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I was doing some reading in the Book "Ante Nicene Fathers" in Irenaeus' "Against Heresies" Book 2 Chapter 22 (book II chapter XXII) Irenaeus quoted John 8:57, in his argument to the Valentinens that Jesus had to be at least in his 40's when he died.

57 Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”

His argument is as follows:

“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad,” they answered Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?” Now, such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period. But to one who is only thirty years old it would unquestionably be said, “Thou art not yet forty years old.”

The Valentinens held to the belief that Jesus died before his 31 birthday, today Christians hold that Jesus was 33 years old. Is Irenaeus' argument a valid one? Is there other information about this verse to corroborate that Jesus death happened in his 33rd year? Does this scripture really indicate that John was saying he was over 40 when died?

  • It's a decent argument but an unsupportable inference: Pontius Pilate (1 BC - circa AD 37) was the fifth Roman procurator of Judea (AD 26 - 36 ) under Emperor Tiberius, who sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion. – user10231 Sep 30 '15 at 13:12
  • FYI, Christians generally do not hold that Jesus was 33 years old. They do hold that he was crucified in either 30 or 33 AD, but his birth year may have been as early as 5 or 6 BC (and almost certainly was not in 1 AD) – ThaddeusB Oct 1 '15 at 2:46
  • @wounded, yes even if Jesus had died prior to 33 CE he could have been born prior to 1 CE. If he had been born during the reign of Herod, who died in 4 BCE he (Jesus) could have possibly been in his early 40's in 33 CE. – seedy3 Oct 2 '15 at 17:42
  • @Thaddeus, Nearly every christian I have spoken with says Jesus was under 34 when he died. Actually most say 33.5. Although you are correct in they believe that he died in 33 CE and he could have been born as early as 6 BCE. – seedy3 Oct 2 '15 at 17:45
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The Phrasing is Not a Direct Comment on Jesus being over 40 Years Old

Irenaeus is in error with his logic here, partly because he is missing the context and particular significance of the statement.

Background

Rather than being a direct comment on Jesus' age (i.e. over 40 years old), the number 50 is stated because of its significance in Levitical service. Numbers chapter 4 shows the initiating of the Levites into service for the tabernacle care and rituals. Numerous times it is noted that those being put into place were those between 30-50 years of age (v.3, 23, 30, 35, 39, 43, 47). The lower limit of ability to serve actually was 25 years old, but none that young needed to be enlisted in the original placing (hence the numbering of 30-50). However, the upper limit was very fixed, and emphatically noted in Num 8:23-26, particularly v.25 (NKJV):

23 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “This is what pertains to the Levites: From twenty-five years old and above one may enter to perform service in the work of the tabernacle of meeting; 25 and at the age of fifty years they must cease performing this work, and shall work no more. 26 They may minister with their brethren in the tabernacle of meeting, to attend to needs, but they themselves shall do no work. Thus you shall do to the Levites regarding their duties.”

There was still a ministry one could do after 50, but not the actual work of the tabernacle. Certain of their responsibilities in bearing the tabernacle in transit were no more needed once rest was gained under King David (1 Chr 23:25-32), but they were additionally given the specific duties of thanksgiving and praise by him (1 Chr 23:30, 2 Chr 7:6, 8:14, et. al.; cf. 1 Chr 28:13, 21).

It is helpful to note as well that the Levites held a special place with God, they were a special possession (Num 8:14, 18):

14 Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the children of Israel, and the Levites shall be Mine. ... 18 I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel.

Why this background is significant becomes evident from the context of the discussion in John 8.

Relevant Context of John 8

In John 8, Jesus is speaking to the religious workers of His day, the Pharisees (e.g. v.13), who served in the temple area (v.20), along with probably a larger body of Jewish people, "the Jews" (v.22).

Jesus is declaring, in part in John 8, His service for God, not just as a worker, but as a Son (v.26, 28-29), as one with a special place in the Father's eyes, a place that those He was contending with did not have (v.37-38). They were not even doing the works of Abraham, who they claimed to be their father (v.39), much less the works of God, who they also claimed to be their father (v.41), but rather the works of the devil (v.44), and thus not serving or honoring God at all (v.47).

After Jesus asserts that keeping His word prevents one from death (v.51), these opponents think they have Him, for Abraham and the prophets are dead (v.52-53), who they believe quite obviously could not have heard His word, much less kept it. The incredible assertion Jesus then makes in v.56 is that:

Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.

