By Arthur M. Ogden
In December, 1983, newspapers across the country carried an article titled, “Scientists Say They’ve Determined Crucifixion Date.” The article, an Associated Press release datelined London, concerned the findings of two British scientists, Colin J. Humphreys and W.G. Waddington of Oxford University, who “have concluded with ‘reasonable certainty’ that Christ died on Friday, April 3, in the year A.D. 33.” Their findings were published in a December issue of Nature, a British science magazine.
The two British scientists “based their conclusions on astronomical calculations and biblical and historical references” according to the article. The AP release also states, “In the second half of their article, the scientists turn to references in the Bible and in the Apocrypha to the moon being ‘turned to blood,’ saying that ‘in our view the phrase . . . probably refers to a lunar eclipse, in which case the crucifixion can be dated unambiguously.” The two scientists claim that a lunar eclipse was visible at Jerusalem during Passover on Friday, April 3, A.D. 33.
The Traditional View
Many, no doubt, are pleased with these conclusions. The traditional date for Jesus’ death among Christians through the years has corresponded with the 33 A.D. date. We based our conclusions, not on astronomical calculations but, on Scripture. Jesus was about 30 when be began His ministry (Lk. 3:23). His ministry lasted about 3 V2 years. By adding the two together and using the dating system of Dionysius Exiguus (6th century A.D.), we arrived at the date of 33 A.D. Upon the basis of these conclusions we have preached that the church was established in Jerusalem on Pentecost in 33 A.D. and that any spiritual institution founded before that time claiming to be the church of the Lord was too early to be the Lord’s, and any founded after that time was too late to be the Lord’s. Many church buildings built by brethren have cornerstones reading, “Established in Jerusalem, 33 A.D. Established in _______ 18?? A.D.” These conclusions are all sound if Dionysius did not make a mistake.
Men Make Mistakes
Regardless of how scholarly or meticulous man’s efforts, man is still fallible. Dionysius did make a costly mistake! He dated the birth of Jesus four years after the death of Herod the Great during whose reign Jesus was born.(1) By making this mistake, he has rendered his calendar ineffective as a tool in determining the date of Jesus’ death. While this does not mean that Jesus did not die in 33 A.D., it does mean that our method of determining the date is in error.
Men with good intentions often make the mistake of trying to solve biblical problems by scientific methods. Such efforts reflect a tinge of unbelief. Seeking to explain the star of the wise men (Matt. 2:2) by some astronomical phenomenon ignores plain biblical statements and undermines the miraculous witness God gave to His Son’s birth. Explaining the darkness over the face of the earth, when Jesus was crucified (Lk. 23:44), by a solar eclipse denies God His miraculous witness to Jesus’ sonship. Unbelievers hunt for such explanations. Believers accept them without question. Astronomical explanations are neither sought nor needed.
Our two British scientists have fallen prey to this fallacy. They have reached conclusions based in part upon “astronomical calculations.” Supposing that biblical references to the moon “turning to blood” “probably refers to a lunar eclipse,” which they perceive identifies the date of Christ’s death “unambiguously,” they have deducted that Jesus died on April 3, 33 A.D. Their method of calculation demonstrates their ignorance of biblical terminology, its use and application, and their failure to accept by faith the biblical accounts as revealed.
When Was Jesus Crucified?
The exact date of Jesus’ death is not absolutely essential to being a believer, yet to the student of biblical history the date of His death is most helpful. Some historical clues are given which contribute to a definite decision. The Christian can know within reason the date His Savior died for him.
Luke records that John the Baptist began his ministry “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea” (Lk. 3: 1). Tiberius began his full reign upon the death of Augustus in 14 A.D., and Pilate ruled Judea from 26 to 36 A.D.(2) If Luke’s fifteen years are to be counted from 14 A.D., then 28 or 29 A.D. would correctly identify the beginning of John’s ministry and subsequently that of Jesus. Many think, however, that Luke includes Tiberius’ co-regency with Augustus which began in 11 A.D.(3) If so, 26 A.D. must be accepted as the proper date for the beginning of the ministries of John and Jesus.
John relates that the Jews in rebuttal to Jesus’ statement, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” said, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and will thou rear it up in three days?” (Jn. 2:19-20). Their statement is significant because the temple at that time was still under construction and was not completed until A.D. 64.(4) The temple work was started by Herod the Great in the eighteenth year of his reign,(5) or 19 B.C. Counting forty-six years from 19 B.C. brings us to 27 A.D. Jesus was in Jerusalem for the observance of the first Passover of His ministry (27 A.D.) when this discussion took place (Jn. 2:13). It is thought that John records three other Passovers observed by Jesus during His ministry (Jn. 5:1; 6:4; 12: 1). If so, Jesus’ death came in 30 A.D. three years after His first Passover observance.
The most widely accepted date for Jesus’ crucifixion is 30 A.D. Careful students will observe that biblical historians repeatedly refer to this date. Any calculations designed to establish the date of His death must take into account that Jesus came to Bethany six days before Passover (Jn. 12: 1). Passover, which identifies the day the lamb was killed (Mk. 14:1,12; Lk. 22:1,7), came on the 14th day of the first month, Abib or Nisan (Ex. 12:6; Lev. 23:5). The 14th did not come on the same day of the week each year. In the year Jesus was crucified, the 14th came six days after Jesus came to Bethany. This is significant because, if we count those six days from the first day of the week, Passover would come too late in the week to fit the biblical narrative. If we back up, we must back over the Sabbath to Friday to begin our count, otherwise Jesus and many other Jews violated at least the traditional Sabbath observance by making such a long journey on that day. These guidelines establish that in the year our Lord was crucified Passover fell on Thursday.
The 14th Nisan, 30 A.D.
The British scientists, Humphreys and Waddington, concluded that “Jesus died at the same time as the Passover lambs were slain.” It is evident from their article that they understood Jesus died on the 14th Nisan which in 33 A.D. was Friday, April 3rd. They reconstructed the Jewish calendar to that time to arrive at this date.
This author, while appreciating their deduction that Jesus died on the 14th of Nisan as our Passover (1 Cor. 5:7), believes it impossible to reconcile their deduction with John 12: 1. Their findings are interesting, however, because their dates correspond with other dating tables for that time period and contribute to the verification of their accuracy. A reconstructed dating table, which appeared in Christianity Today (March 29, 1974), the results of a computer analysis, corresponds identically with the findings of Humphreys and Waddington. These tables also show that the only year between 27 and 34 A.D. that the 14th Nisan fell on Thursday was in the year 30. A.D. 27 was too early and A.D. 34 too late for the date of the Lord’s death. The 14th Nisan in 30 A . D. corresponds to April 6 according to our calendar. While this does not settle the question of whether Jesus died on Thursday (Nisan 14, April 6) or Friday (Nisan 15, April 7), it does tell us the year of His death – 30 A.D.
Setting dates for biblical events can be a tedious matter. Numerous things must be taken into consideration before reaching valid conclusions, i.e., comparative secular history and other biblical accounts and principles. It is surprising, however, how close one can come to following the many events of Jesus’ personal ministry and those of the early church, even to the days, months and years, by observing the numerous clues written within the revealed accounts. Careful deductions based upon these clues broaden our understanding and expand our learning experiences.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 10, pp. 296-297
May 17, 1984