How Old Was Jesus?

Doesn’t everyone know that Jesus was 30 when he started his ministry, and 33 when he was killed? This seems to be common knowledge, right? Well, sort of. But not everyone agrees.

Let’s begin with the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). The only clear statement concerning Jesus’s age comes from Luke 3:23, which says that Jesus was “about 30 years of age” when he began his ministry, following his baptism by John. This obviously lacks some precision. How old Jesus was when he died is similarly ambiguous. According to the Synoptics, all of the events described in Jesus’ life can easily fit into just one year. When quoting Isaiah, Jesus invokes the “acceptable year of hte Lord” (Lk 4:19), which some Christians interpreted as referring to his single year of ministry. However, there is no attempt to give an accurate chronology of Jesus’ life in these gospels, so we shouldn’t expect precision. For other difficulties regarding the chronology of Jesus’ life, see Mogget’s previous post on Jesus’ birth and death.

John, however, presents its own set of issues. First, the chronology of John requires (at minimum) a two year public ministry because Jesus attends three passover feasts in Jerusalem. Of course, this text is not meant to be a chronological biography either, so it could have been longer. But the most important verse regarding Jesus’ age in John is in John 8:56-57:

Jesus: Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad
Crowd: You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?

This text seems to indicate that Jesus was closer to 50 than to 30. Early Christian polemicist Irenaeus of Lyons gets to the point:

Such a reply is properly addressed to a man already past forty and without reaching fifty is close to it. But to a man only thirty it would be said, “You are not yet forty years old.” It would have been completely irrational for them to lie about twenty years when they wanted to show he was later than the time of Abraham. Therefore the Lord was not far from fifty. (Iren. Against the Heresies, 2.22.6)

What are we to make of the age of Jesus? Are our popular assessments of his age completely wrong?

6 Replies to “How Old Was Jesus?”

  1. I have wondered about this issue in light of BOM time measurements being based around Jesus’ birth and death.

  2. It’s an interesting question.

    I know a lot of people like to bring up the Rabbi connections but a lot of those ideas of Jesus as a Rabbi are obviously anachronistic.

  3. My question years ago when I read Mogget’s post was what to do with the BoM chronology. I see that I am joined by TrevorM.

    As for the “not yet 50” remark, is it possible that 50 was a milestone year that had some meaning? Like maybe when a teacher turned 50 he was treated with special reverence? I know of no such practice, but it seems worth asking. By analogy, if we met a 20-year-old who talked all about Social Security, Lipitor, and Matlock, we might say, “You’re not yet 65, and you talk to us about retirement”—where we choose “65” not as a reference to his age but to a “milestone age.”

  4. I recently heard a NT scholar (can’t remember who or where) give some pretty good evidence that he was around 36 or 37, based on his birth in 4 BC.

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