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The Life Of Jesus Of Nazareth by Rush Rhees

IV The Chronology

45. The length of the public ministry of Jesus was one of the earliest questions which arose in the study of the four gospels. In the second and third centuries it was not uncommon to find the answer in the passage from Isaiah (lxi.1, 2), which Jesus declared was fulfilled in himself. |The acceptable year of the Lord| was taken to indicate that the ministry covered little more than a year. The fact that the first three gospels mention but one Passover (that at the end), and but one journey to Jerusalem, seems at first to be favorable to this conclusion, and to make peculiarly significant the care taken by Luke to give the exact date for the opening of Jesus' ministry (iii.1, 2). In fact, the second century Gnostics, relying apparently on Luke, assigned both the ministry and death of Jesus to the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, -- an interpretation which may have given rise to the widely spread, early tradition, found, for example, in Tertullian (Ante-nicene Fathers, in.160), which placed the death of Jesus in A.D.29, during the consulship of L. Rubellius Geminus and C. Fufius Geminus.

46. The theory that the ministry of Jesus extended over but little more than one year is beset, however, by difficulties that seem insuperable. The first is presented by the three Passovers distinctly mentioned in the Gospel of John (ii.13; vi.4; xii.1). The last of these is plainly identical with the one named in the other gospels. The second gives the time of year for the feeding of the five thousand, and agrees with the mention of |the green grass| in the account of Mark and Matthew (Mark vi.39; Matt. xiv.19). John's first Passover falls in a section which demands a place before Mark i.14 (compare John iii.24). Hence it must be shown that this first Passover is chronologically out of order in the Gospel of John, or the one year ministry advocated by the second century Gnostics, by Clement of Alexandria, by Origen, and of late years by Keim and others, is seen to be impossible. The fact that at this Passover Jesus cleansed the temple, and that the other gospels assign such a cleansing to the close of the ministry, suggests the possibility that John has set it at the opening of his narrative for reasons connected with his argument. This interpretation falls, however, before the perfect simplicity of structure of John's narrative. The transitions from incident to incident in this gospel are those of simple succession, and indicate, on the writer's part, no suspicion that he was contradicting notions concerning the ministry of Jesus familiar to his contemporaries. Whatever the conclusion reached concerning the authorship of the gospel, the fact that it gained currency very early as apostolic would seem to prove that its conception of the length of Jesus' ministry was not opposed to the recognized apostolic testimony. It is safe to conclude, therefore, that time must be allowed in Jesus' ministry for at least three Passover seasons.

47. With this conclusion most modern discussions of the question rest, and it is possible that it may finally win common consent. The order of Mark's narrative, however, challenges it. This gospel records near the beginning (ii.23) a controversy with the Pharisees occasioned by the fact that Jesus' disciples plucked and ate the ripening grain as they passed on a Sabbath day through the fields. As Mark places much later (vi.30-34) the feeding of the five thousand, which occurred at a Passover, that is the beginning of the harvest (Lev. xxiii.5-11), his order suggests the necessity of including two harvest seasons in the ministry in Galilee, and consequently four Passovers in the public life of Jesus. Two considerations are urged against this conclusion. (1) Papias in his reference to the Gospel of Mark criticises the order of the gospel; (2) Mark ii.1 to iii.6 contains a group of five conflicts with the critics of Jesus, which represents a massing of opposition that seems unlikely at the outset of his Galilean work. The remark of Papias must remain obscure until his standard of comparison is known. Some suggest that he knew John's order and preferred it, others that he agreed with that adopted by Tatian in his Diatessaron. Mark is in accord with neither of these. No one, however, knows what order Papias preferred. The early conflict group does appear like a collection drawn from different parts of the ministry. Yet the nucleus of the group -- the cure of the paralytic (ii.1-12) and the call of Levi (ii.13-17) -- is clearly in its right place in Mark (see Holtzmann, Hand-commentar, I.10). The question about fasting (ii.18-22) may have been asked much later, and its present place may be due to association in tradition with the criticism of Jesus' fellowship with publicans (ii.16). In like manner the cure of the withered hand (iii.1-6) may have become artificially grouped with the incident of the cornfields. It is possible, also, that both Sabbath controversies owe their early place in the gospel to traditional association with the early conflicts (ii.1-17). If so, the plucking of the grain actually occurred some weeks after the feeding of the five thousand, and probably after the controversy about tradition (vii.1-23), with which, according to Mark, Jesus' activity in Galilee practically closed. It is not clear, however, what principle of association drew forward to the early group the Sabbath conflict, and left in its place the controversy about tradition. It is thus possible that the incident of the cornfields belongs also to the early nucleus of the group; and in this case the longer ministry, including four Passovers, must be accepted. The decision of the question is not of vital importance, but it affects the determination of the sequence of events in Jesus' life. Whatever the explanation of the remark of Papias, the more the gospels are studied the more does Mark's order of events commend itself in general as representing the probable fact. Many students have inferred the three year ministry from the Gospel of John alone, identifying the unnamed feast in John v.1 with a Passover. But John's allusion to that feast is so indefinite that the length of Jesus' ministry must be determined quite independently of it.

