How long was Jesus’s earthly ministry?

In addition to determining the date of Jesus's birth, there are two other questions concerning the chronology of the life of Jesus that may be worth asking. First, when did He begin His ministry, and, second, when did He die on the cross? Let's begin with the first of these two questions.

When did Jesus begin His ministry?

Luke tells us that Jesus was about 30 years old when He began His ministry (Lk. 3:23). However, he does only say "about"; he doesn't really know – He could have been anything between 25 and 35! Can we do better than this? Yes, we can.

Lk. 3:1-2 tells us that John the Baptist started preaching in the 15th year of the Emperor Tiberius's reign. Now, Tiberius became emperor in AD 14, so John's ministry began in AD 29. Some time later, John baptised Jesus and Jesus began His ministry (Lk. 3:21-23), so this is likely to have been in AD 29 or 30. (Incidentally, it is this fact, combined with Luke's guessed age for Jesus, that puts His birth wrongly in 1 BC or AD 1, as determined by Dionysius Exiguus, and thus gives us our modern calendar).

John mentions three Passover festivals during the ministry of Jesus (Jn. 2:13, 6:4 and 11:55) – and possibly a fourth (Jn. 5:1). Note that these cannot be the same festival, because other festivals occur in between (Jn. 5:1, 7:2, 10:22). Thus, we can assume that Jesus's ministry lasted for at least three years, and that He was put to death in AD 32 or 33 (or later).

In addition, Jn. 2:20 tells us that, at the start of Jesus's earthly ministry, the temple in Jerusalem “has taken 46 years to build”. By this, we can assume that the building began between 46 and 47 years previously (in the same way that a person described as “46 years old” is actually between 46 and 47 years of age). Now it is known that Herod first had the idea of rebuilding the temple in the 18th year of his reign, since Josephus (in his Antiquities of the Jews) tells us:

“And now Herod, in the eighteenth year of his reign, and after the acts already mentioned, undertook a very great work, that is, to build of himself the temple of God.” (Antiquities XV 11:1)

If the first year of Herod’s reign was 37 BC, then the 18th year of his reign was 37-(18-1) = 20 BC. However, note that “undertook” does not exactly mean “began” but only an intention to begin. Josephus also reports that Herod had to persuade the Jews of his good intentions, as he:

“...told them he would not pull down their temple till all things were made ready for building it up entirely again.” (Antiquities XV 11:2)

There is no telling how long it took to persuade them, or how long it took until “all things were made ready”. Then, in addition to the demolition of the old temple, the site would have to be surveyed and new foundations laid. This all suggests that the actual building work didn’t begin immediately, and we can assume that work did not really begin on the temple until 19 or even 18 BC.

Using the “46 years” reference from Jn. 2:20 (and remembering that this would mean that the building work had begun any time between 46 and 47 years previously), this would give the earliest possible date for the start of Jesus’s ministry at 46-19+1 = AD 28, and the latest possible date at 47-18+1 = AD 30 (the addition of the 1 in each case to cater for the fact that there was no Year Zero). If we assume AD 29, and that Jesus was actually born in 6 BC, then He would have been around 29+6-1 = 34 years old at this time (remembering again that there was no Year Zero).

Tabernacles again

When Jesus returned from the 40 days in the wilderness, the correspondence between this and the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness would have been obvious to any Jew. The Feast of Tabernacles actually commemorates the 40-year journey of the Israelites in the wilderness (where the Tabernacle was first set up), so it is extremely likely that Jesus would have chosen to return at this festival (Tishri 15). If this was in the year AD 29, we can date this to 9th October (Gregorian) of that year.

Daniel's and Elijah's prophecies

As if to confirm all this, Daniel chapters 9 and 12 lay down a time-line regarding the coming of Jesus and the length of His earthly ministry.

Daniel Chapter 9

In Daniel 9:24-27, there is a prophecy regarding the coming of Jesus. To understand the prophecy and the time measure indicated by “70 weeks” (v. 24), we have to understand the Jewish concept of a “week”. The Hebrew word for “week” is “shabua” and literally means “seven”. It can thus refer to any period of seven; the Jews were familiar with a “seven” of both days and years. In Hebrew, the idea of 70 weeks is "70 sevens (of years)".

The prophecy is given in three specific parts concerning the Messiah.

