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The Date of the Crucifixion and its Passover

Can we determine the date and year of the crucifixion in terms of the Julian date—day, month, and year?   This has been the subject of countless papers and even books.  If, for example, you read the Wikipedia article, you will get introduced not only the most popular date but all the variations that have been proposed over the years and centuries.  In the end it will not be clear how much uncertainty there is in these possible dates.  But as a scientist hearing the different lines of evidence, there is one date that really stands out to me and is the hardest to argue against.   I will try to distill the evidence for you here in a few minute read to show you why one particular date is so compelling. 

First of all, when we want to pinpoint a date or time in the past we look for different pieces of evidence that can constrain the window of time.  Its like finding a murder victim and trying to narrow down the time window as much as possible when the person died.  And the earliest or latest possible time are often constrained by two different events.  Likewise, we are trying to pinpoint a death in the past to a specific date. 

So let’s look first at evidence from outside the Bible.  The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that the leader of the Christian sect was killed by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate.  We know from Roman records that Pilate was governor of Judea between the years 26 and 37 AD.  So our window is 11 years wide.   IF we take some evidence from the New Testament but outside the gospels, from the reported travels of the Apostle Paul, we can reduce that a little.  He writes he was in a certain city in Asia Minor when Gallio was in charge.  Romans records show Gallio was only there during the year 51 AD.   We can then back track Paul’s travels back to being in Antioch in about 46/47 AD.  There he told the disciples it had been 13-14 years since his conversion.  So that puts his conversion between 32 and 34 AD, not long after the Christians began to spread the word.   So 434 AD is the latest possible date for a crucifixion.  Now were are down to an eight year window, 26-34. 

The Jewish-Roman historian, Josephus, reported to us that there was a well-known preacher at the time, John the Baptist, who had proceeded the Christ.  The gospels report that John began his ministry during the 15th year of the Emperor Tiberius, whose reign began in the year 14 AD.   Which means John began baptizing about the year 29 AD.   Now we have a window between the years 29 and 34 AD, only five years.   These lines of indirect evidence can be compelling because they are not one individual trying to convince us of one answer, but independent, unrelated, information that just happens to narrow the window for us.

 Now let’s look at the gospel accounts themselves to see what circumstantial evidence they might provide.  All of the accounts state the crucifixion was associated with the first day of the Jewish Passover festival.  Can this help?  Yes, and it could prove the timing is not possible at all and the story was therefore concocted.   That’s because the Passover meal is fixed to the Hebrew calendar, the 14th day of Nisan, according to the book of Exodus.   Unlike the Roman Julian calendar and our Western calendar today, the Hebrew calendar is lunar.  Every month begins at a new moon.  So the 14th of Nisan is always a full moon.  This means each of the Julian years in our time window also has a 14th of Nisan—so how does that help?

The key is the gospel accounts also all say the day after the crucifixion was the Sabbath—a Saturday—with the reported resurrection occurring the following day, the first day of the week—Sunday.   Given the lunar Hebrew month has to be 29 or 30 days to follow the lunar cycle, that means they are not divisible by seven—the number of days in a week.  This means the 14th of Nisan can fall on any day of the week, depending on the year.  But we are looking specifically for a 14th of Nisan that falls on a Friday.  Fortunately, the historical calendar nerds have worked out a website for us where we can plug in any Hebrew date, and it will tell us what the Julian date was AND the day of the week.  So let’s do that for our time window for each year and see what comes up.  See the table below for the results.  Let’s even widen the window to every year Pilate was governor and see which years had a Nisan 14th that fell on a Friday.  If none of them fall on a Friday we are in trouble—and that’s a real statistical possibility.

Julian dates and days of the week that corresponded to Nisan 14th during the reign of Pontius Pilate.

There turns out to have been three different years during the governorship of Pontius Pilate that Nisan the 14th was on a Friday.  But only in 33 AD does it fall in our five year window (shown in blue).   There is actually additional evidence to support this year.   Three of the gospels give no indication how many years the ministry of Jesus lasted for.  But Apostle John’s gospel records three different trips to Jerusalem for the same annual feast.  So the consensus is his ministry lasted thee years.  So John the Baptist begins his ministry in 29 AD, and not too long later he baptized Jesus, say in 30 AD, then there are three years of ministry until 33 AD.  It all adds up, and the calendar confirms the Julian date to be April 3, 33 AD.

But there is one more wrinkle that seems confusing that need explaining.  The Last Supper was considered in the gospels to be the Passover meal. But that happened the evening before, on a Thursday.  Was Nisan the 14th on a Thursday, not a Friday?  Also, in the gospel accounts the high priests were worried but staying ceremonially clean for a Friday night Passover meal.  Which was it, Thursday or Friday?  Today all Jews start Passover on the 15th of Nisan, even though the Old Testament dictates that it start on the 14th.  What happened?

The wording of the passage in Exodus concerning Passover in the original Hebrew is important here.  The Hebrew phrase is “ben ha abrayim”.  It frequently gets translated at twilight or evening in English.  But it is literally “between the two evenings”.  We also must remember that in the Hebrew reckoning a new day begins at sundown.  So the 14th of Nisan in 33 AD began on Thursday evening.   See above chart.  That explains the Last Supper Thursday evening being on Nisan 14th.  And the following day, Good Friday, was also Nisan 14th, until sundown when it became Nisan 15th.   The Exodus command was to kill the Passover lamb for the meal during twilight of the 14th, so why did some Jews in the first century and all Jews today wait until the 15th to start the Passover week?  Twilight means the 20-30 minutes following sunset, or dusk.  The answer is that during the 2nd Temple period the priests wanted to have the killing of the lambs to move beyond a “do-it-yourself at home” thing to "an official Temple ceremony".  They decided that “between the two evenings” could be interpreted as between noon and 6 PM, or better yet the last three hours 3 and 6 PM before sunset.  This gave the priests the time it would take to kill thousands of lambs that were brought to them at the altar.   So during the first century one of two methods were practiced by different folks—a quick kill-and-eat at home on the 14th as prescribed, or the 14th as a “preparation” day to have the meal after sundown on the 15th.  The Old Testament passage command included the seven day festival of unleavened bread, to start after the Passover meal.  Today only the tradition remains for Passover week to start on the 15th.

These details of the first century Passover traditions agree with the accounts in the gospels.   To summarize, the Last Supper and Good Friday, and Passover all began that week on Nisan 14th--sundown on Thursday, with the Friday aligning with the Julian date of April 3rd, 33 AD. This was followed by Sunday, April 5th, Resurrection Day.  Interestingly, in 2026 Good Friday and Easter will fall on April 3rd and 5th once again--their original Julian dates.

In the Cry for Jerusalem blog section Ward covers subjects to do with the vast amount of research that went into the Cry for Jerusalem historical novel series, including Ancient Jerusalem, the Roman Empire, Biblical topics, and the writings of Josephus.

To learn more about the novel series click here or for purchasing click here.

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