I recently listened to a debate between Bart Ehrman and Mike Licona where Ehrman claimed the Synoptic Gospels contradict the Gospel of John on the timing of Jesus’ crucifixion. He is incorrect, so below I have explained why. I have also made this response into a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-DWEwfb_Q0&t=51s.
It was a dark day when Jesus was crucified. One can only imagine the immense pain and despair that Jesus’ family, friends, and apostles felt as they watched the torture and apparent death of our Savior. The intention of this blog is to develop a better understanding of some of the occurrences that happened on that day by matching Biblical to extra-Biblical historical evidence.
The four gospels state that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, who was the governor of Judea from 26 – 36 A.D., and during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (Tacitus, Annals, XV 44, Luke 3:1). This gives us a window of time concerning the year of Jesus’ crucifixion.
We also have information concerning the day of the week in which the crucifixion occurred. All four gospels agree that Jesus was crucified on the Day of Preparation (Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:14, 31, 42).
John 19: 25-31 states: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath.”
Mark, Luke, and John state that the following day was the Sabbath. The Day of Preparation for the Sabbath always falls on a Friday (Mark 15:42). The Sabbath begins at nightfall on Friday and lasts until nightfall on Saturday. John states that it was the “Day of Preparation of the Passover.” John 18:28 says “Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.”
John’s statement leads one to carefully examine the Last Supper as the Passover meal (Matthew 26-17-29; Mark 14: 12-25; Luke 22: 7-22; John 13: 1-30). In 1 Corinthians 5:7, we learn that “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us.” The sacrifice of the lambs in the original Passover signified that those partaking of that sacrifice would be spared from God’s judgment.
According to Hoehner (1977), the Galilean method of reckoning the timing of the Passover runs from sunrise to sunrise, so using the Galilean method, Nisan 14 began at sunrise on Thursday and Nisan 15 began at sunrise on Friday. The Galilean method was used by the Pharisees and the Synoptics used this reckoning. John used the Judean method of reckoning in which Nisan 14 began at sunset on Thursday night and ended at sunset on Friday night. The Judean method was used by the Sadducees. The Synoptic reckoning places the slaughter of the Passover lamb on Thursday between 3 and 5 p.m., while the Judean reckoning places the slaughter of the Passover lamb on Friday between 3 and 5 p.m. “Here may be a case in point where neither party [Pharisees or Sadducees] compromised and so there were two days of Passover slaughter” (Hoehner, 1977, pp. 89-90).
These differences can also help explain what appear to be discrepancies in the timing of Jesus’ appearance before Pontius Pilate as reported in Mark 15:25 and John 19:14. Mark’s day used a Jewish 24-hour time period, so the “third hour” when Jesus was crucified was three hours after the morning began at 6 a.m. John’s day used the Roman time period so the “sixth hour” when Jesus appeared before Pilate would be six hours after midnight at 6 a.m. Taken together, the Gospels report that Jesus appeared before Pilate around 6 a.m. He was crucified at 9 a.m. and darkness appeared between noon and 3 p.m., when He died. He was buried after that on Friday.
In the larger context, these findings indicate the apostles ate the Last Supper on a Thursday, followed by the crucifixion of Jesus on Friday, the Sabbath (Saturday) and the discovery of the empty tomb on Sunday by Mary Magdalene and other women. Just as Jesus had predicted (John 2:19; Mark 14:58), He rose on the third day.
The crucifixion fulfilled the scriptures, such as Isaiah 53, which was written around seven hundred years before: “But He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Interestingly, Isaiah is the only fully preserved book in the Bible to be found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Now we’ll turn to the particulars that occurred on the Day of Preparation when Jesus was crucified to better pinpoint the week and year. According to Mark 15:33, “at noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). Mark 15:37-39 continues, “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed His last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how He died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God.”
Luke 23:44-45 states, “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When He had said this, He breathed his last. The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’”
Matthew 27:45 says, “From noon until three in the afternoon, darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani’ (which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Matthew 27:50-52 continues, “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He gave up His spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely He was the Son of God!”
According to the prophet Joel (which is recounted by Luke in Acts 2:15-21) “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious days of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
There is some other evidence that on the day of the crucifixion the sun was darkened and/or the moon appeared like blood. The so-called Report of Pilate, a New Testament Apocryphal fragment (see DeLiso & Fidani 2014 for a more complete review) from the fourth century, states “Jesus was delivered to him by Herod, Archelaus, Philip, Annas, Caiaphas, and all the people. At his crucifixion the sun was darkened; the stars appeared and in all the world people lighted lamps from the sixth hour till evening; the moon appeared like blood.” Thallus is a relatively unknown pagan author who also cited darkness during the crucifixion, as reported by both him and Africanus (DeLiso & Fidani, 2014). As expected, however, some pagans rejected the reports, including Origene, Jerome, and Chrysostom (DeLiso & Fidani, 2014).
Scholars have reported that devastating earthquakes occurred in Jerusalem during Christ’s death (Mallet, 1853; Rigg, 1941). This occurred in a region that includes the Dead Sea fault, which is a plate boundary that separates the Arabian plate and the Sinai sub-plate (Garfunkel, 1981). This fault has been active since the Miocene (Kagan, Stein, Agnon, & Neuman, 2011) and the fault is still active today (De Liso & Fidani, 2014). The fault extends from the Red Sea in the south to the Taurus Mountains in the north.
