copyright 2008 Stephan Huller
At its most basic the gospel makes clear two basic facts – the mention of a Wednesday Passover when Jesus and the disciples ate the so-called “Last Supper” and his resurrection on the subsequent Sunday. Notice that it is said here “Wednesday” and not “Thursday” is the proper date of the meal. The list of events in the narrative demands a starting point on Wednesday night. As Epiphanius (A.D. 367-403), the bishop at Salamis wrote that "Wednesday and Friday are days of fasting up to the ninth hour because, as Wednesday began the Lord was arrested and on Friday he was crucified."
The list of dates for the sunset starting the 15th of the first month of Nissan from Jack Finegan’s Handbook of reveal that only two dates from the period support this Wednesday date for the Passover and a corresponding Easter Sunday:
30 A.D. Wednesday 5th April (Easter Sunday 9th April).
31 A.D. Monday 26th March.
32 A.D. Monday 15th April.
33 A.D. Friday 3rd April.
34 A.D. Monday 23rd March
35 A.D. Monday 11th April.
36 A.D. Friday, 30th March.
37 A.D. Wednesday 21st March (Easter Sunday 25th March).
38 A.D. Monday 7th April.
39 A.D. Friday 28th March.
40 A.D. Friday 16th April.
Jewish days begin at night and continue through to the next one of our days. A day that begins at sunset on Wednesday carries through to Thursday in a Roman calendar. So it is that the gospel narrative really began on Wednesday and thus we are left with only two real possibilities to choose between for the correct dating of the Passion. It is either Wednesday the 6th of April, 30 CE or Wednesday the 22nd of March, 37 CE.
As we said earlier, only one minor sect in second century Christianity picks the former date – i.e. 30 CE. Irenaeus’ gospels can only be used to superficially conform to this date as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Nevertheless Irenaeus goes out of his way to emphasize many years of preaching for Jesus. In later times a two or three year ministry is developed but Irenaeus emphasizes one which lasted nineteen years. Why nineteen? It should be obvious. By then the same cycle of days from year 30 repeat themselves in year 49. The whole idea is undoubtedly rooted in a tradition that Jesus was also crucified in a ‘forty ninth year.’ We will develop this further in the next section.
While all modern scholars and ancient Church Fathers naively use Irenaeus’ texts to arrive at a date around 30 CE – 31, 32 or 33 CE most typically - it has to be emphasized time and again that all these efforts prove ultimately misguided. None of these dates allow for a Wednesday start to Passover. None of these dates end allow for an Easter Sunday Resurrection. Indeed it is worth noting that not a single ancient Church tradition argues for a 30 CE date.
So we have to abandon 30 CE and look again at the Alexandrian tradition’s choice of 37 CE. We have to begin with the clear understanding that the earliest Alexandrian witnesses, based on their ‘preference’ for the Gospel of Mark, emphasize only a one year ministry for Jesus. We have already seen that one of its most famous representatives from the fifth century emphasizes Sunday March 25th. It all comes together when we realize that the Passover in 37 CE begins on Wednesday March 21st, Easter Sunday would correspond to March 25th in that same year.
The point now becomes clear that when we look at all the surviving reports from the Church Fathers the tradition Alexandrian emphasis on the dating of the Passion in 37 CE was widely influential. Even if most of these authorities got the year wrong or the specific identification of March 25th as the date of the Resurrection something of the original Alexandrian understanding has made its way past Irenaeus’ deliberately falsified gospels often in an admittedly garbled form.
It is absolutely significant that almost every single surviving ‘remembrance’ of the month and day of the Passion never goes any later than March 25th. This will finally help solidify our 37 CE dating in the Alexandrian tradition. The one tradition which dissents – that associated with a late second century ‘prophetic’ Church from the province of Phrygia in Asia Minor – is intimately connected with the tradition behind Irenaeus. It attempts to argue for that earlier date in 30 CE.
I will make the case that this tradition is wholly unreliable. It has at its very core a belief in the new truths coming from ‘new spiritual revelations’ which accounts for its going against the grain of virtually every other ancient witness out there. For the moment however let’s explain why it is that at least a handful of Christians got confused about the dating of Easter.
What we will attempt now is a systematic categorization of all references to the dating of the month and date of the Passion. These reports inevitably fall into one of two categories – those Church Fathers who say that Jesus was crucified on March 23rd and Christ resurrected March 25th and those who say that he was crucified on March 25th making the Resurrection necessarily occur on the 27th of the month. This second hypothesis can easily be dismissed because none of the years presented here offer up the possibility of a Sunday March 27 dating for Easter. The later tradition has clearly confused what March 25th is, deliberately or not.
(a) those who held a March 23rd Crucifixion/March 25th Resurrection
• Alexander of Jerusalem (c. 218 CE) according to a fragment cited by Dobschutz (T u U xi 1 p 136 ff) cites March 25 as the true date of the Resurrection citing ‘apostolic documents.’ It is important to note that Alexander was connected to the Alexandrian tradition through Origen who he allowed to speak in the churches of Caesarea after he was banished from Egypt.
