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When Exactly Did Jesus Christ Die?

Jesus Christ Crucifixion
Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the two thieves. Credit: Travis / flickr CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

Almost two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Romans. The traditional year in which he is believed to have died is 33 CE. However, some modern sources say that he died in 30 CE. What does the evidence really show? Do we even have enough evidence to be able to say with certainty when Jesus Christ really died?

The fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius

The first-century accounts of Jesus’ life, the four gospels, provide us with some helpful chronological information. The first piece of information is about when Jesus started his preaching work.

In the Book of Luke, we learn that John the Baptist began his preaching in the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius. Since Tiberius became emperor in September of the year 14 CE, his fifteenth year would run from September 28th to September 29th CE.

Therefore, we know that John the Baptist began his preaching somewhere within that timeframe. Jesus, meanwhile, started his work some time after John. The Bible does not tell us exactly how long passed between the two, but the gospels’ description of John’s work suggests it lasted for at least several months before Jesus came on the scene.

Within the governorship of Pontius Pilate

With this information in mind, we can see that the start of Jesus’ preaching cannot realistically be placed before the start of 29 CE. But what about the end of his life? According to the gospels and the Roman historian Tacitus, Roman governor Pontius Pilate was the one who ordered the execution of Jesus.

The gospels specifically present Pilate as being the governor of Judea when Jesus died. Historically, we know he was the governor of Judea from 26 to 36 CE. By combining these two chronological markers, we can see roughly when Jesus must have died. It must have been after 29 CE but before 36 CE. Can we get even more specific than that?

A Passover when Jesus Christ died

Gospel accounts provide yet another very important piece of information about when Jesus died. They tell us that he died on the same Jewish day as the Passover. This was the religious festival held on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month Nisan. It existed to commemorate the Exodus.

On the night before he died, Jesus gathered with his apostles for the Passover meal. Since the Jewish days lasted from sunset to sunset, it was still the same Jewish day (the day of the Passover) the following morning and afternoon. It was during that afternoon that Jesus died. Therefore, Jesus died on the day of Passover.

Of course, Passover occurred every year, so this might not seem very helpful. However, it fell on a different day of the week each year just like Christmas. This is a very useful fact.

A great Sabbath

The Book of John mentions that the day after Jesus’ death was a “great Sabbath.” The day after Passover was always a Sabbath. However, when that day happened to coincide with the regular Sabbath (that is, Saturday), this made it a “great Sabbath.”

In other words, the fact that the day after Jesus’ execution was a “great Sabbath” shows that Jesus died on a Friday. This allows us to narrow down when these events occurred.

Recall that Jesus must have died between 29 and 36 CE. Within those years, there were only two times in which the Passover fell on a Friday (beginning Thursday evening). This occurred in 30 CE and in 33 CE. Of the two of them, which one is the best match for when Jesus really died?

Jesus preached for several years before he died

Again, the gospel accounts make the answer to this very clear. The records of his activities, with all the travel that was involved and all the work that was done to build up his following, make it clear that it did not involve a period of just one year.

However, beyond just seeming implausible, the gospels directly rule out this possibility. In the Book of John, we find at least three, possibly four, references to sequential Passovers. Remember that Passover was an annual festival. Therefore, Jesus’ preaching work lasted for parts of at least three years or even four.

With this in mind, since his preaching started in 29 CE at the earliest, it is impossible for him to have died in 30 CE. Thus, the only possible conclusion for when Jesus Christ died must be the year 33 CE. In that year, the daylight portion of the day of the Passover fell on April 1st in our Gregorian calendar. In the Julian calendar (often used in historical contexts), this would be April 3rd.

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