Dating Jesus' Birth/Death, the 4 Gospels, Mary's Immaculate Conception & John the Baptist's Birth
These subjects have been treated of in hundreds of books and articles written by people far more knowledgeable and qualified than I. However, I still seek here to walk through some of my favorite proofs regarding dates for Jesus’ birth and death, John the Baptist’s birth, Mary’s Immaculate Conception and the publication of each of the 4 Gospels.
OBJECTIONS TO COMMON REFUTATIONS:
1. We don’t even really know if Jesus of Nazareth existed in the first place.
New Testament scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg claim that Jesus’ crucifixion is essentially the most defensible fact in the ancient world. In his book Historical Jesus, biblical scholar Gary Habermas lists 12.5 texts, many outside the New Testament, for the existence of Jesus. Even the atheist, anti-resurrection New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman teaches that we have 15 independent sources about Jesus’ crucifixion (many of them outside the New Testament), within 100 years of his death - this is a very narrow window, when working with ancient history.) Ehrman calls this one of 2 best evidences that Jesus of Nazareth lived in history.
The other is that Paul is the best New Testament reference that we have. Scholars talk about 7 out of his 13 epistles being accredited - you can use them in your argument because they’re great sources. The best thing that Paul gives us, Habermas argues, is that he was an eyewitness to the eyewitnesses. In Galatians 1 & 2, Paul goes to Jerusalem and gets to know Peter, James and John. Bart Ehrman says that with 2 exceptions, he knows of no accredited specialist in the field of religion with university, college or seminary positions who teaches that Jesus never lived.
2. We have no way of knowing when Jesus was actually born.
Luke 3:1-2 states: ““In the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and Philip his brother tetrarch of Iturea, and the country of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilina; under the high priests Annas and Caiaphas; the word of the Lord was made unto John, the son of Zachary, in the desert.”
We independently know from non-New Testament sources that:
A) Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea from 26 to 36 AD.
B) Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar began his reign in the year 14 AD. The 15th year of Tiberus’ reign is therefore 29 AD. If Jesus began his ministry shortly after John did, then Jesus began his ministry in 30 AD.
C) Jewish high priest Caiaphas also remained high priest until 36 AD.
In determining when John the Baptist, was conceived, we must go to Luke 1:5, which states: “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia; and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name Elizabeth.”
What does a course of Abia mean?
Scripture records a “course of Abia” as the 8th course among the 24 priestly courses (Neh 12:15-17). Each shift of priests served for 1 week in the temple, twice a year. The course of Abia priest served during the 8th and 32nd week in the annual cycle.
According to Dr. Taylor Marshall:
“Josef Heinrich Friedlieb has convincingly established that the first priestly course of Jojarib was on duty during the destruction of Jerusalem on the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av. Thus, the priestly course of Jojarib was on duty during the second week of Av. Consequently, the priestly course of Abia (the course of St. Zachary) was undoubtedly serving during the 2nd week of the Jewish month of Tishri—the very week of the Day of Atonement on the 10th day of Tishri.”
A Hebrew calendar shows that the Day of Atonement (also called Yom Kippur) was on Sep 19 of the year 3 BC. Zacharias and Elizabeth conceived John the Baptist immediately after Zacharias served his course. Therefore, John was conceived around Sept 19 of 3 BC.
(Indeed, the Church always celebrates the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on June 24, which is slightly more than 9 months from Sept 19! We can assume that the apostles and early Church would have remembered John’s birthday correctly, since he was so important to them.)
Because John was conceived around Sept 19, 3 BC, and because the Gospel of Luke in the Annunciation account says that Mary visited Elizabeth when Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant, Mary would have been visiting Elizabeth in March of the year 2 BC.
Therefore, the Catholic Church always celebrating the Feast of the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary on March 25 makes sense! (The early Church would likely have remembered the specific day of such an important event.)
What is 9 months after March 25? December 25!
(Similarly, we can assume that the apostles and early Church would have remembered Mary’s birthday, because she was so important to them. The Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated on September 8. This means that she would have been conceived 9 months earlier, on December 8. Indeed, December 8 is always celebrated as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.)
3. We have no way of knowing when Jesus died.
We determined above that Jesus was baptized shortly after John began his ministry, which would have been in 30 AD. We know from all the Gospels that Jesus’ ministry lasted 3 years because the Gospels mention 3 Passovers being completed. This means that Jesus was crucified in 33 AD.
We also know from the Gospel writers that Jesus was crucified at 3 PM - Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that Jesus died at the “9th hour” (Matthew 27:45-50, Mark 15:34-37, Luke 23:44-46).
With some historical calculations, we can see that Nisan 14 (the Jewish Passover date) fell on Friday, April 3 in 33 AD.
