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Luke 3:1 says that John started preaching in Tiberius' 15th year, which means that Jesus couldn't have begun his ministry earlier than late 28 AD. Some claim that Luke is counting from Tiberius' time as co-princeps in 12 AD, which would make the 15th year 26 AD. I'd need proof of emperors' years being counted from such a year though.

John 2:20, on the other hand, says that , when Jesus cleansed the temple, it had been in building for 46 years. Wikipedia says that Herod started the rebuilding in 22 BC. 46 years later places the temple cleaning in 25 AD. The Wikipedia article does note that:

...there is some uncertainty about how Josephus referred to and computed dates, hence various scholars arrive at slightly different dates for the exact date of the start of the Temple construction...

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  • Your Q. intrigued me, particularly as it referred to the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar, which I feel I know a lot about. It's an upvote from me. Hope you can now appreciate my A. Commented Sep 30, 2023 at 2:56

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There are three chronological questions in the mix here:

A) When had the temple been under construction for 46 years?

B) When was the 15th year of Tiberius?

C) Are A & B close enough in time to allow a consistent narrative regarding the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus?


A Historian Needs Humility

It is helpful to acknowledge at the outset the limited precision that is available to us for most events in the ancient world. Different manners of reckoning (e.g. inclusive, accession year, anniversary year), different meanings of "year" (e.g. solar year, regnal year, etc.), different fixed points of reference (e.g. AUC, Olympiad, Actian, etc.), and the fact that most events are reported to the year but not to the fraction of a year, and other factors, are such that +/- 1 year is considered highly-precise for estimating dates in the ancient world.

It is true that there are some events, tied either to an astronomical event or a very well-documented battle or reign, which can be calculated with a high degree of precision, but for the most part, the humble historian must work with ranges of dates.


A: temple construction

Josephus gives us the most precise information, but he is unfortunately inconsistent with himself:

And now Herod, in the eighteenth year of his reign, and after the acts already mentioned, undertook a very great work; that is to build of himself the temple of God (Antiquities 15.11.1)

Accordingly, in the fifteenth year of his reign, Herod rebuilt the temple (Wars 1.21.1)

He also tells us that the construction of the temple began after Augustus' visit to Syria, which came 10 years after the battle of Actium (see Wars 1.20.4). The battle of Actium took place in September 31 BC.

Let us evaluate 3 common views:

  1. Josephus is mistaken in Wars and correct in Antiquities (the inverse is highly unlikely because his Antiquities chronology is consistent with itself and his Wars chronology is not consistent with itself )
  2. Josephus is counting Herod's reign 2 different ways
  3. The multiple phases of temple construction allow for different, correct answers to the question "when did work begin?"

1. Josephus is mistaken in Wars and correct in Antiquities

Herod conquered Jerusalem in late 36 BC1; 36/35 BC was his accession year, and 35/34 BC would have been "year 1" if we count from his conquest of Jerusalem. Year 18 of his reign would occupy 18/17 BC. 46 years later would be AD 29/30. Since the statement in John 2:20 refers to 46 years that have passed (rather than "this is the 46th year"), we would infer that this is the 47th year since construction began. That would put the date at AD 30/31.

2. Josephus is counting Herod's reign 2 different ways

Josephus definitely does count Herod's reign 2 different ways elsewhere so this possibility is worth seriously considering. Herod was appointed king by Rome in 39 BC but didn't actually have a kingdom yet. With Roman aid he conquered Jerusalem in 36 BC; at this point, he had the title of king and a kingdom to go with it. When Josephus reports the length of Herod's reign he reckons it in two ways: from when he was appointed by Rome (reigned 37 years), and from when he conquered Jerusalem (reigned 34 years)(see Antiquities 17.181). We see the same 3-year gap.

The charitable interpretation of Josephus, then, is that Herod began construction of the temple in the 18th year of his reign, counting from his appointment, and in the 15th year of his reign, counting from his conquest of Jerusalem.

In this case, 39/38 BC was the accession year, and 38/37 BC was year 1, counting from his appointment by Rome. This makes year 18 of his reign 21/20 BC. Because this possibility allows Josephus' chronology in Wars to be correct, we can use the reference to Actium to be a little more precise. If construction began after Caesar's visit, and Caesar's visit came after the 10th anniversary of Actium (Sept 21 BC), we are almost certainly looking at 20 BC, since Caesar would be unlikely to traverse the Mediterranean in winter if he didn't have to.

