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The Death of Jesus

"Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?"

John 18:38

The traditional Jewish calendar of the first century AD was lunar, in which the first day of each month was determined by when the thin crescent of the new moon was observed in Jerusalem shortly after sunset, the full moon rising about two weeks later. It was perhaps natural, therefore, that the setting sun should signify the end of the day and sunset the beginning of a new onewhich extended to sunset the next day (night and day, rather than day and night; cf. Genesis 1:5, "And the evening and morning were the first day"). Friday, for example, began at sunset on Thursday and ended at sunset on Friday, which was the beginning of Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Although the notion of a new day beginning on the evening of the previous one is potentially confusing, it really is not so different than a day beginning at midnight six hours later.

Daylight hours were measured from sunrise (6 a.m.). The third hour was 9 a.m.; the sixth hour, 12 noon; and the ninth hour, 3 p.m. An event that occurred before sunset (the twelfth hour, 6 p.m.) was counted as taking place on that day and, after sunset, the next. Even if moments old, a portion of a day counted as the whole—and so in the Jerusalem Talmud "day and night each are a term, and part of a term is like the whole" (Shabbat, IX.3). Days, too, were counted inclusively (most notably in the Roman calendar) and both the first and last day were included in their calculation—which added a day to the sum.

As God commanded Moses, "The first month of the year to you" (Exodus 12:2, cf. Esther 3:7) was to be Nisan, which marked the vernal equinox and the beginning of spring, corresponding to March/April (just as the vernal equinox on March 25 was the beginning of the new year in the early Roman calendar). A lamb was to be kept "until the fourteenth day of the same month" (Exodus 12:6, Leviticus 23:5, Numbers 28:16) when, at moonrise that evening (the first full moon after the equinox), it was to be eaten with bread and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8), on what then was the beginning of the fifteenth day of the month.

This was the Passover feast commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, who had marked their doorposts with the blood of a lamb so God would pass over them. A moveable feast, Passover was especially sacred when it coincided with the Sabbath, another holy convocation (Leviticus 23:3–4)—as was the first day of the ensuing week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread that followed the Passover (Leviticus 23:7, Deuteronomy16:3). And, just as God had "rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made" (Genesis 2:2), so too the Sabbath was to be a day in which "thou shalt not do any work" (Exodus 20:10, 12:16; Leviticus 23:3, 7).

For a Passover meal to be celebrated on the Sabbath, it therefore had to be prepared well before sunset, while it still was Friday. This was the Day of Preparation, in which the lamb sacrificed on the afternoon of Nisan 14 was eaten later that evening—in the twilight after sundown and the rising of the full moon on what then was Saturday, Nisan 15, the Day of Passover. Twilight itself was that period between sunset and the appearance of the first few stars in the evening sky, when the moon first was visible in the darkening sky.

The Gospels all agree that Jesus died on a Friday, a few hours before the Jewish Sabbath was to begin (Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:14, 31), that he shared a Last Supper with his disciples, and was crucified—and that these events occurred in the reign of Tiberius (AD 14–37), when Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judaea (AD 2636); Caiaphas, high priest in Jerusalem (circa AD 1836); and Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee (circa 4 BCAD 39) (Tacitus, Annals, XV.44; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.2.2, XVII.8.1; Luke 3:12).

But there is a day's difference between the accounts. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke; so named because they share a similar narrative, in contrast to John), Jesus is said to have been crucified and died after the Passover meal on what then was Passover day (Nisan 15). In the Gospel of John, Jesus dies before the Passover, while the meal still was being prepared (Nisan 14). The question is whether Jesus died before or after this Last Supper and whether it truly was a Passover meal. When, in other words, did the Day of Preparation and the Day of Passover fall on a Friday in the reign of Pontius Pilate? That date determines the year in which Jesus died.

Mark was the first Gospel to be written, sometime shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 when, on Passover that year, the Romans laid siege to the city, destroying the Second Temple four months later (Josephus, The Jewish War, V.3.1, VI.4.8; cf. Mark 13:2, "there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down"). He recounts that, on "the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover [lamb]," the disciples asked Jesus where they were to prepare the meal "that thou mayest eat the passover" (14:12; also Matthew 26:17; Luke 22:15, "I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer").

Preparations for a Last Supper were duly made and later that evening, at what both Jesus and his disciples describe as a Passover meal, Jesus took the bread and broke it (as his own body would be broken) and then the wine, signifying the shedding of his own blood. Afterwards, Jesus and the disciples went out to the Mount of Olives and then to the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:26, 32), where he was betrayed by Judas and arrested. Tried that night before the high priest and the assembled chief priests, elders, and scribes (Sanhedrin) (14:53), Jesus was found guilty by Pontius Pilate and crucified the next morning "at the third hour" (9 a.m.) (15:25) on what then was Passover day (Nisan 15). Given the prolonged agony of crucifixion, Jesus died later that afternoon at about the ninth hour (3 p.m.) (15:34, Matthew 27:46, Luke 23:44). "Excruciating," coincidentally, derives from the Latin crux, "cross."