  1. The first part (Dan. 9:25) states that at the end of 69 weeks, the Messiah will come to Jerusalem. The starting point of the 69 weeks is the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem (Neh. 2:5-6). This decree was given in 444 BC by Artaxerxes I. This is based on the following:
    The 7 and 62 weeks are to be understood as a total of 69 seven-year periods:

    (a) 7 weeks = 7 × 7 = 49 “prophetic years” of 360 days (= 49 × 360/365.2425 = 48 solar years) during which there would be further prophecy (i.e. up to the end of Malachi), and during which Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Ezra 7:7 tells us that Ezra returned to Jerusalem in the 7th year of King Artaxerxes to begin the rebuilding of the temple. Most scholars assume that this is Artaxerxes I Longimanus (465-424 BC), so the 7th year of his reign would be 457-458 BC. However, this is not 48 years after the decree to Nehemiah in 444 BC, and a close reading of the book of Ezra shows that it cannot be Artaxerxes I who is referred to in this verse.

    Ezra 4:3 refers to King Cyrus, Ezra 4:6 refers to King Xerxes (Ahasuerus in Hebrew), Ezra 4:7 refers to King Artaxerxes, and Ezra 4:24 refers to King Darius, who is then continuously referred to throughout chapters 5 and 6. Finally, another King Artaxerxes is mentioned in Ezra chapter 7. Now, the Medo-Persian Empire had two kings called Xerxes, five called Artaxerxes and three called Darius:

    Rulers of the Medo-Persian Empire

    Dates

    Ruler

    550-530 BC

    Cyrus II the Great (with Darius as regent in Babylon from 539-522 BC)

    530-522 BC

    Cambyses II

    522 BC

    Artaxerxes Smerdis (Bardiya)

    522-486 BC

    Darius I the Great (Hystaspes)

    486-465 BC

    Xerxes I

    465-424 BC

    Artaxerxes I Longimanus

    424 BC

    Xerxes II

    424-423 BC

    Sogdianus

    423-405 BC

    Darius II Nothus

    404-359 BC

    Artaxerxes II Mnemon

    358-338 BC

    Artaxerxes III Ochus

    338-336 BC

    Artaxerxes IV Arses

    336-330 BC

    Darius III Codomannus

    However, if the book of Ezra is referring to the kings in chronological order (as one would expect), then the only way to make sense of the kings mentioned in chapters 4-7 is if Ezra 4:3 refers to Cyrus II, Ezra 4:6 refers to Xerxes I, Ezra 4:7 refers to Artaxerxes I, Ezra 4:24 refers to Darius II and Ezra 7:7 refers to Artaxerxes II or III (Artaxerxes IV must be ruled out because he only reigned for two years).

    If Artaxerxes II Mnemon (404-359 BC) is the ruler referred to Ezra 7:7, then Ezra’s mission to rebuild the temple must be dated to the seventh year of his reign (i.e. 396 BC, which would have been exactly 48 years after the decree of 444 BC).

    (b) 62 weeks = 62 × 7 = 434 “prophetic years” (= 434 × 360/365.2425 = 428 solar years) after the rebuilding of Jerusalem, when there would be no more prophecy (the inter-testamental period). The “62 weeks” covers the period from Ezra's rebuilding of the temple until the day when Christ entered Jerusalem and the temple (Mt.21:10-12).

  2. The second part (Dan. 9:26) states that, after the Messiah comes, He will be “cut off” (an idiom for His death). Then the prince to come will destroy Jerusalem and the temple.

    If Daniel is correct, the time from the edict to restore and rebuild Jerusalem (Nisan 1, 444 BC) to the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem is 483 years (69 × 7), each year equalling the Jewish prophetic year of 360 days.

    The terminal event of the 69 “weeks" is the presentation of Christ Himself to Israel as the Messiah, as predicted in Zech. 9:9. Let's calculate the date of this event:

    Multiplying the 483 prophetic years by 360 days for each year gives a total of 173,880 days. Dividing this by 365.2425 (the number of days in a Gregorian year), gives 476 solar years. Adding 476 years on to 444 BC, one comes to AD 33. This is the year of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, which we celebrate on Palm Sunday.

