What was the “Fifteenth Year of Tiberius”?

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Excerpt We are going to look at something Luke reports: the ministry of John the Baptist coincided with the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar (Lk 3:1). This is often cited as evidence the Crucifixion took place in AD 33, but it will be shown it can very reasonably be reconciled with AD 30—for which, we must not forget, the previous studies in this series have already shown strong scriptural support... Continue reading

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An Overview of Previous Articles in the Series

The February 2018 issue of the ABR Newsletter introduced my ongoing chronology-related research. One of its key long-range objectives is to show how the “70 Weeks” prophecy of Daniel 9:24–27 illustrates the inspiration of the Scriptures, showing how human history is controlled by an all-wise, all-powerful, infallible God Who declares in advance mysteries which are yet to unfold. His objective existence and interaction with the world He created is the only explanation for the way all the pieces of that prophecy can come together over a vast span of time.

In order to lay out the case for the inspiration and (partial) fulfillment of Daniel 9, other chronological points have to first be independently established and backed up by both Scripture and history, since they are inextricably linked to the Daniel 9 prophecy. That is why I have focused so much recently on the date of the Crucifixion. Get that date wrong, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to fit together the details given in Daniel 9 and other passages without either embracing some questionable exegesis of Scripture, or casting unjustified doubt on the accuracy of original source material such as Josephus’ Antiquities. Efforts have been made by others to cobble solutions together with varying degrees of success. My own research indicates that positing an AD 33 Crucifixion date and forcing other details into conformity with it does not permit Daniel 9:24–27 to be interpreted in a straightforward manner that is faithful to its grammar and context, and indeed destroys the apologetic value of this prophecy as a witness to the inerrancy of Scripture. This is why I have endeavored to present the evidence for an AD 30 Crucifixion as the first step in the process of unpacking Daniel 9.

My initial article, “How the Passover Illuminates the Date of the Crucifixion” (http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2018/02/28/How-the-Passover-Illuminates-the-Date-of-the-Crucifixion.aspx), looked at how the Passover was first observed on the night before the Israelites left Egypt, then at how God commanded His people to commemorate it each year as a memorial to His great deliverance (Ex. 12, Lev. 21, Nm. 28). Applying this information from the Word to initially narrow down the options for the date of the Crucifixion—it ruled out any days other than a Friday, or any duration other than from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning—the study then looked at records of lunar eclipses, concluding that lunar eclipse information was insufficient on its own to distinguish between two possible candidate dates—April 7, AD 30 and April 3, AD 33.

The theme of that first article was then taken further in the March 2018 ABR Newsletter (http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2018/03/26/How-Acts-and-Galatians-Indicate-the-Date-of-the-Crucifixion.aspx), which presented a detailed look at the books of Acts and Galatians. That exegetical study of Scripture concluded that, when data from Galatians 1–2 is linked with the AD 44 death of Herod Agrippa I during Paul’s second post-conversion visit to Jerusalem (Acts 11–12), it strongly indicated our Lord was crucified in AD 30. (If you have not read that paper, may I encourage you to do so.) When the exegetical conclusions from that second article are combined with calendar observations covered in the first, a strong case is made that the date for the Crucifixion that best fits the data is April 7, AD 30.

Last month, we took a detour from the Crucifixion-centered theme of the first two articles, turning our attention instead to the 2,300 “evenings and mornings” of Daniel 8:14. We saw how that passage deals only with the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2018/04/30/Understanding-the-2300-e2809cEvenings-and-Morningse2809d-of-Daniel-814.aspx), and contributes nothing to understanding the timing of the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, or the unfolding of events in the Last Days. The 2,300 evening-mornings of that prophecy refer to the number of twice-daily regular sacrifices that were lost during the time of Antiochus’ desecration of the Temple. They do not signify some obscure period of 2,300 years we somehow need to account for in our eschatology.

With this review concluded, we now resume the main thrust of this phase of the overall study, setting on a yet more firm foundation the contention that Christ was crucified in AD 30. We are going to look at something Luke reports: the ministry of John the Baptist coincided with the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar (Lk 3:1). This is often cited as evidence the Crucifixion took place in AD 33, but it will be shown it can very reasonably be reconciled with AD 30—for which, we must not forget, the previous studies in this series have already shown strong scriptural support. Everything must fit together without depending either on questionable interpretations of Scripture, or requiring us to suppose that extrabiblical historical source materials we depend on are wrong.