48. So long a ministry as three years presents some difficulties, for all that is told us in the four gospels would cover but a small fraction of this time. John's statement (xx.30) that he omitted many things from Jesus' life in making his book is evidently true of all the evangelists, and long gaps, such as are evident in the fourth gospel, must be assumed in the other three. Recalling the character of the gospels as pictures of Jesus rather than narratives of his life, we may easily acknowledge the incompleteness of our record of the three years of ministry, and wonder the more at the vividness of impression produced with such economy of material. This meagreness of material is not decisive for the shorter rather than the longer ministry, for it is evident that to effect such a change in conviction and feeling as Jesus wrought in the minds of the ardent Galileans who were his disciples, required time. Three years are better suited to effect this change than two.

49. Closely related to the question of the length of Jesus' ministry is another: Can definite dates be given for the chief events in his life? For the year of the opening of his public activity the gospels furnish two independent testimonies: the remark of the Jews on the occasion of Jesus' first visit to Jerusalem, |Forty and six years was this temple in building| (John ii.20), and Luke's careful dating of the appearance of John the Baptist, |in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar| (iii.1, 2). John ii.20 leads to the conclusion that the first Passover fell in the spring of A.D.26 or 27, since we learn from Josephus (Ant. xv.11.1) that Herod began to rebuild the temple in the eighteenth year of his reign, which closed in the spring of B.C.19. Luke iii.1 gives a date contradictory to the one just found, if the fifteenth year of Tiberius is to be counted from the death of his predecessor, for Augustus died August 19, A.D.14. Reckoned from this time the opening of John's work falls in the year A.D.28, and the first Passover of Jesus' ministry could not be earlier than the spring of 29. This is at least two years later than is indicated by the statement in John. The remark in John is, however, so incidental and so lacking in significance for his argument that its definiteness can be explained only as due to a clear historic reminiscence; but it does not follow that Luke has erred in the date given by him. Although Augustus did not die until A.D.14, there is evidence that Tiberius was associated with him in authority over the army and the provinces not later than January, A.D.12. One who lived and wrote in the reign of Titus may possibly have applied to the reign of Tiberius a mode of reckoning customary in the case of Titus, as Professor Ramsay has shown (Was Christ born at Bethlehem, 202). If this is the fact, Luke reckoned from the co-regency of Tiberius; hence the fifteenth year would be A.D.25 or 26, according as the co-regency began before or after the first of January, A.D.12. This would place the first Passover of Jesus' ministry in the spring of 26 or 27, in agreement with the hint found in John.