  3. All of the above, according to Daniel 9:24-26, takes place after the 69 weeks of years. But Dan. 9:24 mentions 70 weeks (7+62+1), not just 69. The final “week”, described in Dan. 9:27, seems to refer to Holy Week.

    After the termination of the 69 weeks, two events are prophesied in Dan. 9:26: the “cutting off” (death) of the Messiah in AD 33, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the (Roman) prince (Titus) in AD 70.

    The “cutting off” is expanded upon in Dan. 9:27. The verse begins by alluding to the “new covenant” that Christ would instate during this 70th week (Holy Week), on Maundy Thursday (Lk. 22:20), and goes on to explain that, “in the middle of the week” (i.e. some time between Palm Sunday and the following Sunday), Christ would “bring an end to sacrifice and offering”, by making the final sacrifice for us all – this of course happened with the crucifixion on Good Friday. At the Temple, He set up an “abomination” (the tearing of the veil, Mt. 27:51, Mk. 15:38, Lk. 23:45). Because of Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice, the Temple was no longer needed, and that eventually resulted in its “desolation” (destruction) in AD 70.

So we see that Daniel Chapter 9 appears to prophesy that the year in which Jesus would be put to death on the cross would be AD 33.

Daniel Chapter 12

The second prophecy is in Dan. 12:5-12, and it concerns the actual length of Jesus’s earthly ministry. It begins (v.5) with a vision of two witnesses (cf. Rev. 11:3-4, Zech. 4:11-14) standing on either side of the River Jordan. Perhaps they are Moses and Elijah, or perhaps they are symbols of the Old and New Covenants. If the witnesses are Moses and Elijah, then this vision is a foretaste of the Transfiguration (Mt. 17:1-3, Mk. 9:2-4). John the Baptist is also identified with Elijah (Mt. 11:12-14), so it is appropriate that, in this vision, he is standing on the edge of the river where he did his baptising, but Jesus was above John (v. 7) – in more senses than one (see Mk. 1:7)!

v.6 points out that Jesus (who first appears in ch. 10 v. 5-6; cf. Rev. 1:14-15) was clothed in linen, which is a symbol of his purity. Jesus is asked how long it will take Him to fulfil His mission [Remember that Daniel had earlier (9:25) prophesised the appearance of the Messiah in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. So, the question is really “How long will it be from the beginning of your ministry until your appearance as the Messiah on Palm Sunday?”].

In v.7, Jesus swears in His Father’s name that His ministry will last “a time” (one year), “times” (two years) and “half a time” (half a year) – a total of 3½ years – and that, after this time, the power of God's people (the Jews) will be completely shattered and that the power will be passed on to others (i.e. gentile Christians). If Jesus died on April 1st, AD 33, then His earthly ministry must have begun 3½ years previously in the late September or early October in the year AD 29 – once again at the Feast of Tabernacles! (are you beginning to see a theme here?)

In v.10, Jesus says that many will be made pure (1 Jn. 3:3) and white (Rev. 19:8,14), but the wicked will not understand (see, e.g., Mt. 13:13).

v.11 shows that, from the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus would declare the forgiveness of sins (Mk. 2:5), so that there would no longer be any need for people to make daily sacrifices in order to receive forgiveness. At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus would go into the wilderness (Mk. 1:12), a desolate place where He had hoped to commune with His Father, but Satan turned His “quiet time” into an abomination (Mk. 1:13) as he tempted Him for 40 days.

Jesus then tells Daniel that the length of time from the “abomination of desolation” (i.e. His temptation in the wilderness) to His appearance as Messiah (i.e. Palm Sunday) would be 1290 days – which is a repetition of the 3½ years mentioned in v.7 in a different way [in any period of 3½ years within the Hebrew calendar, one of those years is likely to have an extra “leap-month”, so 3½ years would contain 43 months (1290 days) instead of 42 months (1260 days)].

v.12 refers to another period of time – 1335 days. What does this refer to? Remember that earlier (9:27), Daniel had prophesied that the Messiah would make the final sacrifice in the middle of the week after His appearance, and indeed Jesus was crucified five days after Palm Sunday. After His resurrection, Jesus then appeared to His disciples for a further 40 days (Acts 1:3), i.e. until Thursday May 12th. Thus, in addition to the 1290 days mentioned in Dan. 12:11, Jesus continued to minister to His followers for an additional 45 days after Palm Sunday – making the total length of time from His return from the wilderness until His return to Heaven 1335 days. [Equivalently, if you add the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after the Holy Spirit descended on Him at His baptism (Mt. 3:16, Mk. 1:10, Lk. 3:22) to the 3½ years (1290 days) of Jesus's ministry up until Palm Sunday and then the additional 5 days until His crucifixion (when He "gave up His Spirit", Mt. 27:50, Mk. 15:37, Lk. 23:46), you also get 1335 days, corresponding to the time that the Holy Spirit was with Christ.]

