Setting the Time of Jesus’ Ministry
AMONG religious teachers there is no uniformity of view as to the duration of Jesus’ great ministry on this earth. Some of them say his ministry was merely one year long,1 others say two or two and a half years, while still others, including Jehovah’s witnesses, claim it to be three and a half years long.2 Consequently, in Christendom there is no uniform year accepted for the historic event of Jesus’ impalement, the dates varying all the way from 28 to 33 (A.D.).3 What grounds do Jehovah’s witnesses have for being so confident that not only was Jesus’ ministry three and a half years long but also that it commenced in the fall of 29 (A.D.) and continued to its culmination in Jesus’ impalement Friday, April 1 (or April 3, Julian Calendar), A.D. 33?
From the one commonly accepted key text, Luke 3:1, 2, dates have been determined varying from 25 to 29 (A.D.) for the year of the springtime beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry and that of Jesus’ ministry six months later in the autumn. For special attention we have capitalized the names of the seven rulers whom the careful historian Luke uses to date his account accurately in this text. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of TIBERIUS CAESAR, when PONTIUS PILATE was governor of Judea, and HEROD was district ruler of Galilee, but PHILIP his brother was district ruler of the country of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and LYSANIAS was district ruler of Abilene, in the days of chief priest ANNAS and of CAIAPHAS, God’s declaration came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Let us consider them in reverse order. Historian Josephus records that CAIAPHAS served as high priest at Jerusalem from about 18 to 36 (A.D.), having been appointed to that office by Valerius Gratus, Roman governor of Judea.4 ANNAS, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, had been elevated to the high priesthood A.D. 7 by Quirinius, superior Roman governor of Syria, and served as such until A.D. 15 when he was deposed by Valerius Gratus.5 Even after being unseated as high priest, Annas exercised great power as the dominant member of the Jewish hierarchy and was still active at the time of Jesus’ trial in Jerusalem and later when Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin.—John 18:13; Acts 4:6.
Little is known of LYSANIAS the district ruler of Abilene. However, an inscription has been found at the city of Abila near Damascus of the time of Tiberius Caesar establishing historically that Lysanias ruled there as tetrarch.6 The non-Biblical historian Josephus further confirms that both PHILIP and HEROD (Antipas) were made Roman rulers over the territories indicated by Luke.7 Both men started their rulerships shortly after the birth of Jesus. Philip ruled until A.D. 34 and Herod Antipas until A.D. 40.8
Josephus is likewise the authority establishing the length and time of the rulership of PONTIUS PILATE. “Vitellius, a man that had been consul, and who was now president of Syria, . . . accused Pilate of the murder of those that were killed. So Vitellius sent Marcellus, a friend of his, to take care of the affairs of Judea, and ordered Pilate to go to Rome, to answer before the emperor to the accusations of the Jews. So Pilate, when he had tarried ten years in Judea, made haste to Rome. . . . but before he could get to Rome Tiberius was dead.”9 Tiberius Caesar died March 16, A.D. 37.10 This, then, definitely dates Pilate’s ten-year rulership from A.D. 27 to 37. Since John the Baptist and Jesus started their ministries during Pilate’s well-established rule, A.D. 28 is the earliest that could be considered to meet Luke’s reference. So the years A.D. 25, 26 and 27 are eliminated as possible starting years for Jesus’ ministry.
The final determining factor is that of the start of the rulership of Emperor TIBERIUS CAESAR. All reliable histories give A.D. 14 as the commencement of his emperorship. Tiberius was the stepson and designated successor of Caesar Augustus, who died August 19, A.D. 14.11 Hence his rulership started in August, A.D. 14. Yet in spite of these plain historic facts those who contend for earlier dates of Jesus’ ministry rely upon the conjecture that Luke meant A.D. 11 or possibly A.D. 12 as the date for the beginning of Tiberius’ reign because he was said to have been coregent with his stepfather shortly before the death of Augustus. Here again historian Josephus supports A.D. 14 as being the unquestionable date referred to by Luke. “Caesar [Augustus], the second emperor of the Romans, the duration of whose reign was fifty-seven years, besides six months and two days (of which time Antonius ruled together with him fourteen years; but the duration of his [Augustus’] life was seventy-seven years); upon whose death Tiberius Nero, his wife Julia’s son, succeeded. He was now the third emperor.”12 Thus in Luke’s time Tiberius was considered to have started his reign at the death of Augustus in 14 (A.D.) and not when he was a possible coregent. Likewise note that Josephus mentions another, one Antonius, as having assisted Augustus in the conducting of his emperorship.
