Is Today the Day Jesus Died?

APRIL 3, 2018

Both Biblical and historical accounts say that Jesus Christ lived and died sometime during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. But just when did Jesus die? The answer is of interest not only to scholars but to every Christian. The truth of the Bible hinges on it because there are seeming discrepancies between John and the synoptic gospels.

All accounts agree that Christ’s death took place during the hours when Passover lambs were slain. From the law of Moses we know the lamb was to be slain on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan. We know it was on a Friday because the gospels say the next day was a Sabbath (there are those who argue that it was actually a Wednesday and can make pretty good claims). It would seem a simple matter to check when Nisan 14 fell on a Sabbath within the time frame of Christ’s preaching. His ministry commenced sometime after John’s, which began in the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberias’ reign.

Wrestling with ancient dates is never easy, however. For one thing, scholars disagree about the fifteenth year of Tiberias. Is it to be dated from the beginning of his co-regency with his adopted father Augustus, or the beginning of his independent rule? For another, Jewish months began at the new moon. In the first century, new moon was determined by naked eye observation. A cloudy evening or a low moon could place the new moon a day later than the actual new moon as calculated by modern astronomers.

Furthermore, to keep their lunar calendar synchronized with the seasons, the Jews added an intercalary month (essentially a “leap month”) every few years. We have no record of which years received an intercalary month. Finally, because of the many subtle movements of the earth and moon, calculating when a new moon would be visible from Jerusalem twenty centuries ago is a prodigious task even for modern astronomers using computers.

What we do know is that Jesus died when Caiaphas was high priest (dates uncertain), Pontius Pilate was governor (AD 26 until sometime before Passover AD 37), and Tiberias was emperor (AD 14-37). Working with astrophysicist Graeme Waddington, physicist Colin J. Humphreys was able to narrow down the possible dates of Christ’s death to just two: 7 April 30 and 3 April 33.

Using careful examination of the available records and astronomical evidence, Humphreys argued that April 3, AD 33 not only fits best with all the evidence, but also experienced an eclipse of the moon—an event known in ancient literature as “the moon turning to blood.” Showing that the ancient calendar of Moses differed from the official Jerusalem calendar of the first century, he was able to eliminate the discrepancies between John’s Gospel and the synoptics. John reports the official Passover as it would have been observed at the temple, whereas the other three writers use an older calendar.

If Humphrey’s research is taken, it seems, then, that on this day, April 3, 33, under the Julian calendar, Jesus died.

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