When Did Jesus Die? (Date)

This is where things get interesting from the historical-critical perspective. None of the Gospels actually specifies the date. All of them talk about the time frame under discussion in terms of the Passover, and the Synoptics mention Unleavened Bread. However, it is important to remember that the Synoptics never say that Jesus died on Passover. Talk of Passover and Unleavened Bread in the Synoptics is always done with respect to the meal we now call the Last Supper. By the time the events of the arrest, trial, death, and burial are recounted, all mention of these festal days is missing.

Precisely which day was Passover? Ex 14:6 directs that the lamb or goat be kept until the 14th day of Nisan, and then “slaughtered between the two twilights.” Lev 23:5-6 is quite clear that the 14th of Nisan is the Passover, while Unleavened Bread is celebrated on the 15th. Num 28:16-17 reads likewise, the 14th is the Passover, the 15th is the “pilgrimage feast.”

According to the Synoptics, the meal Jesus ate on Thursday evening was the paschal meal. But in the Fourth Gospel (Jn 18:28,) the Jewish leadership wish to avoid entering praetorium during the day Friday because to do would cause ritual defilement, precluding participation in the paschal meal that night. Thus, in the Synoptics Jesus dies in the daytime following the paschal meal, while in John he dies in the daytime preceding this same meal.

This means that, technically speaking, the Fourth Gospel records the death of Jesus on Passover, and the Synoptics on the day after Passover, that is, Unleavened Bread. Puting dates to it, then, according to the Synoptics, Jesus died on 15th of Nisan, while in John he died on the 14th. Naturally, this will affect any calculation of the year in which Jesus died, as well.

  • How shall we handle this?
  • We could simply stop here, stating our belief that none of the Gospels provide a usable historical record. We could also stop, satisfied that we have determined the date within the limits imposed by the Gospels themselves – and this is where I personally am, most of the time.

    Those who continue, however, often try to weigh degrees of plausibility. Folks who favor the Synoptics normally do so because Mark, as the oldest of the Gospels, is supposed to be the most historically reliable. This, however, is actually something that should be demonstrated in each case, not assumed. Folks who favor John’s chronology point to the fact that it is highly unlikely that ALL the events recorded during the daytime period of Jesus’ death in the Synoptics could have been accomplished on a feast day, that is, on Unleavened Bread.

    By far, however, the most interesting work on this matter is done by folks who want to eliminate the discrepancy – apologists and harmonizers. Here are some samples:

    1) Two paschal meals, separated by one day. There is a passage, in Nu 9:10-11, allowing those who can’t celebrate the Passover on 14 Nisan to do so on the same day of the next month. Some have then argued that: (a) Galileans celebrated Passover one day before Judeans; (b) the Pharisees followed one calendar, used also by Jesus, while the Sadducees used another; (c) because of uncertainties caused by the Diaspora, Passover was celebrated on two consecutive nights, just to make sure.

    (2) The Synoptics are not describing a paschal meal. (Well, except for the fact that when they talk about the meal, they keep saying they’re talking about a paschal meal (Lk 22:15)…) And there is a tradition of a meal eaten by members of a religious brotherhood, called Haburoth, but most of the evidence is rabbinic, and not all that helpful in the 1st century.

    (3) The Synoptics and John can be re-arranged so that things work out. This is a very old idea. If John did, in fact, intend that we should intercalate his work with that of the Synoptics, he neglected to spell out how this was to be done. These attempts, therefore, normally tell us more about their authors than most anything else.

    (4) Jesus was using the solar calendar employed at Qumran. However, there is no indication that Jesus used any other calendar than that used by most everyone else, and this matter of calendars was no trivial issue. Jesus gets accused of many things, but never of having any special regard for the Essenes, or of any hint of irregularity with respect to the calendar.

  • And what do I think?
  • The earliest written record of the Last Supper is Paul’s account in 1 Cor 11:23-25, which shows that Paul knew of a final meal with the disciples, called the Lord’s Supper. This account is, in wording, actually closest to Luke’s version. In 1 Cor 5:7, Paul also refers to Christ as a paschal lamb, and in 1 Cor 15:20, Paul has Christ as the firstfruits of the dead, indicating that Paul knew of a connection between Jesus and the twin feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread.

    The association of the death of Jesus with Passover and Unleavened Bread is therefore very, very, old. Mark seems to have taken over a traditional association of Jesus’ final meal with a paschal meal, but without altering the rest of the passion narrative to make it fit, hence the absence of references to the Passover once the final narrative movement toward death commences. The rest of the Synoptics have faithfully followed his lead.

    John’s narrative, on the other hand, incorporates far more paschal-lamb imagery than the Synoptics, showing that John is aware of the association – but does so throughout his narrative, beginning as early as John 1:29. Such a smooth, well-plotted, use makes exegetes suspicious. On the other hand, John’s version is without the need to support a whirlwind of activity burying Jesus on Unleavened Bread. This does not make John’s date historical, but perhaps, when all is said and done, simply more plausible.

