How to work out when Jesus died


When did Jesus die? The year, I mean.

The honest answer is we don’t know. In Michael J. Alter’s The Resurrection: A Critical Enquiry, recommended by John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity blog-site, the author considers twelve different dates that have been proposed, together with the reasons why. Ultimately though, we don’t know.

Which is strange, not only because, as Alter points out, Jesus’ death and resurrection are supposedly the most significant events ever to have happened in the entire history of the world, but because it should be really easy to pinpoint the date. It was the year there was –

  • a total eclipse of the sun that, for over three hours, plunged the whole land (some translations have ‘earth’) into darkness,
  • an earthquake that caused appreciable damage, 
  • the tearing from top to bottom of the four inch thick, 82 feet high curtain in the temple,
  • the dead rising from their graves to make themselves known to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (including, presumably, the extensive Roman presence.)

We know this because the gospels tell us so; these events all took place either just before (Luke) or just after (Matthew) Jesus’ death. Let’s overlook the fact that solar eclipses don’t ever occur at the point of a full moon, while Passover, when Jesus died, happens only when there is one, and take a look at Matthew’s version of events:

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice… and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27.45, 46, 51-53)

All we need to do, therefore, is look for corroboration of these four cataclysmic events occurring together in the records of the time. (The Romans were particularly good at recording such things; we know, for example, there was an eclipse in AD29, though that lasted a measly 2 minutes.) Once we’ve found this corroborative evidence, we’ll know for certain the year in which Jesus died.

But you’re ahead of me: there is no record anywhere, apart from the gospels, of these events ever taking place, certainly not in combination. No record of a widespread darkness, nor of an accompanying earthquake nor of the temple veil tearing from top to bottom, nor of the dead emerging from their tombs. Which isn’t to say they didn’t happen, but you’d think someone, somewhere would have noticed and would have written about them. Josephus maybe, or Plutarch, Greek or Roman authorities, or even Paul; anyone writing at the time or soon after; any of those whose history of the period has survived.

But no.

It’s enough to make you think these earth-shattering events didn’t really happen; that they’re all made up for theological reasons.

And you’d be right.