Chronology, New Testament

See also New Testament

CHRONOLOGY, NEW TESTAMENT. The science of determining the dates of the NT books and the historical events mentioned in them. The subject is beset with serious difficulty because sufficient data are often lacking and the computations must be based on ancient documents that did not record historical events under precise calendar dates as modern historical records do. Neither sacred nor secular historians of that time were accustomed to record history under exact dates; they felt that all demands were satisfied when some specific event was related to a well-known period, as the reign of a noted ruler or the time of some famous contemporary. Luke’s method of dating the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke.3.1-Luke.3.2) is typical of the historian’s method of that day. Further, the use of different local chronologies and different ways of computing years often leave the results tentative. NT chronology naturally falls into two parts: the life of Christ and the apostolic age.

I. Life of Christ. The erection of a chronology of the life of Christ turns around three points: his birth, baptism, and crucifixion. Luke’s statement of the age of Jesus at his baptism (Luke.3.23) links the first two, while the problem of the length of the ministry links the second and third.

The Christian era, now used almost exclusively in the Western world for civil chronology, was introduced at Rome by Abbot Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century. It is now generally agreed that the beginning of the era should have been fixed at least four years later.

According to the Gospels, Jesus was born some time before the death of Herod the Great. Josephus, the Jewish historian who was born a.d. 37, affirms (Antiq. 17.6.4) that Herod died shortly after an eclipse of the moon, which is astronomically fixed at March 12-13, 4 b.c. His death occurred shortly before Passover, which that year fell on April 4. His death in 4 b.c. is also confirmed from the known commencement of the rule of his three sons in that year. The age of Jesus at Herod’s death is not certain. The “two years” for the age of the children killed at Bethlehem (Matt.2.16) offers no sure indication, since Herod would allow a liberal margin for safety; also, part of a year might be counted as a year. It does show that Jesus was born at least some months before Herod’s death. Christ’s presentation in the temple after he was forty days old (Lev.12.1-Lev.12.8; Luke.2.22-Luke.2.24) makes it certain that the wise men came at least six weeks after his birth. The time spent in Egypt is uncertain, but it may have been several months. Thus, the birth of Jesus should be placed in the latter part of the year 5 b.c.

Luke’s statement (Luke.2.1-Luke.2.2) that Jesus was born in connection with the “first census” when “Quirinius was governor of Syria” was once fiercely assailed as erroneous, since Quirinius was known to be governor in connection with the census of a.d. 6. But it is now known that he was also connected with the Syrian government at some previous time (see Quirinius). Papyrus evidence shows that Augustus inaugurated a periodic census every fourteen years, from 8 b.c. onward. Herod’s war with the king of Arabia and his troubles with Augustus, as well as the problem of the method of taking the census among the Jews, may have delayed the actual census in Palestine for several years, bringing it down to the year 5 b.c.

Luke gives the age of Jesus at his baptism as “about thirty years” (Luke.3.23). Although the statement of age is not specific, it naturally implies that his age was just about thirty, a few months under or over. Born in the latter part of 5 b.c., his baptism then occurred near the close of a.d. 26 or the beginning of 27. The forty-day period of the temptation, plus the events recorded in John.1.19-John.2.12 seem to require that the baptism occurred at least three months before the first Passover of his public ministry (John.2.13-John.2.22). Since Herod began the reconstruction of the temple in 20 b.c., the “forty and six years” mentioned by the Jews during this Passover, using the inclusive Jewish count, again brings us to a.d. 27 for this first Passover.

Apparently John began his ministry some six months before the baptism of Jesus, Scripture dating that beginning as “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke.3.1). Augustus died in August of a.d. 14, but fifteen years added to that would be two years too late for our previous dates. Since Tiberius had been reigning jointly with Augustus in the provinces for two years before his death, it seems only natural that Luke would follow the provincial point of view and count the fifteen years from the time of Tiberius’ actual assumption of authority in the provinces. Thus counted, the date is in harmony with our other dates. The ministry of John, begun about six months before the baptism of Jesus, commenced about the middle of a.d. 26.