    7 Replies to “When Did Jesus Die? (Date)”

    1. This is an interesting topic to me because every year I get into a discussion with my wife about the real date of Easter. She is Eastern Orthodox, which usually celebrates Easter a couple of weeks after Western Easter.

      She claims the Eastern Easter is better because it coincides with Passover, while Western Easter often precedes Passover by several weeks. As far as I can tell from this discussion, she is right.

    2. Hm, well, there’s far more to be concerned about when judging whether or not one’s spouse is right than the facts of the matter…

      For the record, calculation of the PASCHALION is a subject for an expert in Patristics, not a NT grad student.

      Both Eastern and Western Christianity celebrate Easter according to the same set of rules, originally laid down at the Council of Nicea. Easter is always:

      1) The Sunday,
      2) immediately following
      3) the first full moon
      4) after the vernal equinox.

      The issue arose because of the Quartodecimian controversy. These folks celebrated Easter on 14 Nisan, whether or not it fell on a Sunday. This was felt to be deficient because it did not commemorate the unique day of the Resurrection (Sunday) and because it did not clearly differentiate between the type (Passover) and the fulfillment (Easter). In other words, its use of the Jewish calendar did not properly respect the newness and the “once and for all” quality of the Resurrection.

      The Eastern and Western dates for Easter do not often correspond because the Western church uses astronomical data to establish the equinox and the full moon, while the Eastern church uses what is called a “conventional equinox” and a “conventional new moon.”

      These conventional dates come from tables calculated in Alexandria rather early in the first millenium, and are off for two reasons. First, they used the Julian “old solar” year of 365.25 days/ year, which is off 1 day every 128 years because of the precession of the solar equinox.

      Second, they used a 19 year cycle of solar-lunar conjunctions worked up by an astronomer named Meton which is off by at least 3 days/1000 years. It is the combination of these two errors that usually distinguishes Eastern and Western celebrations of Easter. Sometimes the distinction between the Julian and Gregorian calendars also modulates things.

      The Western church under Pope Gregory XIII acted to reform the dating of Easter by abandoning these tables in 1582 in favor of astronomical observations. The Eastern folks refused to follow, noting that the Western practise does occasionally allow Easter to fall on the full moon, and hence on 14 Nisan and the Passover, against the specific instructions of the formulating council and the interpreting Fathers, Chrysostom and Ambrose of Milan.

      This probably hid the real problem, however, which was that the Eastern folks were under tremendous pressure from the dual onslaught of Arabs and Jesuits. Retention of the old way of calculating Easter was more than just a retention of tradition. This is what the Patriarchs had to say in 1583:

      “Whoever does not follow the customs of the Church as the Seven Holy Ecumenical Councils decreed, and Holy Easter, and the Menologion with which they did well in making it a law that we should follow it, and wishes to follow the newly-invented Paschalion and the Menologian of the atheist astronomers of the Pope, and opposes all those things and wishes to overthrow and destroy the dogmas and customs of the Church which have been handed down by our fathers, let him suffer anathema and be put out of the Church of Christ and out of the Congregation of the Faithful.”

      (How ’bout those atheist astronomers of the Pope, eh? I could never do patristics because I’d be laughing all the time.)

      So these days, there’s a move afoot to fix Easter, but it has less to do with Europe’s religious warfare, and more to do with things like the equator, the international date line, and the quaint notion that the Body of Christ ought to be unified. Here’s what’s under consideration:

      1) Fix the calculation of Easter using the traditional method at one location, say Jerusalem.

      2) The Sunday following the second Saturday in April. This is where a significant number of the celebrations of Easter would naturally fall for the next 100 years.

      3) The Sunday during the period 12-18 April. This would more closely meet the requirement of the first full moon after the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere.

      4) Choose the second or third Sunday and stop talking about it.

      5) Fix it on the historical date of the resurrection. The challenge here is that no one can really fix the year of the crucifixion, so the interaction between the lunar and solar calendars is problematical. For the record, if Jesus died on Friday, 14 Nisan, 30 AD, then the historical resurrection would be 9 Apr. If he died on Friday, 14 Nisan, 33 AD, then we’d we talking about 5 Apr. Then there’s the matter of Sunday, as well…

      Be interesting to see what our leadership does if the rest of Christianity should ever get it together on this matter.

    3. Speaking of John C., his entry on the Author List needs to be altered to indicate the affiliation of his educational institution. We’ve got our bases covered, here…protestant, catholic, and pagan..

    4. My dear friends,

      First, let me offer my prayers and best wishes on this excellent forum.

      To continue the commentary on the date of Easter, please allow me to share a few details from the perspective of the Armenian Church.

      One of the elements which you have all raised which is crucial to the discussion is the lack of precision in the early centuries with regard to calendars and dates.

      Indeed, across Asia Minor, there were several conflicting calendars in use whereby the Vernal Equinox was dated anywhere from the 21st to the 25th of March. Since the “formula” is dependent upon the date of the Vernal Equinox, it is immediately apparent that in the absence of a mutually agreed date in the first century, all possibilities might abound to determine the date. I also agree with one of the comments that until the actual year of the resurrection is fixed that it would be impossible to be precise, and as I shall indicate below, the Armenians interpreted the fixed date differently.

