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Chronology of the Life of Jesus Christ
In the following paragraphs we shall endeavour to establish the absolute and relative chronology of our Lord's life, i.e. we shall show first how certain facts connected with the history of Jesus Christ fit in with the course of universal history, and secondly how the rest of the life of Jesus must be arranged according to the inter-relation of its single elements.
I. ABSOLUTE CHRONOLOGY
The incidents whose absolute chronology may be determined with more or less probability are the year of Christ's nativity, of the beginning of His public life, and of His death. As we cannot fully examine the data entering into these several problems, the reader ought to compare what has been said on these points in the article Biblical Chronology.
A. The Nativity
St. Matthew (2:1) tells us that Jesus was born "in the days of King Herod". Josephus (Ant., XVII, viii, 1) informs us that Herod died after ruling thirty four years de facto, thirty seven years de jure. Now Herod was made rightful king of Judea a.d. 714, while he began his actual rule after taking Jerusalem a.d. 717. As the Jews reckoned their years from Nisan to Nisan, and counted fractional parts as an entire year, the above data will place the death of Herod in a.d. 749, 750, 751. Again, Josephus tells us from that an eclipse of the moon occurred not long before Herod's death; such an eclipse occurred from 12 to 13 March, a.d. 750, so that Herod must have died before the Passover of that year which fell on 12 April (Josephus, "Ant"., iv, 4; viii, 4). As Herod killed the children up to two years old, in order to destroy the new born King of the Jews, we are led to believe that Jesus may have been born a.d. 747, 748, 749. The enrollment under Cyrinus mentioned by St. Luke in connection with the nativity of Jesus Christ, and the remarkable astronomical conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in Pisces, in the spring of a.d. 748, will not lead us to any more definite result.
B. Beginning of the Public Ministry
The first of these passages reads: "And Jesus himself was beginning about the age of thirty years". The phrase "was beginning" does not qualify the following expression "about the age of thirty years", but rather indicates the commencement of the public life. As we have found that the birth of Jesus falls within the period 747-749 a.d., His public life must begin about 777-779 a.d.
Second, when, shortly before the first Pasch of His public life, Jesus had cast the buyers and sellers out of the Temple, the Jews said: "Six and forty years was this temple in building" (John 2:20). Now, according to the testimony of Josephus (loc. cit.), the building of the Temple began in the fifteenth year of Herod's actual reign or in the eighteenth of his reign de jure, i.e. 732 a.d.; hence, adding the forty six years of actual building, the Pasch of Christ's first year of public life must have fallen in 778 a.d.
Third, the Gospel of St. Luke (3:1) assigns the beginning of St. John the Baptist's mission to the "fifteenth year of the Tiberius Caesar". Augustus, the predecessor of Tiberius, died 19 August, 767 a.d., so that the fifteenth year of Tiberius's independent reign is 782 a.d.; but then Tiberius began to be associate of Augustus in a.d. 764, so that the fifteenth year reckoned from this date falls in a.d. 778. Jesus Christ's public life began a few months later, i.e. about a.d. 779.
C. The Year of the Death of Christ
According to the Evangelists, Jesus suffered under the high priest Caiphas (a.d. 772-90, or A.D. 18-36), during the governorship of Pontius Pilate a.d. 780-90). But this leaves the time rather indefinite. Tradition, the patristic testimonies for which have been collected by Patrizi (De Evangeliis), places the death of Jesus in the fifteenth (or sixteenth) year of Tiberius, in the consulship of the Gemini, forty-two years before the destruction of Jerusalem, and twelve years before the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles. We have already seen that the fifteenth year of Tiberius is either 778 or 782, according to its computation from the beginning of Tiberius's associate or sole reign; the consulship of the Gemini (Fufius and Rubellius) fell in a.d. 782; the forty second year before the destruction of Jerusalem is A.D. 29, or a.d. 782, twelve years before the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles brings us to the same year, A.D. 29 or a.d. 782, since the conversion of Cornelius, which marks the opening of the Gentile missions, fell probably in A.D. 40 or 41.
