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 23
PILATE, SEJANUS AND 33 CE

The present dating of the Christian Era was calculated in the sixth century by Dionysius Exiguus. He dated the resurrection to March 27, 33 A.D. (CE),1 and then backdated to set Year One in its present incorrect location. The dating of Easter to March 27 continued to appear on the medieval liturgical calendar.2

[The following  two paragraphs are from the viewpoint of those who support a 33 CE crucifixion of Jesus, and not that of the author. The fulfillment to the year is by beginning the 20th year of Artaxerxes a year late on the wrong day (see Here). The fulfillment to the very day is by the use of the unjustified 360 day "prophetic" calendar and adjusted from an earlier calculation ending in 32 CE (see notes Here and Here).]

There also appears to be a compelling prophetic reason for the crucifixion of Jesus to have occurred in 33 CE. The support for this date grows as more hear of the exact fulfillment of Gabriel's prophecy to Daniel about the Seventy Weeks. Not only is there exact fulfillment to the year, but to the very day. However, one requirement of that interpretation is that the crucifixion must occur in 33 CE. Since this is an unlikely year for His crucifixion, any further proposed supports for the year 33 CE must be examined.

One proposal views the historical setting from a Roman perspective and sees Pontius Pilate as a friend of the powerful Sejanus, who aspired to Tiberius Caesar's throne. Tiberius uncovered this threat and had Sejanus and many of his friends murdered in a blood bath at Rome. When Pilate wanted to release Jesus, the Jews accused Pilate of not being a friend of Caesar and threatened to appeal to Tiberius. It is then proposed that Pilate was weak willed and acquiesced to the Jews because he no longer had the support of his mentor, Sejanus. Further, Pilate did not want to arouse Tiberius for fear of also being killed as a friend of Sejanus. Therefore, the trial of Jesus and the crucifixion occurred after the death of Sejanus in 31 CE, which leaves only 33 CE as a reasonable remaining choice. Who was this Sejanus, and what was his connection to Pilate?

This position will be considered in three sections. First, the historical setting will be presented, based primarily on the writings of the Roman historian, Dio Cassius. Second, the proposed scenario that supports a 33 CE crucifixion will be given. Finally, the rebuttal to this position, which shows some of the basic assumptions to be unwarranted or false.

Then, a different support will be examined, which proposes that in fulfillment of prophecy the moon turned to blood on the day Christ died. This was caused by a lunar eclipse on April 3, 33 CE.

I. The Historical Setting

Tiberius became emperor of the Roman Empire in 14 CE. Dio Cassius described his character thus: "He had a most peculiar nature. He never let what he desired appear in his conversation, and what he said he wanted he usually did not desire at all. On the contrary, his words indicated the exact opposite of his real purpose. . . . Now if he had merely followed this method quite consistently, it would have been easy for those who had once come to know him to be on their guard against him. . . . But, as it was, he became angry if anyone gave evidence of understanding him, and he put many to death for no other offence than that of having comprehended him." (Roman History LVII 1:1-4) Such was part of the difficulty of dealing with Tiberius.

Tiberius was reasonably well liked during his first few years of rule. But, after the death of his adopted nephew, Germanicus, in 19 CE, his attitude changed (Roman History LVII 13:6). He became increasingly suspicious, causing the death of all who might challenge his character or authority. And, by 20 CE, "he was most enthusiastically aided and abetted in all his undertakings by Lucius Aneius Sejanus. . . . This was the man whom Tiberius, because of the similarity of their characters, attached to himself, elevating him to the rank of praetor, an honour that had never yet been accorded to one of like station; and he made him his adviser and assistant in all matters." (Roman History LVII 19:1, 7) Sejanus was one of the few persons that Tiberius trusted, perhaps because of their similar characters.

