Can we determine when Jesus died?

We have already determined that Jesus's earthly ministry lasted 3½ years and that He would have been around 34 years old at the start of His ministry. If Jesus was actually born in 6 BC, this would put the start of His ministry somewhere between late AD 28 and late AD 29. This means that He must have been put to death 3½ years later in AD 32 or AD 33.

We have also seen 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. Can we confirm this? Yes we can – and we can even narrow it down to the exact day!

If Jesus actually started His ministry at the Feast of Tabernacles (Tishri 15) in AD 29, as was suggested earlier, and His ministry lasted for exactly 3½ years (in terms of the Hebrew calendar), then He must have been crucified at the Feast of Passover in AD 33 (since Passover occurs exactly six months after the Feast of Tabernacles).

Jn. 19:42 states that Jesus was buried on the eve of the Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew), i.e. on a Friday, which was also the eve of Passover (Jn. 19:31, cf. Lev. 23:5), i.e. Nisan 14. Let's look at a table of Passover dates for years near to those in which we are interested:—

Hebrew Year (AM)

Christian Year (AD)

(Gregorian) Date of Nisan 14

Day of Week

Jesus's Age

3789

29

Apr. 14

Saturday

33½

3790

30

Apr. 3

Wednesday

34½

3791

31

Mar. 24

Monday

35½

3792

32

Apr. 12

Monday

36½

3793

33

Apr. 1

Friday

37½

3794

34

Mar. 20

Monday

38½

3795

35

Apr. 9

Monday

39½

3796

36

Mar. 28

Friday

40½

3797

37

Mar. 18

Wednesday

41½

As we can see, the only years that have Nisan 14 on a Friday are AD 33 and AD 36. The AD 36 date would put Jesus in His forties, making Luke’s estimate of Jesus being “about 30” when He began His ministry (Lk. 3:23) way out! This means that Jesus must have died at 3 p.m. (Lk. 23:44-46) on Friday April 1st, AD 33 (according to the Gregorian calendar) or April 3rd (according to the Julian calendar), aged 37 years, 6 months and 7 days (assuming He was born on September 25th, 6 BC). If Jesus died at the age of 37½, then His lifetime was cut in half, since Ps. 90:10 says, “The days of our lives are 70 years; and if by reason of strength they are 80 years” (and therefore they are 75 years on average, half of which is 37½). The fact that Jesus was crucified aged 37 may be prophetically significant!

Astronomical evidence

The first day of a Jewish month is based on seeing the New Moon. Thus, Passover (Nissan 15) always occurs at the Full Moon. In Acts 2:20, Peter (quoting Joel 2:31) reports that the Moon would be turned to blood and the Sun would be turned to darkness “before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord”. In verse 22, he says that Jesus performed miracles “as you yourselves also know” (literal translation). If this was something that they also knew, what was the other thing that he was referring to that they knew? It could only be that his listeners knew that the Moon had already been turned to blood and the Sun had already turned to darkness! When had this happened? We know that the Sun had turned dark at the time of the crucifixion, from Mt. 27:45, Mk. 15:33 and Lk. 23:44, but what about the Moon turning to blood? Interestingly, such an observation appears in the so-called “Report of Pilate” which was written by Pilate to the Emperor Tiberius. Lunar eclipses were frequently described in exactly this way by contemporary historians, and they always occur at the time of the Full Moon, which is also when Passover occurs. So if this is taken as a lunar eclipse, then the crucifixion can be dated exactly. Astronomical calculations show that there was only one lunar eclipse visible from Jerusalem at the time of Passover in the period AD 26-36 (the period when Pilate was in power). It was a 60% eclipse which occurred on Friday April 1st (Gregorian) or Friday April 3rd (Julian) in the year AD 33, the exact date that we calculated for Jesus’s crucifixion above!

Astronomers tell us that the Moon would have risen above the horizon already in the midst of its eclipse, and it would have progressively “turned to blood” as the eclipse continued. (By the way, the reason the Moon appears red when it is in eclipse is because the Sun’s rays get refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere, and the reddish wavelengths get through our atmosphere better – this is the same reason that sunsets always appear red).

