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The Times and Places of Jesus

We welcome "when" and "where" questions about Jesus.
by Paul L. Maier

In his famous advice to Christians, Peter wrote, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (I Peter 3:15). If he were writing today, one wonders if the apostle might not have adjusted his message for the bimillennium of Christianity: "Always be ready to explain to everyone the reason why next year is A.D. 2000."

Unlike all other world religious systems (except for our parent Judaism), Christianity rests squarely on fact: on actual people, places and events that are genuine parts of a real past. Twenty centuries ago, God, more tangibly than ever before, entered human history in the person of Jesus Christ.

And Christ Himself, far from being any myth, was just as historical a personality as the Roman emperor Augustus in whose reign He was born. This statement, so obvious to Christians and the fair-minded anywhere, needs to be emphasized in a secular world in which improbable claims from competitive, non-historically-based religious systems have created a link in many minds between religion and mythology.

Instead, we challenge the world to ask when and where questions about Jesus, since they can be answered so easily.

Jesus and time

Mythical personalities and events are not open to questions involving time. One does not seriously ask, for example, "In what year did Zeus and Hera get married?"

Historical figures, on the other hand, should be generally datable within a reasonable range of years, if the sources provide enough evidence. After the patriarchs in the Old Testament and across the rest of the Bible, such dating of most major personalities and episodes is not only possible but even expected in our Bible dictionaries and commentaries.

Jesus of Nazareth is a case in point. Since the chronologies of the Herods, the Roman emperors and the governors within the time frames of the Gospels are firm, Jesus’ birth can reliably be placed between June and December of 5 B.C. The date of His crucifixion is even more precise, with a balance of scholarship now inclining to April 3, A.D. 33.

Why, then, is our calendar four or five years off? Why will next year be, literally, A.D. (In the Year of the Lord) 2004 or 2005 rather than 2000?

Before our present calendar, and until the 500s A.D., events in Western civilization had been dated A.U.C. (ab urbe condita, in Latin), "from the founding of the city" (i.e., Rome). Often they were also anchored to the accession year of a given Roman emperor, especially Diocletian (A.D. 284—305), who, ironically, was a vicious persecutor of the very church that for the next two centuries was still using him as a calendrical anchor!

In the year 525, however, Pope John I wanted a solution to the problem of how to calculate the proper Sunday on which to celebrate Easter. He assigned the task to Dionysius Exiguus (Denis the Little). Dionysius was a very learned monk-mathematician-astronomer from Scythia, who now abandoned the previous calendar because he "did not wish to perpetuate the name of the Great Persecutor, but rather to number the years from the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ."

In redoing the calendar to pivot about the birth of Christ, however, he innocently committed what became history’s greatest numerical error in terms of cumulative effect. He dated the Nativity in the year 753 from the founding of Rome, when in fact Herod the Great had died only 749 years after that event. And since Herod was very much alive in the Nativity accounts, Jesus had to have been born some months before Herod’s death.

In view of the limited research materials in the ancient world and the difficulty in their retrieval, we should actually be surprised that Dionysius came as close as he did.

Before his reform, relative or comparative dating was usually the rule: anchoring a date to the beginning of some famous figure or political ruler’s reign. Thus, Luke is at pains to give us an accurate time for the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry and therefore Christ’s also:

"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caeser, 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" (Luke 3:1).

Here there are six documentary "footnotes, " as it were, to fix the year as A.D. 28/29, according to our calendar (of which Luke knew nothing at the time). This is unusual precision for an ancient source, especially when compared with such other religious luminaries as Gautama Buddha or Zoroaster.

Accordingly, all chronological references associated with Jesus presuppose Him to be an authentic personality living at a specific time in history.

Jesus and geography

Since we live in a "time-space continuum, " geographical considerations are also important in weighing the historical accuracy of Jesus. Legends and mythology have settings in nirvana, Never-Neverlands, Oz, Valhalla or other illusory places. (Authentic locations are sometimes involved, to be sure: Zeus supposedly spent his boyhood at Mt. Ida on Crete before becoming CEO on Mt. Olympus. Both mountains do exist, even if Zeus does not.)

The Old and New Testaments, on the other hand, are studded with place names: names of countries, provinces, regions, cities and villages; names of seas, lakes, rivers and streams; names of mountains, hills, plateaus, plains and valleys. Such proper place names fill our Bible dictionaries, and all of them are standing challenges to anyone who doubts that the stage for the many divine-human encounters in Scripture is rock solid.

Most of the Bible place names are readily identifiable today, and many have been excavated archaeologically. In the case of Jesus, His journeys through life are traced by armies of pilgrims to the Holy Land to this day, from His birth at Bethlehem in Judea, through His youth at Nazareth in Galilee, across His public ministry in Capernaum, Samaria and Judea, along His travels to Tyre, Sidon and Caesarea-Philippi, and on to His suffering, death, resurrection and ascension in Jerusalem. All the locations associated with Jesus are authentic and situated just as described in the New Testament. The Pool of Siloam, for example, where Jesus healed the blind man of John 9, is still there, and still flows with water.

Following Jesus’ ministry, St. Paul’s mission journeys are so accurately described by Luke in the Book of Acts and Paul’s own letters that the itineraries can be confirmed today as 100 percent accurate in terms of location and order of place names. From the patriarchs in the Old Testament, then, to the apostles in the New, God’s people always seem to be moving from one place to the next.

But such restless travels by Bible figures also served a higher purpose that they could hardly have envisioned at the time: they provided authentic locational bases for the Bible record in general, and for the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth in particular.

The stage for the divine-human encounters recorded in the Old and New Testaments is solid indeed. All time and place references associated with Jesus of Nazareth, then, presuppose an authentic personality, living at a definite time in history, and moving between specific sites that can easily be identified 2000 years later.

Dr. Paul L. Maier is professor of Ancient History and chaplain at Western Michigan University-Kalamazoo, MI.

Reprinted with permission from The Lutheran Witness magazine (October, 1999).

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