Thursday, 30 September 2021

The dates of Jesus. 1. The dates

§1–§3. The dates | §4–§5. Calendars and prophecy | §6. Christmas and Easter | §7–§8. Sources

The dates of Jesus’ life are approximate. Encyclopaedias put his birth date variously in 4 BCE, 7–5 BCE, 7–2 BCE, or ‘6–7 BCE’ (for that last one he went backwards in time, I guess?), and his death date in 30 CE, 33 CE, or 30–36 CE (Britannica, Citizendium, Encyclopedia.com, Wikipedia).

These dates are weirdly disconnected from what we read in ancient sources. They give birth dates ranging from 4 BCE to 6 CE, and they normally put the death date in 29 CE. Same ballpark, but ... disconnected. The more sensible modern write-ups avoid specific dates, or they hedge their bets, using ‘perhaps’ or ‘no universal agreement’ (e.g. New Pauly, Wikipedia).

I’m not about to pin down Jesus’ dates: we don’t have good enough evidence anyway. What I can usefully do is give an easily accessible summary of what the early sources say, along with some discussion of how their ideas developed over time. This is a complex subject, so even though I’m trying to distil it, I’m still splitting it into four episodes:

  1. what the sources say, and trends over the centuries
  2. technical problems in reading the sources
  3. the dates of Christmas and Easter
  4. details about the ancient sources; bibliography

(Note: episodes 2 and 3 were originally one. After they were written I split them to keep each episode around 2000 words. Note that this isn’t a tactic to increase advertising revenue! Kiwi Hellenist has no advertising revenue.)

A depiction of Jesus’ birth: a publicity still for The nativity story (2006), starring Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac

§1. The dates

See §7 for references and discussion of the sources. When I’m finalising §7 I’ll revisit these dates: if necessary, I may adjust a few of the dates in the lower half of the table at that time, and will leave a note here recording the changes.

Source Birth Baptism/start of ministry Death
Matthew (ca. 70–90 CE?) 4 BCE or earlier   Passover (no year specified)
Luke 1 (ca. 100?) 4 or 3 BCE (conception)    
Luke 2 6 or 7 CE (birth)    
Luke 3 Oct. 3–Oct. 1 BCE Oct. 28–Oct. 29 CE (in conjunction with Luke 22) Passover 29 or 30 CE
John (ca. 80–110?)     Passover, more than 2 years after start of ministry
Thallos (late 00s–early 100s), Phlegon of Tralles (130s?)     see §3 below
Josephus (90s),
Tacitus (110s),
Justin Martyr (150s)
    during Tiberius’ principate
Irenaeus (180s) 4 BCE   during Tiberius’ principate
Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200) genesis’ on 28 May 2 BCE or
19 or 20 April (year unspecified) (ambiguous meaning; see §6)
10 Jan. 28 CE or
6 Jan. 28 CE
21 March 29 CE or
20 April 29 CE or
14 April 29 CE
Tertullian (ca. 200–220) 4–3 BCE and
2 BCE
  25 March 29 CE
Julius Africanus (220s) 3/2 BCE (between midsummers) parousia’ in 29/30 CE (unclear meaning: ministry, or death?) not 24 Nov. 29 CE (rejects date)
Hippolytus, paschal table (220s–230s) genesis’ on 2 April 2 BCE (ambiguous meaning; see §6)   25 March 29 CE
Origen (first half of 200s) 1 BCE 29 CE  
pseudo-Cyprian (243) 28 March 1 BCE   between Sep. 29 and Sep. 30 CE
Chronography of 354 (336–354) 25 Dec. 1 CE or
25 Dec. 1 BCE
   
Epiphanius (377) 5 or 6 Jan. 2 BCE    
pseudo-Hippolytus 25 Dec. 3 BCE   25 March 32 CE (regnal year),
25 March 29 CE (consuls)
Acts of Pilate     25 March 32 CE (regnal year),
25 March 29 CE (consuls)

§2. Vagueness before 200 CE, precision afterwards

The sources closest to Jesus’ lifetime are the gospels Matthew and Luke. (Paul’s letters are earlier, but Paul isn’t helpful about dates.) When we look at them, and compare them to other 1st–2nd century sources, two things leap out:

  1. The gospels give multiple incompatible chronological markers, which disagree with each other (or at least appear to disagree) by a decade. For ancient history that isn’t actually too bad, but still, it isn’t precise. The main thing we can safely extract is that Jesus’ ministry and death were sometime during Tiberius’ principate (Lk. 3.1–3). That’s a 23 year range, 14–37 CE.
  2. The only thing Josephus, Tacitus, Justin, and Irenaeus can tell us is that Jesus died during Tiberius’ reign and Pilate’s governorship. Irenaeus also dates Jesus’ birth to 4 BCE, the year of Herod’s death. But they give no information that isn’t already in the gospels. The mention of Tiberius comes from Luke 3; Herod is the one chronological marker that appears in both gospels’ birth narratives (Mt. 2.1, Lk. 1.5).