D. The Day of the Death of Christ
Jesus died on Friday, the fifteenth day of Nisan. That He died on Friday is clearly stated by Mark (xv, 42), Luke (xxiii, 54), and John (xix, 31). The few writers who assign another day for Christ's death are practically lost in the multitude of authorities who place it on Friday. What is more, they do not even agree among themselves: Epiphanius, e.g., places the Crucifixion on Tuesday; Lactantius, on Saturday; Westcott, on Thursday; Cassiodorus and Gregory of Tours, not on Friday. The first three Evangelists are equally clear about the date of the Crucifixion. They place the Last Supper on the fourteenth day of Nisan, as may be seen from Matt., xxvi, 17, 20; Mark, xiv, 12 17; Luke, xxii, 7 14. Nor can there be any doubt about St. John's agreement with the Synoptic Evangelists on the question of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. The supper was held "before the festival day of the Pasch" (John, xiii, 1), i. e. on 14 Nisan, as may be seen from Matt., xxii, 7-14. Nor can there be any doubt about St. John's agreement with the Synoptic Evangelists on the question of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. The Supper was held "before the festival day of the pasch" (John, xiii, 1), i.e. on 14 Nisan, since the sacrificial day was computed according to the Roman method (Jovino, 123 sqq., 139 sqq.). Again, some disciples thought that Judas left the supper table because Jesus had said to him: "Buy those things which we have need of for the festival day: or that he should give something to the poor" (John, xiii, 29). If the Supper had been held on 13 Nisan this belief of the disciples can hardly be understood, since Judas might have made his purchases and distributed his alms on 14 Nisan; there would have been no need for his rushing into the city in the middle of the night. On the day of Christ's Crucifixion the Jews "went not into the hall, that they might not be defiled, but that they might eat the pasch" (John, xviii, 28). The pasch which the Jews wished to eat could not have been the paschal lamb, which was eaten on 14 Nisan, for the pollution contracted by entering the hall would have ceased at sundown, so that it would not have prevented them from sharing in the paschal supper. The pasch which the Jews had in view must have been the sacrificial offerings (Chagighah), which were called also pasch and were eaten on 15 Nisan. Hence this passage places the death of Jesus Christ on the fifteenth day of Nisan. Again, Jesus is said to have suffered and died on the "parasceve of the pasch", or simply on the "parasceve" (John, xix, 14, 31); as "parasceve" meant Friday, the expression "parasceve" denotes Friday on which the pasch happened to fall, not the before the pasch. Finally, the day following the parasceve on which Jesus died is called "a great sabbath day" (John, xix, 31), either to denote its occurrence in the paschal week or to distinguish it from the preceding pasch, or day of minor rest.
II. RELATIVE CHRONOLOGY
No student of the life of Jesus will question the chronological order of its principal divisions: infancy, hidden life, public life, passion, glory. But the order of events in the single divisions is not always clear beyond dispute.
A. The Infancy of Jesus
The history of the infancy, for instance, is recorded only in the First Gospel and in the Third. Each Evangelist contents himself with five pictures:
The two Evangelists agree in the first and the last of these two series of incidents (moreover, all scholars place the birth, adoration of the shepherds, and the circumcision before the Magi), but how are we to arrange the intervening three events related by St. Matthew with the order of St. Luke? We indicate a few of the many ways in which the chronogical sequence of these facts has been arranged.
1. The birth, the adoration of the shepherds, the circumcision, the adoration of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the Innocents, the purification, the return to Nazareth. This order implies that either the purification was delayed beyond the fortieth day, which seems to contradict Luke, ii, 22 sqq., or that Jesus was born shortly before Herod's death. so that the Holy Family could return from Egypt within forty days after the birth of Jesus. Tradition does not seem to favour this speedy return.
2. The birth, the adoration of the shepherds, the circumcision, the adoration of the Magi, the purification, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the Innocents, the return to Nazareth. According to this order the Magi either arrived a few days before the purification or they came on 6 January; but in neither case can we understand why the Holy Family should have offered the sacrifice of the poor, after receiving the offeings of the Magi. Moreover, the firsr Evangelist intimates that the angel appeared to St. Joseph soon after the departure of the Magi, and it is not at all probable that Herod should have waited long before inquiring concerning the whereabouts of the new born king. The difficulties are not overcome by placing the adoration of the Magi on the day before the purification; it would be more unlikely in that case that the Holy Family should offer the sacrifice of the poor.
