Monday, 11 October 2021

The dates of Jesus. 2. Calendars and prophecy

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

Recap. Early sources on Jesus’ dates are vague. The gospels of Matthew and Luke were their only primary sources. Around 200 CE Christians wanted more precise dates, so they needed some external point of reference. That point of reference — a solar eclipse in 29 CE — turned out to be no good, but even so, the dates quoted after 200 CE are much more precise.

This episode. I was planning to get to the dates of Christmas and Easter today, but it’s just too long. We’ve got to lay the groundwork first. Grab a cup of tea (or something stronger) and we’ll dive into the chaos of ancient calendar systems and biblical prophecy.

§4. Calendars and calendar-era systems

When ancient sources give calendar dates, it’s often a problem to understand what they intend to say. The Roman world had no universal system for saying which year an event happened. If you were in Rome itself, you might refer to the consuls for that year — but most of our sources didn’t live in Rome.

Joachim Patinir, The baptism of Christ (ca. 1515; Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum)

There were tidy calendar-era systems that simply counted from a particular event. Like the Seleucid year, counting from the reign of Seleucus I Nicator, king of Persia and Syria from 311 BCE on, which remained in use into the modern era (Samuel 1972: 246). Anatolia and Syria had various other calendar era systems too (Bickerman 1980: 62–79). But our sources don’t use these. Hebrew reckoning from the year of the Creation wasn’t used until the Mediaeval period. Counting years since Rome’s founding, ‘AUC’, is mostly just a modern fad (Bickerman 1980: 77–78).

The 354 Chronography is the only one of our sources to use ‘AUC’ (and only in some sections). Eusebius is the only one to make full use of Greek Olympiads. These are both pretty late.

Our sources rely mainly on regnal years — Ptolemaic kings, Judaean kings, Roman emperors — with occasional references to the number of years since Adam, or Abraham, or the Babylonian exile. But complexity breeds inaccuracy.

For example, some Christian calculations put the regnal year ‘Augustus 1’ in 44 BCE, counting inclusively from Julius Caesar’s death. Eusebius puts it in 43 BCE. Clement of Alexandria puts it in 30 BCE, following the fall of the Ptolemies. In real life, the emperors counted by tribunician years — and Augustus didn’t acquire permanent tribunician power until 23 BCE.

And when does the year begin? Not on the 1st of January! That would be too simple. Regnal years varied depending on where you were:

In Syria, for example, the second year of the new emperor began on the next 1 October after his accession, that is, at the next New Year of the calendar of Antioch ... In Egypt, the second regnal year began on 29 August after the accession, that is, the Alexandrian New Year ...
Bickerman 1980: 66

So the first regnal year would generally be a ‘short’ year. The tribunician year is an exception: tribunates began on 10 December, and emperors normally treated the 10 December following their accession as the start of their first tribunician year. And the Olympiad year began in midsummer.

So, for example, it seems the first two years of Tiberius’ reign would be expressed as follows. Tiberius became emperor on 14 August 14 CE.

Roman reckoning (consulship) consulship of Pompeius and Appuleius: begins 1 Jan. 14 CE consulship of Drusus and Norbanus: begins 1 Jan. 15 CE
Roman reckoning (tribunate) Tiberius 1: begins 10 Dec. 14 CE Tiberius 2: begins 10 Dec. 15 CE
Alexandrian reckoning Tiberius 1: begins 14 Aug. 14 CE Tiberius 2: begins 29 Aug. 14 CE
Syrian reckoning Tiberius 1: begins 14 Aug. 14 CE Tiberius 2: begins 1 Oct. 14 CE
Olympiads Ol. 198,3: begins June 14 CE Ol. 198,4: begins June 15 CE
Note. My thanks to Prof. Tim Parkin for pointing me towards reliable information on when regnal years began.

Note that the Alexandrian ‘Tiberius 1’ would be very anomalous, lasting just two weeks, if their practice at the time was the same as in later years. ‘Tiberius 2’ would have begun before Alexandria even found out that there was a new emperor. So there’s uncertainty over even this much.

These complexities, and the inherent complexity of regnal year systems, create errors and internal inconsistencies. Clement and Tertullian quote regnal periods that are wildly inconsistent with reality. Tertullian puts Jesus’ birth in Augustus 41, 28 years after Cleopatra’s death — but those are two different years: Augustus 41 ought to be 4 BCE, 28 years after Cleopatra’s death was 2 BCE. Pseudo-Hippolytus and the Acts of Pilate put Jesus’ death in Tiberius 18 or 19 (regnal year), and the consulship of ‘Rufus and Rubellio’ (consular year) — but Tiberius 18 and 19 were 32 and 33 CE, and the consulship of Fufius and Rubellius (their actual names) was 29 CE. (See §3 for a possible explanation of this last inconsistency.)

