Crucifixion of Christ

Can biblical, historical, and astronomical data be combined to produce an exact date for the crucifixion? The question has intrigued Christian scholars right back to Sir Isaac Newton and continues to spark fierce debate from time to time. The Bible places the crucifixion within the period when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judaea, c.e. 26 to 36, and other historical constraints are generally agreed to rule out years earlier than c.e. 29 and later than c.e. 34, with c.e. 29 and 34 themselves being unlikely. The biblical accounts also make it clear that the crucifixion took place on the afternoon before the Sabbath began, that is a Friday afternoon, and on the day before (or possibly on the day of) the feast of the Passover, that is on the Jewish date 14 Nisan or 15 Nisan. But in which year?

Attempting to answer this question involves correlating two calendars that are very different in nature. The Julian calendar of the Romans ran in a fixed and pre-determined way, tied to a solar year of 365-and-a-quarter days in length and ignoring the actual heavenly bodies. The (Gregorian) calendar used in the Western world today is directly descended from the Julian one. The Jewish calendar, on the other hand, was a lunar one and was, at least in the first century C.E., always regulated by direct observations of the moon.

In the Jewish calendar, the new day begins at sunset, with the Sabbath having fallen unfailingly on every seventh day since Biblical times. The new month begins when the new crescent moon first appears in the evening sky. A major problem, then, in trying to date the crucifixion is that we have to estimate the likelihood that the new crescent moon would have first been seen on a given evening or whether it would not have been noticed until the next. Another problem for us is that an intercalary month needed to be inserted periodically in order to keep the Jewish calendar in step with the seasonal year, and in the first century C.E. this was also done empirically. Although in theory the main trigger for inserting an extra month before Nisan was that Passover should not precede the vernal equinox, it is unclear how the equinox was itself determined (and to what accuracy), and in practice a variety of pragmatic criteria seem to have been used, including the availability (depending upon the weather) of first fruits and sacrificial lambs.

Given all these uncertainties, we cannot obtain a clear-cut answer to the critical question, which is whether 14 Nisan or 15 Nisan fell on a Thursday-Friday (the Jewish day running from sunset Thursday to sunset Friday) in any given year, and hence whether one or the other might be a candidate for the date of the crucifixion. However, the years C.E. 31 and 32 seem to be nonstarters. Newton himself favored April 23, c.e. 34, but historical arguments weigh against this. The clear favorites are generally April 7, C.E. 30 and April 3, C.E. 33. One view favors the C.E. 33 date on the grounds that (as astronomical calculations show) a lunar eclipse occurred on that very day. This seems to accord with the prophecy (Acts 2:20) that "the moon [shall be turned] into blood before that great and notable day of the Lord comes," which some interpret as describing an actual event at the time of Christ's death. On the other hand, the lunar eclipse was only partial and in its final stages when the moon rose: the moon would not have turned red for this reason. Furthermore, this and other references in the Bible to the moon turning to blood clearly refer to Judgment Day rather than to the crucifixion.

A final difficulty is that if the crucifixion really took place on a Friday, then it did not allow Jesus to spend three days and three nights in the tomb before Sunday morning. If one entertains the possibility that the crucifixion actually happened on a Wednesday or Thursday, then some of the eliminated years re-enter the frame.

In the end, it is more likely to be historical arguments than astronomical ones that will tip the balance in this issue.

See also:

Equinoxes; Lunar and Luni-Solar Calendars; Lunar Eclipses.

Gregorian Calendar; Julian Calendar.

References and further reading

Humphreys, C.J., and W. G. Waddington. "Dating the Crucifixion." Nature 306 (1983), 743-746.

-. "Crucifixion Date." Nature 348 (1990), 684.

Pratt, John. "Newton's Date for the Crucifixion." Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 32 (1991), 301-304.

Schaefer, Bradley E. "Lunar Visibility and the Crucifixion." Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 31 (1990), 53-67.

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