3. As Luke 2:39 appears to exclude the possibility of placing the adoration of the Magi between the presentation and return to Nazareth, there are interpreters who have located the advent of the wise men, the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the Innocents, and the return from Egypt after the events as told in St. Luke. They agree in the opinion that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth after the purification, and then left Nazareth in order to make their home in Bethlehem. Eusebius, Epiphanius, and some other ancient writers are willing to place the adoration of the Magi about two years after Christ's birth; Paperbroch and his followers allow about a year and thirteen days between the birth and the advent of the Magi; while Patrizi agrees with those who fix the advent of the Magi at about two weeks after the purification . The text of Matt., ii, 1, 2, hardly permits an interval of more than a year between the purification and the coming of the wise men; Patrizi's opinion appears to satisfy all the data furnished by the gospels, while it does not contradict the particulars added by tradition.
B. The Hidden Life of Jesus
It was in the seclusion of Nazareth that Jesus spent the greatest part of His earthly life. The inspired records are very reticent about this period: Luke, 2:40-52; Mark 6:3; John 6:42; 7:15, are about the only passages which refer to the hidden life. Some of them give us a general view of Christ's life: "The child grew, and grew in strength and wisdom; and the grace of God was in him" is the brief summary of the years following the return of the Holy Family after the ceremonial purification in the Temple. "Jesus advanced in wisdom, and age, and grace with God and men", and He "was subject to them" form the inspired outline of Christ's life in Nazareth after He had attained the age of twelve. "When he was twelve years old" Jesus accompanied His parents to Jerusalem, 'according to the custom of the feast'; When they returned, the child Jesus remained in Jerusalem; and his parents knew it not." After three days, they found him in the Temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, hearing them, and asking them questions." It was on this occasion that Jesus spoke the only words that have come down from the period of His hidden life: "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know, that I must be about my Father's business [or, "in my father's house"]?" The Jews tell us that Jesus had not passed through the training of he Rabbinic schools: "How doth this man know letters, having never learned?". The same question is asked by the people of Nazareth, who add, "Is not this the carpenter?" St. Justin is authority for the statement that Jesus specially made "ploughs and yokes' (Contra Tryph., 88). Though it is not certain that at the time of Jesus elementary schools existed in the Jewish villlages, it may be inferred from the Gospels that Jesus knew how to read (Luke 4:16) and write (John 8:6). At an early age He must have learned the so called Shema (Deut. 6:4), and the Hallel, or Psalms 113-118 (Hebr.); He must have been familiar with the other parts of the Scriptures too, especially the Psalms and the Prophetic Books, as He constantly refers to them in His public life. It is also asserted that Palestine at the time of Jesus Christ was practically bilingual, so that Christ must have spoken Aramaic and Greek; the indications that He was acquainted with Hebrew and Latin are rather slight. The public teaching of Jesus shows that He was a close observer of the sights and sounds of nature, and of the habits of all classes of men. For these are the usual sources of His illustrations. To conclude the hidden life of Jesus extending through thirty years is far different from what one should have expected in the case of a Person Who is adored by His followers as their God and revered as their Saviour; this is an indirect proof for the credibility of the Gospel story.
C. The Public Life of Jesus: Its Duration
The chronology of the public life offers a number of problems to the interpreter; we shall touch upon only two, the duration of the public life, and the successive journeys it contains.
