Sunday, 7 November 2021

The dates of Jesus. 4. Sources

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

§7. Ancient sources on the dates of Jesus

I originally wanted to compile all the testimonia here, in their original languages and in translation, with commentary. But it’s far too large. I try to keep pieces on this site close to 2000 words: the full version of the compilation is currently pushing 25,000 words.

In future I’ll try to publish the full compilation as a mini-monograph. Here, I’ll give a tabulation of the sources, with links, but without my own translations; and just a few select notes below.

The death of Jesus as depicted in the Rabbula gospels, 586 CE (Florence, Bibl. Medicea Laurenziana Plut.01.56, fol. 13v)

My cut-off point is Epiphanius in the late 300s. There’s no authentic information about Jesus after 250 CE, and by that time the dates for liturgical observances of Jesus’ birth and death were close to being settled. But it would be strange to leave out the Chronography of 354, which is often cited as the earliest direct evidence of Christmas on 25 December. (Actually it’s Hippolytus, over a century earlier.) John Chrysostom needs inclusion because he shows that the Syrian church could celebrate Christmas on 25 December just as the Roman church did, and not necessarily on 6 January as attested in connection with Ephraim of Syria (T38). Epiphanius needs to be here because he’s the earliest adherent of the History of Religions Theory (see Episode 3, §6).

  Source Source date Notes
T1 Mark 14.1–2, Matthew 26.1–5, Luke 22.1–2 ca. 70–100 one Passover in Jesus’ ministry (Short Chronology) (see note below)
T2 Matthew 2.1–3, 19–22 ca. 70–90? birth just before Herod’s death (4 BCE)
T3 John 2.13, 6.4, 11.55 ca. 80–110? three Passovers in Jesus’ ministry (Long Chronology)
T4 Josephus, Jewish antiquities 17.35518.2 90s Quirinius’ census (see note below)
T5 Josephus, Jewish antiquities 18.63–64 90s testimonium flavianum; death during Tiberius’ reign (14–37 CE), Pilate’s governorship
T6 Luke 1.5, 26–31 ca. 100? conception during Herod’s reign (4 BCE or earlier)
T7 Luke 2.1–2 ca. 100? birth at time of Quirinius’ census (6 CE)
T8 Luke 3.1–3, 3.21–23 ca. 100? baptism in Tiberius 15 (29 CE) at age 30
T9 Luke 23.44–46 ca. 100? solar eclipse at death (see Episode 1, §3)
T10 Tacitus, Annals 15.44 110s death during Tiberius’ reign, Pilate’s governorship
T11 Justin Martyr, First apology 13 150s death during Tiberius’ reign, Pilate’s governorship
T12 Irenaeus, Against heresies 2.20.1, 2.22.1 mid-100s (180s) Valentinian beliefs: death at age 30; ministry lasting 12 months; numerological symbolism
T13 Irenaeus, Against heresies 1.27.2, 4.6.2, 4.22.2 180s baptism during Tiberius’ reign, Pilate’s governorship
T14 Irenaeus, Against heresies 2.22.3 180s argument for Long Chronology; Passovers in John 2.23, 5.1, 11.55 (but not 6.4!)
T15 Irenaeus, Against heresies 2.22.5–6 180s death aged 40–49
T16 Irenaeus, Against heresies 3.21.3 180s birth in Augustus 41 (4 BCE?)
T17 Irenaeus, Demonstration 74 180s–190s death during Claudius’ reign (41–54 CE)
T18 Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1.21.144–146 ca. 200 count of regnal years; various exact dates for genesis, baptism, and death; discussion of prophecies in Daniel
T19 Tertullian, Against the Jews 8 ca. 200–220 count of regnal years; Daniel’s 70 weeks; birth in Augustus 41; birth 28 years after Cleopatra’s death; death on 25 March, consulship of Gemini
T20 Tertullian, Apologetic 21.19 ca. 200–220 rejects solar eclipse at death
T21 Julius Africanus, Chronographiae T92 Wallraff 220s birth in AM 5500 = Augustus 42 = 2 BCE
T22 Julius Africanus, Chronographiae F93 Wallraff 220s rejects solar eclipse at death; parousia in AM 5531 (implying Short Chronology)
T23 Julius Africanus, Chronographiae T93c Wallraff 220s birth in AM 5500; death in AM 5531 (Africanus T93d: AM 5532)
T24 Hippolytus, paschal table 222–224 genesis on 2 April 2 BCE; death on 25 March 29 CE
T25 Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel fr. 4 1st half of 200s birth on 25 Dec., Augustus 42; death on 25 March, Tiberius 18
T26 Origen, Homilies on Luke fr. 108 Rauer ca. 240s birth in Augustus 41; baptism in Tiberius 15
T27 Origen, Against Celsus 2.33 ca. 240s death during Tiberius’ reign; solar eclipse at death
T28 De Pascha computus (pseudo-Cyprian) 18–20 243 birth on 28 March 2 BCE; death in spring 30 CE; sun symbolism; numerological symbolism
T29 Lactantius, Institutiones divinae 4.10.18 304–311 death on 23 March 29 CE (or 31 CE?)
T30 Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum 2 313–316 death on 23 March, consulship of Gemini
T31 Eusebius, Chronicle, Ol. 194,4 (Latin, Armenian) ca. 310s–330s birth in Ol. 194,4 (1 BCE/1 CE)
T32 Eusebius, Chronicle, Ol. 201,4–202,4 (Latin, Armenian) ca 310s–330s years of baptism, ministry, and death (different years in Latin and Armenian versions); solar eclipse at death
T33 Chronography of 354, Fasti consulares, 1 CE 336–354 birth on 25 Dec. 1 CE
T34 Chronography of 354, Fasti consulares, 29 CE 336–354 death in 29 CE on 14 Nisan
T35 John Chrysostom, Oration on the birthday of our saviour Jesus Christ 5 2nd half of 300s birth in December
T36 Epiphanius, Panarion, on the incarnation 1.4–2.7 377 birth in Augustus 42 = Herod 33; baptism in Herod Agrippa 18 (= 31 years after birth); death in Herod Agrippa 20
T37 Epiphanius, Panarion 51.16.1–2 377 birth on 6 Jan.; baptism on 8 Nov.
T38 Epiphanius, Panarion 51.22.3–13 377 Ephraim of Syria’s teaching; birth on 6 Jan., Augustus 42; birth in consulship of Augustus and Silvanus (2 BCE); numerological symbolism; correspondences in pagan festivals

