The Timing of Jesus' Ministry
The primary purpose of Daniel’s 70th week was to establish the timing and purpose of the Messiah’s ministry (Dan. 9:25). For this reason the entire prophecy must be integrated with the date of Jesus’ birth as well as of His baptism and crucifixion.
Can it be proven, then, that Jesus was baptized in September of 29 and crucified in 33 at the end of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks? Yes, it can. But to do so, we must also prove that Jesus was born in 2 B.C. Traditional thinking has been that Jesus was born in 4 B.C. and crucified in 33 A.D. This would have made Him 33 years old at His baptism and about 36 when He was crucified. But Luke 3:23 refutes this, saying,
23 And when He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about [i.e., precisely] thirty years of age, being supposedly the son of Joseph, the son of Eli...
The Greek word hosei (translated “about”) means “like” or “as” and is much more precise than our word “about.” It is better translated as “precisely.” It really means that Jesus began His ministry at the age of 30, and not 29 or 31. In fact, He was born on Rosh Hoshana, the evening of the Hebrew New Year in 2 B.C. and was baptized thirty years later on the Day of Atonement in September of 29 A.D. This was nine days after His 30th birthday.
Some assume, of course, that Jesus was actually born in 4 B.C., and if that were true, then He would have turned 30 years of age in 27 A.D. This would place the crucifixion in 30. So we must go back to the historical evidence of Jesus’ birth in order to know which view is correct.
Which Eclipse Dates Herod’s Death?
The primary evidence that is said to establish Jesus’ birth in 4 B.C. is from a footnote in Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews, XVII, vi, 4 in the narrative of the death of King Herod, who killed the children of Bethlehem shortly before dying.
Josephus tells us that about two weeks before Herod’s death, he dismissed Matthias from the high priesthood and executed a rebellious rabbi by the same name (Matthias). Josephus tells us,
“But Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive. And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon.”
The editor’s footnote (from the 1800’s) reads this way:
“The eclipse of the moon (which is the only eclipse of either of the luminaries mentioned by Josephus in any of his writings) is of the greatest consequence for the determination of the time for the death of Herod and Antipater, and for the birth and entire chronology of Jesus Christ. It happened March 13th, in the year of the Julian period 4710, and the fourth year before the Christian era.”
The editor was simply wrong in assigning that particular eclipse to the event mentioned by Josephus. First, Herod did not die on the night of the eclipse. Rather, an eclipse occurred when Herod put Matthias to death and deposed the high priest who was also named Matthias. Herod actually died about two weeks later.
If Herod had deposed Matthias on March 13, 4 B.C., and then had died toward the end of March, followed by a funeral and a 30-day time of mourning, there would not have been enough time to explain all of the events leading to the climax at Passover, where thousands were killed by troops on the temple grounds.
Passover in 4 B.C. fell on April 11-17. If Herod had died toward the end of March, how does one cram a 30-day funeral into the time between his death and the 11th of April? And this does not even account for the negotiations of his son Archelaus, which may have taken a few weeks. It is simply not possible.
In Josephus’ account we find that Herod had a 30-day mourning period, and that his son, Archelaus, then entertained various complaints from the people about some of the injustices done during his father’s reign. This went on for a few weeks, during which time the people were quite restless. Finally, Archelaus quit negotiating with the people and sent troops to the temple, where the people had gathered for the feast of Passover (Antiquities, XVII, ix, 3). Josephus writes then,
“Now Archelaus thought there was no way to preserve the entire government but by cutting off those who made this attempt upon it; so he sent out the whole army upon them... which horsemen slew three thousand men, while the rest went to the neighbouring mountains.” (par. 3)
The fact is, the nineteenth-century editor of Josephus made a mistake in his footnote. He wrongly assumed that the eclipse in question was the one occurring on March 13, 4 B.C. We must look for an eclipse occurring, not in March, but in January or early February of some year. The list of lunar eclipses visible in Judea around that time is rather short.
Nov. 8, 8 B.C. (the wrong time of the year)
March 23, 5 B.C. (too near the Passover to accommodate Herod’s funeral and the subsequent negotiations)
Sept. 15, 5 B.C. (the wrong time of the year)
March 13, 4 B.C. (incorrect, as we have seen)
July 17, 2 B.C. (the wrong time of year)
January 9, 1 B.C. This is the one we are looking for.
Nov. 8, 2 A.D. (the wrong time of year)
If Matthias were deposed on January 9, 1 B.C. at the time of this particular eclipse, then Herod would have died toward the end of January. His 30-day funeral would have covered most of the month of February. We know that his body lay in state for another week, and then the negotiations with the people began. Those negotiations took place in March, and the Passover was in April.
These dates would fit the events very well, as recorded by Josephus.
