See the Lit. in 'a7 14, especially Browne, Wieseler, Zumpt, Andrews, and Keim.
We briefly consider the chronological dates of the life of Christ.
I. The Year of the Nativity.
This must be ascertained by historical and chronological research, since there is no certain and harmonious tradition on the subject. Our Christians aera, which was introduced by the Roman abbot Dionysius Exiguus, in the sixth century, and came into general use two centuries later, during the reign of Charlemagne, puts the Nativity Dec. 25, 754 Anno Urbis, that is, after the founding of the city of Rome. Nearly all chronologers agree that this is wrong by at least four years. Christ was born a.u. 750 (or b.c. 4), if not earlier.
This is evident from the following chronological hints in the Gospels, as compared with and confirmed by Josephus and contemporary writers, and by astronomical calculations.
The Death of Herod
(1) According to Mat_2:1 (Comp. Luk_1:5, Luk_1:26), Christ was born “in the days of king Herod” I. or the Great, who died, according to Josephus, at Jericho, a.u. 750, just before the Passover, being nearly seventy years of age, after a reign of thirty-seven years This date has been verified by the astronomical calculation of the eclipse of the moon, which took place March 13, a.u. 750, a few days before Herod’s death. Allowing two months or more for the events between the birth of Christ and the murder of the Innocents by Herod, the Nativity must be put back at least to February or January, a.u. 750 (or b.c. 4), if not earlier.
Some infer from the slaughter of the male children in Bethlehem, “from two years old and under,” that Christ must have been born two years before Herod’s death; but he counted from the time when the star was first seen by the Magi (Mat_2:7), and wished to make sure of his object. There is no good reason to doubt the fact itself, and the flight of the holy family to Egypt, which is inseparably connected with it. For, although the horrible deed is ignored by Josephus, it is in keeping with the well-known cruelty of Herod, who from jealousy murdered Hyrcanus, the grandfather of his favorite wife, Mariamne; then Mariamne herself, to whom he was passionately attached; her two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, and, only five days before his death, his oldest son, Antipater; and who ordered all the nobles assembled around him in his last moments to be executed after his decease, so that at least his death might be attended by universal mourning. For such a monster the murder of one or two dozen infants in a little town was a very small matter, which might easily have been overlooked, or, owing to its connection with the Messiah, purposely ignored by the Jewish historian. But a confused remembrance of it is preserved in the anecdote related by Macrobius (a Roman grammarian and probably a heathen, about a.d. 410), that Augustus, on hearing of Herod’s murder of “boys under two years” and of his own son, remarked “that it was better to be Herod’s swine than his son.” The cruel persecution of Herod and the flight into Egypt were a significant sign of the experience of the early church, and a source of comfort in every period of martyrdom.
The Star of the Magi
(2) Another chronological hint of Mat_2:1-4, Mat_2:9, which has been verified by astronomy, is the Star of the Wise Men, which appeared before the death of Herod, and which would naturally attract the attention of the astrological sages of the East, in connection with the expectation of the advent of a great king among the Jews. Such a belief naturally arose from Balaam’s prophecy of “the star that was to rise out of Jacob” (Num_24:17), and from the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah and Daniel, and widely prevailed in the East since the dispersion of the Jews.
The older interpretation of that star made it either a passing meteor, or a strictly miraculous phenomenon, which lies beyond astronomical calculation, and was perhaps visible to the Magi alone. But Providence usually works through natural agencies, and that God did so in this case is made at least very probable by a remarkable discovery in astronomy. The great and devout Kepler observed in the years 1603 and 1604 a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which was made more rare and luminous by the addition of Mars in the month of March, 1604. In the autumn of the same year (Oct. 10) he observed near the planets Saturn, Jupiter and Mars a new (fixed) star of uncommon brilliancy, which appeared “in triumphal pomp, like, some all-powerful monarch on a visit to the metropolis of his realm.” It was blazing and glittering “like the most beautiful and glorious torch ever seen when driven by a strong wind,” and seemed to him to be “an exceedingly wonderful work of God.” His genius perceived that this phenomenon must lead to the determination of the year of Christ’s birth, and by careful calculation he ascertained that a similar conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, with the later addition of Mars, and probably some, extraordinary star, took place repeatedly a.u. 747 and 748 in the sign of the Pisces.
It is worthy of note that Jewish astrologers ascribe a special signification to the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the sign of the Pisces, and connect it with the advent of the Messiah.