50. If the public ministry of Jesus began with the spring of 26 or 27, the close of three years of activity would, come at the Passover of 29 or 30. The former of these dates agrees with the early Christian tradition already mentioned. But before accepting that traditional date another matter must be considered. Jesus was crucified on the Friday at the opening of the feast of the Passover. Whether it was the day of the sacrifice of the Passover (14 Nisan) or the day following (15 Nisan), is not essential for the present question. As the Jewish month began with the first appearance of the new moon, it is evident that, in the year of Jesus' death, the month of Nisan must have begun on a day that would make the 14th or the 15th fall on Friday. Now it can be shown that in the year 30 the 14th of Nisan was Thursday (April 6) or Friday (April 7), for at best only approximate certainty is attainable. The tradition which assigns the passion to 29, generally names March 25 as the day of the month. This date is impossible, because it does not coincide with the full moon of that month. The choice of March 25 by a late tradition may be explained by the fact that it was commonly regarded as the date of the spring equinox, the turning of the year towards its renewing. Mr. Turner has shown (HastBD. I.415) that another date found in an early document cannot be so explained. Epiphanius was familiar with copies of the Acts of Pilate, which gave March 18 as the date of the crucifixion; and it is remarkable that this date coincides with the full moon, and also falls on Friday. Such a combination gives unusual weight to the tradition, particularly as there is no ready way to account for its rise, as in the case of March 25. From this supplementary tradition the year 29 gains in probability as the year of the passion. Without attempting to arrive at a final conclusion, -- a task which must be left for chronological specialists, -- it is safe to assume that Jesus died at the Passover of A.D.29 or 30.

51. Concluding that Jesus' active ministry fell within the years A.D.26 to 30, is it possible to determine the date of his birth? Four hints are furnished by the gospels: he was born before the death of Herod (Matt. ii.1; Luke i.5); he was about thirty years of age at his baptism (Luke iii.23); he was born during a census conducted in Judea in accordance with the decree of Augustus at a time when Quirinius was in authority in Syria (Luke ii.1, 2); after his birth wise men from the East were led to visit him by observing |his star| (Matt. ii.1, 2). From these facts it follows that the birth of Jesus cannot be placed later than B.C.4, since Herod died about the first of April in that year (Jos. Ant. xvii.6.4; 8.1, 4). The awkwardness of having to find a date Before Christ for the birth of Jesus is due to the miscalculation of the monk, Dionysius the Little, who in the sixth century introduced our modern reckoning from |the year of our Lord.|

52. But is it impossible to determine the time of Jesus' birth more exactly? Luke (ii.1, 2) offers what seems to be more definite information, but his reference to the decree of Augustus and the enrolment under Quirinius are among the most seriously challenged statements in the gospels. It has been said (1) that history knows of no edict of Augustus ordering a general enrolment of |the world;| (2) that a Roman census could not have been taken in Palestine before the death of Herod; (3) that if such an enrolment had been taken it would have been unnecessary for Joseph and Mary to journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; (4) that the census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria is definitely assigned by Josephus to the year after the deposition of Archelaus, A.D.6 (Ant. xviii.1.1; see also Acts v.37); (5) that if Luke's reference to this census as the |first| be appealed to, it must be replied that Quirinius was not governor of Syria at any time during the lifetime of Herod. This array of difficulties is impressive, and has persuaded many conservative students to concede that in his reference to the census Luke has fallen into error. Some recent discoveries in Egypt, however, have furnished new information concerning the imperial administration of that province. Inferring that a policy adopted in Egypt may have prevailed also in Syria, Professor Ramsay has recently put forth a strong argument for Luke's accuracy in respect of this census (Was Christ born at Bethlehem, 95-248). That argument may be condensed as follows: We have evidence of a system of Roman enrolments in Egypt taken every fourteen years, and already traced back to the time of Augustus, the earliest document so far recovered belonging, apparently, to the census of A.D.20. It is at least possible that this system of Egyptian enrolments may have been part of an imperial policy, of which all other trace is lost excepting the statement of Luke. It is significant that the date of the census referred to by Josephus (A.D.6) fits exactly the fourteen-year cycle which obtained in Egypt. If the census of A.D.6 was preceded by an earlier one its date would be B.C.8; that is, it would be actually taken in B.C.7, in order to secure the full acts for B.C.8.