(It should be remembered that, although Jesus and his disciples partook of a Passover meal in the evening at the start of Nisan 15 and he died later that Friday afternoon, both events in the Jewish calendar still occurred on the same day—the Last Supper being eaten in the twilight that marked the beginning of Friday Passover, which then extended to sunset that night and the beginning of the Sabbath on Saturday.)

John was the last Gospel to be written, about twenty-five years after Mark's account. He relates that Jesus died "before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father" (13:1). So, too, in the Jewish Talmud, "On the eve of the Passover Yeshu [Jesus] was hanged....he was hanged on the eve of the Passover" (Mishnah Sanhedrin, 43a).

There is no preparation for a Passover meal nor mention of a communion of bread and wine; rather, "supper being ended," Jesus washed the feet of his disciples (13:2, 5) and, echoing Moses, gave them a new commandment: to love one another (13:34). Arrested later that night, Jesus was bound and taken to the house of Annas who, after fruitless questioning, sent him to his son-in-law Caiaphas, the high priest who, in turn, had Jesus escorted to the praetorium (official residence) of Pilate himself (18:13, 24, 28). By now, it was early Friday morning, a cock already having crowed.

The Jewish authorities refused to enter the building however, "lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover" later that evening (18:28). This obliged Pilate, somewhat incongruously, to meet with them outside, passing to and from his own palace as he questioned first Jesus, and then his accusers. Finally brought out for judgment, Jesus was led away to be crucified. "It was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour" (noontime) (19:14, 16).

Having had a Last Supper the evening before, Jesus does not partake of a Passover meal but is sentenced and crucified while, in the Synoptics, it still was being prepared. When Luke, for example, says it was about the sixth hour that Jesus reassured the thief on the cross that he would be with him that day in paradise (23:44), in John, Jesus still was standing before Pilate, who declared to the Jews, "Behold your King!" (19:14). This would have been sometime after noon but before sunset that evening. (Philo speaks of Passover "beginning at noonday and continuing till evening," The Special Laws, II.37.145.)

(In the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper is a Passover meal and the crucifixion occurs on the Day of Passover itself, Nisan 15. In John, this Last Supper is eaten the evening before and Jesus is crucified on Friday afternoon—but that is the Day of Preparation, Nisan 14.)

In John, moreover, this Passover fell on a Saturday—thereby coinciding with the weekly Sabbath. "That sabbath day was an high day" (19:31), in which the two festivals were celebrated on the same day, and Friday (Nisan 14) was the Day of Preparation for them both. This was the same time that the lambs were being prepared for the Passover feast at moonrise later that evening and the beginning of Passover Day (Nisan 15). Jesus himself has become the sacrificial lamb or, in the words of John the Baptist, "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (1:29, 36), dying at the same time as the paschal lambs were being ritually slaughtered in the Temple—as prefigured by I Corinthians "For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us" (5:7).

According to Josephus, this would have been "from the ninth hour till the eleventh" (3 p.m. to 5 p.m.) (War of the Jews, VI.9.3). By the first century AD, the number of lambs killed by priests at the Temple was so great that sacrifices had to begin earlier in the afternoon. For Passover in AD 70, Josephus relates that 256,500 lambs were slaughtered at Jerusalem—as the Jews themselves would be later, when they had gone there to celebrate but then were trapped inside the besieged city by Titus and his Roman legionaries.

And "because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day" (John 19:31), Jesus has to die before the beginning of the Sabbath, when capital punishment was prohibited by Jewish law (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23, "His body shall not remain all night upon the tree"). This is why John alone speaks of the legs of the two thieves being broken so that they not remain alive on the cross. Unable to lift themselves to breathe, suffocation would come all the more readily and death hastened—before the start of the Sabbath (and Passover) that evening, only hours later. (Cicero relates a proverbial remark said of Titus Plancus, whose shifting alliances allowed him to survive the politics of Rome. "He cannot die unless his legs have been broken. They have been broken, and he lives," Philippics, XIII.27.)

The legs of Jesus no doubt would have been broken as well, had he not already died (as confirmed by the thrust of a spear in his side), thus fulfilling God's command that "neither shall ye break a bone thereof" of the paschal lamb (Exodus 12:46; also John 19:36 "a bone of him shall not be broken"; contra, I Corinthians 11:24, "Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you").