Though a number of dating indicators derived from the Roman/Jewish historian Josephus are pertinent to the study, we will not focus on them in this brief article. To begin examining Josephus is to enter a quagmire of scholarly subjectivity, where the plain sense of his records in Antiquities is frequently questioned and reinterpreted in a forced way to support an AD 33 Crucifixion. For now it will suffice to say that, when they are accepted at face value, Josephus’ writings support an AD 30 Crucifixion with little difficulty.

Luke’s Historiography

Luke 3:1–2 gives us several chronological indicators in a single sentence. In the NASB:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.

The first thing we notice here is that all of these people, in their various offices, had various degrees of overlap with the start of the ministry of John the Baptist. It is apparent that Luke is attempting to firmly anchor John’s ministry to a particular point in history. A look at Wikipedia yields the following generally accepted date ranges for key individuals:

Tiberius Caesar, Roman emperor—AD 14–37
Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea—AD 26–36
Herod, tetrarch of Galilee—4 BC–AD 39
Annas ben Seth, high priest—AD 6–15
Joseph Caiaphas, high priest—AD 18–36

An oddity is apparent here, which gives us insight into the way Luke thinks about chronology matters. It is his mention of “the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” If Luke’s only purpose was to provide chronological hooks on which to hang the ministry of John the Baptist, why would TWO high priests be mentioned, only one of whom was actually in office during John’s ministry? As far as official records go, Annas and Caiaphas were high priests at different times with no overlap, with only Caiaphas serving while John baptized in the wilderness.

There seems to be only one way to explain this, since the record-keeping of the Jews concerning their high priests was too precise for us to suppose Luke had made an error: Luke was recognizing practical political realities in Judea. He was not slavishly repeating official records, but taking a pragmatic approach in his reporting that recognized the real-world impact certain people had on the lives of the Jews. Annas was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the influential patriarch of the family, the politically-savvy “power behind the throne,” so to speak. For all practical purposes he was a co-high priest, influencing the decisions of his son-in-law and the Sanhedrin, and having a marked impact on the religious life of the Jews even though his formal tenure in office ended before the Baptist came on the scene.

The above observation was first brought to my attention by Ron Wallace at http://www.biblefragrances.com/studies/tiberius.html. (Although I do not agree with every point it makesin particular, its placing the 15th year of Tiberius in AD 11 seems too earlythe entire article is a wealth of thoughtful information that I encourage everyone interested in this subject to read carefully.) He repeatedly references the work of theologian William Hendriksen. On page 194 of his New Testament Commentary volume on Luke, Hendriksen labels as the “traditional view” that which dates the 15th year of Tiberius to AD 26, while the “popular view” assigns it to AD 28–29. Wallace quotes Hendriksen:

“And during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” Annas (or “Ananus” as Josephus calls him) had been appointed high priest by Quirinius in the year A.D. 6, and was deposed by Valerius Gratus, about A.D. 15. But though deposed, he remained for a long time the ruling spirit of the Sanhedrin. Five sons and a grandson followed him in the high priesthood; also a son-in-law, the very one mentioned by Luke, namely, Caiaphas. The latter held the high priestly office from A.D. 18 to 36....

It may seem strange that Luke assigns the beginning of the Baptist’s ministry to the high priesthood not only of Caiaphas but “of Annas and Caiaphas.” Annas, after all, was deposed from that office in A.D. 15, long before John’s ministry began, whether according to theory (a) [the traditional view] or (b) [the popular view]. That Luke assigns the beginning of John’s ministry to the high priesthood of Caiaphas (A.D. 18–36) we can understand, but why to that of Annas?

Nevertheless, Luke is correct. He is thinking of the actual situation, not the merely formal one. The actual situation was that both Annas and Caiaphas were “in the drivers’s seat” during the entire period of John’s ministry and during the entire length of Christ’s ministry; Annas as well—perhaps even more than—Caiaphas [page 197, emphasis added].

