Tiberius Caesar finally acceded to complete sovereign power as Emperor of Rome upon the death of Augustus on 19 August, 14AD — having already been in office as co-regent with him from 12AD. Tiberius’ 1st regnal year therefore spanned from approximately September 14AD through to August 15AD — much as an academic year now would in parts of the Western world.
By this Roman method of dating, we can count forward to Tiberius’ 15th year, commencing in September 28AD and running through to August 29AD. Likewise, we can say that Passover in his 16th year would fall during March to April 30AD.
But according to the two early texts we have already considered, Luke tells us that the ministry of John the Baptist, who came before Jesus, began in the 15th year of Tiberius; whereas Julius Africanus documents that Jesus came to his passion in the 16th year of Tiberius — at best this can be no more than 18 months later.
Careful analysis of the Four Gospels reveals at least three — possibly four — Passovers attended by Jesus during the time of his ministry, after his baptism by John. Even taking a conservative approach and allowing one Passover at the start, one in the middle, and one at the end of his ministry when Jesus was crucified, this is a time span lasting at least 24 months. What gives?
Almost certainly one relevant factor is that Luke was from Antioch, Syria, and reckoned the regnal years of the Emperor inclusively according to the same Syro-Macedonian dating that the principal benefactor of his Gospel, Theophilus, would have understood.
Such a method of dating provided that, where the start of a new ruling Emperor began before the Syrian new year in October, the 1st year would be a short or partial year, and the 2nd year would commence and run parallel with the Syro-Macedonian calendar.
For our purposes this means that Tiberius’ 1st year would be reckoned from late August 14AD until October 14AD, and his 2nd year from October 14AD to October 15AD.
Counting forward Tiberius’ 15th year would, following Luke, run from October 27AD to October 28AD — and so the earliest possible Passover in Jesus’ ministry dated not before March to April 28AD, assuming John preached less than 6 months before Jesus’ baptism.
This example, counting Antiochwise if you like, exposes one of the great difficulties historians have when reconstructing narrative timelines and needing to account for the fact that different historical authors used different measures of time to reckon dates.
But this is not a new problem — church historian Eusebius early in the 4th century documented events which had taken place over a number of centuries past, and sought to calibrate the various ways of measuring time that were in operation.
In order to do this he created a Chronicle of significant historical moments and recorded alongside these each of the different timelines then in common usage. This is better seen than described — as depicted here.
And if the above is all Greek to you, you’re reading it wrong. Because we don’t have Eusebius’ original — we only have early translations into Armenian (above) and Latin, transcribed (below).
We will look in more detail at the written paragraphs in the outer columns later. First we need to understand the four numerical inner columns [with bracketed information inserted]:
• Column 1 — Olympias [202.2] [202.3] [202.4] 203[.1]
• Column 2 — Anni Abrahae 2045 2046 2047 2048
• Column 3 — Rom. Tiberius 16 17 18 19
• Column 4 — Judae. Herodas Tetrach 16 17 18 19
In this table, the 1st year of the 203rd Olympiad is reckoned alongside the 19th year of Tiberius. Accordingly, the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad is counted next to the 16th year of Tiberius.
How do we know this? Just as with our modern Olympic Games, each ancient Olympiad took place every 4 years, dating all the way back to the first games in 776BC. So if, according to Eusebius’ tables the 203rd Olympiad began in the 19th year of Tiberius (which we know that it did — in July 33AD), we can count the earlier years as follows [as shown in brackets], also agreeing with Eusebius:
• 1st year of the 202nd Olympiad, in the 15th year of Tiberius;
• 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad, in the 16th year of Tiberius;
• 3rd year of the 202nd Olympiad, in the 17th year of Tiberius;
• 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad, in the 18th year of Tiberius.
To recap, according to Eusebius’ Chronicon tables, the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad is equated alongside the 16th year of Tiberius. There is a symmetry here, if you recall, with the quote we have already considered by Julius Africanus — who documented that the Christ came to his passion in “the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad, the 16th year of the reign of Tiberius Cæsar”.
And yet it is not as straightforward as this, because neither the Tiberian Roman years, nor the Olympiads, ran from the beginning of January to the end of December in the way that our Western calendar does.
The 16th year of Tiberius in fact ran from September 29AD to September 30AD. The 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad ran from July 30AD to July 31AD.
There is a period when these two contiguous timelines overlap, that is, when it could be said that that something could have occurred in both the 16th year of Tiberius and the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad — but this overlap was only for around 2 or 3 months — between the period July to September 30AD; and yet there was no Passover during those months of the year.
So although Julius Africanus (circa 160AD — 240AD) is one of the earliest sources of information we have who fixes the year of the Crucifixion with both the Roman year and the Olympiad — in doing so he has created a logical inconsistency that needs to be resolved:
• Either he is right about the Roman year (16th Tiberius) and wrong about the Olympiad — dating the Crucifixion in 30AD;
• Or he is right about the Olympiad (2nd of the 202nd) and wrong about the Roman year — dating the Crucifixion in 31AD.
