TIBERIUS - Year 15  


Luke 3:1, the fifteenth year of Tiberius

There are several views on the date that was the 15th of Tiberius. Pentecost discusses FIVE views in his masterful work, THE WORDS AND WORKS OF JESUS CHRIST (§§20-23, page 80). However, it seems that there are two main ones, with the others being considered minor.

William Hendriksen bypasses the minor views and discusses only the two main ones.
(THE GOSPEL OF LUKE; New Testament Commentary, page 194).

  1. The traditional view, which dates the 15th of Tiberius at 26 AD.
  2. The more popular view, which dates 15 Tiberius at 28-29 AD.

There are many reputable scholars lined up beside both views. Hendriksen concludes, “At the very outset it should be made clear that the data supplied by Luke are insufficient to prove either theory
with finality. Great scholars have reached opposite verdicts. At the most one can reach probability, not absolute certainty.”
Pentecost on the other hand, rejects the traditional view as “unacceptable” (page 80) and “untenable” (page 578). But he is influenced by insisting on a 33 AD date for the crucifixion.

There are five specific chronological pegs listed by Luke in addition to the 15th year of Tiberius.  All five fit adequately with both of the main views for dating 15 Tiberius.

But the fifth factor provides us with an analogy that helps us understand Luke’s perspective in mentioning the 15th year of Tiberius.
Concerning this, Hendriksen writes:
6. “And during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” Annas (or “Ananus” as Josephus calls him) had been appointed high priest by Quirinius in the year A.D. 6, and was deposed by Valerius Gratus, about A.D. 15. But though deposed, he remained for a long time the ruling spirit of the Sanhedrin. Five sons and a grandson followed him in the high priesthood; also a son-in-law, the very one mentioned by Luke, namely, Caiaphas. The latter held the high priestly office from A.D. 18 to 36.  . .
It may seem strange that Luke assigns the beginning of the Baptist’s ministry to the high priesthood not only of Caiaphas but “of Annas and Caiaphas.” Annas, after all, was deposed from that office in A.D. 15, long before John’s ministry began, whether according to theory (a) or (b). That Luke assigns the beginning of John’s ministry to the high priesthood of Caiaphas (A.D. 18-36) we can understand, but why to that of Annas?
Nevertheless, Luke is correct. He is thinking of the actual situation, not the merely formal one. The actual situation was that both Annas and Caiaphas were “in the drivers’s seat” during the entire period of John’s ministry and during the entire length of Christ’s ministry; Annas as well – perhaps even more than – Caiaphas. (page 197)

In other words, Luke’s perspective on the “reign” of Annas indicates that he would view the reign of Tiberius in a similar manner. That is, viewing his co-regency with Augustus as functionally reigning. Thus, the “reign” of Tiberius through co-regency with Augustus would have started in A.D. 11, making his year 15 to be A.D. 26. Of course, the debate centers around the issue of exactly WHEN the reign of Tiberius began. Those who hold to view (b) begin the reign of Tiberius on August 19, A.D. 14, at the death of Emperor Augustus. Accordingly, John’s ministry would have begun in A.D. 28 or even 29.

Hendriksen gives 3 arguments in favor of this, and 3 counter-arguments in his footnote #166 on page 198.

166. Arguments in favor of theory (b): (I) The starting point for Luke's fifteenth year (Luke 3:1) must be A.D. 14, and not an earlier date, for "the princeps never dated his reign from the time when the great Augustus was still alive, nor do other sources for that era." (2) The indirect threat of the Jews to appeal to Caesar against Pilate John 19:12) would not have been likely before the fall of the anti-Semite Sejanus in October of the year A.D. 31. The pro-Jewish policy of Tiberius did not begin until after that date. Therefore A.D. 30 cannot be correct as the date of Christ's crucifixion; neither can A.D. 26 be correct as the date for the beginning of John's ministry. These dates are too early.

(3) Eusebius (Chronicon ii, ed. Migne, p. 535) states that Christ suffered "in the 19th year of the reign of Tiberius," i.e., in A.D. 33. This also makes the date for the beginning of John's ministry (and the date for the beginning of Christ's ministry) considerably later than A.D. 26. This is only a summary. For the argument fully stated see P. L. Maier, Pontius Pilate, Garden City, N.Y., 1968, pp. 364, 365; also that author's article "Sejanus, Pilate, and the Date of the Crucifixion," Church History XXXVII (March, 1968), pp. 3-13. Regardless of whether or not one is convinced by these arguments, it must be admitted that Maier's book on Pilate is very informative and interesting. The professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University has already written much that is definitely worthwhile. Note, for example, his splendid article, “The Empty Tomb as History," Christianity Today, Vol. XIX, No. 13 (March 28, 1975). And as to Luke 3:1, 2, etc., the reader should by all means study what Maier himself says about it, and not depend solely on my attempt to summarize his views. Read also the fine article by H. H. Rowdon, “The Historical and Political Background and Chronology of the New Testament" in A New Testament Commentary, by C. D. Howley, F. F. Bruce, H. L. Ellison, eds., Grand Rapids, 1969, pp. 57-66. That article leans toward Maier's view, that is, in the direction of theory (b).

