The New International Encyclopædia/New Testament Chronology

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The New International Encyclopædia
New Testament Chronology
Edition of 1905. Written by Edward Everett NourseSee also New Testament on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

NEW TESTAMENT CHRONOLOGY. The science which deals with the dates and order of events in the life of Christ and the Apostolic Age.

I. The Chronology of the Life of Christ. The main data are to be found in the Gospels and checked by comparison with the contemporary events of secular history.

(1) The Date of the Nativity. — From Matthew we learn that the birth of Jesus took place “in the days of Herod the King” (ii. 1). The visit of the wise men, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, and the massacre of the children under two years of age all preceded Herod's death (ii. 3-18). Thus Herod's death gives us a date later than which the birth of Jesus cannot be placed. According to data in Josephus, it is beyond all doubt that Herod died not long before the Passover of B.C. 4. The star of the wise men may have been the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred in B.C. 7. The Nativity was, however, after the first appearance of the star. Since several events took place between the Nativity and Herod's death, the evidence in Matthew is conclusive only for a date between B.C. 7 and B.C. 4. In Luke ii. 1 the data are more definite. “In those days there went forth a decree from Cæsar Augustus that the [Roman] world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was Governor of Syria.” The meaning seems to be that this enrollment was the first one of the kind in those regions, and that it was taken while Quirinius was Governor. This definite statement has been the subject of much discussion. The main points in dispute are: whether Augustus ordered an enrollment in Palestine before the famous one of A.D. 6 (which was, curiously enough, while Quirinius was Governor of Syria), and, if so, whether Quirinius was the Roman official intrusted with its execution. As to the first question, documents recently discovered in Egypt supplement our former imperfect knowledge of Augustus's various censuses, so that we are now reasonably sure that about B.C. 9-8 a census was ordered to be taken in Palestine as a part of the second general census of the Empire, in which Palestine was now, for the first time, included. From B.C. 23, for a number of years, a census was taken every fourteen years. It is likely that the census ordered for the year B.C. 9-8 did not actually take place in Palestine, owing to its peculiar circumstances, until B.C. 7. As to the second question, there is a possibility that Luke has made a mistake in naming Quirinius instead of Saturninus as the Governor of Syria at the time. Thus both Luke and Matthew agree to the effect that the Nativity took place about B.C. 7 or A.U.C. 747. It would seem that further aid might be derived from Luke iii. 1-3 and 23, which verses apparently state that Jesus was thirty years of age in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Cæsar. But this is not the case. We are uncertain (1) from what date Luke reckoned the reign of Tiberius; (2) how much latitude is to be allowed to the expression “about thirty years;” and (3) how close the connection is between v. 23 and vv. 1-3. For these reasons we must be content with the result stated above, and date the Nativity about B.C. 7.

There are no data for determining the month and day of the birth of Jesus. Ancient tradition wavered between two dates, January 6th and December 25th, each of which seems to have been the result of calculation, not based on trustworthy tradition.

(2) The Date of Jesus' Baptism. — From Luke we learn that John the Baptist took up his work in the fifteenth year of Tiberius. Such, at least, seems to be the meaning of Luke iii. 1-3. “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cæsar . . . the word of God came unto John . . . in the wilderness.” If Luke reckoned the reign of Tiberius from the death of Augustus, the year August A.D. 28-August A.D. 29 would be the year intended. If he counted from A.D. 12, when Tiberius was associated with Augustus, as the first year, then A.D. 26-27 would be the year indicated. Accordingly, the baptism of Jesus was either in A.D. 27 or in A.D. 29. In the Gospel of John we have a datum which enables us to decide between these two dates. In John ii. 20, at the time of Jesus' first public appearance in Jerusalem, which was not long after the beginning of His public ministry, there is the statement that the Temple had been, at the time, forty-six years in the process of construction. Since the reconstruction of the Temple was begun by Herod in B.C. 20-19, the baptism of Jesus could not have been later than A.D. 27. Early in the year A.D. 27 seems, then, the most probable date for this event.