One textually simple way to resolve this problem is to interpret the Africanus quote in this way — that the Passion was “in the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad, [which began] in the 16th year of Tiberius”. The effect of this reading would cure the inconsistency without significantly re-rendering the text, but would fix the Crucifixion in the 17th year of Tiberius, toward the end of Olympiad 202.2.
The alternative proposition is to interpret the quote as follows — that the Passion was “in the 16th year of Tiberius (when also the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad began)”. However, whilst logically plausible, it inverts the original sequence of what was written, and ignores the
priority focus on the year of the Olympiad being the first and more immediate frame of reference.
But is there any other aspect of early tradition that we can draw upon to help settle this dispute, and help us to determine which of the two propositions are likely to be correct? As it happens, there is, and this is where Eusebius will help us again shortly.
First, however, flick back overleaf to see the Armenian and Latin tables, looking in particular at the numerical Columns 1 (Olympias) and 3 (Rom. Tiberius). In the Armenian version (top), Olympiad 203 is annotated next to Tiberius 18 — whereas in the Latin version, Olympiad 203 is annotated next to Tiberius 19. Why so?
The Armenians reckoned the Olympiads in the earlier corresponding year — beginning their count all the way back in 777BC as opposed to 776BC using the Greco-Roman way of dating.
So for an Armenian chronographer, the 18th year of Tiberius — which ran from September 31AD to September 32AD — was contiguous with the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad — running from July 31AD to July 32AD in Armenian terms only. The 203rd Olympiad, in Armenian terms only, therefore began in July 32AD toward the end of the 18th year of Tiberius.
The effect this Armenian shift has is to move back the counting of the Olympiads by one year relative to the Roman years.
Turning to Luke, who doesn’t provide us with any detail as to the Olympiad years the events concerning Christ occurred, but does note that his ministry commenced after the 15th year of Tiberius, and documents according to the Syro-Macedonian calendar such that, for Luke, the 18th year of Tiberius would run from October 30AD to October 31AD in Syrian terms only.
The effect this Syrian shift has is to move forward the counting of the Olympiads by one year relative to the Roman years.
The combination of these opposite shifts has a parallax effect, such that both the 2nd year and the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad could inadvertently, as a matter of deduction, be referring to the same moment in history. To unpick why that is, like the beginning of a bad joke, let us imagine three men in a pub:
• Luke the Syrian
• Tacitus the Roman
• Artemis the Armenian
Luke is telling Tacitus about Passover in the 18th year of Tiberius. Luke is actually talking about the Passover in 31AD, but Tacitus thinks Luke is referring to the Passover in 32AD.
If they had thought about this in terms of Olympiads, Tacitus would have counted this as Passover in Olympiad 202.3, in the spring of 32AD; whereas Luke was actually referring to Passover in Olympiad 202.2, in the spring of 31AD.
Luke leaves to buy a round when Artemis arrives. Tacitus tells Artemis about this Passover in the 18th year of Tiberius. For Tacitus this in the 3rd year of the 202nd Olympiad, 32AD, but for Artemis, although still referring to 32AD, this is counted as the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad.
Tacitus has to head home early whilst Artemis and Luke continue to talk about Passover in the 18th year of Tiberius. Luke is really thinking about the one in the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad, but Artemis recalls this being the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad.
Each leaves with a different version of the truth:
• Luke recalls Tiberius 18 | Olympiad 202.2 [meaning 31AD]
• Tacitus recalls Tiberius 18 | Olympiad 202.3 [meaning 32AD]
• Artemis recalls Tiberius 18 | Olympiad 202.4 [meaning 32AD]
The truth is handed down in oral tradition one to another —
“it happened in the 18th year of Tiberius”
“yes in the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad”
“you mean in the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad”
“no that would be the 16th year of Tiberius”
“right, 2nd year of 202nd Olympiad, 16th year of Tiberius…”
Until we get to, Julius Africanus who has preserved the logically inconsistent tradition that the Passion occurred in the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad AND the 16th year of Tiberius. But as we have already seen, it cannot be both. Either it is:
• Olympiad 202.1 and Year 16 of Tiberius [in spring 30AD]; or
• Olympiad 202.2 and Year 17 of Tiberius [in spring 31AD]
Yet by accidently highlighting the way that Luke recorded regnal years a calendar year early, Africanus’ repetition of a mistaken tradition also helps unlock a further curiosity of church history.
In his chronography titled ‘On the circumstances connected with our Saviour’s Passion and his life-giving sacrifice’ written in circa 220AD (as preserved by the 8th century Byzantine monk George Syncellus), Africanus connects the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad, in the 16th year of Tiberius, with the report of a pagan historian Phlegon:
“Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Cæsar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth—manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe?”
One hundred years or so later Eusebius, the great church historian of the early 4th century, would use this report in his famous Chronicon tables — an extract from which we have already considered in the Armenian facsimile reproduced earlier.
In doing so Eusebius incorporates another logical fallacy that has long troubled historians — one that will help us to pin down with greater precision the year of Christ’s crucifixion by Pilate.