How 1st-Century Events Are Dated in the 20th Century
1. Why is a further consideration of Bible dates important?
IN THE previous two articles the truthfulness of the Bible’s ancient history as far back as Adam’s creation has been tested and proved. Any consideration of historical dates, however, would certainly be incomplete if it failed to locate Jesus’ earthly ministry and that of his apostles on the stream of man’s history, for, indeed, no one ever walked this earth who had a more profound effect on the lives and destinies of men and nations the world over.
2. What is first necessary before first-century events can be dated?
2 As already pointed out, neither our present Gregorian calendar, nor the Julian calendar, which it replaced less than 400 years ago, is in itself an adequate device for locating events recorded in the Christian Greek Scriptures. This is because the Bible used an entirely different system of dating important happenings. As a consequence, before any corelation of Bible events in terms of modern calendars can be made, it is necessary to have a common starting point in time, an absolute fixed date attested to by both the Bible and proved secular history. This accomplished, other historic events reported in the Bible can be dated according to the civil calendar.
3, 4. (a) When did Tiberius Caesar become emperor? (b) So John the Baptist began his preaching work in what year?
3 After the death of Julius Caesar, his adopted son, Gaius Octavius, adroitly suppressed the power of the Roman senate, skillfully changed the image of the Republic to that of an empire, and finally seated himself securely in the saddle as Rome’s first emperor. In 27 B.C.E., on his way to becoming deified, Octavius assumed a religious title of reverence, that of Augustus. He is also remembered for his renaming the month Sextilis on the Julian calendar after himself, and borrowing a day from the month of February so that the month of August would have as many days as July, which was named after his predecessor Julius Caesar. Now it so happened that Augustus Caesar died the 19th day of the month of his namesake, August, in the year 14 C.E., Julian calendar (August 17, Gregorian calendar). On the same day Augustus’ stepson and son-in-law, Tiberius, succeeded him as emperor.
4 August 19, 14 C.E., Julian calendar, therefore, is an established undisputed date in Roman history. All reasonable doubt is therefore removed as to what year it was when John the Baptist began his preaching work in the wilderness of the Jordan, for the historian Luke declares that it was “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” (Luke 3:1) That “fifteenth year” did not end until August 16, 29 C.E., Gregorian calendar. It was in that year, evidently in the spring, when John the Baptist began his work.
5. How does Luke make sure for us when John the Baptist began his ministry?
5 Luke, perhaps anticipating that antagonists might attack this important event, reinforced it beyond a historical shadow of doubt. After saying that it was “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” Luke added that it was at the same time when six other important rulers were in office, namely, “when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea [27 to 37 C.E.], and Herod was district ruler of Galilee [until 40 C.E.], but Philip his brother was district ruler of the country of Ituraea and Trachonitis [until 34 C.E.], and Lysanias was district ruler of Abilene, in the days of chief priest Annas and of Caiaphas [about 18 to 36 C.E.].” (Luke 3:1, 2) With this array of rulers all in power at the same time in the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign it would be impossible for doubters to prove from Roman and Jewish history that John’s ministry did not begin in the year 29 C.E.
6. What other very important event occurred in the year 29 C.E.?
6 The year 29 C.E. is of interest not simply because it was the year John the Baptist began proclaiming: “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens [or, of God] has drawn near,” but, more importantly, because the one whom God would anoint for that kingdom was standing at the very threshold. (Matt. 3:2) John as the forerunner was about six months older than Jesus. (Luke 1:34-38) It follows, therefore, that Jesus’ baptism and anointing took place in the autumn of that same year, 29 C.E., Jesus being at the time “about thirty years old.” (Luke 3:23) On that occasion John testified that Jesus there became the Anointed One, or Christ, being anointed with God’s holy spirit.—John 1:32-34.
7. (a) When, according to Daniel’s prophecy, was Messiah scheduled to come? (b) How long a period of waiting was this to be?
7 That the start of the teaching work of this Anointed One was in the fall of 29 C.E. is corroborated by the long-range prophecy of Daniel 9:25, which reads in part: “From the going forth of the word to restore and to rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah [meaning Anointed One] the Leader, there will be seven weeks, also sixty-two weeks.” If the seven plus sixty-two weeks, that is, sixty-nine weeks, were to be literal ones of seven days each, then the period of waiting for Messiah to put in an appearance would have amounted to only 483 literal twenty-four-hour days, a mere sixteen months! Rather, these weeks were prophetic ones. So, following the Bible rule of “a day for a year,” they would represent 483 years (69 weeks-of-years, not weeks-of-days).—Num. 14:34; Ezek. 4:6.
