New Testament Chronology
New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)
There appears to have been no existing early tradition about the length of the Lord's ministry. However, most Christians know that Jesus' ministry lasted about three and a half years. That is what the Bible teachers say. The beginnings of this "sacred cow" go back to Origen in the third century, and it was popularized by Eusebius in the fourth century. The authenticity of the three-year ministry is seldom questioned. It must be true.
Origin and Eusebius related Jesus' ministry to Gabriel's prophecy to Daniel about the Seventy Weeks (Dan. 9:24-7). Half the final week was three and a half years. Since Jesus must be the fulfillment of that prophecy, His ministry lasted three and a half years. Since His ministry lasted three and a half years Jesus must be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel. This neat bit of circular reasoning dominates present thinking on the length of Jesus' ministry.
The belief in a three year ministry for Jesus came later than the support for a one- or two-year ministry. It is found in Origen, who originally supported a one-year ministry. In about mid third century he wrote "about three years of the Lord's Preaching," which he related to half the week in the prophecy of Daniel (Com. in Mt. XXIV 15:40). Other support was scant at that time.
In the fourth century Eusebius was the first to argue support for a three-year ministry. He first erroneously stated, "Since, then, he (Jesus) began in the high priesthood of Annas and continued to the reign of Caiaphas the intervening time does not extend to a full four years." (Ecclesiastical History I 10:2) In his Chronicles he ascribed the crucifixion to the eighteenth year of Tiberius. He based this on a misunderstanding of an eclipse and the false claim that, "It is written (in John) that after the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar the Lord preached three years."1 Finally, in his Demonstratio Evangelica (VIII 106-8) he stated, "the whole period of our Savior's teaching and marvel-working is recorded to have been three years and a half, which is half of a week. This, I take it, John the Evangelist accurately establishes by his presentation in the gospel." In his Eclogue Propheticae (III 46) he further wrote, "Therefore it is written, `and in the midst of the week shall be taken away sacrifice and libation'; and it is clear that with the Passion was forcibly taken from them sacrifice and libation, when according to the Evangelical Scripture 'the veil of the Temple was rent from the top to the bottom'."2 Eusebius claimed that John's gospel represents a three-year ministry, but he offered no specific arguments. He did not suggest John 5:1 as a fourth Passover. However, the popularity of a three-year ministry has grown to be all-encompassing in the intervening centuries.
Modern support is almost without question for a ministry of Jesus of something over three years. The basic arguments are twofold:
1. Between the journey from Judea to Galilee (John 4:35) and the feeding of the 5,000 at the Feast of Unleavened Bread (John 6:4) there must be an intervening Passover. The "feast" of John 5:1 is then taken to imply or be an intervening Passover. Thus, there were four Passovers.
2. The plucking of the ears of grain (corn) (Mark 2:23; Luke 6:1) and the feeding of the 5,000 must both take place in spring or early summer. Because of the many intervening events both cannot have occurred in the same year. Therefore, there must be an intervening Passover.
Based on these two assumptions a three-year ministry can be constructed. However, it has problems.
The attempt to add a third year to Jesus' ministry occurs between the first and second (in this case, third) Passovers that are mentioned. The first season ended  with Jesus' withdrawal to Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist. With a three-and-a-half-year ministry there usually follows a short season  that mentions only two sabbaths and short time references. Then the "feast" is inserted, usually suggested as Pentecost or the Feast of Tabernacles of that year, or Passover of the following year. The next references are to the plucking of grain (Matt. 12:1; Mark 2:23; Luke 6:1), presumed to be the following season  shortly after the unmentioned Passover. After that time John the Baptist sent his disciples to inquire of Jesus (Matt. 11:2-19; Luke 7:18-35). The healing of the man at Bethesda is unnecessarily separated from the "feast" so as not to cause conflict.
The problem is that when Jesus was at the "feast," He spoke as though John were already dead. Jesus' words and deeds more appropriately related to Herod's concern that John the Baptist had risen from the dead (Matt. 14:1-2; Mark 6:14-16; Luke 9:7-9). If John the Baptist was dead before the "feast," then the feast must be placed after the last reference to John being alive. It must be placed after the plucking of grain and after He met with the disciples of John. It must be placed at about the time when Jesus sent out the twelve apostles, when John the Baptist was dead (Matt. 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:39). This was immediately followed by the second Feast of Unleavened Bread, the same "feast." An added year is unnecessary and in conflict when derived from the gospels.
