Question & Answer
Q: By Barb
I’ve always heard that Jesus’ ministry was three years long. Now I hear that it was only one year. How does something like that change?
A: By Rev. David M. Felten
The short answer is, nothing’s changed. Depending on which gospel you read, Jesus’ ministry was both one year long and three years long.
With no physical or archaeological evidence to fill us in on the details of Jesus’ life, the one thing we have to go on are the gospels – and even the so-called “synoptic gospels” don’t agree with each other on order of events and details. But as for the duration of Jesus’ ministry, the “synoptics” (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) share a timeline that includes only one Passover observance, suggesting a ministry of one year. John’s gospel, with a completely different (and some would say narcissistic) Jesus, different message, and different priorities, has also created a completely different timeline. Making mention of at least three annual Passover feasts (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55-57), John super-sizes Jesus’ ministry into three years. Earnest apologists have tried to consolidate all four narratives into one “harmony” of the gospels, but to no avail. The accounts are just too different.
The authors of the synoptics, by-and-large, moved the action right along, committing most of their ink to Jesus’ last week (In fact, I love how much Mark seems to be in a hurry. He uses the word “immediately” over 40 times!). On the other hand, John’s late developing tradition makes the bold choice to stretch out its spiritualized message and ripening anti-Semitism into three years un-syncable with the other gospels.
As John’s portrayal of Jesus seems to make it the most popular gospel for many, the expanded timeline has come to be uncritically accepted among traditionalist Christians. However, that very timeline discrepancy is among the reasons why Jesus scholars have placed John into its own take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt category: call it “poetic but problematic.” Meanwhile, proponents of a three-year ministry go to great lengths to ignore the synoptic gospels altogether and try to overwhelm people with spectacularly complex theological gymnastics, interpreting Daniel 9 and the reigns of various rulers as evidence of the legitimacy of their chronological obsession (see examples HERE, HERE, and HERE).
The bottom line is that nobody really knows how long Jesus’ ministry was – and it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is whether we’re taking the teachings of Jesus to heart and living them out in our everyday lives. A lot of otherwise very smart people attend churches where the Bible is presented as the inerrant, infallible word of God (“If the Bible says it, it must be true,” regardless of how nonsensical some of it has become thousands of years later). That means a lot of energy has to be spent in covering up or discounting blatantly obvious conflicts and trying to shoe-horn the Bible into supporting unjust and inhumane cultural prejudices. (See more on this from Marcus Borg HERE.)
So, check it out for yourself. The Bible is crystal-clear: Jesus’ ministry was both one year and three years long. Don’t get distracted by those who would argue that it has to literally be one or the other. They’re missing the point. What’s important is Jesus’ prophetic call to make the world a more just and compassionate place. Anything that distracts from that challenge, while the very real troubles of the world go unaddressed, is betraying Jesus’ message – no matter how long his ministry was.
~ Rev. David M. Felten
This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.
About the Author
Rev. David M. Felten is a full-time pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, Arizona. David and fellow United Methodist Pastor, Jeff Procter-Murphy, are the creators of the DVD-based discussion series for Progressive Christians, “Living the Questions”.
A co-founder of the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology and also a founding member of No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice, David is an outspoken voice for LGBTQ rights both in the church and in the community at large. David is active in the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church and tries to stay connected to his roots as a musician. You’ll find him playing saxophones in a variety of settings, including appearances with the Fountain Hills Saxophone Quartet. David and his wife Laura have three children.