Jewish law also prohibited rulings in a capital case being made at night. A person could be tried and acquitted on the same day—but not convicted. If there was an initial verdict of guilty, the trial had to be adjourned until the following day, when the decision could be reaffirmed. During that time, members of the Sanhedrin were permitted to change their minds, although only to acquit if originally there had been an argument for conviction. There then was a vote and a final verdict pronounced. Thirteen of the twenty-three members of the Sanhedrin had to render a guilty vote to convict (Mishnah Sanhedrin, 4.1, 5).

It was this deliberative procedure that precluded capital cases from being adjudicated on the eve of a Sabbath or feast day. The court would not know whether the defendant was to be acquitted or convicted until it convened the next day and its decision finalized. If guilty, an execution the day after that would defile the sanctity of these holy days.

Indeed, Augustus himself had decreed that Jews "be not obliged to go before any judge on the Sabbath-day, nor on the day of the preparation to it, after the ninth hour" (Antiquities of the Jews, XVI.6.2). This excused Jews from appearing before a Roman tribunal when they otherwise would be preparing to celebrate the Sabbath that Friday afternoon.

The Synoptic account of the Sanhedrin considering such a case on the eve of Passover is therefore suspect—as is the discrepancy between their intention not to arrest Jesus "on the feast day, lest there be an uproar of the people" (Mark 14:2) and his actual arrest on that very day. Curious, too, is the mention of Simon who, having "coming out of the country" (14:21), was compelled to carry the cross of Jesus. The presumption is that he had been working in the countryside and walked into town—both of which would have violated the injunction to "not do any work" on the Sabbath. In Acts, for example, the distance from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem was "a sabbath day's journey" (1:12). According to Josephus, this was five stadia or furlongs, about a thousand yards (Antiquities of the Jews, XX.8.6.), which is to say that it was short enough not to constitute "work." Josephus of Arimathea also was busy on Passover day, asking Pilate for the body of Jesus, buying a linen shroud, wrapping Jesus in it, and laying him in the tomb (Mark 15:43, 46).

If Jesus died on the Day of Preparation, then in what years during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate (AD 26–36) did that day fall on a Friday? Using astronomical data, Humphreys and Waddington have calculated that there are only two possible dates during this decade that a Friday crucifixion could have occurred on Nisan 14: either April 7, AD 30 or April 3, AD 33. A Friday Passover on Nisan 15 (as the Synoptic Gospels contend) would be in the year AD 27 (two years before Jesus himself was baptized) or AD 34 (the probable year of Paul's conversion), which almost certainly is too early or too late.

John records three Passovers during Jesus' ministry—the first at its beginning (2:13), when he was baptized by John the Baptist, who had begun his own ministry in AD 29 (Luke 3:1); a second midway through, while Jesus was ministering in Galilee (6:4); and the last just before Jesus' death, when he and his disciples went to Jerusalem, for the "passover was nigh at hand" (11:55). (John also mentions a fourth, unnamed "feast of the Jews"—but does not identify it as a Passover, 5:1.)

By then, the Temple had been forty-six years "in building" (2:20), work having begun by Herod's father, Herod the Great, "in the eighteenth year of his reign" (Antiquities of the Jews, XV.11.1). Josephus also says "in the fifteenth year of his reign" (The Jewish War, I.21.1) but the discrepancy is between when Herod was proclaimed king of Judaea by the Roman Senate in 40 BC (I.14.4) and when he actually secured the throne three years later, in 37 BC. Counting inclusively from the latter date, Herod began to rebuild the Temple complex in 20 BC.

But first, a thousand wagons were made ready to bring stone and ten thousand skilled workmen assembled. A thousand sacerdotal robes were purchased for the priests, some of whom were taught to be stone masons and carpenters. "Not till every thing was well prepared for the work" could the foundation be laid and building begin (Antiquities of the Jews, XV.11.2–3). It is not known how long these preparations took before work began on the most sacred inner part of the Temple, but Josephus recounts that it was "built by the priests in a year and six months" (XV.11.6). Allowing perhaps two years altogether, the inner Temple would have been completed about 18 BC. Forty-six years later would be AD 29. For the ministry of Jesus to have begun about that time and extend over three annual Passovers, he could not have been crucified in AD 30.

Jesus was about "about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23) when he was baptized by John and began to teach, which Matthew states to have been "in the days of Herod the king" (2:1). At the end of his life, when Herod was thought to be dead or dying, a golden eagle that he had erected over the gate to the Jewish Temple was torn down (Antiquities of the Jews, XVII.6.2ff; The Jewish War, I.6.4). The sedition was suppressed and the instigators burned alive. "And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon" (Antiquities of the Jews, XVII.6.4). Herod died soon afterwards, sometime before "the approach" of Passover that year, a month later (XVII.9.3). This partial lunar eclipse (the only time such a phenomenon is mentioned by Josephus in all his voluminous writings) is thought to have occurred in 4 BC.

