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Luke 3:1 - The Rule of Tiberius

Note: This is part one of a 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 the past, New Testament Chronologists have argued that “the rule of Tiberius” began in October of 12 AD, the middle of 13 AD, or August of 14 AD. History does give us enough facts to judge the merits of each case, and decide for ourselves. But knowing which date Luke chose to count from is a whole other issue. First, then, we must begin with the facts of Roman History, as succinctly as they might be stated:

Tiberius came home from Germany to a Triumphal parade in October 12 AD. At that time, the increased powers he’d held over Gaul & Germany were expanded geographically to include all the provinces. But it seems most likely that none of his special powers extended to Rome itself at this time.

In mid-13 AD, Augustus had the Senate increase Tiberius’ special powers to equal those of Augustus. This most likely is when Tiberius’ “imperium” was expanded to include the city of Rome as well. Effectively, for legal purposes, Rome had two Emperors at this point. Practically, however, Augustus was still calling all the shots. Legally, you could say Tiberius was “ruling”. In all practical fact, however, he was not.

The best evidence for concluding that Tiberius did not receive imperium over Rome itself until mid-13 AD is the fact that Tiberius immediately left the city at this time (to oversee a census of Italy). This principle of separation was enacted during the first and second triumvirates – the basic idea being that “co-Emperors” were likely to disagree and therefore should carry on separate duties in separate parts of the Empire as much as possible. And since Tiberius had been in Rome with Augustus all winter and spring, it looks strongly as if the full imperium “equal to that of Augustus” and as “colleague in the Empire” was not begun in late 12, but in mid 13.

Finally, Augustus Caesar died on August 19th, 14 AD. At this point, Tiberius began to exercise full Imperial powers as Emperor. Actually, at first he didn’t do much, but what little he did shows clearly that the Imperial power was already fully his. Scholars agree that Tiberius was Emperor on August 19th, and that the Senate debate of September 17th must be explained in other ways.

These facts of Roman History are mostly and fairly straightforward. The only question is how to label them. From our current vantage point, it appears Tiberius began legally “co-ruling” with Augustus in mid-13 AD, but only began ruling in all practical factuality on Augustus’ death in August, 14 AD. Scholars today naturally acknowledge the subtleties of this complex situation, but ancient writers took more simplified views. Our leading sources, Tacitus & Dio Cassius simply counted from the death of Augustus.

Our final fact is that Luke’s Gospel refers to “the rule of Tiberius” without telling us whether Luke chose to count from Augustus' death in 14 AD or from the joint rule of 13 AD. The second option would be fairly unique, but any comparison with other ancient writers suffers slightly because they wrote many decades after Luke's heyday in the 50's & 60's AD. This uncertainty about Luke's annalistic frame of reference is a key pivot point for New Testament Chronologists.

Past efforts to claim Luke placed the joint rule in late 12 AD should probably be credited merely as the overstretching of hopeful apologists – which they were at the very least. Although classical scholars have admitted that 12 AD cannot be ruled out entirely, it seems extremely unlikely (as shown above). Besides, it’s enough of a stretch to even suppose that Luke counted from the joint rule at all (even placed more securely in 13 where it probably belongs). Counting from the joint rule would be a unique standpoint among ancient writers which, although it cannot be ruled out, is far from the strongest likelihood.

The most likely option is to believe Luke began counting from August 19th, 14 AD, like the later ancient writers also did. The less likely option that Luke counted from 13 AD can neither be ruled out or accepted on any solid grounds. But there are strong reasons to discount the option of 12 AD on the balance of evidence from Roman History. Therefore, until some new evidence appears, New Testament Chronology should proceed as if Luke began counting the years of the Rule of Tiberius from 14 AD.

My next post will deal with the question of whether Luke counted chronologically or inclusively.

5 comments:

Peter Kirk said...

Is there any inscriptional evidence in this case? Did the Romans leave inscriptions, e.g. decrees or just gravestones, dated "the nth year of Tiberius"? This is very common with ANE rulers and is in fact the mainstay of chronological research in Egypt, a one time interest of mine.

Bill said...