This:

  1. implies Abraham had heard about Jesus' day (i.e., in context, at the least His ministry of God's word, as being discussed in John 8), for
  2. it states Abraham had foreseen Jesus' ministry, and
  3. states Abraham was happy for Jesus' work for the Father.

So the setup for v.57 is a contrast of works and service between the Jews and Jesus toward God, and the nature of the placement of the two groups as to which really had the special placement in relation to the Father. Upon Jesus' bold assertion about Abraham's knowledge, they then say:

you are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?

The Greek is more directly:

Πεντήκοντα  ἔτη    οὔπω     ἔχεις,   καὶ  Ἀβραὰμ   ἑώρακας;
fifty       years  not yet  you have and  Abraham  you have seen?

A few manuscripts replace ἑώρακας with εωρακεν σε1, rendering the last phrase then "Abraham has seen you?"

The point is clear with either rendering, Abraham and Jesus have particular knowledge of one another. How can this be? they ponder, since Jesus is less than fifty, i.e. Jesus is not even old enough to be considered retired from temple service under the Levitical law, much less old enough to know Abraham who is long dead.

The Pharisees knew the Law (the letter of it, anyway), and the reference is in relation to that. They themselves may not be Levites (the Pharisees were not necessarily so), but the allusion is to the only "retirement" age in Levitical law (at least, the only one I can think of off the top of my head), of which Jesus had not even attained that age yet, so how could He (how dare He!) make such an assertion as He does.

Conclusion

So the reference to 50 years old in John 8:57 is not to indicate Jesus is necessarily in His 40's, but rather a statement about the fact that He is not yet even old enough to be considered retired from working in the service of God in tabernacle/temple service,2 much less be old enough for Abraham to have seen His day.

Why Irenaeus Argues what He does of Jesus' Age

Peter Kirby has an article that walks through the cultural context of Irenaeus's time, showing that philosophical and cultural ideology drove his interpretation (though I do not believe that is Kirby's direct intent). His conclusion states (bolding added by me, along with extra notations in brackets given below):

Irenaeus was of sound mind when he wrote, in agreement with tradition and scripture. Instead of stifling his voice, it is necessary to elucidate the cultural context of the passage [1] and witness that the five stages of life that he sees in Christ [2], culminating in an age of death near 50 , is drawn straight from cultural assumptions about the stages of life and the prime of life [3] that in his [Irenaeus'] day would be commonplace, especially among those with an education in Greek.

[1] Referring to the Against Heresies 2.22.6 passage, part of which the OP quoted in the question.

[2] Kirby elucidates the seven stages of life in Greek philosophy, but of these five stages, he refers to Iranaeus' earlier statements in Against Heresies 2.22.4, where Kirby summarizes the stages of life in Iranaeus' thought as "infants, children, boys, youth, and old men," which Iranaeus believed Christ had to have passed through all the stages in order to sanctify and be an example for each stage of life.

[3] Kirby having earlier established 49, i.e. 7 x 7, was the philosophically recognized age of perfection and maturity of the mind.

[4] Irenaeus' day, not necessarily Jesus' day, though probably so even then among Greeks, but the context is that of very orthodox Jews within the Temple, rather than the among the Greek philosophers.

So one finds that Iranaeus had a combination of Greek philosophical and cultural background regarding the stages of life and prime age of life that he coupled with a preconceived theological backdrop of Christ needing to pass through all stages of life to fulfill His work sanctifying and exemplary work driving his exegetical understanding of the John 8:57 reference. This, coupled with a statement that on the surface is logical, that one would not mention 50 if the person were not in their 40's, does show, as Kirby notes, Irenaeus "was of sound mind when he wrote."

I just believe Iranaeus failed to consider the Jewish context of the actual event in which the statement took place, superseding it with a Greek context of his day.

Typical Evidences for Jesus in His 30's at His Death

The first part of Luke 3:23 is the starting point for most scholars holding that Jesus was somewhere near 30 years old at his crucifixion (NKJV/Majority Text):

Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age...

αὶ αὐτὸς ἦν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ὡσεὶ ἐτῶν τριάκοντα ἀρχόμενος3

So it is fairly unambiguous that Luke's gospel attributes the start of Jesus' ministry work at "about" (ὡσεὶ) thirty years old (which, depending upon how loose an approximation one wants to consider that statement, means He was likely 29-32 years of age—just about to be 30, or close enough past 30 to use the round number of 30 to indicate his general age).