There are two extreme views as to the length of the ministry of Jesus: St. Irenaeus (Contra Haer., II, xxii, 3-6) appears to suggest a period of fifteen years; the prophetic phrases, "the year of recompenses", "the year of my redemption" (Is., xxxiv, 8; lxiii, 4), appear to have induced Clement of Alexandria, Julius Africanus, Philastrius, Hilarion, and two or three other patristic writers to allow only one year for the public life. This latter opinion has found advocates among certain recent students: von Soden, for instance, defends it in Cheyne's "Encyclopaedia Biblica". But the text of the Gospels demands a more extensive duration. St. John's Gospel distinctly mentions three distinct paschs in the history of Christ's ministry (ii, 13; vi, 4; xi, 55). The first of the three occurs shortly after the baptism of Jesus, the last coincides with His Passion, so that at least two years must have intervened between the two events to give us the necessary room for the passover mentioned in vi, 4. Westcott and Hort omit the expression "the pasch" in vi, 4 to compress the ministry of Jesus within the space of one year; but all the manuscripts, the versions, and nearly all the Fathers testify for the reading "En de eggysto pascha heeorteton Ioudaion": "Now the pasch, the festival day of the Jews, was near at hand". Thus far then everything tends to favour the view of those writers and more recent commentators who extend the period of Christ's ministry a little over two years.
But a comparison of St. John's Gospel with the Synoptic Evangelists seems to introduce another pasch, indicated in the Fourth Gospel, into Christ's public life. John, iv, 45, relates the return of Jesus into Galilee after the first pasch of His public life in Jerusalem, and the same event is told by Mark, i, 14, and Luke iv, 14. Again the pasch mentioned in John, vi, 4 has its parallel in the "green grass" of Mark, vi, 39, and in the multiplication of loaves as told in Luke, ix, 12 sqq. But the plucking of ears mentioned in Mark, ii, 23, and Luke, vi, 1, implies another paschal season intervening between those expressly mentioned in John, ii, 13, and vi, 4. This shows that the public life of Jesus must have extended over four paschs, so that it must have lasted three years and a few months. Though the Fourth Gospel does not indicate this fourth pasch as clearly as the other three, it is not wholly silent on the question. The "festival day of the Jews" mentioned in John, v, 1, has been identified with the Feast of Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Expiation, the Feast of the New Moon, the Feast of Purim, the Feast of Dedication, by various commentators; others openly confess that they cannot determine to which of the Jewish feasts this festival day refers. Nearly all difficulties will disappear if the festival day be regarded as the pasch, as both the text (heorte) and John, iv, 35 seem to demand (cf. Dublin Review, XXIII, 351 sqq.).
D. The Public Life of Jesus: His Journeys
The journeys made during His public life may be grouped under nine heads: the first six were mainly performed in Galilee and had Capharnaum for their central point; the last three bring Jesus into Judea without any pronounced central point. We cannot enter into the disputed questions connected with the single incidents of the various groups.
1. First Journey.
2. Second Journey.
3. Third Journey.
4. Fourth Journey.
5. Fifth Journey.
6. Sixth Journey.
7. Seventh Journey.
8. Eighth Journey.
9. Ninth Journey.
E. The Passion of Jesus: Its Preparation
The history of Christ's Passion comprises three parts: the preparation for the Passion, the trial of Jesus, and His death.
Jesus prepares His disciples for the Passion, He prepares Himself for the ordeal and His enemies prepare themselves for the destruction of Jesus.
1. Preparation of the Apostles. Jesus prepares His Apostles for the Passion by the eating of the paschal lamb, the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the concomitant ceremonies, and His lengthy discourses held during and after the Last Supper. Special mention should be made of the prediction of the Passion, and of the betrayal one of the Apostles and the denial by another. Peter, james, and John are prepared in a more particular manner by witnessing the sorrow of Jesus on Mt. Olivet.
2. Preparation of Jesus. Jesus must have found an indirect preparation in all He did and said to strengthen His Apostles. But the preparation that was pecularly His own consisted in His prayer in the grotto of His Agony where the angel came to strengthen Him. The sleep of His favoured Apostles during the hours of His bitter struggle must have prepared Him too for the complete abandonment He was soon to experience.
3. Preparation of the Enemies. Judas leaves the Master during the Last Supper. The chief priests and Pharisees hastily collect a detachment of the Roman cohort stationed in the castle of Antonia, of the Jewish temple-watch, and of the officials of the Temple. To these are added a number of the servants and dependents of the high-priest, and a miscellaneous multitude of fanatics with lanterns and torches, with swords and clubs, who were to follow the leadership of Judas. They took Christ, bound Him, and led Him to the high-priest's house.