There is another reason why we cannot use the editor’s footnote to prove that Jesus was born in 4 B.C. We know that Jesus was born in September or October. If He had been born in September of 4 B.C., he would have been born about six months after Herod’s death. How, then, could Herod have attempted to kill the children in Bethlehem after hearing from the Magi that the King had been born? (See Matt. 2:16.)
So if the 19th century editor had picked the correct eclipse on March 13, 4 B.C., how could he tell us that Jesus was born later that same year, September of 4 B.C.? It is not possible. In order to maintain the March 13 eclipse, Jesus’ birth would have to be set in September of 5 B.C. while Herod was alive.
When was Herod 70 Years of Age?
Josephus also tells us that Herod was nearly 70 years old when he died. Antiquities of the Jews, XVII, vi, 1 says,
“And as he despaired of recovering (for he was about the seventieth year of his ag e), he grew fierce and indulged the bitterest anger upon all occasions.”
He confirms this again in Wars of the Jews, I, xxxiii, 1, where he says, “for he was almost seventy years of age.”
Historians also know that Herod was 25 when he began his career in 47 B.C., when his father appointed him governor of Galilee (Antiquities of the Jews, XIV, ix, 2). Thus, Herod was in his 70th year from 2 B.C. until his death in January of 1 B.C. Jesus was born about four months earlier on Rosh Hoshana, September 29, 2 B.C.
When was Cyrenius Governor of Syria?
Luke 2:2 tells us that Jesus was born when Cyrenius (or Quirinius) was governor of Syria. History tells us about the various governors of Syria. They are as follows:
Titius (7 B.C. and earlier)
Varus (7 or 6 to 4 B.C.)
Saturninus (4 to 2 B.C.)
Varus (2 B.C. to 1 A.D.)
G. Caesar (1 to 4 A.D.)
According to Roman history, Quirinius was not governor of Syria until 6 or 7 A.D. This presents a problem in dating the birth of Jesus. However, we do know that Quirinius was sent to Syria in March of 2 B.C. shortly after the Roman Senate had passed a resolution declaring Augustus Caesar to be Pater Patriae, “Father of the Country.”
This resolution was passed in honor of his 25th anniversary since being proclaimed “Augustus” in 27 B.C. The senate decreed that the entire Roman world should ratify this decree. Quirinius was the great expert in taxation and census-taking, and so he was sent to Syria to begin enrolling everyone in the empire.
The work in Asia was completed during the summer, after which time his focus turned to Judea. And so Luke tells us,
3 And all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.
We know that Quirinius was in Syria in 2 B.C., and we know from Luke that he was “governor of Syria” when Jesus was born. Technically, however, Quirinius was a lieutenant governor in 2 B.C. Saturninus was to be replaced by Varus that summer, but he probably wanted to go to Rome as early as possible to participate in the festivities. For the same reason, Varus would have been reluctant to leave Rome until as late as possible.
Since Quirinius was of sufficient rank that he could act as lieutenant governor, and because he had no choice but to be in Syria anyway during the celebrations in Rome, it appears that both Saturninus and Varus found good excuse to let Quirinius be the acting governor during the summer of 2 B.C. Jesus was born during his tenure as acting governor.
2 B.C., then, is the only possible time that Jesus could have been born while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
When did the Magi Arrive?
Later tradition popularized the idea that the Shepherds of Bethlehem and the Magi arrived at the manger at about the same time on the very night Jesus was born. But this is quite improbable, because Joseph and Mary had to flee to Egypt on the very night that the Magi arrived. If Mary had just given birth to Jesus, she would have been in no condition to travel on a donkey so soon.
I believe that Jesus was born on Rosh Hoshana, September 29, 2 B.C., and that the local shepherds came to see him that night (Luke 2:16). They found Joseph and Mary in a stable, with Jesus who had been placed in a manger (Luke 2:7).
We do not know how long they would have found shelter in the stable (possibly a cave), but after everyone had ratified the decree honoring Caesar Augustus, most of the out-of-town people would have returned home. Joseph and Mary then went to a house (Matt. 2:11) where they were more comfortable. It is likely also that nightly Bible study discussions could have taken place with local residents. I cannot imagine the shepherds missing out on any of those discussions.
Three months later the Magi arrived from afar, and this was when Herod was alerted to His birth and became alarmed at the prospect of a rival king.
The Magi were directed to Bethlehem. Whereas the shepherds had found them in a stable, the Magi found them in the “house.” That night, both Joseph and the Magi were warned in dreams (Matt. 2:12, 13). The Magi returned to Parthia by another route, and Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt for His protection.
Jesus in Egypt
Jesus was three months old when taken to Egypt for His protection, even as Moses had been three months old when he was taken into Pharaoh's house for his protection. Exodus 2:2 speaks of the birth of Moses, saying,
2 And the woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was beautiful, she hid him for three months.
We are then told how Moses was put in an “ark,” or basket which floated down the river. The daughter of Pharaoh saw the basket, found the baby, and adopted Moses as her own. Thus, Moses went into the house of Pharaoh for his own protection at the age of three months.