Note how this number, also, is associated with the Levitical priesthood service ages noted previously above. 30 was the common low end start, though 25 was the absolute earliest age.

There are only three Passovers that Jesus is noted to have attended during His ministry time (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55), so these must be accounted for. Otherwise, the dating of Christ living only into his thirties is primarily based upon the views of when He was born, when His ministry began in relation to John the Baptist's ministry (which can be determined for its start date by Luke 3:1-3) and the most likely years of when Jesus died, given the historical facts that are known.

Harold Hoehner has a series of articles about a lot of these dating issues, and without necessarily agreeing with all his conclusions, the relevant evidence related to Irenaeus's view are chiefly these:4

  1. "the terminus a quo [i.e., earliest possible point] of Christ’s birth is difficult to pinpoint but it was probably taken sometime between 6 and 4 B.C." (Hoehner, "Part I," 348); he explains the various difficulties, but the key passage related to the earliest number is Luke 2:1-5, where there was a census being done at the time of Christ's birth, which census "first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria" (v.2). The dating of that specifically is where much of the question resides. A major part of Hoehner's "Part I" gives his reasoning for his probable dating of the earliest possible birth date for Christ as 6 B.C. Regarding the latest point, "Christ could not have been born later than March/April of 4 B.C" ("Part I," 340) because of the dating of Herod the Great's death, who was alive at Christ's birth (Mt 2:1; Lk 1:5).
  2. "He was crucified before Pilate’s departure from Judea in the winter of A.D. 36/37" (Hoehner, "Part III," 147), since Pilate was central to Jesus' crucifixion (e.g. John 19).

So 6 B.C. to 37 A.D. gives a maximum age of 43. This fits still with Irenaeus's view of Christ being in His 40's, but only if the extreme points are taken for His birth and death. Hoehner discusses the crucifixion dating in more detail, with the result of further narrowing factors being there are "only two plausible dates for the crucifixion, namely, A.D. 30 and 33" ("Part V," 338).

While Hoehner himself believes B.C. 5 to A.D. 33 is the most likely time frame for Jesus' life, if one accepts His argumentation generally, the evidence does not allow for Christ to have reached his 40's for the crucifixion, and hence, most scholars have viewed Irenaeus as being incorrect on this point.


NOTES

1 Eberhard Nestle and Erwin Nestle, Nestle-Aland: NTG Apparatus Criticus, Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger, eds., 28 rev. ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), notes on John 8:57. This is the only significant variant in the text here.

2 There are some who simply state that "Fifty years was with the Jews the completion of manhood" (quoting [Henry] Alford in Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible [1871; Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997]), and similarly a roughly contemporaneous quotation, "The fiftieth year was the full age of a man, Numb. 4:3" (quoting [August] Tholuck in John Peter Lange and Philip Schaff, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: John [1865–80; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008]). I have not found a definitive statement that the Jews in fact believed this was the age for "the completion of manhood" (that sounds a bit 'final' to me), but such a view may have been an overstatement with respect to the Numbers chapter 4 information, since the quote from Tholuck includes a reference to Num 4:3.

3 Some readings omit the article before the name and some have the word order varied, hence the UBS/NA28 reading:

Καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν Ἰησοῦς ⸀ἀρχόμενος ὡσεὶ ἐτῶν τριάκοντα

These variations do not affect the meaning of the text at all.

4 Harold Hoehner, "Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ" in five parts across three years/volumes of Bibliotheca Sacra:

  • (1973) "Part I: The Date of Christ’s Birth," 130:338-351.
  • (1974) "Part II: The Commencement of Christ’s Ministry," 131:41-54
  • (1974) "Part III: The Duration of Christ’s Ministry," 131:147-162
  • (1974) "Part IV: The Day of Christ’s Crucifixion," 131:241-264
  • (1974) "Part V: The Year of Christ’s Crucifixion," 131:332-348
  • (1975) "Part VI: Daniel’s Seventy Weeks and New Testament Chronology," 132:47-65
  • Very interesting, I can see the logic here. I wonder though if back in the 2nd century CE if others looked at it the same way Irenaeus did. This is the only place I've come across this line of thought. – seedy3 Sep 29 '15 at 0:15
  • @seedy3: I do not at present have proof other Christians took the age of Jesus as Irenaeus did during his time, but I did add information about the cultural context of Irenaeus that I found which sheds more light on the topic. – ScottS Sep 29 '15 at 3:22
  • I have to apologize I have not read your additional material, as I've been traveling today, I hope to read it tomorrow. – seedy3 Sep 30 '15 at 2:55
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    @seedy3: No apologies necessary. We cannot spend all our time looking at Stack Exchange sites, else life would not go on otherwise :-). – ScottS Oct 1 '15 at 15:26
  • Nicely added. I also submitted this question to "Bible Odyssey and today received a response. I think your answer is the best here, but I'll post his response as well. – seedy3 Oct 2 '15 at 17:38
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I also submitted this very same question on Bible Odyssey and today received a response from a bible scholar, the following is his response:

