Biblical Math and Other Impossibilities

What makes studying antiquity difficult is that two thousand years ago, people used different calendars.  Not only that, but Jewish calendars were different from those of the Romans.  There are four types of calendars: solar, lunisolar, lunar, and seasonal.  We also separate calendars into regional (ethnic) or historical groupings: Jewish, Hijri, Sikh, Mayan, Aztecan, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Iranian, Hindu, Buddhist, pre-Columbian, Meso-American, Hellenic, Julian, Gregorian.  Most pre-modern calendars are lunisolar.  Islamic and some Buddhist calendars are lunar, while most modern calendars are solar and based on the Julian or Gregorian calendars.  Seasonal calendars rely on environmental changes (such as the wet or dry seasons).

An epoch or reference epoch is an instant in time chosen as the origin of a particular calendar era.  The “epoch” serves as a reference point from which we measure time.  Some calendars are like the Gregorian calendar (except for substituting regional month names or using a different calendar epoch).  For example, the Thai solar calendar introduced in 1888 was the Gregorian calendar using a different epoch and different names for the months — that is, Thai names based on zodiac signs.

There is plenty of discussion room for answering the question, “When did Jesus die?” There is plenty of space because scholars point to the fact that biblical math is complicated — and some will say impossible.  There are several theories about this, but the leading contenders are 7 April A.D. 30 and 3 April A.D. 33.

At that time, the Jewish calendar was lunar.  This means that the crescent moon’s light determined the first date of each month as it became visible in the holy city of Jerusalem.  The setting sun meant the end of one day, and the new moon meant the beginning of the next.  Daylight hours were measured from sunrise, so the first hour was 6 a.m., making the third hour 9 a.m., the sixth hour noon, and the ninth hour 3 p.m.

According to the gospels of Luke (23: 44-46): “It was now about the sixth hour [noon] and darkness came over the entire land until the ninth hour [3 p.m.] because the sun stopped shining, and the veil of the temple was torn in two.  Jesus said, “Father, I commit my spirit into your hands.  When he had said this, he breathed his last.”

The gospels agree on a basic chronology of events ending with Jesus’ crucifixion on a Friday.  On Thursday evening, Jesus of Nazareth shared a meal (which we today refer to as “The Last Supper.” His arrest took place later that night.

Pontius Pilate tried Jesus on Friday morning; he was executed Friday afternoon and buried just before sunset on Friday evening.  It was the beginning of Shabbat — the Jewish Sabbath.

About Crucifixion

Based on Roman literature and descriptions in the provinces, crucifixion was an established routine.  A centurion led special military teams, and in the provinces, the soldiers were selected from the local auxiliaries (natives who had joined the Roman Army).  The victim was stripped and then lashed (scourged).  As part of the public humiliation (the Romans crucified both men and women), the victim was led through the streets and remained naked.  Christian art portrays Jesus with a decent loincloth on the cross, but he would have been naked to create public humiliation.  There was a public plaque (titulus) indicating the crime.  The shedding of blood and the concept of corpse contamination meant that the executions took place outside the city walls.  The most popular spot was along one of the main roads leading into the city.  This also served as propaganda to demonstrate Roman law’s severity and the expectation for order.

These killing fields contained permanent, upright poles.  The victim did not carry the whole cross, but only the crossbeam.  The combined pole and crossbeam weighed between 300 to 400 pounds.  After scourging (the trauma and the loss of blood), there was a risk that the victim could die before arriving at the site of execution.  The necessity of keeping the victim alive led to the practice of the legions commandeering someone from the crowd to help carry the beam when the victim succumbed.  This is the role of Simon of Cyrene in the gospels.

Upon arrival, the victim was tied or nailed to the crossbeam, hoisted up, and connected to the vertical pole (with ladders and pulleys).  Evidence of the use of metal nails originates from several sources.  These were five to seven inches long tapered iron spikes.  The application of the nails varied.  Seneca reported that some victims were hung upside down (as was Peter) or with arms stretched out on either side.  The historian Josephus reported seeing crucifixion victims at the siege of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), where the soldiers thought it was amusing to position them in various poses.  Some people collected the nails as magical amulets.

Despite the iconography of later Renaissance art, Romans did not place spikes in the palms.  In the Gospel of John, when doubting, Thomas did not believe that Jesus was resurrected and wanted to see his “hands,” this was not literally accurate because Greek for “hand” meant anything from the tip of the fingers to the elbow, but in art the literal description became standard.

Several years ago, historians and scientists began experimenting on cadavers to fully understand how a crucifixion victim died.  It quickly became apparent that nailing through the palm would result in the body’s weight immediately tearing through.  Instead, the spike was inserted at the wrist, at the juncture of the ulna and radius.  These experiments on cadavers have resulted in the understanding that the cause of death for a victim was a combination of bodily trauma, loss of blood, and asphyxiation, as it became harder and harder to lift the body’s weight to breathe.

Seneca also reported that some victims were impaled in their private parts.  This may refer to what was known as a horn, or a pointed fixture halfway down, as a ‘seat’ for the victim.  This may have been a way to help support the body, although if pointed, it was excruciatingly painful.

There were variations for nailing the feet, sometimes crossed over, but the nails were often inserted into the side of the pole.  We know this from one of the rare skeletons of a crucifixion victim in Jerusalem in the 1st century A.D.  In the tomb of a wealthy family, one of the ossuaries (bone boxes for collecting bones) included the skeleton of someone named Jehohanan, who may have died by crucifixion.  When it was time to take him down, the nail through the side of the foot had bent; someone had simply cut his feet off.  We now have a fossilized lump that includes the nail, the heel fragment, and a bit of olive wood.

