Virtually all scholars agree that Jesus died in the early 30’s AD. Even atheistic critic Bart Ehrman notes that Jesus died “almost certainly from the 30s of the Common Era.”
Yet New Testament scholars divide over when Jesus died: some say AD 30, while others say AD 33. It is the purpose of this essay to make a historical argument for the AD 33 date.
Historical boundaries for the death of Jesus of Nazareth
Somewhere between AD 26 and AD 36. The New Testament says that Caiaphas was the high priest (Mt. 26:3), and it also tells us that Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect responsible for the trial. Josephus tells us that Caiaphas was high priest from 18 AD to 37 AD, and he tells us that Pilate was the Roman prefect over Judea from 26 AD to 36 AD. This is also corroborated by Cornelius Tacitus—a Roman historian. Thus the death of Jesus needed to be somewhere in the decade of time between AD 26 and AD 36.
Four possibilities: AD 27, 30, 33, or 36. Jesus died on the “day of Preparation” (Jn. 19:31). This, of course, is a Friday—the day before the Jewish Sabbath (Mk. 15:42). Passover always falls on the fourteenth day of Nisan (Ex. 12:6).
Nisan 14 only fell on a Friday in the years of AD 27, 30, 33, and 36. Hoehner writes, “In examining the day of crucifixion it was concluded that it occurred on Friday, Nisan 14. With the help of astronomy the only possible years on which Friday, Nisan 14 occurred were AD 27, 30, 33, and 36.”
Reasons for rejecting the AD 27 or AD 36 date. Luke 3:1-2 tells us that John the Baptist’s ministry was in Tiberius’ fifteenth year, which historically was AD 28/29. This knocks out the 27 date, because it would be too soon, and it knocks out the 36 date, because it would be too late. There is no evidence in the gospels to maintain the conclusion that Jesus’ ministry was 6 years long. It also sheds skepticism on the 30 date, because this would give Christ only a one or two year ministry, which seems cramped, considering the events recorded in the gospels.
John’s three Passovers favor the AD 33 date
If John the Baptist started his ministry in AD 28-29, then that wouldn’t leave much time for Jesus’ ministry to occur—really only a year or two at most.
But the gospel of John mentions Jesus going to three (and possibly four) annual Passovers in Jerusalem (Jn. 2:13, 23; 6:4; 11:55; 12:1). This would place us up into AD 31 for Jesus’ final Passover, which is too late for the early date (AD 30).
However, if we allow for the AD 33 date, these Passovers would fit nicely.
The history data surrounding Lucius Sejanus favors the AD 33 date
If the AD 27 is too soon and the AD 36 date was too late, this leaves us with only AD 30 and AD 33. Scholars have pointed to a historical figure to solve our dilemma: Lucius Sejanus.
Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor of Judea) was appointed by Lucius Sejanus. Sejanus was arguably the most powerful man in the Roman Empire—second only to emperor Tiberius. Sejanus commanded the imperial guard, and he had almost complete control of the Roman military. Emperor Tiberius had retired to the island of Capri, and for all intents and purposes, he was politically out-of-commission. He had given stewardship of the military over to Sejanus—his first in command.
Sejanus was a horrid anti-Semite, and Pilate implemented his anti-Jewish policies in Judea. Pilate raised up embossed statues of the Emperor in Jerusalem; he seized money from the Temple treasury (the Corbanus); he put down Jewish protests with covert Roman soldiers, who wore plain clothes and wielded clubs. Pilate killed or oppressed many Jews under his reign. Together, Sejanus and Pilate ran an anti-Semitic regime.
By Roman law, the Jews had a right to appeal to the emperor for this injustice, but Emperor Tiberius was isolated, gallivanting on the island of Capri. He never heard any of these complaints, because Sejanus interrupted any attempt to appeal to him. Hoehner writes:
How could all these insults continue without the protest of the Jews to the Roman government? This was not a problem as Sejanus was in full control. Any complaint sent to Tiberius would be destroyed by Sejanus before reaching the island of Capri.
All was going well for Pilate until Sejanus finally overstepped himself with the Emperor. Sejanus sought to displace Emperor Tiberius, slowly killing off all of the heirs to the royal throne before he tried a coup d’état on the Emperor himself. Eventually, Tiberius pieced together the fact that Sejanus was responsible for the insurrection, and he realized that he was positioning for an assassination. On October 18th, AD 31, Emperor Tiberius executed Sejanus for the capital crime of treason, beheading him on the spot. After this insurrection was put down, Tiberius became incredibly suspicious of all of Sejanus’ friends, cynical that anyone could be a part of Sejanus’ treason.
Remember, one of Sejanus’ close friends was Pontius Pilate.