Implications of the 15th Year of Tiberius

You may wonder, why am I belaboring this point? For this reason: The date Tiberius officially became Emperor shortly after the death of Augustus was September 18, AD 14. Counting inclusively, per the Roman norm, 15 years from this date yields the start of the Baptist’s ministry in AD 28. An AD 30 Crucifixion is too early to fit this. AD 33, on the other hand, appears to fit just fine—once appropriate, if somewhat conjectural, padding is added to stretch out the baptism > crucifixion timeline to 3-1/2 years (many scholars feel there should be a fourth Passover somewhere in there to accommodate everything that happens, though none of the Gospels mentions one). Furthermore, since this approach also places the Passover on a Friday, many scholars stop their analysis of the crucifixion date right there.

The problem is, they are then forced to seek out various workarounds and awkward interpretations of both Scripture and information from Josephus to make other details—such as Galatians 12 and the death of Herod Agrippa, discussed in the March ABR Newsletter article—harmonize with it. J. Dwight Pentecost is one of those scholars; as Wallace notes, “Pentecost…rejects the traditional view as ‘unacceptable’ (The Words and Works of Jesus Christ, 1980, page 80) and ‘untenable’ (page 578). But he is influenced by insisting on a 33 AD date for the crucifixion” [emphasis added]. More recently and in the same vein is the approach of Andrew Steinmann. His exegesis of Galatians 1–2, found on pp. 306–320 in his From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology, is governed by a prior commitment to an AD 33 Crucifixion. He states (p. 317):

A final objection [to equating Galatians 2:1–10 with the “famine relief visit” of Acts 11:29–30] has to do with chronology. The advocates of equating Gal 2:1–10 with the famine relief visit usually date this visit to AD 46.  This means that Paul’s conversion came fourteen years earlier in AD 32 or, perhaps, AD 33, if Paul was reckoning the span of years inclusively (Gal 2:1). However, we have already seen that the most likely date for the crucifixion is AD 33, which of necessity places Paul’s conversion several years later. (See the discussion of the dates of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion in chapters 12 and 13 and especially the discussion of the year of the crucifixion beginning on page 280.) [Emphasis added.]

By saying “we have already seen” and referring back to a discussion about the year of the Crucifixion found on earlier pages of his book, it is clear that before he ever dealt with his exegesis of Galatians 2:1–10, Steinmann had already drawn a red line that could not be crossed. He regards his Crucifixion date as “of necessity” placing Paul’s conversion after AD 33, regardless of exegetical indications to the contrary in Galatians and Acts. He had already committed himself to interpreting Galatians 2:1–10 in harmony with an AD 33 Crucifixion, even though, as my previous article on Acts and Galatians hopefully made clear, the plain sense of Galatians 2:1–10 matches up best with the (misnamed) “famine relief visit” described in Acts 11:29–30. This requires the conversion of Paul to take place not later than AD 32, and rules out an AD 33 Crucifixion.

The Co-Princeps of Tiberius

At any rate, Luke’s approach to the high priests means it is distinctly possible that he may have taken a similar pragmatic approach to the 15th year of Tiberius, viewing it differently than did the Romans. Is there any indication that this is the case? Yes, and it lies in the fact that we have evidence Tiberius was made “co-princeps,” with powers equal to those of Augustus over the Roman provinces, including Judea, prior to the death of Augustus. (Princeps civitatis, “First Citizen,” is the official title of the Roman Emperor.)

The ancient historian Suetonius recorded the following information:

After two years he [Tiberius] returned to the city from Germany and celebrated the triumph [for his military victories in Germany and Pannonia]....Since the consuls caused a law to be passed soon after this that he should govern the provinces jointly with Augustus and hold the census with him, he set out for Illyricum on the conclusion of the lustral ceremonies [which culminated the census]; but he was at once recalled, and finding Augustus in his last illness but still alive, he spent an entire day with him in private (Augustus 97:1; Tiberius 2021, online at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/suet-tiberius-rolfe.asp; emphasis added).

