Some Questions in Gospel Chronology

2. John the Baptist's and Jesus' Ministries

When was John the Baptist's Ministry?

This question is important because it is tied up with questions about the dating of Jesus' ministry. John the Baptist's ministry is apparently dated securely by Luke 3.1-2 to the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar. Exactly when that was depends on whether we begin to count the years of Tiberius' reign from 12 CE, when he was named co-princeps with Augustus, or 14 CE, when the death of Augustus made him sole ruler. In the former case, John left the wilderness and began to proclaim his baptism of repentance in 26/27 CE and in the latter, in 28/29 CE.

In Matthew and Mark, the end of John's active ministry is linked with his public criticism of the tetrarch Herod Antipas for his marriage to Herodias, his sister-in-law (see Matthew 14.3-4 and Mark 6.17-18, where Antipas is said to have imprisoned John because of the criticism). A key piece of information here is the date of this marriage. Unfortunately Josephus provides two narratives about Antipas and his marital adventures, each of which suggests a different date for the marriage with Herodias: c34 CE and c24 CE. The date c34 simply cannot be made to fit with the information in the gospels, according to all of which the arrest and death of John came during the life and active ministry of Jesus. If we attempt to reconcile Josephus and the NT, we must assume that the date of c34 is the result either of a misdating by Josephus or a misreading of his text by modern scholars.

If we accept the c24 CE date for the marriage and a 26/27 CE date for the start of John's preaching ministry, then we must conclude that criticism of the marriage was not the key element for the start of John's preaching, although it may have been part of a general critique of the ruler. This dating seems to fit well with the data in the gospels. They show John's preaching to have been primarily concerned with repentance and realignment of life, symbolised by his water baptism, in preparation for the coming judgment. But it is easy to see how offering the kind of specific counsel that we see in Luke 3.10-14 could lead John to tell Antipas that he was doing something unlawful.

It seems reasonable to 'ballpark' John's imprisonment to sometime in 28 CE, with his execution coming later in the same year. This gives us a ministry of one to two years, plus whatever teaching he may have given in gathering disciples while still in the wilderness.

When did Jesus begin his ministry of teaching and healing?

In two of the gospels the answer to this question is intertwined with the previous one, since Matthew and Mark both link the start of Jesus' public teaching and healing with the arrest of John the Baptist (see Matthew 4.12 and Mark 1.14). For Matthew and Mark, then, we can say that Jesus began to teach and heal in 28 CE. Since Luke does not posit a direct link between John's arrest and Jesus' ministry (although Luke 7.18-23 and 9.7-9 at least imply that John's arrest and execution happened during Jesus' ministry), we cannot assume that date based on his gospel. We do however have Luke's statement, referred to above, that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his work (Luke 3.23). If we correlate that statement with Luke's date of 6 CE for Jesus' birth, we get much too late a time for the start of Jesus' ministry. But if we correlate it with Luke's other statement that Jesus was born in the time of Herod the Great and with what can be worked out based on Matthew's statements about Jesus's birth late in Herod's reign, we get a date in the same 'ballpark' as Matthew and Mark, that is, that Jesus began his work in the late 20s CE.

John's Gospel, as we have already hinted, contains very few statements connecting events in the gospel narrative with external events. In the case of the start of Jesus' ministry he, like Luke, does not connect it with the arrest of John the Baptist. In fact the early chapters of John (to the beginning of chapter 4) suggest that before the arrest of John, Jesus, after spending an indeterminate period of time among the Baptist community following his baptism by John, travelled in Galilee, Judaea, and Jerusalem for at least a short time. He carried out healings and other signs of God's power at work in him in Jerusalem until he went to the Judean wilderness and engaged there with his disciples in a ministry of baptism for repentance similar to John the Baptist's. It may be that Mark and the others were only interested in Jesus' ministry in Galilee, about which they knew so much, or it may be that they were only interested in Jesus' activity independent of John the Baptist's direct influence.

So if we accept Matthew and Mark's connection with John the Baptist's arrest, we can say that Jesus probably began his ministry in 28 CE. If we accept the description given in John's Gospel, then we will need to accept a different timeline, perhaps positing a short period of Judean ministry influenced by John the Baptist and his community that was succeeded by a longer period of independent ministry throughout Galilee, Judaea, and Samaria after John's arrest.

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