Reader Questions Answered

Return to homepage

Why do we think Jesus’ ministry lasted 3 years? (5/23/2009)

Minute-Reading-of-the-Scripture Method
Techie Method

The first thing to say about this is that Jesus’ ministry lasted long enough to say what he had to say and do what he had to do. If the exact length of time were important, the Bible would say how long it was. Secondly, as usual, not everyone agrees about how long Jesus’ ministry lasted. I saw one source that claimed that “most scholars” think his ministry lasted one year. I even saw a source that claimed that his ministry could have been completed in about 6 weeks!

Now, for reasons that you probably don’t care about, I once counted all the discrete days mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Luke explicitly mentions 110 separate days, and Matthew explicitly mentions 100. (These numbers are probably rounded a little bit because of the difficulties of keeping track, but they shouldn’t be off by more than 1 or 2 days.) This does not count all the days in periods that are referred to as “several days” or “after some time,” etc. So the technical term for the claim of six weeks is “malarkey,” but it is clear that we can’t get to three years by counting up the days. As for the claim that “most scholars” think his ministry lasted only one year - I don’t have any way of proving it one way or the other, but I doubt that this is true.

There are two basic ways to approach the calculation of the length of the ministry: the minute-reading-of-the-scripture method, and the techie method.

Minute-Reading-of-the-Scripture Method

Minute readings of the scripture can be applied to all of the Gospels to get a three-year ministry, but it appears that the primary reason that we think the ministry lasted for three years is that John’s Gospel explicitly mentions three separate Passovers:
Now, you immediately noticed that three Passovers encompass only two years. If you read John 1:19-2:13 and Matthew 3:16-4:13, however, you see that prior to the first-mentioned Passover, Jesus had already been baptized in Judea, spent “40 days” (which usually means a month or two) in the wilderness, called several disciples, traveled to Cana in Galilee, and performed some miracles, and after all that had gone back to Capernaum. How long do you suppose all that took? I’m thinkin’ that less than two months (60 days) is close to impossible, just because of the “40 days” in the desert and the travel times. On the other hand, John is interested in the Christological significance of Passover, so if Jesus had been in active ministry for a whole year before 2:13, John probably would have mentioned the previous Passover as well. So maybe six months at the outside?

Now, Jesus was crucified in connection with the third-mentioned Passover. After the resurrection, he spent “40 days” (Acts 1:3) meeting with various disciples. This 40 days probably was really close to 40 days, because Pentecost came very shortly after the Ascension, and Pentecost is 50 days after Passover. So on the back end, we have another month and a half, which might be counted as part of the three-year ministry, and might not.

Thus the minute reading of the scripture gives us 2 to 6 months + two years + a month and a half if you think we should count it. While you might think and I might agree that a few months + 2 years + a month does not equal three years, the Gospel writers probably would have thought that it does. Passover comes in the first month of the year, and thus the first few months and the two years fall into three different calendar years. Remember that Jesus was in the tomb from Friday evening before sundown until very early Sunday morning. The Western mind (except for writers of travel brochures) is likely to consider this to be “1.5 days”: Friday evening to Saturday evening, plus Saturday evening to Sunday morning. The Eastern, Gospel-writing mind considered this to be “3 days”: Friday, Saturday, Sunday - three days. So probably they would have considered the time before the first Passover to be a year, the time from the first to the second Passover to be a second year, and the time from the second to the third Passover to be a third year.

That’s assuming, of course, that they thought it was important enough to worry about at all, which isn’t likely, since they didn’t say one way or the other.

Techie Method

An excellent example of the techie method was described by Dietrick E. Thomsen in “The Passover Computation,” Science News, Vol. 125, p. 40. Thomsen reported on a study by Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington, both of Oxford University, that was published in Nature. Nature is a high-powered, peer-reviewed, well-regarded scientific journal. Saying that a paper published in Nature is “techie” is an impertinence.

Here are the points of Humphreys and Waddington’s study, as reported by Thomsen. I’ve provided scripture references so you can look everything up for yourself.

The crucifixion was on either Nisan 14 or 15. Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, who was procurator of Judea from A.D. 26-36. The Jewish calendar is a little tricky, because each month starts when the moon is new and thus invisible to the naked eye. Once in a while you have to put in a leap month to get the calendar months back into alignment with the seasons. Allowing for all that, Humphreys and Waddington found five dates in which Nisan 14 or 15 could have fallen on a Friday: Whether April 11, A.D. 27, was Nisan 14 or 15 is uncertain because of all the problems mentioned above.

John the Baptist’s ministry started in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1), i.e., no earlier than fall of A.D. 28 or 29,
(from external sources, see e.g., Wikipedia) which would put the date at 29). Jesus’ ministry started some time after John’s (see e.g., John 1). Paul was converted after the crucifixion and prior to A.D. 34. That leaves Note that the former date supports the idea of a one-year ministry, and the latter, the three-year ministry. Both support John in putting the crucifixion on preparation day, Nisan 14.

On Pentecost, Peter (Act 2:20) quotes the prophet Joel (Joel 2:31), who said “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and terrible day of the Lord comes,” and then Peter goes on to say, “Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know...” (Acts 2:22). Thomsen says that Humphreys and Waddington quote New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce in interpreting this as referring to a lunar eclipse on the night of the crucifixion, because in a lunar eclipse, the moon appears to be red, particularly if it is just rising. Humphreys and Waddington calculated the dates of all 12 lunar eclipses visible in Jerusalem between A.D. 26 and 36. One of the lunar eclipses fell on the night of April 3, A.D. 33, and the moon would have been partially eclipsed as it was rising, and thus could very well have been dark red.

So. According to the techie method, Jesus’ ministry began not too long after fall A.D. 29, and lasted until 43 days after April 3, A.D. 33: about 3 years.

Copyright 2009, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by Deanna Rains.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

Our Sponsors:

St. John’s United Methodist Church, “Transforming Lives Through Christ.”
2626 Arizona NE, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87110
Traditional worship services are held Sundays at 8:15 and 11:00 a.m. in the sanctuary.  Casual worship services are held Sundays at 9:30 a.m. in the Family Life Center.  Jazz Vespers are held monthly on the second Saturday at 5:00 p.m. in the sanctuary. St. John’s feels especially called to the worship of God and to the service of our neighbors through our music program.

Storm Dragon SoftwareTM
Get a free demo of our computer adventure game, full of hidden-object puzzles, tiling and jigsaw puzzles, cycling puzzles, and more.

Age Games: Animal ReaderTM
Computer games that children can play all by themselves!

Ducks in a Row, Inc., developers of Home Safe SoftwareTM.
Keep It SafeTM - Home inventory software so easy anybody can use it.