What evidence is there regarding the time of Jesus' life and ministry?
(1) The letters of Saul of Tarsus (also known as Saint Paul) [we only look at those letters which are widely accepted by scholars as authentic, i.e. written by Saul of Tarsus and not by latter authors writing in his name. Those authentic letters are: Galatians, written circa late 49CE-early 50CE; First Thessalonians, written circa 50-51CE; First Corinthians, written circa 54-57CE; Romans, written circa 55-57CE; Second Corinthians, written circa 55-57CE; Philemon, written circa 60-61CE; Philippians, written circa 61CE] .
Even though we do not subscribe to Saul of Tarsus' teachings, there is certainly historical data that can be derived from the letters that he wrote.
(1a) In his letter to Galatians it is clear that Saul of Tarsus is writing as a contemporary of Jesus' brother James: (Galatians 1:18-19) Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother.
From the events described and the type of Greek used, we know that Saul wrote Galatians around 49 CE. The referenced meeting with James would have occurred one to fifteen years earlier (i.e. between 34CE and 48CE). We know also that Jesus was already dead by the time of this meeting.
So his death could not have occurred later than 48CE.
But how early could it have occurred? Let's do the math: IF James was 50 yrs old at this meeting with Paul (he could not have been older because we know from historian Josephus that James was still active in 62CE when he was killed by highpriest Ananias Bar Ananias), and IF Jesus was 10 years older than James, then Jesus (if alive) would have been 60 at the time when the meeting between James and Paul. IF Jesus died as young as age 20, that would place Jesus' death at 40 years before this meeting, i.e. 40 years before 34CE to 48CE. All other possibilities (e.g if James was younger, or Jesus was younger) yield a date that is later in time for Jesus' death.
So from the above, Jesus' death could not have occurred before 6BCE.
(1b) In his 1st letter to Corinthians (written between 54 and 57CE) Paul articulates the tradition that he has received. It is clear that he understands Jesus' resurrection appearances to have occured recently (i.e. within less than one normal life-span): (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
From this, we can surmise that:
- Jesus death could have occurred no later than 57CE.
- If the adults to whom Paul claims Jesus appeared were about age 70 at the time of Paul's 1st Corinthians letter, and they were as young as 20 when they received the appearances, that would place Jesus' death no earlier than 50 years before 54CE, i.e. no earlier than 4CE. All other possibilities yield a date that is later.
In summary, looking at 1a and 1b above, the letters of Paul place Jesus's death no earlier than 4CE and no later than 48 CE.
Now, Paul's letters are one independent evidence. But it is necessary to have several independent sources.
2) The author of the Gospel of Mark.
The author of Mark (the oldest Gospel, written around 75CE) describes Jesus' ministry coming AFTER John the Baptizer. And we know from historian Josephus that John the Baptizer did his movement during the reign of Herod Antipas (around 30CE). Hence from this data we can say that: Jesus' death would have occurred no earlier than 30CE.
In fact the author of Mark places Jesus' death as approved by Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate governed Judea from 26 to 36CE. Thus according to the author of Mark, Jesus' death would have occurred no later than 36CE.
But is the Author of Mark a independent source? Not necessarily. It is certainly possible that the author of Mark could have had access to Paul's letters, and derived his narrative with date assumptions coming from those letters.
We know for a fact that the authors of what we know today as "Gospel of Matthew" and "Gospel of Luke" had access to Mark and probably to Paul's letters. Therefore, we will not list those gospels as sources providing original (i.e. independent) information.
The sayings gospel Q would be original information, however, it does not provide any data regarding dates.
3) Historian Flavius Josephus (born ca37 - died ca 100CE): "Antiquities of the Jews" and "The Wars of the Jews" written approximately between 80 and 90 CE.
Although Josephus' writings were maintained by Christians, and it is believed that some adulteration of his references to Jesus were made, it is fairly certain that he DID make references to Jesus and people in Jesus' life. In particular, Josephus makes extensive reference to Jesus' brother James, and records his death in 62CE at the hands of HighPriest Ananias bar Ananias.
And now [Nero] Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus [Governor of Judea] , sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. Now [at this time also,] the king [Herod Agrippa] decided to deprive Joseph [also called Cabi, son of Simon (also former High Priest himself)] of the highpriesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity to on the son of Ananus [called Anas in NT. Anas was a former high priest and father in law of Joseph bar Caiaphas who was high priest during Jesus' time]. This son of Ananus was also called Ananus. Now the report goes, that this elder Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons [and a son in law, Joseph bar Caiaphas, who instigated and collaborated with Pilate to put Jesus to death] who had all performed the office of high priest to God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened with any other of our high priests. But the younger Ananus ... was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent. He was also of the sect of the Saduccees [Zadukim in Hebrew] , who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews... . When therefore Ananus was of this disposition, he thought that he now had a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority] . Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananus bar Ananus] assembled the sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was Iakobos [Iakobos is Greek for Jacob, which is James in English] and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. But those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens [of Jerusalem] , since they were most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done [by Ananus] and sent to the king [Herod Agrippa] requesting him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for what he had already done was not to be justified. More so, some of them went also to meet Albinus [Nero's newly appointed Governor of Judea] , as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a Sanhedrin without his consent; whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus and threatened that we would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him when he had ruled as high priest only three months, and put in place Jesus bar Damneus as high priest.