So what about the Sun turning dark? Mt. 27:45, Mk. 15:33 and Lk. 23:44 all report that darkness came over the whole land during Christ’s crucifixion. Note that this could not have been an eclipse of the Sun because:

(a) total solar eclipses never last longer than about seven minutes;
(b) partial solar eclipses last much longer, but they don’t cause any darkness over the land;
(c) solar eclipses always occur at the time of the New Moon, not the Full Moon, which is when Passover occurs.

Meanwhile, Mt. 27:50-54 tells of an earthquake that happened at the very same time, the aftershocks of which were still occurring two days later (Mt. 28:1-2). Earthquakes happening at exactly the same time as long periods of unexpected darkness must be very rare events indeed. Surely there must be ancient non-Biblical sources that would confirm this event? Indeed there are.

Historical evidence

Phlegon of Tralles (or Phlegon Trallianus) was a Greek who wrote his histories during the reign of Hadrian (AD 117-138). Phlegon's 16-volume “Olympiades” are largely lost to history, but one fragment, concerning a darkening of the Sun, is unusually well-attested. Seven ancient historians directly quote it. One of them, Jerome’s (c. AD 380) Latin translation of Eusebius of Caesarea’s “Chronicon” or “Chronicle” (written c. AD 326) tells us that Phlegon wrote the following in the 13th volume of the “Olympiades”:

Quarto autem anno CCII olympiadis magna et excellens inter omnes quae ante eam acciderant defectio solis facta; dies hora sexta ita in tenebrosam noctem versus ut stellae in caelo visae sint terraeque motus in Bithynia Nicaenae urbis multas aedes subverterit.

This translates as:

“In the fourth year, however, of the 202nd Olympiad, a failure of the sun happened, greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it; at the sixth hour, day turned into dark night, so that stars were seen in the sky, and an earthquake in Bithynia toppled many buildings in the city of Nicaea.”

Note that the darkness that came over the land occurred “at the sixth hour”, confirming what Mt. 27:45, Mk. 15:33 and Lk. 23:44 have to say. The earthquake happened at the same time, confirming Mt. 27:50-54. But, even more remarkably, Phlegon states that this happened “in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad”. Now, the 1st Olympiad lasted from the summer of 776 BC to the summer of 772 BC. By extrapolation, the 194th Olympiad was from 776-(194-1)×4 = 4 BC to AD 1. This means that the 195th Olympiad ran from AD 1 to AD 5, and the 202nd Olympiad was from 1+(202-195)×4 = AD 29 to AD 33. So the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad, when Phlegon says the darkness and the earthquake occurred, was AD 33, the exact year that we calculated for Jesus’s crucifixion above.

Geological evidence

An article entitled “An early first-century earthquake in the Dead Sea” in International Geology Review vol. 54, no. 10, pp. 1219-1228 (2012), which focused on earthquake activity at the Dead Sea, shows that an earthquake occurred at around the time of the crucifixion which would have been felt in Jerusalem, as reported in Mt. 27:50-54.

To analyse earthquake activity in the region, geologists Jefferson Williams, Markus Schwab and Achim Brauer studied three cores from the Ein Gedi Spa beach, adjacent to the Dead Sea, 13 miles from Jerusalem. Varves (annual layers of sedimentary deposition) revealed that at least two major earthquakes hit the area, one of which happened between the years AD 26 and AD 36. This earthquake would have been powerful enough to break apart the sediments of Ein Gedi and to have affected the local area, but would not have been strong enough to have warranted a widespread (extra-Biblical) historical record.

At what time of day did Jesus die?

In the Hebrew timekeeping system, clock times were measured from sunrise until sunset, and this period of daylight was divided into 12 “hours”, whether it was summer or winter (Jesus himself said in Jn. 11:9 that there are 12 hours of daylight). However, since we now know that Jesus died on April 1st (Gregorian), which is pretty close to the vernal (spring) equinox, we can safely assume that sunrise was very close to 6 a.m. and sunset was close to 6 p.m., so the Hebrew “hours” at this time of year would have been virtually the same length as “real” hours. So, for example, in the Hebrew system, “the ninth hour” would mean nine hours after sunrise, i.e. 3 p.m.