Notes

Short and Long Chronologies

The synoptic gospels mention only one Passover in the course of Jesus’ ministry, namely the one at which he died (T1). In contrast John mentions three (T3). As a result ancient sources adopt either a Short Chronology or a Long Chronology of Jesus’ ministry. As Christian chronography developed, and as the date of Easter was scrutinised more carefully beginning with the Quartodeciman synods in the 190s, the existence of two chronologies caused confusion.

In the Short Chronology Jesus’ death takes place the same year as his baptism: that is, as per Luke 3, Tiberius 15, or the consulship of the Gemini, which was in 29 CE. In this scheme Jesus’ ministry is contained within the period of a year (T19, T22–23, T24, T34, T36). The most common date that emerged was 25 March 29 CE, which had the further benefits of (a) being the traditional day of the equinox, tying in nicely with sun symbolism associated with the Messiah (T28); (b) falling on a Friday, the day before the Sabbath, since the gospels depict Jesus dying on that day of the week.

A variant of the Short Chronology puts the death date at Passover the following year (T28). This belief was most explicitly held by the Valentinians in the 2nd century CE, who held that Jesus’ ministry lasted exactly 12 months, numerologically representing the 12 apostles (T12).

For Christians who preferred the Long Chronology, Jesus’ ministry had to last at least two years: Passover to Passover to Passover (T25, T32, T36), or even longer (Irenaeus: T14–15, T17). As a result Sunday 25 March 31 CE appears as a competing date (T25) — but for Jesus’ resurrection, not his death, since 25 March fell on a Sunday that year. But the situation was confused. Hippolytus put Jesus’ death 30 years after his genesis (T24), which ought to be 29 CE in the chronology he gives; but elsewhere he assigns it to Tiberius 18 (T25), which ought to be 3 years later. Lactantius puts Jesus’ resurrection on 25 March (T29–30), but he assigns it to the year of the consulship of the Gemini: in that year, 29 CE, 25 March fell on a Friday, not a Sunday. In these cases we must be looking at a Long Chronology contaminated with elements of the Short Chronology, or vice versa.

Irenaeus explicitly adheres to an exceptionally Long Chronology. He concocts an argument against the Valentinians to assert that Jesus’ ministry continued well into his 40s (T14–15), and consequently that he died during Claudius’ reign (T17). This argument must have been formulated before the Quartodeciman synods of the 190s, and was roundly ignored in later centuries.

Conversely Clement, a couple of decades later, spurns the Long Chronology altogether, and refuses even to acknowledge John’s three Passovers, instead claiming that Isaiah’s ‘acceptable year’ (Isaiah 61.2; also cited by the Valentinians, T12) was the duration of Jesus’ ministry.

Quirinius’ census

