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Luke 3:1 - The Fifteenth Year

Note: This is part two of a two-part series on issues relating to Luke’s statement that John the Baptist began his ministry “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke 3:1).

In my last post, I concluded that New Testament Chronology on this issue should proceed by assuming Luke considered the Rule of Tiberius to have begun in August 14 AD. Naturally, the next critical issue is to consider whether Luke counted chronologically or inclusively. Depending on many considerations, the end result will be that John the Baptist must begin his ministry in the spring of either 28 or 29 AD.

First, these many considerations can all be kept simple. We can set aside jargon like “accession year” or “non-accession year”. We don’t need to list any names of the Syro-Macedonian Months or the Hebrew Months. And we don’t have to discuss whether Jews in first-century Judea considered their traditional New Year (before Passover, in the spring) to be more or less significant than their civic and agricultural New Year (before Yom Kippur, in the autumn). Instead of dealing with all that directly – and partly just to prove it can be done – I’m going to simplify things in a very practical way, using terms as plain as possible.

Here is the problem. It is possible Luke counted using a strictly chronological method, OR using an inclusive calendar based method. If Luke counted with strict chronology, the issues of Lunar calendars and alternate New Years Days are irrelevant. But if we somehow determine Luke counted inclusively, then the extra issues can be dealt with at that time. In fact, they will be easy to deal with.

Many things, then, can be sidestepped. Some scholarship in the past has attempted to use these various calendars in considerations of which counting system Luke “would have used”, but this is inconclusive at best. If we consider that Luke lived in Antioch Syria and spent time with Paul (a Hebrew of Hebrews), we might suppose Luke used a lunar calendar and also, perhaps, inclusive counting. But if we consider that Luke spent several years in a Roman Colony, traveled the Roman Empire and wrote his two Letters to a Roman official, then we might suppose Luke used a Roman calendar and also, perhaps, strict chronological counting. Unfortunately, of course, we just don’t know. Therefore, all such attempts to find correlations, while clever, are ultimately invalid. In short, we have no way to know which calendar system Luke would have been most likely to use. Even if we could determine that, we still have no way to know if Luke would have calculated using his own “most natural” methods, or adopted those of his audience (who, debatably, may or may not have been Roman).

So then, all that matters is what we began with – that we simply have two options.

The first option is that Luke counted just like Tacitus & Cassius Dio counted, many decades after Luke’s time. That would mean strict chronological accounting, so that the fifteenth year of Tiberius would begin on August 19th, 28 AD. With chronological counting, there is no need to consider which calendars Luke “would have” used.

The second option is that Luke counted inclusively. (This is sometimes called the “non-accession year method”.) That is, Luke counted the remaining portion of 14 AD as Year One and considered Year Two to begin on January 1st, 15 AD. With inclusive counting, the fifteenth year of Tiberius would begin on January 1st, 28 AD.

This second option is the one that must consider lunar calendars and alternative New Year’s Days – and yet we find quickly that the difference is virtually negligible. With inclusive counting, Year Two could begin on September 13th, 14 AD, or January 1st, 15 AD, or March 9th, 15 AD. True, this is a six month difference but it centers on January 1st and the span of time enfolds the winter when less activity was likely to take place. Likewise, with inclusive counting, Year Fifteen could begin on September 20th, 27 AD, or January 1st, 28 AD, or March 15th, 28 AD. Again, the difference seems significant chronologically, but actually seems negligible in all practical sense. (The idea that John the Baptist began his preaching just before or during winter doesn’t fit well with the picture given by the Gospels’ testimony.)

Therefore, we may simplify again. If Luke counted chronologically, the fifteenth year begins on August 19th, 28 AD. But if Luke counted inclusively, the fifteenth year begins several months earlier, on (or very near) January 1st, 28 AD.

The two options – and all that is above – can be summed up in these two dates.

This is a very nice, tight window.[1] However, without further evidence, we cannot tell which method Luke used. The simplest method is to assume strict chronological accounting from August 19th. This would place the beginning of John’s ministry in the spring of 29 AD, which is the date preferred by leading evangelical chronologists Harold Hoehner and Jack Finegan. Not coincidentally, this date also fits well with their reconstruction of a three year chronology for the ministry of Jesus, and naturally they have other considerations as well.

The simplest method is not to be preferred, however, if things have been forced into more simplicity than seems necessary. Without further evidence, we should still consider the other option – to assume inclusive counting – which produces a date for the beginning of John’s ministry in the spring of 28 AD. This is one year earlier than the date preferred by Hoehner & Finegan, but it fits perfectly with the reconstruction of a four year chronology for the ministry of Jesus, worked out by Johnston Cheney. Naturally, other considerations also apply.

The issue then, as it stands, must be determined against these other considerations:
· the birth year of Jesus and his age when baptized by John
· the statement “it took 46 years to build this temple” (John 2:20)
· whether the gospels record four or five Passovers
· reconstructing one coherent sequence of Gospel events
· whether Antipas would be more likely to kill John before or after Sejanus died
· which reconstruction lines up better with Roman History in other ways

Obviously, these are issues for another day. Interestingly, each of them (except the last) can be considered independently. Only after we have done so will we be able to choose between the two options presented here for the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry.

If Hoehner and Finegan are right, John began his ministry in the Spring of 29 AD.

If Cheney (and Heroman!) are right, John began his ministry in the Spring of 28 AD.

Assuming Luke counted the years of the Rule of Tiberius from August 19th, 14 AD, these are the only two options for Luke's estimation of that Emperor's fifteenth year. The choice between them, for any New Testament Chronology, depends on the other considerations listed above.

I will address these other issues in future blog series.

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[1] These same considerations applied to a “joint rule” scenario, beginning from 13 AD, result in a larger window, spanning from January 1st, 27 AD (counting inclusively) to mid-27 AD (counting chronologically). This view would begin John's ministry in early 27 or early 28. But, as previously noted, there are no good grounds for accepting or refuting this position.

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