August 19, A.D. 14, the date of the death of Augustus, is then the absolute date for the start of Tiberius’ reign upon which Luke bases his reference. Luke mentions that John began preaching in Tiberius Caesar’s fifteenth year. This is an ordinal number, which means we must count fourteen full years plus some months toward another year, just as this is said to be the twentieth century, meaning nineteen full centuries have passed and we are now over fifty-eight years into the next century. Fourteen full years from August 19, A.D. 14, would be summertime, August 19, A.D. 28. Since John the Baptist began to preach in the springtime when he reached thirty years of age, this would have to be the following spring or about March-April A.D. 29, still within Tiberius’ fifteenth year. Jesus being six months younger than John, Jesus would reach his thirty years of age in the autumn of 29 (A.D). (Luke 3:21-23) So autumn A.D. 29 is the clearly proved time for the beginning of Jesus’ spectacular ministry.
THREE AND ONE HALF YEARS
Now as to Jesus’ ministry’s being three and a half years long. It is true that from the accounts of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew, Mark and Luke the full three and a half years are not so clearly indicated. But John, who wrote his record about A.D. 98, long after the other three accounts had been written and circulating, filled in the missing proofs. John gives evidence of Jesus attending four Passovers in Jerusalem after the start of his ministry in the autumn of 29. John 2:13 refers to Passover A.D. 30; John 5:1 to Passover A.D. 31; John 6:4 to Passover A.D. 32; and, finally, John 13:1 to Passover A.D. 33, the last just before Jesus’ death. Thus by John’s record of four Passovers during Jesus’ ministry the three-and-a-half-year duration is proved. Many besides Jehovah’s witnesses support this sound view.2
A second proof of the three-and-a-half-year duration comes from Bible prophecy. Daniel 9:27 speaks of Jesus as the Messiah, the prince, making firm the Abrahamic covenant with many of the Jewish remnant for a period of one week of seven years. This indicates that at the start of Jesus’ ministry in the autumn, A.D. 29, the exclusive opportunity to become part of the seed of Abraham according to the Abrahamic promise made by Jehovah fell to the Jews alone. Such singular opportunity expired seven years later, A.D. 36, when the calling was extended to the Gentiles, inviting them also to become part of this Kingdom seed of 144,001. (Gal. 3:28, 29) Then, significantly, Daniel goes on to say that in the “midst of the week” or in the middle of this seven years, hence after three and a half years, Jesus would cause the Law sacrifices to cease officially. At Colossians 2:14 the apostle Paul shows that God used Jesus’ death to take away or legally cancel the Law covenant with its sacrifices “by nailing it to the torture stake.” This obviously occurred in the spring A.D. 33. Here rests another complete proof.
JESUS DIED A.D. 33
Finally, all the surrounding evidence points to Nisan 14, A.D. 33, as the only likely date for Jesus’ impalement. All the other dates advocated by others, such as A.D. 28, 29, 30, 31, 32 and 34, fail to meet the facts.