When Archelaus was ousted from his position as ethnarch of Judaea, Syria was extended to include Judaea, and Quirinius was appointed to assay the province’s wealth and sell off Archelaus’ estate. Both Josephus (T4) and Luke (T7) place the census immediately after Quirinius’ appointment (Luke 1.2: αὕτη ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου, ‘This was the census that took place at the very start of Quirinius’ governorship of Syria’). It would be incoherent to imagine Quirinius assaying Archelaus’ property while Archelaus was still in power, so Luke’s phrasing corroborates Josephus’ report that the census was immediately after Archelaus’ departure: that is, in 6 CE.

Luke’s portrayal of the census draws on two precedents:

  • A Hebrew model: the first census of the Israelites depicted in Numbers 1.1–4. This model provides the motif of counting people according to their ancestral house, and motivates Joseph's temporary move to Bethlehem.
  • A Roman model: Augustus’ censuses of Roman citizens in 28 BCE, 8 BCE, and 14 CE, reported in Res gestae 8. These provide the motif of counting ‘the entire world’, even though virtually no residents of the Roman empire outside Italy were Roman citizens.

Quirinius’ census was not just an assay of property, as Josephus states, but also a head-count of people as in Luke. This is shown by the funerary inscription of Q. Aemilius Secundus, who conducted a census of Apamea at Quirinius’ order (Corpus inscriptionum latinarum iii 6687). However, Luke is badly mistaken in omitting the reign of Archelaus, in imagining that a census of Roman citizens might have included Judaeans, and in imagining that such a census might have followed a model set by the Hebrew Bible.

Hippolytus

Hippolytus needs special comment because (a) his paschal table is unintelligible without explanation, and (b) the reference in his Commentary on Daniel (T25) has at times been thought a mediaeval interpolation. First, the paschal table, here in translation:

In year 1 of emperor (Severus) Alexander’s reign [222 CE], the 14th day of the paschal moon took place on Saturday 13 April, after an intercalary month (embolismos). In future years it will take place as laid out in the table. In past years it took place as shown. The (lenten) fast must be broken when Sunday falls.
em. 13 April Sat. Fri.
Esdras acc. to Daniel; in the desert
Thu. Wed. Tue. Mon. Sun.
  2 Apr. Wed.
genesis of Christ
Tue. Mon. Sun. Sat. Fri. Thu.
B 21, 22 Mar. Sun.
Hezekiah
Sat. Fri.
Joshua
Thu. Wed. Tue. Mon.
em. 9 Apr. Sat.
Josiah
Fri. Thu. Wed. Tue. Mon. Sun.
  29 Mar. Wed. Tue. Mon. Sun. Sat. Fri. Thu.
  18 Mar. Sun. Sat.
Hezekiah acc. to Daniel; Josiah
Fri. Thu. Wed. Tue. Mon.
B
em.
13 Apr. Sat. Fri. Thu. Wed.
Joshua acc. to Daniel
Tue. Mon. Sun.
  25 Mar. Wed. Tue. Mon. Sun. Sat. Fri. Thu.
em. 13 Apr. Tue. Mon. Sun. Sat. Fri. Thu. Wed.
  2 Apr. Sat. Fri. Thu. Wed. Tue. Mon. Sun.
exodus
B 21, 22 Mar. Wed. Tue. Mon. Sun. Sat. Fri. Thu.
em. 9 Apr. Tue. Mon. Sun. Sat. Fri. Thu. Wed.
in the desert
  29 Mar. Sat. Fri. Thu. Wed. Tue. Mon. Sun.
  18 Mar. Wed. Tue. Mon. Sun. Sat. Fri. Thu.
Esdras
B
em.
5 Apr. Tue.
exodus acc. to Daniel
Mon. Sun. Sat. Fri. Thu. Wed.
  25 Mar. Sat. Fri.
suffering of Christ
Thu. Wed. Tue. Mon. Sun.