• Julius Africanus (c. 221 CE) another figure intimately connected with the Alexandrian tradition and who Alden Mosshammer (The Christian Era of Julius Africanus with an Excursus on Olympiad Chronology) notes dated the Incarnation to the 25th of March in the year 5501 from Adam (= 1 B.C.), and the Resurrection to March 25th, Olympiad 202.2, year 5532 from Adam (= A.D. 31).
• Bede (673-735 CE) claims that at the time of Pope Victor [i.e. late second century] the Christians of Gaul kept their Easter always on the 8th of the Calends of April (March 25th). Bede [de Ratione Temporum cap 45 It de Aequinocto Vernali t. 2 p 232] cites the authority of Theophilus Bishop of Caesarea and the synod held under him for support – “the resurrection of Jesus should be celebrated on the 25th of March on whatever day of the week it may fall, the Lord having risen on that day.” [Cent. ii Call p. 118]
• Lactantius of Cirta in Numidia (c. 240 – 320 CE) of North Africa says “in the latter days of the Emperor Tiberius, in the consulship of Ruberius Geminus and Fufius Geminus, and on the tenth of the kalends of April [i.e. March 23rd], as I find it written, Jesus Christ was crucified by the Jews. After He had risen again on the third day [i.e. March 25].” [Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died chapter 2]
• Epiphanius of Salamis (d 403 CE) claims that ‘some’ Christians of his day assign the crucifixion to March 23rd.
• Panadorus of Alexandria (c 400 CE) see Annianus below
• Annianus of Alexandria (c. 412 CE) “To summarize, then, it is AM 5534, the year that inaugurates for the first time the Lord's day, the first Pascha of the Lord on the 25th of the Roman month of March, the 29th of the Egyptian month of Phamenoth; according to the divinely inspired scriptures of the Old and New Testament, it is 1 Nisan, the first-created day of the first-created month. On that day, the new creation begun in Christ ushered from death to life all those with a correct belief in him. [George Sycellus Chapter 391 (p.465 ff.)
• John Malalas (d. 578 CE) Monophysite Byzantine chronicler “on the 23rd of March, the third day of the moon, the fifth day of the week at the fifth hour of the night [11 pm], He was led before Caiphas...On the following day he was taken to Pilate...He was crucified on the fourteenth day of the moon...At that time the sun was bereft of its light and darkness covered the whole earth. [“Chronographia” PG xcvii, col. 351 in sequence]
• The Paschal Chronicle (c. 630 CE) the crucifixion occurred on March 23rd and the Resurrection on March 25th.
• Georgios Kedrenos (fl. 11th century CE) “The first day of the first month is the first day of Nisan which corresponds to the twenty fifth of March … On that same day our Saviour God after having finished his career, raised from the dead, which our ancient Fathers call the Pascha or Passage of the Lord. It is on this day that our old theologians fix the return or the second advent of this Saviour God.” Cedrenus represents Christ as having died in the nineteenth year of Tiberius, on the 23d of March, and to have risen again on the 25th. From this comes the custom, he says, of celebrating the Passover on the 25th of March. On this day the true light rose from the tomb. Though the festival of the resurrection is now on the Sunday after the full moon of the equinox, it was formerly on the 25th of March, as Cedrenus asserts.
• Michael Psellos (11th century CE) leading Byzantine philosopher claims that the Resurrection has to be dated ‘according to the evangelists’ to March 25, 31 CE (G Redl, “La Chronologie appliquée de Michel Psellos,” Byzantion 5 (1929 ) 241 – 244).
Others who are said to fall in this camp include Theodore of Gaza, It is interesting to note that while the Alexandrians could arrive at dates of March 25th for Easter because they continued to identify March 21st as the Spring Equinox, the Roman Church eventually identified March 25th as the Spring Equinox making such a date impossible. This because the Nicene Council of 325 had ruled that Easter must be observed the first Sunday that falls after the Spring Equinox. The original date of the Resurrection had now been effectively outlawed from repeating itself.
(b) those who held a March 25th Crucifixion
• Tertullian of Carthage (early third century CE) “[it was under] Tiberius Caesar, in the consulate of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus, in the month of March, at the times of the passover, on the eighth day before the calends of April [i.e. March 25th], on the first day of unleavened bread, on which they slew the lamb at even, just as had been enjoined by Moses. [Against the Jews 8]
• Hippolytus of Rome (early third century CE) “our Lord was born on Wednesday, December 25th in the forty second of the reign of Augustus and the 5500th year from Adam. He suffered in the 33rd year on Friday March 25th in the 18th year of Tiberius.” [On Daniel Book 4]
• ibid from a table used to compute the dates of Easter at the base of a statue of Hippolytus [Henri Leclercq “Hippolyte (Statue et cimetiere de saint)” in Fernand Cabrol and Henri Leclercq Dictionaire d’archaeologie chretienne et de liturgie vol 6 part 2 (Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1925)
• De Pascha Computus (c. 243 CE) assigns the crucifixion to March 25th [Thomas J Talley The Origins of the Liturgical Year p. 90]
• Gospel of Nicodemus or Acts of Pilate (Latin apocryphal work whose material goes back to the early third century CE) “in the fifteenth year of the government of Tiberius Caesar, emperor of the Romans, and Herod being king of Galilee, in the nineteenth year of his rule, on the eighth day before the Calends of April, which is the twenty-fifth of March, in the consulship of Rufus and Rubellio, in the fourth year of the two hundred and second Olympiad, Joseph Caiaphas being high priest of the Jews. [Part I, The Acts of Pilate] Other texts of the Gospel had an earlier dating for the crucifixion]
• Julianus Hilarianus De die Paschae xv (Gallandi, viii 748)
• Martyrologium Hieronymianum
• The Chronography (c 354 AD) (Part 13: Bishops of Rome. MGH Chronica Minora I (1892), pp.73-6) “When Tiberius Caesar was reigning our Lord Jesus Christ died the two twins being consul on the eighth day before the Kalends of April [March 25th].”
• Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 375) records that Christ was born in the Julian year 45 (1 BC on our calendar), the fourth year of the 194th Olympiad, and that the passion took place in the 18th year of Tiberius on March 25, and the Resurrection on the 27th. [De Anno Natali Christi and De Anno Passionis Christi, PG xiii, cols. 902 and 978]
• Epiphanius also says that there were Christians contemporaries of his who claimed they could accurately date the crucifixion to March 25th based on the Acts of Pilate [Panarion 50:1:5].
• ibid interestingly notes that at least some of the Quartodecimians of Cappadocia said Jesus was crucified on the 8th day of the Calends of April [i.e. March 25th] [Panarion 50:1:8]
• Orosius of Bracara (d. 418) “in the year 33, the passion took place on the 8th of the Calends of April, which is March 25th. [“History Against the Pagans,” PL xxxi, book 7, col. 1059]
• Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE) “Now Christ died when the Gemini were consuls, on the eighth day before the kalends of April [March 25th]. He rose the third day, as the apostles have proved by the evidence of their own senses.” [City of God Chapter 54]
• Pseudo-Chrysostom (387 CE) [Paschal Harmony ed. Bened. viii App. p 277]
• Dionysius Exiguus “[Jesus] was born on December 25 and suffered death on March 25.” [Argumentum 15. On the day of the equinox and the solstice Cyclus Pascalis in JP Migne Patrologia Latina 67:483 - 568]
This understanding also appears in the fourth century Bucherian calendar of Rome, the fifth century calendar of Pollenius Silvius from the Rhone Valley and countless others. As Georges Declercq notes (Anno Domini: the Origins of the Christian Era Turhout Brepols 2000) “in the West 25 March thenceforth became the conventional date of the crucifixion and is often marked as such in Medieval calendars.”
There is a unanimous tradition that the Passover in question fell on the earliest date possible, just after the equinox. This makes it all the more remarkable that the tradition as to the year has almost been lost. With the partial exception of Lactantius, the sources have a year that could be guessed at, either 32 or 33 A.D. But the very fact that both 32 and 33 are put forward shows that there is no tradition, and that both years are academic reconstructions. They are not very good even as reconstructions, since the Passover in both years was nowhere near these dates. There was an appropriate correspondence of dates in 34 A.D., but the day of the week does not fit. We shall therefore dismiss the year 32 A.D. and the year 33 A.D. as superficially plausible but actually impossible new guesses predicated on the assumption of a birthdate at the end of 1 B.C. and a ministry of three years. We treat the date given in the Acts of Pilate as a fusion of the 24th and 25th, both only reconstructions, and neither falling on a Friday near the Passover.
Suppose we accept Lactantius’ date of 23rd March. Although he does not specify the year, he does say it is towards the end of the reign of Tiberius, so he is definitely not thinking of 32 or 33 A.D. In the text of Malalas the context shows the date of the 3rd of Nisan to be a mistake for the 13th. Jesus’ appearance before Caiaphas is then on Wednesday night, the 13th Nisan, the 5th day of the week. Both agree with the canonical John in not making the Last Supper a Passover. Of the two, only Malalas gives a year, 32 A.D., but this can be disregarded as his own reconstruction, since the 23rd March that year was not near the Passover. The absence of a year in one source, and the wrong correspondence in the other, indicate the omission or deletion of a year thought impossible because too late. Malalas certainly, and probably Lactantius, would have known that the only year when the afternoon of the 14th Nisan fell on Friday 23rd March was 37 A.D.
The date of Friday the 23rd March in Malalas and Lactantius is the correct date by the Roman calendar, and these two are definitely the only bearers of a tradition of the date. However, they are both mistaken in saying the date was the 14th Nisan. It was the 16th Nisan. They have unthinkingly taken over the dating in John, and their evidence can be discounted in respect of the Jewish date. The only way their evidence can be accepted is if their tradition correctly says it really was the 14th or Sunday the 25th of March 37 AD. Given the widespread echoes of this date of March 25th as a seminal date in the Passion narrative (and absolutely no reference to anything related to early dates in April) the year of 37 CE has to be considered to be the correct one.
copyright 2008 Stephan Huller