8. How do we know that the order to rebuild Jerusalem was not given in 537 B.C.E., or in the seventh year of Artaxerxes’ reign?
8 When, then, did “the word to restore and to rebuild Jerusalem” go forth? Not in 537 B.C.E., for the decree of Cyrus that year was not to restore and rebuild the city, but only to “rebuild the house [or temple] of Jehovah . . . which was in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:2, 3) Nor was it in 468 B.C.E., the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes I, king of Persia, when Ezra went to Jerusalem with a special letter from the king. Nowhere in that letter does it authorize or command the rebuilding of Jerusalem; it dealt only with matters pertaining to the temple services at Jerusalem.—Ezra 7:1-27.
9. What events occurred in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes’ reign that mark it as the time when the word went forth to rebuild Jerusalem?
9 But in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I it was reported to Nehemiah what “a very bad plight” the city of Jerusalem was in, and how “the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its very gates have been burned with fire.” So when the opportunity afforded, Nehemiah brought these matters to the king’s attention, and requested: “If to the king it does seem good, . . . that you would send me to Judah, to the city of the burial places of my forefathers, that I may rebuild it.” Furthermore, Nehemiah continued, “If to the king it does seem good, let letters be given me . . . a letter to Asaph the keeper of the park that belongs to the king, that he may give me trees to build with timber the gates of the Castle that belongs to the house, and for the wall of the city and for the house into which I am to enter.”—Neh. 1:2, 3; 2:5-8.
10. What time of the year was the decree to rebuild the city of Jerusalem issued? But when did it take effect?
10 This plea to the king was made in the spring of the year, in the month Nisan, but by the time the letters were drawn up and Nehemiah made the long trip of perhaps 900 miles, from the Persian palace in Shushan, over 400 miles east of Babylon to Jerusalem, and by the time he delivered the king’s letters to the governors “beyond the River” Euphrates, it was at the end of the lunar month Tammuz (tenth month) when Nehemiah arrived in the broken-down city. As he says, “At length I came to Jerusalem.” (Neh. 2:9-11) So it was in the latter half of Artaxerxes’ twentieth year of rule when the command “to restore and to rebuild” began to take effect, namely, Ab 3 or 4, 455 B.C.E., and when the 69 weeks of the prophecy began to count.—Neh. 2:11 to 6:15.
11. What year did Artaxerxes come to the throne? So when was the twentieth year of his reign?
11 It is established on competent authority that Artaxerxes I began reigning in 474 B.C.E. The Greek historian Thucydides, who lived during Artaxerxes’ time, says that General Themistocles fled from Greece to Asia when Artaxerxes had “lately come to the throne,” and not during the reign of his father Xerxes. The Greek biographer Plutarch of the first century C.E., and Nepos the Roman historian of the first century B.C.E., both support Thucydides on this point. Upon his arrival in Ephesus (in Asia Minor) this General Themistocles asked Artaxerxes’ permission to study the Persian language for one year before appearing before the king. Permission was granted, the appearance was made, and, according to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus of the first century C.E., Themistocles died in 471 B.C.E. In harmony with this, his arrival in Asia, as shown in Jerome’s Eusebius, was in 473, which would put Artaxerxes on the throne in 474. This means that the twentieth year of this king’s reign fell in or overlapped on 455 B.C.E. Based on this and other historical evidence the noted scholar Ernst Wm. Hengstenberg (1802-1869) in his Christology of the Old Testament, translated from the German by Reuel Keith, Volume 2, page 389, says: “The twentieth year of Artaxerxes is the year 455 before Christ. . . . ” And with this Archbishop Ussher and others agree.
12. Explain how this information about Artaxerxes’ reign helps fix the time of Jesus’ baptism?
12 So, with the issuing and applying of Artaxerxes’ famous decree for the rebuilding of Jerusalem securely anchored to the year 455 B.C.E., the ending of the 483 years of waiting until Messiah made his appearance came in the latter half of 29 C.E.* With all these facts, proof as to when Jesus’ baptism and anointing occurred certainly is not lacking.
13, 14. (a) Since he was baptized in the year 29 C.E., when was Jesus born? (b) But when do some commentators say Jesus was born, and upon what evidence? (c) How does the year of Herod’s capture of Jerusalem help to determine the year of Jesus’ birth?