The discovery of Kepler was almost forgotten till the nineteenth century, when it was independently confirmed by several eminent astronomers, Schubert of Petersburg, Ideler and Encke of Berlin, and Pritchard of London. It is pronounced by Pritchard to be “as certain as any celestial phenomenon of ancient date.” It certainly makes the pilgrimage of the Magi to Jerusalem and Bethlehem more intelligible. “The star of astrology has thus become a torch of chronology” (as Ideler says), and an argument for the truthfulness of the first Gospel.
It is objected that Matthew seems to mean a single star ('e1̓'f3'f4'e7́'f1, comp. Mat_2:9) rather than a combination of stars ('e1̓́'f3'f4'f1'ef'ed). Hence Dr. Wieseler supplements the calculation of Kepler and Ideler by calling to aid a single comet which appeared from February to April, a.u. 750, according to the Chinese astronomical tables, which Pingr'e9 and Humboldt acknowledge as historical. But this is rather far-fetched and hardly necessary; for that extraordinary star described by Kepler, or Jupiter at its most luminous appearance, as described by Pritchard, in that memorable conjunction, would sufficiently answer the description of a single star by Matthew, which must at all events not be pressed too literally; for the language of Scripture on the heavenly bodies is not scientific, but phenomenal and popular. God condescended to the astrological faith of the Magi, and probably made also an internal revelation to them before, as well as after the appearance of the star (comp. Mat_2:12).
If we accept the result of these calculations of astronomers we are brought to within two years of the year of the Nativity, namely, between a.u. 748 (Kepler) and 750 (Wieseler). The difference arises, of course, from the uncertainty of the time of departure and the length of the journey of the Magi.
As this astronomical argument is often very carelessly and erroneously stated, and as the works of Kepler and Ideler are not easy of access, at least in America (I found them in the Astor Library), I may be permitted to state the case more at length. John Kepler wrote three treatises on the year of Christ’s birth, two in Latin (1606 and 1614), one in German (1613), in which he discusses with remarkable learning the various passages and facts bearing on that subject. They are reprinted in Dr. Ch. Frisch’s edition of his Opera Omnia (Frcf. et Erlang. 1858-’70, 8 vols.), vol. IV. pp. 175 sqq.; 201 sqq.; 279 sqq. His astronomical observations on the constellation which led him to this investigation are fully described in his treatises De Stella Nova in Pede Serpentarii (Opera, vol. II. 575 sqq.), and Phenomenon singulare seu Mercurius in Sole (ibid. II. 801 sqq.). Prof. Ideler, who was himself an astronomer and chronologist, in his Handbuch der mathemat. und technischen Chronologie (Berlin, 1826, vol. III. 400 sqq.), gives the following clear summary of Kepler’s and of his own observations:
“It is usually supposed that the star of the Magi was, if not a fiction of the imagination, some meteor which arose accidentally, or ad hoc. We will belong neither to the unbelievers nor the hyper-believers (weder zu den Ungl'e4ubigen noch zu den Uebergl'e4ubigen), and regard this starry phenomenon with Kepler to be real and well ascertainable by calculation, namely, as a conjunction of the Planets Jupiter and Saturn. That Matthew speaks only of a star ('e1̓'f3'f4'e7́'f1), not a constellation ('e1̓́'f3'f4'f1'ef'ed), need not trouble us, for the two words are not unfrequently confounded. The just named great astronomer, who was well acquainted with the astrology of his and former times, and who used it occasionally as a means for commending astronomy to the attention and respect of the laity, first conceived this idea when he observed the conjunction of the two planets mentioned at the close of the year 1603. It took place Dec. 17. In the spring following Mars joined their company, and in autumn 1604 still another star, one of those fixed star-like bodies (einer jener fixstern-artigen K'f6rper) which grow to a considerable degree of brightness, and then gradually disappear without leaving a trace behind. This star stood near the two planets at the eastern foot of Serpentarius (Schlangentr'e4ger), and appeared when last seen as a star of the first magnitude with uncommon splendor. From month to month it waned in brightness, and at the end of 1605 was withdrawn from the eyes which at that time could not yet be aided by good optical instruments. Kepler wrote a special work on this Stella nova in pede Serpentarii (Prague, 1606), and there he first set forth the view that the star of the Magi consisted in a conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and some other extraordinary star, the nature of which he does not explain more fully.” Ideler then goes on to report (p. 404) that Kepler, with the imperfect tables at his disposal, discovered the same conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn a.u. 747 in June, August and December, in the sign of the Pisces; in the next year, February and March, Mars was added, and probably another extraordinary star, which must have excited the astrologers of Chaldaea to the highest degree. They probably saw the new star first, and then the constellation.