This computus is inscribed on the side of a statue of Hippolytus seated in a chair. It is generally agreed to be based on one of his lost works (the back of the statue gives a list of his writings).

Column 1 indicates leap years in the Julian calendar (‘B’ in my translation), and years where the lunar year, of 12 29½-day months, requires an intercalary lunar month to compensate for the shortfall of 11¼ days each solar year (‘em.’ in my translation). Note that these figures are based on ancient reckoning and are not nearly accurate enough for the purpose of this table. Column 2 purports to give the Julian date of the equinoctial full moon in a 16-year cycle. I say ‘purports’, because moon phases do not in reality follow a 16-year cycle. Columns 3 to 9 indicate the weekday for the date in column 2, in seven cycles of 16 years. Weekday matters for liturgical purposes because the Roman church celebrated Easter on the following Sunday, as the inscription’s header indicates. Hippolytus’ full moon dates are not accurate, but his weekdays are.

222 CE corresponds to the first row, third column. Each year you move down one row, and after 16 years you move to the top of the next column. The end of the 7th column corresponds to the 112th year (= 333 CE), and you return to the beginning of the table.

Hippolytus retrojects his 112-year cycle with earlier iterations running 110 CE to 221 CE, 3 BCE to 109 CE, and so on. The table attaches specific biblical events to equinoctial full moons in earlier iterations. The relevant ones for our purposes are the ones relating to Jesus in the iteration running 3 BCE to 109 CE: ‘genesis of Christ’ on Wednesday 2 April in the second year of the cycle, that is, 2 BCE; and ‘suffering of Christ’ on Friday 25 March in the 32nd year of the cycle, that is, 29 CE.

The other events marked in the table refer to Passovers described in the Hebrew Bible, in Exodus 12, Numbers 9, Joshua 5, and 2 Chronicles 30 and 35; and in the Septuagint in 1 Esdras 1.

The table was compiled between 222 and 224 CE. The 222 CE cut-off is given by the table header, which refers to the start of Severus Alexander’s reign; the 224 CE cut-off is given by the fact that Hippolytus’ full moon dates are only accurate for the years 216 to 224 CE. (For accurate full moon dates see Espenak 2014.)

Next, the Commentary on Daniel fragment. Kellner (1901: 94–95) argued that this must be an interpolation dating to the 9th–10th centuries, on the grounds that (a) the regnal year and consular year quoted in T25 disagree with the year implied by T24; (b) T25 cites multiple era systems and regnal year systems, and this is characteristic of 9th–10th century computistic research, and not possible in a 3rd century writer. Roll agrees, but without close inspection of the evidence (1995: 79-81).

On the second point, Kellner is simply wrong: ancient figures like Julius Africanus and Eusebius clearly illustrate the careful (and erroneous) work done in antiquity on synchronising era and regnal year systems. On the first point, Kellner’s point is undercut by the confusion caused by variation between the Short and Long Chronologies. I mentioned above that Lactantius’ dates for Jesus’ death and resurrection display the same confusion of years; and the dates in T25 reappear in almost identical form in the 5th century Acts of Pilate (prologue), and that means that the error is an ancient one.