      Some have posited that the fixation of the 25th of March as the Vernal Equinox may have a direct influence on the date of the Nativity (i.e. nine months from the annunciation by Gabriel to Mary). Some of you may also be aware that March 25 was “New Year’s Day” in the English-speaking world until the mid-18th century.

      Turning to Armenia, our local, national calendar seized upon a fixed date for the annual commemoration of the Resurrection: April 6th (one of your writers indicated that in 33AD the date would have been the 5th, but respectfully, the Armenian Church cites the date as the 6th).

      To that end, our Theophany (that is, the united commeration of the Nativity, Manifestation, and Baptism of Christ — which was on His 30th birthday cf. Luke 3:23)is fixed to this day as January 6th. One of our Church-fathers (though probably not an atheist-astronomer!) remarked “There could not have been a birth from a virgin Tomb/had there not first been a birth from the Virgin’s womb”. In other parts of Christendom, eventually the term Theophany gave way to Epiphany, which is still celebrated on January 6th, but the Nativity was re-calculated, probably based upon the March 25 Vernal Equinox, to December 25th.

      I do agree with all of you that there is a clear-cut distinction between the Feast of the Unleavened Bread and the day upon which the passover lamb is to be slaughtered, and likewise agree that there is a one-day difference between the two events.

      Keep in mind that First Peter (ca. 85) is addressed to a diaspora across Asia Minor. Armenia certainly had Jewish communities, which maintained their calendars, and Armenia was early in terms of Gentile conversion. It would appear, then, that a reconciliation of calendars took place in the Armenian highlands (eastern Asia Minor) between the local Jewish and Gentile dates of base-calculation (the more popular gentile calendar was known as the Macedonian calculation). Of course, the Quartodecimian debates would figure prominently in these attempts to reconcile various solar and lunar calendar traditions.

      Eventually, and perhaps taking as long as a century, the formula composed at Nicea was adopted in the various Armenian provinces/
      dioceses. I am confident, even in the absence of extant and prima facie evidence, that the fixed date of April 6th was retained through the end of the fourth century in certain hold-outs until the Nicean formula took precedent; interestingly, April 6th is still retained in the “Synaxarion” of the Church. Based upon April 6th, many other cycles/dates have been established in our Church calendar (e.g. the Theophany cycle).

      You might be interested to know that in the Armenian language, the name for the specific lamb and the name for the feast are the same: “zadig” (also spelled “zatik”). This word is derived from the verb “zadil” meaning “to separate”, and shares a root with the indo-european “azad” meaning “to liberate”. In common speech, Armenians refer to “Easter” simply as “Zadig”, although like all churches, we have the formal term “Feast of the Resurrection”. The term for the eating of the unleavened bread is “pagharchager” (also spelled “balhardjaker”).

      Until the genocide and exile of the Armenians and their Church in 1915, the Armenian Church celebrated the Resurrection using a perpetual calendar prepared by the Alexandrian Aeas whereas the Greek Orthodox use the Byzantine Irion calendar. Essentially, once every several hundred years, because of a differential in calculating the minutes of the day, the Armenians celebrate Easter one week following the Greeks. This last happened in 1824 and is calculated to occur again in 2071. In the meantime, though, the two churches celebrate on the same date EXCEPT:

      In the 1920s, as many Armenians settled in Western Europe and North America, local dioceses decided to celebrate Easter Sunday according to the Latin calendar. This has caused confusion ever since because (1) the Armenian churches in Jerusalem and the Holy Land still use the Greek calendar while (2) the Armenian churches throughout the rest of the world use the Latin calendar, but at the same time, (3) we remain steadfastly committed to January 6th for Theophany and do not recognize December 25th, but (4) since Jerusalem employs the “Old Calendar”, they celebrate Theophany on January 19th!

      So, the “united” Armenian Church celebrates TWO Easters and TWO Theophanies every year, though in separate jurisdictions.

      You should also be aware of a controversy regarding the calcuation of the date of Easter which divides the West and East. The Nicean formula has been “amended”. The East has added, by tradition NOT by council, two issues:

      The first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox … following the Jewish Passover, and not within the same 12 months of the previous Easter.

      These “amendments” have also contributed to the great chasm in celebrations. If I remember correctly, last year the West celebrated Easter on March 27th, whereas the East celebrated on April 18/May 1. In the West, the full moon was on March 25, but in the East, the full moon was on April 11/24 (actually Palm Sunday)which also commenced the Jewish Passover.

      In 2004, Western Easter and Eastern Easter coincided on April 11, though in the East, it was regarded as March 29. Therefore, the Easterners would condemn the Westerners for celebrated Easter TWICE in the 12month period (April 11, 2004 and March 27, 2005, New Calendar) whereas even using the Old Calendar, the Easterners were on March 29, 2004 and April 18, 2005.

      Enough for now. Once again, thank you for creating such a wonderful forum. I look forward to communicating with you on this and other subjects of mutual interest.

      Prayerfully yours,

      Fr. George

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