The time of the Crucifixion will be determined by the length of the ministry of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel seems to require at least two years: the plucking of the ears of grain (April-June) marks a first spring, the feeding of the five thousand when the grass was fresh green (March-April) was a second, and the Passover of the Crucifixion becomes the third. John’s Gospel explicitly mentions three Passovers (John.2.23; John.6.4; John.11.55). If the feast of John.5.1 is also a Passover, as seems probable, a view having the traditional backing of Irenaeus, then the length of the ministry of Jesus was a full three years and a little over. This places the Crucifixion at the Passover of a.d. 30.

II. Apostolic Age. Due to the uncertainties connected with the limited data for an apostolic chronology, authorities have arrived at varied dates. The Book of Acts with its many notes of time, mostly indefinite, offers but few points for the establishment of even relatively fixed dates. Even Paul’s apparently precise chronological notes in Gal.1.18 and Gal.2.1 leave us in doubt as to whether “after three years” and “fourteen years later” are to be regarded as consecutive or as both counting from his conversion.

The death of Herod Agrippa I (Acts.12.23) and the proconsulship of Gallio (Acts.18.12) are important for the chronology of the period. The death of Herod Agrippa I, one of the fixed dates of the NT, is known to have taken place in a.d. 44. It establishes the year of Peter’s arrest and miraculous escape from prison. The proconsulship of Gallio is also strongly relied on for an apostolic chronology. A fragmentary inscription found at Delphi associates his proconsulship with the twenty-sixth acclamation of Claudius as Imperator. This would place his proconsulship between May 51 and 52, or May 52 and 53. The latter date is more probable since Gallio would assume office in May and not in midsummer as some advocates of the earlier date assumed. Since apparently Paul had already been at Corinth a year and a half when Gallio arrived, his ministry at Corinth began in the latter part of 50. Efforts to determine the time of the accession of Festus as governor, under whom Paul was sent to Rome, have not resulted in agreement. From the inconclusive data, advocates have argued for a date as early as 55 and as late as 60 or 61. The balance of the arguments seem to point to 60 or perhaps 59. If the latter, the suggested dates should be adjusted accordingly.

III. Chronological Table.. The dates for many NT events must remain tentative, but as indicated by Luke (Luke.3.1-Luke.3.2), they have a definite correlation with secular history (as shown in the accompanying diagram). The following chronological table is regarded as approximately correct.

Birth of Jesus 5 b.c.

Baptism of Jesus late a.d. 26 or early 27

First Passover of ministry 27

Crucifixion of Jesus 30

Conversion of Saul 34 or 35

Death of Herod Agrippa I 44

Letter of James before 50

First missionary journey 48-49

Jerusalem conference 49 or 50

Second missionary journey begun spring 50

Paul at Corinth 50-52

1 and 2 Thessalonians from Corinth 51

Galatians from Corinth (?) early 52

Arrival of Gallio as proconsul May 52

Third missionary journey begun 54

Paul at Ephesus 54-57

1 Corinthians from Ephesus spring 57

2 Corinthians from Macedonia fall 57

Romans from Corinth winter 57-58

Paul's arrest at Jerusalem Pentecost 58

Imprisonment at Caesarea 58-60

On island of Malta winter 60-61

Arrival at Rome spring 61

Roman imprisonment 61-63

Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians summer 62

Philippians spring 63

Paul's release and further work 63-65

1 Timothy and Titus 63

Hebrews 64

Synoptic Gospels and Acts before 67

1 and 2 Peter from Rome 64-65

Peter's death at Rome 65

Paul's second Roman imprisonment 66

2 Timothy 66

Death at Rome late 66 or early 67

Jude 67-68

Writings of John before 100

Death of John 98-100

Bibliography: George Ogg, The Chronology of the Public Ministry of Jesus, 1940, and The Chronology of the Life of Paul, 1968; J. Finegan , Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 1964; A. J. J. Gunther, Paul, Messenger and Exile: A Study in the Chronology of His Life and Letters, 1972.——DEH