46 years later would be AD 27. Since the statement in John 2:20 refers to 46 years that have passed (rather than "this is the 46th year"), we would infer that this is the 47th year since construction began. That would put the date at AD 28.

3. Multiple phases of temple construction

Using the most consistent chronology, Herod began construction on the temple in the 18th year of his reign, but some have noted that the phase of construction contemplated by John 2:20 may not be this initial work, but the phase that began with the completion of the work on the inner sanctuary, which was followed by ongoing development/maintenance of the temple complex for many years. Josephus indicates that the work on the inner sanctuary lasted 18 months (Wars 15.11.6).

If we start the 46-year clock 18 months after Herod's 18th year, then we simply arrive at dates 18 months later than we calculated in #1 & #2 -- either approx. AD 32 (following the reasoning of #1), or AD 29/30 (following the reasoning of #2).

For one example of the way a "possibility 3" argument can be presented, see the discussion by Steinmann on p. 18.


Depending on the assumptions we use, we can come up with a date range of AD 28-32 for the statement in John 2:20.2


B: The 15th year of Tiberius

This one should be more straightforward because we know when Tiberius was emperor--but, as noted above, ancient chronology gets complicated. I'll briefly summarize 6 major views on the reckoning of Tiberius' reign and propose a probable range.

  1. Reckoning of his reign began at the death of Augustus in August of AD 14. This would mean year 15 ran from August 28 AD to August 29 AD.

  2. Reckoning of his reign began at his confirmation by the Roman senate in September of AD 14. This would mean year 15 ran from September 28 AD to September 29 AD.

  3. Reckoning of his reign used the accession year method and began with the first new year after he became emperor: the 1st of January, AD 15. This would mean year 15 was AD 29.

  4. Tiberius was co-regent with Augustus during the very end of Augustus' life, and Tiberius' reign was reckoned from the co-regency (usually dated to AD 12 though not all proponents of option 4 agree). This could put the beginning of year 15 in AD 26 or 27.

  5. Luke is reckoning Tiberius' reign after the manner of the Jews, using inclusive counting, and on 1 Tishri (new year's day for the Jewish civil calendar) AD 14 year 2 began. This would mean year 15 ran from the Fall of 27 AD to the Fall of 28 AD.

  6. The reckoning of Tiberius' reign should be advanced by approx. 1 year because Luke was using the Syro-Macedonian calendar.

Evaluation

Whether or not Tiberius was full co-regent with Augustus is a matter of some dispute, but it is not relevant to our analysis here, because 100% of ancient Roman historians and 100% of the available double-dated coins agree that Tiberius' reign was reckoned from after the death of Augustus.

The double-dated coins Silanus Antioch RPC 4270 and Silanus Selucia RPC 4330 show that Tiberius year 1 = Actium year 45 and Tiberius year 3 = Actium year 47, supporting the records of the Roman historians that, whether Tiberius was full co-regent with Augustus or not, his reign was not reckoned until after the death of Augustus. Further discussion can be found at Luke 3:1 "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" - convention for counting years (NOT what the actual A.D. year was). This rules out option 4.

Options 5 & 6 assume Luke is using a calendar system other than the Roman calendar. However, Tiberius is a Roman official and Luke's audience is an educated, Gentile, Greco-Roman audience (this is attested by the content of the text, the Muratorian Fragment, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke, and the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons).

If he used a Jewish or Syro-Macedonian system of reckoning it would only serve to confuse his audience... which would work against Luke's painstaking effort in Luke 3:1-2 to orient the audience by giving not 1, not 2, but 6 different reference points so they clearly knew the setting he referred to. To have gone to all this trouble to be chronologically precise, and then to have used an alternate calendar without telling his audience he was doing so, would not be sensible. This excludes options 5 & 6.

(Additionally, with respect to option 5, the terms of office of Jewish leaders were not always reckoned inclusively. Josephus--who was a Jew--recorded the tenure of the high priests in his work and he did not use inclusive reckoning for their time in office)

This leaves options 1-3. We cannot be certain, but reckoning the reign of Tiberius from the time of his approval by the Senate appears to me the clearest interpretation of the data. But even if we are not sure on this matter, the difference of a few months among options 1, 2, and 3 will not alter our conclusion significantly.