(3) The Duration of the Ministry. — The first three Gospels give us only the vaguest hints as to the length of the Lord's public ministry. They begin their narrative of His public life with His work in Galilee after the imprisonment of John the Baptist. But Mark i. 11 ("Now after that John was delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee") seems to imply that some time elapsed between the Temptation and John's imprisonment. This gap is partially filled by the Gospel of John, which also gives a well-ordered arrangement of the events of the ministry narrated by it. Its data are as follows:

ii. 13 sqq., Jesus in Jerusalem at a Passover, after His baptism and a brief sojourn in Galilee.

iii. 23 sqq., a brief sojourn, length not stated, in Judea, before John was imprisoned.

iv. 1-35, Jesus retires into Galilee. On the way, in Samaria, He says to His disciples, “Do ye not say that there are yet four months and the harvest comes?”

v. 1, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to attend a feast (unnamed).

vi. 1-4, Jesus is again in Galilee at the time of a Passover.

vii. 2 sqq., Jesus goes to Jerusalem to a Feast of Tabernacles. After this there is no mention of a return to Galilee.

x. 22, Jesus is in Jerusalem at the Feast of Dedication; thence He retires beyond Jordan. While here He is called to Bethany by the death of Lazarus. He then goes to Ephraim in Judea.

xii. 1, six days before the (last) Passover Jesus arrives at Bethany.

Two of these data are somewhat uncertain. The reference in iv. 3.5 to the “four months, and then Cometh the harvest,” may indicate the actual season of the year when the words were spoken. In that case Jesus must have passed through Samaria in December or January after His first Passover (John ii. 13 sqq.). If the first Passover was that of A.D. 27, the events narrated in chap. iv. took place in December, A.D. 27, or in January, A.D. 28. But it is possible that the statement in iv. 35 may have been a mere proverbial expression used by Jesus to point a lesson. In that case it has no chronological significance, and the journey through Samaria may have taken place in May, A.D. 27. The unnamed feast of v. 1 (“After these things there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem”) introduces the greatest element of uncertainty. The main question is whether it was a Passover. If it was, then John's Gospel gives us four Passovers in Jesus' public ministry. There are two weighty reasons against taking the reference in this sense. First, John's usus loquendi would lead us to expect him to have expressly stated that it was a Passover, if such had been the case. Second, a Passover is expressly indicated in the next chapter (John vi. 1-4). If v. 1 refers to a Passover, we have not only a whole year passed over in complete silence by John, but we also have two whole years and more of active public ministry to place before the Passover of John vi. Since the narrative of John at this place meets that of the other Gospels (Mark vi. 30 and parallels), this does not seem very probable. For such reasons it seems better to take John v. 1 as referring to some minor feast between the two Passovers of ii. 13 sqq. and vi. 1-4. The evidence of the Gospel of John, then, is to the effect that there were three Passovers in the public ministry of Our Lord, those of the years A.D. 27, 28, and 29.

(4) The Date of the Crucifixion. — All the Gospels agree that the day of the week was Friday. It is a question whether this Friday was the Passover day or the day after the Passover. Since the Passover always came on the fourteenth day of the Jewish [lunar] month Nisan, the question is, Was Jesus crucified on the 14th or on the 15th of Nisan? On this point the evidence of the Gospels appears contradictory. The Synoptic Gospels positively state that Jesus ate his last supper with His disciples on the Passover evening, i.e. on the 14th of Nisan, and that He was crucified on the next or 15th day. But the Gospel of John in several passages, xiii. 1-2, xviii. 28, xix. 13 and 31, appears to place the Crucifixion on the Passover day. Of the references noted, xviii. 28, “they themselves [the Jews] entered not into the prætorium, that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover,” and xix. 14, “Now it was the Preparation (παρασκευή) of the Passover,” are the most important. It is to be noted, however, that the Gospel of John uses the term τὸ πάσχα, the Passover, in an inclusive sense to indicate the whole Passover season, just as the Synoptic Gospels use the term τὰ ἅζυμα, the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, in the same broad sense. It is also to be noted that in xix. 31 and 42 the word παρασκευή, literally ‘preparation day,’ is used in its common significance of Friday. It is therefore possible that in verse 14 we should interpret so as to read “it was the Friday of the Passover season.” So understood, there is no conflict between John and the Synoptists. If there is actual disagreement, the evidence may be represented as follows:

NISAN 13 14 15 16 17
Jewish customs fixed according to days of Nisan Passover meal at evening Holy Rest Day.
First day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread
Wave Sheaf
Synoptic Gospels, as to —
(1) Days of the week Wednesday Thursday Friday — i.e. the παρασκευή Saturday Sunday
(2) Events Passover meal, Lord's Supper Crucifixion Resurrection
Gospel of John, as to —
(1) Days of the week Thursday Friday — the παρασκευή Saturday — i.e. Sabbath, a ‘great Sabbath’; xix. 31 Sunday
(2) Events Lord's Supper (not identical with Passover) Crucifixion Resurrection

If the year of the Crucifixion was A.D. 29, the Passover was either in April (17th or 18th) or March (18th). The latter is the more probable date.