The following counter-arguments, however, deserve consideration: Anent (1). "We get nowhere by considering how Tiberius himself counted the years of his reign or how these years were generally counted. What matters is how Luke counted them." Thus Greijdanus, who, as is pointed out in the text, believes that Luke was thinking of actual, not merely formal, years of reign, as his reference to Annas-Caiaphas clearly indicates.

Anent (2). In view of the well-known suspicious character of Tiberius, who did not refrain from putting to death anyone who was reported to be aiming to seize power, the argument with respect to the emperor's change of policy from anti-Jewish to pro-Jewish is rather weak. See the article on Tiberius in Encyclopedia Britannica, 19.69, Vol. 21, pp. 1105, 1106, and consult the works mentioned in the Bibliography at the close of that article.

Anent (3). There is in existence the much earlier testimony of Tertullian (Against Marcion I.xv), that "the Lord has been revealed since the twelfth year of Tiberius Caesar." This testimony, which, as generally interpreted, refers to Jesus' baptism and the beginning of his public ministry, when he was indeed "revealed" to the people, harmonizes beautifully with theory (a), but cannot be reconciled with theory (b). (Page 198)

Thus, there is no basis for being so dogmatic with Pentecost and dismissing view (a) so forcibly. Hendriksen discusses three strong reasons that help establish the PROBABILITY that view (a) is more viable. (pages 198-199).

First of all, “In Luke 3:1, 2 the analogy with the Annas-Caiaphas reference confirms that conclusions that Luke is thinking of the actual reign of Tiberius, which began with the latter’s  coregency, and that he is not thinking of Tiberius’ sole rulership which began at the time of the death of Augustus.” (167. S. Greijdanus, Kommentaar, Vol. I, p. 149. So also Lenski, op. cit., p. 109; and see W. Manson, op. cit., p. 24.
A couple years before his formal assumption of sole emperorship the Roman Senate had conferred on Tiberius the authority to administer all the Roman provinces conjointly with Augustus.

Secondly, according to Josephus, Antiquities XV.380, Herod the Great began to build Jerusalem’s temple in the eighteenth year of his reign (which began in 37 B.C.), hence in the year 19 B.C. According to the testimony of the Jews, as recorded in John 2:20, when Jesus attended the first Passover of his public ministry that temple had been in the process of building for forty-six years. This would make the date for that Passover A.D. 27. Therefore the beginning of Christ’s ministry could well have been the latter part of A.D. 26 and the Baptist’s first public appearance could have occurred a half year earlier.

Thirdly, it is agreed by several scholars that the events surrounding Christ’s birth as described in Matt. 2 indicate that the birth itself occurred shortly before the death of Herod the Great. That king died on or before April 4 of the year 4 B.C. Therefore acceptance of late 5 B.C. as the date of Christ’s birth is not unreasonable. If with this result we compare Luke 3:23 – “Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry,” we again arrive at the close of A.D. 26 as the date of the beginning of that ministry, and at a date of a half year earlier (see Luke 1:36) for the beginning of John’s ministry. A. B. Bruce, though not taking a definite stand in this debate, points out that the date A.D. 26 – rather than A.D., 28/29 – “agrees with Luke 3:23.” (168. The Synoptic Gospels [The Expositor’s Greek Testament, Vol. I, the section on Luke, pp. 458-651 of that volume], Grand Rapids, no date, p. 480.).
It is true that Luke says, “when he was
about thirty years” Jesus began to teach, but whether “about thirty years” can be stretched far enough to make it equal to “thirty-two” is open to question.

Though there are various ways in which the force of these arguments can be whittled down, and, as stated earlier, absolute certainty is impossible, I believe it has been shown that up to the present time the traditional view – that is theory (a) – has not been annihilated. (page 199).

Pentecost, in discussing the date of the crucifixion offers some arguments against view (a) as being most probable, but they are easily countered.