(With Jesus’ death date being determined, we can also work backwards to determine his birth date. If Jesus was 30 years old around the year 29 or 30 AD and died in 33 AD after 30 years of life and a further 3 (and a half) years of ministry, then he could only have been born in 1 BC or 2 BC. If Jesus was 33 in Nisan 14 (33 AD), then he was born in 1 BC if he was born before April. However, Jesus was born in 2 BC if he was born after April. Since Jesus was born in December, He had to have been born in 2 BC.
(Remember that there is no year 1 BC. 1 BC jumps right to 1 AD.)
4. The Gospel of Mark was written first, and in the year 70. That’s 40 years after Jesus’ death. How accurate could Mark really be? The other 3 Gospels were written even later than 70 AD.
First of all, the argument that Matthew wrote first is stronger, and the document dates to the early 40’s AD. Here’s why/how:
For 1800 years (up until the 19th century), it was believed that Matthew wrote first. Some of the Apostolic Fathers (the first generation after the apostles), from 3 different continents, who attested that Matthew wrote first, were:
Papias (60-130 AD) in modern-day central Turkey, who knew St. John the Apostle/Evangelist (the author of the Gospel of John)
Tertullian (155-240 AD) in Africa
St. Irenaeus (130-202 AD), who was bishop of modern-day Lyons, France
Irenaeus said that while Matthew was writing to “the Hebrews”, Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome. After they were executed in the late 60’s AD, Mark (Peter’s interpreter) wrote his book. Paul’s companion Luke also wrote his book around this time. Lastly, John wrote his book at Ephesus, in Asia.
St. Jerome (342/347-420 AD) recorded that he saw the original Gospel of Matthew (which had been carried by St. Bartholomew the Apostle to India), in the library of Caesarea (in modern-day Israel). Jerome also said: “Simon Peter the son of John, from the village of Bethsaida in the province of Galilee…pushed on to Rome in the 2nd year of Claudius (42 AD) to overthrow Simon Magus, and held the sacerdotal chair there for 25 years until the last, that is the 14th, year of Nero (67 AD)…buried at Rome in the Vatican near the triumphal way, he is venerated by the whole world."
Matthew wrote while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome.
Peter began preaching in Rome by 42 AD and was martyred under Emperor Nero with Paul in 67 AD.
Therefore, Matthew wrote between 42 and 67 AD.
We also know that Matthew wrote a bit before Luke. THEREFORE:
We know that Luke wrote Acts when Paul was still alive (so, before 67 AD), because the book does not mention Paul’s death(because Paul hadn’t died yet!).
Almost certainly, Luke wrote Acts during Paul’s Roman imprisonment, which was around 61 AD.
Certainly, Luke wrote his Gospel before he wrote Acts - so, before 61 AD.
The early Church Fathers say that Luke is “the brother, whose praise is in the gospel through all the churches” (2 Cor 8:18).
Paul wrote this 2nd letter to the Corinthians in about 55 AD.
Therefore, the Gospel of Luke was already widely distributed before 55 AD.
Therefore, if Matthew wrote even before Luke, then Matthew also wrote well before 55 AD.
We also have a recent discovery of an early papyrus (7Q5) of Mark’s Gospel, which allows us to advance the argument even further:
The dating of the papyrus shows that Mark wrote well before even 50 AD. We know that Matthew wrote before Mark. Therefore, Matthew wrote well before even 50 AD.
Likely dating of the Gospel of Matthew: 42 AD (the year that Peter went to Rome). Possible range is 42-45 AD, giving time for the document to circulate before 48 AD (the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem, which we hear about in the book of Acts, chapter 15).
Likely dating of the Gospel of Mark: 45 AD (3 years after Peter first got to Rome and after Matthew was written, giving time for the latter to circulate). Possible range is 44-48 AD (while Peter was preaching in Rome).
Likely dating of the Gospel of Luke: 48 AD (the same year as the Council of Jerusalem). Possible range is 48-52 AD, so that it had time to be distributed widely before Paul mentions it in his letter (written in 55 AD).
Besides, the Gospel of Mark records Jesus saying that the Temple will fall. We know that the Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 7o AD. In Mark, the Temple had not fallen yet. Therefore, Mark must have been written before the year 70.
The hypothesis that opposes the Matthean priority hypothesis is the Marcan priority one. The 2-source Marcan priority hypothesis proposes that the Gospel of Mark was written around 70 AD. This theory involves the use hypothetical lost document referred to as the Q source, but we have zero evidence that such a document even existed. However, 70 AD is still only about 40 years after Jesus’ death. For ancient history, that is amazingly close. Roman historian Tacitus wrote in the 2nd history about 1st century events, and he is considered an excellent, reliable source. So even if it’s true that Mark wrote first, and around 70 AD, the argument of Mark as being”too far away from Jesus’ time to be accurate” is not really advanced.
See this chart from Brant Pitre’s book The Case for Christ: