The question of how old was Jesus when he died and when his death actually happened are some of the major questions that still linger on today. The Christian faith is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus, hence explaining the curiosity that surrounds this knowledge.
The truth is that some of these matters are not straight forward as they may have appeared originally. The more researchers dig deep, the more discoveries are made. However, believers appreciate that for all that we know about Jesus, there is a lot we do not know.
For instance, the Bible talks of a grand total of one story about Jesus' childhood. His age at his death is not known since there is a lot of conflicting information, both in Biblical terms and historically. This, therefore, makes it almost impossible to determine when was Jesus crucified.
In addition, clearly determining how old was Jesus when he died on the cross would be an uphill task. But does it really matter when he did, or is it all about knowing what he died for and the purpose of his death? This article tries to explain why some people put a lot of emphasis on the dates. It points out some of the pieces of evidence that have been collected, and the attempts that have been made, so far, to trace the specific dates. How long ago did Jesus die on the cross? The date will depend on which account one decides to go with.
How old was Jesus when he died?
What age did Jesus die? Well, some accounts say that he was around 33 years old. But, how old was Jesus when he died, really? Traditionally, Jesus is said to have been about thirty-three years old when he died. The date is taken from the statement in the Gospel of Luke.
It states that Jesus “was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.” This can be found in Luke 3:23. According to John’s Gospel, which mentions three Passovers, the assumption is that he was about 33 when he died. This can be considered the most direct evidence available about the date of Jesus' death. This explains why most people accept it as the answer to the question, how old was Jesus at his death?
However, there is another early source of Jesus’ age. The Church Father Irenaeus claimed that Christ was about fifty when he died which was recorded in the book, Against Heresies II 22:5. He argued primarily based on the information passed down to him by way of John and the other apostles.
It is important to note that Irenaeus is a very credible source, since he was a disciple of Polycarp, and in turn was a disciple of the apostle John. He is, therefore, one of the direct followers of the disciples of Jesus with only one generation removed from direct contact with the apostles. Irenaeus served as a church bishop who penned this information in his books “Against Heresies” which happened between 182 A.D. and 188 A.D. It is believed that he would have been in his sixties.
With so much information available, the big question still remains, why do we have so many inconsistencies in the records of the same event. The best possible explanation would be due to the existence of conflicting information about when Jesus was born.
So, when was Jesus born?
When was Jesus actually born? The date 6 A.D. as recorded by Luke says that the birth of Jesus occurred during the first census which took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria as recorded in Luke 2:2. According to Josephus( Antiquities 17.355 & 18.1–2), Quirinius was the governor of Syria in 6-7 A.D. and conducted a census in 6. A.D. Luke is aware of the same as he mentions of it in Acts 5:37.
Before 4 B.C., which is estimated to be around 7 B.C. and probably as early as 9 B.C. Matthew also tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great as captured in Matthew 2. Herod, the Great, died in 4 B.C. Herod ordered the killing of all boys under the age of two. It is believed that The Magi would have taken some time to arrive and that some time had to pass between the birth of Jesus and the issuance of Herod’s command.
In addition to that, time also had to pass between Herod’s command and his death. It is, therefore, safe to estimate the date Jesus’ birth to at least two years before Herod’s death. According to Tertullian, that was the period within which census at the time of Jesus birth had been taken by Gaius Sentius Saturninus (not Quirinius). Saturninus was the ruler from 9-6 B.C. This second version of information fits with the Matthew passage.
The conflict on these dates was initially solved and it was concluded that Luke is not certain of Jesus’ age. This is made clear by his use of the word “about”. This makes sense since Luke is not a direct eye witness. If he is basing Jesus’ age on the incorrect census, then it is possible that he would be underestimating Jesus’ age for about 12 years. This will in turn help to resolve much of the discrepancy between the calculations based on Luke’s Gospel and Irenaeus. Even so, you should note that not all the controversies are settled.
The dating of the ministry of John the Baptist.
A different source of proof would be the time of John's ministry. The existence of some fairly precise dating for the start of the ministry of John the Baptist comes in handy at this point. While Luke fails to give a calendar date, he tells of how John began his ministry in the desert during the reigns of certain individuals and at the time of two high priests.
According to Luke 3:1-2 “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.”
Tiberius Caesar began his rule in 14 A.D. This means that John started his ministry about 29 A.D. The date fits across the board even when other passages are compared. While this is not a problem, conflict sets in when looking at when John the Baptist was beheaded.
John was imprisoned by Herod Antipas or the Tetrarch for criticizing him for marrying the wife of his brother. Herod was already married to Phasaelis, the daughter of Aretas IV Philopatris King of the Nabataeans. So Aretas did not like what Herod was doing either, and as a result waged war against Herod, winning in A.D. 36.
Jewish historian Josephus noted that many Jews thought that the defeat of Herod Antipas by Aretas was as a result of “a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him” for killing John the Baptist as noted in Antiquities 18 5:2.