Thanks for your question. Good catch on noticing Irenaeus's different view on the age of Jesus. As far as I know, this view of Jesus was not common. I'm not aware of any other early Christian writer who directly supports this. The gospels themselves do not offer much to go on. The main point of reference is Luke's statement that Jesus was "about 30" when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23). Beyond that Luke doesn't really provide enough chronological data to determine how old he thinks Jesus was when he died. Read at face value, Matthew, Mark, and Luke could be read as narrating only a single year ministry. It is only in John that we get a series of three Passovers, which when added to the 30 years of Luke yields the traditional 33 year old Jesus. But John itself contains no reference to Jesus's beginning his ministry at 30. The only reference to Jesus's age in John could actually be the one bit of textual basis for Irenaeus's view. In John 8:57 some of Jesus's opponents state that he is "not yet 50 years old." One way of reading that would be to infer that Jesus is close to 50. When scholars have taken all the various chronological data (some of which is conflicting and problematic, e.g., the "census of Quirinius" in Luke 2:2 seems to conflict with Luke and Matthew's depiction of Jesus birth during the reign of Herod the Great) into account, the implication tends to be that Jesus was in his mid to late thirties.

I hope this helps.

Jonathan M. Potter PhD Candidate in New Testament

Emory University

Bible Odyssey Team The Society of Biblical Literature 825 Houston Mill Road, Suite 350 Atlanta, GA USA 30329-4217

Thank you all for your answers.

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The Valentinians held to the belief that Jesus died before his 31 birthday

They were not the only ones. So did many orthodox Christians, including several Church Fathers, based on a certain prophetic interpretation of the Synoptics1, whose chronology, unlike that of John's Gospel, is not explicit about the duration of Christ's ministry.

1 Namely the age of the paschal lamb, mentioned in Exodus 12:5, especially when compared to passages such as Luke 4:19, for instance.


Such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period. But to one who is only thirty years old it would unquestionably be said, “Thou art not yet forty years old.”

As I already wrote in a reply to Dick Harfield's answer on this very thread, such reasoning, in and of itself, constitutes a rather weak argument, especially given the biblical significance of a fifty-year period (see Leviticus 25:10-11).

In other words, just as in today's modern society the expression over eighteen does not necessarily imply a young age for the person to whom it is applied, likewise, in ancient Judaism, the expression under fifty did not necessarily imply an advanced age for such a person either, which becomes increasingly clear when one takes into consideration the meaning and symbolism attached to these two age-values by the cultures who use(d) them.


today Christians hold that Jesus was 33 years old.

This comes from combining Luke's explicit mention of Christ's age at the time of His baptism (3:23), with John's clear reference to three distinct or consecutive2 Passovers during the course of His public ministry:

Daniel's prophecy (9:27) also comes to mind.

2 This follows from their being separated by other Jewish holidays, such as the ones mentioned in 5:1 (probably Sukkoth, see 4:35), 7:2, and 10:22.


Does this scripture really indicate that John was saying He was over 40 when He died ?

Not necessarily. At least not in isolation. But when taken together with 2:19-21 (where we are told that the Temple is 46 years old, and that Christ compares Himself to the Temple), as well as its placement between 7:2 and 10:22 (the latter of which points to a Temple-related celebration), then a certain pattern seems to emerge.

Going back to Daniel's prophecy mentioned earlier, John seems to at the very least allude to the seven weeks (9:25), representing the 49 years (Numbers 14:34, Ezekiel 4:6) between the rebuilding of the Temple (by Herod, not Cyrus) and the Messiah. Whether this also coincides with Christ's age or not remains to be seen.

In light of Daniel's prophecy, could the three days mentioned in John's second chapter also be interpreted as referring to the three years (counted inclusively) which spanned from the time of that particular conversation, to the events predicted therein (i.e., Christ's resurrection) ?

