Thursday, 9 August 2018

The Date of the Crucifixion

As long-time readers of this blog will know, I am mildly obsessed with the question of chronology, that being a mildly huge understatement. For more than a year now, the process of interviewing for, being hired at, and moving to the Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto--while welcome and wonderful and a genuine honour--has kept me from really indulging that obsession, but now that I'm settled in the compulsion to precisely date events that occurred in early Christian history has returned with a vengeance. So, pulling together some recent conversations and work, here is my take on that particularly significant event of Christian history, Jesus' crucifixion.

My general procedure when seeking to date an event is to begin with the data that permits an absolute lower date and an absolute higher date, then work with the data that leads me to raise and lower those dates respectively. An absolute date is one with a numbered year, and contrasts with a relative date. For instance, if I say that Germany invaded Poland in 1939, that is an absolute date. If I say that Germany invaded Poland twenty-five years after the First World War broke out, that is a relative data. In the case of the crucifixion, the relevant absolute dates are 27 and 35. We know Jesus did not die before 27 for a cluster of reasons. First, he died in April, at Passover; the Passover at which he died had to be after Pilate arrived in Judea in 26; it had to be after the beginning of the fifteenth year of Tiberius (Luke 3:1), which began no earlier than October of 26; thus 27 is the earliest April in which Jesus could have died. We know that he did not die after 35 because that is almost certainly the last Passover that Pilate spent in Judea. 26 and 36 are just barely permissible, if we ignore the data from Luke 3:1 and play loose with Pilate's chronology, but in reality are improbable to the point that we can treat them as non-starters.

For the better part of a century, the primary way that scholars sought to narrow this down was to employ astronomical data. Jesus not only died at Passover, he died at a Passover that fell on a Friday. This yielded 30 and 33 as the most likely years, and scholarship probably for the most part opted for the former number, with the latter constituting a very respectable minority report. I no longer think that we can rely so heavily on the astronomical data. The difficulties of lining up modern astronomical observations with the practical realities of an ancient lunar calendar obviate the confidence we can place in such data. That said, I would not dispense with it entirely, and we will come back to it. We can however reasonably raise the lower date up to 29, as John reports that Jesus' ministry spanned at least three Passovers, including that at which he died, and Passover of 29 would be the third after October of 26.

So, how do we narrow it down, then? This requires that we turn to Pauline chronology. We know that Paul converted to Christianity subsequent to Jesus' death, so that event can serve to establish the latest possible date for the crucifixion. In order to establish the date of the conversion, we must first determine when the visit to Jerusalem described in Gal. 2:1-10 occurred. This depends in large part upon whether we associate that visit with the one mentioned in Acts 15, as do the majority of scholars, or with the one mentioned in Acts 12, as do a minority of scholars. (Other options, such as identifying it with the visit of Acts 18, are basically non-starters). If the former, then the visit of Gal. 2:1-10 probably occurred around 48; the latter, then sometime between 40-44. From this we, look at Gal. 1:18, which tells us that Paul first went to Jerusalem three years after his conversion, and Gal. 2:1, which tells us that he again went after fourteen years; we recognize that three years probably here means "more than two but no greater than three," and fourteen "more than thirteen but no greater than fourteen"; that the three years could be included in the fourteen years, or in addition to; and thus the conversion occurred thirteen to seventeen years before the crucifixion. This means that the conversion happened no earlier than 23--which can be moved up to 29, as it must postdate the crucifixion--and no later than 35.

So, how does this help us? In terms of establishing an undeniable, "it definitely couldn't have happened any year other than this," not at all. But in terms of allowing us to make informed judgments--which is where historical reasoning matters the most (anyone can establish possibilities; the hallmark of an actual thinker is the ability to take the risk of being wrong and say that this possibility here seems more likely)--quite a lot, for now everything depends upon whether one thinks that the Jerusalem trip of Gal. 2:1-10 is that of Acts 12 or of Acts 15. If one thinks that it is the trip of Acts 15, then one is still left with 29 to 35 as possible years for the conversion and thus the crucifixion. But if one thinks, as do I (for reasons I'll not get into here, lest the post gets even more bloated), that the trip of Gal. 2:1-10 is that of Acts 12, then one must judge that the conversion happened between the latter part of 29 through 31 (44 less thirteen yielding 31, and 40 less seventeen yielding 23, but again, moved up to 29). Now, although it is possible that Paul converted later in the same year as Jesus died, that seems a bit tight chronologically. The Christian movement proper doesn't get started, according to Acts, until May or June of that year, at Pentecost, leaving very little time for the events and developments that we can infer from Acts 3-8 if the conversion occurred in the same year. Thus, I'm disinclined to opt for a crucifixion in 31. As such, I'm inclined towards either 29 or 30 as the probable years of the crucifixion.

Here is where I would tentatively turn to the astronomical data. Helen Bond has recently challenged whether or not Jesus actually died at Passover or on a Friday, and while she makes some interesting observations ultimately I think that Brant Pitre's treatment of the matter in Jesus and The Last Supper shows that this likely remains the case. And on the astronomical data, I think it more likely that ancient persons would have ended up celebrating Passover on a Friday in 30 than in 29. Thus, I opt for Passover in 30 as still the most probable date for the crucifixion, but with Passover of 29 rather than Passover of 33 as a close second.

And that, my friends, is how historians do.

Nota bene: Douglas Campbell has argued that on the basis of 2 Cor. 11:32, correlated with data from Josephus, the conversion should be dated with certainty to 33 or 34. It is a well-argued position, but ultimately I do not think that the data permits the confidence which Campbell has in his chronology. I have a article on the matter, which is forthcoming in Journal of Biblical Literature, so I won't steal my own thunder here. Alexis Bunine published a solid rejoinder in Revue Biblique, which has not had the exposure that it deserves, probably because it was written in French.

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