The Origins of the New Testament, Part II: Dating the Jesus of History

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In order to understand the New Testament with any real integrity, it must be placed into its historic setting. The events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth did not happen in a vacuum, nor are these events history as history is now defined. Not only was Jesus born in, shaped by and interpreted through a particular context, but also the narrative details of his life found in the gospels were not recorded until somewhere between two and three generations after his life had come to its end. Both of these facts are ignored in many church circles today.

First, we seek to fix the dates around the life of Jesus. That is accomplished by an appeal to both the remembered story of his life and to secular records that we can locate, which date other people who appear in his story. It is not an exact science but it is a trustworthy guide.

Accounts of Jesus’ birth are recorded in only two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, and both link his birth to the reign of King Herod, who was known as “Herod the Great.” Matthew, the earliest of these two sources, weaves his story of the Wise Men around references to the reign of Herod and the anticipation recorded in the prophet Micah that the messiah will come out of King David’s line and be born in King David’s birthplace, Bethlehem. He also casts Herod in the familiar Jewish role of the wicked king who, like the Pharaoh of old in Egypt, sought to destroy God’s promised deliverer. Matthew, in effect, retells the story of Moses’ being miraculously saved from death by divine intervention, but this time it is about Jesus. This attempt to wrap Moses’ stories around the memory of Jesus is illustrative of the Jewish interpretive tradition we call “Midrash.” While these stories are messianic interpretations and not remembered history, there is still no reason to suggest that this means that the anchoring of the birth of Jesus to the reign of Herod was itself fanciful. Matthew is even more specific, suggesting that the birth of Jesus took place near the end of Herod’s reign, just prior to his death. Secular records tell us that Herod reigned in this Jewish nation from 37 BCE to 4 BCE.

We also know from historical records that, with Herod’s death, the Jewish nation was subdivided into three provinces, each ruled first by the sons of Herod and later by Roman procurators. That is the situation when the adult story of Jesus is brought to its conclusion. From both of these angles, the dating of Jesus’ birth fits with what we know of secular history.

Luke confirms this tradition when he dates the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus as occurring when Herod was king of Judea. Luke adds that this was also when Caesar Augustus was on the throne of the Roman Empire and Quirinius was governor of Syria. Secular records reveal that only Quirinius, who did not come to power until 6-7CE, does not fit this historic reconstruction. Luke appears to have inserted Quirinius into his story to support his idea that a general taxation or enrollment was ordered in which people had to return to their family’s ancestral home, a device Luke used to explain how this birth happened to occur in Bethlehem. Once again, we observe how the historical facts in the birth story are blended into later messianic interpretations. The association of the birth of Jesus with the last year or years of Herod’s reign is, however, fairly clear in the memory of the Christian community. It is for these reasons that most scholars today date the birth of Jesus no later than 4 BCE, the date of the death of King Herod, and probably no earlier than 6 BCE. I tend to share in that bit of historic reconstruction and have adopted as “my best guess” the year 4 BCE as the time when Jesus was born. I am fairly certain, however, that his birth took place in Nazareth, as the first gospel of Mark assumes, and that the Bethlehem birth tradition is a later messianic development. It was Paul, writing to the Romans around the year 58 CE, who first claimed that Jesus was in the Davidic line and thus heir to his throne. This was the reference that ultimately gave rise to a Bethlehem birth story.

So, with the birth date fairly accurately set, we search for a way to determine the date on which the end of the life of Jesus occurred. Once again we discover that the gospel tradition is clear in associating the crucifixion of Jesus with the procuratorship of a Roman official known as Pontius Pilate. Although Pilate is not mentioned in Paul, the first gospel of Mark, written in the early years of the 8th decade of the Common Era, anchors the Passion of Jesus in the reign of Pilate so deeply that it would be hard to suggest that these two things were not deeply linked.