Jesus is compared to Moses in Acts 3:22,
22 Moses said, “The Lord God shall raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren; to Him you shall give heed in everything He says to you.”
So the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth were prophesied by the things that happened to Moses. Both went into the house of Pharaoh (Egypt) at the age of three months for their protection. So we read in Matthew 2:13-15,
13 Now when they [the Magi] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” 14 And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, ‘Out of Egypt did I call My Son.”
The Magi must have arrived at the end of December of 2 B.C., giving rise later to the Ch ristmas tradition on Dec. 25. Christian tradition later celebrated this day as His birthday, but we know that shepherds were no longer in the fields after November. So He was born in September, and the Magi arrived in December.
December 25, 2 B.C. happened to be the date when the King’s Planet (Jupiter) stood over Bethlehem in the night sky when viewed from Jerusalem. We cannot say for sure whether or not Jupiter was the only “star” over Bethlehem at that time, but certainly the Magi, who were schooled in a study of the heavens, would have taken notice of Jupiter as they looked in that direction from Jerusalem.
There had been many astrological events in the heavens for about a year and a half, beginning in the Spring of 3 B.C. These are described in greater detail in Dr. Ernest Martin’s book, The Star that Astonished the World. It seems certain that the Magi had remembered some prophetic teachings of Daniel some five centuries earlier, for he had been made the head of the Magi in his day on account of his wisdom. Daniel 2:48 says,
48 Then the king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts, and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men [Magi] of Babylon.
By the way, in the fourth century, Saint Nicolas of Ephesus began leaving little gifts on the door steps of poor people on the night of December 24/25, following the example of the Magi who gave Jesus gifts on that date. Other people soon followed his example, and out of this developed the Christmas traditions. It was not long before December 25 also came to be seen as the actual date of Jesus’ birth, although in reality it was only the time that the Magi had arrived about three months after His birth.
Early Church Witnesses
Jesus' birth is dated by some early Christian writers. In the late second century, Irenaeus writes, “Our Lord was born about the 41st year of the reign of Augustus” (Against Heresies, III, xxi, 3).
Augustus began to reign August 19, 43 B.C. His 41st year was in 2 B.C. If we were to date Jesus’ birth in 4 or 5 B.C., it would only be the 38th or 39th year of Augustus.
Eusebius, the “Father of Church History,” wrote,
“It was the forty-second year of Augustus’ reign and the twenty-eighth after the subjection of Egypt and the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra.” (Eccl. Hist. I, v.)
The suicide of Antony and Cleopatra in 30 B.C. were very important dates in those days, and many events are dated accordingly. Twenty-eight years later was 2 B.C. According to W. E. Filmer, who wrote an article proving Jesus was born in 2 B.C., “there were, before the year 500, no less than ten Christian witnesses who agreed on the year in which Christ was born.”
The Beginning of John’s Ministry
John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth, was in seclusion for the first five months of her pregnancy (Luke 1:24). In Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy, Gabriel told Mary that she too was to conceive a child, and that He was to be called “the son of God.” Luke 1:36 says,
36 And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age, and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month.
John was called to fulfill the prophecies of Elijah (Luke 1:17). It was universally believed in those days that “Elijah” would come at the time of Passover, and so it was customary for the people to set an extra chair at the table for him.
John’s birthday, then, was probably on or near the time of Passover, and when he was thirty years of age, he began his formal ministry. A few months later, Jesus turned thirty also and came to John for baptism (Luke 3:23).
Luke indirectly dates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry by giving us the timing of John’s ministry. John's ministry began “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke 3:1).
Tiberius began his reign when his father (Augustus Caesar) died on August 19, 14 A.D. This is one of the most quoted dates in Roman history, because Augustus had died precisely 56 years after the beginning of his political career (August 19, 43 B.C.). Thus, Tiberius' fifteenth year would extend from August of 28 to August of 29. Since John turned 30 at Passover of some year, it is certain that he began his ministry at Passover of 29 A.D. during the 15th year of Tiberius. He baptized Jesus in September of 29.
So we may conclude that Jesus turned 30 years of age on the Feast of Trumpets in September of 29 A.D. Ten days later, on the Day of Atonement, He came to John for baptism. The Spirit then led Him into the wilderness for 40 days, after which time He returned, telling the people in the synagogue of Nazareth that He had come to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. (See Luke 4:17-21.)
Thus, we may conclude first that Jesus was born when Quirinius was lieutenant governor of Syria in 2 B.C.; secondly, that John began his ministry at Passover of 29 A.D. in the 15th year of Tiberius; thirdly, that Jesus was baptized in September of 29; and finally that He was crucified in 33. This is crucial in understanding Daniel’s 70 Weeks.