Jesus himself would have to be born sometime before the death of Herod. If in 5 BC (when a comet was visible over Bethlehem), he would have been about thirty-three years old when he began to teach—which accords with Luke, who may have mentioned "about thirty years" because that is the age at which one first could "do the work in the tabernacle of the congregation" (Numbers 4:3, 23, 30). John the Baptist also would have been about thirty when he began to preach, having been conceived just six months before Jesus (Luke 1:24ff). So, too, did a man attain his greatest strength at that age (Mishna: Pirkei Avot, 5:25). Joseph, for example, was thirty years old when he began to rule over Egypt (Genesis 41:46)—as were Saul (I Samuel 13:1; there is a lacuna in the original Hebrew text, and this is the translation of the New International Version) and David (II Samuel 5:4) when they became king.

(The Greeks also believed that the most important deeds of one's life occurred at a certain age. Apollodorus of Athens understood this akmę, "bloom," to be about forty years of age—as did Pythagoras, who divided a man's life into four quarters, forty being the age when one fully blossomed, Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VIII.1.10.)

Proponents of AD 30 as the year of Jesus' death calculate that he was born the year that Herod died, was thirty years of age when baptized, and taught for three years. Adding thirty-three years to 4 BC (and subtracting a year to allow for the fact there is no AD 0) yields the desired date. Perhaps with the example of Herod the Great in mind, such a chronology assumes however that Tiberius had begun to rule in AD 12, when he was awarded imperium to "govern the provinces jointly with Augustus" (Suetonius, Life of Tiberius, XXI.1; Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, II.121.1-2). By this reckoning, Jesus, who was baptized "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" (Luke 3:1), would have begun his public ministry in AD 27, dying three years later.

But, as Steinmann has demonstrated, there is no evidence (historical, numismatical, or inscriptional) that Tiberius ever did rule as co-regent; rather, he succeeded Augustus as emperor in AD 14, as all the ancient sources attest (Tacitus, Annals, I.5, Suetonius, Life of Tiberius, XXIV.2; Dio, Roman History, LVI.30.5; Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, I.141, 298; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.2.2; Tertullian, Against Marcion, I.19, IV.7). The baptism of Jesus fifteen years later would have been in AD 29—again, too late for him to have been crucified the following year.

Jesus therefore died on Friday, April 3, AD 33 at about 3 p.m., a few hours before the beginning of Passover day and the Sabbath. This is the date in the Julian calendar, which had been introduced in 45 BC, and follows the convention that historical dates adhere to the calendar in use at the time. If, instead, the current Gregorian calendar were retroactively extended to a date prior to its introduction in 1582 (or 1752, when it was adopted by the United States and United Kingdom), such a proleptic date (a date retroactively calculated using a later calendar) would be different.

The equivalent Jewish date for the death of Jesus is Nisan 14, 3793 anno mundi ("in the year of the world"), which is computed by adding 3761 to AD 33 and subtracting a year. In the Jewish calendar, AM 1 (or 3761 BC, its proleptic Julian date) is the traditional year of creation (a year before Adam and Eve themselves were created)—as determined by the sage Halafta, who used only the chronology of the Bible as his authority, and codified by the twelfth-century scholar Maimonides a millennium later.

Too, as Humphreys and Waddington have calculated, there was a partial lunar eclipse of the full moon as it rose above Jerusalem on Friday, April 3, AD 33, thus fulfilling the prophecy quoted by Peter that "The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come" (Acts 2:20, cf. Joel 2:31). Certainly, it is fitting that the blood smeared on the door frames of the Israelites in Egypt as "a token upon the houses where ye are" (Exodus 12:13) should prefigure a sanguine moon rising above Jerusalem that night—especially since the eclipse occurred just at moonrise, when Jews on Passover Day would have been particularly observant as they waited to commence their evening meal. (Schaefer, however, has argued that the eclipse likely would not have been noticed and any subtle lunar coloration would have been due simply to scattered light in a denser atmosphere.)

But there was another incident, this one historical rather than astronomical, that supports the crucifixion of Jesus in AD 33: the death in Rome of the praetorian prefect Lucius Sejanus, commander of the imperial guard, two years before. In AD 26, Tiberius had retired to Capri, effectively abdicating his imperial responsibilities to Sejanus, who appointed Pilate prefect of Judaea that same year. Both men were virulently anti-Jewish: Sejanus "desirous to destroy our nation" (On the Embassy to Gaius, XXIV.160; Against Flaccus, I.1) and Pilate determined "to abolish the Jewish laws" (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.1).