13 The fixing of Jesus’ baptism in the year 29 C.E., when he was thirty years old, also establishes the date of his birth as the year 2 B.C.E., in the fall. Jesus, then, was one year old in the fall of 1 B.C.E. There being no zero year, in the fall of the next year, 1 C.E., he was two years old, and in the fall of 29 C.E. he was thirty years old. Some chroniclers put the date of Jesus’ birth at 4 B.C.E., or even as early as 6 B.C.E., basing their conclusions on Josephus’ testimony that shortly before Herod’s death there was an eclipse of the moon. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVII, chap. VI, par. 4) It has been calculated that there was such an eclipse March 13, of the year 4 B.C.E., and so they say the Savior was born before that date, to allow for Herod’s order, calling for the killing of babies two years old and under, to be carried out.
14 However, this is not sufficient proof for setting Jesus’ birth at 4 B.C.E., since eclipses of the moon are a rather common occurrence, in many years there being two eclipse seasons. More significant is Josephus’ statement that Herod died thirty-seven years after being made king by the Romans. (Antiquities, Book XVII, chap. VIII, par. 1) Actually, Herod did not capture Jerusalem and begin his reign as king until the summer of 38 B.C.E. So if Josephus dated Herod’s reign from the capture of the city, and when he actually began ruling as king, and not from when the Roman senate gave their consent three years earlier, then it brings us to 1 B.C.E. as the year of Herod’s death. This easily allows time for Jesus’ birth in the fall of 2 B.C.E., the visit by the Chaldean astrologers, and for the slaughter of the innocent babes of Bethlehem.—Matt. 2:1-18.
15. If Messiah was cut off in the middle of the “seventieth week,” what year would that have been in our Common Era?
15 The rest of Daniel’s prophecy concerning the seventy weeks of years confirms these dates. Daniel 9:26, 27 says that “Messiah will be cut off, with nothing for himself,” an event that occurred after the 69 weeks-of-years and in the midst, or “at the half” of the 70th week. Since this last week, the seventieth, is logically the same length as each of the other sixty-nine, then it too was seven years long. Messiah was therefore cut off three and a half years after the fall of 29 C.E., “at the half” of the seven-year-long seventieth week, or in the spring of 33 C.E. “At the half of the week he will cause sacrifice and gift offering to cease” officially, for it was then that the Law covenant with its sacrifices was legally canceled “by nailing it to the torture stake.” (Dan. 9:27; Col. 2:14) This allowed time for Jesus to fit into his ministry the four annual Passover celebrations mentioned in the Scriptures.*
16. What astronomical facts give further proof that Jesus died Friday afternoon, April 1, 33 C.E.?
16 Certain astronomical facts also give confirmation that it was 33 C.E. when Jesus was put to death. This event occurred during the twenty-four-hour day of Nisan 14, which began with 6 p.m. on Thursday and ended at 6 p.m. on Friday. This means that Jesus died Friday afternoon about 3 p.m., “the ninth hour.” (Mark 15:34-37) The day after Passover, Nisan 15, was always a sabbath day regardless of what day of the week it came on. (Lev. 23:6, 7) If it fell on a scheduled weekly sabbath, then Nisan 15 was known as ‘a great sabbath,’ as was the case at the time of Jesus’ death. (John 19:31) Now astronomical tables* show there was just such a Passover full moon on Thursday night, March 31, 33 C.E., Gregorian calendar. The only other occurrence of a full moon on Thursday night in the month of Nisan during Jesus’ ministry was in the year 30 C.E., but this is ruled out as the likely year of his death, since it would allow Messiah only a six-month ministry. It is, therefore, beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus died Friday afternoon, April 1, 33 C.E.
DATING EVENTS BETWEEN 36 C.E. AND 49 C.E.
17. What occurred during the balance of the “seventieth week,” and when did that week end?
17 The balance of the seventieth week after Messiah was put to death on the torture stake, a period of three and a half years, ran to the fall of 36 C.E., during which time Jehovah’s special invitation to be of the heavenly Kingdom class continued extended exclusively to the Jews and Jewish proselytes, just as the prophecy foretold: “He must keep the [Abrahamic] covenant in force for the many for one week.” (Dan. 9:27) It is for this reason that the good news of salvation did not go to the Gentiles until the fall of 36 C.E., when the apostle Peter was privileged to baptize Cornelius and members of his household.—Acts 10:1–11:18.