F. The Passion of Jesus: The Trial
Jesus was tried first before an ecclesiastical and then before a civil tribunal.
1. Before Ecclesiastical Court. The ecclesiastical trial includes Christ's appearance before Annas, before Caiphas, and again before Caiphas, who appears to have acted in each case as head of the Sanhedrin. The Jewish court found Jesus guilty of blasphemy, and condemned Him to death, though its proceedings were illegal from more than one point of view. During the trial took place Peter's triple denial of Jesus; Jesus is insulted and mocked, especially between the second and third session; and after His final condemnation Judas despaired and met his tragic death.
2. Before the Civil Court. The civil trial, too, comprised three sessions, the first before Pilate, the second before Herod, the third again before Pilate. Jesus is not charged with blasphemy before the court of Pilate, but with stirring up the people, forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and claiming to be Christ the king. Pilate ignores the first two charges; the third he finds harmless when he sees that Jesus does not claim royalty in the Roman sense of the word. But in order not to incur the odium of the Jewish leaders, the Roman governor sends his prisoner to Herod. As Jesus did not humour the curiosity of Herod, He was mocked and set at naught by the Tetrarch of Galilee and his court, and sent back to Pilate. The Roman procurator declares the prisoner innocent for the second time, but, instead of setting Him free, gives the people the alternative to choose either Jesus or Barabbas for their paschal freedman. Pilate pronounced Jesus innocent for the third time with the more solemn ceremony of washing his hands; he had recourse to a third scheme of ridding himself of the burden of pronouncing an unjust sentence against his prisoner. He had the prisoner scourged, thus annihilating, as far as human means could do so, any hope that Jesus could ever attain to the royal dignity. But even this device miscarried, and Pilate allowed his political ambition to prevail over his sense of evident justice; he condemned Jesus to be crucified.
G. The Passion of Jesus: His Death
Jesus carried His Cross to the place of execution. Simon of Cyrene is forced to assist Him in bearing the heavy burden. On the way Jesus addresses his last words to the weeping women who sympathized with His suffering. He is nailed to the Cross, his garments are divided, and an inscription is placed over His head. While His enemies mock Him, He pronounces the well-known "Seven Words". Of the two robbers crucified with Jesus, one was converted, and the other died impenitent. The sun was darkened, and Jesus surrendered His soul into the hands of His Father. The veil of the Temple was rent into two, the earth quaked, the rocks were riven, and many bodies of the saints that had slept arose and appeared to many. The Roman centurion testified that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. The Heart of Jesus was pierced so as to make sure of His death. The Sacred Body was taken from the Cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and was buried in the new sepulchre of Joseph, and the Sabbath drew near.
H. The Glory of Jesus
After the burial of Jesus, the Holy women returned and prepared spices and ointments. The next day, the chief priests and Pharisees made the sepulchre secure with guards, sealing the stone. When the Sabbath was passed, the Holy women brought sweet spices that they might anoint Jesus. But Jesus rose early the first day of the week, and there was a great earthquake, and an angel descended from heaven, and rolled back the stone. The guards were struck with terror, and became as dead men. On arriving at the sepulchre the holy women found the grave empty; Mary Magdalen ran to tell the Apostles Peter and John, while the other women were told by an angel that the Lord had arisen from the dead. Peter and John hasten to the sepulchre, and find everything as Magdalen has reported. Magdalen too returns, and, while weeping at the sepulchre, is approached by the arisen Saviour Who appears to her and speaks with her. On the same day Jesus appeared to the other Holy Women, to Peter, to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, and to all the Apostles excepting Thomas. A week later He appeared to all the Apostles, Thomas included; later still He appeared in Galilee near the Lake of Genesareth to seven disciples, on a mountain in Galilee to a multitude of disciples, to James, and finally to His disciples on the Mount Olivet whence He ascended into heaven. But these apparitions do not exhaust the record of the Gospels, according to which Jesus showed Himself alive after His Passion by many proofs, for forty days appearing to the disciples and speaking of the kingdom of God.