Sejanus' power grew, and by 23 CE the citizens of Rome were erecting statues of him (Roman History LVII 21:3). In 26 CE, "Tiberius left Rome . . . and never again returned to the city, though he was forever on the point of doing so and kept sending messages to that effect." (Roman History LVIII 1:1) Though Tiberius would not want us to understand, his reasons for leaving Rome probably included fear of assassination and the freedom to pursue his lecherous activities without censure. With Tiberius' continued absence, Sejanus' power grew. By 29 CE, "Sejanus was rising to still greater heights. It was voted that his birthday should be publicly observed." (Roman History LVIII 2:7-8) By 30 CE, "Sejanus was growing greater and more formidable all the time, so that the senators and the rest looked up to him as if he were actually emperor and held Tiberius in slight esteem," and "in the end they sacrificed to the images of Sejanus as they did to those of Tiberius." (Roman History LVIII 4:1, 4) He held sway over the Praetorian Guard as well as the people, and the stage was set for a coup.

Tiberius became aware of this very real threat to his power. His absentee position was difficult because Sejanus "made all the associates of Tiberius so completely his friends that they immediately reported to him absolutely everything the emperor said or did, whereas no one informed Tiberius of what Sejanus did." (Roman History LVIII 4:2) Meanwhile, "Sejanus was so great a person by reason both of his excessive haughtiness and of his vast power, that, to put it briefly, he himself seemed to be emperor and Tiberius a kind of island potentate, inasmuch as the latter spent his time on the island of Capreae." (Roman History LVIII 4:9) In 31 CE Tiberius sent Macro as his envoy to Rome with a plot to kill Sejanus. With the supposed promise of being made tribune, Sejanus went to the Senate to hear Tiberius' letter of endorsement. Meanwhile, Macro sent the Praetorian Guard to their quarters and had the troops of the Night-Watch surround the Senate. Tiberius' letter condemned Sejanus, who was taken to prison. The citizens tore down his statues, and on October 18 "he was executed and his body cast down the Stairway, where the rabble abused it for three whole days and afterwards threw it in the river." (Roman History LVIII 11:5; also Suetonius, Tiberius 65)

There followed a time of terror for Rome, for "a great uproar took place in the city; for the populace slew anyone it saw of those who had possessed great influence with Sejanus. . . . The soldiers, too, angered because they had been suspected of friendliness for Sejanus and because the night-watch had been preferred to them for loyalty to the emperor, proceeded to burn and plunder." (Roman History LVIII 12:1-2) Then the formal persecutions and killings began, and "So it was that neither Tiberius spared anyone, but employed all the citizens without exception against one another, nor, for that matter, could anybody rely upon the loyalty of any friend; but the guilty and the innocent, the timorous and the fearless, stood on the same footing when face to face with the inquiry into the charges involving the acts of Sejanus." (Roman History LVIII 16:4-6; also Suetonius, Tiberius 61-62) Many died terrible deaths, and others took their own lives.

The murders continued into 32 CE, when one of the accused said, "If the emperor did right in having such a friend [Sejanus], I, too, have done no wrong." (Roman History LVIII 19:4) The Senate acquitted him, and Tiberius agreed. From that time the persecutions ceased. In fact, in the following year, 33 CE, Marius and his daughter were slain because he tried to protect her from being sexually outraged by Tiberius, but "Men had been thinking that all the previous action against these two was due to Sejanus, and had been expecting that now their lives would be spared." (Roman History LVIII 22:5) The Sejanus purge was over in 32 CE, and after that there was no longer a threat in having been his friend.

II. Pilate and Sejanus

The particular historical scenario that supports a 33 CE crucifixion is based on the supposed discrepancy between the Biblical account of Pilate's behavior at the trial of Jesus and the descriptions of his character by the Jewish writers, Josephus (Ant. XVIII 3:1; Wars II 9:2-4) and Philo (Legatio ad Gaium 301-302). At the trial Pilate is seen as weak-willed and submissive to Jewish pressure. This is in contrast to his recorded reputation as greedy, inflexible, cruel, oppressive and murderous, to name a few of his less endearing qualities. The contention is that Pilate's earlier oppressive activities were with the support of Sejanus, and that his submissive attitude at the trial was because Sejanus was then dead. Without Sejanus' protection, Pilate now feared the Jews protesting to Tiberius. Therefore, the crucifixion was after the death of Sejanus, which would be in 33 CE.3 But, what was the tie that supposedly bound Pilate to this powerful master?