53. The statement of Tertullian (Against Marcion, iv.19) that a census had been taken in Judea under Augustus by Sentius Saturninus, who was governor of Syria about 9 to 7 B.C., certainly comes from some source independent of the gospels, and tends to confirm Luke's account of a census before the death of Herod. That a Roman census might have been taken in Palestine during Herod's life is seen from the fact that in A.D.36 Vitellius, the governor of Syria, had to send Roman forces into Cilicia Trachaea to assist Archelaus, the king of that country, to quell a revolt caused by native resistance to a census taken after the Roman fashion (Tacitus, Ann. vi.41). Herod would almost certainly resent as a mark of subjection the order to enrol his people; and the fact that he was in disfavor with Augustus during the governorship of Saturninus (Josephus, Ant. xvi.9.1-3), suggests to Professor Ramsay that he may have sought to avoid obedience to the imperial will in the matter of the census. If after some delay Herod was forced to obey, the enrolment may have been taken in the year 7-6. Since it is probable that the Romans would allow Herod to give the census as distinctly Jewish a character as possible, it is easy to credit the order that all Jews should be registered, so far as possible, in their ancestral homes. Hence the journey of Joseph to Bethlehem; and if Mary wished to have her child also registered as from David's line, her removal with Joseph to Bethlehem is explained. Such a delay in the taking of the census would have postponed it until after the recall of Saturninus. The statement of Tertullian may therefore indicate simply that he knew that a census was taken in Syria by Saturninus.

54. The successor of Saturninus was Varus, who held the governorship until after the death of Herod. How then does Luke refer to the enrolment as taken when Quirinius was in authority? It has for a long time been known that this man was in Syria before he was there as legate of the emperor in A.D.6. There seems to be evidence that Quirinius was in the East about the year B.C.6, putting down a rebellion on the borders of Cilicia, a district joined with Syria into one province under the early empire. Varus was at this time governor, but Quirinius might easily have been looked upon as representing for the time the power of the Roman arms. If Herod was forced to yield to the imperial wish by the presence in Syria of this renowned captain, the statement of Luke is confirmed, and the census at which Jesus was born was taken, according to a Jewish fashion, during the life of Herod, but under compulsion of Rome exacted by Quirinius, while he was in command of the Roman forces in the province of Syria-Cilicia. This gives as a probable date for the birth of Jesus B.C.6, which accords well with the hints previously considered, inasmuch as it is earlier than the death of Herod, and, if born in B.C.6, Jesus would have been thirty-two at his baptism in A.D.26.

55. The account given in Matthew of |the star| which drew the wise men to Judea gives no sure help in determining the date of the birth of Jesus, but it is at least suggestive that in the spring and autumn of B.C.7 there occurred a remarkable conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. This was first noticed by Kepler in consequence of a similar conjunction observed by him in A.D.1603. Men much influenced by astrology must have been impressed by such a celestial phenomenon, but that it furnishes an explanation of the star of the wise men is not clear. If it does, it confirms the date otherwise probable for the nativity, that is, not far from B.C.6.

56. Can we go further and determine the time of year or the month and day of the nativity? It should be borne in mind that our Christmas festival was not observed earlier than the fourth century, and that the evidence is well-nigh conclusive that December 25th was finally selected for the Nativity in order to hallow a much earlier and widely spread pagan festival coincident with the winter solstice. If anything exists to suggest the time of year it is Luke's mention of |shepherds in the field keeping watch by night over their flock| (ii.8). This seems to indicate that it must have been the summer season. In winter the flocks would be folded, not pastured, by night.

57. It therefore seems probable that Jesus was born in the summer of B.C.6; that he was baptized in A.D.26; that the first Passover of his ministry was in the spring of 26 or 27; and that he was crucified in the spring of 29 or 30.

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