Monday, September 15, 2014

Determining The Year of Jesus' Crucifixion: An Accidental Record?

In my little Russian Orthodox Church we just observed the Ecclesiastical New Year, September 1st on the Julian Calendar.

The Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in AD 325 chose this date as the start of the Ecclesiastical Year in part because Holy Tradition claimed the date of September 1st as the date on which Jesus formally began his public ministry.

Tradition passed down that September 1st was the day on which Jesus read a Scripture from the Prophet Isaiah in his home synagogue of Nazareth on a Sabbath day:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised. To preach the acceptable year of the Lord." (Luke 4:17-18)

I found myself wondering, if Holy Tradition really did preserve the date of September 1st accurately as the date of that incident in Nazareth (and that's a big IF), it may provide an accidental record which will help us fix the date of the crucifixion chronologically.

And that's because we really can determine when September 1st on the Julian Calendar was a Saturday/Sabbath.

Scholars are all over the place in fixing the precise year of the crucifixion of Jesus.  Early Christian writers, such as St Augustine believed that the crucifixion happened in the year in which the "Gemini" were consuls (AD 29, when Gaius Fufius Geminus and Lucius Rubellius Geminus were consuls; Augustine, City of God 18.54).

While scholars have proposed dates ranging from that AD 29 all the way up to the mid AD 30's, I feel that we should only reject an early witness such as St. Augustine if we had a very good historical reason to do so. And so, we assume the AD 29 date is correct unless some very compelling reason to the contrary emerges.

Let's assume for a moment that Holy Tradition did preserve, quite accidentally, the date of September 1, a Sabbath, as the start of Jesus' ministry.

September 1st was a Saturday/Sabbath in AD 25 and AD 31.

The earliest of these is the one I find the most interesting. Luke 3:23 states that Jesus began his public ministry when he was "about thirty years old." The word "about (ὡσεὶ; hosei)" implies that Luke himself was not entirely sure that it was exactly thirty.

Historians agree that Herod the Great died by the year 4 BC, meaning that Jesus had to be born at least by that year. And that would certainly mean that Jesus was "about thirty years old" on September 1st, AD 25.

But "about thirty" does not mean that he may have been as old as thirty-five. This means that the AD 31 date for September 1st is ruled out.

While the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) seem to collapse Jesus' public ministry into a single year, they may be doing so for literary purposes. The Gospel of John describes Jesus' public ministry as lasting for three years prior to his crucifixion.

And so, here's what I think emerges from this data.

If (and again, it's a big IF), Holy Tradition somehow did preserve September 1st as the date on which Jesus commenced his public ministry on a Sabbath in Nazareth, the dates then fall in a very interesting fashion.

Jesus certainly was "about thirty years old" on September 1st, AD 25.

If we accept John's description of a three year ministry, Jesus had a public ministry of a bit more than three years from September 1st, AD 25 until some time in the Spring of AD 29. 

The date suggested by Holy Tradition for the beginning of Jesus' public ministry actually supports the earliest claims of the date of the crucifixion itself.

It's unlikely we'll yet uncover authentic historic records that will help to elucidate this important matter. But I hope this exploration of a possible accidental record from Holy Tradition sheds light on the matter.

Here's the sermon I preached on the occasion of the Ecclesiastical New Year, September 1, 2014.

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