It is next assumed probable that Sejanus appointed Pilate as procurator of Judea, with a mission of Jewish oppression. Both Pilate and Sejanus are noted to have been anti-semitic (Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 159-161; Suetonius, Tiberius 36). Pilate's attempt to place the Roman military ensigns and standards in Jerusalem when he first arrived confirms such an attitude. The Jews protested and laid their necks bare to the sword before Pilate would relent. Pilate later used money from the Temple to build an aqueduct, and when the Jews protested he had many killed (Ant. XVIII 3:2; Wars II 9:4). And, it was reported to Jesus that Pilate had mingled the blood of the Galileans with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1). Pilate did use harsh methods to keep his subjects under control.

The second episode of golden, imageless shields is presumed to have occurred at Passover of 32 CE.4 This would be after the death of Sejanus, but before the trial of Jesus. Pilate supposedly wanted to please the emperor by promoting worship for Tiberius, because on the shields was "the name of the person who made the dedication and of him in whose honor it was made." (Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 299). The Jews objected, supposedly to the inscription, and sent an appeal to Tiberius from the four sons of Herod, who would have included Herod Antipas. Tiberius angrily rebuked Pilate (Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 300, 305). This is given as the reason for the enmity between Pilate and Herod Antipas. It is obvious from all sources that Pontius Pilate did not favor the Jewish people.

The coins of Pilate are also presented as further evidence of Pilate's dislike of the Jews. Pilate issued his first coin in 29/30 CE. On it appeared a crosier symbolizing Roman worship, supposedly for indoctrination of the Jews.5 This was said to be offensive to the Jews.6 Pilate issued his last coin in 31/32 CE. He is then supposed to have issued no more offensive coins because Sejanus was dead, and Tiberius had ordered the provincial governors not to mistreat the Jews (Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 159-161).

Pilate knew Jesus was innocent, but he yielded to the despised Jews when they said, "If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar." (John 19:12) This is supposedly because he no longer had the support of Sejanus, who would have earlier intercepted any message to Caesar. He was now in fear that if he faced Tiberius he would have been killed because of his former friendship. And thus Pilate did as the Jews pleased, here, supposedly, in 33 CE.

III. A Friend of Caesar

Actually, Pilate was likely a friend of Caesar. His anti-semitic attitude was a reflection of his being pro-Roman and the need to maintain control. Tiberius had also shown contempt for the Jews when he expelled all of them from Rome in 19 CE (Ant. XVIII 3:5). Until 32 CE Tiberius, and Sejanus until his death, appeared anti-semitic. However, it was Tiberius who "sent in all but two procurators to govern the nation of the Jews, Gratus, and his successor in the government, Pilate." (Ant. XVIII 5:6) Sejanus did not send Pilate to Judea, and there is nothing to tie Sejanus and Pilate together except speculation. Pilate was appointed by, and reported to, Tiberius Caesar.

Sejanus had little influence in the province of Syria, which controlled Judea. After the death of Sejanus, Tiberius sent "presents to the legions in Syria because they alone had consecrated no image of Sejanus among their standards." (Suetonius, Tiberius 48) Without military support Pilate would have had difficulty enforcing policies supposedly emanating from Sejanus. Also, it would have been possible for Pilate or the Jews to send a message directly to Tiberius on Capri while Sejanus was still alive, with little fear that it might be intercepted.

The coins of Pilate also have been subjected to overspeculation, and not for their metal content or numismatic value. On his coin of 29/30 CE was a simpulum, a ladle used in sacrifices that was a sign of the Roman priesthood.7 This is unlikely to have been intended to offend the Jews, as would such as the head of Caesar or the Roman eagle. Even such coins as these had become acceptable. The Jewish Temple authorities used the silver Tyrian shekel as the standard of payment, a coin minted by Herod the Great and his successors.8 The obverse of this coin depicts the head of Heracles, the reverse an eagle. When the Jews tested Jesus He said to them, "`Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness (image) and inscription does it have?' And they said, `Caesar's'" (Luke 20:24; also Matt. 22:19-21; Mark 12:15-16) The Jews carried coins with Caesar's image, and would scarce have been offended by the ladle on Pilate's coins. Pilate ceased issuing coins after 31/32 CE. This was not because of his desire to stop offending the Jews or to comply with Tiberius' changed policy toward the Jews, but because the minting of all coinage was transferred to Antioch at that time.9 The coins of Pilate lend no support for a 33 CE crucifixion.