18. What was due to begin from the fall of 36 C.E.?
18 Now with the coming of autumn time of that year 36 C.E. the preaching work about the Christ was due to be greatly expanded, among the Gentile nations. Here, again, we see that Jehovah the Great Timekeeper, and the one who adequately provides precisely on time for every new feature of his work, had a man already well prepared to be the “apostle to the nations,” namely, Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul.—Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:8, 9.
19. By the year 36 was Paul prepared for the assignment he received?
19 Paul was not a newly converted novice in the year 36. Because he was a Jew his conversion did not have to wait until 36. The light of truth, it appears, struck him within the first year after Jesus passed off the scene in the spring of 33. For the next two or two and a half years Paul worked in Damascus until it was necessary for him to make his escape in a basket through a hole in that city’s wall. He then went into Arabia for a time, and finally returned to Damascus briefly before going up to Jerusalem. Paul tells us that it was three years after his conversion, which would date it 36 C.E., when he first visited Peter and James in Jerusalem. He says: “After that I went into the regions of Syria and of Cilicia.”—Acts 9:23-25; Gal. 1:15-21.
20. When was the issue of circumcision decided by the governing body in Jerusalem?
20 Continuing in this same letter to the Galatians, Paul writes: “Then after fourteen years I again went up to Jerusalem.” (Gal. 2:1) The fourteenth year from 36 would make it 49 C.E., according to the custom of those days of using ordinal numbers. On that visit to Jerusalem the issue of circumcision was brought before the governing body and was settled.—Acts 15:2-29; Gal. 2:3-9.
21, 22. What events mentioned in the Bible occurred between the years 41 and 49 C.E.?
21 There are some other interesting happenings related in the Bible that occurred between the years 36 and 49 C.E. For example, when Claudius was emperor and just prior to the death of Herod Agrippa I, the prophet Agabus, by and through Jehovah’s spirit, foretold a coming famine; the apostle James was put to death by Herod; and Peter was miraculously delivered from the same fate by Jehovah’s angel.—Acts 11:27–12:11.
22 Secular histories agree that these events occurred in 44 C.E., since Claudius was proclaimed emperor in 41 and Herod Agrippa I was eaten up with worms after the Passover of 44 C.E. (Acts 12:21-23) The foretold famine, however, did not come until the year 46, at which time Tiberius Alexander was the Roman procurator in Judea. So this allowed sufficient time, two full years, for the Christians of Antioch to prepare for the emergency and arrange for the relief measures mentioned in the account. Following these events the Bible continues in the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters of Acts to tell of Paul’s first missionary tour. In company with Barnabas Paul visited the island of Cyprus and many cities in Asia Minor before returning to Antioch in Syria. This first trip, it seems, occupied the greater part of the years 47 and 48, yet leaving Paul sufficient time to return to his home in Antioch before making the aforementioned trip to Jerusalem in the spring of 49.
DATING OTHER EVENTS IN PAUL’S MINISTRY
23, 24. When did Paul set out on his exciting second missionary tour, and how long did it take him to get to Corinth, Greece?
23 See now how helpful the Bible’s remarkable record is in fixing the date on our calendar of Paul’s second missionary journey, between the years 49 and 52 C.E. He returned to Antioch in the spring of 49 with the special letter drawn up by the governing body in Jerusalem, a copy of which is preserved for us. (Acts 15:23-29) The account says that “after some days,” probably by now the summer of the same year, 49, Barnabas returned to the work in Cyprus, but Paul and Silas set out to serve the congregations in Syria and adjacent Cilicia.—Acts 15:36-41.
24 It therefore must have been springtime, 50 C.E., when Paul and Silas, having moved through Asia Minor, crossed over into Europe for the first time. (Acts 16:1-12) The next six months was a very busy time as these pioneers blazed a new trail and established new congregations in Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea and Athens before reaching Corinth in the fall of 50. What a service year that had been! Just think of it, in a matter of perhaps fifteen months, these first-century missionaries had traveled some 1,300 miles, probably a great deal of it on foot, and had firmly established many new congregations made up of both Jews and Gentiles.