Dr. M'fcnter, bishop of Seeland, in 1821 directed new attention to this remarkable discovery, and also to the rabbinical commentary of Abarbanel on Daniel, according to which the Jewish astrologers expected a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the sign of the Pisces before the advent of the Messiah, and asked the astronomers to reinvestigate this point. Since then Schubert of Petersburg (1823), Ideler and Encke of Berlin (1826 and 1830), and more recently Pritchard of London, have verified Kepler’s calculations.
Ideler describes the result of his calculation (vol. II. 405) thus: I have made the calculation with every care.... The results are sufficiently remarkable. Both planets [Jupiter and Saturn] came in conjunction for the first time a.u. 747, May 20, in the 20th degree of Pisces. They stood then on the heaven before sunrise and were only one degree apart. Jupiter passed Saturn to the north. In the middle of September both came in opposition to the sun at midnight in the south. The difference in longitude was one degree and a half. Both were retrograde and again approached each other. On the 27th of October a second conjunction took place in the sixteenth degree of the Pisces, and on the 12th of November, when Jupiter moved again eastward, a third in the fifteenth degree of the same sign. In the last two constellations also the difference in longitude was only about one degree, so that to a weak eye both planets might appear as one star. If the Jewish astrologers attached great expectations to conjunction of the two upper planets in the sign of the Pisces, this one must above all have appeared to them as most significant.”
In his shorter Lehrbuch der Chronologie, which appeared Berlin 1831 in one vol., pp. 424-431, Ideler gives substantially the same account somewhat abridged, but with slight changes of the figures on the basis of a new calculation with still better tables made by the celebrated astronomer Encke, who puts the first conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn a.u. 747, May 29th, the second Sept. 30th, the third Dec. 5th. See the full table of Encke, p. 429.
We supplement this account by an extract from an article on the Star of the Wise Men by the Rev. Charles Pritchard, M.A., Hon. Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, who made a fresh calculation of the constellation in a.u. 747, from May to December, and published the results in Memoirs of Royal Ast. Society, vol. xxv., and in Smith’s “Bible Dictionary,” p. 3108, Am. ed., where he says: “At that time [end of Sept., b.c. 7] there can be no doubt Jupiter would present to astronomers, especially in so clear an atmosphere, a magnificent spectacle. It was then at its most brilliant apparition, for it was at its nearest approach both to the sun and to the earth. Not far from it would be seen its duller and much less conspicuous companion, Saturn. This glorious spectacle continued almost unaltered for several days, when the planets again slowly separated, then came to a halt, when, by reassuming a direct motion, Jupiter again approached to a conjunction for a third time with Saturn, just as the Magi may be supposed to have entered the Holy City. And, to complete the fascination of the tale, about an hour and a half after sunset, the two planets might be seen from Jerusalem, hanging as it were in the meridian, and suspended over Bethlehem in the distance. These celestial phenomena thus described are, it will be seen, beyond the reach of question, and at the first impression they assuredly appear to fulfil the conditions of the Star of the Magi.” If Pritchard, nevertheless, rejects the identity of the constellation with the single star of Matthew, it is because of a too literal understanding of Matthew’s language, that the star 'f0'f1'ef'e7͂'e3'e5'ed 'e1'f5̓'f4'ef'f5́'f2 and 'e5̓'f3'f4'e1́'e8'e7 'e5̓'f0'e1́'ed'f9, which would make it miraculous in either case.
The Fifteenth Year of Tiberius
(3) Luk_3:1, Luk_3:23, gives us an important and evidently careful indication of the reigning powers at the time when John the Baptist and Christ entered upon their public ministry, which, according to Levitical custom, was at the age of thirty. (Comp. Num_4:3, Num_4:35, Num_4:39, Num_4:43, Num_4:47) John the Baptist began his ministry “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius,” and Jesus, who was only about six months younger than John (comp. Luk_1:5, Luk_1:26), was baptized and began to teach when he was “about thirty years of age.” Tiberius began to reign jointly with Augustus, as “collega imperii,” a.u. 764 (or, at all events, in the beginning of 765), and independently, Aug. 19, a.u. 767 (a.d. 14); consequently, the fifteenth year of his reign was either a.u. 779, if we count from the joint reign (as Luke probably did, using the more general term 'e7̔'e3'e5'ec'ef'ed'e9́'e1 rather than 'ec'ef'ed'e1'f1'f7'e9́'e1 or 'e2'e1'f3'e9'eb'e5'e9́'e1 or 782, if we reckon from the independent reign (as was the usual Roman method).