Shortly after Sejanus' death in AD 31 (and no doubt to show his continuing loyalty to the emperor), Pilate dedicated some gilded shields at Herod's palace in Jerusalem, which provoked a riot (On the Embassy to Gaius, XXXVIII.299ff). Josephus later relates a similar (if not the same) story. Roman standards, adorned with the emperor's image, were brought secretly into Jerusalem during the night, prompting a uproar among the populace, who considered "their laws to have been trampled under foot" (The Jewish War, II.9.2-3; retold in Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.1). Money taken from the Temple treasury to begin construction of an aqueduct caused further unrest, which was brutally suppressed (The Jewish War, II.9.4; Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.2).

Pilate was in a quandary, "neither venturing to take down what he had once set up, nor wishing to do any thing which could be acceptable to his subjects" (On the Embassy to Gaius, XXXVIII.303). When a supplicatory letter was sent to Tiberius, entreating that he intervene, Sejanus was dead, having been belatedly executed for treason in AD 31 (Roman History, LVIII.11.1ff). With the loss of his patron, Pilate no doubt was fearful of his association with the disgraced Sejanus. Indeed, the prefect was reproached by the emperor, who was sympathetic to the Jews and ordered the immediate removal of the offending objects, which were to be placed instead in the Temple of Augustus on the coast at Caesarea, the provincial capital (On the Embassy to Gaius, XXXVIII.305).

This wariness in giving further offence may explain why Pilate, "a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate," was uncharacteristically acquiescent in handing Jesus over to the Jewish authorities—as well as releasing Barabbas, a convicted rebel and murderer (Mark 15:7). He was fearful that, if they were to send an embassy to Tiberius, it "might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity" (XXXVIII.301–302). No doubt the Jews were aware of Pilate's vulnerability when they threatened that "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend" (John 19:12). In AD 30, when Sejanus still was alive, such a threat would have been a matter of indifference to the prefect; afterwards, it had to be taken into account.

In AD 36, there was yet another disturbance, when Pilate thwarted the Samaritan followers of someone claiming to be the prophet foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15ff. Although only the principals were executed, the Samaritans complained to the governor about the number slain, and Pilate was recalled "to answer before the emperor to the accusations of the Jews" (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.4.1ff). He hastened to Rome but, by the time he arrived, the ailing Tiberius had died, to be succeeded by Caligula. Nothing more is recorded of Pilate's fate. (Tellingly perhaps, the rule of both Pilate and Caiaphas, whom he had appointed as high priest in Jerusalem, ended the same year.)

For Christian apologists, this was a problem. Indeed, about AD 180, the pagan philosopher Celsus had asked why "no calamity happened even to him who condemned him" (quoted by Origen, Against Celsus, II.34). If Pilate killed the son of God, he chided, why had God not punished him? It was a question that discomfited the early church, especially during the first and second centuries AD, when the young sect already was viewed with suspicion by the Romans.

In the reign of Claudius, Jews had been expelled from Rome because there were constant "disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus" (Suetonius, Life of Claudius, XXV.4; cf. Acts 18:2). Under Nero, members of the "pernicious superstition" founded by Christus were persecuted for the great fire in Rome and that "class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians....convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race" (Tacitus, Annals, XV.44). In a letter written to Trajan about AD 112, Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia in northern Asia Minor, complains of their "stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy" in adhering to a "depraved and excessive superstition" (Letters, X.96; cf. I Peter 2:12, warning the faithful in Bithynia that people "speak against you as evildoers," also 3:16, 4:4).

Christian credulity was satirized as well. Lucian of Samosata witnessed the self-immolation of Peregrinus, a Greek cynic philosopher who had ingratiated himself with the Christian community and, in AD 165, later killed himself. Whereas Aulus Gellius regarded him as "a man of dignity and fortitude" who said many things that were "in truth helpful and noble" (Attic Nights, XII.11), Lucian thought Peregrinus a charlatan and fraud. Having learned the "wondrous lore" of Christians from priests and scribes in Palestine, he readily imposed himself upon these "simple folk," whom Lucian derides for their delusionary notions.

"The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody, most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver [Jesus] persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence" (The Passing of Peregrinus, XIII).

Christians were suspect, and the Gospels prudently refrain from overtly criticizing the Roman prefect for his culpability in the death of Jesus—and begin increasingly to blame the Jews themselves. In Mark, Pilate asks, when they cry out that Jesus be crucified, "Why, what evil hath he done? (15:14). A decade or so later, Luke relates the same storybut now Pilate repeats his declaration "And he said unto them the third time, Why, what evil hath he done" (23:22). Matthew, too, has Pilate asking what evil Jesus has done—and then washes his hands of the entire matter, declaring "I am innocent of the blood of this just person" (27:24). In response, the Jews are said to have cried out "His blood be on us, and on our children" (27:25) and take responsibility themselves for the death of Jesus (a fatal passage that will lead to their persecution in the Middle Agesand later). Finally, in John, Pilate declares that "I find in him no fault at all" (18:38, 19:4) and hands Jesus over to the people for execution. "Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him" (19:6).

