Passover in the early 30s AD

If Pilate recalled correctly, the great feast at Passover happened in much the same way every year. At the beginning of the month, 1 Nisan (also called Abib), it was the Jewish new moon festival — a time of celebration when sacrifices were offered at the Temple. It was the same at the beginning of every month.

Then followed the usual six days of work and the regular Sabbath on the 8 Nisan. After that were a further 6 days of work except that on 14 Nisan the Jewish people in Jerusalem stopped work at noon and had a half day off to get ready for the Passover, before the week long festival of Unleavened Bread. It was the Preparation Day for the Passover, as noted by Mark and John Mark in their Gospel accounts.

On 14 Nisan, at around 3pm, lambs were brought to the Temple to be slaughtered, in readiness for eating the Passover at dusk. Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish historian who lived at the same time as Pilate, and wrote unfavourably about him, as we have seen, records:

And after the feast of the new moon comes the fourth festival, that of the passover, which the Hebrews call pascha, on which the whole people offer sacrifice, beginning at noonday and continuing till evening.

After the Passover evening meal, always at the time of the full moon, came 15 Nisan which was called the First Day of Unleavened Bread. It was both a regular Sabbath and a special holy day known as High Sabbath at the start of the week long feast. 1

The next day, 16 Nisan, a special offering called the Feast of the Firstfruits was made in which the priests would wave a sheaf of barley, the first of that season. This was always done on the first day after the 15 Nisan Sabbath. Philo of Alexandria records:

There is also a festival on the day of the paschal feast, which succeeds the first day, and this is named the sheaf, from what takes place on it; for the sheaf is brought to the altar as a first fruit both of the country which the nation has received for its own, and also of the whole land.

Josephus, another contemporary Jew met previously, records of 14-16 Nisan:

…on the fourteenth day of the lunar month, when the sun is in Aries… the law ordained that we should every year slay that sacrifice… called the Passover… The feast of unleavened bread succeeds that of the passover, and falls on the fifteenth day of the month, and continues seven days… But on the second day of unleavened bread, which is the sixteenth day of the month… they offer the first-fruits of their barley.

And so it was, every year. Speaking of which, what year was it anyway? Pilate reached for his Julian calendar pocket diary. He’d been Procurator of Judaea for a few years now, since 26AD, and had already put down at least one Jewish revolt in that time.

Using astronomy data, the first full moon in Jerusalem after the Spring Equinox for the years 30-34AD is calculated as follows, using the Julian Calendar dates and Israel Standard Time:

Give or take a day, each of these dates represent the likely timeframe for the start of Passover and the seven day feast of Unleavened Bread in the early 30s AD. All of them could provide a possible year for Pilate’s encounter with Jesus.

None of them should be ruled out on the basis that “Passover wasn’t on a Friday that year…” as the Romans of the Republic weren’t counting in days of seven and, more importantly, nor were the Hebrews. Rather, they kept Sabbath four times each month.

Julius Africanus, writing around 200 years after these events, records they took place in “the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad, 16th year of the reign of Tiberius Cæsar”.

The 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad began in July 30AD and the only Passover which took place during that year was the one in the spring of 31AD. That said, Tiberius Caesar ruled after the death of Caesar Augustus from August 14AD, and Passover in his 16th year was in the spring of 30AD, which at first glance suggests that Julius Africanus had wrongly conflated two different years. We will return to this later.

Clement of Alexandria in Egypt, writing around 190AD, notes, “And treating of His passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the sixteenth year of Tiberius, on the twenty-fifth of Phamenoth”.

Phamenoth was the 7th month in the Egyptian calendar, between March and April in our own calendar, and Pharmuthi was the 8th month, between April and May. Whilst the months named by Clement might be loosely translated from the Roman Martius or Aprilis to their Egyptian near equivalents — given his Alexandrian audience — what is clear is that early tradition had identified the 25th day of the month as being the noteworthy.

In any event, we have two, non-biblical sources which identify the year of the Crucifixion as the 16th year of Tiberius, the latter of which appears to identify the date of the month when this is said to have taken place. Yet Luke, who wrote the Third  Gospel, famously records in Luke 3:1 that Jesus’ ministry started, “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar”.

How can it be that Luke says Jesus’ ministry started in the 15th year of Tiberius, but Clement of Alexandria and Julius Africanus both say it ended in the 16th year, unless his ministry was only a year long?

Can we reconcile the apparent inconsistency between the 2nd year of the 202nd Olympiad, and the 16th year of Tiberius? And if so, is it possible to narrow down the exact year of Pilate’s encounter with the enigmatic paradox he would soon describe in Greek, Latin and Aramaic as the “King of the Jews”? We shall soon see…

1 The Greek phrase “ἦν γὰρ μεγάλη ἡ ἡμέρα ἐκείνου τοῦ σαββάτου” literally translates “for the day of that Sabbath was great”.