"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John

Appendix 1: Chronology and Dating Issues in John's Gospel

John the Evangelist provides his own unique 'take' on some issues of dating that affect our understanding of Jesus. The most important of these are the issues of when Jesus' ministry began, how old he was at the time (and hence when was he born), and how long his ministry lasted. Jn 2.20 and Jn 8.57 are crucial to these points.

In Jn 2.20-1, a statement about the construction of Herod's renovations to the Temple is applied allegorically to Christ's body. In v19, Jesus had said, 'Demolish this temple and in three days I will raise it.' In response 'hoi Iudaioi' (in this case I think the leaders in Jerusalem) say in v20, 'This Temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it in three days!' At that point the Evangelist observes that Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body, ie, that it was a foreshadowing of his resurrection. The period of forty-six years has commanded attention for two reasons. First, it can give us a probable date for this event. According to Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 15.11.1), Herod began work on his rebuild of the Second Temple in the eighteenth year of his reign (20/19 BCE), thus placing this conversation at Passover in 28 CE (see Brown 1966 pp 117-18). Clearly in John's telling of Jesus' story we are at the very beginning of his ministry. And if John's text is even roughly chronological in its organisation, that ministry seems to last over a period of two years, beginning at Passover 28 CE1:

  • John 2.13: Passover (spring) 28 CE

  • John 5.1: Unnamed festival, probably Weeks (spring) or Booths (fall) 28 CE

  • John 6.4: Passover (spring) 29 CE

  • John 7.2: Booths (fall) 29 CE

  • John 10.22: Hanukkah/Dedication (winter) 29 CE

  • John 12.1: Passover (spring) 30 CE

The Synoptic dating of the start of Jesus' ministry is based on the dating of the ministry of John the Baptist (because its dating is tied up with the dating of Jesus' ministry) as well as their data on the ministry of Jesus himself. 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.2 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 the two sources (Josephus and the NT), we must assume that the c 34 CE date in Josephus' narrative 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 the 26/27 CE date for the start of John's preaching ministry, then we must conclude that criticism of the marriage was not a key element for the start of John's preaching (although it may have been part of a general critique). The gospels 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 duration of one to two years for John’s ministry, plus whatever time he may have spent gathering disciples before beginning to preach and baptise. 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 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, 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' birth late in Herod's reign (see below), 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 the Evangelist, like Luke, does not connect the start of Jesus' ministry with the arrest of John the Baptist. In fact the early chapters of John's Gospel (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 independent of John the Baptist's direct influence.

The Synoptics and John complement one another here and suggest that Jesus began his ministry in 28 CE. John alone explicitly suggests the two periods of time spent with the Baptist community or in a baptismal ministry like John the Baptist's, but such an association is not out of line with the closeness implied by the Synoptics. We should perhaps posit 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. But it is still most probable that the first Passover mentioned by John's Gospel (in ch 2) is Passover 28 CE, and that the events described in chapters 1 and 3 (plus the early verses of ch4) took place before John the Baptist's imprisonment and execution later in that year.

The second reason that the mention of forty-six years in Jn 2.20 has attracted attention is its possible implications for Jesus' age at the time. If the Temple reconstruction had been going on for forty-six years but Jesus is figuratively refering to his own body when he speaks of the Temple, is that reference to the age of Herod's Temple also meant as a clue to Jesus' age? This supposition gathers some support from Jn 8.57, which strongly suggests that Jesus is in his forties. The usual estimate of his age as being in his early 30s when he was executed is based on Luke's statement that Jesus was 30 when he began to teach and heal (Lk 3.23). This gives us a birth date late in the last century BCE, a ballpark estimate of between 7 BCE and 5 BCE, depending on how exact we think Luke's dating is.3 But if Jesus was in his 40s in the spring of 28 CE, he must have been born between 20 BCE and 12 BCE.4

Matthew also gives clues to the likely dating of Jesus' birth in the story of the Magi. First of all, Matthew's narrative is set after Jesus' birth and in the time of Herod the Great, who reigned from 37 or 36 BCE until his death in 4 BCE. It describes the actions of a group of 'magoi', magi, that is, astrologer-magicians from Persia: in the East they see a star at its rising which they identify with the king of the Jews; they then travel to Jerusalem to ask King Herod where the child born king of the Jews is, so that they can pay him homage. When asked, the chief priests and scribes tell Herod that the messiah will be born in Bethlehem according to the prophets (specifically Micah 5.2, which is quoted). So Herod finds out secretly when the star rose and then sends the magi to Bethlehem with instructions to return and tell him when they find the child-king so that he too can pay homage.5