The numbers begin to get complicated from here onwards. Pontius Pilate, who presided over the trial of Jesus, is sent to Rome in early 37 A.D. He gets there just after Tiberius dies in March of 37 of A.D. as recorded in Antiquities 18 4:2.
Just by counting Passovers, it is known that Jesus’ ministry continued for at least a year, and possibly two after the beheading of John the Baptist. Due to the dates of Pontius Pilate, the latest that Jesus’ crucifixion could have occurred is 36 A.D. This would place the end of John’s ministry in A.D. 34/35. Moving the date of Jesus crucifixion much earlier would cause issues with the dating of John’s ministry.
Following the argument above, John's public ministry may have lasted 5-6 years or longer.
On the other hand, it is known that Jesus’ ministry begun roughly a year before the death of John the Baptist (if you consider the use of Passovers as a dating method), assuming that Jesus’ ministry began in A.D. 33/34. This account would fit with what Luke believed since he thought that Jesus was born in 6 A.D, and would, in turn, make Jesus “about 30”.
On the other hand, if Matthew is correct, Jesus would have been much older, possibly 40-43 years old when he began his ministry, and in turn 43-46 years old when he was crucified. This second account tends to be more agreeable to Irenaeus’ statement.
We can attempt to trace the crucifixion based on the start of Paul’s ministry despite the numerous varying dates available. Typically it is said to have been between 33 A.D. and 36 A.D. These assumption being made here tends to support the idea of an earlier crucifixion of Jesus, and as a result conflict with a possible later date for the crucifixion as given by other accounts.
There is, however, direct evidence in Paul’s writing that dates his conversion to 37-40 A.D. Not long after Paul’s conversion, as quoted in Acts 9, he escapes from Damascus by being let down the outside wall in a basket. According to 2 Corinthians 11:32-33, this happened during the rule of King Aretas. Aretas was given Damascus as a settlement by Caligula around 37 A.D. He died in 40 A.D. When you use this later date for Paul’s conversion, a lot of the conflicts are resolved, especially those regarding a later date for Jesus’ crucifixion.
Other verses to consider as additional evidence
Take note of what the crowd said to Jesus in John 8:57. “You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him.
Based on the early church father, Irenaeus, was the first to point out that you hardly refer to someone as nearly fifty when they are only in their thirties. Another interesting verse that would “possibly” speak of an older age of Jesus exists. The Apostle John records the following conversation:
The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days? But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
The temple began its reconstruction in 19 or 20 B.C. Add 46 years to that date and you are taken back to A.D. 26 or 27. These dates make no sense since it is known that John the Baptist only began his ministry in A.D. 29.
Two things could be implied in this case. Firstly, either Jesus had a ministry that lasted 10 years and began in relative anonymity two to three years before John the Baptist, or the second option that some have suggested is often the misunderstood conversation where the 46 years is in fact a reference to Jesus’ age at the time. While John has this conversation at the beginning of his Gospel, in the other Gospel’s Jesus does not talk about his death until just before his final days.
So what does it matter?
Jesus died at what age? How old was Jesus when he was crucified? Whether it was when he was thirty-three, forty-three, forty-six, or even fifty, does it matter? Just like the concern on how old is Jesus, the date of his death is really not important.
How old Jesus was is not really that important. If you think about it, his age has not affected any of the faith buildings that have happened over the years. None of the creeds emphasize its significance, and no theology is built upon it.
However, far from Jesus age, the fact that there is a lot of information written about him is crucial. He was a historical figure and an important factor for Christians. He lived, he died, and many witnesses saw him alive after his resurrection. His life, his death, and his resurrection all leave us with a choice. It is up to you to decide to believe and follow him for the truth of what his life and death on earth represented, or to decide and do whatever you want regardless of the price he paid on the cross. For believers, details on how old was Christ when he died may not be very vital, as the reason for his death. The impact of his sacrifice is what makes Christianity relevant today.
In the end, suggestions on when did Jesus die, or what year did Jesus die remain nothing but mere speculations. Apart from the conflicting content on his age, everything else proves that he was not a fabrication or a fictional story. There is enough evidence to back up his existence, his deeds, his death, and eventual resurrection.
Even though we may not know the correct answer to the question, what age did Jesus die?, or effectively supply evidence to show at what age did Jesus die, one thing remains clear and that is the fact that his death was and still is crucial in Christians lives. It is through his selfless sacrifice that anyone who believes in him can have eternal life. Even though we may not know what day did Jesus die, we are comforted in the reason for his death, and that is what matters most.
Are you one of those people who still wonder how old was Jesus when he died? Well, from all the pieces of evidence gathered above, it is not easy to point out the exact dates of his death. Neither is it possible to specifically point out his age at the time of death. Even so, the hope that is brought by his death and resurrection matters more than everything else.