry of Jesus the following spring is told in some detail by Matthew, Mark and Luke. The story was picked up again on March 12, 29, when Jesus preached in Nazareth on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16-30). At this time He proclaimed the "favorable year of the Lord," which will be discussed in the following chapter. Jesus then went to the Sea of Galilee where he began to gather His disciples for the coming season of ministry. (Mark 1:16-20)
The following Sabbath, March 19, He preached in the synagogue in Capernaum, cast out a demon, and then healed multitudes (Mark 1:21-34). The next day he withdrew and prayed. Then He returned that week to preach from a boat, cure a leper and paralytic, and call Matthew to the ministry.
The following Sabbath, March 26, Jesus and the disciples plucked grain and were challenged by the Pharisees. On the next Sabbath, April 2, He went into the synagogue and cured the man with the withered hand. On the same day He later healed many.
On the next day, April 3, Jesus selected the twelve Apostles, preached the Sermon on the Mount, and cured a leper and the centurion's servant. This was certainly a busy day, unless you are the Son of God.
On the next day, April 4, Jesus went to Nain and raised the widow's son. Then on April 5 he gave the sermon about John the Baptist and on that evening was anointed with perfume. The next day, April 6, Jesus began to go from town to town, while he told the parables of the sower and the lamp. The next day, April 7, His mother and brother visited Him, and later He told parables by the Sea of Galilee. That night He calmed the storm. The following morning, April 8, they arrived near Gerasene, where Jesus cast the demons into the swine. Later in the day they headed toward Nazareth.
The next day, April 9, was the Sabbath when Jesus again preached in the synagogue at Nazareth. He could do no miracles and left there, going from town to town. At about this time He sent the twelve apostles out in pairs to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus was alone He went to Jerusalem for the Passover. This had always been the custom of His family and there was no reason for Him to have missed it, except for His notoriety. The sending out of the twelve Apostles gave Him the opportunity to enter Jerusalem alone and unobserved. After He arrived Jesus cured the man at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath, April 16, and He attempted to slip away (John 5:13). He was soon discovered and confronted by the Jews because the healed man had carried his bed on the Sabbath. After He declared His equality with God, the Jews sought to kill Him. Herod Antipas was in Jerusalem for the Passover, and his fear that John the Baptist had risen was probably from hearing about Jesus' visit at this time.
Jesus withdrew from Jerusalem that day, April 16, and returned to Galilee. After a hurried trip He met the twelve apostles returning from their mission. After Passover the evening of April 17 was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, April 18 to 24. During the later days of the feast Jesus fed the 5,000 at Bethsaida. That night Jesus walked on the water. The next day there were healings at Gennesaret.
From the end of April to October of 29 CE Jesus preached first in Galilee, then to Tyre, and back to Galilee. In the later part of October He went to Jerusalem to attend the Feast of Tabernacles, October 12 to 18 (Tishri 15-21). The next day, October 19, Jesus prevented the stoning of the adulterous woman and cured the blind man. This caused a controversy because it was on the Sabbath. Here, the Sabbath does not refer to Saturday, but to a day of rest. Tishri 21/22, the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, was automatically a Sabbath rest, no matter the day on which it fell (Lev. 23:36).8
Jesus appears to have stayed the winter in the area of Jerusalem. He was in Jerusalem again at Hanukkah on Kislev 25, or December 20, 29 CE. He then retreated to the area of His baptism near the Jordan. During this period He raised Lazarus from the dead. With the approach of His last Passover He again headed toward Jerusalem, healing on the way through Jericho. Jesus arrived at Bethany, outside Jerusalem, on Nisan 8, or March 31, 30 CE. On Palm Sunday, April 2 (Nisan 10), Jesus made His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Jesus was crucified on Friday, April 7, 30 CE (Nisan 15). He was resurrected on Sunday, April 9 (Nisan 17).
About the time of the Feast of Tabernacles in October of 29 CE, Jesus told the following parable:
"A certain man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it, and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, `Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?' And he answered and said to him, `Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'" Luke 13:6-9
A typical identification is that the fig tree is the Jewish nation, the owner of the vineyard is God and the vineyard-keeper is Jesus. In the parable three years have passed since Jesus became vineyard-keeper, and there was one year to go. This is exact in the two-year ministry of Jesus according to the Second Temple calendar that reckoned the new year from Nisan and Jewish reckoning that counts part of a year as a complete year. This is the same as reckoning the three days that Jesus was in the tomb, counting a small part of a day as a complete day. Here, the two and one half months from the baptism of Jesus until the new year before the first Passover were the first year. The second year was until just before the second Passover. The third year was in progress and would end the following Nisan 1. The "next year" was from Nisan 1 until Jesus' crucifixion on Nisan 15. According to Jewish inclusive reckoning, the parable fits the actual length of Jesus' two-year ministry.
By identifying the "feast" of John 5:1 as the Passover preceding the Feast of Unleavened Bread of John 6:4 the timing of the ministry of Jesus sorts itself out. Jesus' ministry was only two years and three months. The timing of the end of His ministry in 30 CE is discussed in the following section.
The ministry of Jesus is summarized in the following Chart XVIII. This chart only includes Mark, Luke and John9. These are presented in Scriptural order. The only exceptions are Luke's earlier mention of the arrest of John the Baptist (Luke 3:19) and possibly the arrival of Jesus' mother and brothers (Luke 8:19-21). There is no other rearrangement of any text. The gospel of Matthew does rearrange the order of events for literary and theological reasons, and his dating will be used with caution.
Harmony of the Ministry of Jesus
1. E. F. Sutcliffe, A Two Year Public Ministry Defended (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1938), 51-53, 74.
2. Sutcliffe, Two Year Ministry, 75-76, quoting Epiphanius, Haereses 51:28.
3. Sutcliffe, Two Year Ministry, 61-62.
4. This is the main argument of Sutcliffe, Two Year Ministry, in support of the two-year ministry. His error has become a reason to dismiss the two-year ministry without further inquiry.
5. Dating the war in 34 CE is discussed in the chapter, "Pontius Pilate in Judea," page 169.
6. J. M. Baumgarten, "The Counting of the Sabbath in Ancient Sources," VT 16 (1966), 284 places the plucking of corn on the second Sabbath of the first month based on a Sabbatical series derived from the Angelic Liturgy and Jubilee calendar. This is four weeks later than the dating here given.
7. P. L. Maier, "The Date of the Nativity and the Chronology of Jesus' Life," CKC, 120, notes that John's ministry of six months seems reasonable, as a longer period would vitiate his role as "forerunner."
8. See the chapter on "The Preparation for the Sabbath," pages 248-249.
9. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History III 39:15) states, "Mark being the recorder of Peter, wrote accurately but not in order." B. Orchard and Harold Riley, The Order of the Synoptics: Why Three Synoptic Gospels? (Macon, GA: Mercer Univ. Press, 1987), 190 takes this to mean literary order rather than chronological order. J. R. Edwards, "Markan Sandwiches: The Significance of Interpolations in Markan Narratives," NT 31, 3 (1989) notes Mark interrupted his order by insertions, or "sandwiches," which provide theological contrast. These sandwiches do not alter the chronological sequence.