New Testament Chronology
New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)
When? This question seems to demand a simple answer. A daily newspaper and a clock are all modern man needs to locate himself in time, but this simple process was not available to the ancients. An early traveling merchant faced more than language barriers as he moved to various trade centers. He also encountered different calendars, and often more than one calendar in the same area. Around Jerusalem there were at least five calendars in use by the first century CE. The answer to "When?" in the first century CE was not simple then, and is more difficult now from a twentieth-century perspective.
A lack of understanding, or misunderstanding, of the variations in the ancient calendars of the Middle East has led to differing chronologies and interpretations of history based on Scripture and contemporary historical documents. An understanding of the building blocks of chronology is essential to accurate historical inquiry. This preliminary study begins with the present western calendar and then steps back to the opening of Genesis. The calendar systems will then be followed forward in time to the Bar Kokhba revolt in the second century CE and the later establishment of the modern Jewish calendar.
The calendar system decreed by God to Moses was with the day beginning at sunrise and the new year beginning in the spring. The Sadducees used this luni-solar calendar. This was the calendar used by the priests at the Jerusalem Temple when Jesus entered its courts. The Sadducees controlled the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Jewish festivals were observed according to this calendar.1
The Jewish "civil" calendar with the day beginning at sunset and the new year beginning in the fall had no official status in the first century CE. However, this calendar of the Pharisees is usually claimed as the calendar in use at the Temple.2 This calendar of the Diaspora appears in later Jewish documents such as the Mishna and Talmud. The rabbis who wrote these wanted to suppress the Second Temple calendar of the Sadducees.
There was also a small minority of Essenes that decried both calendars and insisted on their Jubilee calendar. This solar calendar began with a spring new year and the day beginning at sunset. This calendar has also been used to explain the events of the week of Jesus' crucifixion.3
The Herodian rulers counted their reigns by the Syro-Macedonian calendar, a luni-solar calendar that began the day at sunset and the new year in the fall. Alexander the Great brought this calendar to the east. This calendar was also the calendar used by Luke.
In the first century CE the Roman conquerors of Judea used their new Julian solar calendar. Their year began January 1, and the day changed at midnight.
The older Babylonian lunar calendar, with a spring new year and a sunset day, had mostly fallen into disuse. Travelling merchants would have brought a few more variations of calendars.
Of particular interest here are the three versions of the Jewish calendar. These diverse calendars were the result of different interpretations of the same Scriptures, different traditions, and personal revelation. The Jews of two millennia ago disagreed as to their correct calendar. However, even from our late perspective it is possible to resolve some of these differences.
The lunar calendar system used by the Jews before the Babylonian captivity and during the Second Temple period was significantly different from the present Jewish calendar. The year originally began in the spring and the day at sunrise, and the determination of the new month was by lunar observation. This is likely the calendar of Scripture, including the Creation, Flood, Exodus, Judges, Solomon's Temple and most often at the Second Temple. Today the Jewish year begins in the fall and the day at sunset, and a fixed formula predetermines the beginning of the month. The present Jewish calendar evolved through the influence of the agricultural calendar taken into the Diaspora, the Babylonian calendar, and the Syro-Macedonian calendar. The changes in the Jewish calendar will be discussed in relationship to these other calendars.
Some chronological solutions to the dating
of the life of Jesus are directly dependent on understanding the calendar
in use. Was it the calendar used by the Temple priests, the Biblical writers
or that whose story is being told? The solution to dating the New Testament
cannot be made without that understanding.
1. B. J. Malina, "Christ and Time: Swiss or Mediterranean?," CBQ 51 (1989), 22-23 notes, "From the viewpoint of cyclical traditional time, the temple city of Jerusalem was one big clock marking time solely and only for the Jews." It was in the interests of the ruling elite to maintain an unchanging social order which included a recurring traditional reckoning of time.
2. For example, J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 264. F. Parise, ed., The Book of Calendars (New York: Facts on File, 1982), 14, projects the present Jewish calendar reckoning back to 2 CE.
3. S. Ruckstuhl, Chronology of the Last Days of Jesus (New York: Desclee, 1965).