In the Roman timekeeping system, on the other hand, clock times were measured from midnight to midnight, as we do. So, in the Roman system, the same phrase “the ninth hour” could mean either 9 a.m. or 9 p.m.

But now we have a problem. When Mt. 27:46-50, Mk. 15:34-37 and Lk. 23:44-46 say that Jesus died “at about the ninth hour”, do they mean 9 a.m., 3 p.m. or 9 p.m.? Let’s look at the evidence.

Mt. 27:45, Mk. 15:33 and Lk. 23:44 all say that “darkness came over the land” from the 6th to the 9th hour. This could either mean:

a) 6 a.m. – 9 a.m. (Roman)
b) Noon – 3 p.m. (Hebrew)
c) 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. (Roman)

Option (a) isn’t possible because to say that “darkness came over the land” at sunrise would be silly, since it had already been dark up until that time anyway!

Option (c) also isn’t possible, because to say that “darkness came over the land” at sunset until 9 p.m. would also be silly, since it was going to get dark at sunset anyway, and it would also suggest it got light again at 9 p.m.!

Thus, the only option is (b), which means that all the authors of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are using the Hebrew timekeeping system.

So what about John’s gospel? We read in Jn. 1:39 that when some of Jesus’s first disciples went and saw where he was staying and spent the day with him, “it was about the tenth hour”. Does that mean 10 a.m., 4 p.m. or 10 p.m.? In order to have spent the day with him, it must mean 10 a.m. (otherwise there wouldn’t have been much of the day left!) This suggests that John is using the Roman timekeeping system. Likewise, in the woman-at-the-well story, Jn. 4:6 tells us “it was about the sixth hour”. 6 p.m. seems a reasonable time for this – just before sunset when it was cool enough for the woman to come and draw water. The same verse tells us that Jesus was tired from His journey, and He is more likely to be tired at sunset than at noon.

(The fact that John was writing for a Graeco-Roman audience is evidenced by the fact that John feels he has to provide translations for so many Hebrew/Aramaic words – see for example Jn. 1:38, 1:41, 1:42, 4:25, 9:7, 20:16. His description of Christ as “the Word” in the first chapter is a Greek philosophical concept for communicating Jesus as the Logos to a Christianized Gentile audience. John's Logos would not be understood by Jews. In addition, John often employs the title “the Jews” when discussing the opponents of Jesus, which he would hardly be likely to do if he was writing for a Jewish audience!)

OK, so with all this in mind, let’s look at what times of day the gospels record the final events of Jesus’s life on Earth as happening:

It is interesting to note that, according to ancient Jewish sources outside the Bible, the morning offering of the daily "Tamid" took place at 9 a.m., while the evening offering took place at 3 p.m. (see Mishnah, Tamid 3:7; Josephus, Antiquities XIV 4:3; Philo, Special Laws, 1:169). Josephus also makes it very clear that the Passover lambs were sacrificed at 3 p.m.:

"Accordingly, on the occasion of the feast called Passover, at which they sacrifice from the ninth hour [3 p.m.] to the eleventh hour [5 p.m.], and a little fraternity, as it were, gathers around each sacrifice, of not fewer than ten persons." (War of the Jews VI 423-424)

This means that we can now finally say that Jesus, the Lamb of God, died at 3 p.m. on Friday April 1st (Gregorian), AD 33, at the very moment that the Passover lambs were being killed in the Temple!

The Devil thought he had made a fool out of Jesus on that April Fool’s Day, but it was the other way round (Heb. 2:14, 1 Cor. 1:25), for on Sunday April 3rd, AD 33 (Jn. 20:1), it was discovered that He had been raised from the dead (although there is a theory that the resurrection could have been on a Tuesday!) Jesus then appeared to His disciples over a period of 40 days (Acts 1:3), i.e. until Thursday May 12th, when He ascended into Heaven. The Holy Spirit was then sent (Acts 2:1-4) at Pentecost (Sivan 6), which was Sunday May 22nd.

Next page: A chronology of Jesus’s earthly ministry >>

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