The prophecy of the Seventy Weeks given by Gabriel to Daniel is at the center of many interpretations of the chronology of the life of Jesus. It has determined the length of His ministry and the year of His crucifixion. Some observations on the prophecy are here necessary. The text is as follows:
So you are to know and discern that from the issuing a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.
Then after the sixty two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.
And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.
From the prophecy of the Seventy Weeks some basic conclusions do seem possible. The beginning of the Seventy Weeks is from a decree to restore and rebuild the city of Jerusalem. This would apply to the ruined state of Jerusalem from the Babylonian desolations since the prophecy of the Seventy Weeks was in response to Daniel's understanding and prayers for the end of seventy years of that present desolation (Dan. 9:2). The decree must be more than allowing the rebuilding of the Temple and the observance of religious rites. The decree should relate to the rebuilding of the city after the Babylonian servitude.
The length of time from the decree until the coming of the Messiah is seventy weeks. A "week" is usually interpreted as seven years, (Gen. 29:27) and sometimes tied to the Sabbatical-year cycle.3 Thus, the length of the decree is taken as seven times seventy, or 490 years. The prophecy breaks this into periods of seven years, sixty-two years and an unmentioned one year. It is uncertain if the years are continuous or interrupted by additional time. The presumed year is then variously interpreted as a solar year, a Jewish lunar year and a "prophetic" year of 360 days.
The end of the decree is with the coming of the Messiah. Jewish interpretation is often tied up with the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes,4 but the numbers are not quite right. For Christians the prophesy may be fulfilled with the first coming of Jesus, which affects the presently discussed chronology, with His second appearance at the end of time, or a combination of the two. In the following analysis the focus will be on the interpretations where Jesus is "Messiah the Prince."
It is here presumed that the decree to restore Jerusalem is to be found in Scripture. The decrees that might relate to the beginning of Daniel's Seventy Weeks are here listed.
[Added note: In the first year of Darius (521/520 BCE) Daniel understood Jeremiah's prophecy that the desolations of Jerusalem would last 70 years. (Daniel 9:1-2) His prayer is a confession of his and his people's sins and specifically requests God's mercy to end the present desolations and the "desolate sanctuary." Gabriel arrives and states, "at the beginning of your supplications the command was issued." (Daniel 9:23) The "command" in Hebrew is דָבָר (davar), more usually translated "word." Gabriel continues, "give heed to the message and gain understanding of the vision." What vision? This is the same word used of Daniel's vision of the Ram & Goat of chapter 8, still unexplained. (Daniel 8:27) The prophecy of the 70 Weeks is not a vision but an additional explanation of the prior vision. The answer to Daniel's prayer is the completion of the 70 years of Jeremiah, which fell in 520/519 BCE and coincided with foundation of the Second Temple. The explanatory prophecy of the 70 Weeks is from the "issuing of a decree," (Daniel 9:25) דָבָר (Davar), or "word." Is this "command" or "decree" the one already issued by God in answer to Daniel's prayer?]
538 BCE - Decree of Cyrus: In the first year of Cyrus' dominion over the former Babylonian Empire he issued a decree to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem and "rebuild the house of God." (2 Chron. 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4) On the Cyrus Cylinder, a clay cylinder found at Babylon, he stated, "I gathered all their former inhabitants and restored to them their habitations." Isaiah had prophesied that God would forgive Israel and that Cyrus would be the instrument of His forgiveness (Isa. 44:21-45:7). Sacrifices were reinstituted on Tishri 1, or September 17, 538. (Ezra 3:6)
520/519 BCE - Decree of Darius: The foundation of the Second Temple was laid in the second year of Darius I (Haggai 1:1) on the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month (Haggai 2:18), or December 18, 520. The Persian governor objected and appealed to Darius. King Darius issued a decree to search for the decree of Cyrus and confirmed that he did allow the Jews to rebuild the Temple (Ezra 6:1-12). Darius confirmed that Cyrus' decree related to the rebuilding of the Temple, not the city of Jerusalem.
465, December - First Decree of Artaxerxes: To prevent the rebuilding of Jerusalem counselors were hired to petition the kings of Persia from the days of Cyrus until the reign of Artaxerxes. He became king by the month of Kislev, or December 17, 465 to January 14, 464 BCE.5 Since the decrees of Cyrus and Darius did not allow the rebuilding of Jerusalem, Artaxerxes stated, "So, now issue a decree to make these men stop work, that the city may not be rebuilt until a decree is issued by me." (Ezra 4:4-23)
458, April 8 - Second Decree of Artaxerxes: Artaxerxes issued a second decree that added to the decree of Cyrus and was "to adorn the House of the Lord which is in Jerusalem." (Ezra 7:11-27) The decree is usually dated to Nisan 1 in the seventh year of Artaxerxes, (Ezra 7:8-9) or April 8, 458 BCE. The decree did not rescind his first decree that prohibited the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem.
