Did Jesus Exit? – Part 7

For the following discussion of the chronology of Jesus’ ministry, I’m drawing upon the evidence and reasoning and conclusions presented by John P. Meier in his book A Marginal Jew, Volume 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Chapter 11 “‘In the Fifteenth Year’…A Chronology of Jesus’ Life” (hereafter: AMJv1).

Jesus was crucified sometime during the rule of Pilate over Judea:

The Four Gospels (and various streams of earlier traditions within them), the Acts of the Apostles, Josephus, and Tacitus all agree that Jesus was put to death during the rule of Pilate, the governor of Judea.
(AMJv1, p.373)

Pilate’s rule over Judea was from 26 CE to 36 CE:

Thanks to Josephus, with supplementary information supplied by Philo, Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and Eusebius, we can calculate that Pilate held his office from A.D. 26 to 36 (or very early in 37).
(AMJv1, p.373)

Mainstream NT scholars are unanimous, or nearly unanimous, in accepting the claim that Jesus was crucified between 26 CE and 36 CE.

Jesus’ ministry lasted at least one year (based on the characterization of his ministry in the Synoptic Gospels), and may have lasted up to three years (based on the characterization of his ministry in the Gospel of John) (see AMJv1, p.375). So, we start out with 11 possible years in which the crucifixion could have occurred, and with three different possible durations for Jesus’ ministry (1 year, 2 years, or 3 years). That gives us 11 x 3 = 33 different possibilities for the dating of Jesus’ ministry:

25-26 CE……….24-26 CE……….23-26 CE
26-27 CE……….25-27 CE……….24-27 CE
27-28 CE……….26-28 CE……….25-28 CE
28-29 CE……….27-29 CE……….26-29 CE
29-30 CE……….28-30 CE……….27-30 CE
30-31 CE……….29-31 CE……….28-31 CE
31-32 CE……….30-32 CE……….29-32 CE
32-33 CE……….31-33 CE……….30-33 CE
33-34 CE……….32-34 CE……….31-34 CE
34-35 CE……….33-35 CE……….32-35 CE
35-36 CE……….34-36 CE……….33-36 CE

Again, such a range of dates would allow for unanimous or nearly unanimous acceptance by NT scholars. However, this broad range of dates also pushes the MJH in the direction of triviality. Recall that at any given point in time there were about 17,000 (give or take 3,500) Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a’ living in Palestine during the first century. So, if we leave open all 33 differnt possible datings for the ministry of Jesus, we increase the already significant likelihood that there was a Jesus (Yeshu’a) who had a teaching and preaching ministry and who was crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem in one of those years even though the Gospels are all complete works of fiction. In order to avoid the charge of triviality, MJH needs to be narrow enough and specific enough to make it unlikely that its conditions would be satisfied merely by chance.

To avoid the charge of triviality, it would be best if we could narrow down the date of Jesus’ crucifixion to a specific year. However, identifying a specific year of the crucifixion would then push us to the opposite extreme, making MJH controversial and making it so that there would be no reasonable chance of being able to prove that MJH was true (or highly probable). Thus, if possible, we need to steer a middle course between the proverbial rock and hard place, and identify a range of dates for the crucifixion that is narrower than the 11 year spread of Pilate’s rule, but a range wide enough to remain relatively uncontroversial and potentially provable.

According to Meier, we can eliminate the later years of Pilate’s rule:

Moreover, we can be fairly certain that Jesus was not executed at the very end of Pilate’s tenure. Data from Paul’s epistles and the Acts of the Apostles, plus such extrabiblical evidence as the Delphi inscription mentioning Gallio as proconsul of Achaia (cf. Acts 18:12-17), help determine that Paul’s arrival in Corinth on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1) must have occurred around A.D 49-51. When we consider all the events that had to take place in early Church history between the death of Jesus and Paul’s arrival in Corinth ca. A.S. 50 (e.g., the spread of Christianity in Palestine, the persecution and scattering of the Hellenists, the founding of the church at Antioch, the conversion of Paul and his years of seclusion and activity before he joined the church at Antioch, his first missionary journey and the so-called “Council of Jerusalem”), it is almost impossible to place Jesus’ excecution as late as A.D. 36. It must be pushed back at least a few years in Pilate’s governorship.
(AMJv1, p.373)