Our sources don’t have a single, coherent chronology to work with. They’re playing a game of telephone, and the rules change every turn.

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Franco Zeffirelli, 1977; Jesus is played by a blue-eyed Englishman, naturally)

§5. Daniel’s 70 ‘weeks’

Many Christian writers give dates for Jesus that aren’t based on historigraphical testimony — as we saw in §2, no testimony exists, except for the gospels — but on prophecy in the Hebrew Bible.

In Daniel 9.20–27 the Messiah’s coming is linked to a period of 70 ‘weeks’ (or ‘hebdomads’) of years, that is to say 490 years, starting from Cyrus’ order for the restoration of Jerusalem. That order was given in 538 BCE. Daniel divides these 70 weeks into a period of 7 weeks (9.25), 62 weeks (9.25–26), and 1 week cut in half (9.27, echoed at 12.7–12: ‘a time, two times, and half a time’, that is, 3½ days or half a week). At the end of the 62 week period the Messiah will be ‘cut off’, and enemies will destroy Jerusalem and the temple. Things will remain that way until the end of the 70 weeks. It’s all very ambiguous, but Christian writers were incorporating aspects of this into their ideas about history by the time of Revelation (11.7–11: a period of 3½ days).

Daniel’s prophecy had already become inconvenient in the first century BCE. The Messiah was supposed to be ‘cut off’ after 7 + 62 weeks, that is, 481 years; and that points to 57 BCE, about a century after Daniel was written. But 57 BCE came, and nothing much happened. Daniel was left looking a bit silly. There was pressure to fudge the details.

We can see a reflection of one case of fudging in Josephus. The Judaean king Aristoboulus I took the throne in 104 BCE, and died the following year. But Josephus states that his accession was 481 years after the end of the exile (Jewish antiquities 13.301). This must be a result of someone trying to identify Aristoboulus as the Messiah; treating his brief reign as ending after the 62 week mark (434 years reckoned from 537 BCE instead of 538), and having Daniel’s 70 weeks begin a ‘week’ early, at the start of the exile. The result would be that Aristoboulus comes at the 69 week mark (481 years).

If this sounds like breathtaking mental acrobatics, my advice is: yes it is, and it’s best not to think about it too hard. See Eshel 2005: 107 for a similar case of chronographical creativity in one of the Dead Sea scrolls.

Jesus’ death was nearly a century after Daniel’s 69 week mark, and Titus’ destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE was well over a century late. So ancient Christian chronographers had to get even more creative. Clement provides two different timelines, hedging his bets. Tertullian gives regnal years for the Achaemenid, Ptolemaic, and Roman rulers from Darius II up to Vitellius, but he gets many of them significantly wrong — 25 years off in one case (Ptolemy Euergetes II) — and he leaves things out. In particular, he deletes two significant rulers, Ptolemy VI Philometor and the Roman emperor Claudius. Even after all that, his final calculation is still off by 30 years.

Julius Africanus cuts through the red tape of regnal years and plunges straight into calculating a conversion rate between solar years and lunar months for the entire period. To make it work, he skips the bit about the Messiah being ‘cut off’ at the 62 week mark, and he assumes that intercalary periods count as bits of extra years. For some reason.

For from Nehemiah, who was sent by Artaxerxes to resettle Jerusalem in the 115th year of the Persian empire ... until this time, which was the second year of the 202nd Olympiad, the 16th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, there is a total of 475 years. This represents 490 Hebrew years, since they number their years according to the lunar month, which is commonly said to be 29½ days. For the cycle of the solar year is 365¼ days, and the twelve-month lunar cycle is 11¼ days less. For this reason, both the Greeks and the Jews insert three intercalary months every eight years. For 11¼ multiplied by 8 makes a period of three months. Therefore, 475 years come to 59 eight-year periods, remainder three; since there are three intercalary months in an octaeteris, this adds up to 15 years. Added to the 475 years, they make 70 hebdomads.
Julius Africanus, Chronographiae F93 Wallraff (tr. Wallraff)

It’s creative adjustments all the way down. Daniel’s 70 weeks were already a creative extension of Jeremiah, who prophesied 70 years for the Babylonian exile. In reality it was 48 years. (Jeremiah 25.11–12, 29.10; Daniel 9.2 cites Jeremiah explicitly.)

In Part 3 we’ll move on to 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


  1. Africanus' system of dating from the creation of the world was a very useful one (simpler than our own system) but I suppose wouldn't work now since we know the world to be much older than the thought

    1. Well, that, but there's also the fact that other chronographical systems were developed with the same idea, like the Byzantine and Hebrew ones, and they all disagreed with each other on when to put the creation!