Now, if we reckon back thirty years from a.u. 779 or 782, we come to a.u. 749 or 752 as the year of John’s birth, which preceded that of Christ about six months. The former date (749) is undoubtedly to be preferred, and agrees with Luke’s own statement that Christ was born under Herod (Luk_1:5, Luk_1:26).
Dionysius probably (for we have no certainty on the subject) calculated from the independent reign of Tiberius; but even that would not bring us to 754, and would involve Luke in contradiction with Matthew and with himself.
The other dates in Luk_3:1 generally agree with this result, but are less definite. Pontius Pilate was ten years governor of Judaea, from a.d. 26 to 36. Herod Antipas was deposed by Caligula, a.d. 39. Philip, his brother, died a.d. 34. Consequently, Christ must have died before a.d. 34, at an age of thirty-three, if we allow three years for his public ministry.
The Census of Quirinius
(4) The Census of Quirinius Luk_2:2. Luke gives us another chronological date by the incidental remark that Christ was born about the time of that census or enrolment, which was ordered by Caesar Augustus, and which was “the first made when Quirinius (Cyrenius) was governor [enrolment] of Syria.” He mentions this fact as the reason for the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. The journey of Mary makes no difficulty, for (aside from the intrinsic propriety of his company for protection) all women over twelve years of age (and slaves also) were subject in the Roman empire to a head-tax, as well as men over fourteen) till the age of sixty-five. There is some significance in the coincidence of the birth of the King of Israel with the deepest humiliation of Israel. and its incorporation in the great historical empire of Rome.
But the statement of Luke seems to be in direct conflict with the fact that the governorship and census of Quirinius began a.d. 6, i.e., ten years after the birth of Christ. Hence many artificial interpretations. But this difficulty is now, if not entirely removed, at least greatly diminished by archeological and philological research independent of theology. It has been proved almost to a demonstration by Bergmann, Mommsen, and especially by Zumpt, that Quirinius was twice governor of Syria - first, a.u. 750 to 753, or b.c. 4 to 1 (when there happens to be a gap in our list of governors of Syria), and again, a.u. 760-765 (a.d. 6-11). This double legation is based upon a passage in Tacitus, and confirmed by an old monumental inscription discovered between the Villa Hadriani and the Via Tiburtina. Hence Luke might very properly call the census about the time of Christ’s birth “the first” ('f0'f1'f9́'f4'e7) under Quirinius, to distinguish it from the second and better known, which he himself mentions in his second treatise on the history of the origin of Christianity (Act_5:37). Perhaps the experience of Quirinius as the superintendent of the first census was the reason why he was sent to Syria a second time for the same purpose.
There still remain, however, three difficulties not easily solved: (a) Quirinius cannot have been governor of Syria before autumn a.u. 750 (b.c. 4), several months after Herod’s death (which occurred in March, 750), and consequently after Christ’s birth; for we know from coins that Quintilius Varus was governor from a.u. 748 to 750 (b.c. 6-4), and left his post after the death of Herod. (b) A census during the first governorship of Quirinius is nowhere mentioned but in Luke. (c) A Syrian governor could not well carry out a census in Judaea during the lifetime of Herod, before it was made a Roman province (i.e., a.u. 759).
In reply to these objections we may say: (a) Luke did not intend to give an exact, but only an approximate chronological statement, and may have connected the census with the well-known name of Quirinius because he completed it, although it was begun under a previous administration. (b) Augustus ordered several census populi between a.u. 726 and 767, partly for taxation, partly for military and statistical purposes; and, as a good statesman and financier, he himself prepared a rationarium or breviarium totius imperii, that is, a list of all the resources of the empire, which was read, after his death, in the Senate. (c) Herod was only a tributary king (rex sosius), who could exercise no act of sovereignty without authority from the emperor. Judaea was subject to taxation from the time of Pompey, and it seems not to have ceased with the accession of Herod. Moreover, towards the end of his life he lost the favor of Augustus, who wrote him in anger that “whereas of old he had used him as his friend, he would now use him as his subject.”