Similarly, according to Velleius Paterculus (2.121.12, online at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Velleius_Paterculus/2D*.html), a soldier who served under Tiberius,

After he had broken the force of the enemy by his expeditions on sea and land, had completed his difficult task in Gaul, and had settled by restraint rather than by punishment the dissensions that had broken out among the Viennenses, at the request of his father that he should have in all the provinces and armies a power equal to his own, the senate and Roman people so decreed. For indeed it was incongruous that the provinces which were being defended by him should not be under his jurisdiction, and that he who was foremost in bearing aid should not be considered an equal in the honour to be won. On his return to the city he celebrated the triumph over the Pannonians and Dalmatians, long since due him, but postponed by reason of a succession of wars.

While both passages agree that Tiberius did indeed receive authority equal that of Augustus in the provinces prior to Augustus’ death, it is slightly ambiguous exactly when they were granted. Paterculus seems, at first glance, to be saying that Tiberius was first granted the co-princeps powers at his father’s behest, then the triumph took place afterwards. According to the Fasti Praenestini inscription (http://www.attalus.org/docs/cil/add_8.html), on October 23, 12 AD “Tiberius rode a chariot in triumph from Illyricum.” This implies he received co-princeps authority in AD 12. However, the way the passage is written allows one to interpret it as Paterculus first presenting the big picture, then adding, as an afterthought, the observation that “on his return to the city”—i.e., right after his return from his military campaigns—he celebrated his triumph. This would make the granting of co-princeps authority follow shortly thereafter, in agreement with Suetonius. That makes good sense; after all, the high honor of virtually unlimited authority over the Empire seems to be such that would not have been granted in absentia while Tiberius was still in the field, but in his presence, to public and senatorial acclamation, following his return to Rome.

On the whole, then, the weight of scholarship seems to favor Suetonius’ timeline. Tiberius celebrated his triumph in October, AD 12. Co-princeps power was then granted him in the first half of AD 13; the census-taking and lustral ceremonies occupied the latter half of AD 13; then early AD 14 saw his trip to Illyricum, followed by a quick recall home for Augustus’ final illness. Highly-respected scholar Theodor Mommsen views the situation that way, noting in A History of Rome under the Emperors (online at https://web.archive.org/web/20110930110717/https://www.scribd.com/doc/42999229/A-History-of-Rome-Under-the-Emperors) that “Only months prior to the death of Augustus the same powers that were invested in the Emperor were conferred on him in all the provinces.” “Only months prior” implies less than a year, seemingly making AD 12 too early.

What we may take away from these co-princeps details, considered together with Luke’s pragmatic attitude toward the high priesthood of Annas, is that Luke may well have regarded the first “year of Tiberius,” so far as Judea was concerned, as beginning in AD 13. By inclusive reckoning, this would assign the 15th year of Tiberius, when the ministry of John the Baptist began, to AD 27.

The Passovers of Jesus’ Ministry

There is one more thing I wish to draw our attention to. It is generally conceded that the timeline of Jesus’ ministry encompassed three Passovers. The first is mentioned in John 2:13; the second in John 6:4; and the third, when Christ was betrayed and the Crucifixion took place, from John 11:55 through the end of chapter 19. As mentioned earlier, some scholars think there should be another Passover and another year in there, because they subjectively feel Jesus was involved in too many things to squeeze it all into the reported space of time. But the fact remains: this idea of a missing Passover is based on nothing more than scholarly conjecture, not biblical revelation. We are on safe ground if we stick to what God tells us in Scripture. Since John mentioned three Passovers, it stands to reason that if there was a fourth Passover somewhere in there, John would have mentioned it for completeness.

Prior to the first Passover we have the start of John the Baptist’s ministry, Christ’s baptism, the 40 days and nights of fasting and temptation, the calling of the earliest disciples, the wedding at Cana, and a period of baptizing ministry during which Jesus gave His disciples personal attention and nurturing. Those events can be expected to have taken several months prior to the first-mentioned Passover. For these reasons, I conclude that Jesus was baptized in the fall of the year before His first Passover.

Let us now put this all together. Luke pragmatically dated the 15th year of Tiberius according to when Tiberius obtained co-princeps authority over Judea. The evidence, drawn largely from Suetonius, is that Tiberius exercised imperium control over Judea in AD 13, making his 15th year, by Roman inclusive reckoning, AD 27. This would be the year when, in the fall, John baptized Jesus. Then the early events laying the groundwork for His public ministry take place, leading into His first Passover in the spring of AD 28. The second Passover of His ministry cited in John 6:4 took place in the spring of AD 29. Finally, the third Passover, when Jesus was crucified, came around…on April 7, AD 30. That was the conclusion arrived at in the previous installments of this study for entirely independent reasons.

