Was this the Day Jesus Died?
WELL-KNOWN is the story of Jesus, the founder of Christianity, and the last days of his earthly ministry. During that time, he ate the Last Supper with his disciples. Before the meal, they quarreled who was greatest. To show that the greatest should serve, Jesus stooped to wash his disciples’ feet.
It was at this meal that he predicted one of them would betray him, and Judas left to do the deed. The rest of the disciples remained in prolonged discussion with Christ. Finally they left the room and walked to the Garden of Gethsemane.
After Jesus spent time in anguished prayer, a mob arrived and arrested him, although not without incident. The men who asked for Jesus fell backward when he said, “I am He.” Peter slashed off the ear of one of the mob, but Jesus healed it. He urged his persecutors to let his disciples go.
The captors led Jesus to the house of the High Priest. When no charge against him stuck, the High Priest commanded Jesus, in the name of God, to declare whether or not he was the Son of God. When Jesus affirmed this, he was declared guilty of blasphemy, a crime deserving capital punishment. Unable to conduct executions themselves, the Jewish authorities were forced to bring Jesus before the Roman governor Pilate. They obtained the death warrant by suggesting that as a pretend king, Jesus was setting himself against Rome. If Pilate freed Jesus, they argued, he was no friend of Caesar.
Pilate was in a bind. In October, AD 31, Roman Emperor Tiberias had executed Sejanus, his anti-Semitic advisor, and ordered Roman governors not to mistreat Jews. Consequently, Pilate could not take a stern line with the Jewish leaders. Instead, he had Jesus whipped and crucified. Darkness fell upon the land as Jesus hung on the cross—a mysterious darkness mentioned by at least two ancient writers. From the cross Jesus forgave those who crucified him, and arranged his mother’s care. He said he was thirsty and groaned that God had forsaken him. At one point, he promised a thief eternal life. Six hours after the nails went in, Jesus committed his soul to God and died. At that awful moment, the ground broke open.
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. 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.
It seems, then, that on this day, 3 April 33 under the Julian calendar, Jesus died.
*Because of a reader's comment, let me make clear: a blood moon is an eclipse of the moon, which is primarily a phenomenon observed at night, not an eclipse of the sun which happens during the day. This article is not suggesting that the darkness during the day was caused by an eclipse of the sun. Peter in Acts 2:14-20 quotes Joel 2:28ff. Among the signs included in that passage are the sun being darkened and the moon turning to blood. We have no obvious natural explanation for the sun being darkened. Cunningham’s point was that his computer models show that an eclipse of the moon happened on one of the possible dates for the crucifixion, thus strengthening that date's candidacy—especially when that event is apparently alluded to by Peter as evidence to his audience. Peter in effect told them, “Hey you saw the sun go dark and the moon become a blood moon. Now you are seeing people prophesying under the power of the spirit. These things, and the mighty works Jesus did, are proof that he was the promised one."
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To visit the traditional sites of Holy Week, watch Passion In Jerusalem