This leaves only two plausible dates for the crucifixion, namely, A.D. 30 and 33. There are a great number of scholars who hold to A.D. 30 as the date of Christ's crucifixion. However, if one accepts John's ministry beginning in Tiberius' fifteenth year, A.D. 28/29 (Luke 3:1-2), then Christ would have had a ministry of only about one year. There are those who follow Ramsay by stating that one must reckon from the time of the decree when Tiberius became co-regent with Augustus. This would make the commencement of John's ministry around A.D. 25/26 and Jesus' ministry shortly thereafter. This view is untenable for the following two reasons. First, there is no evidence, either from historical documents or coins, that Tiberius' reign was ever reckoned from his co-regency. On the contrary his reign is always reckoned from the time he became sole ruler after Augustus' death on August 19, A.D. 14.
Second, those who accept this theory are not in agreement as to the beginning of the co-regency. Therefore, other scholars who hold to the A.D. 30 crucifixion, such as Blinzler, feel that one must reckon according to Syrian chronology-especially since Luke was born in Syria, where Tiberius' first year would be from August 19, A.D. 14 to Tishri I (September/October) and therefore the fifteenth year would be Tishri I, A.D. 27 to Tishri I, 28. John the Baptist's ministry began then, and Christ's ministry followed shortly thereafter. But is one sure that Luke reckoned in this manner, especially since he was writing to Theophilus, a Roman official? It would seem that he would have used a Roman system, reckoning either from Tiberius' accession date or the Julian calendar. (Page 578).

This has already been answered by recognizing that Luke is not reckoning according to the secular standard. He is viewing it from the standpoint of the FUNCTIONAL reign of Tiberius.

Pentecost continues:
Blinzler feels that A.D. 28 as marking the commencement of Christ's ministry is substantiated by John 2:20 where the Jews state that the temple had been in continuous construction for forty-six years since Herod began to build it in 20/19 B.C. But the Jews are talking about the temple edifice. . . which was completed in 18/17 B.C" as having stood for forty-six years, that is, the Passover of A.D. 30, rather than the temple precincts. . . which were still in the building process. (page 578).

Pentecost is making an assumption when he states that the Jews had in mind “the temple edifice.” This of course is another point of debate, but many scholars reject the assumption made by Pentecost.

Merrill F. Unger writes of Herod’s temple in ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT, page 99. “This magnificent enterprise was begun in 20-19 B.C., and although the sanctuary proper was finished in a year and half, the larger plan envisioned by the monarch was not completed until A.D. 64. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees declared that the temple already had been in the process of construction for forty-six years (John 2:20).”

J.W. Shepard in his classic THE CHRIST OF THE GOSPELS, translates John 2:20 as "Forty-six years this temple was abuilding and will you raise it up in three days?” (emphasis mine). (page 95).

A.T. Robertson confirms, “As a matter of fact, it was not yet finished, so distrustful had the Jews been of Herod.” (WORD PICTURES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, The Fourth Gospel, verse 2:20).

William Hendriksen in THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, New Testament Commentary, page 125-126 adds some details.

“Because of their unbelief and darkened minds they now point to the fact (note 64 – Note the Aorist [tense]. Though it had taken forty-six years, yet the entire building process over all these years is here viewed as one fact) that the temple has been in process of building for forty-six years. (For chronology see Fl. Josephus, Antiquities, Bk. 15, xi; E. Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Christ, sec. ed. I, I, 438; and our Bible Survey, pp. 61, 415.) Herod the Great began to reign in the year 37 B. C., and, according to Josephus, began building the temple in the eighteenth year of his reign; hence, in the year 20-19 B.C. So, in the Spring of 27 A.D. the Jews could say that it had already taken forty-six years to build their temple. It is interesting to note that this grand structure was not finished until . . . just a few years before it was destroyed by the Romans!

In conclusion, the weight of probability lies with view (a). It seems that the only reason one would reject (a) in favor of (b) is an insistence that the year of the crucifixion must be 33 A.D. instead of 30 A.D. However, it seems to me that one cannot start with a preferred crucifixion date and go BACKWARD to establish the date of Tiberius' 15th year. And yet, once one accepts a particular year for Tiberius' 15th, it is reasonable then to use that to help establish the year of the crucifixion.


Questions and comments are always welcome

Return to BIBLE FRAGRANCES index



©Ron Wallace, http://www.biblefragrances.com. Anyone is free to reproduce this material and distribute it,
but it may not be sold under any circumstances whatsoever without the author's consent.


Home | Recent Additions | Studies | Commentary


Prophecy | Articles | Topical | About Us