Dating the Ministry of John the Baptist

10 Jul
John the Baptist - 2

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Luke begins his record of the public ministry of Jesus by introducing him through John, the Baptist. We know from the infancy narratives that John was about 6 months older than Jesus and that he was born into a family of priests. John was a son of Aaron, but instead of ministering in the Temple, where all priests are called to minister (including his father, Zacharias), we find John in the desert. Instead of wearing fine linen (the normal attire of a priest – see Exodus 28), John wore camel’s hair (Matthew 3:4), implying rugged living (cf. Luke 7:25). Something is going on beneath the surface, things are not really as they appear, but what is Luke veiling, and can we know?

Luke dates John’s ministry in the same manner that other historians of that period dated their material—through a list of the reigns of various rulers. Notice this from Thucydides:

“The thirty years’ truce, which was entered into after the conquest of Euboea, lasted fourteen years. In the fifteenth, in the forty-eighth year of the priestess-ship of Chrysis at Argos, in the ephorate of Aenesias at Sparta, in the last month but two of the archonship of Pythodorus at Athens, and six months after the battle of Potidaea, just at the beginning of spring, a Theban force a little over three hundred strong, under the command of their Boeotarchs, Pythangelus, son of Phyleides, and Diemporus, son of Onetorides, about the first watch of the night, made an armed entry into Plataea, a town of Boeotia in alliance with Athens.”[1]

The five men mentioned by Luke in Luke 3:1 are the rulers of the lands governed by Herod the Great, who ruled about the same territory as David, the king, did. Tiberius was the Emperor of Rome and ruler of all the Jewish lands. Pilate was a Roman governor and the 6th to rule Judea and Samaria, the same lands once governed by Archelaus (Matthew 2:22), Herod’s son who was banished in 6 AD. Herod Antipas and Philip were also sons of Herod. However, Lysanias was not a member of Herod’s family; rather, he was given a portion of his own father’s land—Abilene, which Herod was given by Augustus. Herod’s kingdom was divided into four parts and given to four rulers—tetrarchs (i.e. governors of four parts). How does this list date John’s ministry?

Both Herod Antipas and his brother Philip reigned from cir. 4 BC and throughout Christ’s public ministry. Philip died cir. 36 AD and Antipas was removed from his governorship by Gaius Caesar cir. 38-39 AD. Lysanias had governed Abilene from about 1 AD until Claudius Caesar gave that province to King Agrippa in 41 AD. Pilate came to office as procurator of Judea and Samaria cir. 25 AD and remained in office for about 10 years, until he was removed by his superior, Vitellius, the Roman president of Syria cir. 36 AD. However, the only ruler who can date the beginning of John’s ministry to a specific year is Tiberius Caesar.

Tiberius reigned as the sole emperor of Rome from August of 14 AD when Augustus died. This would make his fifteenth year fall in 28 or 29 AD, depending upon how one counts the first year. However, Tiberius was co-ruler or co-emperor with Augustus from 12 AD,[2] which would cause his 15th year to fall as early as August of 26 AD, if Luke counted 12 AD as the first year, which seems to be how he counts the Lord’s 30th year in Luke 3:23 (from 3 BC to 27 AD – see my blog “Jesus in an Historical Context”). Therefore, according to my interpretation of Luke 3, John began his ministry cir. the Fall or late summer of 26 AD and continued until he was arrested by Herod Antipas nearly two years later (early summer of 28 AD), but I’ll address his arrest again in its proper place in this study.


[1] Thucydides 2:2, concerning dating the beginning of the Peloponnesian War of the 5th century BC.

[2] See Seutonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, “Tiberius” (20 to 21), interpreted HERE.

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Posted by on July 10, 2016 in Gospel of Luke


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