Placing the Cross in History

When did Jesus die? Scholars continue to debate this important question. Admittedly, the Bible does not specify the precise date of Jesus’s Crucifixion, and the date is not an essential salvation truth. At the same time, Christianity is a historical religion, and the events of Christ’s life did take place in human history alongside other known events. For this reason it is helpful to locate Jesus's death — as precisely as the available evidence allows — within the larger context of human history.

Reference to the 15th Year of Tiberius in Luke

The events in Jesus's ministry are firmly rooted in human history. Among the evangelists, no one makes this point more strongly than Luke. He provides several rather precise historical details that help us set the key dates of Jesus's life.

In Luke 2:1, he writes that "in those days [that is, when Jesus was born] a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered." Augustus (ruled 31 BC–AD 14) presided over the Golden Age of Rome, an era of peace and prosperity. Upon his death, he was succeeded by Tiberius (AD 14–37).

In Luke 3:1–3, we read, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, ... while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." Later in the same chapter, Luke provides a brief account of John's baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21–22) and states that "Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23).

In our efforts to reconstruct the most probable date of Jesus's Crucifixion, we are greatly indebted to Luke. In fact, it is hard to imagine a more thorough account of the historical setting of John the Baptist’s and Jesus's ministries. Most helpful are Luke’s references to various Roman government officials, particularly Tiberius, because several Roman histories detail the lives and reigns of the various emperors. Through such reports, we learn that the Roman Senate confirmed Tiberius as Augustus’s successor on August 19, AD 14.

Implications from the Data Provided by Luke

Scholars have calculated "the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" in a number of ways. Most likely, Tiberius's reign was counted either from the day he took office in AD 14 or from January 1 of the following year, AD 15. The earliest possible date at which Tiberius's "fifteenth year" began is August 19, AD 28, and the latest possible date at which his "fifteenth year" ended is December 31, AD 29.

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