Written about AD 150, the pseudepigraphical Gospel of Peter is the earliest non-canonical passion narrative—although, like other writings falsely attributed to the apostles, it was rejected as apocryphal by the early church, "knowing that such were not handed down to us" (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VI.12.3, III.3.2, 25.6). This gospel is even more emphatic in exonerating Pilate, who is said to have declared "I am clear from the blood of the son of God" and kept news of the resurrection from the Jews (XI.46–47). Rather, it is Herod, the Jewish tetrarch of Galilee, who is responsible for the crucifixion, as are the Jews themselves. When Joseph of Arimathea (here, a friend of Pilate) asks to be allowed to bury the body of Jesus, Pilate is obliged to seek permission from Herod, who reassured him that, even if he had not been asked, "we should have buried him, since also the Sabbath dawneth; for it is written in the law that the sun should not set upon one that hath been slain" (II.5, cf. John 19:31, "the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day").

As to the Jews, they are utterly malevolent. When the thief on the cross recognized that Jesus has become the savior of men, "they were wroth with him, and commanded that his legs should not be broken, that so he might die in torment" (IV.1314; cf. Luke 23:41). The referent in Greek is not clear, however, and it may be that Jesus himself is meant. Whether Jesus or those who believed in him, it is the Jews, not the Romans, who are hostile to the new religion.

In Justin Martyr, this animus toward the Jews extends to Rome itself. In the First Apology to Antoninus Pius (circa AD 155), he complains that the Jews "count us foes and enemies; and, like yourselves, they kill and punish us whenever they have the power, as you can well believe" (XXXI), referring to the bloody Bar Kokhba revolt of AD 132–135 when, outraged that Hadrian would construct a Roman colony on the ruined foundations of Jerusalem, the Jews fought a prolonged rebellion in which "many Romans" perished (Roman History, LXIX.12–14). By the early third century, Origen, in arguing against Celsus that Pilate had not been punished, declares that the taunt has been misdirected. "And yet he does not know that it was not so much Pilate that condemned the Jewish nation, which has been condemned by God" (Against Celsus, II.34). As in the Gospel of Peter, it is not Pilate who is responsible for Jesus' crucifixion but the recalcitrant Jews, who perversely refuse to accept Jesus as their Messiah.

In time, Pilate himself metamorphoses. According to Tertullian, writing in AD 197, the prefect "in his own conscience was now a Christian" (Apology, XX1.26). A century-and-a-quarter later, Eusebius adds that Tiberius was so impressed with what Pilate had to say when he was summoned to Rome that the emperor proposed to the Roman Senate that Jesus be recognized as a god (Ecclesiastical History, II.2.4–6). Nevertheless, Pilate reportedly fell into misfortune under Caligula and was forced to commit suicide "and thus divine vengeance, as it seems, was not long in overtaking him" (II.7.1; cf. Matthew 27:3–5, where Judas also repents of his betrayal and hangs himself).

To reconcile the Gospel accounts, it has been suggested that Jesus, no doubt aware of his imminent arrest, did not have a Passover meal (which would have required the Temple sacrifice of a paschal lamb in any event) but simply a final meal the night before. Or there was a scribal error in translating the third and sixth hour, confusing gamma and digamma—an argument put forward by Ammonius of Alexandria (Patrologiae Grćcć, LXXXV, Col. 1512) in the early third century AD and by Eusebius a century later (Greek Fragments, To Marinas, Suppl. IV).

Others (especially those concerned about Biblical inerrancy) have sought to harmonize the Gospels by suggesting that John and the Synoptics used different calendars. For example, Jesus may have followed the solar calendar of the Essenes, an apocalyptic sect that split from the priesthood at Jerusalem and settled at Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea. Rejecting the traditional Jewish lunar calendar, they believed that "God appointed the sun to be a great sign on the earth for days and for sabbaths and for months and for feasts and for years and for sabbaths of years and for jubilees and for all seasons of the years (Book of Jubilees, II.9)—and those who "will not make the year three hundred and sixty-four days only, and for this reason they will go wrong as to the new moons and seasons and sabbaths and festivals" (VI.38).

Their own ecclesiastical calendar was neither lunar nor solar but rigidly divided into twelve months, each of thirty days (with a day inserted after each of the four seasons), for a total of 364 days or fifty-two weeks. Such a year is divisible by seven, which meant that any given date always fell on the same day—and each week, month, and year began on Sunday and ended on the Sabbath (cf. I Enoch, LXXII). Philo, too, speaks of the Passover, "And this universal sacrifice of the whole people is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month, which consists of two periods of seven, in order that nothing which is accounted worthy of honour may be separated from the number seven. But this number is the beginning of brilliancy and dignity to everything" (The Special Laws, II.xxxvii.149).