Allowing that options 1, 2, or 3 are possible (even if not equally likely), and that options 4, 5, and 6 can be ruled out by context and historical evidence, Year 15 of Tiberius' reign would have begun no earlier than August of 28 and ended no later than December of 29.


C: Is there a consistent narrative?

Yes.

We found that the range of possible dates for the statement in John 2:20 runs from AD 28 - AD 32. We found that the range of possible dates for the statement in Luke 3:1 ran from August of AD 28 to December of AD 29. There is ample overlap between these intervals.

It is quite possible for:

  • John's ministry to have begun in the 15th year of Tiberius,
  • Jesus' ministry to have begun some months later, AND
  • Someone to have referenced the temple having been under construction for 46 years at a time early in Jesus' ministry

There is no contradiction in such a timeline.



*Notes*

1 For a detailed presentation of the evidence regarding the dates of Herod's reign and the use of an accession year method of reckoning, see my video series on YouTube. The alternative chronology in which Herod was appointed by Rome in 40 BC and conquered Jerusalem in 37 BC was popularized in the 1890s but is betrayed by multiple chronological inconsistencies.

2 There are other theories as well, including (a) the 46 years reference has nothing at all to do with the construction by Herod but refers to work initiated on the temple in the time of Zerubbabel, (b) the 46-year reference refers to completed work, rather than ongoing work--see Steinmann paper linked above.

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  • Excellent, full bodied, well researched, answer ... and more importantly it doesn't necessarily make my answer wrong, even if mine does pale in comparison. It's a definite upvote from me. Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 2:11
  • @OldeEnglish that's high praise, thank you! Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 22:36
  • Love this. I read that Josephus dated Herod's appointment to 40 BC while it was Appian who said it happened in 39 BC. Any thoughts on this? Is it a problem, since it'd appear to push the date for constructions commencement down?
    – A.O.
    Commented Oct 10, 2023 at 22:49
  • @A.O. Josephus dates Herod's reign multiple ways and alas, he contradicts himself. He puts Herod's appointment on a day that didn't exist in 40 BC, and reports he conquered Jerusalem 3 years after his appointment. In one place he indicates Herod conquered Jerusalem in 37 BC, in another place he gives 36 BC. Appian is consistent and puts Herod's appointment in 39 BC. For Jewish history Josephus is the best surviving source from this era, but for Roman history (such as the appointment of a Roman client king like Herod) Appian is the better source. I used Appian for the calculations above. Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 2:48
  • @A.O. I have a video series on my channel walking through each of the major sources and the math : Herodian chronology Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 2:49
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The "46 years" in John 2:20 is less precise than many imagine it because there is debate about the starting date. Specifically, Josephus give two dates for the start of the construction of the temple, viz:

  • 18th year of the reign of Herod, Antiquities of the Jews, XV 11
  • 15th year of the reign of Herod, Wars of the Jews, i. 21. 1.

Some suggest that the latter date is a correction for the former. In any case, if we take the 18th year as the correct date, then this places the start of construction of the temple in the year 20/19 BC, and 46 years later is thus, about 28 AD. [Both dates maybe correct with the 15th year being the start of preparations and laying first foundations with the 18th year being when the actual temple was begun. We cannot be sure.]

Date of Jesus Baptism.

Luke records, in Luke 3:1, that Jesus was baptized “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar." Since Tiberius ascended the imperial throne on 19 August 14 AD (the death of Augustus), his “fifteenth year” would be the twelve months beginning: 1 Ethanim (September/October) 27 AD by the traditional non-accession, inclusive time reckoning of the Jews.

Thus, there is no contradiction.

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  • You say 46 years after 23/22 BC is 28 AD. That's not the case. (-22)+46+1 = 25.
    – A.O.
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 5:18
  • @A.O. - opps - my mistake; apologies. Corrected now
    – Dottard
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 7:13
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Does Luke 3:1 contradict John 2:20 on the timing of Jesus' ministry?