The gospel versions of the crucifixion of Jesus include many of the standard elements.  It demonstrates that the writers were familiar with the process.  It is possible but unlikely that any of the apostles witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.  Mark wrote the first gospel — forty years later.

One of the purposes of crucifixion was to keep the victim alive as long as possible so that everyone could appreciate the result of rebelling against Rome.  Support for the victim also included “the vinegar mixed with gall,” also reported in the gospels.  This was the equivalent of using a type of smelling salt as a means of revival when the victim began to flag.  Crucifixion victims were expected to survive for several days — and most did, making it exceedingly painful.  It is problematic in the gospels that Jesus died within three hours unless, by the wound to his side, he bled to death.

We were looking for a Friday.

But in what year?  We can begin to narrow the possibilities by relying on what we know about certain historical characters — the source of which is the Jewish historian Josephus.  Tiberius Caesar, the Roman Emperor (A.D. 14 to A.D. 37); Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judaea (A.D. 26 to A.D. 36), Caiaphas, High Priest in Jerusalem (A.D. 18 to A.D. 36).

The gospels agree that Jesus was killed on Friday, at some time during the Passover; researchers want to know if it was on Passover itself or the day before.

The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record the Passover on Friday.  So if that’s true, then Jesus was killed on Passover.  But in John, Passover falls on a Saturday, meaning that the Romans put Jesus to death the day before Passover.

Is it necessary because the day of his execution will determine which years the crucifixion could have happened.  So artificial intelligence will help to narrow down dates between A.D. 26 – A.D. 36 … on a Friday or a Saturday.

According to Dr. Helen Bond at the University of Edinburg, we then end up with these dates:  (a) 11 April A.D. 27 (Matthew, Mark, Luke) on Passover, (b) 7 April A.D. 30 (John, the day before Passover, and (c) 3 April A.D. 33 (John, the day before Passover).

Dr. Bond thinks that A.D. 27 is too early because John the Baptist began preaching in the fifteenth year of Tiberius (A.D. 28).  The New Testament tells us that Jesus began his ministry after John, so A.D. 28 is the earliest possible starting date.  By elimination, biblical scholars end up with two finalist dates for Jesus’ crucifixion: (a) 7 April, A.D. 30, and (b) 3 April A.D. 33.  Bond argues that most historians agree with the 7 April date because Jesus’ mission was short.  But a smaller group remains just as certain about 3 April because the mission was started closer to A.D. 30.  They also argue that A.D. 30 coincided with a lunar eclipse that Pontius Pilate referred to in a letter to the emperor Tiberius.

And there’s still no shortage of possibilities.  Dr. Bond thinks that all the dates previously discussed are incorrect.  In John 19:14, Jesus is crucified at noon on the Day of Preparation for the Passover, when preparers slaughtered the paschal lambs for the ritual Passover meal.  According to Dr. Hunt, “John chose to time the crucifixion with the Day of Preparation for religious reasons.  The whole point for John is that Jesus is the new Passover lamb.  He’s going to die on the cross as the new Passover sacrifice.”

Mark’s gospel had a religious argument, too.  According to Dr. Bond, Mark’s Last Supper takes place at the same time as the other Jews are celebrating the Passover meal.  Mark wants to say that the institution of the Last Supper replaces the Passover meal.  Dr. Bond believes that it is far more likely that Jesus was arrested and killed several days or even a week before Passover.  It makes sense that the Jewish authorities and Pilate would have wanted to finish with the troublemaker before the holiday began.  But if Jesus’ followers knew that he was crucified around Passover or at Passover time, the juxtaposition of Jesus’ death and Passover would have grown increasingly significant — in a very short period.

By the time the gospels were written (decades after the events they describe), “Passover would have had this magnetic pull so that everything ends up happening on the Passover instead of ‘around the time’ of Passover.  Historically, both dates in John and Mark are probably wrong.  But they represent that Jesus’ death and resurrection warranted important early reflections. A Friday crucifixion is the leading candidate in this debate.  Still, some scholars argue for Wednesday because it would allow Jesus to be buried for three full days and nights, as the biblical accounts say, although knowing what we now know about the Jewish calendar of the time, a part of a day would be included in a day count.  So, a Friday-to-Sunday death, burial, and subsequent resurrection would count as three full days in the Jewish calendar.

In any case, it’s Easter — give thanks.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in ANTIQUITY, HISTORY, RELIGION. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Biblical Math and Other Impossibilities

  1. Andy says:

    Happy Easter, Mustang, whenever that might be.


    • Mustang says:

      Here’s the amazing part. Christ was crucified somewhere around 1,990 years ago and we’re still talking about it. No one can say with any certitude when Abraham was tested with the slaughter of his son, but neither is anyone talking about it. Happy Easter, Andy. Thank you, again.


  2. I was told recently that The Binding of Isaac took place on 14 Nissan, the same date as passover, according to the Jews.
    Some say that Mt Moriah is Golgotha.
    I’ll ask Jesus when I see him.
    Good analysis on your part.
    And tomorrow is Orthodox Easter. Happy Eater. He is Risen.
    I interviewed Bill Federer last week and he had a lot to say about the calendar changes and dates.

    Liked by 1 person

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