Although creation itself occurred on Sunday, the Essenes measured the first day of the first month (Nisan 1) from Wednesday, when the sun and moon were created. The day, too, was measured from sunrise to sunrise, which allowed the paschal lamb to be both prepared and eaten on the same day—on Nisan 14 (a Tuesday), as instructed by Moses (Exodus 12:6).

Pope Benedict XVI agreed with this notion, as he proclaimed in his Homily for Holy Thursday in 2007, arguing that John was not simply motivated by theological considerations in equating Jesus, the Lamb of God, with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs, but correct in his chronology as well.

"We can now say that John's account is historically precise. Jesus truly shed his blood on the eve of Easter a the time of the immolation of the lambs. In all likelihood, however, he celebrated the Passover with his disciples in accordance with the Qumran calendar, hence, at least one day earlier [Nisan 14]; he celebrated it without a lamb, like the Qumran community which did not recognize Herod's temple and was waiting for the new temple."

Humphreys, too, in his own attempt to reconcile John and the Synoptic Gospels, has proposed that different calendars were followed. But he rejects the Qumran calendar of the Essenes—which, no matter how elegantly its 364 days are divisible by seven, does not seem to have intercalated for the 365.25 days of the solar calendar. Over time and certainly by that of Jesus, it would have become increasingly out of phase with the sun.

Whereas John used the traditional Jewish lunar calendar (an adoption of the Babylonian calendar during the Exile), which measured the day from sunset to sunset, Humphreys has proposed that Matthew, Mark, and Luke adhered to an earlier lunar calendar of the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus, in which the first day of the lunar month began, not with the appearance of the crescent moon—but on the previous night, when the moon was new at lunar conjunction. In this pre-Exilic calendar, a day was counted from sunrise to sunrise, when the lunar crescent was last seen in the morning sky just before sunrise. This would allow the Passover lamb to be sacrificed on the same day as the Passover meal was eaten—but on a Wednesday.

Different calendars also would explain the dating of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (so named because the Israelites did not have time to leaven their bread before departing Egypt), where in Exodus 12:18 and Ezekiel 45:21, it begins on Nisan 14; and in Leviticus 23:6 and Numbers 28:17, on Nisan 15. Mark's statement, for example, that "the first day of unleavened bread [is] when they killed the passover" is potentially confusing in that the feast occurred on Nisan 15, whereas the sacrifice of the Passover lamb was celebrated the day before. But, here, he may have meant that the Passover was the first meal of the seven-day Feast; cf. Josephus "it being the fourteenth day of the month" (War of the Jews, V.3.1).

In fact, as Bond as demonstrated, alternative calendars do not seem to have been used in first-century Palestine; nor is there any reason to assume that Jesus made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem at a time any different from other Jews traveling to the city to celebrate the Passover feast.

To reconcile the two Gospel accounts also is to gloss over what each has said. In Mark, the Last Supper occurs at the same time that Jews were celebrating the Passover. The communion of bread and wine (the body and blood of Jesus) has replaced the traditional Jewish observance. Too, Jesus dies when the moon was full, as it was on the spring equinox, when the world itself had been created (Tertullian, Against the Jews, VIII.18; Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel, IV.23.1; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, I.21; Augustine, On the Trinity, IV.5; also the apocryphal Acts of Pilate, I Prologue.). In John, Jesus dies on the Day of Preparation as the sacrificial Lamb of God. There is no Passover meal for, as Hippolytus wrote early in the third century AD, "He did not eat the passover of the law. For He was the passover that had been of old proclaimed" (Refutation of All Heresies, Frag. I).

Among the annual sacred feasts enumerated in Leviticus, there was, after Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a Feast of First-Fruits (Nisan 16), which was to be celebrated the day after the Jewish Sabbath, when the first sheaf of barley was offered to God in thanksgiving (Leviticus 23:10–11; Philo, The Special Laws, II.xxix.162; Antiquities of the Jews, III.10.5). In AD 33, this Sunday would have been the first Easter, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, who not only symbolized the paschal lamb but also had "become the firstfruits of them that slept" (I Corinthians 23:20). Implicit in Paul's words is that Jesus died on Nisan 14, as John had written, rising from the dead three days (counting inclusively) after his crucifixion. The Gospel of Peter supports this chronology as well: Jesus was delivered to the Jews on the eve of Passover, "before the first day of unleavened bread, their feast" (III).

Just as the Passover in the Jewish calendar was celebrated on the first full moon following the vernal equinox, so too did the early church determine that Easter should be on the first Sunday following the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox (March 21). But there was a problem, as Eusebius records in his Ecclesiastical History (V.23-25),

"A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be [in other words, Passover was observed on Nisan 14, regardless of the day of the week on which it occurred]. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour" (V.23.1).