The second episode of the shields is not necessary to explain the enmity between Pilate and Herod Antipas prior to the trial of Jesus (Luke 23:12). The shields had more likely been dedicated to Augustus, not Tiberius.10 That Tiberius had previously refused honors (Suetonius, Tiberius 26, 67) must have been known to Pilate, and possibly to the Jews. If not, how could the Jews complain to Tiberius that Tiberius was being honored, even if they did not like the method. Pilate's anti-Jewish attitude and his interference into Herod's Galilee are basic to the dislike. When Pilate recognized Herod's jurisdiction over Jesus, the Roman may have for the first time acknowledged the Jewish leader as a supposed equal. Such recognition would have won Herod's friendship. The incident of the golden shields could have occurred several years earlier, or later, a basis for future dislike. Pilate was still murderous toward his subjects near the end of his term, as he chastised the Samaritans and had many slain (Ant. XVIII 4:1). The episode provides no support for a later crucifixion.

When the Jews brought Jesus to Pilate he first determined if He was any threat to Rome or his control of Judea. Pilate must have already heard of some deeds of Jesus and how the Jewish leaders were upset with Him. Since Jesus did not claim that His kingdom was of this world (John 18:36), Pilate was willing to release him. When the Jews insisted that He die, particularly "because of envy," (Matt. 27:18) Pilate saw a beautiful opportunity to give the Jewish leaders a hard time. Instead of releasing Jesus as he first decided, he sent Him to Herod. Herod could not make a decision either against the Jewish leadership or against Jesus' supporters in his tetrarchy of Galilee. Pilate then used Jesus to bait the Jews and further irritate them. However, Pilate was afraid to condemn a man known as the "Son of God," (John 18:7-8) and his wife sided with Jesus because of a dream (Matt. 27:19).11 Again, it seemed time to release Jesus. But the Jews said he was no friend of Caesar, a charge that irritated Pilate. When the Jews cried to release Barabbas instead of Jesus, Pilate saw that he had pushed the game too far. Pilate's problem was immediate, and he "saw that a riot was starting." (Matt. 27:24) He washed his hands of responsibility and turned Jesus over for crucifixion. Pilate was not operating in fear of Caesar, but he was just tired of playing a game that had gone too far.

Pilate was not afraid of Caesar because of his supposed friendship with Sejanus. The Sejanus purge had ended in 32 CE. If this incident occurred in 33 CE, then Pilate would not have feared Tiberius' anger because of Sejanus. Was he afraid that Caesar would side with the Jews? Not likely, as Pilate could have maintained to Caesar that he saw Jesus as no real threat to Roman authority. Why did he acquiesce to the demands of the Jews? Pilate had pushed the Jewish leadership too far, and they had brought the multitudes to their cause. He was now willing to sacrifice an innocent man to appease the crowds and maintain peace, and this he did.12 This would imply no connection between Pontius Pilate and Sejanus, whether Sejanus was still alive or recently dead.

IV. The Day the Moon Turned to Blood

The prophet Joel looked to the day when, "The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes." (Joel 2:31) On Pentecost following Jesus' resurrection Peter repeated Joel's words (Acts 2:20), perhaps as a reference to the Good Friday crucifixion. Was the first appearance of Jesus the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy?

When Jesus was crucified it was dark from the sixth to the ninth hours (noon until 3:00 PM), as the sun was obscured (Matt. 27:45-46; Mark 15:33-34; Luke 23:44-45). This might have been due to a sandstorm or have been an unnatural darkness caused by God. Indeed, the sun was turned into darkness. However, a sandstorm or preternatural darkness would not support any particular year of the crucifixion.

The color of the moon can take on the appearance of blood during a lunar eclipse, and this has been suggested for the later part of the prophecy.13 A lunar eclipse did occur on April 3, 33 CE, the day proposed for the crucifixion of Jesus. However, until recently the eclipse had been calculated to have been finished by the time the moon rose at Jerusalem. With revised computer dating it has now been calculated that a partial lunar eclipse was briefly visible at moon rise on that Friday in 33 CE. The eclipse began at 3:40 PM and reached a maximum of 60% coverage by 5:15 PM. However, the moon was below the horizon at Jerusalem until about 6:20 PM. At moon rise about 20% of the eclipse remained, possibly to appear as red in the eclipse area. The remaining eclipse was finished a half hour later, by 6:50 PM. This is suggested as the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy.