On the differences between the two gospels’ nativity stories, I gave a reasonably detailed account here last year.

The point is that the gospels are the only primary sources for Jesus’ dates. The other 1st–2nd century sources are secondary: all their information came from the gospels.

But then, starting with Clement around 200 CE, the sources suddenly get very very specific. They date Jesus’ death to 29 CE — and usually to the exact day. In the table above there are two problems at the bottom where the sources give markers that are a few years apart, but even there, there’s enough information to see that the discrepancy comes from badly synchronised calendar-era systems, not from different information (see §7).

By comparison, our 1st and 2nd century sources are vague. Really vague.

And the teacher that we have for these things, and who was born for this, Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, which happened in Judaea in the time of the ruler Tiberius Caesar ... (Justin, First apology 13)

[Marcion said that] Jesus came from the Father, who is over the god that created the cosmos, and that he came to Judaea in the time of Pontius Pilate’s rule, who was Tiberius Caesar’s procurator ... (Irenaeus, Against heresies 1.27.2)

But if Christ only began to exist at that time when he performed his advent as a mortal, and if the father remembered to take thought for mortals only from the time of Tiberius Caesar onwards ... (Irenaeus 4.6.2)

For Christ came not just for the sake of those people who believed him in the time of Tiberius Caesar ... (Irenaeus 4.22.2)

I won’t quote Josephus and Tacitus: their references to Jesus tend to provoke shouting matches about textual corruption. Anyway, they’re vague too.

It’s pretty transparent that when Josephus, Tacitus, Justin, and Irenaeus say Jesus died during Tiberius’ reign, they say that because it’s all they knew. And in all likelihood, even that information only existed because that’s what Luke 3.1–3 says. Irenaeus is repeatedly trying to make a point about the people of Jesus’ time, but all he can say about that time is the emperor’s name. It’s clear that that’s all he had.

The exact dates in later sources must be driven by increasing Christian interest in chronography and the calendar. We start to see signs of that interest in the 150s, with the Quartodeciman controversy, when different churches disputed which date Easter ought to be observed. Clement, a few decades on, is where we start to see the fruits of that interest.

The upshot is that precise dates only emerged at the end of the 2nd century because that’s when Christian liturgical practice began to want precise dates. The exact dates in 3rd century sources were arrived at because of contemporary Christian practices.

Does that imply that those precise dates are wrong? Well ... yes, yes it does. If independent oral traditions about Jesus’ dates existed, we’d have to postulate that Justin, Irenaeus, and so on just never heard of them. For some reason. Not exactly widely disseminated oral traditions, then.

The most realistic scenario is that there was no secret knowledge. Later Christians ‘found’ the details when they needed them. The question then is: where did they ‘find’ the 29 CE date?

§3. Getting precise: the solar eclipse of 29 CE

By itself Luke 3.1–3 and 3.23 could have been enough to pin Jesus’ ministry and death to 29 CE. So why are 1st–2nd century sources so coy about giving that date? I don’t think we can be totally sure. I suspect it’s because they realised the contradictions in Matthew 2 and Luke 1, 2, and 3, and also perhaps because they were aware that the gospel of John seems to indicate a ministry lasting multiple years. The definiteness in Clement and later sources is in spite of the gospels, not because of them.

Whatever the reason, they eventually arrived at precise dates. To do that, they needed something outside the gospels. That something ended up being a solar eclipse.

They quickly realised an eclipse is actually a terrible way of dating Jesus’ death. But by the time that was decided, it seems it had already given enough of a confidence boost to start giving precise dates.

According to the synoptic gospels, there was a darkness for three hours at Jesus’ death (Mk. 15.33, Mt. 27.45, Lk. 23.44–45). From the 2nd century onwards sources start to connect this incident with eclipses in general. A specific eclipse, which took place in 29 CE, became known thanks to a report in a pagan chronographical work, the Olympiads by Phlegon of Tralles (BNJ 257 T 16a, b, c, d, e).

Here are the relevant sources. Phlegon’s work survives only in second-hand reports, as does another key source, Thallos; Julius Africanus survives in excerpts.

  • Luke (date uncertain, probably early 2nd century) 23.45 is explicit that the incident was a solar eclipse. Modern Bibles are very coy about translating this accurately: we’ll come back to that.
  • Thallos (date uncertain), BNJ 256 F 1. Julius Africanus (F93 ed. Wallraff) tells us that Thallos explained the darkness at Jesus’ death as a solar eclipse.
  • Tertullian (ca. 200), Apologetic 21, states that people who were unaware of biblical prophecies perceived the darkness as a purely astronomical event, namely an eclipse.
  • Julius Africanus (220s), Chronographies F93 ed. Wallraff. Africanus cites Thallos for the notion that the darkness was an eclipse (see above), and cites Phlegon of Tralles as having reported an eclipse during Tiberius’ reign. But Africanus firmly rejects the eclipse interpretation, pointing out that Passover takes place at full moon, while solar eclipses occur at new moon. He goes on to claim that Phlegon described the eclipse as starting at midday and lasting three hours. This is certainly contamination from the gospels: the contamination indicates that Africanus was relying on a second-hand report of Phlegon, not Phlegon himself.
  • Origen (ca. 250), Against Celsus 2.33 and 2.59. Origen cites Phlegon as reporting an eclipse during the reign of Tiberius. He, too, makes it clear that he hasn’t personally read Phlegon’s report: he isn’t sure which part of Phlegon’s work reported the event, and he calls Phlegon’s book the Chronika instead of its correct title, Olympiads.
  • Eusebius (early 300s), Armenian chronicle p. 213 ed. Karst = Jerome’s Latin p. 256 ed. Fotheringham. According to Eusebius, ‘Flego’/‘Phlegeon’ reported an eclipse at midday in the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad, that is 32/33 CE. (In Karst, the comment below the tabulation gives the date as Ol. 203,4, but the tabulation puts it in Ol. 202,4.)

