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When did John the Baptist begin his ministry?

The first two verses of Luke 3 offer us a wealth of historical information: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” Luke writes, “Pontius Pilate being governer of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son Zechariah in the wilderness.”

With this info we are able to date the beginning of John’s ministry with a fair degree of accuracy. History records that Pilate reigned over Judea from A.D. 26-36, Herod (Antipas) ruled Galilee and Perea from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39, and Philip’s tetrarchy lasted from 4 B.C. to A.D. 34. We also know that Annas was high priest from A.D. 6-15, with Caiaphas following in his stead from A.D. 18-36.

All together this still leaves us with a pretty wide range of time, so what it all comes down to is that fifteenth year of Tiberius. While there is some speculation that Tiberius shared a 2-year co-regency with Augustus beginning in A.D. 12, the first official year of his rule began in A.D. 14 with Augustus’ death. Which beginning did Luke have in mind when he wrote his narrative? We can’t know exactly for sure, but for now I assume he was referring to the latter date of A.D. 14. You can join me in that assumption if you’d like. 🙂

If indeed that is the case, simply count forward fifteen years and you’ll arrive at the year John began his ministry in the Judean wilderness, A.D. 29. Easy as 1-2-3.


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4 thoughts on “When did John the Baptist begin his ministry?

  1. Almost. Consider that your 15th birthday came in your 16th year.

    If you count Tiberius’ reign starting in 14 and go by calendar years, then 28 AD was his 15th year.

    If you count Tiberius’ reign starting in 14 and go by 365-day chronological years, then his 15th year began in August (or some say September) of 28 AD and ended 12 months later in 29 AD.

    I seriously doubt Luke used a complicated method. On that, plus it being the stronger probability of all options combined, we should conclude JTB started doing his thing in the year 28. Not 29. Almost certainly 28.

    Posted by Bill | January 22, 2012, 10:32 am
  2. Did I say 29? Must’ve been a typo. 🙂

    So if the whole of Tiberius’ fifteenth year extended from August or September of 28 into the following calendar year, how do you come to your conclusion that John’s ministry began in 28 rather than 29? Isn’t there just as good a chance that it could be either one? What else factors into your conclusion?

    Posted by Josh | January 22, 2012, 3:09 pm
    • As I showed, 15 or 16 of the 24 possible months are in 28. More importantly, the strict chronological reckoning seems far less likely. Would Luke even know what month Tiberius started? Actually, it’s debatable just how Luke would have gotten any of this information accurately in the first place… but of course it’s all we have to go on, so we use it, like good historians, until something specific calls it into doubt. In this case that doesn’t happen.

      Still, the point holds, I think. Simply because of the extra precision involved, and the dubious accessibility of that more precise data, I find it far more likely that Luke would count rough years than specific months.

      If you want to come at this from another direction entirely, as I once did, we could choose not to rest on whether Luke “might” be accurate at all. Granting 33 for the cross (which I realize many do not, but they should), we can count backwards from the number of Passovers in Jesus’ ministry. If we reconstruct a 3 year ministry (4 passovers) then John worked in 29, but if we reconstruct the 4 year ministry (5 passovers) then John worked in 28. Again, it results in 28. Happy accident, that. 😉

      Posted by Bill | January 22, 2012, 6:26 pm

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