Although no lunar eclipse was visible from Jerusalem in any other year suggested for the crucifixion, the eclipse in 33 CE is not likely to be significant to the search for the date of the crucifixion. Whether Peter spoke the words of Joel because they had recently been fulfilled, or whether the fulfillment is yet future is far from certain. Whether the brief partial eclipse could actually be seen from Jerusalem will require independent verification. Whether the eclipse was actually the color of blood is also uncertain. If the corner of the moon did appear as blood, could it have been interpreted as the intended fulfillment of Joel's prophecy? Although an interesting approach, such uncertainty cannot be the basis for accepting the crucifixion of Jesus in 33 CE.

V. Conclusion

The actions of Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus lend no support for His crucifixion in 33 CE. Pilate cannot be linked to Sejanus, and even if he could, there was no danger of having been his friend by 33 CE. The coins of Pilate are not likely to have been offensive to the Jews, and they give no support for a later crucifixion. Although the Roman history of the period is interesting, there is no specific support for any dating of the crucifixion of Jesus.

The interpretation that Joel's prophecy of the moon turning to blood was fulfilled by a partial lunar eclipse is engaging, but based on many uncertainties. It cannot be the basis for accepting a 33 CE crucifixion.

To establish Jesus' crucifixion in 33 CE requires His baptism in 29 CE, His first Passover in 30 CE, and a ministry of three and a half years. The later year of Jesus' baptism was by interpreting the fifteenth year of Tiberius by Roman reckoning, not by the more probable reckoning of Luke by the Syro-Macedonian calendar. A first Passover for Jesus in 30 CE was by interpreting the forty-six years since the Temple was begun by it being forty-six years since the Holy of Holies was completed. This is not likely since the Jews' comment to Jesus was to emphasize how long Temple had been in building, as compared to the three days, not how long a portion of the Temple had been completed. The three-and-a-half-year ministry is taken from the earlier conclusions of those who support a crucifixion in 30 or 31 CE, whereas it has been demonstrated that a shorter ministry is more likely. The crucifixion of Jesus in 33 CE has been difficult to demonstrate, and as will be shown in the following chapter, may indeed not be possible.



Notes:

1. Friday, Nisan 14 was actually April 3.

2. C. Rose, "March 27 as Easter and the Medieval Liturgical Calendar," Man 30, 2 (1986).

3. A. D. Doyle, "Pilate's Career and the Date of the Crucifixion," JTS 42 (1941), 190-193, as echoed by P. L. Maier, "Sejanus, Pilate, and the Date of the Crucifixion," CH 37 (1968) and "The Episode of the Golden Roman Shields at Jerusalem," HTR 62 (1969), 114-115; also H. W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 105-114.

4. Maier, "Sejanus," 12.

5. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects, 107-108.

6. Maier, "Sejanus," 10.

7. Y. Meshorer, Ancient Jewish Coinage Vol. 2 (Dix Hills, NY: Amphora Books, 1982), 180.

8. Meshorer, Coinage, 7-9.

9. E. Bammel, "Syrian Coinage and Pilate," JJS 2 (1951).

10. G. Fuks, "Again on the Episode of the Gilded Roman Shields at Jerusalem," HTR 75 (1982).

11. Pilate's wife was later canonized by the Greek church.  Fairbairn's Bible Encyclopedia (1891, 1957 rep.), 263, notes Tertullian (Apology 21) speaks of Pilate as virtually a Christian at heart, and the Ethiopian Church even made him a saint.  In the opposite direction E. W. Faulstich, "Dating the Crucifixion," IAT (May, 1986), 12-13, equates Pilate with the other horn of Daniel 7:20, the "Antichrist."

12. A similar attitude was expressed by Caiaphas, the High Priest (John 11:50).

13. C. J. Humphreys & W. G. Waddington, "The Date of the Crucifixion," JASA (March, 1985) and "Astronomy and the Date of the Crucifixion," CKC 172-181.

 

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