(If you’re doing research on this, you’ll often see a passage in Georgios Synkellos cited: that’s the Africanus excerpt mentioned above.)

Now, Phlegon’s eclipse was a real historical eclipse, which passed over the Levant in 29 CE; and 29 CE is exactly the year that most sources give for Jesus’ death date, pinning it to the consulship of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus. So it’s extremely likely that Eusebius’ date of Ol. 202,4 (202nd Olympiad, 4th year) was already an error for Ol. 201,4, the actual year of their consulship. That error is presumably the origin of the confusion between 29 CE and 32/33 CE that we see in pseudo-Hippolytus and the Acts of Pilate (see §7).

Tertullian and Julius Africanus argued that a natural eclipse had nothing to do with Jesus’ death, and in this they were perfectly correct. We know more about the eclipse than they did, and it turns out it’s even sillier than they thought. (1) As Africanus points out, Passover takes place at full moon; a natural solar eclipse implies new moon. (2) The real eclipse took place in November; Passover is in spring. (3) The path of totality passed about 700 km north of Jerusalem. (4) Totality lasted just under 2 minutes, not 3 hours. Phlegon’s report evidently didn’t mention any of these things. In addition, the eclipse took place in the consulship that we see cited in Christian sources, the consulship of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus; but the Olympiad year runs from midsummer to midsummer, so November 29 actually fell in Ol. 202,1, not Ol. 201,4. None of the surviving writers knew Phlegon’s book firsthand, as we’ve seen. (They didn’t have direct access to consular fasti either: they invariably misspell the consuls’ names, in several different ways.)

Note. Some modern Christian apologists make out that when the gospels refer to the sun darkening at midday, they’re somehow actually talking about a lunar eclipse. That idea plays no part in ancient discussions of Jesus’ dates, so fortunately we don’t have to address it here.

Some of our earliest witnesses for the ‘eclipse’ interpretation, Tertullian and Julius Africanus, already reject it. Africanus explains exactly why it can’t have been a normal eclipse. The eclipse interpretation was in circulation before their time — not just in Thallos, but also in the gospel of Luke.

And it was now about the 6th hour, and darkness came over the whole earth until the 9th hour because of a solar eclipse ...
Luke 23.44–45 (tr. Gainsford)

The last phrase, ‘because of a solar eclipse’, is my translation of τοῦ ἡλίου ἐκλιπόντος: more literally, ‘upon the sun being eclipsed’. Modern Bible translations are very prissy about this phrase, because the translators are well aware that it can’t possibly have been a normal solar eclipse. They dodge the problem by conveniently forgetting the normal meaning of ἐκλείπω and replacing it with other, vaguer, definitions. Never mind that the meaning is absolutely standard in documentary Koine Greek. Never mind that if you’re talking about the sun and you use the verb ἐκλείπω, there’s only one meaning it’s ever going to have. (Hint: take a guess which Greek word ‘eclipse’ is derived from!) And never mind that the correct meaning is present in dictionaries of New Testament Greek, often specifically citing this verse (Souter, Abbott-Smith, Gingrich) — though some other dictionaries quietly remove the definition and pretend it never existed (Robinson, Green, Hickie, Mounce, Newman).

Ancient readers got nervous about the verse too, once they realised the problem. And like the modern translators, they solved it by quietly changing the text. The earliest copies we have, P75, the codex Sinaiticus, and a report in Origen (Against Celsus 2.33; Homilies on Luke fr. 83; all 200s–300s CE), give the ‘eclipse’ text, and that’s what’s printed in modern critical editions. But manuscripts from the 5th century onwards alter it to a vaguer phrase, ἐσκοτίσθη (δὲ) ὁ ἥλιος ‘and the sun was darkened’, following the phrasing in Mark and Matthew, and agreeing with Tertullian and Africanus that it can’t have been a natural eclipse. Many modern translations use this altered reading instead of the original.


In Part 2 we’ll look at some technical problems in interpreting what the ancient sources say, and Part 3 will go into the modern debate over how Christmas and Easter developed in early Christianity.

§1–§3. The dates | §4–§5. Calendars and prophecy | §6. Christmas and Easter | §7–§8. Sources

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