We therefore arrive at the following results:

B.C. 9-7. The annunciations concerning the births of the Baptist and Jesus.
7. Birth of Jesus.
A.D. 26. John the Baptist opens his ministry.
27. (26) Jesus is baptized by John.
27. (Early in the year) Jesus begins His ministry.
27. The first Passover, in Jerusalem (John ii. 13 sqq.).
27-29. Passover to Passover, two years of public activity, a year and some months being spent in Galilee.
29. March 18. Friday, the Crucifixion. On Sunday, March 20th, the Resurrection, and 40 days later the Ascension.

These results differ from those most commonly accepted, mainly in that they make the ministry cover but two years and a little over instead of three years or more. The main specific difference is in regard to the feast of John v. 1, which is usually taken as a Passover. The most commonly accepted year for the Crucifixion is A.D. 30 instead of A.D. 29, as given above.

II. Chronology of the Apostolic Age. The Apostolic Age began immediately after the Lord's Ascension. Its close may be considered as marked by the passing away of the Apostles and their companions. Our main authority for this period is the Book of Acts. Incidentally, the Epistles furnish some valuable hints. In Acts we are presented with a sketch of the progress of Christianity, (1) in the city of Jerusalem, chaps. i.-vii.; (2) among the Jewish population of Palestine and Syria, with the transition to work among the Gentiles, chaps, viii.-xii.; and (3) among the Gentiles through the missionary labors of Paul, chaps. xiii.-xxviii. Since the data in reference to Paul's career are more numerous and exact than those connected with the earlier events, we shall make the chronology of Paul's labors the basis of our investigations. We have to consider the evidence furnished by the following data:

(1) Acts ix. 23 sqq. Paul's escape from the Jews at Damascus ‘many days’ after his conversion. In II. Cor. xi. 32 Paul refers to this event, noting that it took place while Aretas was ethnarch of Damascus. In Gal. i. 18 Paul says that he did not leave Damascus for Jerusalem until three years after his conversion. In all probability Aretas was not ethnarch of Damascus until after the death of Tiberius, March 10, A.D. 37. It is certain that he did not hold this position in A.D. 34. Therefore Paul's conversion was not before A.D. 31, probably not before A.D. 34.

(2) Acts xi. 27-30 and xii. 25. Agabus, a prophet, predicted a famine. In consequence, the Christians of Antioch sent aid to Jerusalem by Barnabas and Paul, active workers in the Antioch church. This visit was probably not long before the famine was at its height. Notices in Josephus (Ant., xx. 2, 3 and 5, 2) show that there was such a famine about A.D. 47. The prophecy may well have been uttered two or three years earlier, and the visit may be placed in A.D. 46-47.

(3) Acts xiii. 7. Sergius Paulus is mentioned as proconsul of Cyprus. The name of this official has been discovered on an inscription of Cyprus, but his date has not been determined. All that is certain is that he was not proconsul of the island in the years A.D. 51 and 52.

(4) Acts xviii. 2 and 12. Paul, soon after his arrival in Corinth on his second missionary journey, meets Aquila and Priscilla, Jews lately banished from Rome in consequence of a decree of the Emperor Claudius. Paul stays in Corinth upward of two years, during which time Gallio was proconsul of Achaia. We have here two data: Claudius's decree and Gallio's proconsulship. The edict of expulsion is mentioned by Suetonius and probably referred to by Tacitus and Dio Cassius, but in such a way that its date cannot be exactly fixed. Orosius (fifth century, A.D.) places it in A.D. 49. As to Gallio, all that can be said is that he was probably not appointed to the office before the recall of his famous brother Seneca from banishment (A.D. 49). Thus A.D. 49-50 may be accepted provisionally as the most satisfactory date for these facts.

(5) Acts xx. 6-7. Paul, on his way to Jerusalem, returning from his third missionary journey, kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread at Philippi, Macedonia. Leaving Philippi, in five days he reached Troas. Here he stayed seven days, leaving on Monday. Reckoning back, it becomes probable, but not certain, that the Passover of that year was on Thursday. In that case, the year was probably either A.D. 56 or 57, the probability being in favor of 56.

(6) Acts xxiv: 27. After Paul had been detained as a prisoner for two years, Felix, the Roman Governor of Palestine, was succeeded by Festus. Felix was appointed in A.D. 52 by Claudius, having already been in charge of Samaria for some time. In Acts xxiv. 10, two years before Felix's removal, Paul addresses him as having been for ‘many years’ judge of the nation. The Apostle may have included in the ‘many years’ the time that Felix spent in Samaria, and the statement should not be pressed as necessitating as many as five or six years after A.D. 52 as the time when they were uttered. Josephus says that Felix, when recalled, had to answer serious charges before Nero, and would have been condemned, had not his wealthy brother Pallas interceded for him. Though Pallas was dismissed from office soon after Nero's accession (A.D. 54), he was for some years a wealthy and influential man. Eusebius's Chronicle places the appointment of Festus in the year September 56 - September 57. The accuracy of this statement is not beyond doubt. Paul's words in Acts xxiv. 10, as well as the general representation of Felix's administration in Josephus, seem to require a date not earlier than A.D. 58 for the recall of Felix and the appointment of Festus. This date will harmonize with the conclusion reached under No. 5 above.