Almost all religious teachers as well as Jehovah’s witnesses are agreed that the Scriptures indicate that it was on a Friday afternoon that Jesus expired. For this reason Catholics and Protestants refer to this day as “Good Friday.” John 19:31 proves that Jesus must have died on a Friday. How so? Because it mentions that the sabbath that began three hours after Jesus’ death (he died at about 3 p.m.) was not just an ordinary weekly sabbath that begins Friday 6 p.m. and extends to Saturday 6 p.m. Remember, too, that Biblical days begin at 6 p.m., not at midnight as we now reckon days. John says “the day of that sabbath was a great one.” In other words, two legal sabbath days fell together during the same twenty-four-hour period, hence a double sabbath. According to the Law of Moses Nisan 15 every year must be a sabbath day regardless of what day in the week it falls. (Lev. 23:6, 7) The situation is like that of a national Gentile holiday. If such a holiday should fall due on a Sunday, then the populace have two holidays falling together on the one twenty-four-hour day, and this happens only once every so many years. So it was A.D. 33 that Nisan 15 coincided with the weekly sabbath. This proves that Nisan 14 must have begun on a Thursday evening at 6 p.m. and extended to Friday at 6 p.m. to make it possible for Jesus’ death Friday afternoon. This Friday situation for Nisan 14 seldom happens one year after the other but occurs only once every several years. Now we shall see how the year A.D. 33 produces all the required factors that fit the Scriptural record for the day of Christ’s death.
Jesus as the Lamb of God died on Passover day, which, according to the Law of Moses, is Nisan 14. Nisan 14 always involves a full moon, since it is the fourteenth day following the new moon that is first visible in Egypt and Palestine. (Ex. 12:2, 6) Astronomy comes to our aid supplying the figures for the following chart.13
Year Passover Full Moon Julian Day Day of
AD. Julian Gregorian
28 Mar. 29 Mar. 27 1,731,373 Monday
29 Apr. 18 Apr. 16 1,731,758 Monday
30 Apr. 7 Apr. 5 1,732,112 Friday
31 Mar. 27 Mar. 25 1,732,466 Tuesday
32 Apr. 14 Apr. 12 1,732,850 Monday
33 Apr. 3 Apr. 1 1,733,204 Friday
34 Mar. 24 Mar. 22 1,733,559 Wednesday
All the possible date-years mentioned above must be eliminated except A.D. 30 and 33, as they do not have Nisan 14 falling on a Friday. Though A.D. 30 has Nisan 14 on a Friday, it too will have to be rejected because this would mean only a six months’ ministry for Jesus, which is too short to fit the Bible record. As we have already considered, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry was firmly set by Luke as being what we know to be in the autumn of 29 (A.D.). This leaves only A.D. 33 with Nisan 14 on a Friday that meets all the factors in connection with Jesus’ sacrificial death on the tree. In confirmation of the above in The Works of Flavius Josephus, by Whiston, a footnote on Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, chapter 3, paragraph 3, appears giving April 3, A.D. 33 (Julian Calendar), as the date of Jesus’ impalement, also April 5 of that year as the date of his resurrection. So A.D. 33 wins out as the only probable year.
In conclusion we see that the position of Jehovah’s witnesses is strong for believing not only that Jesus’ ministry was three and a half years in duration but that it started in the autumn of 29 (A.D.) and concluded in the spring of 33 (A.D.).
1 The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908, Vol. III, p. 736.
2 The International Standard Bible Encyclopædia, 1957, Vol. III, pp. 1628, 1629.
3 Biblical Cyclopædia, 1894, by M’Clintock and Strong, Vol. IV, pp. 874, 875, 877.
4 The International Standard Bible Encyclopædia, 1957, Vol. I, p. 538.
5 Ibid., Vol. I, p. 137.
6 Light from the Ancient Past, 1946, by Finegan, page 219.
7 Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus, XVII, viii, 1.
8 Webster’s Biographical Dictionary, 1943, pp. 701, 1178.
9 Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus, XVIII, iv, 2.
10 The International Standard Bible Encyclopædia, 1957, Vol. IV, p. 2396.
11 Ibid., Vol. V, p. 2979.
12 Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus, XVIII, ii, 2.
13 Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C. – A.D. 45, 1942, by Parker and Dubberstein, p. 46, also Canon der Mondfinsternisse, 1887, by Oppolzer, Vol. II, p. 344.
[Chart on page 489]
JESUS’ BAPTISM 3 1/2 YEARS JESUS DEATH
FALL, A.D. 29 NISAN 14, A.D. 33