How long was Jesus' ministry?

Question: "How long was Jesus' ministry?"

According to Luke (3:1), John the Baptist began his ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign (29 AD). Jesus began His ministry shortly thereafter at the age of thirty (3:23). Incidentally, this indicates that Jesus was probably born around 1 BC (please note: there was no year zero – 1 AD immediately followed 1 BC). This contradicts the popular date of 4 BC for Herod the Great’s death since Jesus was born while Herod was still alive. Recent scholarship, however, has discredited the popular view in favor of 1 BC; or more specifically, sometime between the January 9th lunar eclipse of 1 BC and the Feast of Passover a few months later. This tentatively corroborates Luke’s account.

Regardless of the questions surrounding the date of Herod’s death, the dates of Tiberius’ reign have been confidently established. They give us a firm basis upon which we can approximate what year Jesus began His public ministry: around 29 AD. As for the end of His ministry, we know that it culminated with His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.

According to the Gospel accounts, Christ was crucified the day before Passover, was “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:38-40), and was resurrected before sunrise on a Sunday. In order for Christ to have been crucified the day before Passover and resurrected on a Sunday three days and three nights later, Passover would have had to fall on a Friday, whereby Christ was crucified on a Thursday.

For example, Passover of 30 AD fell on a Thursday (April 6th). To be crucified the day before Passover (Wednesday) and resurrected on Sunday, Jesus would have been in the grave Wednesday afternoon, Wednesday night, Thursday day, Thursday night, Friday day, Friday night, Saturday day, Saturday night, Sunday morning before sunrise. That is four nights – one too many. So 30 AD doesn’t work. Plus, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus attended at least three annual Feasts of Passover throughout the course of His ministry: one in John 2:23, another in 6:4 and the Passover of His crucifixion in 11:55-57. So one year (29 to 30 AD) just isn’t enough time.

Based on the dates provided by Sir Robert Anderson in his The Coming Prince (Kregel: Grand Rapids, p. 104), we used the Rosetta Calendar online calendar conversion service to establish which days of the week Passover fell upon between the years 29 AD (our starting point) and 37 AD. Here are Anderson’s dates and their respective days of the week (please note that these are Julian rather than Gregorian dates):

Passover of 29 AD fell on a Sunday (April 17th)
Passover of 30 AD fell on a Thursday (April 6th)
Passover of 31 AD fell on a Tuesday (March 27th)
Passover of 32 AD fell on a Monday (April 14th)
Passover of 33 AD fell on a Friday (April 3rd)
Passover of 34 AD fell on a Tuesday (March 23rd)
Passover of 35 AD fell on a Monday (April 11th)
Passover of 36 AD fell on a Friday (March 30th)
Passover of 37 AD fell on a Thursday (April 18th)

Using this range of dates and assuming that Christ was in the grave for three days and three nights and resurrected on Sunday, we can narrow down the year of Christ’s crucifixion to one of two possibilities: 33 or 36 AD. A prophecy from the book of Daniel seems to favor the earlier date of 33 AD.

In Daniel 9, Gabriel tells Daniel that “Seventy sevens have been decreed for your people… From the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince, there will be seven sevens and sixty-two sevens; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary and its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.” (9:24-26)

Seven sevens + 62 sevens = 69 sevens. 69 seven-year periods would pass from the decree to rebuild Jerusalem until the coming of the Messiah. The Messiah would be “cut off” and the city and temple would be destroyed again. A 70th seven-year period would follow.

While the prophecy does not specify what the sevens are, the immediate context implies that they are years. Daniel’s prayer in verses 3-19 focuses on the fulfillment of a 70 year period – the 70 years of Babylonian captivity as prophesied by Jeremiah (25:11). The 70 sevens prophecy was delivered to him in response to this prayer. 70 years fulfilled; 7 times 70 still to come.

Scholars generally agree that this prophecy is according to the ancient 360-day calendar employed by both the Hebrews and the Babylonians (Daniel being written in Babylon during the Babylonian captivity after the fall and decimation of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar). 69 x 7 years = 483 years. 483 years x 360 days = 173,880 days.

Persian Emperor Artaxerxes Longimanus (who ruled Persia from 464-424 BC) issued the edict to rebuild Jerusalem on the 1st of Nissan in the 20th year of his reign (that is, March 5th, 444 BC; see Nehemiah 2:1-8). 173,880 days from March 5th 444 BC ends at March 30th 33 AD. Here’s the math:

March 5th 444 BC to March 5th 33 AD = 476 years (1 B.C. to 1 A.D. is one year, there is no year zero). 476 x 365.24219879 days (which is the length of one year according to our modern calendar) = 173,855 days. March 5th to March 30th is another 25 days. 173,855 days + 25 days = 173,880 days.

March 30th, 33 AD was exactly 5 days before Passover on April 3rd, 33 AD. According to John’s Gospel, the Triumphant Entry took place 5 days before Passover: “Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. … Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. But the chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus. The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD! The King of Israel!’" (John 12:1, 9-13)

The day after six days before the Passover equals five days before the Passover. March 30th was the Triumphal Entry, the day upon which Christ presented Himself to the nation of Israel as their Messiah, the first time in His entire ministry that He allowed Himself to be publicly proclaimed as the Messiah (Matthew 21:8-16; Luke 19:37-40; cf. Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30; 9:9-10; Luke 9:18-21; John 6:14-15). He was crucified four days later, the day before Passover. Within one generation Titus razed Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.

Based on these points, we believe that Jesus’ ministry lasted about three and a half years, from sometime around 29 AD until the spring of 33 AD.

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How long was Jesus' ministry?