We the readers, knowing the reputation of Herod the Great, are not surprised to learn that they are warned in a dream not to comply with this request and return to their homeland by a different route than they had come, after visiting the child and his family. Then Joseph is told in a dream to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt because Herod planned to destroy the child. After Herod realised he had been tricked by the Magi, he ordered all the male children two years old or under in Bethlehem killed. Obedient to the warning he received, Joseph remained in Egypt with his family until another dream told him that Herod had died and it was safe to return. Even so, he did not return to Bethlehem but settled in Galilee.

What do we learn from this account? First of all, the word used to describe the child Jesus throughout this account, both before the departure to and after the return from Egypt, is 'paidion' (παιδίον), normally used to refer to a child under seven. Second, that he may have been as old as two when Joseph relocated the family to Egypt and therefore their time in Egypt was not long, no more than four years or five at the most. So Jesus could have been as young as a year old or as old as six when Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, depending on how old he was when the trip to Egypt took place and how long they stayed there. Thus he could have been born anytime between 10 and 5 BCE.

However if we take seriously John's suggestion that Jesus was in his 40s at the time of his ministry and death, then he must have been born outside the limits suggested by most interpreters on the basis of the dating clues in Matthew and Luke. If Jesus were 46 in 28 CE, as suggested by Jn 2.20, then he must have been born in 18 BCE. This seems completely incompatible with Matthew and Luke's notions of Jesus' age and likely date of birth. On the basis of the more vague Jn 8.57, the probable date range would be 19-11 BCE if he were in his 40s at the time that conversation likely took place. However, the lower end of this scale (birth in 11 BCE, age 40 in 29 CE) is compatible with a loose use of 'paidion', Matthew's term for the child Jesus both before and after Herod's death in 4 BCE. It is even roughly compatible with Luke's statement that Jesus was 30 when he began his ministry in 28 CE, in the sense that the whole period of the 30s and 40s was considered adulthood in the ancient schema of the stages of human life.

What would the implications be if we conclude that John is likely right, and Jesus was a decade or more older than he is usually presented at the time of his ministry and death? To consider such a question properly would take us too far afield from John's Gospel itself, sending us down the rabbit hole of historic Jesus studies, a subject so multibranched that we'd never return. But I think it is worth considering whether such a possibility sheds some light on the vexed question of Jesus' scribal education, if only by making more time available for him to acquire such an education, apparently from non-traditional sources.

1Although we should remember that in Brown 1966, Raymond Brown cautions against assuming a two-year ministry from the Johannine evidence (pp l-li).

2 See Ross S. Kraemer, 'Implicating Herodias and Her Daughter in the Death of John the Baptizer: A (Christian) Theological Strategy?', Journal of Biblical Literature 125 (2006) 321-49, esp. pp 326-7.

3 In the well-known account of Jesus' birth in Lk 2 we are told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the 'first registration' ordered by Augustus Caesar when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This date is problematic: Quirinius was governor of Syria from 6-12 CE. This is incompatible both with Luke's earlier statement that John the Baptist (and hence Jesus) was born during the reign of Herod the Great. It is also incompatible with Luke's later statement that Jesus was around 30 when he began his ministry after his baptism by John and John's arrest, since that would mean he began his ministry in 36 CE, a year by which, according to Josephus, John the Baptist was already dead.

4 The calculation for the Common Era has long been recognised as being mistaken as to the first year of the Era, ie, the year of Jesus' birth. It is the result of the work of a sixth-century legist and chronologist named Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Puny or perhaps Dennis the Slender). In drawing up an Easter table (a table used to determine the dates on which Easter would fall annually in a given span of time), he pioneered the use of a new way to designate a date: in addition to giving the names of the men that had served in the office of consul in the year in which he was writing, a standard method of dating for the Roman world until the end of the Roman Empire, he also gave the number of years that he reckoned had passed since the Incarnation of Christ. The basis of his reckoning is not known. The problem remains to determine how far off those calculations may have been.

5If Matthew's account is correct, then Joseph and Mary may have lived in Bethlehem all along and only moved to Nazareth when they returned from Egypt. Luke certainly seems to have been confused about the details of the census and he may simply have been misinformed about why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem in Judaea when Jesus was born, when all his adult associations were in Galilee. But this is not an issue to be dealt with here.

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