This was the Quartodeciman controversy (from quarta decima, "fourteenth") over whether Easter should coincide with the Passover on Nisan 14 (as observed by the church in Jerusalem and Asia Minor, which claimed their authority from the apostle John and his disciple Polycarp; cf. Leviticus 23:5, "In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the Lord's passover") or be celebrated only on Easter Sunday (as insisted by the church at Rome, which did not want an alignment with the Jewish calendar). It was a potential schism that was effectively settled only by a promulgation from the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325.

In a Germanic language such as English, the festival of Easter (Ostern in German) derives from Eostre, a pagan goddess of the dawn and spring. The Old English word first is mentioned by the English monk Bede in De temporum ratione ("The Reckoning of Time"), written in AD 725, where he identified the month of April as Eosturmonath (§330).

"Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated 'Paschal month', and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance" (§331).

In the Life of Charlemagne, written about a century later, the Frankish scholar Einhard relates that, among the reforms of Charles the Great, "He gave the months names in his own tongue, in place of the Latin and barbarous names by which they were formerly known among the Franks" (XXIX). April was called Ostaramonath, "Easter month," Ostara and Eostre being related to Eos, the Greek goddess of dawn, heralding the arrival of spring. Jacob Grimm (the elder of the Brothers Grimm) elaborates on the etymology in Teutonic Mythology, first published in 1835.

"This Ostara, like the AS. [Anglo-Saxon] Eastre, must in the heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries....Ostara, Eastre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted to the resurrection-day of the christian's God" (pp. 290–291).

Passover is Pascha in Greek, as transliterated from the Aramaic. This also is the word for Easter in Latin and the Romance languages.

In Luke, Jesus is led from the Sanhedrin to Pilate, but then from Pilate to Herod Antipas, and from Herod back to Pilate (23:6–11). This notion of a peripatetic Jesus is said to have been one explanation for All Fool's Day (April 1), in which a trick was to send the victim on a fool's errand—an ultimately needless and pointless endeavor, as each person would allege that it always was the next person to be seen.

The seventeenth-century ivory crucifix is in the Treasury of the Cathedral of Córdoba (Spain), which is situated there within the Great Mosque (Mezquita).

References: "Dating the Crucifixion" (1983) by Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington, Nature, 306, 743-746; "The Date of the Crucifixion" (1985) by Colin J. Humphreys and W. Graeme Waddington, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 37(1), 2-10 ("some further comments"); "The Jewish Calendar, A Lunar Eclipse and the Date of Christ's Crucifixion" (1992) by Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington, Tyndale Bulletin, 43(2), 331-351; "The Star of Bethlehem, A Comet in 5 BC and the Date of Christ's Birth" (1992) by Colin J. Humphreys, Tyndale Bulletin, 43(1), 31-56; The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus (2011) by Colin J. Humphreys; "Lunar Visibility and the Crucifixion" (1990) by Bradley E. Schaefer, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 31, 53-67; Jesus, Interrupted (2009) by Bart D. Ehrman; Marking Time (2000) by Duncan Steel; "Was Jesus' Last Supper a Seder?" (2018, March 28) by Jonathan Klawans, Bible History Daily, an online publication of the Biblical Archaeology Society (reprinted from Biblical Review, 2001); Benedict XVI: "Holy Thursday Homily: Jesus Is the New and True Lamb" (2007, April 5); "Dating the Death of Jesus: Memory and the Religious Imagination" (2013) by Helen Bond, New Testament Studies, 59(4), 461-475; "The Date of Herod's Death" (1968) by Timothy D. Barnes, The Journal of Theological Studies, 19(1), 204-209; Eusebius of Caesarea: Gospel Problems and Solutions (2010) edited by Roger Pearse (pp. 219–221); The Oxford Companion to the Year (1999) by Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens; "Reckoning Tiberius's Reign and Jesus's Baptism" (2022) by Andrew E. Steinmann, Tyndale Bulletin, 73, 91-118; "English Explanation of Mishnah" by Joshua Kulp, online at

Cicero: Philippics (1926) translated by W. C. A. Ker (Loeb Classical Library); The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus the Jewish Historian (1737) translated by William Whiston; The Works of Philo Judaeus (1854) translated by Charles Duke Yonge; The Apocryphal New Testament (1924) translated by M. R. James; The Book of Jubilees or The Little Genesis (1902) translated by R. H. Charles; The Book of Enoch or 1 Enoch (1912) translated by R. H. Charles; Lucian: The Passing of Peregrinus (1936) translated by A. M. Harmon (Loeb Classical Library); Jacob Grimm: Teutonic Mythology (1875/1882) translated by James Steven Stallybrass; Bede: The Reckoning of Time (1999) translated by Faith Wallis.

See also Saturnalia.

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