Thus, there is no basis for dogmatically dismissing an AD 30 date for the Crucifixion as some do. We have to be fair to all the data, not just some of it. At the same time, we have to avoid reading our own biases into the narrative, whether by adding to it (like extra time padding the timeline of Jesus' ministry) or taking things away (like dates supported by the plain sense of extrabiblical historical records, such as those reported by Josephus pertaining to Herod the Great).


To wrap up this segment of the larger study, I feel obliged to adopt Wallace’s conclusion that Luke is taking a practical, Judea-centric view of the reign of Tiberius rather than a Rome-centric one:

In conclusion, the weight of probability lies with view (a). It seems that the only reason one would reject (a) in favor of (b) is an insistence that the year of the crucifixion must be 33 A.D. instead of 30 A.D. However, it seems to me that one cannot start with a preferred crucifixion date and go BACKWARD to establish the date of Tiberius' 15th year. And yet, once one accepts a particular year for Tiberius' 15th, it is reasonable then to use that to help establish the year of the crucifixion.

The phenomenon of reckoning a ruler’s reign differently when viewed from different perspectives is known in other cases, notably that of Herod the Great. Ignoring for the moment the debate about precisely when Herod’s reign began (traditionally 40 BC, by Roman reckoning), Josephus records (Ant. 17.8.1; Wars 1.33.8) that the Romans deemed it took effect when Antony and Octavian jointly declared him king over Judea, but the Jews did not acknowledge his rule until three years later, when Herod finally defeated the forces of the last Hasmonean, Antigonus, and had Antony put him to death. The Romans thus viewed the start of Herod’s reign from a date that existed only in Roman records, while the Judeans viewed it from the perspective of practical authority exerted over them. This is apparently what took place in the case of Tiberius as well. Although the Romans recorded Tiberius as sole head of state beginning in AD 14, his maius imperium (highest authority to command) power over the province of Judea was actually exercised from the time he was named co-princeps with Augustus in AD 13. And this, in keeping with his recognition of the status of Annas as a de facto high priest, appears to be how Luke reckoned Tiberius’ 15th year, from AD 13 rather than 14.

In sum, the significance of the 15th year of Tiberius given in Luke 3:1 is its specific connection to the start of the ministry of John the Baptist. We know that Christ was baptized prior to the Passover recorded in John 2:13, and a baptism during winter or early spring is less likely due to chilly weather. Moreover, time was needed prior to His first Passover to deal with the 40-day fast and other things. Therefore, we conclude that Jesus was most likely baptized in the early fall of AD 27. This synchronizes perfectly with the AD 30 Crucifixion our previous studies showed was most likely, and requires no conjectural padding of the timeline. It is consistent with the practical approach of Luke to dating things that we saw in his mention of both Annas and Caiaphas as high priests. The plain sense of Scripture in Acts and Galatians is also allowed to stand as written, rather than being subjected to awkward alternative interpretations to force it to fit with an AD 33 Crucifixion.

In the end, as John H. Rhoads pointed out in his excellent analysis of the date of the Quirinius census in Luke 2:1–2 (“Josephus Misdated the Census of Quirinius,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54.1 [2001], 65–87), “When faced with such conflicting accounts, reconstructing history consists in establishing the most plausible, rather than the absolutely certain, account of what really happened.” That is what we are attempting to show in this study. In the material we have covered it is not as if there is conflict within the data, but in the interpretations; and an AD 33 Crucifixion date appears to involve jiggering with source information not required by the alternative.

In the next installment of this study, I hope to examine the significance of the mention in John 2:13–20 of the 46 years Herod’s temple had been under construction, along with evidence why the beginning of the reign of Herod should be assigned to the traditional date of 37 BC. The fashionable approach of the last half century of assigning it to 36 BC, which began with the work of W.E. Filmer and was subsequently adopted by Jack Finegan and Andrew Steinmann among others, is a new kid on the block that, though enthusiastically embraced by a few scholars who adopt an AD 33 Crucifixion, has for good reason failed to displace the traditional AD 30 date in the minds of most.

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