Kagan and colleagues (2011) analyzed seismites in the Holocene Dead Sea basin by constructing two age-depth chronological models based on atmospheric radiocarbon ages of short-lived organic debris with a Bayesian model. Seismites are sedimentary beds and structures, which are deformed by seismic shaking. The scholars analyzed seismites in different areas of the basin, finding that several synchronous seismites appeared in all sections during particular years, including 33 A.D. (+/- 2 sigma; 95% confidence interval). Other years in which earthquakes occurred as evidenced by seismites are (AD unless otherwise noted): 1927, 1293, 1202/1212, 749, 551, 419, 33, 31 BC, and mid-century B.C.
After analyzing laminated sedimentary cores recovered at the shores of the Dead Sea, Migowski, Agnon, Bookman, Negendank, and Stein (2004) also confirmed an earthquake in 33 A.D. with a magnitude of 5.5. They documented earthquakes around 33 A.D. in 31 BC and 76 A.D. The scholars analyzed seismites using radiocarbon dating.
Ben-Menahem (2014) conducted a literature review of empirical studies over 4,000 years of seismicity along the Dead Sea Rift. The scholar referenced the aforementioned studies along with one by Enzel, Kadan, and Eyal (2000) before concluding that earthquakes occurred in Masada in 31 BC, Jerusalem in 33 A.D., and near Nablus in 64 A.D.
In summary, the literature on seismicity along the Dead Sea basin supports the assertion that an earthquake occurred either in or very close to the year 33 A.D.
As noted above, the Bible indicates that Jesus was crucified on Friday, the Day of Preparation, which some scholars have determined is Nisan 14 (Humphreys & Waddington, 1985). During the time period in which Pontius Pilate served as governor, the only two possibilities in which Nisan 14 fell on a Friday occurred on April 7th in 30 A.D. and April 3rd in 33 A.D. To determine when Nisan 14 fell on a Friday, Humphreys and Waddington (1985) reconstructed the first century Jewish calendar using astronomical calculations.
To determine which date is appropriate, we refer to John 2:20. “They replied, ‘It has taken 46 years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple He had spoken of was His body.” Assuming this refers to the inner temple (Hoehner, 1977), the date in which the Jews made this statement would be between 30 and 31 A.D. If the only Passovers that occurred during Jesus’ ministry are the three to which John referred in his gospel, the 33 A.D. date suggests a ministry of about 2 ½ years (Humphreys & Waddington, 1985). Some scholars indicate an additional unmentioned Passover, which would add a year to Jesus’ ministry. Either way, Humphreys and Waddington (1985) determined the 33 A.D. date was the most appropriate.
Yet note by Humphreys’ and Waddington’s (1985) and others’ calculations, Nisan 14, which fell on Friday, April 3rd in 33 A.D., is also the day in which Passover is celebrated. Consistent with the gospel of John, who said that the Jewish leaders wanted to avoid ceremonial uncleanliness on Passover, Passover is likely to have fallen on the Friday when Jesus was crucified. That would indicate that Jesus recognized Passover (as part of Feast of the Unleavened Bread week) at the Last Supper as the Passover lamb. Such assertions are consistent with others’ determinations (cf., http://catholicstraightanswers.com/passover-and-the-last-supper/)
Compare with others who have drawn the same conclusions with respect to the 33 A.D. date: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2149750/Jesus-died-Friday-April-3-33AD-claim-researchers-tie-earthquake-data-gospels-date.html.
Humphreys and Waddington (1985) further state:
“’The moon turned to blood’ is a graphic description of a lunar eclipse. The reason an eclipsed moon is blood red is well known and the effect has been well documented. Even though during an eclipse the moon is geometrically in the earth’s shadow, some sunlight still reaches it by the refraction of light passing through the earth’s atmosphere. This light is red since it has traversed a long path through the atmosphere and scattering by air molecules and very small particles preferentially removes the blue end of the spectrum. The combination of scattering and refraction produces the deep blood-red color of a lunar eclipse.
‘The moon turned to blood’ has been used by writers and historians to describe lunar eclipses for many centuries, and the expression dates back to at least 300 B.C. Descriptions of some well documented ancient eclipses have been compiled by Ginzel’ and matched with calculated eclipse dates. We quote three examples:
(i)The lunar eclipse of 20 September, 331 B.C. occurred two days after Alexander crossed the Tigris and the moon was described by Curtius (IV, 10 (39), 1) as ‘suffused with the color of blood.’
(ii) The lunar eclipse of 31 August A.D. 304 (probably) which occurred at the martyrdom of Bishop Felix, was described in Acta Sanctorem. ‘when he was about to be martyred the moon was turned to blood.’
(iii) The lunar eclipse of 2 March A. D. 462 was described in the Hydatius Lemicus Chronicon thus I on March 2 with the crowing of cocks after the setting of the sun the full moon was turned to blood.’”
Humphreys and Waddington (1985) compiled ancient Babylonian eclipse records between 26 and 36 A.D. A lunar eclipse with a 60% magnitude was recorded on Friday, April 3rd, 33 A.D. at the “rising moon,” which was “visible from Jerusalem.” This timing and Humphreys’ and Waddington’s (1985) detailed analysis of Jerusalem sun/moon coordinates suggests the lunar eclipse occurred in the early evening of the crucifixion. Scholars further believe that the daytime darkness, which occurred during the crucifixion, was the result of a khamsin dust storm (Driver, 1965; Sibylline Oracles, 111,800).
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