25. What historical evidence shows that Paul did not get to Corinth until the latter part of the year 50 C.E.?
25 That it was late in the year 50 when Paul arrived in Corinth is confirmed by secular history. Paulus Orosius, a historian of the early fifth century, says that it was January 25 in the year 50 when Emperor Claudius ordered all Jews to leave Rome. So time is allowed for Aquila and Priscilla to pack up their belongings, obtain passage, sail for Corinth, arrive there and settle down in what was to be their new home for the next year and a half, and set up a tentmaking business, all this would have easily filled the months of time until Paul got to Corinth in the fall of the same year. As we read, Paul “found a certain Jew named Aquila . . . who had recently come from Italy, and Priscilla his wife, because of the fact that Claudius had ordered all the Jews to depart from Rome.”—Acts 18:2.
26. What find by archaeologists confirms Paul’s stay in Corinth as being from the fall of 50 to the spring of 52?
26 Another point on which the historical accuracy of the Bible is confirmed is found in this same eighteenth chapter of Acts, Ac 18 verse 12. “Now while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews rose up with one accord against Paul and led him to the judgment seat.” Archaeologists have found a fragment of an inscription, containing a rescript of Emperor Claudius, which proves that Gallio was proconsul of Achaia from the summer of 51 to the summer of 52. After Gallio threw this case out of court Paul remained in Corinth “quite some days longer” before leaving for Antioch in Syria. (Acts 18:18) So it appears that Paul arrived in Corinth in the fall of 50, was dragged before Gallio a year or so later, and left there in the spring of 52, as the Bible says, after a stay of eighteen months all together. (Acts 18:11) This allowed him time to reach Antioch by midsummer, 52 C.E.
27. Was Paul content to retire now that he was back home in Antioch?
27 One might reasonably conclude that after so many busy years of full-time missionary service, and after enduring all the hazards and perils of first-century travel, Paul would have settled down in retirement here in Antioch for a good long and well-earned rest. (2 Cor. 11:26, 27) But no! Paul gave no thought to retiring. In all his writings, in all his activity, there is a constant and compelling urgency to press forward with the work with even greater speed and efficiency.
28. Tell about Paul’s third missionary tour, both the places visited and the time covered.
28 We therefore are not surprised to find that after only a short time in Antioch this energetic missionary again took to the road. After “he had passed some time there” in Antioch it was probably the fall of 52 when he set out on his third tour. Traveling overland this time “from place to place through the country of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples,” he reached Ephesus where he probably stayed the next two and a half years. (Acts 18:23; 19:1-10) Then, as he says, he left there after the festival of Pentecost (now the year 55), went through Macedonia and down to Corinth, spending the winter there, before retracing his steps through Philippi by Passover time the next spring. This then allowed Paul sufficient time to reach Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost, 56 C.E.—1 Cor. 16:5-8; Acts 20:1-3, 6, 15, 16; 21:8, 15-17.
29. What dates are assigned to Paul’s experiences, from the time of his arrest in Jerusalem until his death in Rome?
29 No sooner had Paul arrived in Jerusalem than he was pounced upon by his religious adversaries, and for safety’s sake he was secretly hustled down to Caesarea by Roman soldiers. There he remained in jail for two years, until bribe-seeking foxy Felix was replaced as governor by Festus. (Acts 21:27-33; 23:23-35; 24:27) As to the year Festus became governor, The Encyclopædia Britannica comments on the two schools of critics who contend for 55 and 60-61 respectively, saying: “It can be said confidently that the truth is between these two extremes, for the arguments urged in each case appear less to prove one extreme than to disprove its opposite.”* We therefore accept the year 58, in harmony with all the foregoing facts, as the time that Paul’s appeal to Caesar for a hearing of his case was granted, and he was shipped off to Rome. After surviving the most famous shipwreck of all history, and wintering on the island of Malta, the following spring, in 59, Paul arrived in Rome, where for the next two years he remained a prisoner, preaching and teaching, until the year 61. (Acts 27:1; 28:1, 11, 16, 30, 31) Paul’s second imprisonment in Rome, which terminated in his execution, was probably during the years 64-65 C.E.—2 Tim. 1:16; 4:6, 7.
30. Of what benefit has this study of first-century events proved to be?
30 This review of first-century events has been both interesting and faith-building. The Bible writers knew nothing about modern calendars, yet their care and accuracy and the methods they used in dating events have proved most helpful in pinpointing ancient happenings on the stream of time. The harmony of sacred chronology in every detail, its integrity to the truth, adds to our confidence and trust in the Holy Scriptures, and our belief that the Bible is indeed Jehovah’s Word of Truth.
In calculating this date, there is no “zero” year between B.C.E. and C.E.
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.
The Encyclopædia Britannica, 1946 Edition, Vol, 3, p. 528; and Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, p. 342, under “Festus.”