It cannot, indeed, be proven by direct testimony of Josephus or the Roman historians, that Augustus issued a decree for a universal census, embracing all the Provinces (“that all the world,” i.e., the Roman world, “should be taxed,” Luk_2:1), but it is in itself by no means improbable, and was necessary to enable him to prepare his breviarium totius imperii. In the nature of the case, it would take several years to carry out such a decree, and its execution in the provinces would be modified according to national customs. Zumpt assumes that Sentius Saturninus, who was sent as governor to Syria a.u. 746 (b.c. 9), and remained there till 749 (b.c. 6), began a census in Judaea with a view to substitute a head tax in money for the former customary tribute in produce; that his successor, Quintilius Varus (b.c. 6-4), continued it, and that Quirinius (b.c. 4) completed the census. This would explain the confident statement of Tertullian, which he must have derived from some good source, that enrolments were held under Augustus by Sentius Saturninus in Judaea. Another, but less probable view is that Quirinius was sent to the East as special commissioner for the census during the administration of his predecessor. In either case Luke might call the census “the first” under Quirinius, considering that he finished the census for personal taxation or registration according to the Jewish custom of family registers, and that afterwards he alone executed the second census for the taxation of property according to the Roman fashion.
The problem is not quite solved; but the establishment of the fact that Quirinius was prominently connected with the Roman government in the East about the time of the Nativity, is a considerable step towards the solution, and encourages the hope of a still better solution in the future.
The Forty-Six Years of Building of Herod’s Temple
(5) St. Joh_2:20, furnishes us a date in the remark of the Jews, in the first year of Christ’s ministry: “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou raise it up in three days?”
We learn from Josephus that Herod began the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the eighteenth year of his reign, i.e., a.u. 732, if we reckon from his appointment by the Romans (714), or a.u. 735, if we reckon from the death of Antigonus and the conquest of Jerusalem (717). The latter is the correct view; otherwise Josephus would contradict himself, since, in another passage, he dates the building from the fifteenth year, of Herod’s reign. Adding forty-six years to 735, we have the year a.u. 781 (a.d. 27) for the first year of Christ’s ministry; and deducting thirty and a half or thirty-one years from 781, we come back to a.u. 750 (b.c. 4) as the year of the Nativity.
The Time of the Crucifixion
(6) Christ was crucified under the consulate of the two Gemini (i.e., C. Rubellius Geminus and C. Fufius Geminus), who were consuls a.u. 782 to 783 (a.d. 28 to 29). This statement is made by Tertullian, in connection with an elaborate calculation of the time of Christ’s birth and passion from the seventy weeks of Daniel. He may possibly have derived it from some public record in Rome. He erred in identifying the year of Christ’s passion with the first year of his ministry (the 15th year of Tiberius, Luk_3:1). Allowing, as we must, two or three years for his public ministry, and thirty-three years for his life, we reach the year 750 or 749 as the year of the Nativity.
Thus we arrive from these various incidental notices of three Evangelists, and the statement of Tertullian essentially at the same conclusion, which contributes its share towards establishing the credibility of the gospel history against the mythical theory. Yet in the absence of a precise date, and in view of uncertainties in calculation, there is still room for difference of opinion between the years a.u. 747 (b.c. 7), as the earliest, and a.u. 750 (b.c. 4), as the latest, possible date for the year of Christ’s birth. The French Benedictines, Sanclemente, M'fcnter, Wurm, Ebrard, Jarvis, Alford, Jos. A. Alexander, Zumpt, Keim, decide for a.u. 747; Kepler (reckoning from the conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in that year), Lardner, Ideler, Ewald, for 748; Petavius, Ussher, Tillemont, Browne, Angus, Robinson, Andrews, McClellan, for 749; Bengel, Wieseler, Lange, Lichtenstein, Anger, Greswell, Ellicott, Plumptre, Merivale, for 750.
II. The Day of the Nativity.
The only indication of the season of our Saviour’s birth is the fact that the Shepherds were watching their flocks in the field at that time, Luk_2:8. This fact points to any other season rather than winter, and is therefore not favorable to the traditional date, though not conclusive against it. The time of pasturing in Palestine (which has but two seasons, the dry and the wet, or summer and winter) begins, according to the Talmudists, in March, and lasts till November, when the herds are brought in from the fields, and kept under shelter till the close of February. But this refers chiefly to pastures in the wilderness, far away from towns and villages, and admits of frequent exceptions in the close neighborhood of towns, according to the character of the season. A succession of bright days in December and January is of frequent occurrence in the East, as in Western countries. Tobler, an experienced traveller in the Holy Land, says that in Bethlehem the weather about Christmas is favorable to the feeding of flocks and often most beautiful. On the other hand strong and cold winds often prevail in April, and. explain the fire mentioned Joh_18:18.