Because Sejanus (a traitor to the Emperor) had appointed Pilate, Emperor Tiberius became incredibly suspicious of Pilate. Anyone connected with Sejanus was viewed as another potential assassin or insurrectionist.
Paranoid that the Emperor would execute him next, Pilate pledged his allegiance to the throne by placing shields with Tiberius’ name on them in the former palace of Herod the Great. The Jews complained about this, probably because these shields referenced the Emperor’s divinity, and they complained to Tiberius. When Tiberius heard about this act, he suspected that Pilate still held anti-Semitic (and thus, pro-Sejanus!) directives, and it made him even more suspicious of Pilate’s loyalty.
Herod Antipas reported Pilate’s anti-Semitic attitude to Tiberius, ratting him out and making him look like a pro-Sejanus traitor. These two men were enemies, because of Pilate’s history of persecuting the Jews, and Herod Antipas held severe leverage over him with the emperor.
How does this historical information about Sejanus explain the biblical account?
Knowing all of this history, consider how this resolves the difficulties in several biblical texts.
(Lk. 23:6-12) “When Pilate heard it, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who himself also was in Jerusalem at that time. 8 Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him. 9 And he questioned Him at some length; but He answered him nothing. 10 And the chief priests and the scribes were standing there, accusing Him vehemently. 11 And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Him with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate. 12 Now Herod and Pilate became friends with one another that very day; for before they had been enemies with each other.”
For years, commentators wondered why Pilate—a man of such horrific anti-Semitism—would bend to the Jews in such a way.
This whole event makes sense in light of an AD 33 date for the crucifixion. If Christ was executed in AD 30, Sejanus would’ve still been in power. Pilate would’ve still been an aggressive tyrant against the Jews, and he would’ve spit in their face, when they tried to push him around politically.
But, if Christ was killed in AD 33, then Pilate would’ve been terrified of offending the Jews! Remember, Pilate was already in hot water with Tiberius, because his anti-Semitism appeared to be pro-Sejanus loyalty, and Pilate was trying to distance himself from Sejanus’ failed insurrection. This would make sense why Pilate was trying to be friendly with Herod: he was trying to get on his good side. Pilate didn’t want to make another wrong move that would give Herod the opportunity to rat him out again.
(Jn. 19:12) As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out saying, “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.”
Before the death of Sejanus, Pilate probably would’ve scoffed at the Jewish religious leaders’ political posturing. But, if Sejanus had been killed already, then Pilate would not have wanted any more accusations getting back to Caesar; therefore, he succumbs to their demands. Hoehner writes:
The phrase “friend of Caesar” is a technical phrase which meant that such a one was among the elite in the Roman government who were loyal to the emperor. To lose the status of “amici Caesaris” meant political doom. Pilate realized that he had overstepped himself in the shields episode and could not afford to get into more trouble with Tiberius.
This threat would have been completely null and void, if it was given in AD 30. Sejanus would’ve intercepted any potential petition to Tiberius, and Pilate could’ve quelled any disobedience, as he had in the past (Luke 13:1). But, if this threat came in 33 AD, quickly on the heels of Sejanus’ squashed treason, it would’ve held tremendous weight to Pilate’s already paranoid demeanor. Again, Hoehner writes:
If the crucifixion occurred in AD 30 the Jews’ threat would be empty indeed since Tiberius could not be reached except through Sejanus. However, in AD 33 this is a loaded threat… After the death of Sejanus, Tiberius’ new policy was not to disturb the Jewish customs and institutions.
Without the historical data about Sejanus, we are left with a question as to why Pilate would be so passive toward the Jewish religious leaders. On the other hand, given the data, the picture of Pilate in the NT makes perfect sense if these events occurred in AD 33.
Gary DeLashmutt, “Sejanus and the Chronology of Christ’s Death.”
Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977).
Andreas Kostenberger, The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).
 Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 98. Emphasis mine.
 Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), 97.
 “Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius” (Cornelius Tacitus Annals XV, 44.)
 Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), 114.
 Some New Testament scholars reverse these conclusions, working backwards by dating the crucifixion in light of the events chronicled in Acts. They claim that these events would be restricted, if we take the 33 AD date. This seems to be a stalemate at best, considering the fact that Christ’s life would be confined if we prefer the 30 AD date. Therefore, considering the evidence from Sejanus, it seems reasonable to prefer the latter of the two.
 Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), 108.
 Pilate and Herod were bitter enemies because Pilate had killed some Galileans. This is mentioned earlier in Luke, when it says, “About this time Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple” (Luke 13:1). At this point in Jesus’ ministry, Sejanus was still in power, so Pilate was free to do what he wanted. In Luke 23:6ff, however, we find a different Pontius Pilate.
 Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), 111.
 Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), 112.