Elijah and the drought

When Jesus returns from the 40 days in the wilderness, almost the first thing He does is to go to the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk. 4:16) and announce His ministry. He begins by quoting Isaiah 61:1-2) to explain what His ministry is all about (Lk. 4:18-19). He then makes a statement about who He is – He is the fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy (Lk. 4:21) and He is Himself a prophet who will be rejected by His own people (Lk. 4:24). To illustrate His point, He uses the stories of Elijah and Elisha (Lk. 4:25-27), both of whom could only work miracles with gentiles. Jesus is saying, in effect, that He has come for the gentiles - no wonder this makes the Jews in the synagogue angry (Lk. 4:28)!

However, in the middle of all this, Jesus takes an apparently irrelevant diversion - to tell us how long the land was without rain in Elijah's time (Lk. 4:25). He is referring to the story that begins in 1 Kings 8:35-36 and which continues in chapters 17 and 18. What has that got to do with anything?

In fact, Jesus specifies an exact period of “three years and six months”, whereas the original story (1 Ki. 18:1) only says that “the word of the Lord came to Elijah in the third year”, so He is going beyond what the actual Old Testament text says, almost as if He is drawing on some divine knowledge about what really happened! Jesus is obviously making an important point here - just as He has illustrated what His ministry is going to involve, by quoting Isaiah, and who He has come to minister to, by referring to the experiences of Elijah and Elisha, so He is illustrating how long His ministry will last by this reference.

He first says (Lk. 4:25) "Heaven was shut up three years and six months." Here, he is saying, “I am no longer in my heavenly home - for the next 3½ years I am going to set up my tent and make my dwelling place among you here on Earth” (cf. Jn. 1:14).

Jesus continues, “and there was a great famine throughout the land.” Here, in effect, He is saying, “I have come to you because of your great spiritual hunger, but you will starve spiritually for the next 3½ years if you do not receive me as the “Bread of Heaven” (cf. Jn. 6:33). Even though He is the “Living Water" (Jn. 4:10) from Heaven which the people of Israel need, they will reject Him for the next 3½ years. Only when He had completed His work on Earth and ascended into Heaven would “Elijah's rain” finally come, and Jesus would at last be able to truly quench the world's spiritual thirst.

Of course, all of this gets lost on the Jews in the synagogue, who are too incensed by Jesus's inference that God is more interested in the gentiles than He is in them (Jesus is, of course, not saying this – He is simply saying that the Jews will reject Him) – but nevertheless, the message is there: Jesus already knows that His ministry will last for 3½ years!

Jesus's prophecy for Herod

In Lk. 13.32-33, Jesus says to a group of Pharisees:

“Go, tell that fox [Herod Antipas], ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.’ Nevertheless, I must journey today, tomorrow and the day following.”

This is a double prophecy! You will have spotted the referencence to Jesus being raised “on the third day”, of course. However, His resurrection was still way in the future at this point in the gospel! It certainly wasn't a mere three days away when He said these words. So what could He have meant? Jesus's referral to the “three days” of “today”, “tomorrow” and “the day following” can only refer to the three years of His “journey” – His ministry of healing and casting out demons! How can He say “day” when He means “year”? Simple. Jesus is prophesying using the ancient “day/year principle” that was set out in Num.14:34 and reconfirmed in Ezek. 4:6 – and again He knows that the Pharisees (v.31) won’t understand the prophecy, so it won't give them any ideas about when they can start plotting His “downfall”!

In plain English, Jesus is saying:

“I will cast out demons and heal people this year and next year, and then the third year my job will be finished. Nevertheless, I must journey onwards this year, next year and the following year.”

Jesus is giving us yet another big hint of His 3½-year ministry here!

Next page: Can we determine when Jesus died? >>

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