No certain conclusion can be drawn from the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, and to Egypt; nor from the journey of the Magi. As a rule February, is the best time for travelling in Egypt, March the best in the Sinaitic Peninsula, April and May, and next to it autumn, the best in Palestine; but necessity knows no rule.
The ancient tradition is of no account here, as it varied down to the fourth century. Clement of Alexandria relates that some regarded the 25th Pachon. (i.e. May 20), others the 24th or 25th Pharmuthi (April 19 or 20), as the day of Nativity.
(1) The traditional 25th of December is defended by Jerome, Chrysostom, Baronius, Lamy, Ussher, Petavius, Bengel (Ideler), Seyffarth and Jarvis. It has no historical authority beyond the fourth century, when the Christmas festival was introduced first in Rome (before a.d. 360), on the basis of several Roman festivals (the Saturnalia, Sigillaria, Juvenalia, Brumalia, or Dies natalis Invicti Solis), which were held in the latter part of December in commemoration of the golden age of liberty and equality, and in honor of the sun, who in the winter solstice is, as it were, born anew and begins his conquering march. This phenomenon in nature was regarded as an appropriate symbol of the appearance of the Sun of Righteousness dispelling the long night of sin and error. For the same reason the summer solstice (June 24) was afterwards selected for the festival of John the Baptist, as the fittest reminder of his own humble self-estimate that he must decrease, while Christ must increase (Joh_3:30). Accordingly the 25th of March was chosen for the commemoration of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, and the 24th of September for that of the conception of Elizabeth.
(2) The 6th of January has in its favor an older tradition (according to Epiphanius and Cassianus), and is sustained by Eusebius. It was celebrated in the East from the third century as the feast of the Epiphany, in commemoration of the Nativity as well as of Christ’s baptism, and afterwards of his manifestation to the Gentiles (represented by the Magi).
(3) Other writers have selected some day in February (Hug, Wieseler, Ellicott), or March (Paulus, Winer), or April (Greswell), or August (Lewin), or September (Lightfoot, who assumes, on chronological grounds, that Christ was born on the feast of Tabernacles, as he died on the Passover and sent the Spirit on Pentecost), or October (Newcome). Lardner puts the birth between the middle of August and the middle of November; Browne December 8; Lichtenstein in summer; Robinson leaves it altogether uncertain.
III. The Duration of Christ’s Life.
This is now generally confined to thirty-two or three years. The difference of one or two years arises from the different views on the length of his public ministry. Christ died and rose again in the full vigor of early manhood and so continues to live in the memory of the church. The decline and weakness of old age is inconsistent with his position as the Renovator and Saviour of mankind.
Irenaeus, otherwise (as a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John) the most trustworthy witness of apostolic traditions among the fathers, held the untenable opinion that Christ attained to the ripe age of forty or fifty years and taught over ten years (beginning with the thirtieth), and that he thus passed through all the stages of human life, to save and sanctify “old men” as well as “infants and children and boys and youths.” He appeals for this view to tradition dating from St. John and supports it by an unwarranted inference from the loose conjecture of the Jews when, surprised at the claim of Jesus to have existed before Abraham was born, they asked him: “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?” A similar inference from another passage, where the Jews speak of the “forty-six years” since the temple of Herod began to be constructed, while Christ spoke of the temple his body (Joh_2:20), is of course still less conclusive.
IV. Duration of Christ’s Public Ministry.
It began with the baptism by John and ended with the crucifixion. About the length of the intervening time there are (besides the isolated and decidedly erroneous view of Irenaeus) three theories, allowing respectively one, two, or three years and a few months, and designated as the bipaschal, tripaschal, and quadripaschal schemes, according to the number of Passovers. The Synoptists mention only the last Passover during the public ministry of our Lord, at which he was crucified, but they intimate that he was in Judaea more than once. (Comp. Mat_4:12; Mat_23:37; Mar_1:14; Luk_4:14; Luk_10:38; Luk_13:34) John certainly mentions three Passovers, two of which (the first and the last) Christ did attend, and perhaps a fourth, which he also attended.