445, April 13 - Third Decree of Artaxerxes: In the month of Nisan in his twentieth year (Neh. 2:1) Artaxerxes issued letters to allow the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem (Neh. 2:1-8). The decree is presumed dated to Nisan 1, or April 13, 445 BCE, for lack of a specific day of the month. This decree rescinded his first decree of 520/519 BCE. [The April 13, 445 date is according to Babylonian reckoning of Nisanu 1 confirmed in clay tablets of the period,5A although by Jewish reckoning it would have been Nisan 1 on March 15, 445.] [Some claim in error that Nisan 1 of Artaxerxes 20th year fell in the following year 444, usually given as March 8 by a computer generated date. In 444 the new moon was visible at Jerusalem at 17:21 hours on March 2, and the new month began on March 3. Both dates are too early, and Nisan 1 began April 3 in 444.]
These five decrees represent the Scriptural choices for the beginning of the seventy weeks.
Following the assumption that the seventy weeks refer to 490 years it is necessary to decide by what calendar and sequence the prophecy is to be measured. The possible interpretations of the calendar include the following:
1. The Julian/Gregorian Calendar: Measurement of the year from January 1 is nowhere found in Scripture and must be discounted.
2. The Exile Calendar: This calendar began the new year in Nisan in the Spring and was in use at the time the decrees were issued. It is the same as the Persian reckoning of the new year and the reign of their Kings. The Second Temple calendar at the time of Jesus also began the new year in Nisan. This is likely the calendar of the Seventy Weeks.
3. The Diaspora Calendar: This calendar began the new year in the fall month of Tishri. It does not appear as a calendar of Scripture, except indirectly. This calendar is incorrectly used in many interpretations of the seventy weeks.
4. The Prophetic Year: A "prophetic" year of 360 days has been suggested as the method of reckoning of the Seventy Weeks.6 The "new year" would regress five to six days each year. This mystical year is not found in Scripture,7 but only supported by a particular interpretation and comparison of passages in Daniel (Dan. 12:6) and the Revelation (Rev. 12:6, 12:14, 13:5).
The seventy weeks are given in the sequence of seven, sixty-two and one, with the last one presumed by subtraction. The interpretations here considered take the first sixty-nine weeks unbroken, and without a satisfactory explanation of the seven and sixty-two. In the interpretation using the Diaspora Calendar the seventieth week is in sequence and divided by the crucifixion of Jesus in the middle of the week. In the interpretation using the "prophetic" year the sixty-nine weeks end with Jesus being hailed as king five days before His crucifixion. The last seven years are then discontinuous and are the future time of the tribulation preceding the second coming of Jesus as Christ.
The interpretations that include Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophesy of the seventy weeks will be considered here. These all center around the crucifixion of Jesus in 30, 31 or 33 CE. The establishment of that date is the subject of the following section. However, the conclusion is that Jesus was crucified in 30 CE after a two-year ministry. Then none of the interpretations of the seventy weeks can be correct.
Three interpretations will be considered. These follow a three-and-a-half-year ministry and will be identified by the proposed date of Jesus' crucifixion.
The most conventional interpretation begins the seventy weeks, or 490 years, with the second decree of Artaxerxes on April 8, 458 BCE. The Diaspora calendar is used, and the beginning of that year is backdated to Tishri of 457 BCE. By using inclusive reckoning the first sixty-nine weeks, or 483 years, ends in the fall of 26 CE. The beginning of Jesus' ministry is dated to that time, followed by three and a half years to His passion. The final seven years are marked in the middle by Jesus' crucifixion in the spring of 30 CE. The following three and a half years end with the stoning of Stephen and the dispersion of the new church.
The difficulties with this interpretation include:
1. The starting point with the second decree of Artaxerxes has difficulty. This should be from a decree to "restore and rebuild Jerusalem." The second decree of Artaxerxes was only an elaboration of Cyrus' decree, and was intended to enhance Temple worship. Artaxerxes' first decree was still in effect that prohibited the rebuilding of the city, as required by the prophecy.
2. The use of the Diaspora calendar is unwarranted. The Jews and the Persians used a calendar that began the year in Nisan. The end of the sixty-nine weeks was then in Nisan of 26 CE, which leaves a gap of six months until the proposed beginning of Jesus' ministry.