In the past I have followed Roll in rejecting T25 as a mediaeval interpolation. But after closer inspection of the evidence I am now persuaded that there is no good reason to see anything spurious about the fragment.

Other topics

Ideally I would like to add notes on the numerological symbolism adopted by the Valentinians, the De Pascha computus, and Ephraim of Syria (T12, T28, T38); Irenaeus’ ultra-Long Chronology; the relationship between the Armenian celebration of Jesus’ birth on 6 January, and the 25 December date used by everyone else; and on the counts of regnal years in Clement and Tertullian (T18, T19), and how they differ from reality. Even without these notes, this episode is running to 3000 words. Just addressing Tertullian’s regnal year count would require a lengthy discussion of textual corruptions.

I hope to publish this material in a more formal venue, so in the meantime I shall just have to say that these themes are important; they need to be dealt with as part of the history of early Christianity; and, in case it needs saying explicitly, they tell us nothing whatsoever about the historical Jesus.

I’ll settle for the main narrative I’ve put forward here. The gospels are the only primary sources that anyone ever used for Jesus’ dates; 1st–2nd century witnesses gave only vague and symbolic dates, until liturgical practices demanded more specific dates because of the Quartodeciman synods of the 190s; the solar eclipse of 29 CE was, for a while, an important tool for pinning down more precise dates; and most of the dating discrepancies that we see from Hippolytus onwards can be explained in terms of numerological symbolism, liturgical practices, and conflation of the Short and Long Chronologies.

§8. References

  • Bickerman, E. J. 1980. Chronology of the ancient world, 2nd edition (1st edition 1968). Ithaca (NY).
  • Eshel, H. 2005. ‘4Q390, the 490-year prophecy, and the calendrical history.’ In: Boccaccini, G. (ed.) Enoch and Qumran origins. Grand Rapids (MI). 102–110.
  • Espenak, F. 2014. ‘Six millennium catalog of phases of the moon. Moon phases from –1999 to +4000 (2000 BCE to 4000 CE).’ Astropixels.com. (Retrieved Oct. 2021)
  • Förster, H. 2007. Die Anfänge von Weihnachten und Epiphanias. Eine Anfrage an die Entstehungshypothesen. Tübingen.
  • Hijmans, S. E. 2009. Sol. The sun in the art and religions of Rome. Diss. Groningen. [ResearchGate link | Rijksuniversiteit Groningen link]
  • Kellner, K. A. H. 1901. Heortologie, oder das Kirchenjahr und die Heiligenfeste in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung. Freiburg. [Internet Archive link]
  • Mosshammer, A. A. 2008. The Easter computus and the origins of the Christian era. Oxford.
  • Nothaft, C. P. E. 2011. Dating the Passion. The life of Jesus and the emergence of scientific chronography (200–1600). Leiden.
  • —— 2012. ‘The origins of the Christmas date: some recent trends in historical research.’ Church History 81: 903–911. [DOI link]
  • —— 2013. ‘Early Christian chronology and the origins of the Christmas date. In defense of the “calculation theory”.’ Questions Liturgiques 94: 247–265. [DOI link]
  • Olson, K. A. 1999. ‘Eusebius and the testimonium Flavianum.’ Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61: 305–322. [JSTOR link]
  • Roll, S. K. 1995. Towards the origins of Christmas. Kampen.
  • —— 2000. ‘The origins of Christmas: the state of the question.’ In: Johnson, M. E. (ed.) Between memory and hope. Readings on the liturgical year. Collegeville (MN). 273–290.
  • Samuel, A. E. 1972. Greek and Roman chronology. Munich.
  • Schmidt, T. C. 2015. ‘Calculating December 25 as the birth of Jesus in Hippolytus’ Canon and Chronicon.’ Vigiliae Christianae 69: 542–563. [JSTOR link]
  • Talley, T. J. 1991. The origins of the liturgical year, 2nd edition (1st edition 1986). Collegeville (MN).
  • Wallraff, M. 2007. Iulius Africanus. Chronographiae. The extant fragments. Berlin.
§1–§3. The dates | §4–§5. Calendars and prophecy | §6. Christmas and Easter | §7–§8. Sources

3 comments:

  1. I looked up the passage you cite from Epiphanios of Salamis's Pinarion 51.22.3–13 and I have a question. As best as I can translate from the text you've linked here, he says:

    "And the Hellenes celebrate this day, and I mean the idolators, on the eighth before the Kalends of January [i.e., 25th December], which is called by the Romans 'Saturnalia,' by the Egyptians 'Kronia,' and by the Alexandrians 'Kikellia.'"