Luke 3:1 says that John started preaching in Tiberius' 15th year, which means that Jesus couldn't have begun his ministry earlier than late 28 AD. This first sentence of yours is true and then not so true. John most likely started his own ministry as far back as 26 AD but we don't need to dwell on that here. After having spent some time in the wilderness (preaching) he then came into the Jordan district in the 15th year of Tiberius, see Luke 3:2,3, where he started preaching in earnest, having now passed the age of 30, and this was in the Spring of 29 AD. Tiberius' 15th year, if we take the 1st year to have started at the time of his confirmation by the Senate, which was on the 18th of September, of 14 AD, this being after the death of Augustus (he was co-regent with his ailing father for 2 years prior), then his 15th year started on the 18th of September (1 Ethanim) of 28 AD. Some theologians count from the death of Augustus, which was in August of 14 AD, which would make Tiberius' 15th year start in the twelve months beginning; 1 Ethanim (September/October) of 27 AD, when utilizing the traditional non-accession, inclusive time reckoning of the Jews, and this August commencement is advocated by our own Dottard, in his answer. IMO, however, one has to start from the Senate confirmation and not from the death of Augustus.

             Year 1  09/18/14 to 09/17/15                                       
             Year 15 09/18/28 to 09/17/29

We know from the widely accepted record that Jesus started his ministry after John started preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the Jordan district, this being some 6 months later in the Fall of 29 AD, or at least this was when Jesus was baptized by John. Jesus did not actually start his ministry until some time after his 40 days of wandering in the wilderness. Some 3 1/2 years after his baptism, Jesus was crucified in the Spring of 33 AD but we also don't need to dwell on that here, as the year of crucifixion is widely disputed. I was just logically following on, although, I have written extensively and in great detail, on this site, through other Q and A, with regard to the Spring of 33 AD year of death.

John 2:20 [NASB]

The Jews therefore said, "It took forty six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?"

First of all, in the previous verse, Jesus was referring to himself as the temple and that he would arise after three days. Again we don't need to dwell on this here.

The temple sanctuary was rebuilt, according to Josephus, in 18 months. (Jewish Antiquities, XV, 421 [xi 6]). Other main structures were erected in eight years. But in 30 CE the Jews stated that the temple was built in 46 years. This statement was made during a conversation with Jesus Christ near the time of the first Passover after Jesus' baptism. (John 2:13-20). According to Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, XV, 380 [xi 1]), that work began in the 18th year of Herod's reign. If counted in the way that the Jews had viewed the regnal years of their kings, that could mean 18/17 BCE. Actually, work continued on the temple in the form of additions, and so forth, until six years before its destruction in 70 CE.... Taken from Insight on the Scriptures, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1988, Vol 1, P 1092.

Conclusion

Luke 3:1 does not contradict John 2:20 on the timing of Jesus' ministry. In actual fact they confirm the timing.

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  • Helpful answer! +1 Commented Sep 30, 2023 at 14:41
  • @HoldToTheRod - Well, hello there. Nice to have you back. Commented Oct 1, 2023 at 9:06
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Interesting discussion!

Perhaps another way to look at it is we know Jesus was crucified on 15 Abib/Nisan. If you are not sure of this please study the Gospels around the Last Supper. The question is the year. We know:

  1. When Jesus was born, the wise men from the East visited Herod. Herod was definitely alive at this point and would later order the execution of the male children under 2 years old in the Bethlehem area.
  2. Joseph was warned in a dream to leave and go to Egypt with Mary & Jesus
  3. The only scripture that seems to deal with how long Joseph, Mary & Jesus were in Egypt is Revelation 12, which suggests 3.5 years.
  4. Dr. Luke, when he says 'about 30 years of age' is not likely using only 1 significant figure (i.e.: he is more likely to be saying +/- 6 months than +/- 5 years).
  5. Best estimates of the length of Jesus' ministry are 3-3.5 years. My guess is 'a time, times & half a time' (3.5 years).
  6. According to all our best estimates, Herod died in 4BC

Doing the math we get:

-3.5 (years in Egypt) -4 (BC, death of Herod) +1 (no year 0, goes from 1BC to 1AD) + 30 (Jesus' age at start of His ministry) + 3.5 (length of His ministry prior to crucifixion) = 27AD

This also tends to suggest that Jesus was born in 7.5BC. If you feel that 33AD is when He was crucified, Jesus would have been over 40 years of age - which doesn't seem right to me. With respect to Josephus, et al, they don't seem to agree with each other so I leave them out entirely unless I can't get by some other way. My personal belief is that BOTH Luke & John's accounts are exactly correct and correlate precisely with the result of the calculation above. God bless!

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