(1) The bipaschal scheme confines the public ministry to one year and a few weeks or months. This was first held by the Gnostic sect of the Valentinians (who connected it with their fancy about thirty aeons), and by several fathers, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian) and perhaps by Origen and Augustine (who express themselves doubtfully). The chief argument of the fathers and those harmonists who follow them, is derived from the prophecy of “the acceptable year of the Lord,” as quoted by Christ, (Isa_61:2; comp. Luk_4:14) and from the typical meaning of the paschal lamb, which must be of “one year” and without blemish. (Exo_12:5) Far more important is the argument drawn by some modern critics from the silence of the synoptical Gospels concerning the other Passovers. But this silence is not in itself conclusive, and must yield to the positive testimony of John, which cannot be conformed to the bipaschal scheme. Moreover, it is simply impossible to crowd the events of Christ’s life, the training of the Twelve, and the development of the hostility of the Jews, into one short year.
(2) The choice therefore lies between the tripaschal and the quadripaschal schemes. The decision depends chiefly on the interpretation of the unnamed “feast of the Jews,” Joh_5:1, whether it was a Passover, or another feast; and this again depends much (though not exclusively) on a difference of reading (the feast, or a feast). The parable of the barren fig-tree, which represents the Jewish people, has been used as an argument in favor of a three years’ ministry: “Behold, these three year I come seeking fruit on this fig-tree, and find none.” The three years are certainly significant; but according to Jewish reckoning two and a half years would be called three years. More remote is the reference to the prophetic announcement of Dan_9:27: “And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week, and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease.” The tripaschal theory is more easily reconciled with the synoptical Gospels, while the quadripaschal theory leaves more room for arranging the discourses and miracles of our Lord, and has been adopted by the majority of harmonists.
But even if we extend the public ministry to three years, it presents a disproportion between duration and effect without a parallel in history and inexplicable on purely natural grounds. In the language of an impartial historian, “the simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists. This has indeed been the wellspring of whatever is best and purest in the Christian life.”
V. The Date of the Lord’s Death.
The day of the week on which Christ suffered on the cross was a Friday, during the week of the Passover, in the month of Nisan, which was the first of the twelve lunar months of the Jewish year, and included the vernal equinox. But the question is whether this Friday was the 14th, or the 15th of Nisan, that is, the day before the feast or the first day of the feast, which lasted a week. The Synoptical Gospels clearly decide for the 15th, for they all say (independently) that our Lord partook of the paschal supper on the legal day, called the “first day of unleavened bread,” (Mat_26:17, Mat_26:20; Mar_14:12; Luk_22:7, Luk_22:15. Comp. Joh_18:39, Joh_18:40) that is on the evening of the 14th, or rather at the beginning of the 15th (the paschal lambs being slain “between the two evenings,” i.e. before and after sunset, between 3 and 5 p.m. of the 14th). John, on the other hand, seems at first sight to point to the 14th, so that the death of our Lord would very nearly have coincided with the slaying of the paschal lamb. (Joh_13:1; Joh_13:29; Joh_18:28; Joh_19:14) But the three or four passages which look in that direction can, and on closer examination, must be harmonized with the Synoptical statement, which admits only of one natural interpretation. It seems strange, indeed, that, the Jewish priests should have matured their bloody counsel in the solemn night of the Passover, and urged a crucifixion on a great festival, but it agrees, with the satanic wickedness of their crime. Moreover it is on the other hand equally difficult to explain that they, together with the people, should have remained about the cross till late in the afternoon of the fourteenth, when, according to the law, they were to kill the paschal lamb and prepare for the feast; and that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea, with the pious women, should have buried the body of Jesus and so incurred defilement at that solemn hour.
The view here advocated is strengthened by astronomical calculation, which shows that in a.d. 30 the probable year of the crucifixion, the 15th of Nisan actually fell on a Friday (April 7); and this was the case only once more between the years a.d. 28 and 36, except perhaps also in 33. Consequently Christ must have been Crucified a.d. 30.
To sum up the results, the following appear to us the most probable dates in the earthly life of our Lord:
Birth a.u. 750 (Jan.?) or 749 (Dec.?) b.c. 4 or 5
Baptism a.u. 780 (Jan.?) a.d. 27.
Length of Public Ministry (three years and three or four months) a.u. 780-783 a.d. 27-30.
Crucifixion a.u. 783 (15th of Nisan) a.d. 30 (April 7)