What can we derive from the above data, regarding the time of Jesus' ministry and death? If James died in 62CE (that's when Albinus became procurator of Judea), Jesus would have died no later than 62CE. If James was active at this time (let's say he was no older than 65) and if Jesus was as older than James by as much as 10 years and was crucified as young as age 20, then Jesus' death could have occurred no earlier than 55 years before 62CE, i.e. no earlier than 7CE.
4) A further reference to Jesus comes from Cornelius Tacitus, generally considered the greatest Roman historian. In his Annals, written in 116CE, Tacitus describes the events surrounding emperor Nero and his use of Roman Christians as scapegoats to the great fire of 64CE, that ruined the city. In clarifying who these "Christians" were for his audience, Tacitus makes the following reference: The founder of the name "Chrestians" was a so called "Christ", executed in the reign of Tiberius by Procurator Pontius Pilate. Suppresed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again, not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular.
Certainly Tacitus is not fond of Jesus or the Christians in Rome, therefore he would have no reason to perpetuate any inaccuracies that could have been claimed by Paul or the author of Mark. It is probable that his reference is independent, and obtained from the Roman imperial archives.
Tacitus' evidence would place Jesus' death no earlier than 26CE and no later than 36CE.
5) Mandaean scriptures.
The Mandaeans (literally "Mandaean" means "Gnostic" in Aramaic) are a group living in Iraq, who accept John the Baptist as a last prophet. They have been recently persecuted by Islam and are increasingly in a diaspora today.
They regard Jesus as a follower of John the Baptist, but as one who strayed from the right path and deceived Israel. In their "Book of John" ("Sedra D'Yahia") they mention Jesus' baptism at the hands of John:
... Yeshu Messiah, son of Miryam ... went to the shore of the Jordan and said [unto Yahyā]: "Yahyā, baptize me with thy baptizing and utter o'er me also the Name thy wont is to utter. If I show myself as thy pupil, I will remember thee then in my writing. I attest not myself as thy pupil, then wipe out my name from thy page."
Thereon Yahyā answered Yeshu Messiah in Jerusalem: "Thou hast lied to the Jews and deceived the priests. Thou hast cut off their seed from the men and from the women bearing and being pregnant. The sabbath, which Moses made binding, hast thou relaxed in Jerusalem. Thou hast lied unto them with horns and spread abroad disgrace with the shofar." [The Book of John / Sedra d'Yahia, Chapter 30: JOHN AND THE BAPTISM OF JESUS. Translation by G.R.S. Mead.]
Although the Mandaeans have a low regard for Jesus, we nevertheless have a tradition here which is probably independent from our other sources (Paul, Mark, Josephus, Tacitus and Islam). Although Mandaean texts have been modified over time (especially as the Tigris-Euphrates area came under Islam), it is still highly unlikely that their negative relationship with Islam would have driven the Mandaeans to falsely insert Jesus as a person living in John the Baptist's time. Therefore we believe that the Mandaean texts constitute a additional independent source of data linking the timing of Jesus to the timing of Yohannan (who we know from Eusebius perished around 30CE), hence we can surmise that Jesus' ministry and death would have been no earlier than the start of Yohannan's ministry, i.e. around 25CE..
6) Absence of evidence prior to Saul of Tarsus' letters.
No document written before 49CE exists which talks about Jesus. If Jesus ministry had taken place much earlier than 49CE then one could not explain why all the written mentions of Jesus start only in 49CE.
There are documents such as Jewish polemical references, which refer to a Yeshu Ha Notri (Jesus the Nazorean) living in the time of the Maccabeans (60 BCE), however those documents are written many centuries into the common era.
Conclusion: Our five sources (Paul's Galatians and 1Corinthians, Mark, Josephus' Antiquities, Tacitus's Annals, and the Mandaean Book of John) are likely independent from each other and do not contradict each other regarding the dates when Jesus could have ministered and died. Even if some of these five sources are mutually dependent (e.g. if "Mark" derived its data from Paul), it is still highly unlikely that ALL of these are mutually dependent. Hence, from a probability standpoint, it is likely that the information that they convey regarding timing of Jesus' ministry and death is in fact historically reliable information. When we look at all five sources, they collectively tells us that:
Jesus' death could have occurred no earlier than 30CE and no later than 36CE.