-1

Although Irenaeus' was sometimes in error, in this case his argument is a valid one. It is as true today as it was in his time, that we would not speak of someone as "not yet fifty" if he appears to be less than forty years old. It is conceivable that someone could speak this way in order to introduce irony in the case of a very much younger person, but there is no evidence of this in the passage. It really does seem as if the author of John thought of Jesus as over forty years old, perhaps because only an older man could achieve the respect that Jesus received.

Adam Kotsko (theologian, religious scholar and translator) appears to agree, saying, "Taking [the Gospel of John] as the sole evidence, I’d say you don’t have any basis for thinking he’s only around 30."

Against this, Luke says that Jesus was about thirty years old:

Luke 3:23: And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age . . .

It is because of Luke that we believe Jesus to have been about 30 years old at the time of his mission on earth. Although often believed to have been inspired by Luke, the author of John did sometimes change details we find in Luke's Gospel. Thomas L. Brodie (The Quest for the Origin of John's Gospel : A Source-Oriented Approach) actually sees Luke's Gospel and Acts of the Apostles as both containing source material developed by the author of John's Gospel.

Various explanations have been put forward to harmonise John's Gospel account with that of Luke. Colin G. Kruse says (The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary, page 217) the mention of Jesus being not yet fifty years old is puzzling in the light of Luke 3:23 which says he was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. Kruse manages to find a solution by referring to a possible Jewish tradition of referring to one's "jubilee of years" (50 years). If this was indeed a common manner of speech in first-century Judea, then the evangelist was not trying to provide precise information about Jesus' age. In contrast, John Jason Owen (A Commentary, Critical, Expository, and Practical, on the Gospel of John, page 213) says fifty years was regarded as the term of active human life, finding on this ground that no inference should be drawn that the reference to "not yet fifty" means that Jesus was nearly fifty.

Nicholas of Lyra, cited by Mark Hazard (The Literal Sense and the Gospel of John in Late Medieval Commentary and the Gospel of John in Late-Medieval Commentary and Literature, page 78) thought that Jesus was much younger but accepted that John's account did refer to Jesus as appearing to be almost fifty years old, no doubt because of premature ageing. Of course, this is only an assumption, but it is a good harmonisation between John and Luke, that also vindicates Irenaeus, because it says the reference in John means that Jesus appeared to be around fifty years old because of premature ageing.

  • 2
    On the chronology, see H.K. Bond, "Dating the Death of Jesus: Memory and the Religious Imagination", New Testament Studies 59.4 (2013): 461-75. I'm not aware of any recent Johannine scholarship that gives credence to Irenaues's dating. There were a few in the 19th C who did. – Dɑvïd Sep 29 '15 at 14:33
  • Certain ages are considered standard (e.g., 18). Thus, the expression (s)he's 18 implies, in certain contexts, that that person is at least that old, and not necessarily that they are about 20 (in fact, they might even be 36). Now, 50 years constitutes half a century, and Jews, like ourselves, count in base ten, and to some lesser extent in dozens. Given the importance placed on the number seven, it wasn't too long until they finally realized that the ratio between the squares of these two numbers lies suspiciously close to a very basic fraction, 1/2. Thus the Jubilee year was established. – Lucian Aug 2 '17 at 2:34
-1

Hebrews 3 (KJV)

3 Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus;

2 Who was faithful to him that appointed him, as also Moses was faithful in all his house.

3 For this man was counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as he who hath builded the house hath more honour than the house.

4 For every house is builded by some man; but he that built all things is God.

5 And Moses verily was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken after;

6 But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.

7 Wherefore (as the Holy Ghost saith, To day if ye will hear his voice,

8 Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness:

9 When your fathers tempted me, proved me, (he proved them when he did miracle with bread and fish.) and saw my works forty years.

10 Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do alway err in their heart; and they have not known my ways.

He lived be 40 from what i can tell

Matthew 22:29

“Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.”

Hebrews 3 (KJV)

11 So I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest.) He enter his rest when he gave up ghost and ener his glory

12 Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God.

13 But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.

14 For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end;

15 While it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation.

16 For some, when they had heard, did provoke: howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses.

17 But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness?

18 And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not?

19 So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.

Notice what he said in hebrews when he did works 40 years he said that he was grieved with that generation and said u always error in your heart. So see he lived 40 years he did his work for 40 year

Did he say u error in your hearts when he walk earth or did he say it when he brought them out of Egypt 40 years i found in in new testament.

  • “But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him.” King James Version (KJV – Nina Dec 4 '17 at 23:23

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