Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dating the Crucifixion

The Synaxarion readings we use at my church during Holy Week have one feature that strikes me as very odd: they assign Roman calendar dates to the days of the week of Christ's death and resurrection. Last night at Bridegroom Matins, for example, the Synaxarion that I read to the congregation said that the day when Judas agreed to betray Jesus was Wednesday, which corresponded to 21 March. Counting forward, this implies that the Crucifixion occurred on the 23rd, and the Resurrection occurred on the 25th. I have been unable to track down the source of this chronology.

I am aware of two dates that were assigned to the Crucifixion by early Christians. The first was 6 April. Later on, for some reason, this date was displaced by 25 March. (It is no mere coincidence that these dates precede Theophany and Christmas, respectively, by nine months, but the dates of those feasts were based on the date of the Christ's death, not vice versa. I'll skip that tangent for now and save it for a separate post in December.)

Modern scholars have attempted to determine the date of the Crucifixion by reconstructing the Jewish lunar calendar for the range of years in which Christ might have died. Following Luke 3:1-2, which places the beginning of Christ's ministry with respect to the reigns of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Philip, and Lysanias, the range of plausible years can be narrowed to AD 29-36. In addition, St. Paul's conversion is usually dated to AD 34, which restricts the range further. Then it becomes a matter of extrapolating the lunar cycles backwards to the first century and seeing which years, if any, fit the chronology presented in the gospels. In performing these calculations, allowance must be made for the imprecision of Jewish reckoning. Sometimes the month might have begun a day after the new moon if the moon was not visible, and occasionally an error might be made in determining when to add an intercalary month (a 13th month to keep the lunar calendar in sync with the solar calendar) at the end of the year.

One complication is that the gospels present two different chronologies of Holy Week. The Synoptic gospels, which present the Last Supper as a Seder meal, imply that Jesus was crucified on the first day of Passover, 15 Nisan. John, however, tells us that Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover, 14 Nisan. So both chronologies must be considered.

The first person to do these calculations was Sir Isaac Newton, in 1733. Newton narrowed the dates down to 3 April 33 and 23 April 34. He then chose the latter date based on a correspondence between the grain-plucking episode from the gospels (Mark 2:23) and his understanding of the growing season for grain. However, his selection of AD 34 was based on rules of the Jewish calendar that were not yet in effect in the first century. Therefore, Newton's work was not taken very seriously.

Scholars of the 20th century returned to this question. They settled on two plausible dates: 7 April 30 and 3 April 33. Note that both dates correspond to 14 Nisan, and are thus consistent with John's chronology, not with the Synoptics.

For many years, AD 30 was the consensus favorite. I suspect there were two reasons for this. First, it had become accepted the Christ was born in 6-4 BC. Many people were attached to the notion that Christ had died at the age of 33. If he had died in AD 33, that would have made him nearly 36-38. Therefore the earlier Crucifixion date was favored. Second, based on the erroneous belief that Christ was born in AD 1, in conjunction with the idea that he died at age 33, it was popularly believed that Christ was crucified in AD 33. Scholars tend to enjoy the feeling of superiority that comes from dismissing such popular beliefs. (I'm not sure why they did not think, rather, to question the death-at-age-33 theory . . .)

In the last decade, however, the consensus has shifted with near unanimity to AD 33 as the year of the Crucifixion. In AD 30, Christ's ministry was still in its early stages. AD 33 has astronomy, history, and tradition going for it.

In addition, further astronomical research has found that there was a lunar eclipse on 3 April 33. This is consistent with Peter's quotation from Joel (Acts 2:20): "The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood." In addition, the late-second-century apocryphal Report of Pilate to the Emperor Claudius claims that at the Crucifixion "the moon appeared like blood." This was a common description of lunar eclipses in that era, and it might very well record a memory of an eclipse on the day of the Crucifixion. This is the icing on the cake for AD 33.

Unless something forces us to make a radical re-evaluation of the era in which Christ lived or the correspondence of the days of his death and resurrection to the Jewish Passover, the consensus in favor of 3 April 33 is unlikely to change. In the meantime, I will continue to try to get to the bottom of the dates in the Synaxarion.


Roland said...

When the moon is full, as at Passover, the sun and the moon would appear in diametrically opposite positions in the sky. In icons of the Crucifixion, like the one shown above, the sun and the moon are often depicted on opposite sides of the icon. In this example, the moon is red.

Mari said...

He died before he was forty, that's good enough for me.

Roland said...

In this example, the moon is red.

Or is that the sun? The resolution of this image is not good enough to tell. This calls for more research.

Roland said...

A few days ago I ordered a copy of The Oxford Companion to the Year. It arrived today. It includes an 11-page chapter titled "Christian Chronology," which will no doubt be referenced heavily in my future posts on dates. It includes a whole page on "early Christian conjectures on the Crucifixion." Many conflicting dates were proposed, most of which did not match up well with the Jewish calendar or with history. Here is the relevant bit:

Another view, particularly favoured in Gaul and Alexandria, regarded 25 March as the Resurrection, the Crucifixion being the 23rd. During Pilate's governorship 23 March was a Friday in 31 and 36, but in both years too soon for Passover; Alexandrians mostly favoured 42, when Pilate was out of office. Lactantius (c.300) gives a date of 23 March [29] . . ., not realizing that in 29 it was a Wednesday. . . . The Chronicon Paschale, apparently completed in 630, amidst manifold confusions gives Nativity on 25 December 3 BC, Baptism on 6 January AD 28, and Crucifixion on 23 March 31.

I would guess this Chronicon Paschale is the source the Synaxarion drew on.

Roland said...

He died before he was forty, that's good enough for me.

Not so fast! Based on John 8:57 ("Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?"), some have suggested Jesus was in his 40s when crucified. Again following John (2:20-21), some suggest that Jesus was the same age as the temple at the time, 46, which would make about 49 at his death.

Roland said...

Regarding the sun vs. the moon in the Crucifixion icon: This post on another blog, which explores the symbolism of Crucifixion icons, also suggests the red disk is the moon. It displays another icon, in which the sun is black and the moon is red.

jjt said...

Some add'l info from first century Jewish sources concerning the Festal observances is here:

Roland said...

I recently learned of a strong argument for AD 30: the date can be inferred from John's Gospel. In John 2:20, the Jews state, "It has taken 46 years to build this temple," meaning the new temple begun by Herod in 19 BC. So this conversation would have taken place at Passover of AD 28. It was the first of the three Passovers that John reports. So the crucifixion would have taken place two years later, in AD 30.

Columbcille Dougherty said...

wouldnt it be a logical fallacy to assume that since three passovers are recorded post baptism this means christ only attended three passovers? instead the proper logic requires that Christ attended at a minimum of three passovers... correct me if im wrong, I jsut awoke to this debate last night when reading IRenaeus Against Heresies Book 2 Ch 22

"Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan. Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement. Whom then should we rather believe? Whether such men as these, or Ptolem├Žus, who never saw the apostles, and who never even in his dreams attained to the slightest trace of an apostle?"