Furthermore, based on some chronological information from Chapter 3 of Luke, Meier argues that we can also eliminate the possibility of the crucifixion occuring in the early years of Pilate’s rule:

The mention of Pilate [in luke 3:1-2] places the beginning of John’s ministry [John the Baptist] within the decade of A.D. 26-36 and indicates that Jesus’ ministry began after Pilate had already taken up his office as governor of Judea.
(AMJv1, p.374)

If we allow for about one year for the ministry of John the Baptist prior to Jesus’ starting his ministry, and given that Jesus’ ministry was at least one year in duration, the earliest possible date for the crucifixion would be 28 CE:

Therefore, even from a very superficial, initial survey of the data, a time somewhere between 28 and 33 seems the most likely date for Jesus’ death, with a ministry of roughly one to three years proceding it.
(AMJv1, p.375)

E.P. Sanders arrives at a very similar range of dates for the crucifixion for the same reasons:

Taking into account Luke’s dating of the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry, the period of Pilate’s administration and the evidence derived from the chronology of Paul, most scholars have been content to say that Jesus was executed sometime between 29 and 33 CE.
(The Historical Jesus, “Appendix I: Chronology”, p.283)

John Meier goes on to argue for a specific date for the crucifixion of Jesus, but as I said above, to specify a particular year for the crucifixion would make MJH controversial. So, I propose that we not specify a particular year, but instead narrow the range of years a bit to between 28 CE and 33 CE. I believe that most NT scholars would accept this range of dates as being correct or highly probable, and Meier has provided a strong case for this range of dates, so I’m going to modify MJH to specify that range of dates for the crucifixion of Jesus, and narrow the range of dates for his ministry to 6 x 3 = 18 possibilities:

27-28 CE……….26-28 CE……….25-28 CE
28-29 CE……….27-29 CE……….26-29 CE
29-30 CE……….28-30 CE……….27-30 CE
30-31 CE……….29-31 CE……….28-31 CE
31-32 CE……….30-32 CE……….29-32 CE
32-33 CE……….31-33 CE……….30-33 CE

  • http://unbaptism.org/ John Tyrrell

    It took me seven parts to notice the title. Is this deliberate? Surely the question is existence, not whether he’s left the building.

    • Bradley Bowen

      If Jesus did not exist, then Jesus did not die on the cross or rise from the dead (obviously). I want to emphasize the connection between the existence of Jesus and the death and resurrection of Jesus.

      I don’t think that the question of whether Jesus existed can be answered with certainty. So, I expect that what we will end up with is an estimated probability that he existed. Mythicists will argue that the probability is low, and Christian apologists will argue that the probability is high. You or I might end up concluding that both the Mythicists and the Christian apologists are wrong and that the probability is neither low nor high, but somewhere between those extremes.

      In any case, whatever conclusion one comes to about the probability of the existence of Jesus is relevant to determining the probability of the resurrection of Jesus.

      If, for example, one concludes that the probability that Jesus existed was .8 (eight chances in ten), then the probability that Jesus died on the cross must be something less than .8 (since MJH asserts that Jesus was crucified, but not that Jesus died on the cross). Since Jesus’ death on the cross is a necessary condition for his resurrection, the probability of the resurrection would also have to be something less than .8. So, the probability of the existence of Jesus sets an upper limit for the probability of the resurrection of Jesus.

      The output of the investigation of the question ‘Is MJH true?’ (or ‘What is the probability that MJH is true?’) is an input to the investigation of the question ‘Did Jesus rise from the dead?’ (or ‘What is the probability that Jesus rose from the dead?’). I’m just emphasizing that logical relationship by means of the title of this series.

      • http://unbaptism.org/ John Tyrrell

        My point – and I guess I was too subtle in a failed attempt at humour – was the title used on all of these is “Did Jesus Exit?”.

        In my humble opinion, it should be “Did Jesus Exist?”


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