There’s no question that Jesus is the best-known historical person that ever lived. However, scholars debate exactly when was Jesus born and how old was Jesus when he died. To understand why this is debated and the answer, we have to consider several critical pieces of information.
Do We Know When Jesus Was Born?
One of the struggles with ancient history is that we don’t have all the information we would like. Many dates are only known by archeological digs or events mentioned offhand in various documents. Even dates on ancient historians’ accounts may not be precise.
For example, we know that Luke sets the year Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem as “the same year that Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). As of this writing, archeological evidence has indicated that this census took place during Quirinius’ first year as governor, 6 A.D. However, Luke starts his Gospel by saying Jesus’ birth happened “in the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5). Matthew 2 refers to Herod (also known as Herod the Great) responding to Jesus’ birth by ordering the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. Many (but not all) historians believe Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., 10 years before Quirinius’ census. This gives an idea of how hard it can be to determine exact dates for Biblical events.
Different historians and scholars have handled the question of when Jesus was born in different ways. This led to various calendars and eventually the creation of the B.C./A.D. calendar that most of us know.
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How Do We Measure When Jesus Was Born?
From the ancient period onward, generations of Christian scholars developed calendars to calculate and time the events of the Gospels. The best-known calendar system is the Anno Domini system, which measures time as B.C. (Before Christ) or A.D. (Anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord”).
The Anno Domini system was created by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus. At that time, many Christians used the starting year of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s reign (Anno Diocletiani) as a marker to determine the current Easter date. Diocletian was the last emperor to persecute Christians (hence why many scholars refer to his reigning period as the Era of the Martyrs). This fact made the system memorable but not tasteful. Exiguus didn’t feel it was appropriate for Easter calendars to use Diocletian’s reign as a marker, so he created a new system.
Dionysius Exiguus listed the year he wrote his calendar as the “consulship of Probus Junior,” the Roman senator who then held the highest senate position. Exiguus stated that this consulship was happening 525 years “since the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Working on this system, 525 AD became the date Dionysius Exiguus released his calendar, and Jesus would have been born in 1 A.D. (there is no “year zero” in the calendar).
However, there’s been a lot of debate on how Dionysius Exiguus reached this 525-year number. As Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens note in The Oxford Companion to the Year, he doesn’t reference other calendar systems, a recent Olympiad, or the regnal year (the year that the current emperor came to power). Some scholars suggest his main motive for picking 525 years had to do with End Times panic. At the time, many believed that the End Times would begin 500 years after Christ’s birth. By putting the year he wrote the calendar as 525 years after Christ’s birth, Dionysius Exiguus put his timetable ahead of this marker and avoided panic.
Whether or not Dionysius Exiguus got his date precisely correct, it is worth noting that he doesn’t seem to have been off by much. Many estimates by different historians put Jesus’ birth and death taking place within 3-6 years of the Anno Domini calendar date. Whether you follow scholars who maintain Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. or ones that say Herod died later, the margin for error is small. Compared to other ancient events where scholars can only place what decade (give or take) an event took place, the margin is so small it’s not worth worrying about. We have much more historical evidence that Jesus existed, and a much better idea of when he lived and died, than we do for many historical figures.
Do We Know When Jesus Started His Ministry?
Luke 3:1-2 says that Jon the Baptist started his ministry “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” which would be 28-29 A.D. John’s ministry was cut short when he was executed by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and “tetrarch of Galilee” (Luke 3:2).
Jesus started his ministry officially by having John baptize him, followed by 40 days of testing in the wilderness (Luke 4, Mark 1). Luke 3:23 states that Jesus was “about 30 years old when he began his ministry.” The ministry started directly after Jesus came out of the wilderness, teaching in Galilee’s synagogues (Luke 3:14-15).
Traditionally, church historians estimate that Jesus spent between three years and three and a half years teaching people and traveling with his disciples. The most convincing argument for this estimate is John’s Gospel says about the Passovers Jesus attended.
The Gospel of John mentions three Passovers that occurred during Jesus’ ministry (and, therefore, at least three years of ministry). The first Passover was shortly after Jesus’ first miracle, the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12). Jesus came to Jerusalem “when it was almost time for the Jewish Passover” (John 2:13) and drove people out of the temple, accusing the merchants of turning his father’s house into a market (John 2:14-25).
John 6:4 mentions that “The Jewish Passover Festival was near” when Jesus fed the five thousand and walked on water. This time, Jesus apparently didn’t go to Jerusalem, although he went there for the Feast of Tabernacles. In the Hebrew calendar, Passover begins day 15 of Nisan (first month of the year), the Feast of Tabernacles begins day 15 of Tishrei (seventh month of the year).
John 12 describes Jesus’ being anointed at Bethany “Six days before the Passover” (John 12:1). It sets his triumphal entry into Jerusalem as happening the next day, when “the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem” (John 12:12).
How Old Was Jesus When He Died in Jerusalem?
If Jesus was in ministry for about three years and started when he was about 30, this gives us a rough answer to how old was Jesus when he died by crucifixion. He would have been about 33 years of age (give or take perhaps five years).
The Gospels give at least one historical detail that shows Jesus must have died between 26 A.D. and 36 A.D. All four of the Gospels mention Pontius Pilate was the governor in charge of Judea who presided over Jesus’ trial. Ancient historian Flavius Josephus refers to Pontius Pilate in chapter 4, Book 18 of Antiquities of the Jews. Josephus describes Pilate killing Samaritans who created trouble in 36 A.D. and being called back to Rome after he had “tarried ten years in Judea.” Therefore, Pilate was governor from 26-36 A.D., and Jesus died sometime in that window.
Many scholars have argued that Jesus died between 27-34 A.D. since he died on a Friday (John 19:31), which was also the day or day before the Passover started (Mark 14:12). During the 1980s, Oxford academics Colin J. Humphreys and W.G. Waddington argued for 33 A.D., partly because a lunar eclipse that year could explain the “sun turning to darkness” mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 27:45) (Luke 23:44-45) (Mark 15:33).
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G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,000 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
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