(7) The Death of Paul. All that can be said here is that the most ancient tradition of the Church represents that Paul closed his career by suffering martyrdom at Rome under Nero. As to the date, it is most probable that this took place in the cruel persecution by which Nero sought to divert from himself the suspicion of having burned Rome, i.e. in A.D. 64 or 65.

(8) The Period Covered by Acts i.-xii. (in reference to the doings of the Jewish-Christian Church of Palestine). The only fixed date we have is the death of Herod Agrippa I. (Acts xii. 19 sqq.) in A.D. 44. From this we see that the period covered by these chapters is about fifteen years, since the Crucifixion took place A.D. 29. Within the period we have the probable date, A.D. 34, as that for the conversion of Paul. On the basis of the results thus reached we may construct the following table:

A.D. 29. Pentecost, first preaching by the Apostles. Acts ii.
29-34 (35). Christianity organized and becomes prominent in Jerusalem. Acts ii.-vi.
34 (35). Stephen martyred. Persecution extends Christianity outside Jerusalem. Paul converted at Damascus. Acts vii.-ix.
34-37 (35-38). Paul in Arabia. His return to Damascus and escape thence. He visits Jerusalem and goes thence to Tarsus. Gal. i. 17-21; II. Cor. xi. 32; Acts ix. 30.
34 (35)-44. Rapid extension of Christianity through Palestine, Phœnicia, and Syria, as far as Antioch. Acts ix.-xi.
38-40?. Paul and Barnabas in Antioch.
44. Execution of James, the brother of John. Peter escapes from Herod Agrippa I., who soon after dies at Cæsarea. Acts xii.
46 ?. Paul and Barnabas carry a contribution to Jerusalem. Acts xi. 27-30.
47 (Spring)-48 (Fall). First missionary journey of Paul. Acts xiii.-xiv.
49 (Pentecost ?). The Apostolic Council in Jerusalem. Acts xv. (cf. Gal. ii. 1-10).
49. Barnabas and Mark go to Cyprus. Acts xv. 35-39.
49. (Fall)-52 (Summer). The Second Missionary Journey. Acts xv. 49-xviii. 22. I. and II. Tbessalonians written from Corinth in 50 and 51.
52 (Early Fall)-50 (Spring). Third Missionary Journey. Acts xviii. 23-xxi. 17. I. Corinthians written from Ephesus, 53-54. II. Corinthians written from Macedonia late in spring of 55. Galatians written from somewhere on the journey to Corinth, in summer or fall of 55. Romans written from Corinth in 56.
56-58. Paul held in Palestine, most of the time in Cæsarea. Acts xxiii. 1.
58 (Fall)-59 (Spring). Paul's voyage to Rome.
59-61. Two years' imprisonment in Rome. Epistles to Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians.
61-64. Missionary journey to Spain. Revisits the East. I. Timothy and Titus written.
64. Again imprisoned in Rome. II. Timothy written.
64 (65). Executed by order of Nero. According to tradition, Peter also was martyred at Rome about the same time.
70. The capture of Jerusalem by the Romans under Titus. The Palestinian Christians scattered.
65(?)-90(?). The Apostle John in Asia Minor (Ephesus).

The table given above differs from the most commonly received chronology (Wieseler's), mainly in that it dates the chief events of Paul's life about two years earlier. Ramsay's dates are, in the main, about one year later than those given above, Harnack's two years earlier.

Bibliography. Of the large body of literature bearing on New Testament Chronology, particular mention may be made of the following: Ideler, Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie (Berlin, 1825); Wieseler, Chronologische Synopse der vier Evangelien (Hamburg, 1843; Eng. trans., 2d ed., London, 1878); id., Chronologie des apostolischen Zeitalters (Göttingen, 1848); id., Beiträge zur richtigen Würdigung der Evangelien (Gotha, 1869); Lewin, Fasti Sacri (London, 1865); Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi (Leipzig, 1886-90; Eng. trans., New York, 1891); Harnack, Chronologie der altchristlichen Litteratur (Leipzig, 1897); Ramsay, Saint Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen (New York, 1896); id., Was Christ Born in Bethlehem? (London, 1898).