Good question, Peter. I'll be the first to admit I haven't typically done personal research into inscriptions and such, except where the scholarly literature points me to it. That said, I do remember reading that we have coins from the year of joint rule with Augustus head and Tiberius' head on the obverse. At any rate, the timeline is solid, the ancient literature is clear on Tiberius' whereabouts but the scope of the powers granted to him in 12 and 13 is [just barely] open to interpretation. I'd check Shaw's commentary on Dio Cassius and give you some more details, but I can't go home until 8 pm b/c it's parent's night at the High School. (!)

Barbara Levick & Robin Seager are the other scholars I got most of this from. And of course Harold Hoehner and Jack Finegan are well known chronologists on the Luke issue. Hopefully, all I'm doing is synthesizing what these others have said, and perhaps simplifying it a bit.

If there's something else more specific that you're wanting, let me know and I'll check my library later on.

Bill said...

Finally home, 14 hours later.

Swan. Peter Michael Swan. (Who the heck is Shaw? Oy, what a long day.)

Swan's commentary is called "The Augustan Succession" and he touches on the 12 vs. 13 issue, but doesn't mention the coins. It must be somewhere else.

Sheesh. Amateurs! ;)

Peter Kirk said...

Thanks for trying to answer. But as you suggest in your next post this is likely to make little difference to the date of Jesus' ministry, at most one year.

I found some evidence of the kind of thing I was looking for here:

Under the Empire official Roman dating continued to be by reference to the consules ordinarii who took office at the beginning of the year, but consular dates are rare on inscriptions, especially in Britain. Much more useful are the statements of the Emperor’s powers and titles, and especially his tenure of tribunicia potesta , for this provides the equivalent of regnal years.

Down to the end of the third century every Emperor assumed this power at or soon after his accession, and from Nerva onwards the normal pattern is that while his TRIB POT I may begin at any date, his TRIB POT II begins on December 10th. So Hadrian, for example, who succeeded Trajan in August AD117, dates his TRIB POT I from 11th August 117, his TRIB POT II from 10th December 117, his TRIB POT III from 10th December 118, and so on.


I'm not sure if this TRIB POT system was already in operation in Tiberius' time, but if the later system was being used that soon Tiberius' TRIB POT II would have started on 10th December 14, and so what Luke might have counted as his 15th year on 10th December 27. It would be interesting to see if Luke's Greek hegemonia is a regular rendering or partial rendering of the Latin tribunicia potesta. Of course this still implies Jesus' ministry starting in spring 28.

Bill said...

Thanks for the link and continuing feedback, Peter. Here's a few more details, if you really want them! ;)

Yes, the years were kept very well straight by listing the "ordinary" consuls, who changed office every January 1st. ("Suffect" consuls could stand in for a number of months to finish the year.)

Actually, Tiberius held the Tribunican power (TRIB POT) on and off for several years, since 6 BC. So it wasn't the beginning of his power. (The December 10th thing, which I'd never heard before, wasn't a rule yet. Tib's Trib.Pot. was voted to him much earlier in the year than that.)

It was actually a combination of constitutional powers that made one "Emperor". There was also a seperate category of powers called the "Imperium". Proconsuls sent to govern certain provinces could have one level of Imperium and Tiberius held that over several European Provinces from 4 AD until 12/13. Then Tib's "Imperium" was expanded to all the provinces. But finally, he was given "Imperium equal to Augustus" and made "colleague in the Empire". That is the event classical scholars lean heavily towards dating in 13 AD.

Btw, I'm pretty sure all those details are covered by Tacitus & Dio Cassius but it takes a lot of extra reading to understand the little details they put in. Also Finegan has some very nice charts with Tib's years holding various powers. But the Oxford Classical Dictionary is always my first stop.

By the way, "Hegemony" is a totally different idea that goes back at least to Alexander and I'm not sure how far before. Luke seems to have used it as a general term for "government". Notice that Pilate is also called a Hegemon. This generality is probably one reason apologists for an early crucifixion think they've got extra wiggle room.

(What's really tough about this task is that I can't swear they don't!) :)

But when I write some future posts - plus my year books for 28 to 33 AD - you'll be able to see why I like those dates better.

Thanks a ton for reading, Peter.