3. The beginning of the ministry of Jesus in the fall of 26 CE has difficulty because it was before the fifteenth year of Tiberius and before Pontius Pilate arrived in Judea.
4. The ministry of three and a half years is a stretch to fit the prophecy.
5. The following three and a half years to the stoning of Stephen and the dispersion of the church is also a stretch. The period was probably not much over a year, as will be discussed in the final section on the growth of the early church.
The above interpretation has been modified by such denominations
as the Seventh Day Adventists and Worldwide Church of God. This interpretation
begins from the same dating of the decree to Tishri of 457 BCE, but then
uses 483 literal years. Jesus thus began his ministry in the fall of 27
CE. After a three-and-a-half-year ministry He was crucified on Wednesday,
March 28, 31 CE. The Wednesday was also in the middle of the week.
Although some of the above difficulties are avoided, the dating of the crucifixion in 31 CE meets unsolved problems. This will be discussed in the following section.
The following interpretation developed in the nineteenth century and has become very popular among many evangelicals. It is the most complicated and exact, and therefore the most insidious. Upon close inspection it is also the most flawed.
This interpretation begins with the third decree of Artaxerxes that allowed the rebuilding of Jerusalem. This decree meets the requirements of the prophecy. The decree is here dated to Nisan 1, on March 5 of 444 BCE. The year is then calculated by a "prophetic" year of 360 days. The first sixty-nine weeks equals 69 x 7 x 360, or 173,880 days. This ends exactly on March 30, 33 CE. That day was Nisan 10, the day of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:9; Mark 11:9-10; Luke 19:37-38). Jesus was then "cut off" later in that week. The seven years of the seventieth week are then taken as that time yet future of the great tribulation.
The problems with this interpretation include:
1. The use of the Diaspora calendar has again dated the decree a year late. The decree is correctly dated by the Exile or Babylonian calendars from a Nisan new year, or April 13, 445 BCE.
2. The date of March 5 is too early for Nisan 1 to begin, in 444 BCE or any other year. The new moon was visible at Susa about 5:21 PM on March 3, and the month would have begun that evening. March 5 was actually Adar 2, and a year late. Nisan 1 and Nisanu 1 fell on April 3 in 444 BCE.
3. The "prophetic" year of 360 days is not supported in Scripture. The use of such a calendar at the time of the flood has been shown to be unwarranted. A 360-day year would cause a rapid shift of the new year back through the seasons to the same starting point in about seventy years. The required seasonal feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles would fall at the wrong time of year. The argument from Daniel's "time, times and half a time" and seemingly related passages in the Revelation is a numbers game without a real basis.
4. This interpretation also fails to provide a reason for the division of the first sixty-nine weeks into seven and sixty-two weeks.
5. The crucifixion of Jesus in 33 CE has difficulties, as will be discussed in the following section.
All the interpretations of Gabriel's prophecy to Daniel of the Seventy
Weeks fall short of satisfying Scripture and history. However, one legacy
is that it is now almost axiomatic that the ministry of Jesus lasted three
and a half years. This extended ministry has necessitated the rearrangement
and fuzzy interpretation of Jesus' time on earth. The life and times of
Jesus must be reevaluated without using false interpretations of prophecy.
Jesus preached and healed for only two years and three months. His ministry
was ended by His crucifixion in 30 CE.
1. Quoted by E. F. Sutcliffe, A Two Year Public Ministry Defended (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1938), 55.
2. Sutcliffe, Two Year Ministry, 56-57.
3. B. Z. Wacholder, "Chronomessianism: The Timing of Messianic Movements and the Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles," HUCA 46 (1975); and J. A. Goldstein, I Maccabees The Anchor Bible, Vol. 41 (New York: Doubleday, 1976), 13, n. 13.
4. Goldstein, I Maccabees, 49 and II Maccabees The Anchor Bible, Vol. 41A (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 239.
5. See the discussion in "The Exile Calendar - Sixth to Fifth Century BCE," pages 31-32.
5A. Parker & Dubberstein, Babylonian Chronology 625 B.C. - A.D. 75 (Brown University Press, Fourth Printing, 1971).
6. Suggested at the turn of the nineteenth century by R. Anderson, The Coming Prince 10th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, rep. 1980). Anderson correctly began the Seventy Weeks in 445 BCE but ended in 32 CE.
7. See Chapter 1, Section III, "The Flood Calendar - Twenty-fifth Century BCE," page 10.