    If I understand correctly, though, your main argument against the view that the date of Christmas has anything to do with Saturnalia is that Saturnalia was never celebrated on 25th December. You write in your post from 2015, "Christmas and its supposed pagan links":

    "There's no link to Christmas. The date? No: they're not on the same date. (Hey, what's eight days between friends? Well, it's the difference between corroboration and no corroboration.) The fact that Saturnalia might have had some chance to have an influence on Christmas isn't evidence that it did."

    But it sure sounds to me like Epiphanios is saying in the passage you have referenced that Saturnalia was celebrated on 25th December. What do you make of this? Is Epiphanios simply wrong (perhaps conflating Christians who celebrated Christmas on 25th December with pagans who celebrated Saturnalia) or was Saturnalia actually celebrated on 25th December by the time Epiphanios was writing in the late fourth century CE (perhaps as a result of Christian influence)?

    Either way, it's clear that Christians had already been saying that Jesus was born on 25th December for well over a century by the time Epiphanios was writing and I don't think that Epiphanios proves that Christians "stole" the date from Saturnalia, but I am curious to know what you think of his statements.

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    Replies
    1. (Do please bear in mind that when I wrote that older piece there was a lot of information I didn't know! I don't think I knew the Epiphanius passage at that time.)

      Yes, the HRT advocates - the scholarly version of 'Christmas is pagan lolol' advocates - make a big thing of that Epiphanius passage. Kikellia features especially prominently in Merkelbach's treatment.

      My take is that Epiphanius is being approximate. With Saturnalia, we don't have anything else to suggest it encroaching on the solstice, and even the HRT advocates haven't argued that as far as I know (the scholarly ones, at least). For Kronia and Kikellia, our early Egyptian sources on Jesus' dates (Clement and Origen) show no sign of considering any links to Egyptian festivals.

      The context in T37 shows that Epiphanius is working hard at concocting a timeline, and he's not above inventing an exact chronology of what happened which day between Jesus' baptism and the wedding at Cana to get his timeline to work out. In light of that I wouldn't hesitate to see him being approximate with dates in service of a predetermined argument.

      I'd extend a similar lack of trust to his reports of the Egyptian Kronia (we don't have any other evidence for the date, unfortunately; a Kronia festival at Euergetis is attested in p. Oxy. 1025, the Attic Kronia was near midsummer) and we do have reason to see Kikellia being at a similar time of year (its only other appearance is in the 238 BCE Canopus decree, which puts it in Choiak) but not of an exact date.

      So basically, Epiphanius' info isn't totally divorced from reality, but he's making the same move that a lot of modern HRT fans do: 'similar time of year as this other festival' therefore 'must be based on this other festival'.

      (Also, you know this, but best to mention out loud that Epiphanius' position is that the pagans based their festivals on Christmas, rather than the other way round.)

      I'm much more interested in his reference to Ephraim putting Christmas on 6 January. That ties in beautifully with the Armenian date for Christmas, yet we have another Syrian writer, John Chrysostom, putting Christmas in December. I wonder if there's more to be found out about that story.

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    2. Oh, also, did you notice he misquotes Luke 3.23 to serve his new timeline? The text runs

      ἦν Ἰησοῦς ἀρχόμενος ὡσεὶ ἐτῶν τριάκοντα ὢν

      and Epiphanius makes it

      ἦν Ἰησοῦς ἀρχόμενος εἶναι ὡς ἐτῶν τριάκοντα

      with ὢν treated as the start of another phrase: so 'Jesus was beginning to be about 30 years old', in order to obtain an age under 30!

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