Pilate enters Mark’s gospel when the arrested Jesus, having been interrogated by the Jewish authorities, is delivered to Pilate early in the morning of the day of the crucifixion. Pilate receives ten other mentions in Mark’s gospel, all associated with the passion story, the last one occurring when Pilate allowed the body, now confirmed to be dead, to be delivered to Joseph of Arimathea for burial. While the historicity of this burial narrative in the newly hewn tomb in the garden of this Joseph is largely doubted, the connection between the crucifixion and Pilate is not. Matthew links Pilate with the crucifixion in nine references. Luke has twelve in number, including two pre-crucifixion mentions, one to date the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and the other to chronicle Pilate’s role in a previous Galilean uprising. John raises the number of Pilate references to twenty-one. It is also worth noting that, in these two later gospels of Luke and John, Pilate grows into a more and more sympathetic figure, while Judas and the Jewish leadership grow more and more negative. We thus can see in the texts themselves traditions and memories changing and developing. To complete the biblical record, Pilate is mentioned three times in the Book of Acts, which is really volume two of Luke, and always in speeches attributed to the apostles Peter and Paul. There is only one reference to Pilate in the epistle I Timothy, an epistle whose Pauline authorship is universally denied and is dated in a much later period of Christian history. So, once again, without claiming more than history can validate, it seems clear that the crucifixion of Jesus was connected to the reign of a man named Pontius Pilate as Roman procurator. That being settled, we can then go to Roman records to learn that Pilate served in this post in Judea from 26-36 CE, which gives us the limits within which to locate the crucifixion. Through other means, too lengthy to go into here but leaning on narratives about his removal recorded by Josephus, a Jewish historian, we can narrow down that eleven-year span and state the high probability that the crucifixion happened around the year 30 CE. This guess could be off by some two years on either side, but it still remains the closest we can come to certainty. So our conclusion is that Jesus lived between 6 BCE and 32 CE at the outside and probably 4 BCE to 30 CE would be our best guess. His life span would thus have been 34 to 38 years.

I have no doubt that Jesus was a figure of history and am completely unimpressed by those recent writers who have tried to prove that he was a mythological figure of Jewish or early Christian fantasy based on Egyptian sources. I think the biographical notes recorded in one of Paul’s early and authentic epistles (Galatians 1:18-24) are determinative. Paul relates a conversation that he had with Peter and James, whom he identified as “the Lord’s brother,” some three years after his conversion. The early 20th century church historian, Adolf Harnack, has stated that Paul’s conversion had to have occurred within “one to six years” after the crucifixion, so this conversation to which Paul refers had to have occurred no less than four and no more than nine years after the death of Jesus. That is far too short a span of time for mythology to develop. This means that while all the details of the Jesus story are clearly not historical, Jesus himself is. So we locate Jesus in human history as having lived between roughly 4 BCE and 30 CE.

Two things become obvious immediately from this dating exercise. First, Jesus’ entire life was lived as a Jew under the domination of the Roman Empire. He was a part of a conquered and oppressed people. Rome first took over the rule of this land in 65 BCE in an alliance with the successors of the Maccabees and ruled it with an iron hand until the fall of the Roman Empire. That included a war against a Jewish rebellion that occurred between 66-73 CE which totally destroyed the Jewish nation, including Jerusalem and the Temple. While that destruction happened well after the life of Jesus, it did occur before any of the gospels were written. Scholars now believe that this later destruction of Jerusalem has shaped the memory of Jesus in the gospels far more than was once was recognized. We will look at this assertion later.

The second conclusion that this dating exercise makes obvious is that the earliest records we have of anyone writing anything about Jesus is in the works of Paul, who did his writing between 51 and 64 CE, or 21 to 34 years after the death of Jesus. That means there is a total absence and thus a total silence for at least 20 years before any single detail about the life of Jesus was written down. Even then, we need to note that Paul tells us very little about the life of Jesus and that Paul died before any gospel had been written. The gospels from which we get most of our image of Jesus were written between the early 70′s and the late 90′s, or some 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. This means that the gospels are not eyewitness accounts, but are rather the product of the second, third and even fourth generation of Christians. The gospels were also written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke or wrote. We need to dispense with the idea that these books are either history or biography.

That should be enough to disestablish many of the assumptions that faithful, but not necessarily learned, people have made over the centuries about the New Testament. It also sets the stage for us to begin to examine these Christian Scriptures with fresh eyes and open minds. That is what I hope to do as this series unfolds.


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